‘Controversial’ would be the best way to describe the build up to Mass Effect 3’s launch. Despite the franchise being heralded by many gamers as the best when it came to purity and evolution, BioWare’s constant dropping of information made even the most dedicated fan raise an eyebrow. Trailers emphasised all-out action over intelligent, intriguing conversations; new characters seemed to be ripped out of a Michael Bay film and, worst of all, multiplayer had found its way into the mix. Was this really the Canadian developer’s attempt to find itself a new audience, or were they ideas that had been dormant for years, the daily enhancement of technology meaning it was finally time to unleash them onto its expectant public?
The speculation was more than fair; in a world where, dare we say it, Call Of Duty has moved the goalposts, it would be tough to argue that studios around the globe should do nothing to try and keep up. Now that all the smoke has cleared and the dust settled, mind, it should come as no great surprise that Mass Effect 3 is not its own harbinger of casual doom. The choice, as has always been the way, is down to the individual.
It’s been well documented that before stepping into Commander Shepard’s shoes, three distinct paths are offered: the standard Mass Effect adventure, a route more suited to those who enjoy narrative and, finally, the dreaded focus on action that does push the third instalment almost entirely into shooter territory. All serve their purpose as they should, but a seemingly determined decision by BioWare to make this more accessible than the last two entries means sticking to the original model is still a viable option for all. The series has been built on blending a fascinating story with combat that is smart and entertaining, and Mass Effect 3 manages to find a healthy balance. This isn’t to say there aren’t a few worrying signs from the off, however.
In an attempt to recapture the magic that was the beginning of Mass Effect 2, BioWare’s latest doesn’t mess around. With Shepard due in front of the council to face charges amassed in the previous game, the long-awaited and feared Reaper attack takes place, shattering Earth and its population. This prompts a leading role for what has become something of a contentious issue as the years have passed, namely the combat system. Staking its claim to compete within the third-person shooter genre, it’s a far more direct and gun-heavy approach then before. Popping in and out of cover is encouraged, aiming and firing relying far more on a skilled trigger finger than the past two titles dared. During this opening barrage, all the aforementioned uncertainties make themselves known. Spurred on with the might of EA behind it, Mass Effect does its best to mimic Gears Of War, finished off with a few set-pieces that aren’t too removed from Activision’s favourite son. Reapers strike with unrelenting prejudice and the natural retort is to respond in kind; it’s an attitude that doesn’t work. The more traditional shooter deliberately spends an age getting its gunplay down to a tee, and a game as vast and expansive as this doesn’t have the resources necessary to take on such juggernauts head-to-head. Thankfully, this all soon reveals itself to be something of a ruse.
After what can only be described as a one-sided victory for the machines, Mass Effect 3 lays its real cards on the table. The gambit, almost existing to suck even the most cynical player into this galactic war, fails in its aim to benefit the franchise. But once it finds its stride and the squad system of old is re-introduced, BioWare proves that there’s more here than initially meets the eye. Since 2007, there’s been a very clear progression from a traditional dice-rolling RPG style to a far more weapon-focused foundation. To try and cater for a wider array of people, warfare now has more intrinsic layers of depth. For newcomers to the series, sticking to a ‘point and shoot’ tactic will serve them well. Party members can be ignored and success lies within the barrel of a gun. Those who desire something more, however, have the option. Be it flanking the enemy, directing your squad or using biotics, experimentation and strategic logic is encouraged – no battle has to feel the same should you engage the firefight with some creativity. Some may mourn the loss of what once was, but the combat does eventually live up to the severity of the situation now facing the galaxy.
As expected, it’s this threat that takes centre stage with the third Mass Effect, and shows that in many ways BioWare has raised its knack for storytelling and heart-rending choices. A fair argument aimed at the franchise in general was that many of the Paragon or Renegade selections had a sense of the obvious about them. Kill the bad guy and receive praise, or help the evil one and be damned. There was always rationality driving them forward, but it was evident how the ship needed to be steered if you had a certain personality in mind. Today, there are arguments to be made at every juncture. So many of the choices presented are riddled with political or personal ramifications that even the clear ‘right’ course of action could have devastating effects further down the line. It’s a common occurrence to feel completely perplexed as dozens of pros and cons ravage the brain, and the impact of these can go as far as to wipe out those who Shepard dubs a friend. Hell, sometimes that’s a decision placed directly at your beck and call. It’s a tremendous way to put the player into the role and accentuate the weight of the world the solider is constantly feeling on his shoulders. Furthermore, BioWare has done what many other developers shy away from, and has dared to address nearly every question that so far had been left unanswered – even threads that may have seemed slightly redundant are treated with respect and given some form of closure.
Unfortunately, whether or not these sit well with the game’s long-term audience is a mystery in itself. By the time the end credits roll, a whole new set of queries are raised that only multiple playthroughs could seemingly explain. Even then it’s borderline bizarre how Mass Effect chooses to live out its final moments, entering territory few could honestly predict and bordering on what many will describe as sci-fi gibberish. It could be argued that the task at hand was merely too much, or that BioWare’s desire to wrap every aspect up has actually forced solutions where ambiguity would have sufficed.
It’s a strange juxtaposition as the overriding narrative that fuels the entire game is shrewdly put together, even though there’s a huge question mark over whether it actually makes a significant difference come the epic ending. Much in the same vein as 2010’s effort, Shepard is tasked with putting together a force to take on a central foe, the fate of the battle apparently resting on who he can persuade to join the cause. Mirroring our own existence, it’s not as simple as seeing the danger and understanding what’s at stake, with every race desperate to protect its existence and prospects, should the alliance win the war. It’s frustrating in the most beautiful way, improved further thanks to the multiple twists that duck and weave throughout. It has serious breadth too, as the many side-quests can dynamically add a new faction to the effort without warning – there’s a very real reason to at least take a look at what else is on offer. The kicker, then, is how much of an impact it actually makes when it’s go time. Much has been made of the Galaxy At War feature, which highlights mankind’s possible success, and there’s an even clearer constant message that recruiting allies is key to survival. When all is said and done, though, it’s hard not to feel like the wool was pulled slightly over someone’s eyes.
There’s little doubt it was always going to be tough to draw the saga to a close, but there are some real frustrations, topped off thanks to the final hour’s preference to almost forget what Mass Effect is all about. The ‘grand showdown’ had to reflect the horrendous war that’s been building for three games but BioWare almost falls victim to its own success. The first sequel’s final foray was so well put together, ensuring choice was directly responsible for the action that followed, that replacing such well-set ideas with what is more of a gimmick is a shame. Visually it’s certainly striking but the ingenuity seems lost.
In a similar vein, BioWare hasn’t exactly hit a home run where progression is concerned. The overwhelming appeal of the series has always been individual actions shifting the course of events in ways never imagined. While there are elements that certainly carry over and prove that BioWare was casting a watchful eye over proceedings, a potential sticking point is how old friends are worked back into the fray. To its credit a select few – and not necessarily the ones you imagine – are integral to the ongoing war, lives and relationships on the line in ways that both tug at the heart strings and surprise. In contrast to this, primary characters that accompanied Shepard on his ‘suicide’ mission are awkwardly pushed into the limelight, made even more confusing when you consider they’re interrupting the effort of a man trying to save the entire galaxy. It’s a pleasure that they remain a presence in the universe, but an opportunity does appear to have been missed.
BioWare had a looming predicament from the moment Mass Effect’s main concept was realised, as many naysayers pondered if it could actually satisfy expectations once the trilogy came to a close. While it’s not a total triumph, the core of what Mass Effect 3 achieves is an engrossing, fabulously put together piece of work, regardless of an ending that will delight as many as it dumbfounds. There is a sensation that the fate of the universe was in one man’s hands, past decisions left to haunt and please in equal measure as the state of the world left behind is so because of Commander Shepard. Its flaws are certainly apparent but, when Mass Effect 3 is good, it’s excellent, supported in the knowledge that it’s the journey rather than the destination which is often what is most important. In short, it does its forebears and concept proud, and for that alone we as an industry should be extremely grateful.