All great sagas come to a close. No matter how long we want to stay in the universes we’ve grown to love, a finale is imminent; needed even. The ambitious sci-fi RPG Mass Effect was destined to end from the start, planned by Bioware as a three chapter odyssey where the most important game mechanic was choice. The galaxy rippled and changed depending on your actions, with every decision shaping the course of the narrative. Change can be ushered in by something as insignificant as a conversation. Or as big as taking a life.
Every choice and mistake were yours to own not just for one game, but for all. Bioware promised the path you blazed with Commander Shepard would uniquely affect every title in the series, right up until the finale. Mass Effect 3 does in fact drop the curtains on gaming’s best sci-fi series, but you’ll be disappointed to learn that three games worth of building alliances, crushing enemies, and choosing how to best save the galaxy have no effect on the game’s ending, very much robbing Bioware’s opus of a sense of finality. Keep in mind that Mass Effect 3 is still the spiraling, nuanced sci-fi adventure you want; just not the epic conclusion fans deserve.
Mass Effect 3 begins at the kick off to humanity’s extinction as the fabled race of sentient destroyers known as the Reapers come to Earth to get their destruction on. Despite the entirety of Mass Effect 2 being about telling the collective races of our future galaxy that motherfucking Reapers are coming, it is only when millions of people are atomized by sky-scraper-tall robots that you, Commander Shepard, are given full authority to prepare for galactic war. The game sets you on a hurried quest to unify alien races that harbor eons worth of resentment towards each other in an attempt to rally enough of an offensive to at least dent our impending doom. It’s reminiscent of putting together your ragtag team of personalities in ME2 except on a galaxy-wide scale. The experience isn’t nearly half as personal as building one-on-one relationships with crew mates, but I found myself drawn to the role of cosmic healer – mending different races’ problems in order to patch together a strong, if uneasy, alliance.
True to form, the worlds you visit and the inhabitants you meet are richly detailed, making me wish the mission structure of the game didn’t whisk me along so quickly instead of letting me soak in my surroundings (this seems to be the shortest game in the series). You’ll find fresh ruins more often than not thanks to the ongoing war, all masterfully rendered. Between lightened portions of RPGin’ as you galaxy hop, missions mostly become shooting affairs once you and your two selected teammates hit planet side. Gameplay remains exactly as presented in the previous title, third-person gunplay and biotic power tossing wholly intact. You can still bring up a combat wheel that pauses in-game action so that you can either switch characters’ weapons or organize a combined biotic assault amongst your party. Control hiccups carry over from ME2, as well; your basic movement is a bit stiff and the cover mechanic’s a little too sticky (the run button sometimes taping me to a wall or barrier on a whim). Basic shooting is handled right, but since Bioware especially puts emphasis on drawn-out action set pieces this go around, you’ll definitely feel those rough corners in combat.
As far as the campaign’s gameplay, not too much diverges from the previous installment besides a cleaned up menu interface and a slightly more annoying alternative to the planet mining mini-game (now you evade reapers in a three second game of cat and mouse on your galaxy map – more distracting than fun). Yet, Mass Effect is served better by fine tuning instead of reinvention from release to release. There’s a continuity not only in story but in the general feel of the game I can appreciate and enjoy. Again, it’s not the tightest shooter out there, but the gameplay is a solid platform for the real focal point: the story.
Everything has led to this final conflict and the dread felt on each world – most notably the Citadel, which makes a triumphant return as an important, explorable location – is palpable. There’s a state of urgency that can be felt speaking to all passerby. From supporting characters to bit line NPC’s, you’ll feel desperation, fear, and even open denial, all in reaction to the Reaper war everyone’s losing so badly. ME3 lacquers on the dark atmosphere pretty early on, which is why the moments of levity provided with your teammates are entirely welcome, if a little brief (loyalty missions are sorely missed). Fans may take issue with how (somewhat) neatly and quickly character arcs are wrapped up, but at least almost every friend of Shepard gets to say goodbye in their own way, though I predict criticism will be thrown at the Whedon-esque levels of hero death doled out.
I imagine by this time you’ve caught wind of the controversy brought about by a finale that has spurned forth fan outcry, petitioning, and even, in one instance, a federal complaint. Before I bear down on it, let me make it clear that for every misstep Mass Effect 3 makes, it rectifies in playability, immersion, and overall classiness. I’m not going to make a bullshit, fluff argument that the game is supposed to be about the journey and not the destination. Though I don’t believe a bad ending somehow retroactively ruins the rest of a game for me, I do agree that the proposed closing chapter of a trilogy can be held to a higher degree of scrutiny in the name of closure. I won’t go into specifics about the ending – that’s your own quest to partake, Commander – but I will explain why the ending doesn’t work.
This series is balanced on choice. Most small, some big, all integral. The course of the third game has you padding a galactic readiness number that’s tallied by how many war assets you attain like factions and intel. Your readiness, your decisions throughout the game, and even decisions from the previous two games are all supposed to determine the outcome of the fight (Bioware guaranteed). But only to an extent. While there are multiple endings available, they aren’t informed by your previous actions in the very least. None of your choices or your readiness rating affect the fixed outcome; an outcome that is decided by yet another moral quandary instead of the countless hours invested into this series or the hundreds of decisions I’ve been asked to make. It’s extremely disappointing to see what could have been a finale completely and utterly unique to the way you played – or “lived” – your Shepard, squandered away in favor of a static finish.
I’m truly curious to know if ME3’s addition of a co-op multiplayer mode took away from the campaign’s development cycle at all, but either way, Bioware’s take on this generation’s crutch, the Horde Mode, is absolutely worth chunks of your time. I don’t think the mode would have been as worthwhile without the variety offered in the different classes, races, and power set ups you can customize and upgrade. There’s real reward to be found in growing your character from a space faring whelp into a cosmic wrecking ball. Six maps are selectable on-disc, pitting your avatar and three other online soldiers against ten waves of enemies (of which ME3 has a multitude of). It’s not as easy as raking in headshots, though. You’re going to have to work together when team objectives crop up where coordinating to get the job done and whittling down the horde are juggled at once. The only downfall of the mode is the arbitrary way you unlock weapons. The game asks you to spend earned currency from matches on randomized grab-bags full of equipment and power-ups. You’ll eventually get a better weapon, but likely only after grinding for quite a while with less preferred load outs. If you feared the online would be derisive to the game, rest assured multiplayer is one of the best additions to the series, and those words usually don’t come out of me willingly.
Mass Effect is the greatest event to happen to both gaming and sci-fi in the last ten years. I want to be telling you ME3 is Bioware’s formula perfected, but oversights in design and missed potential in the wavering storyline positions this game right underneath Shepard’s second, and best, adventure. Still, Mass Effect 3 achieves where it needs to, does epic proud when it tries, and succeeds at evoking a feeling of familial bonding with characters you can legitimately say you’ve grown with. Mass Effect is an amazing experiment in immersion and storytelling, a groundbreaking triumph we all had the privilege of participating in.
Regardless of your feelings towards this final outing, the worst outcome we all have to accept, by far, is having to say goodbye to this magnificently crafted universe.
(This review was written on the Xbox 360 version of the game, under the thrall of red sand. Mass Effect 3 is also available on the PS3 and PC.)