One of the best games of the year arrives on the Wii U in Special Edition form, but just how special is it?
Bioware and EA have created several amazing franchises together, perhaps the most popular of which is Mass Effect. Our own Eric Layman wrote a review of Mass Effect 3 back in March that's well worth a read. That said, the series started off on the Xbox 360, with a deep and dramatic universe full of interesting characters and lore. The series only expanded, literally building upon itself by allowing ME2 and ME3 to use savegame data from your previous play-through.
Of course, that's not something that the Wii U can offer in that only ME3 is available on the shiny new platform. To make up for that, a lengthy, twenty minute or so interactive comic (with full narration) is provided that touches upon a lot of the major events -- but certainly not everything -- that ME and ME2 contained. Throughout this lengthy opening, you can choose paths that help define the story so far and your character. Before this point, you establish the gender, first name, and facial appearance of Commander Shepard. There are also multiple character types to start from that shape your abilities. I chose Biotic, and was happy with the decision hours later as it allowed me to possess some cool wizard-like abilities that entrapped or otherwise disabled enemies from a distance.
In addition to the opening interactive comic, ME3SE comes with some of the DLC released for the PS3/360 already on the (single) disc. This includes the Extended Cut DLC, which many ME fans players deem a must given the original letdown ending. You also get the 'From Ashes' pack which adds more missions in single player. Three of the multiplayer DLCs are here too, including 'Earth,' 'Rebellion,' and 'Resurgence' packs.
Gamepad integration isn't quite as compelling as you might hope, but it's fairly useful nonetheless. A lot of the time -- almost too often, really -- the Gamepad screen shows a blue animated terminal window, almost like a screensaver (ok, that's not very useful). Whenever you are not embedded in a mission, that's the screen you see (so during loading, dialogue, and cutscenes, of which there are a lot). When deployed, the Gamepad screen changes to show a rotating map. It also shows icons for your squadmates, whom you can give positional directions to by touching and dragging their icon on the map, all without having to pause the game. Enemy positions are also shown which you may or may not see as an unfair advantage. Since the Gamepad is not multi-touch, you cannot scroll the map with one finger, and assign positions to squadmates with the other. Being able to view a multi-floor map even though you are physically on just one floor is a nice plus, although I think it could have been even more convenient if the player could have tapped to one of the designated areas and basically fast-traveled there.
Besides the map, you can manage skills and equipment for you and your squadmates. This makes it easy to activate a power or re-assign them. There is room enough for eight quick access abilities and much more than that on the wheel.
Oddly enough, I have yet to find anyway to actually play the full game on the Gamepad screen. I've poured over the options and the "Manual" which is just a picture of the Gamepad and a description of its buttons, but I can't seem to find a way to play without the TV on, which is the first Wii U game I have experienced this with. However, footsteps and nearby effects, not including conversational dialogue, are played through the Gamepad speakers. Another minor gripe, it would have been cool if the datapads you find would pull up on your Gamepad screen rather than the TV, and if the Journal were something you could read on the Gamepad as well, it would be more useful. Regardless, the Wii U Gamepad integration for ME3SE is not reason enough to make the purchase, especially if you can play the game on another platform where the experience is far more complete anyway if you have played ME and ME2.
Playing ME3SE online requires an Origin account. In testing online play, there were times I couldn't find anyone to play with, but I think like all Wii U online communities, that's going to grow with today's European launch and Christmas. As is, though, when I first launched multiplayer, even though I had yet to play a game, and was only a couple of hours into the single player mode, I was already ranked 402, which seemed very high. Still, there's plenty to do in multiplayer just as with campaign -- XP to earn, Credits to spend, and thirteen maps to explore, and several playable classes to use including Adept, Soldier, Engineer, Sentinel, and Vanguard. Within these classes are five characters, two human and three other races that you have to unlock, each with their own unique abilities. The good thing is that online play works great, it's just the size of the online community that's lacking currently.
The presentation quality on the Wii U at least matches that of what I have seen on the PS3. Framerates stayed very high for the most part too, and load times are kept well in check. The mixture of audio on the Gamepad and on screen works to the game's advantage, but ultimately the Gamepad's functionality, while fairly useful, may not be useful enough in which case you may go to a Pro Controller.
As I've discovered with the Wii U's launch, the ports from previously released games to the Wii U have been mostly solid and complete. EA and Bioware have done a similarly great job with Mass Effect 3: Special Edition. Content-wise, it's more complete than the ME3 first released on PS3 and 360, but you have the significant disadvantage of not being able to play the entire trilogy (at least for now) on the Wii U.
To the summary...