Investing one's time and mind in fiction is a double edged sword. If it all eventually comes together then indulging in results can be moving experience. When it doesn't work we get the Lost finale or Star Wars prequels. Disappointment only arrives because of how much we appreciate the establishment created by what came before, and are subsequently disheartened by where it's taken us. Applied to Bioware's Mass Effect, the original laid a promising foundation and the sequel (a game I scored 10/10) refined and perfected it. Like the Uncharted, where was Mass Effect supposed to go when the sequel was at the top of its game?
Through the roof, apparently.
Bioware has spent much of the past two years working fan feedback into Mass Effect 3's framework. What you can do with your weapons, for example, has evolved far beyond Mass Effect's complete mess and Mass Effect 2's lack of options. Not only can you adjust myriad guns with mods purchased from stores or looted from the battlefield, you can also use an upgrade station to boost the weapon's level. Shepard's load out has also seen significant refinement. Each of the five weapon classes can be carried at any time, but carrying too much weight results in a longer charge time for Shepard's biotic or tech abilities. Likewise, going out light makes your abilities refresh extra fast. It's a smart, interactive way to figure out what you like and what you're good at, and its flexibility and endless customization ensure you're never nailed down to a single style of play.
Abilities have also seen significant refinement. For one, my Vanguard Shepard came with a new power called Nova that exchanged his shield for an area-of-effect blast of power. Additionally, the last three branches of any skill's tree splinter off into separate options. Shockwave, for example, offered the choice between either increasing its cascade distance or increasing its damage potential. Submitting to another wish, you can also completely re-spec your Shepard (or any other character) at any time. It's also worth mentioning that my Shepard imported from Mass Effect 2 (née Mass Effect 1) arrived at level 30, complete with enough points to flesh out half my skill tree. On normal difficulty Mass Effect 3 was still quite challenging, so some sort of enemy scaling may be involved, but I loved how my time and investment in previous games paid off in gameplay and not just story.
I didn't ever have a problem with Mass Effect 2’s combat. Freezing a guy with Cryo ammo before tossing him in the air with Singularity and finishing him off with a Shockwave blast has always felt ridiculously satisfying, and gathering a squad talented enough to unleash countless editions of strategic hell at any instance created an experience unrivaled by many peers. This time around Shepard has a battle role, improved melee capabilities, can leap across chasms, and seems a bit more nimble when running. Opposition also gets a host of new sub-bosses in the form of lightning quick melee Nemesis, ultra biotic vortexes called Banshees, and giant armored brutes called, yeah, Brutes. Shepard's fascination with sticking to cover instead of clearly battle rolling sometimes resulted in his untimely and incredibly frustrating death, but I can count on one hand the number of instances I was devastated at the failed mechanical outcome.
Side quests have been improved as well. While walking around the Citadel Shepard will eavesdrop on conversations between NPCs. For example, a scientist at a hospital may mention the need for a fossil to develop a resistance to a poison for Krogans, or an Elcor needs a holy book from his home world to inspire his people. These are easily accomplished by finding said item (randomly?) while on a story mission or through planetary scanning. Yes, scanning returns by vastly scaled back from Mass Effect 2. Rather than scanning each and every planet for resources, your entire ship scans each system for a couple hot points which then only have to be scanned once. Unleashing the threat of Reapers to chase the Normandy around seems like a contrived way of adding a challenge to scanning, but it's brief enough to scoot by without much complaint. Side quests aren't limited to fetch quests either, as a good amount feel just as involved and interesting as those in the main quest line.
To put it frankly, everything I just spent describing are nuts and bolts. Mass Effect's gameplay and mechanics construct the bulk of the videogamey interaction, but what's drawn me to the series and repeatedly brought me back was my addiction to the fiction. I am obsessed with the concept and mystery of the Citadel. I've had real life conversations on podcasts concerning the purpose of the Keepers or the potential reproductive process of Hanar. Mass Effect 3 comes equipped with a codex that explains every last detail, but I was so invested and fascinated in Bioware's world I didn't even need to read it. The last chapter of a trilogy demands resolution, and I was scared to death Mass Effect 3 wouldn't achieve it - and that's not taking into account what it decided to do with my personal choices from previous games.
Through Mass Effect 3's opening hours I was worried the game was going to squander my investment. Reaper's invade Earth and wipe out a city. Shepard escapes with Ashley/Kaiden and an unlikable meathead named James Vega. From there Shepard's tasked with convincing the rest of the galaxy to come to his aid as well as figuring out what the hell Cerberus is up to. It all seemed too route and disconnected from the choices and decision I had just spent an entire game amassing. Or, to put it blatantly; where the hell was my crew from Mass Effect 2?
As it turns out, they were right where they belonged. Mass Effect 3 deliberately stunts their appearances to coincide with narrative highs and lows. Some may join your party while others are only around for a brief interlude, but all are given their time to shine. Bioware's writers found a way to not only resolve their individual concerns but to complete it in such a way that it potentially benefits or harms Shepard's quest to unite every species against the Reapers. While the consequential decisions are back loaded, Mass Effect 3 has plenty of choices and few of them are easy. Some truly heart wrenching moments are in store no matter which way you go, and pressing forward with the consequences is easier said than done.
On that note, I have no idea what sort of game Mass Effect 3 would be without these characters. It was possible to leave Mass Effect 2 with a Normandy fully of body bags, and the lack of those crew members in Mass Effect 3 would inevitably create an entirely different experience. For me, Mass Effect 3 was the culmination of an intensely personal story. And the amount of dialogue that felt exclusive to my experience, up to and including the considerable options and conversations tailored specifically to my love interest, was staggering. All of this is ultimately a directed experience but it's crafted in a way that feels delicately planned exclusively for my Shepard. In these terms my investment paid off, my crew (even Vega) felt like my own, and securing their interests alongside the fate of the galaxy was a narrative device I had never experienced in a videogame. I don't know how this affects people new to the series or those whom skip over dialogue, but for me Mass Effect 3's ultimate payoff was in its characters, each of their fates feeling honest and earned.
Amongst its personal stories Mass Effect 3 maintains a complete allegiance to its core mission. Forging these bonds with your crew members, for example, leads to a new power for Shepard in the med bay. Every single side quest contributes in some way to the war effort, making even the most trivial of tasks count for something. Mass Effect 3's also full of smaller tender moments, like the photo wall at the refugee camp in the Citadel or the plaque of names in the Normandy for fallen crew members, that add traces of humanity to compliment the conceits of gameplay.
It was also refreshing to see the activity amongst the crew of the Normandy. No longer confined to a single room, at various points in the game they're free to get up and walk about the cabin. Sometimes they'll reminisce over old times and others they'll get blackout drunk. They even interact with each other, and often you'll barge in on what seems to be the middle of a conversation. They also get off the ship and roam around the Citadel whenever you're there, often inviting Shepard to spend additional time with them. Mass Effect 3 is loaded with touching and hilarious vignettes with all of Shepard's crew, and some of these short little scenes comprise the best moments in the game.
Little of this would have worked had Mass Effect 3 not been so expertly crafted in the audio and visual department. Every voice actor returns and speaks with expected conviction, though I still prefer Jennifer Hale's cold delivery as my Renegade FemShep over Mark Meer's Dudley-do-right Paragon. These are of course subjective, but every aspect from body language to camera movement keeps every scene, even when mining conversations trees, visually stimulating and contextually relevant. In the art department I have no idea how Bioware keeps forging a diverse assortment of alien environments. Sure they're almost all built with cover and combat in mind, but Tuchanka to Thessia to Earth is riddled with destruction and still a distinctive sight to behold. Mass Effect 3 as a whole has astounding production quality consistent with the best and brightest in fictional worlds, further selling the player on accepting the reality and desperation of its universe.
And then there's multiplayer. When I heard its inclusion carried over to the "galaxy at war" percentage in the main game I was slightly horrified. It was later explained that it wasn't necessary and the same endings could be achieved through side quest completion, but multiplayer still seemed like a weird addition to Mass Effect's framework. As it turns out, after dumping six or so hours into it, it's not too bad.
What's presented is a wave based four player cooperative mode composed of Mass Effect's standard six character classes. Different waves task the player with restarting computer terminals, staying inside a safe zone to secure an upload, annihilating everyone, and, finally, making it to the drop ship to escape. As one would expect the progression of enemies gets more caustic and threatening as time goes on, making it not uncommon to pack a small room with a Brute and two Banshees in later waves. Taking these guys down by yourself is near impossible, but that's why there are three other people to empty clips into them - and revive you if you fall.
Kills earn points. Assits earn points. Earning certain medals like killing 25 enemies or getting 10 headshots and completing the level earn medals which are also points. These points allow your character to level up, but they also translate into credits to buy stuff at the in-game store. Stuff is usually made up of consumables like medi-gel to revive yourself or ammo clips should you run short. Rare stuff comes in more expensive packages and usually unlocks a new weapon or character race.
Multiplayer is somewhat standard but remains a lot of fun. The idea of working together with different classes and syncing your individual powers to annihilate hoards works right into Mass Effect's combat fabric. Its connection to the narrative will ensure it gets some mileage, but ultimately it feels more like the same approach in Dead Space 2. It's good enough and ultimately doesn't compromise the single player experience, but it likely won't catch fire like the more popular shooters out there.