In Mass Effect 3, the Reapers are trying to exterminate all intelligent life in the galaxy and your job is to gather an armada that can defeat them. That might sound awesome and it kind of is. Still, like any dream job, your quest to save the galaxy has its share of headaches.
The quality of your ME3 ending will be determined by the strength of the force you’ve amassed. A terminal on your ship, the Normandy, lets you know your progress. The game does its best to confuse you by hitting you with technical terms like Galactic Readiness and War Assets. Here’s the short explanation: fill the big green bar and you’ll get the best possible ending. You can do this by doing a lot of side quests in the single-player, or by playing co-op missions and the mobile game Mass Effect Infiltration. BioWare is letting you decide how to reach you overall goal.
The game’s co-op is pretty similar to the Gears of War series’ Horde mode. Four players must work together to fight off waves of enemies. You can’t just park in one corner the whole time, though. You’ll be given a series of generic, shallow objectives to full (kill targets, hack a terminal, and so forth). There are three different difficulty levels and six different maps but the basic experience doesn’t change much from one session to the next. It’s disappointing how little variety there is.
Another reason the co-op doesn’t quite come together is the combat. While gunfights in ME3 are more agile and exciting than they were in previous games, the game’s not a shooter. It’s a hybrid between a third-person shooter and a strategy RPG. The campaign’s battles challenge you to coordinate you and your two squadmates’ different abilities. The co-op amputates the strategy side of the game, putting you in charge of a lone character. While you could strategize awith other players over voice chat, this is something that won’t happen in the vast majority of public matches. The multiplayer ends up feeling like a so-so Gears of War clone. It’s entertaining, don’t get me wrong. If you’re in the mood for an online shooter, though, you probably own several better options.
The only engaging part of the co-op is its progression system. You create custom characters and then level them as you would in the campaign. The credits earned in missions can be spent on packs of random rewards that include new weapons, new characters, and consumables. The drive to earn a new level or item pack helps distract you from the larger grind: earning Galactic Readiness to help your campaign. You earn Galactic Readiness at a decent rate, too, so the co-op is at least worth the time you put in.
The campaign is the reason to play the game. I would strongly suggest playing Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2 before tackling ME3, though. This story directly continues many of the storylines from those games. There’s never been a video game trilogy this smoothly connected. A series newcomer might have a handle on ME3’s plot but you’d miss out on the satisfaction of seeing events set in motion years ago finally reach their conclusion in this game.
The game’s storyline is extremely rewarding to a long-time fan of the series. Every “whatever happened to that guy?” question you’ve got in the back of your head will be answered. All of your squadmates from previous games – even the ones from DLC – return for this game. Not all of them are playable again but you’ll at least get some closure. ME3 does a thorough job of wrapping up loose ends.
Regardless of what you might think about the game’s ending or individual plot points, the fact is that there’s a strong emotional core here. When I run into Liara for the first time, I’m genuinely happy to see her. BioWare has managed to make me care about the characters that have been helping me save the galaxy since 2007. This attachment gave my mission to stop the Reapers even more weight. I wasn’t just protecting the galaxy – I was protecting my friends.
As I mentioned earlier, the campaign missions still put you in command of a three-man squad. You directly control your character and issue commands to your two A.I. companions. In my Mass Effect 2 review, I expressed hope that this game would challenge players’ strategy skills a bit more. BioWare does make some effort on this front by mixing in new enemy types. Cerberus troops with riot shields and turrets force you to adopt flanking tactics. The Reaper Brutes, meanwhile, will charge you head-on so you need to stay mobile. Still, the vast majority of enemies you encounter – standard ground troops with ranged attacks – can be steamrolled through with little thought. I just cast Singularity over and over and pick the enemies off like clay pigeons. The combat isn’t hugely cerebral but it’s also not testing your twitch shooter skills much, either.
Beyond the main campaign and a small number of story-driven side quests, the pickings are slim. The game provides you a seemingly endless stream of menial tasks. Some of these “missions” require you to simply buy an item from a store for an NPC or click terminals throughout the Citadel. They’re slipped into your quest log without choice, too; you simply overhear a doctor complaining about a shortage of medical supplies and suddenly the task is on your log until you finish it. These tasks can help your war effort a bit or give you experience and credits but the rewards are the only reason to do them. Like the co-op missions, they’re a grind. You do them only out of a desire to get the best ending for the campaign.
Mass Effect 3 isn’t that far off from the first game in the series. The elevators are still kinda slow and the combat is still an awkward mix of shooter and strategy elements. No one started playing Mass Effect for its technical execution or combat, though – they bought it because they wanted an epic story. ME3 provides an emotional conclusion to the tale that started back in 2007. The series wasn’t perfect but in the end it will be remembered for how it raised the bar for story-telling in games.
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360 (reviewed), PC
Publisher: Electronic Arts