Friday, April 13, 2012

Mass Effect 3 review

Mass Effect 3 brings the conclusion to Commander Shepard's sci-fi epic in spectacular fashion.

Formats: Xbox 360 (tested), PlayStation 3, PC
Developer: BioWare
Publisher: EA
Age rating: BBFC 15
Released: Out now
I spent a lot of time on the Citadel in Mass Effect 3. The political heart of the galaxy has become the last refuge of peace in a time of war. Soldiers on shore-leave drink and dance in the giant space-station’s nightclub, Purgatory, forgetting the fight under neon lights. If only for a moment. Worried families pack the embassies, asking after their loved ones while councillors’ of the galaxy’s most powerful species plan the war from their ivory tower. Chatter in the local hospital turns to dwindling supplies and volume of casualties. A docking bay is turned into a makeshift refugee camp, survivors of planets lost cramming into supply containers.
It’s in its quietest moments that Mass Effect 3's war is most keenly felt. Synthetic beings called the Reapers are trawling the Milky Way, studiously wiping out or harvesting every organic civilisation in the galaxy. You are Commander Shepard, tasked with uniting these threatened species in order to fight back. While most video games task you with saving the world, it’s rare that a developer takes such care in building a world worth saving. The Citadel is the apotheosis of BioWare’s careful construction. This, it says, is what you’re fighting for.
Of course, this is a construction five years in the making. While Mass Effect’s RPG shell has been streamlined as the trilogy hurtles towards its conclusion, favouring action and accessibility, Mass Effect 3 is first and foremost a glorious payoff for those that have been with the series from the beginning, carrying their save game across each entry. The path your Shepard walks is the same as everyone’s else, but the sights you see and the decisions you make are wholly your own. Mass Effect 3‘s greatest achievement is in respecting those decisions, taking the emotional investment you have built in its characters and worlds over half a decade and ensuring it isn't wasted.
The flip-side is that, despite marketing bluster, Mass Effect 3 is largely impenetrable to newcomers. BioWare, rightly keen to make their final push, leave little time to explain things before the Reapers attack Earth, sending Shepard on his (or her) quest to unite the galaxy. That does call into question the necessity of moving Mass Effect away from its RPG heritage towards dedicated third-person shooter territory, but the fact is that Mass Effect’s form matches its narrative trajectory. This is a war, after all, so there’s a lot of shooting to be done.
Thankfully, Mass Effect 3‘s gunplay is the best in the trilogy. Shepard and his team move with greater fluidity, while the weapons pack an extra punch, resulting in gratifying feedback as you tear through Reaper forces. It’s taken a few pages out of the Gears of War playbook, certainly, filling the holes in Shepard’s arsenal with a strong melee attack and grenades. It’s solid and satisfying, enhanced by Mass Effect’s own twist of class-based special abilities. It’s important that your squad of three has an eclectic spread of powers --technical, ballistic and biotic (read: magic)-- to deal with enemy variants that require different types of attack to kill.
The combat is solid and satisfying, though doesn’t match the finest in class. Cover can be erratic, occasionally sticking you to the wrong side of the wall or throwing you into a combat roll straight into enemy fire. Basic mission design, too, isn’t as well-orchestrated as it could be, leaning too heavily on overwhelming force to up the difficulty, rather than challenge you with elegant tactics. While at times the combat can feel too attritional, there are moments that this bluntness works terrifically. Battles can be fatiguing, but the relief of surviving against the odds is palpable, particularly later in the game.
The environments are spectacular theatres of war too. Shepard will often alight on an occupied planet, glorious skyboxes depicting a conflict that stretches far beyond the confines of your own battle. Gigantic reapers stomping through infantry and buildings, red and blue laser fire cutting through the sky, explosions decimating entire areas of a planet. It’s smoke and mirrors, essentially, your own mission maps are neatly disguised corridors. However, it’s hard to underestimate the sense of place and chaos conveyed by BioWare’s newfound confidence in its visual language.
BioWare seems notably more comfortable in every aspect of its vision, in fact. While the overall tone of the game is bleak, enhanced by a darkened colour palette, there’s a playful streak that the first two games po-faced approach could have used. A handful of missions eschew the usual combat fare, adding a welcome variety, while the script is peppered with humour and a lighter touch. It’s a game written from the heart, rather than the head, which makes it very easy to forgive the odd bit of clunk or mawkishness amid the otherwise excellent script.
The narrative successfully carries the gravitas of the blockbuster trilogy Mass Effect has strived to become. There’s a definite sense of urgency to the plot, helped along by the fact that even the most incidental of side missions feel integral to the war effort. Snippets of conversation overheard on the Citadel are added to your journal for investigation, dumped into one clumsy big list. While the intention to give equal priority to everyone’s concerns is admirable, it would have been nice to manage your quests a little easier. It also appears that with so many active quests at one time, the game occasionally struggles to keep up, with some conversations failing to activate at the correct time.
It's these small acts of kindness, however, that help to deliver such a complete story. While the core plot is strong, delivering emotional gut punches with startling regularity, it’s the incidental detail and characters that invest you so heavily in the fight. As you stroll around the Citadel, you’re left in no doubt that Shepard is the hero, with everyone recognising the potential saviour of the galaxy. It’s hugely empowering, but only because you’re made to feel part of something greater. Shepard is the tip of the spear, but the force behind him stretches far and wide. BioWare do a stellar job of making sure you realise that at every turn. It’s the best kind of role-playing, and while the gameplay elements of that genre are restricted to armour perks and simple skill trees, Mass Effect has a way of projecting you onto your Shepard better than most games manage. And the emotional payoff is well earned.
In addition to the huge single-player, the controversial multiplayer is a surprisingly good addition to the package. A four-player class-based co-op mode, the multiplayer tasks players with holding strategic war locations that Shepard secures in the main campaign. A pleasing handshake that gives the multiplayer a narrative beat in such a narrative-focussed game. While the mode may be too slight to offer long-term investment, the opportunity to play as different species across a strong selection of co-op maps is most welcome, even if it's sullied by micro-transactions offering access to new gear. The missions are tough and a lot of fun, though, offering a Mass Effect flavoured twist on Gears of War’s horde mode. Success in multiplayer also greases the wheels in the campaign, allowing Shepard to build his forces quicker, though it isn’t mandatory to achieve the ‘best’ ending.
BioWare, then, have managed to pull everything together for a terrific finale to their ambitious trilogy. While the individual parts of Mass Effect 3 aren’t perfect, the whole is a remarkable achievement. It’s an adage that’s true of the entire series. Each game has its flaws and do not escape criticism as standalone titles. But the commitment to the long-game reaps its own rewards for BioWare, with five years of dedication from creators and players alike coming together for a suitably heart-wrenching end to arguably the finest video game series of this generation.

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