- Publisher: Electronic Arts
- Developer: BioWare
- ESRB Rating: “M" For Mature
- Genre: Action RPG
- Pros: Fantastic presentation; epic final battle; very fun shooting gameplay; lots to do
- Cons: James Vega; awful ending; disc swapping; exploration isn't as fun
Story and Characters
Mass Effect 3 is the climax of the story of the galaxy's fight against the Reapers that was first started back in the first Mass Effect. The long foretold day has finally come and the Reapers have arrived en-masse to kill off almost all of the organic life in the galaxy in order to start a new cycle of evolution. Commander Shepard has known this was coming for years now but no one in charge really listened to them, so Mass Effect 3 is like a galactic "I told you so" tour where your Shepard travels around the galaxy and shoves alien leaders noses in it while begging them for help to construct and protect a Prothean super weapon capable of destroying the Reapers.
The story is pretty darn good, but very dark. There are lots of cutscenes of Reapers destroying cities and killing people and the story is full of tales of love and loss as people struggle to keep fighting despite everything they know being destroyed and everyone they know dying around them. In the center of it all, with the fate of countless alien races and worlds in her (FemShep is best Shep) hands while also being the spearhead of most of the attacks, is your Commander Shepard. And, depending on your choices in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 (our 2010 Xbox 360 GOTY, BTW), a handful of friendly characters helping you along the way either directly by being part of your team or doing other things to help.
We do have a couple of complaints, though. The final battle against the Reapers is awesome and full of great cutscenes in one of the finest large scale space battles since "Return of the Jedi". But the actual ending when it is all said and done is more a slap in the face than something that is supposed to finish off a story many gamers have sunk hundreds of hours into. We have more on that here in our Spoiler-Filled Mass Effect 3 Ending Article of Spoilers. Another slight issue comes in the form of the limited selection of squad mates (miniscule compared to ME2) and the fact that new character James Vega might be the worst Mass Effect character ever. Man he's awful. Other than the first couple hours when you have to use him, we never even talked to him again once Liara and Garrus showed up.
An important note on the Xbox 360 version of the game is that it comes on two discs. Depending on the order of the missions you play though, you'll have to swap discs as few as twice or possibly as many as 10+. We (and some other players but we seem to be the minority) only swapped twice - once very early on where we switched to disc 2, and then about 18 hours later when we went back to disc 1 for the final battles. We have a Mass Effect 3 Disc Swap Guide here that tells how to only swap twice. Even if you don't follow our guide, at its worst it shouldn't be a mess like disc swapping in Star Ocean: the Last Hope, but it doesn't seem to be a consistent and planned switch like ME2 or Final Fantasy XIII. It is just something to be aware of.
The gameplay in Mass Effect 3 is decidedly more action-oriented than in past games. An evil invading scourge of ruthless aliens bent on killing everything that moves is your main enemy, after all, so more combat is to be expected. The core combat is an even tighter and more polished version of combat in ME2, so the shooting feels really precise and satisfying. There are more varied enemy types this time around as well, each requiring different tactics to beat, which keeps things fun and interesting. It just plays really well. Some other gameplay elements of past games have been removed, however. Specifically, the hacking minigames of ME2 are long gone here. Instead, Shepard just automatically hacks stuff for you.
While ME3 doesn't have as many RPG elements as ME1 did, it is definitely deeper than ME2. You still earn experience and level up and can assign points to different powers and abilities, just like before. Now, though, weapon weight affects your power recharge time, so instead of carrying around a full arsenal at all times, you have to be more selective over the guns you carry. There are a lot of different guns to choose from in each weapon class, and each one can also be heavily modified and updated, which alters their performance dramatically. You also have many more armor options, and can even pick and choose pieces from various sets to make a fully custom set of armor.
Another gameplay change is in how you explore the galaxy. Mineral scanning from ME2 is gone, and instead a new scanning system is introduced. Now you enter a planetary system and use the left trigger to scan a chunk of the system, and if a planet has something you can use on it (information, artifacts, credits, etc.) you can then go into a simple planet scanning mode that works like when you scanned for an anomaly on a planet in ME2 - you just follow the arrow on the radar and fire a probe when you find the hot spot. The system scanning also reveals debris fields of destroyed ships, which you can collect fuel from. Scavenging fuel like this is important since there aren't many fuel depots around in ME3. The kink in this system is that if you use the scanner too much, Reapers hone in on your location and will show up in your current system. If their ships touch the Normandy, it is game over, so it is a constant sort of frenzied rush to scan as efficiently as possible, find fuel if you need it, and then leave the system so the Reapers can't catch you.
This system is okay, but it takes actual exploration even further out of the Mass Effect equation. You are told where to go for missions and can only really land on a handful of specific and important planets. Everything else is really just done through the menu. Considering the tone of the game and the urgency that you are supposed to have, it does make sense at least even if we don't exactly love it.
The core of the Mass Effect 3 story and gameplay is that you have to travel around the galaxy to try to convince other alien races to join your cause and fight alongside you in the final battle. You earn these assets by scanning planets for specific resources as mentioned above, by doing missions, and by the choices you make during those missions. Helping one race might piss off someone else, so it is a constant balancing act to keep everyone as happy as possible. The more war assets you have at the end of the game, the greater your chance of success.
An interesting component of this is that you can play Mass Effect 3's multiplayer modes (it is a solid shooter with some RPG elements thrown in, we won't go into detail, but if you are into multiplayer it is definitely worth playing) to boost "Galactic Readiness" and make your war assets more potent. You see, if you don't play multiplayer at all, only 50% of your war assets actually impact the final battle. By playing MP, you'll be more effective. With that said, however, it is quite possible to earn enough war assets by playing only the single-player that you can get the best possible story outcome even without touching the multiplayer. BioWare was very clever with this as there are clear rewards for playing multiplayer, but no real penalties for not playing it. The achievements reflect this as well as many of them are tied to both SP and MP and accomplishing a specific goal on either side unlocks the achievement just the same. You don't have to play MP at all to get the most out of Mass Effect 3, but it is there for those that want to play it.
Speaking of getting the most out of ME3, we're pretty satisfied with the content that comes with the vanilla version of the game. Before launch it seemed like an overwhelming storm of DLC that would require you to buy a ton of other products in order to unlock everything in the game. While that is technically true, having all of that extra DLC stuff isn't really necessary. There is 30+ hours of content here, with great replay value, with a huge amount of extra armor and weapons and weapon modifications that will keep you more than happy. Of course, while the DLC bundled with action figures and books is one thing and not really essential, day 1 DLC like the "From Ashes" pack is a whole different level of controversy.
Presentation has always been a major high point in the Mass Effect series, and ME3 is no different. It looks really, really gorgeous. The characters are detailed and look great. The worlds you can visit are varied and very pretty. And the lighting is really spectacular. There are a few areas where you walk around in the dark with a flashlight, and the light is very nice. The pre rendered cutscenes for the major battles, and in particular the space battles, are really really great looking as well.
The sound is no slouch, either. Voice acting is high quality across the board, but it also certainly helps that the dialogue is generally well written. Sound effects are also outstanding and really make the battles stand out. The Banshee enemies are also absolutely horrifying in large part due to their distinct scream. Wrapping it all up is fantastic music that seemingly takes the best soundtracks from sci-fi over the last 30 years and blends them into something familiar, yet new and distinctly "Mass Effect".
All in all, Mass Effect 3 is a fantastic game that should not be missed. It has a few hiccups, but it is absolutely outstanding for the most part and even as unsatisfying as the ending is, it doesn't tarnish the 30+ hours you spent getting there. Mass Effect 3 is just an incredible game all around and is well worth a purchase if you are a fan of the franchise at all. Now to wait for the Mass Effect anime with great anticipation.