Note: There will be a follow up post to this to talk about the story from a more spoiler-centric perspective. This review is largely spoiler-free.
It comes down to the ending, doesn’t it?
All in, Mass Effect represents at least 120 hours of gaming, perhaps more than twice that much with replays, and renegade runs, and gender switching. Perhaps I’ve given 300 hours of my life over to Mass Effect. All in service to a story that was going somewhere, though I had little idea as to where.
Now I know where, and it has put me in a strange situation: I can’t figure out if I liked it.
The ending is certainly polarizing, and I won’t be spoiling much of it here, but suffice to say, things are irrevocably changed by the time everything is said and done, and the game makes very, VERY, little attempt to show what it all means. And, perhaps, that’s my most damning comment about all of this: the game gives you an ending with a billion questions attached and says: “Good luck! Have you considered reading fan fiction?”
So that’s where we stand. An ending that was, perhaps, unavoidable even from the start, but is so poorly articulated that I can’t tell if it’s a cop-out or a knowing nod to the spirit of science fiction: that we are always changing, never static.
I think I’ve run out of ways of alluding to the ending of this game without outright saying it. So, let’s move on.
Mission to mission, the story is told wonderfully. The Galaxy At War is a great backdrop that removes many of the questions that might otherwise plague a game that involves so much jumping around. Shepard is trying desperately to prepare the galaxy for the Reapers while at the same time fighting off the Reapers at dozens of key battles throughout the galaxy. As your legion of allies grows and becomes better equipped, its easy to feel confident that you might actually stand a chance against this threat.
The pacing of the game, however, carefully undercuts this confidence at key times, showing Shepard losing several battles and suffering losses that would perhaps send a lesser man/woman into retreat . And, in fact, Shepard is perhaps the most vulnerable in this game that he has ever been. The outlook is bleak much of the time, and for the first time it feels as though if it weren’t for his allies, he might have folded long ago.
Which is why it’s so wonderful that characterization of the whole cast is top notch. Unlike ME1 and 2, the supporting characters move about the Normandy quite frequently, and are shown interacting with the other crewmembers. It was easy, in ME2 in particular, to think that every crewmember just stayed in their quarters all the time, alone, and in reflection. ME3 destroys that image and very frequently you’ll walk into the Mess Hall to find two unlikely characters having a discussion about a third character, or about the mission you were recently on. And the conversations aren’t perfunctory, they actually establish a decent rapport between the two, showing how crisis, instead of dividing, has turned this crew into a family.
Several characters get to shine more than others however. Liara, whose absence in ME2 perhaps hurt the most, comes back with a dedication unmatched by any of the others. She joins early and has at least five or six scenes where she shows herself to be the one who understands Shepards the most. For those who haven’t romanced her (I didn’t) her scenes show her to be Shepard’s closest friend and confidant. She steps in during this crisis to be the sister that Shepard doesn’t have, giving the support Shepard didn’t even know was needed.
Tali, whom was the character I romanced, is the key figure in a multiple-mission campaign near Rannoch, the Quarian homeworld. As the battle twists and turns, we see her at her strongest. For a character who’s strongest defining feature was her frailty, to see her be bold and brave was quite a sight, and the end of that mission set hits with a touching note that changes Tali forever.
Garrus, who is the ‘Bro’ to Shepard no matter what his situation, plays counterpoint to Liara, in a characterization that has shade of Murtoch from Lethal Weapon. Garrus is feeling how long he’s been constantly fighting, and while he knows his skills are great, he’s also well aware that they are probably going into a suicide mission. Garrus’ great moments come from his pride and resignation. He’s the one who reminds Shepard that even if you’re going on a suicide mission, you can’t forget who you are, and it always pays to have pride in your work.
Newcomer James Vega as well as returning faces Kaiden Alenko or Ash Williams I’m told have extensive scenes as well, but they are largely smoothed over if you’re not otherwise involved with the characters. My Shepard had always been closer to the non-human crew and as a result, I believe I was locked out of their more poignant moments. I’m sure in a future replay I’ll get to see more of what they have to offer.
Perhaps the best part of the characterization in this game however, is how happy everyone you run into from previous games are when you meet them. Faces from ME1 andME2 show up in droves and seeing their lives changed by what you did for them in previous games is a great feeling. To see Jack training Biotics in a humane way, to see Grunt becoming a proud and respected figure in Krogan society, to see Samara finally place her feeling above the code… these are the real story payoffs in ME3. Even if you view the War with the Reapers as a letdown. To have been a part of these character’s lives in such a way that they shot of radically different afterwards… it’s quite amazing.
Gameplay wise, the game is fantastic. I’ve already spoken quite a bit about this already, but it bears repeating that the game finally got it right. It has shed its more arcane RPG roots and become a much more proficient shooter than I ever thought was possible. The fact that I’m now spending hours a night on the multiplayer aspect of the game probably says it all. The last time I was involved in the multiplayer part of a video game was when COUNTER-STRIKE was still in beta. That was more than ten years ago!
Anyway, both in single player and multiplayer, controlling Shepard (or your character) is streamlined and smooth, and yet because of the many classes you can use quite diverse and involving strategy. Gone is the huge power wheel of weapons and powers and now each class is much more limited. Two weapons, three biotic abilities, and that’s it. Strangely, being limited makes the game easier to grasp and more fun to use.. I no longer feel like I’m neglecting huge parts of my character’s abilities because I only use one gun and two powers.
All in all, the game is good, and deserves accolades. You can never satisfy everyone with an ending, and perhaps, after so much time and commitment, it was impossible to satisfy even a majority of the players. But the game is still fun to play and experience, even if you’d prefer the ending was different. I will continue to fondly remember Mass Effect and recommend it to everyone as an exemplar product and, really, the defining game of this generation of consoles. You can’t get higher praise from me.