Mass Effect 3 PC Review: Third time may not be the charm with ME 3, but it still a damn fine space opera.
Bioware's Mass Effect is less of a series and more of a journey. From the engrossing but clunky 2007 original on Xbox 360, to its slick and streamlined sequel, we've now arrived at the third and supposedly final chapter. Mass Effect 3, you've come a long way baby. For this review, I opted for the PC version so I could import my old pure Paragon Shepard from ME 2. Let's dive in.
The game opens with a devastating invasion of Earth. Our hero Shepherd was right all along about the Reapers, zombie space Borgs looking to ?indoctrinate? all galactic life. They're on humanity's doorstep and we've failed to get our military ducks in a row. Now Shepard must traipse across the galaxy and recruit as many intergalactic allies as possible to repel the Reapers, rescue Earth, and save all organic life as we know it. No pressure or anything.
You're given a bar measuring your ?Effective Military Strength.? Story decisions help this gauge, but in signature Mass Effect fashion, things are rarely cut and dry, good or evil. Decisions are still marked Paragon (white knight) or Renegade (think Snake Plissken or Han Solo on a bad day), but no matter what you choose, you'll still anger some alien race or alienate one member of your team.
This rally-the-troops structure reminded me of Fable III, minus the ticking clock. The game makes it obvious which missions will trigger the endgame, meaning you can take as much time as you want getting things ready, and you'll need to. No matter how your storyline cards fall, if you want an ending where the Reapers don't put the universe through a juicer, you need to pad things out playing online or scanning planets for resources.
If you played ME 2 the scanning mini-game will be familiar. It's a tweaked, less repetitive version that has the Normandy launching scans from the Galaxy Map. Scan too much and Reapers come chase you around the map. It's fun for a time or two, but you can also earn ?Military Strength? by playing multiplayer, which was way more fun. It'll just make you wish Mass Effect had figured out something more to do with space travel and exploration. Sorry if I'm giving you flashbacks about the rover from ME 1, but this feels like a missed opportunity.
Multiplayer, however, is a blast, if a bit unambitious. It'll give a lot of fans what they've always wanted: the chance to play as an alien race and switch classes whenever you want. It makes a sampler platter out of the game's awesome classes and varied races. Getting to be a Turian Infiltrator or a Krogan Soldier makes it a winner right out of the gate.
It's a slightly more dynamic Horde mode: a team of four pitted against waves of Cerberus, Geth or Reaper forces. On some waves you just have to wipe out the enemy, other times there are objectives like a hold a hill or kill boss monsters. Weapons are unlocked by trading experience for booster packs of random weapons and mods, which is a fun and to unique approach. Designing different combinations of races and classes is great, but after a few a rounds, I'm left wanting some PvP action.
Just like single-player, it works because the battles are slick and fun. Awesome powers and guns combine for simple, effective squad tactics. Combat is stylized to the point where everything you do looks awesome. Cycling through your guns and reloading them makes for a flurry of cool noises and animations. Pausing to select weapons and command squadmates slams the game into a freeze frame like a Zack Snyder movie. You never know what cool moment you'll catch when you pause, sometimes it's right as an energy blast hits your shields.
The combat looks great, but hasn't evolved much since ME 2. Different classes now have their own melee attacks and you can mod your weapons, but it's a bit of the same old song and dance. Don't get me wrong, I love both this song and dance, but it just started to wear me out after a while. After fifteen hours, I found myself re-specing my team, looking for a new approach. Also, it doesn't help that you fight the same enemies for almost the whole game. Whether it's a lack of ambition on Bioware's part, or they just felt that ME 2 hit a sweet spot they didn't want to stray from, there's just not a lot of ?new? here. It does make the original Mass Effect look prehistoric, but so did ME 2.
As a third person shooter, ME 3's controls still aren't as good as Gears of War 3 or Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. The use key (space bar by default) is overused. Sometimes you'll roll when you wanted to take cover, or you'll take cover when you wanted to revive a teammate. It's not broken by any means, you just need to be more precise than in the best shooters. You'll really only notice it when battles get truly heated.
ME 3's is very strong in the visuals department. The graphics are good, not great, even on PC, but the presentation as a whole is just so slick. Character models and lighting are highly detailed, and little touches like the purple sheen of a shield charging around your character adds a lot. You can tell this is a slightly outdated engine, but the game is visually cohesive in a way that's frankly off the scale.
Take the loading screens, for example. There aren't many of them, but when they appear, they function like establishing shots in a movie. When you move between levels in the Citadel, it gives you a glimpse of the city's flying car traffic. When docking with space stations or other alien worlds, you're treated to what looks like animated concept art from a sci-fi classic like Blade Runner or Alien. The whole thing is just so cinematic. In cutscenes, the camera takes lots of angles, giving the game an immersiveness that's easy to lose yourself in. Even the menus look like consoles on Shepherd's ship. From the minute ME 3 boots up, you're inside the game world.
I did experience a few visual hiccups. The game had trouble loading Garrus into a few cutscenes, and some characters would occasionally have wavy lines running across them; I'm confident this wasn't the glow of their shields. All in all, nothing big or game breaking, especially for the PC version. I'm sure it'll be ironed out in a patch.
As in every entry of the series, the voice actors have done a great job bringing these alien races to life. From the fast talking Salarians to the jaded Turians and the war-like Krogan, every race has a certain way of thinking that's reflected in dialogue and delivery, and every main character has his own little variation on this. The score is great as well, this time borrowing those deep horn noises from Inception
and the tripods from War of the Worlds
. You might notice a bit of Transformers-style sound editing, where noises oscillate as vehicles flip through the air.
Since I played on the PC, I have to mention EA's Origin service, which was a fine host for my ME 3 experience. No crashes or server hiccups, but there were times where the matchmaking was slow or erratic. However, it was easy to import my old ME 2 Shepard, which I played through Steam on an old computer. I brought the save files to my new machine via thumb drive without any trouble. While I do begrudge being forced to use Origin, and would have prefered to play on Steam just for my friends list, at this point EA's technology is perfectly serviceable and Origin never got in the way. That's about all you can ask for, I suppose.
Now, the story, and that ending. If you somehow haven't heard, a lot of ME fans are upset about this trilogy's conclusion. I, for one, was not blown away by it, but I wouldn't call it an out of character misstep. Overall, I think the writing in Mass Effect 3 has the same strengths and weaknesses the series has always had: the character moments and the backstory for the alien races are strong, but the overall conflict that everything builds towards is weak. For starters, Reapers just aren't a great villain. They lack motive, they're basically space zombies that want to consume everything, and the conspiracy surrounding them feels too much like Halo. They're a narrative device, something that can be looming over the characters and create a sense of urgency. The Illusive Man is a much more interesting bad guy, simply because he has a motive. He's got desires and flaws, just like Shepherd. Ultimately, I found the decisions I made regarding the fate of the Krogans and the Geth far more compelling than the game's final choice, and that was enough for me.
Fans do have a right to be annoyed with the game's ending simply because we've seen Bioware do better. Things didn't come together as nicely as in ME 2, and while the different ending cinematics are all pretty breathtaking, ending the game with a little message basically saying ?stay tuned for DLC? kind of ruins the finality of the moment. Basically, Mass Effect fans, welcome to the ?we didn't like the ending? club. There's an open table next to the Sopranos and Lost fans. Please take a seat and stop writing nasty e-mails to Bioware.