In ways that will surprise you, Mass Effect 3 really is Shepard against the world.

Note: I will not discuss the game’s ending or any other spoilers until the very end of the review.

A most difficult review to write. That’s what this is. Mass Effect is the series that defines my gamerdom since the first one’s early marketing made me pony up for an Xbox 360 after two generations of Sony loyalty. At that point I only knew Bioware for Knights of the Old Republic and had always been curious to play Jade Empire. There was something about what they were doing with Mass Effect, how fresh and ambitious the project was perhaps, that sucked me in as thoroughly as any singularity. Then there was the character creator, at the time the most realistic and robust yet made and also the most impressively integrated into the game experience itself. When the game came out, there were some technical issues that disappointed but ultimately Mass Effect was a complete triumph and gave Bioware a degree of the steam they would pick up over the following years to become something of a gaming monolith, as they are today. Mass Effect 2 was even better, though it sacrificed some elements I would have preferred to see remain. Mass Effect 3 promised to reconcile some of the design and mechanics that were changed between the first two games while still offering everything that makes Mass Effect what it is. The big question people are going to be asking going into this game is, did they succeed? Of course they did.

Mass Effect 3 is a truly remarkable game. More than that, when taken as a trilogy, it is an achievement in science fiction and storytelling that shows some of what will be possible with the game medium. No one has ever accomplished a cohesive and self-contained story set over three games, the way a trilogy of books or films tells a story over three iterations, which comes to a true end. I don’t want to spend too much time piling on the superlatives but if you’re wondering whether this review is going to be positive, I can assure you that it will be with a few exceptions.

The stakes are super high! That’s Vancouver the Reapers are tearing up!

Mass Effect 3‘s story should be familiar by now. Basically, this is the moment where the Reapers go from being a shadowy threat to a full blown invasion. Hitting Earth first, partially due to Shepard’s successes against their advance agents, the first battle for Earth is the background of the game’s opening. Most of the rest of the game is made up of Shepard leveraging the alliances and connections he’s made over the past 2 games to create a large enough fleet to take Earth back. There’s also a Prothean superweapon called The Crucible which must be built in the meantime. With the stage set, the planet-hopping missions that typify the experience of Mass Effect are given their justification and away you go with your own personal Commander Shepard to get it all done.

A significant amount of this game is payoff for all the stuff that you’ve gone through in the first two. This means that characters, enemies and allies alike, will be popping up periodically. This works very well to make this game the most personal of all. By now you have established some kind of relationship with all these factions and faces, maybe in general or maybe specific to one of your handful of Shepards engineered over multiple play-throughs of the first 2 games. That relationship is Mass Effect 3‘s greatest weapon and all of the most effective storytelling revolves around that. From the customary little ship-board conversations you have with crew to encounters with entire civilizations at stake, Mass Effect 3 excels at the drama of the episodic parts of the game, all of which work toward the larger story of Earth’s fall and the plans to retake it. Since so much of the meat between is reliant on how you played through the first two games, who lived and died and who got pissed off or saved, there’s probably a huge degree of variance between the options open to my Shepard vs. yours. It doesn’t make sense to talk about why one of the Suicide Squad from Mass Effect 2 gets less screentime in Mass Effect 3 than another because of that. I can say that I felt like every character got closure. Not only the playable squadmates, around 20 full characters over 3 games, but also a plethora of supporting characters such as Anderson, Udina, the Illusive Man, etc.

The enduring friendship of Shepard and Anderson is one of the series’ high points and is also one of the best realized parts ofMass Effect 3.

Everybody who plays Mass Effect is going to have their preferences for different characters. Do you like Tali the best? How about Jack or Miranda? Probably not Jacob, but maybe? Mass Effect 3 tries to offer a satisfying trajectory to an end point for all of these people. Your mileage is going to vary about how this is handled because some characters, whether you like them the most or not, are simply more important to the Mass Effect universe than others. Those characters generally get the best material. I respect Bioware being true to their own universe by not changing this up to suit the preferences of the player. It’s a fine balancing act, between a satisfactory closure and how much importance/screentime to give them.

There’s also a greater focus on the characters who reprise their roles on Shepard’s crew from Mass Effect, two of whom didn’t appear in that capacity in Mass Effect 2. Personally, I think the relationship that’s best written and most satisfying in Mass Effect 3 is with Garrus Vakarian, who by now for me was Shepard’s truest brother-in-arms. If you never liked Garrus, though, there’s plenty of material with Tali, Liara, and Kaidan/Ashley to keep you invested. Which makes it sound like the Mass Effect 2 characters are the ones who de facto get short-strawed. Honestly, that’s not how things work out. Each of the squadmates from ME2 get at least one mission where they’re heavily featured as well as a couple of scenes later on to catch up and tie things down for the ending. The last conversations you have with these people are particularly touching in some cases.

That’s a word I should use more to describe ME3: touching. I don’t think a game has affected me emotionally to the same degree as this one since I was in high school and a bit less jaded. I’m not saying Mass Effect 3 is going to make you cry or anything, but it certainly might. It’ll at least make you feel something with its story and characters, not just its epic set-pieces and gameplay mechanics. Some of this is accomplished via Clint Mansell’s wonderful score, especially the key theme An End Once and For All which echoes his work on Moon not only in terms of the progression of the theme itself but also its humanity and emotional texture. This may be one of the most bittersweet themes in game history, and that shoe certainly fits the most bittersweet game in game history.

There are times where the game does get a little manipulative. The only time you ever see a kid in any Mass Effect game and this is what they do with him!

The one complaint I do have about Mass Effect 3‘s narrative elements is the presence of so much pandering. Bioware has faced criticism about the lack of the fuller respect to female gamers and gay or lesbian gamers in Mass Effect as compared to its other games, like Knights of the Old Republic or Dragon Age: Origins. As a result, ME3 is full of gay and lesbian relationships. My problem with this is twofold:

1. They should have been here in the first place.

2. Like with Dragon Age 2, changing established characters’ sexuality to pander just doesn’t work and forces awkward situations on the player.

I am glad that Mass Effect 3 let’s BroShep be gay if people want to play him that way. Cortez is a finely written character and nice addition to the crew. Similarly, Traynor gives FemShep players more options than a love interest from a race that is all women anyway. Kaidan’s periodic heterosexual remarks, let alone his history, just don’t feel like they work with his advances on Shepard later in the game. And I hope they didn’t make Ashley gay in this game because that just doesn’t fit her character at all. You might explain Kaidan by defining him as bisexual, which fine, but Ashley? Not in the cards for that character as written over 2 games. As a result, this stuff kinda feels like pandering. I think gay and lesbian players deserve better.

On the other hand, Cortez and Traynor are great characters so I guess Bioware didn’t so much fuck up here as they introduced a balancing act that is grafted into their game and thus a bit rough around the edges. Actually, the worst that can be said about the narrative and characterization of Mass Effect 3 is that some stuff is grafted and rough around the edges. For the most part, though, the game fucking sings.

Ah, FemShep. Getting your due at last.

Whatever the problems associated with the amount to which the LGB stuff is pandering, I am happy to report that the greater emphasis on female Shepards does not feel like this. Some people will certainly say it’s also pandering, but I think this one is more a case of Bioware simply not predicting how these games were going to track with female players. They wanted the option in there, they’ve supported it fully all the way through, but it probably wasn’t until Mass Effect 3 that they realized they should directly market to female gamers and men who simply prefer FemShep, of which there are many and in no small part thanks to Jennifer Hale’s excellent performances. Mark Meer is in top form too. Not only does he play BroShep again, he pulls double duty as Mordin Solus this time around and it’s pretty seamless.

In Mass Effect 3, more focus is given to Shepard’s state of mind as more and more shit gets piled up on him. This stuff works better if you lost a few crewmen in Mass Effect 2 since it seems to revolve around Shepard’s displaced guilt over the people he has led to their deaths. In all, Shepard does feel a bit more like a character by Bioware than one by the player. I mean, we always played in the sandbox Bioware gave us, but now it feels like they have a tighter grip on some of the toys. There are, pound for pound, fewer dialogue options in Mass Effect 3 than in previous games. Many of these are simplified, also, offering only one or two final responses and a third side-response that might be a question or open some up. This is kind of the “player wants to know” choice, meant to access some exposition on blurry plot points or something. There’s also that the bulk of interactions with crew members are Zaeed/Kasumi style in that they are a few remarks and not full conversations. There are many full conversations, though, so it’s not like Mass Effect 3 has short-changed that element of the game.

There’s no doubt by this point that Liara is Bioware’s “canon” love interest.

I think some people are not going to like this more linear presentation of Shepard and co. I get it, though. Bioware is again doing a balancing act. They wanted the ship (and other locations) to feel more alive and ambient. They really pull that off, too. Your crew will interact with each other, leaving Shepard to eavesdrop and sometimes step in with a remark or something. He’s also more his own guy, many of his responses being “canned” but fitting the character you’ve spent your time creating (at least for me). I don’t know if the choices you make or your paragon/renegade ratings affect these “canned” responses but I’m curious to find out.

In fact, as you play Mass Effect 3, there’s a bigger sense of a canonical journey through the series than there ever was in previous games. It makes sense in away, since the game is set up to support people who not only haven’t played the first 2 but who might choose to play the game without the RPG elements and choices, basically as a story-driven shooter. That means there’s a “canon” version of Mass Effect 3. I’m very curious about what that entails and may have to play the game at some point to find out… especially which of the endings they decided to go with.

A final note about the character creator:

While the new hair options are nice, there still aren’t enough of them. Every second female human NPC has the same hair and it’s distracting. There’s also that Bioware, after three games, still haven’t figured out how to get facial hair to connect to sideburns for a decent 5 o’clock shadow. Their character creator has been totally eclipsed by now, changing little over 3 games as it has, but I guess you can’t beat the integration. Still!

Silly Cerberus, that’s a MATTOCK he’s holding!

Getting into the gameplay now, we’re again going to be talking about balancing acts. Bioware’s avowed determination to give the RPG-favoring set some of their options back has worked out just fine. Unfortunately, it’s the shooter gamers that have stuff to complain about. In effect, the game’s shooting is tighter in many ways than ever before and this is mostly just knock-em-down awesome. It’s finally functionally better than Gears of War, which is probably the only contender at present for “best 3rd person shooter games”.

The stuff to complain about mostly has to do with the camera. The camera is much tighter on Shepard than in previous games, which completely destroys peripheral version and will cause all kinds of fuck-ups with colliding into obstacles, not being able to judge distances to get into cover, etc. I mean, on some level this may be more realistic but it certainly makes for some frustrating moments in a pitched firefight. Enemies will get around you and while you’re supposed to be able to melee them to prevent this, the melee only works when you’re delivering rapid smacks. The heavy melee which was so heavily featured in the marking certainly looks cool but it is difficult to perform consistently as distances and positioning are hard to judge and completely unforgiving. The stated intent to make the melee as compelling as the shooting is definitely a fail.

There are many, many awesome guns. None are going to do shit to a Reaper, though!

Where the melee fails, the promised return of gun-modding is a total success. There are something like 7 or 8 specific weapons in each of the 5 categories. They all have unique handling and specs so which you choose to use is going to be all about your playing style. Armor customization also returns, in much the same form as in ME2. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot that’s new here. All the pieces are just renamed versions of what was already in the previous game (with maybe one or two exceptions, and a handful of new helmet options). This was fine, though, except for that the armor customization screen would frequently get stuck on Loading necessitating a restart of the game from main menu to fix.

Other technical issues abound. Graphical assets pop in and out as some sections of the game chug along, much the same as in ME1. The graphics are, however, better than either of the previous two games. So there’s that. More annoying are the clipped dialogue tracks, some of which will just end halfway through and go onto the next one (seriously) and the lack of auto-updates for missions in the Journal (a  huge step backward for this type of game). These are minor gripes, though. Small bruises on an otherwise lustrous fruit.

There’s an intangible coolness to multiplayer in Mass Effect 3. It has something to do with playing as other races and a lot to do with being boots-on-the-ground in this universe — with a few buddies.

I should also talk a bit about the multiplayer. It’s very well integrated. The idea is that, throughout your campaign, Shepard will visit various planets and bases as “N7” missions. After sort of being the tip of the spear on these operations, other squads and forces will take over. This is the basis for the co-op, squad-based multiplayer. Featuring RPG elements and customization options that are a subset of what’s available in the single player game, Galaxy At War is a feature that doesn’t feel tacked-on but rather fully realized. I have a lot of fun with it and like that progression is somewhat randomized so that there’s a reason to keep playing past your first go at ME3‘s story. Galaxy At War will be there while I play other versions of Shepard and that’s great.

While the upgrade packs are randomized, there seems to be some functional problems with the math. You can buy these things forever and still not receive even one additional weapon from the game’s starting set. Same with additional character options, such as Drell Vanguard. I suppose this is to keep us playing and to give the feature some addictive properties. It works, I guess, but I kinda wish the probabilities were a bit kinder.

Phew. Okay. I guess I can talk about the ending now.

AND NOW FINALLY: THE ENDING(S)

Goddamn the Reapers are gross.

The way Mass Effect as a whole ends is confusing. Most people reading this will have seen this for themselves or at least been made aware of the immense backlash Bioware is receiving for it. Like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the end breaks down into three choices/possibilities no matter what you’ve accomplished, attempted, or suffered along the way.

Of the three choices, part of the point is that none is a “perfect” choice. Each one has severe consequences no matter how you look at it. There are essentially three possibilities:

1. Shepard destroys the Reapers, but also the Geth and EDI and basically saves the cycle for Organics while philosophically maintaining the “truth” of the Catalyst’s assertion that chaos derived from Synthetics vs. Organics is bad news. Something we know isn’t true if we successfully reconciled the Quarians and Geth.

2. Shepard controls the Reapers, like the Illusive Man wanted, and I imagine steer them away from destroying everything or whatever. But this kills him.

3. Shepard leaps into a beam of light to force the Crucible to rewrite the DNA of all things in the galaxy so that there will be no distinction between Synthetics and Organics. Basically, Shepard becomes the new Catalyst.

In any case, seeing Shepard think about his friends and loved ones while destroying himself (presumably destroying Synthetic life will also kill Shepard as the Catalyst tells him: he is part synthetic) works well. The theme swells and it’s kind of a nice emotional beat. There are some great moments sprinkled through the last 2 hours of the game. In fact, it’s most great. The transition from Cerberus Base to Earth is a bit rushed due to the Citadel stuff and the very end is a fucking mess, but there’s the great, great fight through London with the final moments with the characters and those last bits with Anderson which, sadly, they cut down (I’ve heard a recording of the full scene and it would have made me cry if they’d left it in). So it’s not like the whole thing is just bad or disappointing. It really seems to be working its way to something amazing.

The trouble is, no matter what you do, all the Galactic Relays are destroyed which suggests that Galactic civilization is at an end. Moreover, all the stuff you did to “unite the Galaxy” is now moot. Insulting as this already is, there’s the Normandy crashing on some planet where presumably its inhabitants (always Joker, sometimes also including a few crew members even ones that presumably died in the final run to the Citadel) will live their lives and die without ever knowing what really happened. That’s a bit fucked up.

Then there’s that, if you have the best Galactic Readiness and made all the right choices, Shepard will live in the “Destroy” ending which makes the Catalyst seem like a little liar. It’s problematic in general, actually, because the choices are shown as Blue and Red like the morality options. Somehow, destroying the Reapers and all synthetic life is the renegade choice while being Illusive Man 2.0 is the paragon choice. Sorta takes some steam out of your philosophical disagreement with him and his whole operation, huh? In essence, choosing to control the Reapers is choosing to submit to them and their creator. That choice is an awful one, but maybe the point is that all these choices are awful in their own ways.

If Bioware was honest about these endings, that would be the case. The whole point would be to make it all as bittersweet as possible by having each choice end the Galaxy as we know it. Then why have Normandy crash land on some planet? It only really works for the Synthesis Ending, as it is suggestive of the New Order of the Galaxy and a totally fresh start.

Some people think the ending is a con: Shepard is being indoctrinated and the Catalyst is lying. This explains the renegade/paragon oddness and also explains why Shepard can live if the player has secured the “best possible ending” by playing the game toward that purpose. In effect, then, destroying the Reapers just destroys the Reapers. Why the cinematic with Normandy crash-landing still, then? Why not show us that Geth and EDI are still alive?

Bioware puts you in an impossible situation if these endings are true. This may be part of some great transcendent ending in Mack Walters’ head but it rings totally false to everything you’ve done up to this point. There’s no fucking closure to that.

Someone in the game says that achieving Galactic peace and proving Organics and Synthetics can co-exist is a victory in itself. That throwaway line is not enough to justify the Citadel being ransacked, everyone on it presumably killed, off-screen alongside all the other “protecting the future” type stuff you do throughout the game only to turn around and pretty much undo it.

And if you’re not undoing it, why couldn’t Bioware have shown us that?

It’s a huge blunder, even if like me you prefer to see the Catalyst as lying, as Shepard’s final test, and thus the Destroy Ending as the only viable one and not subject to the final scenes of the Normandy.

To say I’m disappointed is a bit of an understatement. Still, I’m more confused than anything, and I want desperately to believe that the “it’s a con” interpretation of the ending is valid. Unfortunately, no conclusions to be drawn from any of the endings, or the structure of the ending itself, are immediately supportable. Adding more stuff to show the consequences of these endings might have been nice.

Instead, we get an oblique finale that feels like it was lifted from a shitty anime.

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