Mass Effect 3 has been beaten, and this is what we think
Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3’s McGuffin is introduced so early in the game that it takes your breath away. The Reapers invade Earth and take the planet with very little effort, and Shepard is stuck being, once again, one of the few voices of reason in the galaxy. He’s then tipped off about something, and the game's plot begins in earnest. The fact that Shepard is racing against time to collect a fighting force strong enough to defeat an overwhelming threat is a little bit of a letdown after the same basic setup was used as a centerpiece for Mass Effect 2, but the stakes are significantly higher. This isn't an enemy that may come soon. It's an enemy that is already here, wiping out the galaxy planet by planet. Losing Earth in the game’s opening scenes and taking Shepard away from the fight ups the emotional and dramatic ante. There are interesting themes at work here, and it seems that all the major plot points and characters of the past two games are visited and given some kind of closure. In many ways Mass Effect 3 is a condemnation of politics; Shepard finds himself in a position of having to maneuver through a number of bureaucracies in order to convince the various alien races of the galaxies to come together to fight the Reaper threat. You'll travel the universe scratching backs in order to gain the trust and military might of the various alien races. When every home world in the galaxy begins to fall, it’s not easy to get the various governments to put aside their differences and look at the big picture. The choice Shepard offers isn’t an easy thing to hear: Do you want to die now defending your home world, or pull back, band together, and die later once most of the galaxy has burned? The game does a wonderful job of ratcheting up the tension and showing you just how bad things are getting as the war spreads from world to world. You’ll encounter all the expected familiar faces as you put together your team and organize a resistance to the Reapers, but you'll also encounter a few surprises when it comes to your team. In some missions you'll just need to talk to some people in order to guarantee their support, and in others you may need to land on a hostile planet and let your guns do the talking. This is where Mass Effect 3 shows the power of Bioware; after three games the Mass Effect series has mastered the art of putting balls-out action in what has all the trappings of a Western-style RPG. You can play the game with a reduced emphasis on these battles if you’d like, but you’re missing out. There is a wonderful third-person shooter here, and the action is much better than even Mass Effect 2. On normal the game is tough, but you’ll need to do some serious micromanagement of your team’s various powers, abilities, and weapons if you hope to play well on the higher difficulty levels. Action fans are going to be just as happy as players who like to agonize over the moral choices the game offers so regularly. The inventory system was terrible in the first Mass Effect, it barely existed in the second game, and now in Mass Effect 3 you can find new weapons on the battlefield, buy better versions of each gun once you find the first one, and each gun has two slots you can use to upgrade your arsenal. The guns are very distinct, and there is much fun to be had trying them all out and fiddling with the upgrade options. Again, this isn’t just an RPG. There is a wonderful action game in here for fans of the genre. There is also a wonderful multiplayer system, but we'll tackle that in a later story once we've had a chance to play more than the demo. It worth noting that in order to get a “good” ending you will either have to play with a near obsessive eye for finishing every quest, or devote a good amount of time to playing online. This may bother some who aren't interested in playing with others, and don't want to worry about seeing every inch of the game. Still, the heart of the game comes from the human decisions you'll have to make through the course of the story. The choices are, in fact, often wrenching. I asked the game’s lead writer about what has to happen and what the player has control over, and he refused to give me many specifics. I will say that more than once I did what I thought was “right” in the game only to find out that my actions has serious unintended consequences. The theme of the game was explained to me as being “survival at any cost,” and there’s no way to finish the game without blood on your hands, one way or another. Characters you’ve grown to care about through three games are going to be asked to do terrible things, and you’re often put in situations that seem to be impossible. This is the first game I’ve played where I’ve often felt utterly lost, stuck in indecision between choices that were either unattractive, or downright despicable. It's odd to think I can go back and try to “fix” the mistakes I made in my first playthrough; even the things I know I can change feel final, and cohesive to the main story. The game is able to react to your style of play in a direct and satisfying way. It seems a little too neat that Shepard shifted from a human with a little power due to circumstances into the person who seems to be carrying the entire galaxy on his shoulders, but that’s part of why Mass Effect 3 works so well. Very often you’ll be dealing with multiple people pleading their case about how to handle something, and both sides seem reasonable. Or the consequences for the “good” decision seem hard to take. The line between Renegade and Paragon can become very thin. The best science fiction is the exploration of human ideas and biases, and Mass Effect 3 does its duty in asking us to consider why these races have become what they are, why acted in certain ways in the past. Then, in many cases, you’re asked to lay down judgment. The reasoning behind some decisions has already become a popular conversation topic among game reviews, and the forums will likely light up with discussion of the game’s story and branching paths once a wider audience begins to play. The planet scanning has been improved in this game, although I was surprised to find out how many members of the Penny Arcade staff enjoyed the scanning system from Mass Effect 2. Now you send out a sort of sonar blast as your fly around different systems, and the game lets you know when you’re near a planet that has resources or items you can take. You orbit the planet, use a scanner that points you towards the booty, and you send a probe to grab it. You’re told what percentage of the items you’ve found in each system once you begin scanning and collecting, but there’s a twist: Every time you send out a ping to find planets or areas with items to collect, the Reapers get closer to discovering your location. If they find you, it’s time to run. This system isn’t as tedious as the planet scanning from Mass Effect 2, and the constant tension between searching for planets with resources and staying hidden from the Reapers fits the desperate feel of the game.Bioware and EA are making a big deal out of the fact that you can enter the world through this game, and I do think people will have a good time playing Mass Effect 3 as an introduction to the series. On the other hand, the experience is so much richer if you’ve played through the first two games, especially if you’ve kept your save game file. Your decisions from the previous games mean something. I played the game with the knowledge of what happened in the first two titles, but I didn’t have my file to inform the game of what I’ve done in the past. After speaking with others who have finished the game, I missed out. Mass Effect 3 will still be here in a month or two; if you haven’t played the first two games, do that first. If you’re pressed for time, at least start with Mass Effect 2, it has aged much better than the first Mass Effect, and will help you set up the story and context for the third game. Even though the third game sets up much of the backstory, especially if you’re willing to read the text descriptions of each of the characters and locations in the game, the ultimate fate of each of your friends is much less meaningful if this is the first time you’ve met them. The problem with “reviewing” this game is that only the barest of story will link your game to the game I played. The characters we play will likely look and act very different. Those we bring into battle may be different. We’ll hear very different dialog, and may make very different choices. You can see the strings being pulled to move the story along at a few points in the game, but Bioware’s job was to wrap up a trilogy in an emotionally fulfilling way, while fixing the few of the issues that plagued Mass Effect 2. That job was done well. There is also Kinect functionality included with Mass Effect 3 on the 360, but it never occurred to me to try it. Yelling at my television isn't an attractive option when the physical controller works so well. Bioware hasn’t told a story with the Mass Effect trilogy as much as it has allowed you to create one, and in this game you’re forced to live with the choices you’ve made. Not everyone in the game will make it. The story will come to a definite end, one way or another. Most games will move along at their own pace and offer the same thing to every person who plays. Mass Effect 3 is more of a playground for the mind, a collection of “what if” scenarios that stand on the shoulders of a wonderful series. Bioware has offered a wonderful thing in these three games: The ability to reach up and place your fingerprint on the galaxy.