The Mass Effect series has always been the gold standard for single-player RPGs (The Elder Scrolls notwithstanding), and it is an understatement to say that the latest installment, Mass Effect 3, has been highly anticipated. Can it possibly live up to its expectations? More importantly, what is the solo gamer to make of the new multiplayer component?
This is just the beginning
Mass Effect 3 begins with the Reaper invasion we all knew was coming, and Shepard must escape an Earth under siege in order to rally the rest of the galaxy against this unprecedented threat too all civilization. This involves tying off all the loose threads that have developed in the previous games--some small and some large--and uncovering one last Prothean secret that holds the only hope for victory. Your decisions in previous games affect how difficult these tasks become, though the trajectory of the narrative is predictably uni-directional.
Your team this time around is relatively small, though you will encounter all your previous surviving crewmembers should you engage in all the side quests. Many of these old friends are glorified cameos--especially the main characters introduced in Mass Effect 2--but each is given a weighty and deserved conclusion. There are also two or three new characters in your crew (more if you include your shuttle pilot, the optional embedded journalist, and the day one DLC character). These new characters are as deep and interesting as your returning colleagues, but they simply can't compete with the time you've spent with the likes of Garrus or Tali.
Ultimately, though, the story is more about bringing races and resources together to engage in the galaxy's last stand (and dealing with Cerberus) than it is in developing personal relationships with your crew. Fans who have been paying close attention will be rewarded by several references to seemingly forgotten events, such as the Bring Down the Sky DLC from the first game or finally coming face-to-face with Kai Leng, a character who previously only appeared in the books. In many ways, Mass Effect 3 exists just to wrap it all up and place a bow on top, but it does it in clever--and at times unexpected--ways.
Shepard's replacement at Cerberus
Having said that, the choppy inclusion of all these various plotlines isn't entirely cohesive. While each individual story is excellent, it starts to feel a little too convenient that every Mass Effect 2 character is somehow tangentally involved in what's going on and has an excuse for not joining your crew, or how all these various threads are coming to a head at exactly the same moment. Without spoiling too much, it seems odd (and forced) that the three biggest storylines--the Reaper invasion, the Krogan genophage, and the Quarian/Geth conflict--all climax in the same week. This is of course necessary for the narrative, but it doesn't feel like the writers put enough effort in connecting the dots to make it all logical.
I'm now going to devote two paragraphs to the ending, so SPOILER ALERT! If you don't want to know how it all ends, you might want to skip ahead.
So, if you've spent any amount of time on the Internet getting gamer opinions on Mass Effect 3, you've no doubt heard that the ending is so god-awful and terrible that it ruins the entire Mass Effect universe and should be reason enough to forsake BioWare forever and loudly decry any heretic who still thinks Mass Effect 3 is a good game. I do not share this opinion, so if you're here to read more bitching about the ending, just stop reading now, because I won't do it. Though I tend to have a moderate, see-both-sides-of-the-argument kind of personality, in this case, I am willing to say that I do not understand at all where these haters are coming from and that they are utterly and completely wrong. Those loudly bitching and moaning about the ending of Mass Effect 3 need to keep their fanboy expectations in check and learn to appreciate a good story when they fucking see it, pardon my french.
The overarching Mass Effect narrative has always been a single storyline, and I don't understand why anybody expected any different this time around. Sure, your choices and personality have an effect on how the story is told, but no matter what you do, it is always the same story; it's always the same destination with slight variations in the journey. I was surprised that the ending offered you any sort of choice at all--I expected that it would end with you defeating the Reapers and that would be it--so I don't see why a lack of variation on the three possible outcomes of that final choice is a problem (nor do I believe that the slight variations are meaningless; the conclusions are wildly different if you use an ounce of imagination). Sure, they could have done a better job showing you how your previous actions play into the final battle; sure, they could have made the endings a little more varied; and sure, it makes no sense that characters you had in your party during the final battle can be magically transferred to the Normandy before the end; but these complaints are incredibly minor in an ending that is, as I see it, a master stroke for the series. That's all I have to say on the subject, so if you want to bitch and moan some more, don't expect me to read your comments.
[STORY: 9.0 - It wraps up every dangling plot thread from the previous games, but in the rush to address them all, it sometimes comes across as a long string of conveniently disconnected vignettes instead of a cohesive story.]
Organizing your load-out is essential
Mass Effect 2 was a huge leap from the gameplay mechanics of the original Mass Effect. Many of the RPG elements were stripped in favor of more tightly designed action and gunplay. Mass Effect 3 brings back a few RPG mechanics, but on the whole, it isn't as big a leap. This isn't a bad thing, because it takes the best aspects of the previous games and finds a perfect sweet spot, while adding a few third-person action game staples (like a better cover system, ladder climbing, turrets, and seemless action cutscenes) that have been conspicuously absent in the past. It also trims many tedious aspects, like resource mining and hacking mini-games, which are missed by exactly no one.
The result is the most balanced and refined game in the series, by far. One particularly notable advancement is the way you choose your weapon load-out. Different weapons have different weights, and the more weight you take on, the slower your powers will recharge. This forces you to prioritize, to keep your weaponry light if you're going to focus on biotics or tech damage or to rely more heavily on your allies' powers if you want to rush in with a shotgun and assault rifle.
Weapons can also be upgraded and modded, much like they could in the original Mass Effect, but the system is far less confusing and tedious. Still, the system isn't perfect. For instance, you cannot compare the stats of weaponry you want to buy or upgrade to the stats of weapons you own, nor can you switch your weapon mods around mid-mission without using an all-too-rare workbench. The latter is a painfully arbitrary decision, especially since you can change your load-out whenever you pick up a new weapon.
You will learn to dread these things
While most of the trimming is welcome, there are a few minor trims that aren't. Mass Effect 3 features more side quests than ever before, and most of them involve fetching some artifact or resource. However, when you check your list in the pause menu, these quests no longer update as you progress through them, leaving you to guess which artifacts you have collected and which you still have to find.
There are a lot of little things like that I could nitpick, but there are even more tweaks I can highlight. Money is much harder to hoard; characters move around more; the Citadel feels more alive; Blasto 6 looks like the best movie ever; planetary scanning is quick and painless; the codex is more informative and detailed than ever before; your armor is more variable (and your casual outfits look more natural); leveling up is more frequent and rewarding; A.I. is better for both friends and foes; enemies are more varied; tactics serve you better than brute force; and much more. These positives definitely outweigh the negatives, which is why my nitpicks do not affect the final score.
Where Mass Effect 3 really shines is in its customability. This time around, you can not only change your difficulty on the fly, but you can switch to Story Mode--which downplays the action and RPG elements in favor of the narrative--to Action Mode--which automatically moves you through conversation trees so that you can focus more on the actiony parts of the game--or to RPG Mode, which is the traditional Mass Effect experience. This is the answer to those who like one aspect of the game but not another, while sacrificing nothing.
[GAMEPLAY: 10.0 - Despite a few tiny nitpicks, BioWare has refined each and every part of the Mass Effect formula to create the tightest and most rewarding Mass Effect experience to date.]
Hope you're not attached to your face
Right from the start, it is clear that the graphics and sound of Mass Effect 3 are an improvement over Mass Effect 2. Faces and movement are more nuanced, textures have higher resolutions, environments are more varied and detailed, ambient noise is more interesting, and weapon sounds are more satisfying. The musical themes are an appropriate mixture of old and new, and the voice acting is as top-notch as always.
Still, the game is not flawless. There are plenty of graphical hiccups--the occasional bad lip-sync, texture pop-in, or character facing the wrong way and spinning his head around like he's in The Exorcist--and dialogue can often overlap in ways that are obviously not deliberate (you can, for example, have two different conversations with a single character at the same time). While I didn't encounter any game-breaking glitches, I have heard that they are relatively common, especially in the PS3 version.
On top of that, my character, who has been with me since the first Mass Effect, had a face that couldn't be imported, and everything I did with him after beating Mass Effect 2 (namely, all the DLC) didn't transfer into Mass Effect 3, meaning I didn't get to see what happened to Kasumi, had to be re-introduced to the Project Overlord scientist, and had to hear how Liara dealt with the Shadow Broker without me. This is extremely disappointing, and it feels like something they should have dealt with before releasing the game.
On top of that, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the DLC being offered on day one. This is unforgiveable, especially since the DLC ("From Ashes") is awesome. I don't want to rehash my opinion of DLC, but putting a DLC addition out there on the first day is just the game distributers giving consumers the finger.
[PRESENTATION: 9.0 - The graphics, sound, and music are fantastic, but glitches and unfortunate marketing decisions force me to dock a point.]
This screen will never change for solo gamers
Yes, even BioWare, one of the last bastions of solo gamer bliss, has been forced to answer the siren song of multiplayer. Mass Effect 3 features a four-player co-op similar to the horde mode from Gears of War. The good news is that the developers didn't devote so much effort into it that they had to sacrifice time on the single-player campaign. In fact, the levels are all available in single-player as "N7" missions and there are no enemies in multiplayer that don't appear in the main story.
However, the multiplayer has a direct effect on the single-player experience, in that you can improve the "galactic readiness" of the main game by playing matches in multiplayer. If you are a strict solo gamer, therefore, you will be punished by a galactic readiness that never exceeds 50%, meaning you have to work harder to ensure you have enough resources to fight the Reapers.
And yes, there are multiplayer achievements. Granted, most of them do double duty, allowing solo gamers a chance to get them through alternate means, and this is something all games that have both single-player and multiplayer components should do. Unfortunately, there are still a handful of achievements that can only be won through multiplayer (such as an achievement to get a 100% galactic readiness rating), so the game must be punished in my final analysis.
[SOLO GAMER SCORE: 9.0 - Designers didn't sacrifice anything to include multiplayer, but by tying it to the single-player campaign, they are being slightly hostile to the solo gamer.]
SOLO GAME SCORE: 9
TOTAL SCORE: 9.3
Newcomers shouldn't start with this one, but fans should love the improvements and refinements of Commander Shepard's final chapter. It may not be perfect, but it's a hell of a ride.