It’s entirely possible that there’s really no way for a fan of Mass Effect – and I most definitely am – pull back from the series now that it’s over and be really and truly objective and neutral when it comes to rating the series. Personally, I think that’s true of just about any game, but BioWare’s cleverness with giving players choice, and letting those choices have impact (illusionary or not) on the game world, makes it even tougher. In a lot of ways, the game I play is very different, emotionally and thematically, to the game that anyone else plays.
How do you rate something like that? BioWare’s made it even more challenging by ending the game on such an epic note that it almost feels like it’s thumbing its nose at all those apparent choices. In all honesty, now that I’ve finished Mass Effect, good or bad, I’m going to be thinking about that ending – and my role in it – for some time to come.
That said, let’s see if we can find some fitting summation of this, the last of an amazing series of games.
Pathos, damn pathos
If the first game was a rip-roaring space opera adventure, and the second a grittier meditation on the sacrifices we make to get things done, it appears the third instalment is aiming for an altogether more elegiac sense of place, one that possibly doesn’t fit in with the overall arc of the game itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the game’s opening, where our hero, Shepard, must get off Earth after the Reapers cut through its defences like a hot dreadnought through butter. During the fight, Shep finds, and cannot save, a young child; we get that war is all hell, but the recurring motif of this kid through the game is probably the weakest part of Mass Effect 3. It’s also the first hint that BioWare might be trying to tell us something about choices, and our seeming lack of them.
It’s hard to go much deeper on that point without getting into serious spoiler territory, as the ending is so very tied up with that opening scene. It’s a handy framing device, but like the scenes that bookend Saving Private Ryan – which are similarly mawkish and unnecessary – they feel like they hinder more than help the game.
It’s a shame, too, because if you do ignore those moments of pathos, the game is easily one of the best RPGs – and dammit, it’s definitely more RPG than shooter, despite what BioWare says – you’ll play today, especially if you have been bringing your save games along from each previous title.
To X, or not to X...
Creating a game with a rich array of main objective quests and lots of side quests is always a challenge when you’re also trying to maintain a sense of pace and urgency in the ongoing plot. On the one hand, you want players to feel like they can go anywhere, do anything, in their own time, but on the other, you’ll also have a plot which is all about saving the world before the big bad chews it into crunchy chunks. Mass Effect 2 dealt deftly with the problem, by not letting you see the main plot until you’d gotten a certain way into the game, and then hammering you with consequences if you rushed in early – like having half your crew killed. Mass Effect 3 follows a similar one-two set-up; you’re out in the wide galaxy mustering allies for the big fight against the life-destroying reapers, but BioWare’s placed a trigger on the events that lead into the end-game. It’s pretty clear when that happens, too, and you can easily justify holding off on making your big attack if you think you need more time. It’s a testament to the writers’ skill that I rarely thought about the end-gaming in pure gaming terms; there’s an admirable level of deep immersion to be found all through the game, whether you’re playing politics with counsellors on The Citadel or blasting seven kinds of crap out of bug-eyed aliens.
Even better, BioWare’s introduced a handful of time sensitive missions into the game. Trust me, when your comms officer tells you that the Academy you had to go save from the Reapers has been over run, but hey, you had more important things to do and they were only students anyway, you’ll feel a kick to the gut. More importantly, it makes you feel, as your mission log steadily fills up, that your choices of when to attack that facility, or recover that artefact, or rescue those scientists, are all fraught with peril.
Under all of the running around, there’s a couple of important new mechanics to Mass Effect 3. You’re fighting the biggest war the galaxy has ever seen, and your success in getting allies onside is reflecting by your War Assets rating. Each faction, and the units they bring to the table, adds points to this score, reflecting just how big a fleet/army you have on hand. It’s actually very satisfying to see what units and squadrons you have on standby with each successful mission or negotiation. This score is further affected by the overall Galactic Readiness Rating, which is influenced by things like the tie-in iOS game infiltrator, and Mass Effect 3’s own co-up multiplayer (which is a lot of fun, by the way, but not something you’ll likely play much beyond finishing the game itself). This score is a percentage that modifies your War Assets. You can safely ignore it if you want, but then you’ll just have to work harder in the singleplayer. Overall, it’s actually a very elegant mechanic.