Mass Effect 3 is a cover-based third-person shooter pretending to be an RPG developed by Bioware and published by Electronic Arts. I suppose that somewhat off the cuff response kind of tips my Mass Effect 3 hand a little early, but if you think that's the only problem the game has, I envy your niavete. Reviewing it especially as later as we are now (in light of the new game announcement), this seems more like a postmortem than a review, but Mass Effect 3 was indeed quite a disappointing end to the series, if nothing else. With the announcement of a new game, however, it seems even that end wasn't a true end, so I thought it would be remiss of me not to finish the retrospective of the Mass Effect series I'd started. So without further ado, let's roll up our sleeves, because this is quite the autopsy that awaits.
The plot of Mass Effect 3 is quite hackneyed
Don't get me wrong, I'm quite aware that the plot in general of the Mass Effect series isn't exactly pushing many boundaries with regards to its tropes, but while Mass Effect and better, Mass Effect 2, managed at least a decently-paced and competently-told story if an archetypical one, this is where Bioware stumbles right out of the gate and into a cow pat. There's quite a few issues here, some with the story itself, some with it's design, and others with it's implementation in the game. Let's roll up our sleeves, shall we?
The first but perhaps most notable problem is in that implementation. A game and it's story that it is telling should work hand in hand, and in Mass Effect 3 they are in separate rooms, perhaps even separate post codes altogether. The game constantly stops the action to dump plot or exposition on you. I am in retrospect appreciative of the fact that while Mass Effect 2 was linear, the plot was always told through the unfolding action, and the loyalty missions being a key plot point aided that. In Mass Effect 3, you are constantly jerked out of the action to be shown the gore, so to speak. You're given constant "shocking moments" without the appropriate build-up that would invest you in these places, and peoples. Some might argue that the past two games would be that build-up, and they could have been, but they weren't. The most impact-full moment comes with an attack on the Citadel, because that has been established in the previous games. It's a place of safety, and indeed, a place in the previous games you thought you made sure from Reaper incursion, only for it to be attacked regardless. The moments on the other worlds, home-words of the Turians and Asari, for example, ring hollow and they do not move me - I have no connection to these place. They aren't anywhere I have been and seen. I haven't fought and bled for those places before. I haven't even been there. And while there is the possibility of the characters that Shepard knows that have been there being used to convey the impact second-hand, the character writing there rings hollow. Liara's voice actor in particular seems to be phoning it in, in that regard, her words ring without emotion, scripted and stilted. That's a running theme in much of the game, though some places are better than others of course.
Ah, the elephant in the room. Yeah, this is best exemplified by the sudden sequences the game dumps on you at certain intervals. It's quite jarring actually, and comes across as very poorly forced - you're treated to what are basically "nightmare" sequences where Shepard chases after a small child they saw die on Earth. There is a sequence very near the start of the game where you're trying to essentially escape Earth when it's attacked by the Reapers you find a small child in a vent. You have a two-sentence conversation with him and then later, when extracting via the Normandy, you see the kid's shuttle blown up. That's all of this child you see, I estimate it to be about two minutes. So in two minutes of interaction, we are supposed to believe that Shepard has a formed a deep emotional bond with someone that s/he didn't know beforehand and has no real reason to care about. I know that game writers don't generally really understand psychology of us fleshy meat-bags, and thus rely on trope, but this isn't just an unbelievable story point, this is an unbelievable story point the game shoves in your face with 2-10 minute unskippable sequences that serve no purpose. There's a lot of excuses made for it, to try to exonerate the reputation of Bioware as some sort of peerless storytellers, but I ain't buying, sorry. All of this is done with the most painful slow-motion walk animation ever done, dreary music, and it just screams over-wrought, there is a complete lack of subtlety here. And the fact that you're constantly forced to sit through it only makes it cringe-worthy and frustrating. Every time these sections came up I found myself groaning as the game took control away for ten minutes at a time to force-feed me this stilted and unbelievable pseudo-exposition.
There are games that do that feeling of surreality and divorced reality, feelings of guilt, and so forth, well. Silent Hill 2 is a classic example. Mass Effect 3 is not one of those games.
So a protip to game developers making cutscenes: you can't just put discount Inception music on something and film it in desaturated slow motion and call it arty. Doesn't work that way. You have to actually build up a reason to give a damn about the people you want us to feel emotional attachment to. 2 minutes of build up to 45 minutes plus of cutscenes is hardly enough. Heavy Rain had the same issue, which was ironic given its drawn out nature that was obviously meant to counteract that claim.
Mass Effect 3 robs the player of any agency
That's not to say that's the only example of that in game. There's plenty of times when you're basically forced to sit and listen to a lot of dialogue because it has dialogue interactions and therefore the game doesn't let you skip through it. If these interactions were meaningful choices with effects on the plot based on outcome - such as the crew conflicts in Mass Effect 1 and 2, then I could find this entirely fine, but so few of these dialogue trees actually have appreciable affects. The game is so on rails that it limits agency in that way, for fear of you diverting course in any way. In contrast to Mass Effect 2, which was very linear but let you run everyone into a suicide mission that became exactly that, Mass Effect 3 is basically forcing it's less than a handful of choices for the Endingtron 2000 regardless of how well you played, or what changes you made. The only variation at all is having enough good guy or bad guy points to choose the respective options. Everything else is complete faff. You get the same team mates regardless, the conflicts are resolved even in spite of the player bungling everything, and the only change that choosing between different factions as you are presented the choice of a couple times, is in which ships appear in the ending sequence to liberate Earth. Unlike Mass Effect 2's suicide mission, they don't change your ability or proficiency in facing thaty ending, either. The choices are literally meaningless.
The consistent choice you're given through the story essentially comes down to picking one force over the other, aiding one race at the cost of the other, but chances are high if you complete enough of the game to get past the minimum strength needed to launch the Earth assault - a milestone you'll pass before you are even given the option to launch the attack in every play-through I've done - then you're not going to notice the difference. It's a false agency. The choice has no impact, excepting who appears. And whom appears does not change the outcome of those battles. It is, in essence, game "fluff" - background flavour and nothing more. When the dialogue choice and that binary moral choice system have been the focus of so much of the game's mechanics, to the point they could be called the central mechanic with fair justification, then what you have is a third instalment whom betrays the essence of the original two.
I would describe Mass Effect 3 as a game of pay-offs, but it's pay-offs for things that happened in Mass Effect 1 and 2. You'll get some interesting story conclusions to many of the choices you made in Mass Effect 1 and 2, but the choices you make in 3 are basically meaningless. You can essentially play 1 or 2 as a game in and of itself as they have self-contained plots that work within their own context. Mass Effect 3 doesn't have that. It's plot won't make much sense to anyone that isn't already on for the ride, and you're definitely going to want to import your Commander Shepard from 1 and 2 onward onto 3, as the game played without an imported Shepard is very very threadbare on story points and the plot gets kind of tepid to be honest. This highlights the problem with the import function as well, as it has a very bad habit of making Shepard look not much like your original, and getting many of the plot points wrong. For example, I survived with more people on the suicide run from Mass Effect 2 than it said I did. It's a pain, in other words to get that import to work properly, but you want it to, because otherwise the game's story is a boring and pared-down thing.
The inputs are very clunky
and result in a lot of undue difficulty
The problem with Mass Effect 3 in this regard is everything is on a single set of buttons. "Get into cover", "sprint", "combat role", "jump over gaps" and more are all performed by the space bar. Want to get into cover? Well, if you're not in exactly the right spot, I hope you enjoy combat rolling in front of it. Likewise, when you are in cover, the game pretty much glues you to the cover sections, and it abuses the hell out of this by using a ton of splash explosives and grenades, the only threat of either is not being able to get out of the way at the time. Any game where the difficulty is in the controls is simply not technically-competent in that regard. There's a few exceptions where the controls are intentionally clumsy to create certain feelings, but Mass Effect 3 isn't a survival horror game, its a third-person cover shooter, and as with any cover shooter, the controls need to snappy, responsive, and intuitive. Mass Effect 3 might come across intuitive by means of having like, basically 10 buttons, but it's not really responsive enough nor snappy enough to be of proper use.
Control issues are compounded by the mess of a visual design and the unhelpfulness of the camera. The camera will often have you staring at a wall, or have Shepard obscuring the view of what you are shooting at when popping out from cover, and as you take damage, the visual "blood" effect basically reduces the field of view to something like 20 at its worst, while additionally blurring and desaturating the screen. It's, simply put, quite unpleasant, and gets in the way of the game. Between particle effect maelstroms (something Bioware's had a thing for since Dragon Age: Origins) and those effects, coupled with the controls, the fire-fights were messy, frenetic, and clumsy affairs. Whenever I died, it wasn't because the game was particularly difficult, it was because I was not able to see what was going on, or because the controls were not responsive and not doing what I wanted them too. There was many a death had simply because I was rolling by cover instead of gluing myself in it, which instantly makes me safe, to say nothing of the fact that if you got damaged enough that it applied the full blood effect, you might as well quick-load and save yourself the trouble, because you might as well be dead. Some of that is my own fault for playing on a higher difficulty setting, there is an easy mode, but the easy mode only makes you do more damage, it doesn't magically remove that obscurement or make the controls magically better, so I saw little point in lowering the setting.
The thing that one might naturally be thinking here is that perhaps you're just not using the controls skilfully, or that there is some "trick" to them - I know that was what I wondered at first. But when you pause the game to use a skill ... and then have to do that one or two more times before it actually gets used, despite you not doing anything and just being standing around or sitting in cover, well, that's on the game. It becomes especially frustrating when you're on your last sliver of health with dead team mates and you're trying to use the medi-gel to heal yourself and them, only to get offed by an errant bullet because you tried it two times while sucking your thumb in cover and it still didn't work. There is some legitimate blockage that happens - for instance if you're reloading or the like the game won't use a skill - but that's only most of the time. It doesn't even make sense when you think about it sometimes either. The beam weapon you get (with day 1 DLC I might add, more on that later) recharges and it's "reload" is venting overheated plasma, and yet you can be on the last second of that about 30s animation, if you get interrupted, you have to do the whole thing over again - and the flinching "pain" animations can interrupt it. The overall feeling there is that you are not in control, the game is, and if you're lucky, it might actually listen to you. Might.
A lack of variety characterises much of Mass Effect 3
The few controls are just the beginning there: there's less of everything compared to the previous games in Mass Effect. Less enemy variety - it's just Cerberus and the Reaper enemies now in the single-player - less weapon variety unless you get the DLC, less companions to take with you on missions, and less places to see. It's like a short scenic tour of all the prettiest places in the Mass Effect universe, no doubt as I mentioned earlier to inexpertly pluck at the heartstrings, and just as I banged on for some length, it doesn't really do much on that end. It's all very pretty, and I'll talk about that more later, but it's just set dressing. Unlike Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2, the setting of Mass Effect 3 and it's overarching plot is such that you never get to stop long enough to appreciate any of it, let alone explore it, and that tangible feeling of bigness the original had with it's bouncy MAKO and all is gone, replaced with a series of repetitive shooting galleries fighting against wave after wave of the same generic power armour Cerberus troops or cybernetic-monstrosity Reaper units.
Weapons are likewise lacking, and where you could simply purchase them, now you're mostly unlocking them on missions, and while this was somewhat the case in Mass Effect 2 as well, the mission unlocks were mostly reserved for specialist arms, whereby in Mass Effect 3 it's the primary method by which you unlock firearms. There really aren't many either: while the original had a wealth of guns and progressive levels for each, Mass Effect 3 has a scarce handful for each weapon class. When some of them just aren't that great compared to alternatives in the class, that makes the issue particularly noticeable.
The multi-player is where I had my fun in the game
Yeah, I know, the multi-player, in a story-based third-person shooter, pretending to be an RPG, right? The multi-player of Mass Effect 3 is really where I had the most fun here, though. While the gameplay is a single mode wave-survival affair there's enough depth of classes, class variants, and weapons to keep it interesting. I mention this because it stands in stark contrast to the single-player, where everything has had the pruning shears applied liberally. Each class has a handful of variants for different races and creeds - ie, Alliance humans, defector Cerberus troops, krogan, salarians, the geth, quarians, and so on. It makes me reminisce on how much more variety Mass Effect could have had if we were able to choose Shepard's race as well, in the single-player.
The lack of variety of maps does really dull the edge to some extent however, as there's only a handful or two of them available, some of them added by DLC though thankfully of the free variety. That said, the maps that were there, while familiar from the single-player, have been adapted quite well to serve as multi-player arenas, with a variety of levels, firing positions, and routes through the map, some of them optimal and others not. The balance is definitely there when it comes to that map design.
Multi-player builds greatly on the variety of available enemy types too - having many more than the stock single-player for the most part, which makes me wonder why we couldn't see more of them in the game. Perhaps they only appear on the highest difficulty, but given the game's poor control as is, I'm not very inclined to play it through to completion. That said, in the spirit of experimentation, I did try a few different missions in the single player for comparison, and didn't come across some of those new enemies, so I'd say it seems unlikely. Furthermore, those new enemy types are available on the multi-player game's easiest setting, whereas, yeah, I was not seeing them in the hardest.
Game-play in the multi-player itself is strictly co-operative play, but I really didn't mind this much, and enjoyed it quite a bit. There's room for an asynchronous "monster versus players" mode in the vein of Left 4 Dead, but that takes a lot of balancing acumen, and it seems fairly obvious that the multi-player was something of an after-thought. To it's credit, it's a singular experience, but a well-produced one for the most part. Unlocks keep things interesting, as do the class variety and synergies. Like many team games, they really come into their own when you have a good team, but I found myself having fun regardless. If you play maps on the lowest difficulty ("challenge") setting you can mostly get by simply "milling about smartly" as it were, though you'll still want to stay near enemies to bail them out of special grab attacks, and vice versa for when they happen to you.
The let-down in the multi-player game really comes in the form of it's technical implementation, as it's a fairly bog-standard, average match-making system. It works, but there's no dedicated servers, and no latency option controls to keep low-latency people from joining and thus slowing everyone else down as well. Additionally the only options to mute microphones comes at the start of the session, and unless you count setting microphone receive to a sound device that's disabled, there's no option to just turn them off either. I had more than one session where I was listening to someone's over-loud music or other background noise and I found it quite distracting. There's no real in-game friends or "team/clan" settings either, so while invitations to games are usually fairly snappy done through Origin there's no easy way to say, find an existing match your friends are playing and jump in.
That said, there isn't enough meat to the bones of the multi-player to say that it's worth the cost of admission alone - but if you are interested in team-based cooperative multi-player than there's probably enough here to keep you interested if you grab it on a sale. As of time of writing I still had no trouble getting into a game, something I can't say even of some games that have come since, so the community's still there as well. Though, as one might expect, it's a fairly mature community, so you may have some issues finding "noob" games to join to level.
Progression is basically unlocking new gear, characters, and weaponry, and while there is a micro-transaction store for it, it's kind of a waste to spend money on it; you can easily grind enough to get even the high-end packs with a few missions, and the purchases serve only to alleviate the grind for the terminally-impatient. As far as micro-transactions for items with appreciable game effects go, it's as inoffensive as they come, which is surprising perhaps, given Electronic Arts, but don't worry, they found other ways to nickel-and-dime you.
Even moreso than Mass Effect 2,
this game is rife with DLC, story-important ones at that
That's not to say that the DLC is bad, with the exception of that "shore leave" one which is fan-service up the wazoo, both Leviathan and From Ashes in particular were short but interesting DLCs and Leviathan actually adds a part of the game that isn't just talking or shooting, albeit in this case it's falls somewhat into the adventure game trap of "click things until the plot progresses". They're short but well-written and good additions to the story, but the problem here is two things - first of all, these are main-plot important points and you're not really going to understand some elements of the story without them, and secondly, if you add up all the DLC, which uses that silly Bioware Points stuff to make sure you're overspending essentially, you're more than doubling the cost of the game. It's disingenuous at best, and yeah, that's where the Electronic Arts habits kicked in, it seems.
A quick run-down of the DLC for those looking at the game:
Leviathan has you investigating an ancient artifact that killed a Reaper and without spoiling the plot, you certainly do that. It's actually some of the most interesting writing that Mass Effect 3 has to offer, in my opinion, with some decent story turns and a good mix of action, puzzle-solving, and dialogue, and neither seems to "get in the way" of the other, which is a problem the main story had in spades. If you could get any one of the DLC for the game, I'd recommend this one or the (in)famous From Ashes. It features a few new guns and mods, and a new war asset, as well as several new story areas.
From Ashes - ah, what can one say about From Ashes? This is the infamous day-one story-important DLC, and since it's been banged about for ages long before I got my hands on Mass Effect 3, let alone years now when I'm writing this review, I'll just spoil one point - it features a Prothean, and the quest to recover his stasis pod and reactivate him. Anyone who knows their Mass Effect would know how big a thing is to the central plot, and while the actual mission to get him is fairly short and straight-forward it's interesting while it lasts, but the Prothean himself remains in the squad for the rest of the game and has a lot of intriguing things to add. Worth getting, probably. Features a new squad mate, a new weapon, and a returning area from Mass Effect 1, though it's been redone, as well as a war asset.
Omega has you essentially aiding to recapture the Omega station from Mass Effect 2 from Cerberus forces. This is probably the one DLC that can be considered legitimate side-content - not necessary for the main story, but there's enough side-quest here to warrant a look. It also essentially adds the three infamous gangs back into the fray, and increases the variety of the game somewhat as a result, so it definitely adds to the game in that respect. Worth a look. Mostly adds new war assets in the end, but there's also some added areas to the Citadel to facilitate the plot.
Citadel aka the fan-service DLC - this one's mostly a miss unless you feel closing some loose ends with the otherwise non-appearing cast from ME1 and 2 is important to you, which is essentially the purpose of this DLC. Some new areas and mods. Probably a miss if that doesn't appeal to you.
As to the weapon DLCs, they certainly help with the variety of weapons problem the base game has without them, though I have the sneaking feeling that is precisely why the base game has a lack of variety, frankly, these are reoccurring weapons for the most part so they were likely cut for DLC. Likely worth it if the lack of weapon variety is a detractor for you.
Mass Effect 3's engine is fairly solid,
but woefully lacking in options and the like
Original iterations of both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 used an edited version of the Unreal 3 engine that had several technical problems for the edit, but Mass Effect 3's engine seems fairly solid. The game plays at a decent frames per second at pretty much any resolution (as it should being a console port), there's no real problems to report using widescreen monitors or multiple monitors, and I didn't encounter any real bugs at all, let alone significant ones.
As with the multi-player, the engine's problems aren't so much with the design but with the technical implementation. There's no options at all to speak of - gamma correction, vsync, shadows, and anti-aliasing, as well as windowed mode or full-screen mode. That's it. That's the breadth of the graphics options. Actually, ironically and notably, there's more options for sound settings in Mass Effect 3 than there is the graphics option, and that's rather odd given that usually all you need to do is use the default system device, add a few volume sliders, and subtitles, and you're good.
As to bugs, I've heard of the game doing some very strange things if you have an underpowered rig that doesn't play it at a minimum of 30 FPS, but I had no issues with frame-rate even when I intentionally tried to make it run sub-optimally for that reason, so I could neither confirm nor deny. Worth mentioning that I know from experience in Mass Effect 2 playing on my laptop, though, so I can certainly believe that if you have a bad framerate you'll probably have a bad time.
The real problem with Mass Effect 3 is what I call the Battlefield phenomenon, which is to say, its a decent engine and well-put-together, but it loves showering you in so many effects that it can be all but impossible to tell what's going on sometimes. This is especially the case anytime you're facing enemies with explosions or beam weapons as the effects for both are fairly over-wrought, not to mention the completely over-done "bloody screen so real" effect that the game plasters on when you get injured. In short, it's an engine fairly let down by its misuse.
While this is usual to console ports, the other mark against the engine is some really noticable bad texture quality in areas. While many games make an effort to hide the bad textures in places you probably won't see them, Mass Effect 3 really doesn't, unless they think I can unsee the textures of the cover I'm hiding against or my character's collar in certain outfits. It becomes quite an odd juxtaposition to see the high-quality face texture right against a collar that looks like it was stretched from a 128-pixel-square texture. Certainly not going to break the game, but for a game as recent as Mass Effect 3 is, it's not really excusable. There's some really bad seams in places, as well.
Art design is pretty solid,
but excepting a few new locales nothing you haven't seen
When the textures aren't detracting from it however, there's no denying the game looks quite good in it's design. There's some very obvious artistic flair to the design of the various places you go, each with their own unique look and feel to them, and while I may have quipped that the game seems to take you on a tour of all the most scenic places in the universe you hadn't yet been to, there's no denying that they are indeed scenic - the art design in many places is nothing short of gorgeous, at least until it gets curb-stomped for the obligatory pulling of heart-strings.