Wow. Mass Effect 3 is, as far as we can remember, the best third instalment of anything - movie, game, TV series, anything. Return of the Jedi? Nope. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King? Get out of here. Big Mommas: Like Father Like Son? You seriously need help.
And, as well as being the best of the Mass Effect trilogy, it’s also the best in a triumvirate of incredible role-playing games to feature in the past few months. There’s no doubting that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a stunning, deep and involving game. And we have a massive soft spot for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which we’ve been playing almost exclusively for the past few weeks. But, Mass Effect 3 is quite literally on a different planet.
The game other games want to be
It is, in many respects, what Heavy Rain wanted to be. It’s a rich, thrilling and satisfying movie, with a believable cast and plotlines that will have you pumped full of adrenaline at points and sobbing into a hanky in others. Yet, Mass Effect 3 has what Heavy Rain forgot to implement: gameplay, oozing from every pore.
In fact, there’s so much you have to do in ME3, you can feel a little intimidated at first, even if you mastered its closest cousin, Mass Effect 2. But, after a settling in period, you’ll appreciate every deep layer of interaction. No other game we’ve encountered makes you feel so much in control of your and the universe’s destinies.
But first, a history lesson: In storyline terms, the first Mass Effect game was really about a new universe of races and cultures, while introducing a cast of characters that even today impact on the trilogy’s conclusion. It also introduced the Reapers, the main enemies throughout all three episodes and an ancient race hellbent on the destruction of all sapient life. In that particular episode, however, only one Reaper was fought; Sovereign.
Mass Effect 2 was a massive evolutionary leap for the series, in both graphical and gameplay terms, combat especially. It too featured an enemy helping the Reapers to complete their ultimate plan, the Collectors.
Now though, for this conclusion to a trilogy that’s taken six years to complete, the stakes are much higher. The Reapers have finally arrived, and the entire opening sequence on Earth which throws you into their first full-scale, devastating invasion, is superbly indicative of what is to come. This time it’s full out war and there will be casualties!
So, for the main part, Commander Shepherd (your character) must travel the universe, uniting the multiple races in an effort to combat a common enemy, or all will become extinct. And, in the meantime, face down old employer Cerebrus, who’s also after the Reapers for a very different reason.
It’s a sound footing for a plot and, although it deviates a few times, everything is ultimately intertwined. Plus, without giving away any spoilers, it allows Bioware to tug on your heartstrings like never before.
To be honest, the plot and the mission structure feel more linear than before. There’s a sense of having to do things in the right order to reach a predetermined destination. However, as with all Bioware games, it’s so well written that a) you don’t care, and b) there are so many alternative options and story paths that, while you never see them the first time around, you know that there’s plenty of replay value. So, while it seems linear, more often than not you’re actually the one pulling the strings.
Indeed, that can also be true of the entire trilogy. At the beginning of Mass Effect 3, like with its immediate predecessor, you are asked if you want to import your saved character from the former game. If you do, many of the decisions you took are carried over and seamlessly intertwined into the game’s backstory. Did you have a romance with one of your former crewmates? If so, they will remember and it will underline your relationship with them this time around.
This is even more obvious with how you may have ended Mass Effect 2. Your actions during that episode’s finale will have a direct effect on much of ME3’s beginning. We won’t go into details in order to preserve your enjoyment of the older title if you haven’t played it yet, but needless to say, it all helps make the latest instalment feel very much part of a larger canon of work.
Of course, you don’t have to import your previous characters at all, and Bioware is keen to emphasise that Mass Effect 3 is as easy to launch into and as rewarding for players who are new to the franchise. However, we’d advise that you at least give ME2 a try, if only because it too is an amazing game.
Like the first sequel, this latest addition to the franchise makes levelling up and character progression as simple as possible, yet still allows a lot of room for customisation. There are six classes to choose from, each with its own unique ability sets and powers, but you shouldn’t expect the number-crunching, stat-based RPG elements of games like Skyrim and Bioware’s own Baldur’s Gate. Instead, when levelling up, you get points to spend on your powers, with every other statistic being hidden and handled automatically.
However, unlike Mass Effect 2, powers can now branch out, with different effects being offered as options. And it is the handling of these powers that can become vital during combat.
The action sequences, you see, are the best yet of the trilogy. They often take place on massive, sprawling landscapes, with numerous enemies of different types and bosses with enough artificial intelligence to learn your strategies and adapt to make things a bit harder. Yes, the main focus of a fight involves shooting and commanding from cover, like before, but things to duck behind are less obvious, and the enemy is eager to try to flank you.
Thankfully, you always have two comrades with you on missions - of your choosing among those available - and you can, in Brothers at Arms style, bark orders at them to flank, cover or fight like whirling dervishes. Unfortunately, combat can be so frenetic at times that calling up a power on the menu wheel, switching weapon or commanding a colleague can get in the way, sometimes with you having to pause action and therefore bring you out of the experience. It’s ok, this isn’t Gears of War, after all, but there could be a better way, surely?
And there is, because this is where the Kinect comes in, if you own one. At first, we were unsure about the Kinect voice recognition features implemented throughout Mass Effect 3. For example, we’re still not overly comfortable vocally responding during on-screen conversations. If you’re on your own, you feel a bit nuts, and if in company, prepare yourself for a “what did you say?” or twenty.
But it does really help during the action elements of the game. As powers and, importantly, first aid and health restoration are on a triggered wheel, you have to press a button, then find the right power and select it - all while the action is paused. You can assign each to a joypad button, but there are far more abilities than buttons on offer. Instead, with a Kinect, you can just yell “first aid” and bingo, your health is restored.
The same is true with all the different powers, commanding the non-player characters and weapon management. You can even open doors, pick up objects and perform actions using just your voice. It may still feel silly at times, constantly yelling at the screen, but we do that during X-Factor anyway, and nobody bats an eyelid then.
The other major addition this time around is multiplayer. It’s limited, featuring just co-operative gameplay much like Gears of War’s Horde mode where progressively more intense waves of enemies come at you, but it’s fun. And while the game won’t sell on the back of it, it adds another level of replay value.
Mass Effect 3 may be a more streamlined RPG than Bioware has offered before, but it is no less involving as anything the studio has previously developed. It is sumptuous in its looks, with a far darker undertone to locales and scenery, matching its thematic presentation, and its cut scenes and real-time game rendering are almost always neatly matched.
There is the occasional graphical glitch, and characters' eyes can sometimes wander in an unnatural way during conversation, but they serve as small reminders that this is, in fact, a game and not a CGI movie. And one on the current generation of consoles not the next.
Mission structure is clever, and almost always surprising with what it asks of the player. Many RPGs, Skyrim included, can feel like the same old trudge through the same old dungeon with the same old goal, yet Mass Effect 3’s quests and side missions more than often feel fresh and interesting. Many of them, in fact, even bring back a few old faces as suitable reward.
But the most impressive element of this conclusive and most splendid chapter of a quite stunning trilogy is that, like the best of literature, film, theatre or art, it will stay with you long after the final curtain is drawn.