It’s been just over four years since Commander Shepard became a household name, at least in my household. In that time I’ve turned away from my initial skepticism and fully embraced the Mass Effect universe, let’s just say I’ve become invested. When I discuss the series — something that happens a lot — it’s always my Shepard that I harp on about.
I honestly don’t care what happened to the countless Shepard clones that you lot play, I care about Augustus Shepard, best buddy to Garrus Vakarian and Urdnot Wrex, lover of Liara, savior of the Citadel and even the Rachni; a fine chap who just wants to save everyone even if he has to throw his life away to do so. He might sound a lot like your Shepard, but he’s not yours. So bugger off.
With Mass Effect 3, BioWare hasn’t just ended a massively popular video game trilogy, they’ve ended the story of a character I’ve been shaping for years. That’s a big deal, which should be pretty clear from all the drama that has surrounded the game since it launched. It’s hard to say goodbye, but last night I managed it. I still feel a bit sad.
The finale of this space opera trilogy sets the tone for the entire game right out of the gate. Shepard has been grounded for six months after causing the deaths of countless Batarians during Mass Effect 2’s final piece of DLC, Arrival. His efforts to halt the Reaper invasion gave the galaxy six months to prepare, they squandered it and now the Reapers are here. By here I mean Earth. Mere minutes into the game you’re flung into a fight you cannot win. Actually, to call it a fight would be disingenuous; you are running for your life.
The rest of the game takes Shepard on a desperate journey to bring the squabbling races together to save Earth, and more importantly, save the galaxy. The Reapers aren’t the only threat, either. Enemy turned ally, Cerberus, is back. They’re your enemy again, but this time they’re a bit more pesky. This dramatic tale of loss, sacrifice and knocking lots of heads (and boots) can be a tad exhausting and it’s told with the subtlety of a Krogan joke. Good thing Krogans are marvelous.
The impact of the Reapers can be seen everywhere. All of the Normandy’s crew has suffered at the hands of Harbinger and its chums, every world you visit is on the brink of destruction and everywhere you go you overhear the tragic tales of the survivors. There’s no doubt about it, unless you save the day everyone is royally buggered.
With every victory another world falls and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s surprisingly hard to accept. It seems like everyone is making out that Shepard is more than just a man, but at the same time they are telling him not to shoulder all of the galaxy’s burdens. Your Shepard might have been able to brush it off, but Augustus Shepard became exhausted and conflicted, even if he rose to the challenge whenever it counted. All you can do is rush to another mission and hope that half of the galaxy hasn’t been conquered while you’re shooting swarms of merciless foes.
As always, the motley crew of the Normandy are there to help you kick synthetic ass, almost all of them are old hats at this by now. There are a lot of surprising omissions to your crew roster, however. While every one of your friends (or in the case of a couple, frienemies) makes an appearance as long as you didn’t get them killed in the previous games, not all of them will be joining you. It would have been a bit much to expect BioWare to bring both previous games’ companions back to the Normandy, but their absence was felt.
Seeing steroid abusing newcomer, Lt. James, in the crew select screen for every mission was a bit like a slap in the face. Freddy Prinze Jr. actually does a stand up job as the voice of James, but he’s just such a mundane character compared to those that I already gave a shit about, I would have happily thrown him out the airlock just to get Kasumi or Wrex on my squad. Thankfully, both of them still play their part along with pretty much every single living character you’ve ever come across. Yes, even Conrad Verner.
Barely a mission goes by without a familiar face making an appearance, which does make things feel a bit formulaic, but my attachment to these characters made it completely worthwhile. This might be the story of Shepard, but everyone deserves an ending. There’s a liberal amount of nods to the previous games, with characters cracking jokes about their comrades idiosyncrasies such as Garrus’ love of calibrating weapons systems and a plethora of lines that to the forgetful or newly initiated would be throwaway bits of dialogue, but to me brought back fond memories.
With so much on the line, it’s not a surprise that BioWare turned the pacing up to 11. In the other games the Normandy doubled as an exploration vessel, scanning every bloody planet for minerals and whatnot and taking quick trips to the surface for fun and games. There’s no time for such frivolous gallivanting in Mass Effect 3, though. Upon entering a new system the Normandy scans the whole thing, not just individual planets. Most systems have a few points of interest and they’ll show up on the map if you scan in the right area. Only then can you scan an actual planet, though it’s not for eezo or ore, you’re scanning for war assets, like ships or squads.
You can’t scan these systems at a leisurely pace, either. As the game goes on more and more systems fall to the Reapers. While you can still visit these places, activating your sensors too many times will alert the Reapers to your presence. When they show up, it’s time to high tail it out of there.
Tourist excursions to alien worlds are a thing of the past, too. Shepard visits warzones now, not holiday destinations or uncharted planets. I must admit I really did miss the exploration, I even missed the Mako. But I imagine I would have felt even worse hopping about in my buggy as every civilisation was turned to dust. The Citadel and the Normandy are your only mission hubs now, the former providing lots of conversations which you can spy on and thus gain more objectives to help you build up your forces, while the latter is your command centre.
There’s plenty of new locations to visit, of course, but they are usually on fire and drowning in corpses. BioWare really went all out on the set pieces this time. Seeing Reapers towering over skyscrapers and burning everything in sight to a crisp is dreadful to behold. Even though you know you can defeat them — because that’s the goal of the series, after all — it’s hard to imagine how.
Shepard and company are not without a significant arsenal, however. After the incredibly limited amount of gear in Mass Effect 2, it warmed my heart to have so many options when it came to equipping my heroic death machine. There’s a mind boggling array of weapons, each with five increasingly powerful versions, all of which can contain two mods to further customise your loadout.
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to flashy armour, as well. On top of the numerous armour parts which you can mix and match, the preorder bonus armour from the previous game are also available for purchase on the Citadel. I cannot express how happy I was to discover that BioWare had included an option which removed helmets during dialogue sequences and cutscenes. I pretty much refused to wear the armour sets and full helmets before, I know this is a series about sacrifice, but I had to draw the line somewhere.
It’s a good thing that you’re provided with so much gear, because this is the most action packed and combat focused game in the series, unsurprisingly. Fights are a lot faster than before, with enemies hiding a lot less, but it’s still wave after wave of rather dull encounters for the most part. Reaper and Cerberus forces are varied, with each unit type having unique abilities that often tie into each other, but the AI is pretty poor and you’re simply thrust from one battle to the next with little variation. Regardless, it’s a tight and polished shooter, if a boring one.
Talking of boring, it’s time to bring up the multiplayer aspect. Mass Effect 3’s online co-op is nothing more than a cynical attempt to cash in on the popularity of a whole bunch of online shooters that do it a lot better. Had it been a completely disparate feature it would simply have been bad. But someone at BioWare had the bright idea to not only make your multiplayer actions tie into the single player campaign, but to also encourage you to actually spend money on upgrading your soulless online avatar.
There’s been a lot of confusion as to how the multiplayer actually ties into the game proper. Indeed, even some of my fellow reviewers appear to be baffled by it. It actually sounds a lot more complicated than it is. As you play through the meat of the game, you will build up your Effective Military Strength. This happens by gathering allies and helping lots of useless individuals.
To achieve the most favourable ending you need to have a high EMS (if you want to know the figure, ask google, this ain’t a bloody walkthrough). It’s actually extremely easy to get the necessary amount. Unfortunately, that figure is then multiplied by your Galactic Readiness percentage. It starts at 50% and never changes if you only play through the campaign. So your EMS is halved, no matter what you do as Shepard. The only way to increase this number is by taking the time to stop playing the wonderful game you’ve been enjoying and jump into a repetitive online match. Apparently it’s actually possible to ignore the multiplayer entirely if you’ve imported your Shepard fromMass Effect and Mass Effect 2, but as someone who did that and still had to play online, I can say that’s not always the case.
Dreary online content isn’t enough to mar the overall experience, though. I had forty hours to say goodbye to some fantastic characters that I’d become attached to over the course of four years. I got to see the fruits of my many labours have a real impact on my game, even if they might seem arbitrary when stripped of their context and distanced from the reasoning behind me making these choices.
Before I started playing Mass Effect 3, I had planned on playing it twice, as I have a renegade Shepard waiting in the wings. I’m not certain I’ll go through it all a second time now, not because I didn’t love it the first time around, but because I fear it might somehow lessen the impact of this dramatic finale. So this might really be goodbye.
I’m still sad.