Mass Effect 3 is all about the big payoff and no, we’re not talking about its controversial conclusion. Those who’re returning to BioWare’s sci-fi epic will have already invested many hours trawling the galaxy, zipping through mass relays, forming alliances with races from distant worlds and making difficult decisions that linger in the back of your mind as you ponder the repercussions. Before the game’s end you’ll see how the actions of your past panned out – some helping you in Earth’s time of need and others coming back to bite you in your shiny metal armoured backside. Regardless of the result, seeing these investments unfold through the course of Mass Effect 3 is always satisfying.
The Reapers have arrived, a race of ancient machines sent to fulfil the cycle that threatens to wipe out humanity, and they’ve landed in our own backyard. It’s up to a well-rested Commander Shepard to get back to old routines, taking the helm of the Normandy to cruise around the galaxy rallying friend and foe alike to return the favour to the towering machines tearing it up on Earth. BioWare’s sophomore effort, Mass Effect 2, also saw Shepard taking the time to recruit teammates and gain their loyalty. Now’s the time to see those favours come into play as you’re tasked with requesting the help of entire races who may have your back or, perhaps, take a little convincing, forcing you to settle long-time grudges.
You’ll also have to deal with Cerberus, the humanist group you worked with in Mass Effect 2, led by the Illusive Man, who holds a grudge against Shepard and won’t spare any chance to stand in the way of progress.
Returning commanders, meanwhile, will be able to import all of their progress from the series sequel, including any surviving companions and of course the decisions you’d previously made. New players will be able to build their characters from scratch deciding gender, face, and character class.
Those who’ve already invested time in the previous game — more so those who’ve found methods of experiencing the formative missions of the Microsoft-exclusive original — will notice the effort that’s gone into improving BioWare’s action/RPG hybrid. Missions are more action intensive than ever before and the combat has been tweaked effectively, to compliment the cherry-picked mechanics from popular third-person shooters such as improved cover, rolling, and a melee attack that sees Shepard whip out the old omni-tool to dish out lethal swiping moves.
Resurrected from the past is the ability to customise your weapons with items picked up during missions or purchased from vendors. You’ll be able to slap a scope on your sniper rifle that can highlight enemies through smoke, attachments that tighten your accuracy or increase the amount of bullets you unload in each round. Abilities, including the biotic skills tied to your choice of class, also offer a slightly deeper levelling system that eventually allows you to pick from two choices. There’s a lot more to Mass Effect 3’s tweaks and improvements that shape the unique blend of shooting and RPG elements, which are accessible whilst being deep enough to satisfy the time you invest into it.
Visually, Mass Effect 3 isn’t a considerable step up from last year’s PS3 port of Mass Effect 2. You’ll notice the added detail of an alien race’s unique looks, from the pale aura of an Asari’s skin to the thick-skinned Krogan, both examples that outshine some of the game’s rougher character animations. Where Mass Effect 3 really ups its game is in scale: in story-focused missions you’ll visit planets where the horizon stretches for miles, while some locations have multiple battlefields as you inch closer to the conflict visible in the distance. It’s all underpinned by Clint Mansell’s superb soundtrack that adds an extra dimension to every shootout and cinematic. Voice acting remains solid throughout, with some characters delivering powerful performances in the more emotional scenes, while almost everyone aboard the Citadel will have something to say to Shepard as he passes by.
There are a couple of technical hitches along the way – some crew disappear during cut-scenes and the frame rate can suffer the occasional chug – but the overall effort on BioWare’s part to create a believable world is as strong as ever. Take for example the Citadel, a space station teeming with people going about their lives under the fear of the war back home. In the hospital you’ll find suffering patients and troubled doctors dealing with overwhelming demand. Visit the refugee camps to see races gather in their slums whilst, tucked away in a corner, citizens weep for their loved ones lost to the war. Or visit Purgatory — a nightclub where soldiers drink their worries away — and watch the men dancing, as one companion will point out, as if they know this may be their last chance.
Visiting the Citadel and checking up on the Normandy’s crew between objectives becomes routine, as you scour every area on the off chance that you’ll overhear a conversation that will lead you to a new mission or the opportunity to run into one of your former companions. It’s easy to become overwhelmed as each visit will gain you a laundry list of jobs to do, but Mass Effect 3 isn’t a game to be rushed through at breakneck speed.
You’ll want to leave no stone unturned in your efforts to ensure the game’s conclusion is a successful one. Collecting War Assets that decide your readiness for the game’s finale will demand that outside of priority missions you complete side quests and scour the planets to recover items, for which you’ll soon find an owner on the Citadel.
Those mad enough to seek a shortcut to this labouring process can hop into the multiplayer, a horde mode affair in which you’re allowed to build a recruit to level up by fending off waves of Reapers and Cerberus Troops across various theatres of war. Locations are plucked directly from the game’s side missions but secondary objectives, from hacking terminals and holding certain areas of the map, keep players from staying in one position.
It’s an opportunity to get to grips with different classes and explore the full extent of the combat systems, while practicing new tactics on the vastly improved AI. Enemies won’t just cower in one spot but will move to better vantage points, while others set up barriers and turrets to keep you at bay. It’s a nice extra to an already meaty main course and an optional alternative for speeding up your readiness in Shepard’s campaign, but it’s the main story that will keep players suitably hooked.
Easily the most story-intensive chapter in the trilogy, Mass Effect 3 grabs you from the moment the Reapers invade Earth and keeps you hooked in every scene. The journey is filled with peaks and troughs — with the former outweighing the latter — and it never fails to keep you on your toes, picking your words carefully and watching your trigger finger when a Paragon and Renegade action pops up onscreen.
The sheer amount of effort that’s been poured into each decision means you won’t see every possible outcome in a single 30-plus hour playthrough, giving it that water cooler effect as you quiz friends and colleagues on how they dealt with the game’s tough choices, and how their experiences unfolded differently. It’s ambitious in a way that not many games can claim to be: whether or not the ending brings your journey to a satisfying conclusion it’s the road you took to get there, and the memories along the way, that will linger past the end credits.
BioWare took the mammoth task before it and improved on Mass Effect 2 in every way, while maintaining a solid effort throughout. Its intricate story-telling and choice systems are something that’ll come to define the series as one of the greatest stories ever told in video games, while its mix of gunplay and RPG elements are delivered in perfect measures. Mass Effect 3 is a fitting finale to one of gaming’s most ambitious undertakings, and one whose influence is likely to stretch far beyond the reaches of this generation.