My world was crumbling.
Last Monday, tragedy struck. My review copy of Mass Effect 3 finally arrived (a whole day early, hence the lateness of this review), which should have been cause for rejoicing... but they sent me the PS3 version. Like most Mass Effect veterans I had played through the original when it hit the Xbox 360 in 2007. Ports of the original and sequel had later been released for the PC and PS3, of course - arguably superior ones - but I already had lived through the experience with Commander Shepard. He was MY Shepard - unlike any other one in existence, both in looks and in deeds, but now I was forced to play with an impostor, some Shepard from an alternate universe. I looked at the game in my hands with an exquisite mixture of pleasure and disappointment.
This may sound a little much, but if you’d sunk nearly a hundred hours into two games, you’d understand. For one of the few times in gaming history your input in the story really felt like it mattered, across multiple games, no less. Characters who died in the first wouldn’t show up again, decisions you made would come back to haunt you, people would remember you for what kind of person you were. My experience was tailor-made to fit my choices, and good or bad they were part of my experience.
I briefly debated waiting till the game’s midnight release and picking up the 360 version, but I broke down and popped the game in. I’m only human, after all, and I soon forgot all my qualms. Since I was starting a brand-new character, picking a few choices about his or her past from a list, I decided to go with the Female Shepard. Somewhat affectionately known as “Femshep," gamers have been talking for years about how much voice actor Jennifer Hale brings to the role. It’s true - she’s infinitely more nuanced, believable and likeable than the flat line readings of the male Shepard, almost making me wish I had started with her from the beginning. (Honestly, there’s no comparison between the two voice actors - pick a female character if you’re just starting the game out.)
But - all my team members, whom I had spent so long trying to save? Some were dead. The DLC characters never showed up at all. Tali pretended like she didn’t know me, like we hadn’t had a connection that was more than just friendship. The council, which I had let die in my one major renegade action in the first game, was still alive. Wrex was still dead.
It might not have been my story, but it was still an epic one. At the end of Mass Effect 2 you’ve managed to stop the Collectors (an ancient insectoid race of Aliens that were corrupted by the Reapers and turned into slaves) from enslaving humanity, but things have gotten exponentially worse. You start the third game to witness a full-on Reaper invasion of Earth, and you quickly escape from the planet to regroup your forces and come back for the survivors in a massive battle. Not much is known about the Reapers besides the fact that they apparently show up every fifty thousand years to wipe the universe of organic life, and they’re nearly unstoppable- their technology simply far beyond anyone else’s. You would think this would be the thing to unite the many races across the universe but there are some deep-rooted hatreds and mistrusts you’ve got to cut through. You, the hero or renegade of the story.
Epic really is the key word here - you’ve never felt so conflicted over decisions in a game before, mostly because by this time you know these characters better than any other in any other game. You want to get everyone’s help and please your friends but it’s nearly impossible - politics and old grudges mean that even in the face of extermination everyone’s still looking out for themselves. And all the time Earth is in the back of your head, slowly getting destroyed.
You’ll race around trying to get as much help as possible and fight back, exploring many worlds and living through thrilling mission after thrilling mission, all of it leading to one of the greatest climaxes I’ve had the privilege of playing through. There are multiple endings to the game depending on your choices.
Mass Effect 3 is not as big a step over Mass Effect 2 as that one was over the original, but then again there wasn’t as much to improve this time around. The first game was decent but flawed, filled with mindless side missions and interminable elevator rides (seriously). The second streamlined everything nearly to perfection.
The one big improvement however is the combat. Although the movement can still be a tad stilted it’s a lot less clunky, now allowing you to dive from cover as well as roll around to evade attacks. The melee system has been reworked and you've got an upgraded omni-tool attached to your wrist which can be charged up to a brutal one-hit kill by holding down the button. Even better is the larger variety of enemies and environments. Shielded and larger foes mean that you need to use the territory (and your teammates) to your advantage, trying to get above enemies and flank them the best you can. The 360 version allows you to bark commands at your teammates using Kinect but as always you can pause the game and give them commands. While the game still features the dialogue options and conversations that made the series so compelling, much more focuses on action sequences this time. You won’t mind it at all- you’ll actually look forward to them because they simply never get old.
You’ll find this out for yourself in the multiplayer mode. Multiplayer for such a story-driven single player game sounded like an awful idea, but it’s actually pretty incredible. Thankfully they didn’t go with competitive matches, which wouldn’t have fit at all. No, these are four-player co-op matches, a combination of Horde mode from Gears of War combined with Left 4 Dead’s reliance on your team members. There’s even a bit of a collectible card game thrown into it as well. By playing matches you earn credits that can be used to buy packs of weapons. The more expensive ones come with at least one Uncommon or Rare item in the pack, possibly a strong weapon you’ve been waiting for. (If you’d rather not play so much you also have the option of paying real cash money for them, a reasonable one or two bucks.) The randomness has turned some gamers off but I personally think it’s brilliant - it keeps you playing over and over hoping you’ll get a new rifle or shotgun or character in the next pack.
In each match you’re given a number of waves of enemies to survive, sometimes with a random objective like assassinating a VIP or hacking a computer terminal. The objectives mean that you never just sit and camp out in one area, and you’re given so many tough enemies to face that if you don’t help out your friends you will all die horribly. Just wait till you see a Vanguard go zooming off to face a pack of enemies and get torn apart...
You also have a wide variety of characters to play with and level up. Every race has unique powers - you can find out what it's like to play as Krogans! Drell! Turians! - and each has three powers they can use. You can level each one up to 20, which will take an incredibly long time. Which is good, because I can see playing this forever, even though there are only 6 maps to play and three types of enemies to face (Cerberus, Geth, and Locust). More map packs are sure to come, of course, but the game is so incredibly thrilling as it is that the replayability is off the charts.
Now? I’m probably going to pick up the 360 version of the game just so I can see what happened to my Shepard. I’m definitely going to do that, in fact- and I’ve got no qualms about it. I can’t think of another game I’d do that for.
Picking up Mass Effect 3 is a no-brainer for anyone who’s played the first two, but for newcomers I’d recommend jumping in at the second installment. You won't miss much from the first, which is frankly hard to go back to after the improvements to the second, but you really need to live with these characters for a while to fully appreciate what you put them through in this game.
I love that on Badass Digest I don’t have to give arbitrary ratings in a review. I never liked the idea of assigning a number or a letter to a game or film, but Mass Effect 3 would be a 10 out of 10, an A+, five stars, a Must Buy. It’s by far the most satisfying experience I’ve had gaming in a long, long time.