By the time I reached the end, Mass Effect 3 had secured the trilogy’s spot amongst my favorite science-fiction stories in any medium. This is the ME series’ Return of the Jedi, in that while the third part may be the weakest overall in story, that “weakness” is only relative to its stellar predecessors. It’s an action-loaded adventure with at least a few really tough calls to make, and a more than satisfactory conclusion to a memorable and well-told saga.
Again with the Reaping
Before I discuss the end, I should cover the beginning. If you’re looking for a believable reason for your Boy Scout paragon Commander Shepard to turn into a post-9/11 Jack Bauer-like renegade, the opening moments of ME3 are excellent motivation: a dramatic scene shows the Reaper fleet descending from the sky of an unprepared Earth like a swarm of giant, genocidal I-told-you-sos. An impressive display of planet-wrecking follows, and though the Earth of the 2180s is so futuristic that it’s barely recognizable as our home, ME3 goes to heavy-handed lengths to make sure the loss of human life is felt.
What comes next is a vast roleplaying action game that’s consistently visually impressive, narratively interesting, and challenging to play. It’s full of possibilities that depend on your circumstances, so your game will likely be different from mine. To get the baseline single-player ME3 experience, I didn’t touch the multiplayer until I finished, and I didn’t import a saved game or use the From the Ashes DLC. By default, Wrex and Kaidan died on Virmire, Shepard killed the rachni queen, and the council died in Sovereign’s attack on the Citadel. From ME2, only Mordin, Garrus, Tali, Miranda, and Jacob are left standing. (Tragically, Shepard never got any action in either game.) As a result, there are a bunch of parts I didn’t see, such as any missions to do with absent crewmembers — so already I want to play again with an imported ME2 save to see what else is out there.
But there’s at least one annoyance we’ll all have to deal with, one that’s apparent from the tutorial as Shepard escapes from Earth to round up reinforcements: run, the new dive-roll, take cover, jump over cover, and activate are all mapped to the same key (space bar by default). That, I predicted immediately, would not go well. Over the next 26 hours, at least half of which are solid third-person shooter action, I lost count of the times that Shepard rolled when I wanted him to take cover or pick something up. And in the heat of ME3′s much-tougher battles on normal difficulty, there’s a small margin for error.
An increase in difficulty is both welcome and appropriate, because while the first two ME games are about small skirmishes against the Reaper vanguard and often too easy, Mass Effect 3 is about full-scale war for survival. Even though the size of the fights themselves isn’t really significantly bigger than ME2′s shootouts, there’s an ambiance of war that makes them feel bigger. Particularly when operating on planets in the grip of a Reaper invasion, the ruined scenery, fighters flying overhead, sounds of distant explosions (and a leap up in the sound quality in general), and of course the gigantic Reapers themselves slowly striding across the horizon and sweeping the ground with death beams definitely make a strong impression. Additionally, impressive space battle cinematics do a great job of giving context to the ground action, and again give a Return of the Jedi-like vibe of multiple things going on at once), though they really made me want to play a space combat game that wasn’t there.
The Long War
Naturally combat does get a bit old by the end of a long playthrough — that’s kind of unavoidable considering that ME3 delivers roughly three times the play time of your average third-person shooter. It does a great job of delaying that inevitability as long as possible by varying the enemies between zombified Reaper troops and standard high-tech Cerberus soldiers, plus battles with synthetic geth and organic rachni mixed in. Especially when the Reapers bring in heavy Brutes and Banshees (extremely durable Reaperized asari with a pants-wetting habit of teleporting right up in my face), and Cerberus drops smoke grenades and brings in its heavy mechs and cloaking techno-ninjas, fights feel different.
Also making combat enjoyable is my absolute favorite weapon: the sleek, futuristic Scorpion pistol. With a satisfying pew! it fires blue golfball-sized sticky grenades that detonate a couple of seconds after impact, reducing whatever enemy they’re attached to a spray of chunky gore. I handed one to my pistol-capable companions (like Liara,) and enemies started hilariously popping, seemingly at random. It’s the only gun that really stood out to me as unique and interesting, though there are also several flavors of SMG, sniper rifle, assault rifle, and shotgun to pick from.
I’m not fond of the unnecessarily complicated and unintuitive weapon equipping and modding screens, but I do approve of what BioWare’s done with the new weight-based inventory system, and the way it encouraged me to pick guns carefully to avoid penalties for lugging too much stuff. I’m also very glad to see weapon mods return, particularly for the armor-piercing attachments that make Brutes and Cerberus mechs much easier to handle — I generally carried an AP-modded shotgun to handle them. It’s great how each mod changes the look of a gun — some are just a tweak to the colors, but others add a scope, barrel extension, or bayonet.
Now with Fewer Probes
Even better, I didn’t have to scrounge for minerals to pay for them. ME3 does away with the scanning minigame almost entirely — it’s still there for occasional artifact-location, but for the most part it’s thrown it in the pile of discarded diversions with the Mass Effect’s Mako driving and Frogger-style door-unlocking minigame, and the ME2 code-matching hacking game. Instead, you use the Normandy to send out sensor pings as you fly between missions looking for goodies. I’m told there’s some good stuff out to be found out there, but every single time I found something that wasn’t part of a sidequest, it was the dullest reward ME3 has to offer: a tank of gas for my ship. That killed my urge for exploration quickly.
Guns are complemented by useful castable abilities like the shield-destroying Overload, which are unlocked and upgraded as Shepard and companions level. There aren’t a lot of completely new ones for my Engineer-class Shepard, but each has three top-level upgrades that give the option of two mutually exclusive improvements. Since I was playing as an Engineer, I opted to upgrade my deployable turret and arm it with with freezing cryo-ammo and eventually a rocket launcher (as opposed to general firepower and durability upgrades). It became an extremely handy tool not just for drawing enemy fire, but for dishing out punishment as well.
Because companions level up regardless of whether you take them on missions or not, I got in the habit of cycling who went with me on missions on the regular in order to spend their accumulated upgrade points. After they were nicely specialized, I started swapping out those with more of a knack for taking down synthetics like geth and Cerberus turrets for my anti-organic specialists when going up against Reaper and rachni troops when the mission description clued me in to what I’d face.