Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mass Effect 3 review

What do you consider the greatest game you've ever played? When this timeless question is asked, well-deserving titles like the original Super Mario Bros., Half-Life and The Legend of Zelda are often mentioned. It then, of course, sparks a perpetual debate about what sort of prerequisites must be met to be considered among gaming's most elite. However, sometimes an anomaly approaches with substance and quality that are simply unmatched in virtually every category of contemporary gaming. Sometimes a game just needs to be experienced to be fully understood and appreciated. That's the kind of game BioWare has delivered with Mass Effect 3.

A few years ago, when Mass Effect 2 hit store shelves, I was so impressed with it that I didn't think it'd be possible to outshine its incredible, refined mechanics - I was wrong. From start to finish, ME3 is an absolutely captivating tale about love, loss, hope and hate. The decisions you've made, the people you've met, everything you've accomplished in the previous games comes full-circle and there's no turning back now. I know it sounds like I'm blowing ME3 up here, and that's because I am.

Wrong way pal!

As you've come to expect, the strongest point in the series is located within the narrative. Having been fully invested since the very first game, I can say that BioWare's uncanny skill at weaving an intricate story cannot be commended enough. Ostensibly, ME3 is about an alien force who wants to eradicate the galaxy because they can, but it's far more than something so seemingly bland. ME3's situations, dialogue and personality behind every character is what makes every drop of interaction so meaningful as these scenarios expand the story itself. What do the Reapers want? Why do they perform this 'cycle' every 50,000 years? The conclusion is shocking, but do yourself a favour, if you haven't played any previous Mass Effect games - don't start here.

One of the key points BioWare has made about ME3 is the major decisions you've made in the past. The good news is that these choices are a huge factor and definitely influence the way your game will play. For instance, if you're unfortunate enough to have certain characters die off from the first game, you'll miss some monumental cut-scenes and classic dialogue that relates directly to the central plot. More impressive though, is how minor characters and unimportant people you interact with influence your surroundings. On more than one occasion I found myself speaking to someone I helped during a routine mission in the previous games. Even your teammates name drop characters, giving the game a much more dynamic feel.

Speaking of being dynamic, ME3 sports the best cut-scenes I've ever witnessed. Characters move around the rooms they're in, commit to different facial animations, look around and touch objects, it's practically like watching a movie. The game also brings back the excellent dialogue interruptions and, as usual, they're always fun to perform. Although, the thing I'm most appreciative of definitely has to be the humour buried within such a dire narrative. It's largely in part to Garrus and EDI, but there's some other characters who said and/or did various things that had me laughing throughout the game's duration. ME3 is the new gold-standard for creative and intelligent cut-scenes.

Different ammo types can get you the advantage. Unless you get rocketed.

The jump from Mass Effect to ME2's combat system was huge, and in a lot of ways the jump is also quite large into ME3. The same systems are largely intact, but the combat in general has been tuned to the point of perfection. Headshots are now possible, cover is no longer a chore to navigate and a brand new physics engine has been instituted, making it incredibly satisfying when ending your adversaries' lives. The guns are also fun to use and feel great, letting a variety of superb sounds escape when fanning the trigger. Playing as an Adept, I didn't use too many weapons as my biotics were my primary tool of chaos, but even they created some wondrous, satisfying explosions. Melee combat has also been tweaked and depending on your class you'll be able to deploy an Omni-Blade or just straight up channel your biotic energy into some kind of super-punch. It's pretty awesome.

In direct relation to the gunplay, BioWare has heard the call for more customisation ala the original ME. Unlike ME2 which literally had just a handful of weapons, ME3 employs a long list of well over 30 unique guns. While I thought they'd all be similar in a way, I took the time to fire each one and they most certainly are all one of a kind. The cool thing about this, besides the variety, is that now any class can use any weapon without restriction. Want to be a shotgun-wielding Adept with a backup sniper rifle? Go for it. Then again, the new weight system might have you hold back some of your crazy ideas.

The weight system is pretty simple, but adds some extra depth to certain classes. To put it simply, the more guns you bring to battle, the higher your cooldowns for your abilities will be. As an Adept, I'd switch my weapons around just for an occasional change, but I usually rocked a heavy pistol of some sort. By only carrying this, along with my upgrades, my power cooldowns reached the bonus cap of +200%, making it possible to spam my moves in many situations. However, if you're more of a gun person you can modify every single weapon in the game with a multitude of different devices. Making your gun lighter, more accurate, having it deal more damage, the ability to see through smoke, punch through cover, there's a ton of options to choose from and whatever you decide to augment is also reflected in the model itself. That's right, say this scope you found makes your gun more accurate, simply attach it at a work bench and your gun will now have a physical scope on it.

One of the calmer moments in the game.

I always found the talent systems for the first two Mass Effect games a little off-putting. I didn't like how you had to pump so many points into things you didn't actively use or, in ME2's case, how you couldn't reach the maximum level in most of your skills. ME3 fixes all of these issues, giving you six different tiers of each ability with multiple choices of how you want to build them along the way. There's also bonus powers you can attain by conversing with your squad mates and if you felt like you screwed up somewhere, there is a reset switch for all your talents. I swear, it's like they've thought of everything.

Great as everything is, some may find the more condensed character roster a bit disappointing. Even if all of your squad members survived the suicide mission in ME2, you really never get to use them as you did in the past. At first it might seem like a crime to omit such interesting and compelling characters, but once you begin meeting back up with your old friends you'll come to appreciate the way BioWare has re-instituted them. Since the galaxy is dealing with the Reapers on every homefront, it only makes sense that all your friends can't be chilling with you aboard the Normandy. Yes, yes, it's too bad you can't get Wrex back into your squad but believe me when I tell you that his constant appearances, cinematics and dialogue more than make up for it.

It may also come as a sort of shock, but ME3 doesn't contain any mini-games whatsoever. There's no more locks that need picking, servers that need hacking or planets that require hours of probing. Actually, the scanner and probe system do make a return but it's been entirely overhauled. Instead of scanning random planets for their resources ala ME2, ME3 gives the Normandy a new pulse aura.

Upon entering a new system, you can tap a button and the Normandy will unleash a radial pulse that reveals important areas in that section. If a planet is highlighted you can then perform a scan on it, but there's only ever a single item per planet and there's a compass that tells you exactly what direction it's in. If you use this pulse while in a Reaper controlled sector though, they can invade the system and come after you while you're looking for items. All this means is that there's a demonic robot noise, the things come in after you and if you want to survive then you need to just exit the map. I get BioWare's trying to represent the invasion, but it's far too easy to evade the Reapers and even if they do catch you the game just reloads upon your entrance to the system. You lose, maybe, 10 seconds of your time. Harsh, I know.

A fitting end to a thrilling trilogy.

The big new feature for the campaign is the focus on war assets or what you're bringing into the final confrontation. As you progress through the game you'll convince those around you to commit to fighting the Reaper threat. As you discover various objects, complete missions and recruit people to join the fight, your asset number increases. These assets also increase a bar that displays your effective military strength to combat the Reapers. It's not hard to fill the bar up, but if you're one of those people who don't like to burden yourself with completing every little thing in the game, you can jump into the multiplayer to help increase your assets.

Multiplayer? In my single-player game? Believe it. Actually it's not at all that bad. Galaxy at War is a four-player co-operative experience that pits you against waves of enemies (where have I seen this before?). Its emphasis relies heavily on good teamwork and the combat in ME3 is good enough to make the mode worth checking out. Sure, it has its fair share of problems with imperfect hosting and feeling extremely grindy after a while, but its sole purpose is to serve as a minor distraction. At least playing the multiplayer nets you campaign bonuses to make it feel more worthwhile. Completion of maps grants a percentage increase in your efficiency rating, which effectively means your bar for the final confrontation will gain a multiplier. Again, it's not necessary to play the multiplayer to get the best endings to the game, but it's nice to have something as a decent distraction from the main story.

Mass Effect 3 is a master-class in story-telling that comes second to none. Its refined combat, deeper customisation and personable characters make the experience worth it from start to finish and that goes double for the people who've been with the series from day one. While it may be the final entry in the trilogy, you can bet that this isn't the last we've seen of Mass Effect 3. So grab your gear, sit back and enjoy one of the best games of this generation.

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