After that spectacular opening, my time with Mass Effect 3 settled into something a little less certain, a little shakier. I wasn't hooked on it the way I was the previous game in the series, and something felt off. Was the push to grind through the game's 50-hour plus campaign wearing on me? It took a detour to GDC to give me some time and distance to understand what was bugging me about the game and then be able to approach it fresh last week.
And my big epiphany: Mass Effect 3 isn't Mass Effect 2 and I'd have to simply get over that. With some caveats, the series finale avoids the pitfall of most trilogies and doesn't crash and burn during the ending (I'm still trying to suss out where the outrage is coming from, but more on that later).
My full review after the jump.
****Possible spoilers to follow****
By now, you know that Earth is under a full-scale assault by the techno-organic Reapers, who've returned after 50,000 years to wipe out all advanced species, meaning Shepard and the Normandy crew have to assemble the toughest force in the galaxy to break the annihilation cycle. Then there's the threat of Cerberus, a human supremacy group lead by the Illusive Man, out there with their own mysterious agenda that might get in the way of your whole "saving the galaxy" gig.
If anything, Mass Effect 3 can't be faulted for scope, drawing to a close many of the narrative elements introduced from the first game onward. Every species you've encountered up to this point gets their screen time, their missions, and as usual, quite a few of them will end up on the Normandy with you with their guns pointed at some Reaper domes. Nearly every narrative thread, nearly every mission and side mission is in some way tied into upping the Alliance's readiness before the final showdown with the reapers (handily available to you as a running progress bar on the CIC deck of the Normandy). It shows an admirable level of focus on the part of the BioWare team that Mass Effect 3 has a tangible, clear, and well-integrated overall purpose.
That's not to say that the story isn't without its share of problems, and a lot of them have to do with that increased scope, which returns the game to the feel of the first Mass Effect, with the net result of creating a very real distance between the player and the events in the game. The catalyst for the game is that Earth is under an overwhelming assault by the Reapers, something you're reminded of frequently in communications with the Earth resistance forces. But any time you take a side mission to track an artifact or take down a Cerberus base, it's easy to lose sight of that, and the conflict back on Earth feels very slow burn.
Likewise, whereas part 2 had this great feel of assembling the galaxy's complete force of deadly badasses, this time around many of the members of your crew sign up more or less by accident, removing a layer of agency for you. It doesn't help that there are fewer standout personalities this time around like Mordin or Thane (although you might see those characters from 2 if they survived the assault on the Collector ship).
Instead, insufferable wet blanket Ashley is back to distrust Shepard until she doesn't, while as the resident cold, analytical science nerd, Liara feels redundant alongside EDI and Dr. Chakwas. Then there's new addition James, who seems designed to counter complaints about the blandness of Jacob in the last game, bringing heretofore unheard-of levels of bro-ness to a video game (and possibly the worst branching dialog scene I think BioWare has ever committed to consoles and PCs). Reporter Diana Anders also joins the crew, serving as the Alliance propaganda corps in one of the more interesting moves for the game, but outside of a two conversations that I can recall and the vague hint of a romantic interaction (sorry, my dude-Shep's heart belongs to Jack), your interaction with Anders is curiously limited.
The character who's served poorest here is the Illusive Man, to my mind the best thing about Mass Effect 2. Front and center and effectively the antagonist with a face, he's been reduced from the first game's dangerous, mysterious puppet master with shady and possibly nefarious motivations, here he's a Bond movie level megalomaniac who has multiple "You and I aren't too different, Shepard," moments. Frankly, his methods and motives here are cartoonish and effectively removes the pleasure of following one of the most interesting characters from the series.
Reading over what I've written up there, you'd think that I didn't actually enjoy any part of Mass Effect 3, and that couldn't be farther from the truth. But the last game had a very distinct The Dirty Dozen-meets-Star Trek vibe that's missing here. So I didn't like the story that BioWare was telling here, but I don't necessarily think they were telling a bad story, per se. As for that ending that seems to have everyone (or a vocal few someones) in a stir, it's not nearly as bad as all that; the biggest problem I can see is that it verges a little on Matrix Reloaded territory, introducing a major character in the final scenes, and that might feel like a little bit of a cheat in some quarters, but I think it introduces some interesting, if prosaic, elements to the series' universe.
As for that co-op multiplayer: it's rough. I love the idea behind the co-op having an effect on the campaign, that's cool. You can choose a character and class, and party up in teams of four on missions against Cerberus, Geth, or Reaper forces on levels from the game in this Horde-style mode, which mixes in simple "kill-em-all" gameplay with a couple of objective-based missions across ten waves of enemies. You can outfit your character with new weapons and using winnings from the last match to buy equipment packs (med gels, ammo packs, temporary stat buffs, and new character models). Of course, if you're having trouble earning in-game money, you can always spend real money to buy some of these packs.
Don't encourage them.
The problem is, actually playing the multiplayer isn't particularly fun. Galaxy At War handles like Gears, but without the fast and fluid action. Shooting and melee attacks are stiff and awkward, and if you are unfortunate enough to get surrounded by the enemies in this mode, resign yourself to dying, because your character effectively lacks the speed and agility to get free. It's better as an idea than actual, executed thing and you might find yourself resenting that you have to grind at this mode for hours in order to affect the ending of the game (for the record, I topped out at around 69% before calling it a day).
A massive theater of war
Again, the scope and scale of the game is massive, as planets are razed, forces are amassed, and the very fate of the galaxy is placed in the balance.
Shooting is still pretty satisfying in the campaign
Go into cover, pop up, shoot some fools, maybe use a biotic power. Rinse, repeat with the addition of a new melee attack (which is better for some classes than others). The introduction of a host of new Reaper and Cerberus enemy types gives you more things to shoot and their unique strategies make the battlefield more complex than in previous games.
Simplified scanning mode
Instead of searching every planet in the galaxy for valuable resources, Mass Effect 3 introduces a sonar-like ping that allows you to identify planets or areas with fuel, money, and resources for the war effort (many of them items that you'll have to hump back to Citadel for random characters in need of them).
A real sense of closure
You've got an ending and BioWare didn't betray what came before. Sometimes that's the best you can ask for, but honestly, if there were another game, I'd be curious and interested in what's next based on the three endings presented at the conclusion of my game.
Your mileage might vary on the story
Again, my main complaint throughout is simply that it's not Mass Effect 2, and that's not an entirely fair assessment. However, the new members of your crew aren't especially compelling and the changes to the Illusive Man are very real strikes against the game.
The multiplayer is a bust
See above. Great idea, poor execution.
James is the worst
He's like a walking neck tattoo that carries an assault rifle. Just terrible.
A lot of the complaints that I've leveled against Mass Effect 3 I can easily cop to being matters of personal preference, particularly when it comes to the game's story. The push towards a more shooter-centric experience does present some real wrinkles to the overall game, but not enough to break Mass Effect 3's campaign (while the multiplayer is another story entirely). There's more than enough here to get behind, and the expansion and extension of the lore of the Mass Effect universe should provide plenty for the series' faithful to chew on.