Sunday, April 21, 2013

Xbox 360 review: Mass Effect 3

As the finale of Mass Effect 2 made abundantly clear, the Reapers are headed toward the Milky Way, and so the third game begins with Commander Shepard and Admiral Anderson trying desperately to appeal to Alliance Command. Despite all of Shepard’s warnings over the past three years, few among the Alliance or the Citadel Council heeded them. As a result, Earth is quickly overrun by Reaper forces intent on destroying everything in their path. Shepard and Anderson manage to fight their way to the Normandy, though Anderson opts to stay behind and help carry out the fight on Earth, instructing Shepard to rally as many allies as he/she can.

While the Reapers hit Earth hard, they also sent some of their forces to systems controlled by the Asari, Turians, Krogans, and Quarians. While most of the representatives of these alien races would be otherwise inclined to send Shepard aid, they simply cannot spare extra troops or supplies until the threats to their own planets have been removed. While this might initially sound like a repetitive and menial process of gathering allied forces, each mission will earn Shepard extra war assets to improve his/her readiness rating for the endgame strike back at the Reapers, as well as further progress on the Crucible, an ancient device that the Protheans attempted to complete during their own conflict with the Reapers, but were unable to finish before their empire crumbled. While the previous games did a very good job of making main story-related missions memorable, Mass Effect 3 does perhaps the best job of making them plain fun, with many being epic in scope.

Once again, you are able to import your Shepard profile from Mass Effect 2 into Mass Effect 3, though you cannot transfer directly from the original Mass Effect to the third game. Choices you made in the first two games as well as characters who survived and died will be reflected through dialogue and which characters appear during certain missions. And while Mass Effect 2 seemed to push for Commander Shepard to seek out a new romantic relationship by limiting his/her interactions with Ashley/Kaidan/Liara to very brief exchanges, the third game is more open in allowing you to either pursue a brand new relationship or carry on with one from the previous titles. If Mass Effect 3 is your first foray into the series, the option to start fresh is also presented, and you will be prompted to select from one of three scenarios (which are largely concerned with who in Shepard’s company died prior to the events of Mass Effect 3).

Mass Effect 3 sees the return of a number of traditional RPG elements that were absent from the second game. The game still plays like its two predecessors - a hybrid of third-person shooter and real-time RPG. But leveling up abilities offers different choices as you allot more points to Overload, Warp, Tactical Cloak, and so on. These branches will often allow a perk or longer duration specific to the ability you are levling up or a more overarching improvement to health, shields, or recharge time that may be more practical in the long run but will also provide a slightly smaller percentage of that which it rewards you with. The Paragon and Renegade meter returns and – much like before – players are not necessarily required to select one path over the other and can build both simultaneously if they so choose. That said, there are a few major decisions in Mass Effect 3 that require very high ratings of either Paragon points or Renegade points, and certain dialogue and mission outcomes will be locked unless Shepard’s meter meets this criteria. The ultimate outcome of these decisions can drastically alter the manner in which a mission and subsequently the remainder of the game plays out, and could potentially cost Shepard the loyalties of some of his/her comrades.

Your party in Mass Effect 3 is notably smaller than it was in Mass Effect 2, but it also sees the return of many familiar faces – Liara, Garrus, Tali, and either Kaidan or Ashley return (assuming they all survived the events of the previous games), while EDI steps into a combat role after transferring part of her consciousness to a robot body. The only other new party member (aside from the game’s extra DLC offerings) is James Vega, an alliance soldier who proves to be something of a meathead and behaves primarily as a run-and-gun tank character. While the pickings are somewhat slim, the payoff is that each character plays in a unique manner – Liara is the strongest biotic choice, but Kaidan balances both biotic and soldier. EDI and Tali are both tech-oriented characters, with the former playing to ranged combat and utilizing holograms and the incinerate ability, while the latter is all about close-quarters combat, relying on her shotgun and drones to take out foes. Shepard’s long-standing allies may not play in a drastically new way, but it seems that BioWare has found the perfect balance of abilities and classes to offer players without going overboard with the number of characters at your disposal.

The planets Shepard visits as part of the main storyline each offer up a handful of side missions that can alter the way the primary mission plays out, and subsequently affect the ultimate endgame. Many of these see Shepard reuniting with old friends for a short while. While traditional combat frequently makes up the core of these optional missions, they feel fresh and unique due to the inclusion of new elements like Shepard mounting a turret on the side of a transport as he/she provides cover fire for allied forces, the ability for Shepard to be uploaded into the mainframe of the Geth network, and some up-close and personal encounters with the Reapers themselves.

The majority of combat missions are spent facing down the forces of Cerberus and the mutated species collected by the Reapers. Both of these factions have a wide variety of troops at their disposal, with Cerberus forces being primarily human, save for the ocassional deployment of a stationary turret or large Atlas mech. The humans-turned-husks are the weakest of the Reaper forces, with the teleporting Asari-based Banshee, lumbering Brutes (comprised of both Krogan and Turian remains), and mobile turret Rachni known as the Ravagers giving Shepard and company a much greater challenge. Both armies will keep Shepard on his/her feet and require you to adopt new strategies on the fly. The first few missions limit the variety of forces you are pitted against, however, offering both a tutorial mission during the Reaper attack on Earth and ample time to adjust to Mass Effect 3’s combat style.

While the classic dialogue wheel makes its return, it is used primarily within missions and is largely unused when Shepard interacts with the inhabitants of the Citadel. While this may seem like laziness of BioWare’s part, it makes some sense given that this is the final game in the trilogy. Most of the exchanges Shepard has with these individuals act as wrap-up to the handful of interactions and moments of decision making he/she had with them in the past two games. Meanwhile, Shepard still has more involved subplots and conversation options relating to familiar faces from Mass Effect 2 and its respective DLC packs that don’t appear as party members – i.e. Miranda, Thane, Kasumi, etc. A few key points in the game that are meant to come across as really epic scenes end up seeing a slightly less impressive delivery due to some vague cheesy lines delivered by Shepard. True, the Reapers may have every major planet in the Milky Way on their hit list, but there is a better way to express this than having Shepard yell: "The Reapers are here!" Thankfully, the majority of the game sees writing that is consistent with the quality the previous games put forth. The earliest events of Mass Effect 3 make it clear that the game will tread into dark territory more than once, and as a result, having completed loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2 can mean the difference between life and death for some of these characters.

The Citadel itself holds greater importance in Mass Effect 3 than it did in Mass Effect 2 as the origin of a number of subplots as well as some genuinely engaging missions and cutscenes. Though the Citadel is not as large as it was in the original Mass Effect, it certainly feels open and worth exploring. In Mass Effect 3, the Citadel is divided into six major areas – the Normandy’s docking bay, the lower docks (where war refugees gather), Huerta Memorial Hospital, the Purgatory dance club, the Presidium Commons, and the Human Embassy. Each of these areas appears distinct to its own purposes, but is also in keeping with the general style and feel of the Citadel. Mass Effect 3 sees the Citadel return to its more glamorous role as a primary hubworld instead of a momentary distraction.

While there are a number of planets that are revisited, Shepard and company get to see new areas of each. Though Tuchanka and Noveria may be familiar territory, they have never looked better, and the same can be said to new planets like Sur’Kesh, homeworld of the Salarians, and Thessia, homeworld of the Asari, thanks to improved textures and lighting effects. Graphically, Mass Effect 3 does not see as significant an improvement over its prequel as Mass Effect 2 did over the first game, but it’s still a noticeable step up in quality. Seeing the homeworlds of the Citadel species firsthand is a sort of icing on the cake for anyone who read through all the Codex entries on the Asari, Turian, Krogan, and Salarian people. Meanwhile, scanning planets for resources has been done away with. Instead, the Normandy can scan whole sections of a system, and any nearby discoveries will be noted by a red ring encircling a planet or destroyed ship of interest. The fuel left over from the ship debris will immediately be siphoned for the Normandy to use, while a discovery on a planet’s surface will prompt the same scanner from Mass Effect 2, albeit with the artifact in question (or whatever other war asset lies waiting on the planet) being the singular target.

Equally as noteworthy as the game’s visual presentation is the soundtrack that accompanies the different stages of the fight against the Reapers. While Mass Effect 2’s soundtrack was host to a few key themes and held a certain intense space opera charm, Mass Effect 3’s soundtrack is easily the most complex and emotionally charged of the three games. The variety of tunes and instruments does an exceptional job at conveying the desperation of a galaxy slipping toward extinction as well as Shepard’s own internal struggle, a plot point that echoes more heavily in this game than it did in Mass Effect 2. Though Mass Effect 2 does not rely too heavily on them, the pre-rendered cutscenes are gorgeous, and are just long enough to give you a real appreciation for BioWare’s universe without dragging on for too long.

Mass Effect 3 sees the inclusion of a multiplayer mode that pits teams of four players against waves of enemies, which include the likes of Cerberus troops, the Collectors, Geth forces, and mutated Reaper creations. These waves become increasingly larger and dish out stronger foes as time progresses. Occasionally, a wave will require players to multitask and coordinate roles as they escort a drone from one side of the map to the other or hack a few data terminals. The four challenge levels range from Bronze to Platnum, with Platinum offering up the greatest difficulty setting but subsequently rewarding players with the most substantial gains. Completing missions rewards players with both experience points and in-game credits. Players can thus increase their characters’ abilities in a similar manner as in the single player campaign, and can spend the in-game credits to purchase packages that contain a random assortment of ammunition, weapons and upgrades, and even new characters. All six character classes are unlocked from the outset, though access is initially restricted to default male and female human characters. However, the experience gained as one character in a specific class (like an Adept or Vanguard) carries over to all others in that class, so unlocking an Asari, Quarian, Vorcha, or Volus character does not require you to start from level one and work your way back up. Completing missions in multiplayer also improves the Galactic Readiness Rating on the galaxy map within the single-player game, as each multiplayer mission played improves the degree of preparedness for the respective sector of the galaxy where the missions are located. This holds a slight degree of influence over the way that the last leg of Mass Effect 3’s campaign plays out, though it is not as great a factor as the other decisions Shepard has prior to that point.

Much like in Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3’s final hours play as a lengthy continuous mission separate from the remainder of the game. Admiral Hackett will inform Shepard of the fact that this mission is effectively the beginning of the end, and that there is no turning back once it is initiated. However, it cannot be accessed until the majority of the rest of the game has been completed, so there are (thankfully) no real nasty surprises in store for players who may have jumped the gun and proceeded to an early fight against the Collectors in Mass Effect 2.

The finale itself may not be exactly what every Mass Effect fan was expecting, but it is largely fitting. The final set of cutscenes does well to bring closure to the story that has come together over the course of five years, but may still leave a few points open-ended, depending on which of the endgame routes you select. BioWare has done a phenomenal job of picking out the best elements of the previous games and carrying them over to Mass Effect 3. Certain elements like the lack of interactive dialogue may incline some to believe that BioWare went too far in their attempts to better streamline the game, but as a whole, Mass Effect 3 is a fantastic final chapter to one of the most prominent and arguably most influential games of this console generation.

My rating: 9 (out of 10)

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