The final act in an epic sci-fi space opera is with us. Mass Effect 3 is the culmination of a story that began in late 2007. Regular readers will know that I had a copy of Mass Effect 1 handed to me by Dan, my brother-in-law. At the time, I hated role playing games. Dan knew this – he knew I hated swords, sorcery, wizards etc. Crucially, Mass Effect was a major entry in that too-rare genre – an RPG that is NOT FANTASY.
For the first time I was able to enjoy and revel in playing an RPG set in a hard sci-fi environment. There was combat, adventure, political intrigue and moral choice. There was even sex with aliens. I clocked up 188 hours playing Mass Effect 1 – replaying it again and again to experience multiple endings, to see the effects of different choices, to meet every last character and explore every last planet, asteroid and derelict ship.
If you asked me now what my favourite game is of all time… well it’s that. Mass Effect 1. It had an impact on me quite unlike any other game has ever had. As Charlie Brooker said, it was my gateway drug to other RPGs, such as Fallout 3 + New Vegas, Skyrim and more. And it’s still my wife’s most hated game, due to my utter addiction to it. Like I wrote in a previous column, that’s a singular honour.
Mass Effect 1 didn’t do everything perfectly, but above all I loved it’s ambition – the scope of what it was trying to achieve. It introduced a whole new sci-fi unvierse with a rich back story. It told of humanity’s future history and its efforts to be recognised as peers among the other alien civilizations in the galaxy. I watched a video from 2006 – when the game was half-finished and still in development. I can remember Casey Hudson’s (Mass Effect’s Project Director) voice over to this day:
”Mass Effect is a bright universe, with a dark secret. You are Commander Shepard – the tip of the spear of humanity, on the galactic stage. Your actions will define the fate of an entire universe. You command a ship – the Normandy – and will command its crew as you adventure across the galaxy. From uncharted worlds to derelict ships and unknown stars – it’s a place of boundless possibility.”
It always resonated with me – it showed a noble ambition for the game and its sequels. I am an optimist about these things and I can overlook a game’s flaws if it has heart, soul, something worthy about it. But I loved that game.
In 2010, we had the first sequel, Mass Effect 2. It was an even larger game – there were more planets and systems to explore than before. The graphics were substantially improved and the controls were comprehensively revised. It had much more of an… epic feel to it. But I can’t explain it – I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as Mass Effect 1. I know I am in a real minority on this – Mass Effect 2 is preferred by most critics and gamers. Maybe it’s because I gorged on Mass Effect 1 so much – maybe no other game will have an impact like this on me again?
Either way – ME 3 is with us. It’s the closing act to the story, an ending to it all. The plot accelerates quickly – Earth and most of the civilized galaxy is under attack by a race called the Reapers. Intelligent behemoth machines the size of a dreadnought starship (ie large). Commander Shephard, Earth’s greatest soldier is tasked with facing this threat – assembling an alliance of races, fleets and other war assets in preparation for one epic finale…
And it’s fantastic. The graphics are better than ever – characters are genuinely photo-realistic sometimes. The vistas of landscapes and structures on alien worlds are sumptuous to behold. It’s genuinely fun to walk around and take in the detail of these worlds. The game’s first mission, set on the Mars human colony gives stark contrast to how things have come – comparing it to ME1’s first mission, set on Eden Prime – another red planet – says it all. The vibe and feel is just the same, but with incredible leaps in graphical detail.
The combat and control is better than ever. It’s fair to say that the controls in the preceding two games were good but not great. Now the cover system has been tightened up and is more intuitive than ever. The familiar squad controls return and it is easier than ever to move your comrades where you want them to help attack your foes.
Kinect is integrated into the game very well on Xbox 360. The microphone in the Kinect sensor will listen for commands – when in a fire fight you can shout “Liara, singularity!” or similar to get them to attack as you want. When approaching doors, if timed just right, speaking “Open door” can save a button press… useful but not as useful as using the Kinect features for squad commands during firefights.
It is also very satisfying to see the hardcore fans rewarded. At the start of the game, our hero Shephard is stripped of rank and removed from active duty. No explanation is given – but you will understand if you have completed ME 2 and all of its DLC extra missions (suffice to say it involved nuking a star system…). Virtually every character it is possible to meet in the previous games surfaces at some point in the game. Sidequests, references in dialogue and more all link back to your previous adventures.
And the game will start where you left off from the previous two games. I created my character in Mass Effect 1 and all of the choices through that game and ME 2 have been carried over. I kept the default appearance for my character – I kept Commander Shepard’s appearance as it is on the game box. But it is possible to be male or female with any combination of features imaginable. It’s possible to have had your own custom character carried all the way through the three games, which is rewarding.
There is also a very competent multiplayer part to the game – the Galaxy at War mode. Playing this and logging hours here will ultimately help the war effort in the single player mode. It’s an enjoyable add-on and pretty worthwhile. For sure I will be playing this after I have finally exhausted single player.
But ultimately as well as exploration and combat, this game is about tough choices – moral choices. And the consequences of all your major decisions in the previous two games will stay with you through this one. The style of gameplay you choose to follow is up to you too – are you an archaeologist (like me) who must visit every planet, search every room, unlock every piece of armour and weapon upgrade? If so that’s great – see you in 200 hours or so. It is also possible to play through the game in a more linear way if wished (for example to get a review written promptly). It’s still a worthwhile endeavour and the game will pay you back for however much time you choose to invest.
And once it’s all done, with the most emotional ending I think I’ve ever experienced in a game – and things are drawn to their final conclusion, you just want to start the game again – to try this choice differently or that bit of dialogue differently, or to find a planet you missed but heard about later… It’s just like Mass Effect 1.
Praise comes no higher from me.
Mass Effect 3 is out now for Xbox 360, Playstation 2 and PC.