Tuesday, March 20

Mass Effect 3 Review (PS3): Farewell Tour

For more times than I can remember, my heart was again pounding and my hands shaking. Would the people standing next to me survive this mission? Who would be next to make a sacrifice for the good of the galaxy? At times, the tension was too much to bear.

While I've never been the greatest advocate for the Mass Effect series, some of the characters who I've encountered, fought with and romanced over the last five years have come to mean something to me. So much so that I was nearly brought to tears during this, the last of instalments. In fact, if not for my newly-acquired puppy, Loki's conveniently-timed release of waste products, I'd have been reduced to a blubbering mess on roughly three occasions. Depending on your choices across up to three games, Mass Effect 3 is a moving reunion with old friends and a farewell tour without equal.

The story is about the only reason that anyone would need to play this game. All things considered, its value is questionable to anyone who hasn't played the second instalment at the very least. The high stakes tale is in no way self-contained, and while not overly complicated, would have little to no impact on a newcomer. The writing is sharp and the sense of camaraderie between Shepard and the crew of the Normandy -- both new and old -- is abundantly clear. The implications of choices made at all stages of the greater Mass Effect tale reverberate through a great many of the game's missions and downtime; meaning that the third instalment is nothing short of a fully-realised triumph for series veterans and what I imagine to be a bloated, incomprehensible bore for anyone yet to finish the first two games.

That being said, combat is another reason why Mass Effect 3 could be a hard sale to newbies and any vets without a Mass Effect 2 save. Troubles with importing your customized face aside; by importing a save from the last game, you'll have made quite a bit of progress towards a powerful character without encountering a single husk. I found that my BroShep was at level 28 upon commencing the game, and that in turn meant that he and his companions had access to some powerful tech and biotic powers from the get go. This is just as well, because combat gets hectic pretty quickly. Being able to call upon fully-developed versions of powers like Singularity and Concussion Shot in the early stages allowed for me to not tire of the fidgety cover shooting until much later than I otherwise would have.

Unless you build up a surplus of credits, the combat in Mass Effect 3 becomes painful, repetitive, and fails to compare to competitors like the Gears of War and Uncharted games. Even the biotic, tech and weapon powers get old after you've seen enemies get airborne for the fiftieth time. None of the standard issue weaponry really packs a punch, so you'll need to invest in the Spectre exclusive weaponry to feel anything akin to enjoyment while you're gunning down the indoctrinated masses. Heavy weapons have been removed from your inventory and are only now available in specific missions, meaning the best aspect of Mass Effect 2's combat only comes out on a handful of occasions to save players from bullet-riddled boredom. By the last boss-heavy firefight, I can understand why BioWare afforded players a "Story" mode that ditches combat in favour of a focus on the dialogue and choices that have the potential to haunt you for days.

There are also some unrelated (and somewhat minor) technical hitches that hold Mass Effect 3 back from greatness. The visuals may be grand in scale and wonderful to behold when the PlayStation 3 can handle it, but more often than not, the frame rate drops into slide show territory. The game also freezes frequently to load content (this issue is particularly apparent while traversing the Citadel). In terms of mission design, it's frustrating that the game has you heading back to the Citadel after just about every mission. Not only does this counter the apparent urgency of the galactic invasion, but each level of the station takes an eternity to load. Also, planet scanning is back and it's as monotonous as ever. These issues didn't impact too significantly on my experience, but they are noticeable in this release.

Mass Effect 3's multiplayer is a poor man's Horde from Gears of War 2 (it's nowhere near deep enough to get a mention against that featured in Gears of War 3). Wave-based survival is becoming increasingly popular, and the inclusion of the odd King of the Hill objective fails to differentiate BioWare's effort from the... well, erm, hordes of competitors. It is unbelievably popular: I haven't had any trouble finding a match and lag is limited only to a hiccup between waves. The different classes and races aren't being properly utilized though, so be prepared to see Concussive Shots ad nausea as most opt for the Human Soldier class. It's not unplayable, but it's nowhere near as enjoyable or fleshed-out as anything similar that's currently on offer.

 Such diversity is rare in practice

Forgettable endings, combat and multiplayer aside: Mass Effect 3 is the final chapter of an enjoyable and at times bloated story of unity, sacrifice and perseverance against odds of galactic proportions. It's a treat for returning players, and BioWare have shown a real ability to pull at the heartstrings when the grim nature of the three game saga is revealed. Not one character emerges from this tale unscathed, and it proves to be an essential experience for anyone who's invested a great amount of time on the Normandy. My only regret is that my first Xbox 360 (and therefore, my save from the first game) didn't survive the journey, so my PS3-branded Mass Effect 2 save complete with the comic recap of the first game is the best way that I could have hoped to experience the end. Avoid like the plague if you've never played a Mass Effect game before, and bring a box of tissues if you've been there since Eden Prime.

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