Page 1 of 5Mass Effect 3 is a game that is desperate to conclude itself spectacularly. From its opening attempts at tugging on heartstrings to its closing moments reveling in galactic spectacle, it brings the Mass Effect universe's characters, creatures and locations into scenarios which are committed to bringing them to their limits. Familiar companions and old enemies are tested in fire and pushed to their limits, and the tale is dramatic to the point of self-indulgence.
BioWare were clearly working on all cylinders to provide fans of the series with a game that sees the concepts and universe fully realized in a way the first two Mass Effect games could never hope to match, all while fine-tuning the tried-and-true cover-based shooting action. However, the narrative side of the game simply cannot manage to live up to the expectations of both a series finale, much less the previous two titles. The end result is a game that is nearly ceremonial in its pomp and excess, and which plays faster and smoother than any previous BioWare title, but one that is also clumsy and strained, both on design and technical fronts.
For the record, this review assumes familiarity with the previous games. I have no intent on spoiling the game for players, but Mass Effect is just too big at this point to provide a synopsis for. Readers who aren't familiar with the series will be better served by checking out our reviews for Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 first.
Galaxy at War
War is the theme that permeates Mass Effect 3. Picking up from where Mass Effect 2 left off, the Reaper invasion of Earth begins with a bang, literally. Right from the get-go, the pace and tone of Mass Effect 3 is rapid and dire, with a sense of urgency that usually isn't seen in the "take your own time" style of story BioWare are known for. As the story continues, homeworlds are reduced to ashes, friends and companions die valiantly, and even the people of the Citadel are left fearing for their survival. Few franchises are quite so bold as to provide such sound resolutions to their events, and in this respect Mass Effect 3 is a success and a stand-out. Mass Effect 3 makes things very clear that the world as players know it is crumbling, and indeed, in the wake of the game's conclusion it's hard to see things going back to status quo.
However, this theme of war, the quick pace and commitment to providing a solid resolution to all the loose ends is as much a strength as it is a weakness. Mass Effect 3 is simultaneously frantic and plodding, and provides war without warfare, endings without closure. There is a fundamental dissonance in the sorts of ideas the game tries to communicate and the way that it actually plays out that will be jarring for some fans. Even as worlds burn, Shepard and the crew of the Normandy SR-2 (retrofitted once again) make time to perform side-quests to recover random trinkets from lost corners of the galaxy, and the biggest conflicts aren't resolved with diplomacy or with strategy and tactics, but by blasting the bad guys.
It really comes across as a missed opportunity. Mass Effect 3 could have been a departure for the series while also providing it with a sense of finality. Making hard decisions about how to allocate previous war resources and assets should have been at the forefront of the experience, and the sacrifice of both allies and friends should have been a necessity, not the result of failing a morality check. The closest the game ever gets is its "Galaxy at War" overlay, which at the end of the day is basically just a progress bar that indicates what ending you'll receive - the particular war assets you receive are basically meaningless. In failing to go beyond the usual cover-based action, Mass Effect 3 is unable to convey the scale or seriousness that its story demands.
And scale there is. Mass Effect's is a universe with a number of ongoing plotlines that are begging to be finished. The genophage, the rachni, the protheans, Cerberus and more all get wrapped up before the end, and while the game makes an admirable effort, the fact is that many of these ideas are forcibly injected to the narrative in a way that does not mesh with the overarching theme. Like Mass Effect 2, the individual pieces themselves work very well on their own, but the reasons for their inclusion are fairly weak, and the game isn't very convincing in portraying how Commander Shepard is able to solve all the galaxy's problems in the span of a week or two.
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