Mass Effect 3 (PC)
When our job as a journalist is getting paid to play games and write insightful and witty comments that are mainly removed by the editor and branded as being "inappropriate" we don’t like to complain too much – honest, but having recently played through a few mediocre science fiction releases that played like a poorly conceived homage to Philip K Dick, no doubt encouraged by the success of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, we have to say that we were not looking forward to Mass Effect 3.
We asked ourselves why an industry devoted to entertainment feels the need to couple all things sci-fi with a philosophical exploration of the human condition and why they do it so badly. For the game price we could see four films with money left over so why don’t more games don’t just aim to be fun a leave it at that, like Rayman Origins, Serious Sam 3, and Duke Nukem Forever – well maybe not the last one.
That said, it became obvious from the opening screen that Mass Effect 3 was a class apart from our most recent sci-fi outings. Stylistically it is limited by the genre but it tries to do something fresh within these limitations other than the noir backdrops created by a generation of game developers brought up with Blade Runner. We wouldn’t go so far as to say it is a unique idea, as a reader familiar with a little known TV show called Babylon 5 will notice some similarities, but Mass Effect 3 (as well as the other titles in the franchise) have a fresh and interesting take on universal apocalypse.
For anyone who hasn’t heard of Mass Effect 3 (stop reading now, you have visited the wrong website) it is a third person perspective action role-playing game developed by BioWare and published by Electronic Arts for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. It is the final chapter in the Mass Effect trilogy of video games, which has spawned numerous novels and comics, a trilogy of iPhone mini games, an Anime film, a Fan Film and with the conclusion of the series should get backing from Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros to produce a feature length film.
Unifying the galactic military into a cohesive force is achieved by completing a series of priority missions which allows the disparate and antagonistic forces to find common ground. Secondary mission can also be undertaken; these improve the total military strength of the assembled forces and these aspects combined change the way that we can end the game.
As with the previous title in the franchise gameplay in Mass Effect 3 can be influenced by decisions from Mass Effect 2. For example in the initial menu we are given the option to upload a character from Mass Effect 2 and if a saved file is imported then it creates cosmetic changes to Mass Effect 3 and can affect our Effective Military Strength. Imported files also automatically start the new game in the RPG mode where as starting afresh offers Action Mode, Story Mode, and RPG Mode. In Action Mode, conversations will have automatic replies and a normal combat difficulty. In Story Mode, conversations will have manual replies and a minimal combat difficulty. In RPG Mode conversations will have manual replies and a normal combat difficulty. Irrespective of which mode we start the game in we are able to access the combat and discussion option to change these to reflect our requirement during the game. Other RPG elements such as character and squad ability customisation, weapon customisation and character reputation remain present, although character and squad abilities can be set to auto assign when points are gained.
Our character type can be completely customised when playing in Story or RPG modes. As well as being able to change gender, facial appearance, name and psychological profile we are also able to change the character type. We have the choice of Adept, Soldier, Engineer, Sentinel, Infiltrator and Vanguard. If we choose to play in Action mode our character type is set to Soldier and cannot be changed.
Levelling up our characters is achieved by completing the priority and secondary missions. Upon completion we receive experience which stacks up until we gain enough to increase a level. This increase in level gives us a point to spend on our skills and the other character under our control gain points when we do. Each skill has six levels, which level costing one more point to purchase than the last level and each skill starts along a single path and then splits into two branches where we can select upgrades along a sequence of possibilities.
We also have the ability to customise our weapons but this is done with currency rather than experience. The currency is gained by scavenging during mission or as part of the reward for competition of a mission. There are five weapon types; pistol, shotgun, SMG, sniper rifle or assault rifle and we are able to carry and use one of every type of weapon during the combat mission but initially we will only be equipped with a pistol and for the following Mars section of the game we will be equipped with a pistol and a second weapon depending on the character type we chose. For example the Soldier is equipped with the pistol and the assault rifle, the Adapt is equipped with the pistol and shotgun and the Infiltrator is equipped with the pistol and sniper rifle. Weapons can be collected during the combat missions and a wide range of guns and other equipment can be purchased after the initial section of the game.
The other member of our squad are locked down to only two character type specific weapons types and they must be equipped with both weapon types when going on combat missions. Each weapon can have up to two modification, weapon mods are found during combat mission or purchasable. All weapon mods are type not item specific, therefore an assault rifle scope can be used on all the assault rifles rather than just the M-8 Avenger. There are twenty five weapon mods in total, five per weapon type, and each of the mods has multiple power levels. Similarly to weapons, armour can be purchased or found during combat missions. We are equipped with a suit on N7 armour, alternative complete suits of armour can be purchase as can section which modify our overall protective stats.
The Citadel is the central hub of Mass Effect 3 and the place we spend the most time. It is the political heart of the galaxy has become the refugee centre and primary location for soldiers on shore-leave. In the Citadel we can access areas such as a makeshift refugee camp, the embassies, Purgatory – the space station’s nightclub, the hospital, and a commercial area. It is in these areas that we gain some of our primary missions and most of our secondary missions. The latter is normally created by overhearing a conversation relevant to the war effort which is then added to our journal for investigation.
If we choose to play the game of RPG or Story mode these conversations we have on Citadel and indeed all conversation are entirely interactive. Should we choice to go for a more action oriented game the conversation can still happen but our choice of response is taken away and an automatic answer is given. These answers have the same weight and potential to change the course of the game as the ones that we pondered over when playing in RPG mode.
The interactive narrative is one half of an immersive gameplaying experience that plunges us into an all-out galactic war to take Earth back from a nearly unstoppable foe but it also enables us to pick up the storyline and get to grips with the characters easily. The other half of the gameplay in Mass Effect 3 is combat. The combat is entirely from the third-person perspective in the shooting, melee and cover aspects. During combat we the option of moving around the battlefield with an inexhaustible sprint or combat roll. We can also fire blindly from cover or pop up to take on an opponent with a specific ammo type that we equip using our abilities. Should we need additional help in a fire fight we are able to direct our two squadmates. Not only can we guide them to a specific location or to attack a particular individual but we can also direct which weapon or ability they should use. If we choose to leave our squadmates alone then they will engage the enemy automatically and follow us around.
Melee actions are also available and devastating. Should we run out of ammunition or just feel like a fist fight we are able to engage the enemy in close combat by tapping the F key. This makes our character repeatedly smash our weapon into the face, or nearest body part, of our opponent. The pistol and shotgun can be equipped with mods that enhance the close combat damage and if we hold down the F key then our omi-tool turns into a giant orange wrist mounted blade that fells all but the most heavily armoured enemy in one blow.
Combat is frenetic and confusing when it gets going with cover needing to be found more often than not and shots well timed. Only the causal and narrative combat difficulties allow us to stroll into a room and clear it with one shot kills. Normal and above combat difficulty demands considered and aggressive assaults, taking into account our available weapons, abilities and opponent… including 15-foot tall Cerberus mechs, armour clad assault troopers, and invisible droid, as well as Reaper opponents ranging from human size to 500m and everything in-between.
Aside from the main gameplay aspects of combat and RPG we also have another layer to the game. Most of the secondary missions involve us finding a lost War Assets, artefacts or pieces of information that will enhance our Effective Military Strength. We located these by traveling in the Normandy to the region of space they are believed to be in and then scanning that region for salvage or War Assets. If an area being scanned has been invaded by the Reapers, they will eventually detect the Normandy’s scans and move to intercept it we then have to flee the region or our ship will be captured and we will fail the game.
Our success with the on-going war against the Reapers is controlled by War Assets and Military Readiness. War Assets are collected throughout the game but Military Readiness is affected by the multiplayer aspects of the game. The Military Readiness is default set to 50%, therefore if collect enough War Assets to have a Total Military Strength of 5000 then our Effective Military Strength would be 2500. As we play and complete the co-op multiplayer games our readiness increases and the War Assets become more valuable. The number of Assets and our readiness determine how successful we will be in the final battle against the Reapers.
Looking specifically at multiplayer it takes the form of four-player co-op missions. We can choose from a variety of races and character types and we start as a basic human character but after time we unlock other races, abilities and equipment.
No characters from the single player campaign are featured in the multiplayer mode so we must create brand new characters and assign them with new powers. As we unlock the multiplayer races, which include human, Asari, Drell, Krogans, Salarians, and Turians, we find that every race has unique powers and that the maximum level created characters are able to reach is 20. Additionally just like in the single player mode, levelling up will include skill branches.
The multiplayer missions are a wave attack style, set in various locations that are all or part of an area used as a primary mission in the single player campaign. We can choose our location and whether to fight against Cerberus, Geth or Reaper and these choices affect experience gained and the overall difficulty of the mission. During the missions tasks are assigned that allow us to collect credits to purchase equipment between games then after a certain number of waves we are instructed to retreat to an location which we then have to hold until extracted. Gameplay in the multiplayer mode only allows us to carry two character type specific weapons at a time and limits us to only three powers. Equipment and characters are acquired by the purchase of kits which contain random weapons, characters, and mods. The kits are purchased with multiplayer in-game credits or Microsoft Points.
The successful completion of a multiplayer maps can add up to 10% to our Galactic Readiness score within the sector that the map is located in the single player game, though it isn’t mandatory to achieve the ‘best’ ending.
Graphics and Audio
The audio aspects of this game are flawless; weapons and equipment have a variety of solid and realistic sound. Voice acting is consistently excellent, it conveys the real emotion of the story excellently, but that is as we would expect given the large number of notable actors voicing parts in this game. In the busier area of the Citadel hum of conversation waxes and wanes as we pass through an area and we can clearly pick out a conversation which gradually fades as we move away from the source only to be replaced by another closer by.
For us, the standout element of the audio and one of the best aspects of the game is the music. Mass Effect 3 is a game about war and death, the death of everybody. Nothing rams home this point better than the music that accompanies the more tragic scenes, it grabs us and emotional hooks us, reels us in and makes us feel the full horror and gravity of what the images or dialogue only partially convey.
The combat is solid and fun but the cover system is flawed. We use the spacebar to run, duck behind cover, jump over cover and to a combat roll. This means that we frequently found ourselves in the wrong place when the bullets were flying. The combat missions generally saw us being assaulted by waves of enemies and this increased as the game progressed so while it did convey a central game premise that it is us against an entire army, it does become tedious at times.
The environments that the combat missions are set in are stunning. They offer horrific vistas of conflict that stretch from horizon to horizon however the great details of battle only slightly mask the fact that the mission maps are corridors.
While Mass Effect 3 can be played in action or story mode it is our view that you don’t. Action mode gives us a significant amount of cut scenes that take away from the combat, or interaction. The automatic answers don’t always give us the answer that is the best outcome of the situation but more than that, the player just won’t engage fully with this immersive world if we don’t have to make the moral decisions. Equally, playing Mass Effect 3 in story mode the combat is so easy that we may as well not bother and just leave all the shooting work to our automated A.I. squad mates. Playing that way is not only an offence to the developers hard work but also means that we miss out on the growing feeling of panic and fatigue that we could experience and the game progresses.
Mass Effect 3 as an action RPG is a game about the path our Shepard walks, the path of the renegade or patriot or perhaps a bit of both. It is the same as everyone else’s but the sights we see and the decisions we make are our own. Mass Effect 3’s greatest achievement is in respecting those decisions and creating the emotional investment we have built in its characters and worlds.
Perhaps it is this emotional investment that has caused many to have such a negative reaction to the ending. Overall the tone of Mass effect 3 is very bleak but the narrative has some humour in it and there is an underlying optimism that if we can only get enough of a military force together we will be ok and while we also felt the tone and quality of the ending wasn’t as expected part of this issue is down to the scope of the game and in many ways lack of explanation about what is required to achieve success, or the best chance of it, in the end. (NOTE: Don’t ignore the multiplayer). Interestingly Bioware may tweak the ending to appease some in future DLC, a bold step.
Speaking of DLC, the first pack called From Ashes is already available and is give us a Prothean squad mate, one weapon, an alternate costume for Shepard’s squad, and lets them revisit a world from the original Mass Effect, Eden Prime. It was available the same day as the game launch.