For those of us who put the Mass Effect 3 disc in our respective systems with shaky hands and bated breath, it is more than just a game, or even a sequel for a beloved series. Mass Effect is a journey we’ve been partaking in since 2007, and we’ve watched the rise of Commander Shepard from an Alliance marine to the status of space cowboy supreme, shaped by our decisions. With every installment, the challenge that Shepard faced was stiffer; and the third game has brought about the most challenging task till date for Shepard: the Reapers – a race of sentient machines that harvest life every 50000 years only to disappear in the deep recesses of space leaving no trace behind – are here. Earth, among other worlds, is under heavy attack, and it is up to Shepard and the crew he assembles through the game to figure out a way to stop the Reapers.
Figuring out a way, as it turns out, doesn’t take too long. Early on in the game, Liara T’Soni reveals the discovery of a Prothean artefact that could be the answer to the unmatched might of the Reapers. The rest of the game is Shepard’s endeavour to unravel the mystery of this device, as well as to convince the races of the galaxy to put aside their differences and unite in order to fight the Reapers. The latter takes up the bulk of the game, and many of the intergalactic political issues come to the fore with the option to sweep them under the carpet no longer present. Through the journey, Shepard must deal with difficult questions that must be addressed – were the Salarians and the Turians right to inflict the Genophage upon the Krogans? Do the Krogans deserve a cure? Do the Geth deserve a place in the galactic ecosystem?
And most importantly, what is Cerberus up to? Throughout the game, Cerberus dogs your footsteps; always willing to throw a frying pan into your plans. The Illusive Man has his own agenda to bring into the mix, and everything comes together in a thoughtful finale. That said, the games does lack in the drama you would come to expect from a series that has never made subtlety its strong suit. It was genuinely disappointing to see many of the actions one takes through the series boil down to a number among the War Assets, without a more tangible or visible impact on the game.
But a number of portions, especially in the first half of the game, are genuinely emotional and incredibly well done. In these moments, the prowess of the series in building personal bonds between the players and characters of the game comes to fore. Story is clearly the strongest feature of Mass Effect 3, and even if stumbles at some points, it was good to see Bioware not cop out of making some difficult choices with it.
Gameplay is no laggard either, and through refinements that have evolved across installments, it brings the best of action-adventure with a dressing of RPG elements to the table. Shepard’s movements are leaner, smoother and faster, and the guns and powers feel powerful and satisfying. To match these improvements, there is a perceivable difference in the enemy AI. There is a wide variety of enemy type in both the Reaper and Cerberus forces that require different tactics and combination of teammates. This becomes especially relevant on higher difficulties, and there are some thrilling encounters to be had.
Bioware has made an effort to make customisation more prevalent. As you upgrade powers beyond the third level, you will always be presented with two choices at every subsequent evolutionary step. The guns feature mods such as improved scope, larger thermal clip, and damage enhancement, among other things. There is also an interesting trade-off between the number (and weight) of the weapons you carry and the recharge time of your powers, enabling a degree of variation even within classes.
The player still has the option to play as a nice guy or a jerk while saving the galaxy. The interesting bit is the fact that the paragon or renegade choices that the player makes have more far reaching consequences for the galaxy than in any of the previous games. Unshackled from the responsibility of future installments, the player’s choices are no longer about personal alliances, but are often significant for entire races.
All this drama and action happens on the most exotic locations across the galaxy. Old favourites like The Citadel and Tuchanka return, and the player finally visits places such as Sur’Kesh, the Salarian homeworld; and Thessia, the Asari homeworld, among other places. The soundtrack is masterfully done, tackling the full spectrum, from softer and emotional moments to the intense action-packed segments with aplomb. The voices that bring the extraordinary cast to the life maintain their high standards, sucking the player into their world. And while they are cleaner and crisper, the graphics are not a huge step up from Mass Effect 2, and texture pop-in is still quite common.
The single-player portion of the game lasts up to 40 hours, depending on how much time one chooses to invest in the side quests. Considering that the fate of the galaxy is up for grabs, there is a certain amount of urgency in the campaign. It is primarily driven by the main quests, with some of them being optional, but all of them leading towards the eventual battle with the Reapers. The side quests can be a bit of a mixed bag. They are almost exclusively fetch quests for different people on the Citadel, with the remainder being encounters with old acquaintances.
These fetch quests are completed through a more refined version of resource gathering compared to the drudgery of planet scanning in Mass Effect 2. Resources can be collected on the galaxy map in Reaper-controlled systems. Each instance of scan within a system brings about the risk of Reapers detecting the player’s presence in it. If a scan reveals a resource on a planet, the player must collect it by launching a probe. If the Reapers detect the player’s presence in the system, he must make a run for it through the Mass Relay. Whether a player finds these thrilling or frustrating is entirely up to his/her patience.
All quests contribute to the galaxy’s war assets, which numerically represent the forces at Shepard’s disposal for the final assault on the Reapers. The other factor that influences Shepard’s effective military strength is Galactic Readiness, which is controlled by the multiplayer portion of the game. The multiplayer comprises of a co-operative horde mode at various locations that the player can visit on the single-player campaign. The players, in teams of four, must survive eleven waves of enemies by working together, with special missions such as eliminating specific enemies within a limited time period, or activating a beacon at a specific point on the map thrown into the fray.
The obvious draw of the multiplayer is the chance to play as individuals from the other races of the galaxy. As players level up, they earn credits which can be used to buy equipment to further beef up their characters. As you play more multiplayer, your galactic readiness rating rises from the base figure of 50%. A high galactic readiness rating yields a higher percentage of war assets available for deployment in the final assault. It’s an interesting ploy to tie the multiplayer with the single player aspect of the game. It also creates the impression that it is not Shepard alone, but the whole galaxy that is in this fight together. While it is great fun and extremely challenging on higher difficulties, beyond its utility in raising one’s galactic readiness, the multiplayer component is rather barebones and quite obviously a distraction from the single player portion of the game, where its meat lies.
There is no denying the fact that Mass Effect 3 is an incredible game – a roller coaster ride of moments that are poignant, intense, breathtaking and funny. But there is also no denying the fact that this is a game for the fans, those who have savoured each and every moment of the journey that began five years ago. Only they can experience the triumphs and the disappointments that the story brings to full effect. To those who have loved this series to bits, anyone else’s recommendation or ours is a moot point. But to those who are still oblivious to the compelling world of Mass Effect, I cannot recommend Mass Effect 3. I will, however, wholeheartedly recommend Mass Effect.