The biggest game release of 2012 so far has come and gone, trailing controversy in its wake. Fans of the Mass Effect series have been enraged by what they see as a substandard ending for Bioware’s space opera magnum opus and have raised a lot of noise (and money) about it. I’ll talk a little about the ending later, but if you want deeper, more philosophical, design-oriented takes on the ending, you can read them here, here, or here.
In any case, if you have an interest in Mass Effect 3, beware of SPOILERS from here on in.
The first thing that you have to realise about Mass Effect 3 is that it’s all pay off. Unlike the first two games, where you had an abundance of side-quests to distract you as you pursued the main plot, here all of those smaller missions contribute to the main plotline. And if you’ve played through the previous two games in the series, it’s massively satisfying, occasionally heartbreaking and once or twice hilarious as it brings to a close the stories of the richly drawn characters who have accompanied you through the series. Which is not to say that there’s nothing for newcomers: the lengthy intro to the third instalment ably sets up the players and the stakes, but you won’t get the full effect if you’re coming in fresh.
As far as gameplay goes, Mass Effect 3 represents a bit of a step back from the streamlining that took place between the first and second games. The combat feels more fluid than ever, if significantly more finicky, with controls that are apt to put you in the wrong place if you get too enthusiastic with the key/button presses. With increased weapon and armour options, there’s plenty for you to tinker with too.
The sense of everything you do having an effect on a galactic war does lend weight to the decisions you make, and fittingly Bioware has the central Shepard character show the stress of the losses and compromises required to make that war winnable. (This sense of player agency is somewhat undercut by the fact that unless you play the game’s multiplayer mode or use the clunky Mass Effect Datapad smartphone app, it can be much harder, if not impossible, to reach the very best conclusion.)
So, anyway, onto that ending. And, in case I didn’t say it loudly enough before, SPOILERS.
The ending, by which I mean the final few scenes, draws on two main sources, one good and one iffy. The first is the original Deus Ex game, where the main character is presented with a choice that will change the world (and apart from scale, the choices presented in Mass Effect 3 are identical). The second is The Matrix Reloaded, where a heretofore unsuspected god in the machine reveals himself and offers the main character an insight into the true reasons behind the conflict they’ve participated in.
Now, I’m a completist. I scoured every inch of the galaxy in all three games, and I only found one hint, late in the third game, that there was some director behind the massive threat of the Reapers. So there was a lack of impact to him when he showed up. Secondly, of the three choices you’re offered, one of them is barely explained, even though it seems to be the preferred option from the designers’ point of view. So on the front of emerging from the choices that the character has made and the story that he or she has experienced, the ending falls short. However, I do love the fact that all three choices in the ending adhere to the theme of sacrifice, either of yourself or of at least one friend and possibly an entire race, in order to ensure the galaxy’s future.
Anyone who’s tried to put together a compelling narrative will tell you that endings are hard. Providing a pay off for a story as big as Mass Effect was always going to be a massive task, and I can see where Bioware wanted to go with the ending: consequences at a scale appropriate to the tale being told and a sense of closure to Shepard’s personal journey. However, Peter Jackson spent half an hour on the ending/epilogue for his Lord of the Rings trilogy, so fan disappointment at the two brief cut scenes that round off the Mass Effect series is understandable.
Still, that doesn’t mean that the final game in the series isn’t worth playing. It’s a compelling, finely crafted narrative wrapped up in a polished storytelling and gameplay engine, and it’s done horrible things to my productivity over the past week. Even if it doesn’t spot the landing perfectly, it still engages and enthralls throughout its performance and is worthy of the high scores that it’s been getting.