The end of Commander Shepard’s story seems to have caused some sort of ruckus on the World Wide Web lately. I see this as people really loving the franchise and failing to understand the artistic choices in the ending. I’m keeping the story aspect of the review for last, this review will contain spoilers, although I’ll try to keep it vague. Disclaimer: I’m one of the few people who loves the ending.
While the Mass Effect games are listed as RPGs, I really see them more as interactive movies and as such, the characters are the most important aspect to me, be it Shepard, his squadmates or the villains. You know, I didn’t count them in the credits, but there were probably more than 100 voice actors in this game; that’s a lot and there were a lot of people to meet in this game. Some old faces, some new. The first thing you realize when you play ME3 are the improvements BioWare did to how they present the characters in the game. We have seen some of it in Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 2, but here we have what I think what they really wanted to achieve.
First, prominent characters (like Garrus and Liara) have four modes of interaction: normal cutscenes, banter while on missions, cutscenes while on missions and interaction amongst themselves aboard the Normandy. The cutscenes are similar to what we had in ME1 and 2, except that some squadmates get a lot more than others and you can have some conversations in different areas in the Citadel as well. Joker and EDI get their share, too and have a cute storyline of their own. Also, the Citadel conversations can be easy to miss, so I took the habit of going back to the Citadel before/after doing “priority” missions. Sometimes there wasn’t anything new to hear, but well, I didn’t want to miss any.
The banter while on missions is similar to what Lair of the Shadow Broker (LotSB) had with Liara, except it mixes Shepard and the other squadmate, not just the ones forced on the mission (happens in a few mission only). Some scripted events happen on the missions and the team comments on it. (There’s some funny stuff here.) There is also a version of this where the player has to click something to generate a squadmate’s response (ME2 had these), but most of the time, they trigger when you reach a certain spot. This improves the interactivity of the whole squad and makes them feel more alive.
The cutscenes while on missions is similar to what we had in ME2, i.e. the squadmates interjecting lines while talking to another character or squadmate. Except that here, we also get these during the mission briefing in the shuttle. Yep, all real quests have briefings, this adds quite a bit to the ambiance. Not all squadmates interact equally, unlike in ME2 where everybody pretty much said the same thing in the same spot. Here, there are specific dialogue triggers for specific companions.
Finally, the biggest improvement from my point-of-view: the characters talk to each other! (Over the comm or in person.) Sometimes you are going to want to talk to Garrus, but he’s not calibrating the gun, so you’ll have to search for him in the ship. Of course, these are all scripted, but you get nice “moments” between the ship’s crew this way. Also, after some missions, certain characters will have comments, but these won’t generate a cutscene. So you have to wait to hear everything they have to say and click on them so they can talk. Shepard will sometimes respond to what they say, too. Somehow I prefer this over the cutscenes for small banter. You can also do this with the Shepard VI (something from the second game) and what he says depends on your Renegade/Paragon score.
ME3 is an improved of ME2 gameplay wise, it incorporate some ideas from ME1 as well. First we get fewer generic abilities upgrades, visible weapon stats, and the return of weapon modifications. Although my favorite change is probably the “inventory,” where you get to select what guns your squad is using before leaving for a mission and each time you find a new weapon on a map. I played my vanguard with a single shotgun to maximize ability recharge time.
We also see the return of the ME1 mission briefings/debriefings, but this is an improved version. This time there’s a lot more variation on who gives you missions. As for the missions themselves, they were totally different from what we had in the previous games. There were a lot of missions with a section that was “pick one squadmate to repair X while you get shot at,” but overall I think the game is missing “side quests.” Everything feels like it’s part of the main story, because they all seems to be about “recruiting” people for the war. You also only fight two group of enemies: Cerberus operatives and different types of husk. This game lacks “merc” enemies.
There is also another improvement to the game: the addition of climbing and jumping over specific spots made for an interesting level design. It is still corridor after corridor, but it doesn’t feel like it. Although, I think that most missions were too short and I might have spent more time talking than shooting at things. ME3 is much more cinematic than the previous games too, using something BioWare first started in LotSB, where cutscenes make Shepard move around.
In terms of control, Shepard can now roll, but on the PC, that’s tagged to the same key as taking cover, running faster and moving over a cover: the space bar! Can be a bit annoying. We also get a new “mini-game” for the system scanning. Not sure what to think of that one, it’s a bit annoying and required if you want the best ending *cough* unless you use gibbed editor *cough*. Also, hopefully BioWare will issue a patch soon, because I encountered a couple of bugs that forced me to restart a mission.
Now to the story. I think we can classify ME3 as Shepard’s descent to hell. It’s an emotional games for anybody who loved ME1 and ME2 and its characters. In fact, BioWare succeed in making you feel for the characters. The game will punch you in the guts. Just like Shepard. The “main story” is really in the background here and how Shepard feels is the forefront of the story. Everybody probably asks him once or twice if she/he feel all right, too.
In fact, this is the reason why I love the ending. It feels surreal, it sounds surreal, and it makes no sense… unless you pay attention to the signs. Which is what people missed, the ending is treated as if the player was Shepard. This means everything on the screen is shown through Shepard’s eyes. You feel anger, hopelessness, get easily swayed by the choices offered because of this. Also, with this approach, there is no epilogue, because, well, the story ends with Shepard’s last choices. Which I think is what people are really frustrated about. You don’t see the “payoff” of the choices you made since the first game and you have no idea what happened to most of the characters either. I’m fine with it, I expect a ME4 that will explain a few of these things, or a DLC.
Another cool aspect of the story is how your choices in the previous game affect this one. There’s a good example right at the start, where you get a few exchanges with VS only if you imported a save from the previous game (Virmire Survivor: Kaidan or Ashley from the first game). In fact, BioWare suggests playing the game with a default ME3 character first. I started a “default” Shepard and so far it’s quite different from my first playthrough, because the default Shepard has pre-determined choices that were quite different from mine. Lots of things are the same, but I can’t make the same decisions here, because the variables have changed.
The only things I don’t like from a story point-of-view is that, unlike ME1 and ME2, it’s a lot more linear. In ME1 and ME2 you were free to choose which planet to visit or which squadmates to recruit among a list. Here the main quest will bring you from planet to planet without variety. Side quests are given to you at specific points in the game as well and some of them have different outcomes depending on “when” you do them, but that’s about it. The replay value is really in the different choices made in the previous games when you import a character from ME2. I also think the quests are too short and I miss the ME1 quest hub. Here the quest hub is the Normandy.
Wrex! How I missed you. *hug* This reflects well I how felt about the characters here. All your squadmates from the previous games (if they are alive) plus some NPCs are back. You get dialogues and quests with some of them as well. And lots and lots of self-deprecating humor, especially with Garrus and his calibration of the Normandy gun. While playing ME3, I realized that I liked the cast of the first game a lot more than the one in the second game. There’s nothing like seeing Liara and Wrex all buddy-buddy. The only exception would be Samara, Thane and Mordin, they were my favorite ME2 squadmates and I love their stories in ME3. Really powerful stuff.
Note that I played with an imported character from ME2 that had an active Liara romance. So my character experience was tainted by this. Although, from what I saw, the romance doesn’t add scenes, well, besides the “sex” one. It just make some of them sweeter. Like a kiss on the cheek or a funny comment about you and your romanced character from others. I’ve seen a couple of YouTube videos and Garrus seems to have a similar aspect with his romance. But Garrus is too much of a bro for me to ever try to romance him (and you need to have romanced him in ME2 to continue with it in ME3).
Speaking of Liara, she has lots of scenes in the game. She’s the only squadmate that is forced on you for two different missions. We get to see her father with a lot of funny exchanges and she’s essential for the main quest to advance. Except this time you don’t get to decide when to “recruit” her. Also, the fate of the galaxy depends on one of her hunches, which is a bit weird. She also has the longest romance scene in the game. It’s actually the romance that pays off the most from ME1 onward, especially if you add Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC for ME2. People who have the Collector Edition or pay for the From Ashes DLCs are also given a few more scenes with Liara and the DLC squadmate Javik.
We also get a lot more of Anderson, Udina and Admiral Hackett in this game and a couple of other minor characters from the previous games and spinoff book/comic series. Vega is the only new squadmate addition, unless you have the From Ashes DLC. At first I though I was going to hate him, but he’s all right and I’m impressed by Freddy Prince Jr.’s voice acting here.
ME3 is a must for anybody who has been a fan of the first and second game in the franchise. Although, expect to not appreciate the ending so much, because it’s not “conclusive” enough.