Mass Effect 3 Review Week: Joe’s Review
I still remember loading the original Mass Effect into my Xbox on Christmas Day, 2007, and creating the Commander Shepard that I have played as ever since. It felt like I was creating my own personal avatar to explore a wondrous new reality, and the bond I formed with her that day proved to be a lasting one. When Mass Effect 3 was released, my excitement was dulled by sadness. Even with hundreds of hours played over two games, I wasn’t nearly ready to say goodbye to Annika Shepard. But the drive to see her journey completed won out over my trepidation, and I began to play.
My experience didn’t get off to a good start. While importing my data into the game, I was greeted with an error message, informing me that my Shepard’s face could not be carried over, and would have to be recreated. This proved impossible, since some of the options I used to create her five years ago simply weren’t available. After grinding through hours of fan made utilities and workarounds, I finally managed to create a person I would best describe as my Shepard’s older half sister. It was a terribly deflating way to begin Mass Effect 3, and I still cannot fathom how this game shipped without the ability to import faces made in the original Mass Effect. It was an oversight that only punishes the game’s most loyal fans, and is, quite frankly, inexcusable.
Aside from the face import issue, the first thing I noticed about Mass Effect 3 was that the game looked absolutely gorgeous. From the smallest touches, like steam rising from a cup of coffee, to the most grandiose spectacle, like a two kilometer high Reaper tearing through an Asari metropolis, the game was a beautiful sight to behold. Seemingly everything in the game world had been given an extra layer of polish, with environments so full of things to look at, I often found myself getting lost in the details.
The combat in Mass Effect 3 was more enjoyable than ever, and unfolded with an intensity, variety, and fluidity that surprised me. The selection of firearms and powers, and the ability to customize them, found the sweet spot between the often overwhelming amount of options in the first game, and the stripped down system of Mass Effect 2. The work bench, where I was able to add visible mods to my weapons, was also a great addition. Even loadout screens had been given new layers of customization. Guns now had weight, which affected how quickly powers recharged. Finding the right balance was a challenge, but a very clever and engaging one.
While presentation and combat obviously received a lot of attention, other areas of the game seemed to suffer. Dialog choices felt more limited, with fewer investigative options. Many conversations eliminated the dialog wheel completely, relying instead on repetitive taps of the A button. Planet scanning felt arbitrary and random. Scan one planet, find credits. Scan another, find a Turian battle fleet. While not particularly fun, at least the scanning system in Mass Effect 2 made sense. Worst of all, the quest journal was downright broken. It rarely updated the status of quests, and occasionally didn’t even tell me where the quests took place. Stripping away the functionality of such a core role playing utility baffled me.
But enough about the gameplay. I was always more interested in my Shepard’s story, and the characters she met along the way. As the conclusion to the series, Mass Effect 3 was where I expected to see all those decisions I made, all those friendships I started, and all those alliances I forged in the previous two games pay off. And to a large extent, they did. In this game, the various people Shepard got to know throughout the trilogy felt more like real people than ever before, and for the first time, truly appeared to be living lives of their own. They reminisced about past adventures, shared their hopes and fears for the future, and even wandered around the ship in between missions, carrying on conversations with each other, independent of Shepard.
The person I was looking forward to reconnecting with most was Liara, the woman my Shepard fell in love with in the first game, and had remained loyal to throughout the trilogy. Their reunion early in the game was pitch perfect, and despite a glitched conversation, and an instance late in the game when Shepard had to awkwardly remind Liara that she wanted to be more than friends, their romance weaved a heartwarming thread through an often bleak tapestry. It took five years, but finally getting to see my Shepard tell Liara that she loved her was worth the wait.
Which brings me, inevitably, to the end. While I don’t hate the ending, I do consider it a failure, primarily due to an abrupt and profound shift in perspective. Mass Effect, at least to me, was always a personal, intimate experience. I was always focused on my Shepard, how she viewed each situation, and what she was feeling in every moment. After pulling off seemingly impossible victories in the last two games, I trusted her to pull off one more miracle. But there was nothing miraculous about the end of Mass Effect 3. In the final minutes of the game, that intimacy and trust was removed, and I became a spectator to a series of increasingly discordant conversations and cutscenes which, while answering some big questions, alienated me from my own creation. While I can appreciate what the ending was trying to accomplish, I think it failed to take advantage of Mass Effect’s greatest strength: the bonds players had with their Shepards. I was left looking back on Annika’s life, wondering how much of it actually mattered, and whether or not there was hope for a future; not just for her, but for the galaxy as a whole. Not exactly how I envisioned my Mass Effect journey would end.