I have avoided any plot-specific spoilers in this review, and reading it will not reveal any details about how the story unfolds or concludes. Clearly if you want to avoid knowing anything at all about the game, or seeing images from it, then look away now. Otherwise...
It's done. Commander Shepard has taken the final steps in the grand science fiction tale of the Mass Effects. Now there is only the aftermath, the discussion, the opinions, the DLC, and the inevitable retrospectives. Here's Wot I Think.
The completion of an epic story usually contains an unavoidable thread of melancholy. The actions and ideas that gripped you are concluding, the characters are passing into legend, and the events that meant something to you are over. This feeling of something significant having breathed its last is never clearer than at the closing moments of of the Mass Effect trilogy.
It's been easy for me to dismiss Mass Effect over the years. It is just Star Trek with more blood. It's just Guns & Conversation. It's just Starship Troopers with dicey trans-lunar moral dilemmas. It's just... I really don't want to just lazily quip away what Bioware have tried to do here. Even putting aside the endless high-bandwidth hyperbole stream being emitted from the blackhole mouth of Electronic Arts, there's something hefty in this final game.
Mass Effect 3 goes out on a big note. A galactic note. A giant, infra-sonic ultra-low frequency alien scream of a note. The endings are monumental, and the final battle is one that I couldn't help being moved by. I know, I'm a big old fool, but sometimes a videogame with sad-eyed aliens and the end of all life in the universe is enough to raise some kind of response in there.
As you are likely aware, Mass Effect 3 is the episode in which The Reapers, the vast, ancient, unfathomable anti-life peril which threatens the galaxy, finally turns up to make its move. That move is full-scale galactic war, and there's barely a moment to say hello to familiar space chums before an roaring, breath-taking torrent of lasers and bio-horror ensues.
You can perhaps tell from the way I am describing this stuff, but I want to state that Mass Effect 3 gets the pitch of this desperate space war just right. Unlike the other games, where there's a lot of team-assembling and side-missioning to pootle around in before really getting it on with the Big Bad, here there is only war. And a lot of death. You think there were a lot of dead people in the previous games? Think again.
This backdrop gives a peculiar urgency to proceedings, because you are all too aware that every second counts, at least as far as the story is concerned. You can, of course, still take your time to pursue the numerous side missions, but Bioware have been clever enough to make them feel like another essential beat in the tune of galactic struggle. A couple of missions time out, too, if you fail to attend to them. The march of The Reapers is, the game stresses, relentless.
For obvious reasons I can't go into too much detail in these missions, but the sum of their parts is that you must bring a certain amount of the warring galactic factions to bear on the enemy, and the more of them you bring, the better things will be for everybody. Of course, thanks to the intense and complex web of politics and resentment that the previous games have outlined, none of this comes easy, and the consequences of brutal decisions can be quite shocking. Not everyone will make it to the last supper. This Mass Effect, for the first time in the series, saw me make a decision where I genuinely regretted what I done. Really, I thought to myself, that was the wrong choice, even if I was pursuing the most brutal renegade course of action. And the consequences were horrifying.
What I am saying is that, yes, Mass Effect 3 is the darkest and most urgent of the games. The story is bold and ruthless, and I enjoyed it enormously. Of course what I enjoyed most was my decisions playing into it all. What I can't quite imagine is what someone would get out of choosing this screen at the start of the game:
Yes, the question “is Mass Effect really an RPG?” can now be answered with “only if you actually choose that option at the start”. Needless to say, I chose this option instead:
But I could have chosen this one, below, and by the end of the game I sort of wish that I had. I started to think about John's skippable combat nonsense. Oh how I scoffed at the time.
What Mass Effect 3's standard, “role-playing” setting did for me – other than play the minor notes on my heart-strings – was to make me realise that I loathe the game's combat. Strong words, and I'm sorry to say this in front of those numerous folks who enjoy attaching themselves to ME's scenery, but I just can't like it this time around. I mean, I thought I liked it in Mass Effect 2. And even 1 was okay. But here... It's not that the combat is ever particularly difficult, or even that it is broken in any way. It works fine. As intended. It hasn't even changed much. As ever: stay in cover and make sure you allow time for your shield to recharge, and pretty much every battle is done. It's rather that it can be a serious grind, and never more so than in the battles in the second two thirds of Mass Effect 3.
The issue is basically down to the way that the challenge has been upped with lots of very high hit-point enemies. Each one has to be ground down, shield, armour, and so on. The result is less thrilling space soldier exploits, and more waist-high-cover-attrition, with you carefully emptying each gun into enormous walking hit-point bins. After a dozen hours it becomes a bit much. I can't say I'd really noticed this grind so much in the previous games, although it was clearly still there. Mass Effect 3's attempts to be a little more hardcore seem to have amplified issues that were already present. It is not, after all, significantly different in its execution. Perhaps I've had my fill of this sort of combat, and I am totally certain these criticisms will be swept aside by the majority of Mass Effect fans, but the feeling is still there. I struggled to enjoy it and by the end was feeling quite dissatisfied.
Also, to my dismay, I sank a huge number of points into melee – because I like to be able to beat things down with my bare hands or the butt of a rifle – only to discover that a huge number of enemies in the late game have instant-kill melee moves, making my points entirely wasted, and pushing me back into ranged weapons. (Only two of which in the entire game I actually found much application for. The pistols were too crappy, the sniper rifles too slow.)
Yes, I've spent much of the past few days grumbling and griping about various irritating action bits in Mass Effect 3. One of them is, heart-breakingly, an action mini-game entrée to the most moving part of the game. It was a pay-off that felt like an enormous relief: at least I was rewarded for grinding my way through that arbitrary insta-death scene with an astonishingly memorable bit of grief-stricken game-story.
All this is a difficult sort of thing for me to swallow, to be honest. To realise that I dislike one of an otherwise fine game's most central mechanics – because ME is basically about shooting aliens and then having a chat (Guns & Conversation Classic Mode) – and yet to have been thrilled by most other aspects of it. It's somehow worse for me that the best bit is the story. When it comes to games I will almost always defer to mechanical systems, physical activity, player-stuff, rather than story and all the jazz and lights that go with that. Here, though, it was always the story that dominated my enjoyment. I feel like The Witcher 2, Skyrim and Amalur are all actually far more fun to play from moment to moment, because I just can't get with ME3's gun combat. But then again, there's everything else about the game.
There's Sheen's Illusive Man and the entire Cerberus sub-plot, which is by magnitudes my favourite part of the story. There's the sheer bleakness of it: Shepard rolling about in nightmares while pretty much every location in the game is devastated and on fire. It heaps more and more difficulties onto you, more and more responsibility for catastrophe, and frames it all with a brilliant, poignant soundtrack.
EA have done a bit to wax about Clint Mansell to coming aboard to do the soundtrack, and they weren't wrong. The team of Christopher Lennertz, Cris Velasco, Sam Hulick and Sasha Dikicyan aces it, underscoring the entire game with a sense of doom, with a few moments of gentle, ambient lightness as the characters set out hopes for the future they may never see. It's beautiful. In fact I would say all the audio stands apart from the previous two games – the best aspect of the combat is just how punchy the effects are, and it's the audio that sells every impact and detonation. Really stand out stuff.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that Mass Effect 3 is an apt culmination to the series, and particularly apt to my personal experience of the trilogy. No, I never really did like the way it handled combat, and that has been lit up neon for me here. Yes, I did love the characters and cast, and the sci-fi world they were set to inhabit. Yeah, it was a bit generic space soldiery, and a legion of Space Opera others had been here before, but that hardly mattered. When Mass Effect 3 hit the ground running, I found myself unexpectedly caught up in its events. It dragged me along, and I was glad to see it move so fast, and cover so much ground. It's a big game, and a worthy conclusion.
It's hard to see where Bioware will go from here, but I think are some reasons to be cheerful, whatever the dark fate of that particular galaxy, and despite the messages about purchasing future DLC that appear to interrupt your elegiac moment at the end of the game.