You can read this review in full in our print edition.
Our April issue, which is on sale March 14, features an in-depth Post Script article on why Mass Effect's moral choices don't always add up to a greater sense of freedom .
The galaxy’s at war. Three chapters in, and the weight of numerous entangling plot strands has come crashing down on BioWare’s universe. The genocidal Reapers have torn through non-Citadel space, arriving at Earth just in time for Commander Shepard’s last-ditch attempt to get Alliance forces to heed her (or his) warnings. Cerberus, meanwhile, has finally shown its true colours, with the affably evil Martin Sheen making a sinister power play of his own. And as for the Krogan, the Turians, the Salarians, the Quarians and the Asari? Rest assured that two games’ worth of simmering inter-species rivalry and intra-species political issues are about to come to an angry, spitting boil.
In other words, ignore EA’s absurd claim that this ?is “the beginning, the middle, and the end” of the Mass Effect series, because it’s precisely one-third right. Despite the presence of newbie squadmate James Vega (redeemed from Jacob levels of dullness by Freddie Prinze, Jr) attempting to provide a fresh pair of eyes for beginners, this is undeniably a third and final act. BioWare’s gutsy decision to kick off with the galaxy-wide invasion in the opening minutes only reinforces a breathless pace that really doesn’t have any patience for first-time players lagging behind and wondering exactly who a clutch of returning characters are supposed to be.
That war trickles down into every aspect of Mass Effect 3. Scanning has been reimagined as a panicky ?rush through Reaper-controlled systems. Tap the scan button and the Normandy will send out a pulse that highlights planets with supplies, but also draws the attention of nearby Reaper forces. The first and second games’ civilian locations are mostly absent, meetings with key NPCs now take place on the Normandy (giving a suitably dramatic war-room feel, but coming at the cost of planetside hubs), while the missions drop you straight into the action. And although the sidequests still offer the same bite-sized chunks of universe-building sidestories and action they have done in past games, here they’ve been turned towards a grander purpose. In Mass Effect 3, everything you do earns supplies, troops and allies that feed into a metric measuring your readiness for war.
It’s a setup that requires a stricter primary questline than Mass Effect 1 and 2. Whereas the first two titles would – once introductions were out of the way – ?hand players a selection of missions and then let them approach them in the order they saw fit, Mass Effect 3 dictates its order of events. This, inevitably, makes ?for a much stronger sense of dissonance between the momentum of its primary plot and the myriad distractions it offers alongside it. Many RPGs are ?guilty of this, of course, but it’s something that Mass Effect 2 – which saw the BioWare team-building structure become the entire point of Shepard’s mission – for the most part managed to elegantly avoid.
One early mission sends you from a central hub containing a key NPC into three cramped skirmishes with Reaper forces, and by the end you’ll be feeling less thrilled than fatigued. Add in a few too many instances where you’re asked to fire from a mounted turret or ?to pilot a giant mech, and it’s hard not to come away with the sense you’re playing a second-rate Gears Of War. That said, the game’s improved melee abilities do ?patch a hole in Shepard’s arsenal, making for smoother transitions between long- and close-range combat scenarios and dovetailing devastatingly with the vanguard class’s ability to teleport straight into enemies’ faces in the blink of an eye.
Fortunately, Mass Effect has always been about ?its detailed universe, and the choices you make within it. In that sense, this latest chapter offers some of the most difficult moral dilemmas we’ve faced since the ambiguities of Alpha Protocol. Much of its success lies with what appears to be a mild rethink of renegade Shepard. There are still traces of angry petulance, and opportunities to be cruel or sadistic for no good reason, but the comedic reporter-punching moments of the previous games have been (mostly) tuned down in favour of ‘evil’ options that represent nothing more ?than a realist’s pragmatism. Frequently demanding ?that players weigh up personal sense of obligation to teammates against the good of the galaxy, Mass Effect 3 will at times sorely trouble players who have taken a morally upstanding route through the series thus far. ?It might even make them question what a morally upstanding route truly is. And while the most interesting choices have been reserved for the primary questline, the sidequests have also benefited. Since they’re no longer self-contained, you’ll be going through many with a careful eye on the outcomes that will maximise your effectiveness in the war effort, or you’ll be gleefully choosing to disregard them.
It’s a third and final chapter, then, with all that implies. It’s off-putting to new players, too busy tying up loose ends to dangle any threads of its own, and fails to stand up as its own game in the same manner as its predecessors. But it’s also a spectacular, powerfully imagined and dramatically involving final act to one of gaming’s richest sci-fi sagas.