Thursday, March 22, 2012

Video Game Review: Mass Effect 3

So, where was I?

Oh yeah, reviewing things all up in there. And this time around we've got something pretty epic to review, namely Mass Effect 3, which came out earlier this month after years of build up -- and, according to many sources, provided a great deal of let down.

With that in mind I'm going to cut right to the chase and address the controversy over the ending of the game. For those of you who don't sleep with a controller under your pillow, some fans were upset -- and extremely vocal about it -- over the ending because they felt that, after three games worth of being able to affect every aspect of game play with your decisions, nothing you do at the end has any consequence.

Now, this is not an entirely unwarranted complaint, because, without getting into too many spoilers, all three of the possible end scenarios feature nearly identical build-ups and epilogues. However, at the risk of getting too semantic on y'all, I didn't really have such a big issue with this because while it's true that your decisions don't affect game play much at he end, they do have a huge effect on the future of the Mass Effect universe. It's simply that none of those affects are actually shown to the player.

Granted, I might be splitting hairs, because either way your actual playing experience is going to be nearly identical no matter what you chose at the end. But within the context of the story, your choice literally decides the fate of every living being and civilization in the entire galaxy. And for me, I was into the story -- the feel of the universe -- so much that knowing my decision had such massive consequences was enough, even though I couldn't actually see any of those consequences in-game.

Honestly, I'm not sure that makes any sense, but the bottom line is that while I do wish BioWare had spent a little more time giving us unique endings for each decision so that the experience felt more complete, what they did give us was epic enough for my tastes anyway.

That's because, before you get to the ending, you do have to make major choices that, even if they don't change the ending, drastically change the gaming experience both for the player and for the main character. Like the both the Dragon Age games and the previous Mass Effect games, BioWare has crafted a game that makes you think about the consequences and potential consequences of your actions more than any other game I've ever played.

And the ending aside, those consequences are often dire and permanent. Again, without giving too many spoilers, there was one decision in particular that I had to agonize over and after seeing the terrible consequences of my decision, I felt compelled to replay the previous 45 minutes of the game in order to choose a different option. BioWare must hold the record for the most extended pauses in gaming history, because I often found myself staring at a menu, unable to decide whether to cut off my left hand of my right foot. Sometimes no matter what you choose, something crappy happens and that's why, as the commander, you are called upon to make the tough decisions.

Mutliplayer: Another thing that has a bug up some people's ass is the multiplayer in Mass Effect 3, which frankly I think is pretty sweet. In Multiplayer, you join a four person squad sent to some random outpost to battle Reapers, Geth or Cerberus agents. The actual missions themselves are pretty much always the same, but what's interesting about the system is that playing in multi-player affects your single player campaign. The more missions you complete in multiplayer, the higher your "galactic readiness" score is in single player, which in turn affects which cutscene you get during the ending of the game.

Now, obviously, there are those who don't think multi-player should affect single player. But for me, I found this to be unexpectedly enriching in terms of universe building. As Commander Shepherd, you spend your time on high level missions, protecting diplomats and building coalitions, all while the Reapers are attacking across the galaxy. By playing in multi-player, where you control other, customizable characters, it provides a glimpse into just what is happening on the ground around the galaxy, the soldiers who are buying you the time you need to finish your mission, often with their lives.

Plus, when you get to level cap in multi-player (which, at 20, is not hard to do), you can promote your character to single player, at which point in your single player campaign, Shepherd gains a new war asset -- i.e. your fully trained commando -- to help raise your galactic readiness and military strength more. I found it to be really well thought out over all; even if it lacks a little in variety, it makes up for it by enriching the single player experience even more.

Technical: The graphics are very nice, though there are some random clipping issues sometimes during cutscenes. The game froze on me a couple of times as well, but more irritating were a couple of rare brain farts from BioWare, again during the ending cutscenes. Specifically, the cutscenes showed members of my crew doing things that they could not possibly have been doing due to the fact that I had selected those specific team members to join me for the final mission. I'm not sure how that slipped through.

On the other hand, the game really is pioneering a new type of immersive experience by importing data from the previous games, so that choices you make in Mass Effect 1 or 2 have lasting repercussions; characters that died during my suicide mission at the end of Mass Effect 2 remained dead for me in Mass Effect 3, while they are available for players who made different choices in previous games. It's really amazing.

And the voice acting is stellar.

My Grades: Despite the wonky ending, I still think Mass Effect 3 is a masterpiece. The ending and some of the technical glitches, though, force me to only give it an A- overall. The game does get some bonus points for its inclusive take on sexual and gender issues, though; the gay pilot mourning his dead husband was an interesting subplot and given the testosterone-jacked nature of at least some parts of gaming culture, may be a step in the right direction towards opening some minds.