Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Review

Days after finishing Mass Effect 3, I find myself still haunted by a decision I made midway through my 30-hour campaign to rally the galaxy against the invasion of giant chthonic god-machines known as "the Reapers." It's the sort of decision that had me truly wracking my brain and deliberating over how the options the game offered me were no longer simply "good Boy Scout" versus "bad boy Bauer" (from 24, a show that the developers at BioWare have frequently mentioned in reference to the general attitude of a player who follows the "Renegade" path) as in previous Mass Effect installments. Both decisions contributed to the greater good; but they also involved the possibility of triggering a war between two species and betraying a long-trusted friend who's been with Commander Shepard -- and by extension, me -- for the past two games over the course of five years.
This kind of moment -- one where I'm caught between bleak and bleaker -- comes up frequently in Mass Effect 3. What's remarkable is that this was a choice affected by decisions I made as far back as the original Mass Effect in 2007. I knew my choice would have tangible consequences on the rest of my ME3 play-through; in many cases, the consequences didn't become obvious until hours later. That's a video game storytelling device first seen in The Witcher, and I'm glad BioWare has picked up on it, though it's not as prevalent in ME3.
It's not just that one moment, either. A man I told off in the first game shows up in ME3, forcing me to juggle his fate versus that of the known galaxy. An in-the-moment impulse that I had indulged in for Mass Effect 2 rears its head in a boss battle for Mass Effect 3. My choice in a ME2 loyalty mission -- which I justified as the right decision at the time -- subsequently prevents me from fulfilling a promise I had made to another ME1 character. A cynic could reduce most of these decisions and interactions into a giant Mad Lib where the game either inserts a known-and-living character from previous games or a generic nobody to fulfill a needed story role, but for someone like me who's swept up with the fiction and has personal attachment to my save file, I can excuse the incredible array of coincidences that lead to me re-encountering every person I know in the galaxy for this go-around. For me, seeing this labyrinthine interplay between decisions and their consequences stands out most during my ME3 playthrough.

That's a tall feat in itself considering how, on a gameplay level, Mass Effect 3 stands triumphant over its predecessors. Practically every criticism of the previous games has been addressed or mitigated for this installment. Hated the hacking minigames that had Shepard match circuits or strings of computer code? Those are gone in favor of a basic timer that simulates Shepard hacking or bypassing the objective. Thought strip-mining planets was tedious? Scanning now works on a system level, and moves much more quickly; it's still something of a weak point, where scanning systems for artifacts becomes silly busywork, but it's nowhere as toilsome as scanning for minerals in ME2. Hated the last game's limited array of weapons? Your arsenal includes all of those, plus some new and distinct ones; I particularly favor the new Scorpion pistol that fires weird little sticky glops of explosives. Moreover, each weapon can host two modifications to help fine-tune and customize your load-out, similar to the weapon attachments in a first-person shooter. Bothered by how straightforward each squadmate's skill tree was in ME2? Instead of simply deciding between two branches at the end of each skill's highest rank (rank six), you now make similar (and non-repeating) branching decisions for ranks four through six. This may not allow for true min-maxing like classic RPGs, but between weapon mods, armor types, and skill allocations, different and very distinct "builds" of the same Shepard class and his squadmates can now exist.
While ME3 adds many tweaks and changes in response to player and critic feedback, the most significant change comes from how combat has evolved from a the sense that it's not good (but that's OK because it's a hybrid RPG-shooter) to something that can actually compete with pure cover-based third-person shooters. Sure, you can tweak the ratio of combat-to-RPG with story, action, and RPG mode selectors at the start of the game (and you're free to tweak the game with option menu sliders afterwards), but those are imperfect and somewhat haphazard tweaks. Good combat but auto-dialogue? Full storytelling and decision-making but boring combat? The "RPG" setting provides the best mix of action-RPG gameplay that the series has been refining since the start, and this installment solidifies the great blend of shooting-and-talking that the first game strived for. 

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