Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Graduation Day - Mass Effect 3 (Xbox 360)


The Good: Like its predecessors, Mass Effect 3 does a great job of combining RPG and action elements with the ever enjoyable paragon/rebel decision system to create an amazing journey through this very climactic end of the best video game trilogy in recent memory.

The Bad: With a game this big there are bound to be a few bugs such as collision physics issues. The multiplayer feature seems forced and gets old very fast due to its repetitive nature.

The Glitchy: Having played through the entire trilogy as my male Shepard, the decisions you made even as far back as the original have an effect on this final installment, which is a great feature for loyal gamers of the franchise. Also, the decisions in Mass Effect 3 are much, much heavier than the last two combined, especially at the end of it all.

I’ll be straight with you, readers – I’m a sucker for trilogies. Say what you will about their tendency to appear somewhat of a money-grab, and the fact that the majority of them are comprised of a great first movie and sub-par sequels, but I’m a sucker for the triple threat. Doesn't matter if it’s Star Wars, Fable, Jurassic Park, or Indiana Jones, I have a weakness when things come in threes. Mass Effect is no different, and while I’ve played my fair share of trilogy video games (Bioshock, Sonic, and DKC to name a few) this space drama is by far my favorite.

This is in no small part because of the final installment where all your decisions and action across this 100+ hour epic tale come to their climax in what is possibly the most gut-wrenching ending to a series I've ever experienced. Loyal fans who've led their Commander Shepard through hell and back will get their money’s worth, but even those who chose to start their romp across the galaxy later in the series will find plenty to enjoy. Hell, even as a member of the loyalists I found myself wanting to experience the whole thing again, starting with the first installment. Let’s break down why as Mass Effect 3 gets its Graduation Day.

Is this the greatest trilogy in modern gaming history? If not, it's close.

Graphics: I know that with the release of the Xbox One and PS4 recently, a lot of opinions are starting to shift on what makes a game graphically beautiful. Sure, when you stack a game like Mass Effect 3 on the Xbox 360 (which is the platform I played it on) against a next gen game, it’s going to show its fair share of wrinkles. But put this game in a fair fight, and it will impress. For such a massive game that relies on exploring a galaxy comprised of literally billions of stars, it doesn't disappoint with details, scenes, and lighting that are, ahem, out of this world. =3

Character design was always a favorite of mine in this series, and Mass Effect 3 has taken all that practice from the first two games (beautiful as well) and made their characters truly remarkable. From Asari skin to Krogan scars to Turian snarls, every detail is accounted for and expressed with such quality that you’d swear they modeled them after real beings. Honestly, the worst species of the bunch is humanity which pales in comparison, so much so that it made me want to be a Turian because humans just looked so…blah side-by-side. Even ships and planets have a sense of realism, making the Normandy feel as if it could be alive.

But the winners by far are the cut scenes. I guess it harkens back to my Final Fantasy days on the PS1/PS2, but I love cut-scenes for their beauty. They’re few and far between in Mass Effect 3, but they’ll well worth the wait. Still, with a game as beautiful as this, picking a winner just seems to do a disservice the rest of the gorgeous graphics you see throughout. And with rarely a texture out of place, Shepard’s swan song gets high marks for its looks.

An example of a gorgeous, albeit creepy, cut scene.

Sound: If there’s one thing that the trilogy has done just okay, it’s voice-acting. Perhaps I would feel this way if the game wasn't almost entirely scripted around player decisions, but alas that break created in the dialogue as a result just detracts from any quality voice-acting done by the cast. At times the delay was more than noticeable and drew my focus away from the actual dialogue, and while that was disappointing it was in no way the norm. Still, it’s not the worst I've heard by a long shot, and Freddie Prinze Jr. voices a character in the game, so the 90s kid in me has to give the game extra credit on that alone.

The music in the game does a great job of setting the mood, but I found myself completely unaware of it most of the time. This can actually be a good thing when you’re simply trying to play the game without getting too distracted by the OST. This is certainly the case with Mass Effect 3 where the battle field is ever changing and enemies are coming at you hard and fast; there’s just no time to sit and be awed by the music. However, the soundtrack does a great job of setting the mood for action when it’s necessary. You definitely know when things are about to ramp up, and when times get a bit more mellow or even intimate (read: filled with alien sex), the music sets the mood in a way that would make Barry White proud.

Can you guess which one is voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.?

Controls: If you, like me, have played the previous two installments of Mass Effect, then you know the controls work like a mix between an RTS, a shooter, and an RPG. While this may sound like an eclectic mix that would run afoul of troubles, you’d be surprised. While on the battle field, Shepard and Co. have an array of powers and weapons to take down anyone in their way, and to say combining these to obliterate your enemies is fun would be an understatement.

Whether it’s biotics, weapons, or tech, you can guide the tactics you and your crew use by the touch of a button. Some of your powers can be assigned to a “hot button” for quick use, and you can direct companions to certain spots for cover and/or better shots with the touch of the D-pad. While I didn't find myself using the latter much, it did come in handy when I found the AI to be less than adequate in staying alive on their own.

If, however, you need to combine those powers for better death-tolling efficiency, you can pause the action to bring up an attribute wheel. While pausing the action can seem a bit cheap when in the heat of a huge fire fight, while using it you appreciate that it doesn't take precious seconds away from the action. I found myself on occasion taking upwards of 30 seconds deciding which power(s) to use, precious time that could have been the difference between life and death in a battle with the Reapers. The pause allowed me to take my time if I needed it, and to ensure I made the right choice without rushing and making a mistake.

If you don't have a biotic in your squad, you're doing it wrong.

As for weapon combat and movement, the controls worked smooth most of the time. Bioware went with a style those familiar with the Gears of War franchise will recognize. When the bullets start flying, cover is essential and the game allows you to use a “roadie run” of sorts to reach cover quickly. And while in cover, you can move around and switch areas of cover with relative ease. However, there were two issues I had with the run and cover controls (both controlled by the same button): 1) moving from cover to cover sometimes worked, and sometimes didn't for seemingly no apparent reason, and 2) using the roadie run sometimes caused me to take cover in areas automatically even though I didn't want it. Unfortunately, these were more common than I'd have liked, making both issues impossible to ignore.

Still, despite those two admittedly minor issues (in the scope of a 30+ hour game), the controls handled very well, and at times I found myself forgetting there was even a controller in my hand, which is a sign that the game makes things easy for the player. Seeing as how this was Bioware’s 3rd game of the series, this was no huge surprise, and I’d be a very disappointed Mass Effect fan if the games controls betrayed me.

Gameplay: Mass Effect 3 is all about one thing – defeating the Reapers and saving the galaxy. But how did Bioware turn their familiar formula of zipping around the galaxy into an overall mission of “recruit or be destroyed”? Quite well, actually. Whereas the last game was all about recruiting the right people on the Normandy for a single-crew job at the end, Mass Effect 3 gives you a crew as you play (most of which is based on earlier game choices) and asks you to complete side quests leading up to the final battle with the Reapers. But these side missions aren't just used to give you a distraction from the main story – they play a very important role in saving the galaxy.

Most side missions involve gathering resources and military personnel that go towards your “Effective Military Strength” (EMS). This is essentially the metric that defines how successful your battle against the Reapers will be to save Earth. The side missions themselves are great, and offer great depth into the ever-evolving relationships between the many advanced species in the galaxy. Helping the Krogan to save the Turians save their planet can go a long way towards saving Earth when those two sides put aside their differences. And keeping with the “Butterfly Effect” themes of the Mass Effect series, quite a few side quests are influenced by past decisions, which makes them all the more enjoyable.

Still, completing side quests doesn't raise your EMS to its maximum. You need to raise your Galactic Readiness in order to make your EMS work for you. The galaxy is split into separate systems and each begins at 50% Galactic Readiness. This means that if you gather a military strength of 5000, your EMS will only be at 2500. This is where one of the weakest parts of Mass Effect 3 comes into play: the multiplayer.

Getting to 100% readiness is more obnoxious than it should be.

The only way to raise your Galactic Readiness, and thus your EMS, is to play hours of multiplayer. This automatically makes online play a chore rather than a fun distraction like the side quests. I found myself waking up to play Mass Effect 3 and having to convince myself to play multiplayer before the final battle with the Reapers. Don’t get me wrong – all on its own the multiplayer can be fun. You and 4 other players team up to fight enemy forces in one of the galactic systems in a series of up to 11 waves to raise the readiness of that system, and thus the overall EMS of your forces. You can choose from a variety of different galactic races, powers, and weapons (all of which you can also earn with credits gained from playing multiplayer).

However, when forced to play these battles over and over again with no variety in maps in each system (seriously Bioware, only one map per system?) and only a few options of enemies and difficulty, the multiplayer seemed like it was slapped together with little fore- or afterthought. If multiplayer wasn't the only way to raise my EMS to a respectable level, I honestly wouldn't have spent more than a few hours on it. As it is, however, I spent more time there than I would've liked just because I wanted to get the most out my game as possible, which seemed like a cheapened experience given I’d played the previous two installments to completion. I think Bioware could’ve used a raised Galactic Readiness and EMS as a means of rewarding dedicated gamers of the series; a missed opportunity in my book.

Story: This has got to be the hardest thing to review about Mass Effect 3, because the story spans not one, but three games (and even a handful of novels). Because I waited over 2 years to finally play the finale of this sci-fi epic, I’m going to try very hard to limit spoilers, but no promises. Regardless, I can’t say enough about how awesome the game’s story is, even as a standalone title. The whole series has led up to this moment for the galaxy: the Reapers have invaded Earth and are starting the assault on the other species, causing panic everywhere. Because Shepard and the crew of the Normandy are the only beings to face multiple Reapers and live, they’re on the top of the list of heroes to end the cycle of destruction.

You’ll be reacquainted with familiar faces from both previous games, as well as a few new ones. If you’re a loyalist and have played the previous two games to completion, then you’re in for a treat. All the decisions you've made in the previous two games will come to fruition (or your possible destruction) in Mass Effect 3. Who you've chosen to save or destroy, who you've befriended or made enemies with, and who you've made your lover(s) all have an impact on the final game. Your previous decisions can impact everything from side missions to who you can add to your Normandy squad for battles/missions, and sometimes it can even influence how much military strength you can build to fight the Reapers in the end. Having such a dynamic story based on over 120 hours of gaming is impossible to review from a specific standpoint, but impressive nonetheless. It would take more than just a few playthoughs to even scratch the surface of all the different experiences you can have in the series.

Such dedication, much accomplishments! Wow!

Now for the elephant in the room: despite all the decisions you can make and conversation topics you can choose, the game will have the same ending. I believe this was one of the biggest issues gamers took umbrage with, and from an objective view I can understand why. At the end of the game, someone who has only played Mass Effect 3 (about 30 hours) will receive the same three choices to end the series as someone like me who has played all three games with the same Shepard (about 120 hours).

This can be insulting to those who feel like all their hard work led to nothing more than a very scripted ending that they could’ve just played one game for. Creating your Shepard and playing with him/her through three games is a very immersive and personal experience, and people take it personal when a game takes all that time and all those emotions and boils them down to a generic ending tree.

Still, I personally was not insulted by the way the series ended. I understood that the time I spent with my male Shepard was special, and all the decisions I made, all the agony over who to love and save and befriend, created a unique experience that almost nobody else would have with the series. It’s a special thing when a game can take a character and a story, and make the game feel an actual part of it all, as if they themselves are a part of this universe. It all felt very real to me, and I’m being completely honest when I say that the final choice in Mass Effect 3 was the most I've ever agonized over a decision in a video game ever. I've never felt the weight of a decision in a game so much on my shoulders, and while the game and its worlds and creatures and implications are all fictional, it felt real to me, and this is why I and many other people consider the Mass Effect series to be the best example of video game story-telling ever.

Choices so intense, the agony they cause needs to be shared.

Final Thoughts: The Mass Effect series is one of the finest examples of interactive story-telling in a video game, and its conclusion certainly contributes to that truth. As a huge fan of the series I commend Bioware on all the hard work they put in to making the player feel the weight of the decisions from each previous game in Mass Effect 3. While the controls had some minor issues and the multiplayer felt forced upon the player if they wanted a more completionist playthrough of the solo expedition, the rest of the game hits the mark in a big way. Everything from the battles to the decisions to the cut scenes is bigger in scale and impact, and I’m very pleased with how Bioware chose to end their sci-fi epic drama. Mass Effect 3 certainly graduated with honors.

Final Grade: 9.2/10

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