All of the major races and significant worlds of the galaxy are under simultaneous assault by the Reapers and the only hope in defeating them seems to be in unifying friends and foes alike to fight them together. Yet, even broad alliances may not be enough. I’m not going to delve too deeply into the plot in this review, but suffice it to say the story spans many, many worlds. Through flashbacks of thousands of years, we learn who and what the Reapers are (sort of.) It is epic and grand, gritty and heroic, but in the end more than somewhat somber and reflective. The writers of the game have tried to push the narrative beyond traditional video game “those are the bad guys, kick their asses soundly” tropes and produce something more thoughtful and perhaps profound. They are mostly successful.
Mass Effect 3 (ME3) at the time of this writing sits with an average Metacritic score of 93 across all three platforms and is, as the score indicates, a great game. It is an effective blend of gameplay and story and probably is the game that allows the player the most impact on that story of any current game on the market. ME3, in fact, reaches back to both Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 to calculate the player’s impact on the story by drawing from the final saved game in ME2, which in turn contains information about the player’s action in ME1, assuming the player continued the game each time with the last saved game from the previous. A little confusing, but basically by analyzing the ME1 and ME2 saved games, ME3 can track what decisions and actions the player made in each of the games. It knows who the player’s friends or enemies were, what worlds he saved or let die, which characters he romanced (or didn’t), which of his teammates lived or died and what critical plot decisions were made. There are supposedly over a hundred data points that are assessed from the prior games to determine how the story in ME3 plays out. As a general example, if a certain character lived through the events of ME2, they participate in a certain part of the ME3 story, making the player’s life a little easier. If they died, their role in that part of the story is played by another character, who may not be so sympathetic to the player’s desires. In many ways, the narrative part of ME3 is at its best when it’s making references to these prior decisions, large and small, and in doing so makes the player feel as if those decisions mattered.
Though ME3 is so effective in those moments it, in some ways, becomes its own worst enemy by setting the bar too high. At one point during ME3, the player has to make a huge decision about which of two civilizations effectively lives or dies. One becomes an ally against the Reapers and the other all but ceases to exist. It is a monumental decision that happens too suddenly (and dramatically) requiring the player to make an unexpected binary choice about which one becomes the ally and which one dies. It is a huge decision, it has a significant personal impact on one of the player’s companions, and it should have real long-term consequences for the player. But, very little (if anything) is made of it after the event. Imagine if someone had to make that decision between England or France, and one of those countries lived on while the other effectively ceased to be, and it all came down to one person’s decision. This situation seems like something that would come up again and at least be mentioned by someone. But it does not. (In all fairness, it is addressed in the story, mostly in dialogue, immediately after the event, but never again.) The omission seems jarring.
I was also personally dissatisfied with how the story for one of the companion characters from ME2 wrapped up. I liked how ME2 handled that character and her story, but in ME3 what happened to her was completely out of my control and I basically could only watch as her plot elements from the prior game played out. Nothing I did mattered—even remotely— which was very disappointing.
The climax of the game disappointed me similarly. All through the course of the game I am able to make choices that affect how the final battle with the Reapers plays out. Or, it seems like I do. When that last moment is reached, there is choice, but it is between two options that are pre-set and nothing I’ve done through the story to that point has any bearing on those choices. It’s an either-or moment—the preference of two evils in many ways. But neither really reflects the consequences of the decisions I’ve made up until then. Each option has significant and decidedly different ramifications, and to choose between the two is somewhat sobering, but the choice feels hollow because it ignores all the effort put into the game to reach that moment. The game does have multiple endings and, to an extent, some variations of those endings reflect my prior choices. However, it is at that very moment of decision that the experience feels hollow, and it feels that way because of how high the bar was set by the rest of the game.
Overall, Mass Effect 3 is a great game and I strongly recommend it, especially if you’ve played the two previous games. Yet, you can still play and enjoy ME3 even if you haven’t played ME1 and 2. Either way it is an ultimately effective, if not flawed, end to a great series.
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