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Mass Effect 3 (Xbox 360) artwork

Mass Effect 3 (Xbox 360) review

"So, yeah, bitching and moaning can easily apply, but then something fantastic comes together, and everything is blown out of the water."

It will be an impossible task to talk about Mass Effect 3 at this time without running rule over its series of disappointments. In a lot of ways, the last game in the much-lauded series is a victim of its own crippling ambition and stifling hype issued both from its rabid fan base and starry-eyed developers. So, let’s break some hearts: some of those choices you’ve been making through both the previous 30-50 hours games amount to exactly nothing. This would be fine if they were the smaller ones like letting down minor NPCs or picking shop X as Shepard’s favourite place in the Citadel, but it’s often the big stuff that suffers. In Mass Effect 1, you meet a biologically engineered alien from a long extent race brought back from the void by unscrupulous science. In its prime, this race held countless races under siege in a war that changed the landscape of the entire galaxy. The revived alien seems to bear no ill will, and only asks for a chance to vanish into the depths of space to try and rebuild her vanquished race. You can grant her this choice knowing that you release a mammoth potential danger into the universe at large, or you can kill her off and think nothing more of it.

Mass Effect 2 gives you little reflection on this choice. If you let her live, there’s a side mission where you encounter some of her rouge children, and she does manage to get in contact to assure you of her continuingly pure intentions. But in the third game, she’s captured, indoctrinated, and forced to spit out countless brood that are synthetically enhanced and marched out to war on a biological manufacturing belt. Your kindness has eventually backfired; the race you tried to save has been turned into mindless walking artillery and has greatly tipped the odds of survival against you. Though a bitter battle can eventually ebb the tide of misfortune, you’d not be blamed by anyone if you started to wish you’d swallowed your mercy and killed her when you had the chance.

Except that would make zero difference. Kill the alien, and your enemies simply construct a new one for little rhyme nor reason, and then have you fight them anyway, but in a much blander and generic fashion.

It’s hard to take some of the misfires in your stride when Bioware have been shouting from the rooftops for years about some of the things they’ve royally screwed up on. Building platonic and romantic relationships with the core of your crew has long been a staple of the series, but doesn’t live up to its potential. Post-Mass Effect 2 featured news releases straight from Bioware PR about the consequences a bed-hopping Shepard might encounter in the third game to the point where new files were created by players to expressly sidestep such a potential pitfall. Little did we know all this would amount to is the odd chilly conversation. And then, there’s the controversial ending that anyone with a passing interest in videogames and an internet connection is probably sick of hearing about. Though it does base itself on the war assets you’ve been able to drum up throughout the majority of the title, it boils down to a straight-up, unhidden choice of morality check A. B or C, all neatly colour-coded and explained to you in crayon. This review is late because I, and the rest of the internet, held our breath while Bioware’s huge patch fix was demanded, agreed to and released. It tidies around the edges a little, introduces option D (be a dick) and ultimately changes nothing.

Mass Effect 3 gets a lot wrong, or, at least, does a lot that fails to live up to the lofty expectations the rest of the series have built up for it. I’ve been ranting about it for around 600 words and, really, could keep going in an attempt to really wind up my copy editor. What’s remarkable about the title is that for every single thing it gets wrong, it absolutely nails another ten things.

Most of these go unnoticed; it’s little fixes in the combat engine or the streamlining of menus that you only really notice when you step back to ME2 or, god forbid, the absolute clusterfuck the original has turned into in comparison to both its sequels. Powers and enhancements work exactly like they’re meant to, from the simple stuff like Inferno Ammo’s ability to set things on fire and make a real notable difference to the big stuff, like Singularity making almost anything without shields float serenely in the air while you pump bullets into them. Rolling in and out of cover works now more often than not, melee attacks are finally made relevant. Ordering your squad of two around is simplified, and computer controlled allies now come equipped with a new understanding of common sense, letting them seek cover and provide suppressive fire while you actively set up flank attacks that get their own damage multiplier. Moreso then ever, ME3 finally can become the thinking man’s game it set out to be. You can snipe around the edges, you can meatsheild. You can hack, burn, or just play god with physics and gravity. There’s a lingering sense that more could have been done with the plotline, and the last hour or so just feels lazy, but too many people have let this corrode the simple fact that, as a video game, Mass Effect 3 is peerless.

What hurts it in some ways, also acts as strength. Without needing to worry about creating X number of links to (probably balls up in) a Mass Effect 4, often satisfying conclusions are offered to the assembled cast that have managed to survive this far. ME3 is more linear than the previous two games to achieve this, cutting off large sections of the galaxy and limiting exploration in order to guide players down the corridors of conclusion, but the side missions you can partake in feel all the heavier for it, and often feature all the odd faces that couldn’t quite make the transition to the main cast. There’s a few happy endings, but galaxy-wide genocide is widely acknowledged as a pretty miserable time, and numerous atrocities are handled with surprising gravity. So, yeah, bitching and moaning can easily apply, but then something fantastic comes together, and everything is blown out of the water.

Like ending a century-long feud between two races permanently at war. Featured heavily as antagonist in the first game and still very relevant in the second is a sentient AI collective known as the geth. Because of a tragic sense of timing, their long-run war with the quarian has picked the middle of an intergalactic bout of mass extermination to come to a head, and their home planet is under siege by their enemies and former masters. Their initial introduction way back in 2007 portrayed them as nothing more than mindless machines hell bent on destroying organics, but their origins are gently explored throughout the series to give them a tragic backstory that puts their roles as rampaging villains into a new light. If you’ve played ME3 and have employed no imported save files over from previous titles, then you’re forced to either side with or destroy the geth, forever alienating the race you side against. Or. If you’ve been clever, if you’ve been slowing eroding their feud throughout the three games, trying to show each race that they are not without blame nor undeserving of pity, you accomplish something that seemed completely impossible all the way back in Mass Effect 1. It’s a staggering achievement that drives home the significance of every baby step taken throughout three titles and makes worthwhile the efforts ploughed in. If the Rachni example used in the introduction to this review is a prime example of Bioware prat-falling over their own lofty claims, the geth possibility is one of many shining examples of what this multi-release platform is capable of. It’s built on a shaky deck of cards foundation you’ve been nurturing since day one, hoping like hell it will pay out some day and not collapse around you. Success sure as hell isn’t assured, there’s no guarantee one seemingly insignificant choice made two games ago isn’t going to come back and bite you on the arse.

If it didn’t feel so delicate, then it wouldn’t be such a satisfaction to pull off.

So, yeah, double-edged sword. The fact those moments work with such effortlessly brilliance really does only serve to highlight the severe failure of the ones that don’t. It’s easy to get carried away on this wave of disappointment and cast a negative shadow over the entire game, but that would really be missing the point. Mass Effect 3, like the others in the series that came before it, is virtual crack, dispensed in blocks and imposable to put down until completly devoured, then left craving for more. So, fine, bitch about the few areas the game falls over, and ignore the fact you’ve done little more then play obsessively into the early hours of the morning for the third day running. Whine about EA’s standard policy of having to register everything in order to get onto the multiplayer defeat-waves-of-baddies mode and ignore the fact that it’s bloody fantastic, is still continually updated at no cost, and shows no sign of slowing. I’m with you, faceless complainers of the internets, the times when the ball is dropped, it’s dropped sodding hard, and endgame sucks. But I’m not about to forget the absolute blast I had with the forty or so hours that preceded it.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (October 20, 2012)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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Suskie posted October 20, 2012:

It sucks and anyone thinking it was a great way to end a trilogy of this magnitude is a fool.

I don't personally take offense to this line since I certainly wouldn't call the ending "great," but... ugh, seriously? I know you and I have had our differences (to put it very mildly), but I've always been a fan of your writing, and I'd have thought you were above a line like that.


I'm so glad I was able to review ME3 before the whole controversy took off, because you're right: People have blown ME3's flaws and disappointments (which, don't get me wrong, did exist) so out of proportion that it's impossible, at this point, to praise the game without defending it. That's probably the thing that I hate the most about this whole debacle. It's not the ending, nor the childish rage that it inspired, nor the "artistic integrity" of the medium being called into question. It's that this whole controversy has now become the series' legacy. It's dumb and unfair.

Aside from the pointless insult, I'd say you've tackled all of this territory marvelously. Particularly by comparing the rachni queen with the quarian/geth conflict as the respective low and high points of BioWare reaching their set ambitions. I'd actually recommend you read this interview about the Tuchanka mission, which has an absurd number of variables that most players will never even realize are there. BioWare may have set the bar too high for themselves, but they deserve far more credit than they're getting. Glad to hear you agree.
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EmP posted October 21, 2012:

It wasn't really an important line (nor did I think it would be taken as an insult) so I just took it out.

Though I'd not read that interview (so thanks for the link), I know most of those possabilities. I don't think I have it in me to shot Mordin, but I've seen how that would play out in youtube, and I know someone who replayed the entire series from ME1 up just to meet the requirements needed to save Mordin in ME3. That's kind of my point; this is a game that has invested people so much, they've gone to crazy lengths just to see his conclussion in the best possable light for them. I agree, it's depressing that this is overlooked in favour of banging on about a dodgy ending.
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Suskie posted October 21, 2012:

Sorry if I seemed a little overly upset by that line. I'll always welcome intelligent discussion about ME3's ending; it's the constant nastiness that I've grown sick of. I meant it when I said I otherwise thought this was an outstanding review.

Honestly, I was far more involved in the series' plot back in ME1, when the Protheans were unseen and the Reapers were this mysterious and ominous presence; you only met one of them, it likened itself with a god, and it took the combined might of the entire fleet to bring it down. ME3 takes the series where it more or less had to go, but I felt it trivializes what made the story so cool when you can defeat a Reaper by punching it in the face (or whatever). In between, we have ME2, which actually had an incredibly thin story and instead focused on strengthening your relationships with your squad mates. That's the point, for me, when ME became more about the characters and the universe than the actual plot, and from that perspective, ME3 closes off the series wonderfully.

Another great (SPOILERY) example: If you betray the krogans during the Tuchanka mission and Wrex finds out, he actually attacks you on the Citadel. Here's one of my all-time favorite video game characters, and a choice I made forced me to kill him in self-defense. Brutal.
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zippdementia posted October 21, 2012:

I haven't played them yet of course, but I have this feeling I'm not going to be too upset by the ending. I know the big slap in the face is that it's three choices that don't take into account anything else you've done over the course of the game but, uh, so what? Deus Ex did that way back in the day and the point there was to NOT make the player feel like they'd been shoehorned into a role by the rest of the game. It's one of those situations where what you've done in the past defines the power behind your decision. Is your decision a redemptive one? Or do you not change your ways at all?

The point is that it's still YOUR story; more than it would have been had the game developers just added up the sum of your life and said "this is what you do."

If all that is wrong with the ending is this last "choice," I'm prepared to write a longer version of this sentiment in its defense.
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WilltheGreat posted October 21, 2012:

Having recently replayed ME3 myself, I can safely say there's more wrong with the ending than the fact that it's three choices.


Anyway, I think if one could somehow remove the whole Space Kid sequence from the ending and go right from Anderson's death to Red Glowy Space Magic sequence, that's actually a better ending than the deux ex machina we got. And the epilogues from the Extended Cut are a huge improvement over not having them at all.
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Suskie posted October 21, 2012:

Yeah, the criticisms for the ending extend far beyond the three color-coded choices you're presented with. I definitely agree with some of them, but as much as some people would hate to admit it, I really think a fair number of the issues come down to taste. I like ambiguity, for example. Which isn't to say that the ending doesn't have its fair share of genuine plot holes related to apparent contradictions to established lore and player motivations, though the Extended Cut patched most of my biggest issues up in that regard. As for the Star Child... eh. Could have been handled in a less hurried manner, but I don't mind the actual direction (and that pretty much sums up my feelings on the ending as a whole).
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zippdementia posted October 21, 2012:

Well, of course, I'm only spinning out guesses right now. I'll have to play them through before I can truly comment. It will be interesting having the opportunity to play them one after the other, as my first run through.
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Suskie posted October 21, 2012:

I don't think you'll hate the ending, honestly.
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WilltheGreat posted October 21, 2012:

If my girlfriend's reaction is any indication, having been forewarned and with the extended cut at worst you'll just be disappointed.

Or you might like it just fine. Suskie seems to, and he's certainly not alone in that.
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zippdementia posted October 21, 2012:

Time for a soliloquy!

You know, the funny thing about endings—when it comes to story—is that usually it's what comes before an ending that makes it really good or poor. for me it will probably come down to whether the ending is true to the kind of story the game establishes. I can point out a couple examples on both sides of the fence to illustrate my thoughts.

I use this one a lot, but I love Metal Gear Solid 3's ending—I actually really like MGS1's ending, too. The main reason is that the games are built up as bittersweet throughout. MGS1 is a little heavy handed by today's standards, but every boss you kill inevitably has some bittersweet ending (well, maybe not Vulcan Raven so much). Psycho Mantis and Sniper Wolf are especially true to this; so when you beat the game and that celtic music starts playing and the final message is about how the nuclear warheads are still being built, you just feel it. Same with Metal Gear Solid 3. That game is filled with incredibly bitter characters (right down to Volgin, despite all of his ridiculous over-the-top mannerisms) and so it really hits hard when Snake joins those ranks.

Final Fantasy X has an ending I really enjoy because it contains the same twist on Tidus that is earlier presented on Yuna: Yuna is revealed to be marching towards her death—then Tidus is revealed to be marching towards his death. The symmetry makes it work and takes it out of the realm of "lame last minute twist" into a true theme.

Kindgom Hearts (only the first one) has a great ending because the theme of that piece is searching. The whole game is about searching—even the gameplay often involves searching for somebody in some world. So when that search finally ends in failure with Sora losing Kairi at the end, it's pretty upsetting. Again, it's carrying out the theme to the end and then delivering on it.

Chrono Trigger is probably the mother of all themed story games, whose story and gameplay structure is talked about so well in the Reverse Chrono Trigger design examination that I won't try to do it justice here. I'll just point out that it is clearly broken into two halves, with the theme very clearly being "you cannot change time" and then letting up at the very end of the game to allow you the opportunity to change time. It's so well done that it's become the most memorable RPG of the SNES era. And that says a lot.

One of my problems with many Western RPGs that try to have stories is that they rarely establish a theme. Fallout 3 had this problem: I really don't know what I'm supposed to get out of that game or what the characters are supposed to represent. I can't even tell you who my character was in that game or what his motivations were. So, weak ending.

And that brings me back to the point I was making in a previous post, where I was saying that if I know who I am at the end of Mass Effect, I'll give my own meaning to the ending. Where I'll run into trouble will come long before that, if trouble is coming.

I am trying, but can't think of a game where I ever thought "this has been an incredible game until the ending." I can think of games with bad endings, but I was having trouble with the story long before the ending. Probably the game that comes closest is "Journey to the West," where it really felt to me like the game didn't develop its world enough for me to understand what I was supposed to get out of the end. But there you go: the real problem came beforehand, where the world and back story wasn't developed enough. Cause I actually LIKE the ending, I just don't have enough information to care.
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bbbmoney posted October 22, 2012:

@zipp: on the subject of endings, you should give FFVIII another shot. I know we talked about it earlier, but I actually went back to it and finished it the other night. Game has its problems but the ending is something you'd probably really enjoy analyzing. Anyway:

There are no spoilers below

Before diving into ME3 a bit late myself, I thought the fan reaction sounded ridiculous -- though I had stayed away from spoilers. I know how crazy people get over stuff like this, and I was honestly expecting ME3 to end disappointingly but hardly as bad as it was made out to be.

But when the ending actually hit me, I was rather dumbfounded by how right the fans were. In fact I felt they should of been even more vocal. It felt so contradictory to everything I had experienced with the franchise and who Shepard was. Bleh.

But I agree it doesn't discredit ME3 from being a great installment. In fact I was probably more bothered by the dry Cerebrus missions throughout the game and overly sappy heroic sacrifices seen throughout some of the other segments. The ending, really, was just bizarre. So incredulous that it was, in itself, impressive. It's a lot of fun to argue about, so thanks Bioware =]
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overdrive posted October 22, 2012:

At some point, I will play these Mass Effect games. Probably right around the time the enhanced version of 3 (with all the DLC included in one place) comes out and lowers in price a little bit, at which point, I'll grab all three and run through them back-to-back-to-back. Doing everything that isn't boring as all hell (in the event one or more games have those hideous RPG sidequests that make you do a ton of boring busywork for one reason or another).
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zippdementia posted October 22, 2012:

Holdthephone, interesting you mention FFVIII. I was just playing it last night. I'm nearly done, in fact; I've passed the point that I reached the first time I played the game and stopped, years ago (which was the whole "we're in space" scene). I probably have only about 15 hours left. Maybe this week...?

Anyway, I am impressed by aspects of FFVIII's story. I feel it tried to do too much and often takes away the emphasis from its true strength, which is the relationship between Squall and Rinoa (Jon and Zipp in my game; it's like watching myself fall in love with myself). I have some basic ideas on what the idea entails, because I watched it years ago, but I don't remember enough of it. It will be like seeing it for the first time.

FFVIII has more than it's share of problems in terms of gameplay. I have often wondered during this run as to whether it would have been nearly as acclaimed a game if it didn't have the words "Final Fantasy" in its title. What if it were called "Gungriever Hero?" or "Solace and Restraint?" or "Sorcery and Science?" and was not connected in any way to Final Fantasy? Would it have ever taken off? I'm not sure that it would have.
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honestgamer posted October 22, 2012:

The opposite argument, Zipp, is that it would have taken off even better. I feel that the game as a whole is a lot better than its actual reception implies, that people hated a lot of what they hated about it just because it was a Final Fantasy title and they went into the experience with certain expectations for an experience different from what was actually delivered. I've felt all along that Final Fantasy VIII is not one of the milestones of the genre, but the Final Fantasy name worked against it. Perhaps it could have been the start of a whole other franchise that was later iterated upon and developed into a beloved series. I think the potential was there. So... basically I'm saying the opposite of what you are, despite us both feeling that the game could have been better. Anyway, we're off-topic a bit. We're supposed to all be discussing how amazing EmP's review was, don't you know?
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Suskie posted October 22, 2012:

If it's any help, I have no attachment whatsoever to the Final Fantasy brand and I still thought VIII was awful.
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zippdementia posted October 23, 2012:

Yeah, I know that's another way to look at it, but I've had to convince myself to keep playing FFVIII enough times now to think that, without that brand, I would never make it. Frankly, the only reason I'm so hell bent on beating it is because it's a Final Fantasy title, and the only one I've ever played and not beaten.

—okay, aside from XIII, but that's never going to happen. To me, the series is dead at this point. I would buy another FF game for Versus, but that's the last chance for me. I remember back in the day I skipped both VIII and IX and didn't buy again until X. It may be a similar wait before I get back into the series. Hopefully by then SE will have figured out a clearer direction for the series.

VIII and IX suffer from lack of direction. They don't know what they want to be. VIII wants to be VII with a new Cloud and an even more science fiction world, but then can't figure out how to fit in the fantasy. It barely wants to be an RPG and decides it has to explain each RPG element within the game world itself (which turns out to be a bad idea). It ends up pulling a IV gambit involving the moon and a villain who shows up in the last 90% of the game.

IX wants to be FFIV but can't ground itself in a simple story so instead opts for odd plot twists that are only twists because there's no !@#$! way you ever could've seen them coming. It throws in random bad guys that appear when the plot needs a bad guy and a complicated back story for the two main characters that works against the simple motivations and personalities that those characters have (and which are very enjoyable and relatable).

FF XIII wants to be an anime series. And who knows, maybe it would have worked better as one.

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