I’ve always felt left out of the Mass Effect series. Whenever someone mentions it’s one of their favorite series of all time, I wonder why I can’t enjoy it as much as they do. Mass Effect 3 lets me get my foot in that door, but it also shows me why I’ll never get all the way through the door.

After the jump, some things to finally get excited about

When it comes to RPGs, my top priority has always been combat. It’s vastly improved in Mass Effect 3. The most noticeable change is the map design. Mass Effect 2 felt like a series of narrow hallways with enemies pouring out of a clown car. This time the arenas are more wide open. Enemies are smart enough to use that space, doing their best to flank around. This creates a kind of maneuvering dance. It’s just the right amount of challenge before inevitable player victory. It’s a satisfying victory, too. When I flank an enemy, it briefly continues to shoot at my squadmates. I’ve earned a chance to attack with impunity. Mass Effect 3 offers more satisfying moments like that than earlier games do.

The new minibosses improve encounter design. When the Banshee teleports toward me with a terrifying scream, I often pause the game only to realize all my powers are on cooldown. Puzzling over that is more thrilling than another wave of enemies. There’s also more to the improved maps than just the layout of the waist-high walls. I’m no longer walking through space dungeons. When Reapers fire laser beams in the distance with a devastated planet in the background, I’m integrated into a larger space outside the boundaries. This also addresses a challenging problem for the developers: how does Shepard battle spaceships in a cover-based shooter? Bioware’s answer is a proxy war against ground forces. Reapers aren’t usually a direct threat to my hit points, but they still create an illusion of chaos and danger.

Not everything is improved. The controls are finicky now that the spacebar does even more. My most frequent cause of death was flubbing the controls while trying to dodge a grenade. Then there’s the renewed emphasis on seeking loot. One of Bioware’s worst indulgences has always been loot crates. Mass Effect 1 was a revelation on this issue. Most maps merely had a few hotspots to grab medi-gel or credits. Now the crates are back, with weapon upgrades scattered throughout the levels. It’s a small thing, but it’s also a fundamental change in attitude. It seems like Bioware overreacts to certain criticism after each game of the series. Many players complained about the mountains of boring loot in Mass Effect 1. Rather than tweak it, Bioware jettisoned the entire system for the second game. Then some players complained about the lack of inventory and customization. Now Bioware has gone back too far in the other direction.

Among other complaints worth mentioning are the fetch quests imported from Dragon Age 2. Bioware ought to cut grind like this. There are also new ambient conversations throughout the Citadel. Some of them are neat, but it calls attention to the static world. NPCs politely wait to finish their story until Shepard, the center of the universe, walks by again. Is there really no better way to deliver this content?

Mass Effect is arguably best known for its choice and consequence system, but I fundamentally disagree with Bioware’s approach. This finale confirms that the majority of choices in the series aren’t really choices at all. They’re investments. As long as I complete all the quests and stick to my chosen personality, I can “win” nearly every crisis point in the game. I don’t even need to do that much anymore because Bioware altered the morality system. Now the critical “I win” conversation choices are based on total reputation instead of how many Paragon and Renegade points I’ve accumulated. That frees players to act out a more subtle character. With this system, I can avoid almost all the tough decisions by simply playing through the game.

“So what,” you might say. Some players don’t care about this stuff anyway. They just want to shoot enemies and watch the characters talk. That’s why Mass Effect 3 makes a big deal about letting players choose whether they want to emphasize action or story or both. I want both. I want depth and challenge in conversation as much as combat. Mass Effect 3 only delivers on combat.

Yes, I can still “choose” to act as a xenocidal pariah. I can “choose” to skip the side quests. The reason I don’t is because choice in Mass Effect is not about equally valid outcomes. It’s about success or failure. Failing to invest sufficiently means characters die. That’s a hard lesson most players don’t want. It creates a vertical difficulty curve. The choice system is too simplistic and routine up until the player realizes he failed to acquire enough reputation points or trigger certain flags in earlier games. The harsh cutoff point dooms him to failure, condemns him to replaying a previous save to grind more content, or reduces him to a save game editor. If this were a combat system, everyone would hate it.

But Bioware is capable of writing subtle, tough decisions. In the previous games, I had to decide how to manage the rachni queen, the genophage cure, and the geth heretics. The dialogue wheel didn’t prejudice my decision with obvious Paragon and Renegade choices. The game asked me to decide as a player rather than as a character. I had to draw on everything I had learned up until that point. It wasn’t clear what would happen, but neither did it feel like there was a right or wrong answer. (Mass Effect 3 includes a decision like this in the endgame, with mixed results; see below.)

If most of the choices are investments, they need a payoff. But there’s something disconcerting about how consequences are presented in this game. Everything in Mass Effect 3 plays out with an eerie sense of normalcy. If one of my characters died before reaching the finale, the same quests would play out with some other character instead.

Consequences work like this because Mass Effect is a story simulator, not a traditional RPG. Bioware wants us to write our own canon and never think about what could have been. That’s an intriguing idea from a storytelling perspective in videogames. Many players simply want their story and no other. But being aware of alternatives gives context to the decisions I make. Is there any reason to explore other options, other than to watch the understudies act out slightly different scenes? It’s difficult to tell because Bioware never hints at any intriguing alternatives.

Mass Effect 3 was billed as the completion of a story that spanned three games. It provides closure on just about every important character in the series. Each ending makes sense given the arc of the character. Some of them are genuinely touching, even for characters I don’t like. Faction storylines also end definitively. That’s not always a good thing, depending on how one played the investment metagame. But Mass Effect 3 provides that closure only if I ignore the last few minutes of the main story. By trying to add mystery to the end of the game, Bioware unraveled some of the resolution in this finale.

The mechanics of the final choice are also puzzling. Like the choices about the rachni queen, genophage cure, and geth heretics, it challenged me to draw on everything I had learned. I even struggled to walk up a ramp to make my choice! Although I appreciate the challenge, it was inappropriate for Bioware to use that style of choice in the ending. They should have carried the investment metagame through to the end, despite its weaknesses.

Character writing is still clumsy in Mass Effect 3. The subject at hand is the impending destruction of the galaxy, but almost every other moment is filled with relationships, moralizing, influencing people, simplistic sacrifices, and personal problems. Melodrama infests even the cool galactic conflict between races. That’s because Bioware writes young adult fiction. There’s a lot of finding one’s way, overcoming prejudice, struggling with relationships, and growing and learning. It’s good that games like this exist. But characters need to be real and believable first. None of the other stuff Bioware is trying to do will ever be effective until they meet that minimum. Bioware knows how to write good characters. The exceptions in Mass Effect merely show how weak most of the cast is. When I said my goodbyes to most of the crew, I realized how little I’d miss all the melodrama.

This is where you come in. If you played the previous games, you already know whether you love these characters. If you do, you’ll enjoy working with them again. I can’t stress enough how nearly all of them have satisfying conclusions that make sense given their story arcs. So if you’re ready to shed a tear at each goodbye, you don’t need this review. The critical factor in how you think of this game will be how you like the characters.

It might sound like I’m being too negative. But there’s no debate whether Mass Effect 3 is a good game. It has good combat, an effective atmosphere, satisfying resolution, and a few great characters. Co-op is surprisingly entertaining. Bioware has finally settled on a good balance of RPG elements, too. It’s easy to dismiss most of the nitpicks. It’s the best game in the series for all these reasons.

Instead, I argue about whether Mass Effect 3 is a great game. I write about it because I deeply care about Bioware as a developer. I want Bioware to strengthen choice and consequence and master character writing so I can consider their games to be classics again. At the very least, I’m no longer left out of this series now that I appreciate the combat and the universe. I have my foot in the door. So even if I never get all the way through that door where Mass Effect becomes an all-time favorite, I can finally enjoy the ride for what it’s worth.

4 stars
PC

Tim James has been digging into RPGs for 20 years. He isn’t worth any war assets, but he’d still like your help with some relationship problems.