Video Game Review: Spectacular ‘Mass Effect 3’ Provides Emotional End to Amazing Trilogy

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CHICAGO – The highly-anticipated “Mass Effect 3” has been devastating and dividing fans for about a month now while we played through our copy of the title and tried to figure out how to fully capture it in a review. It’s difficult to address a title this complex, this emotional, this epic, and this popular. Most people know what they think of “Mass Effect 3” by now but there may be some of you out there who have waited for the first wave of popularity to subside. Let me speak to you — don’t let this game pass you by. Even with its controversial ending, it’s a landmark title in the history of the form. Video Game Rating: 5.0/5.0
Video Game Rating: 5.0/5.0

Let me speak to the younger players for a minute. For decades, video games were about two things — memorization and hand-eye coordination. Memorize the order in which Donkey Kong is going to drop his barrels and use your hand-eye coordination to jump at the right time to avoid them. Even later hit games were essentially cut from the same cloth. When simple freedom of movement entered the world of gaming, even in as primitive a form as, say, “The Legend of Zelda,” it was remarkable. You didn’t have to memorize one path to the end, you could choose to go left or right. Still, games maintained a “predetermined nature” for years and many still operate from the same structure. There may be choices but there is a “best” (and least likely to kill you) way from point A to point B.

Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3
Photo credit: EA

The most incredible modern games of the last few years have destroyed this sense of a predetermined path and given players a feeling of authorship over their experience. My “Bioshock,” my “Red Dead Redemption,” my “Mass Effect 2” — they were different than yours. I can guarantee it. Whether it is the degree of moral decisions required on the part of the player or the customization of items, weapons, and clothing, the best developers have been revolutionizing the individual experience of gaming to remarkable degrees. But none have had the personal depth of “Mass Effect 3,” a game that doesn’t just consistently demand decisions on the part of the player that have nothing to do with memorization but asks for an emotional connection to the final act of one of the most important trilogies of the last twenty years in any form.

Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3
Photo credit: EA

Those of you unfamiliar with the story of “Mass Effect” may think the word emotional to be hyperbolic. You clearly haven’t played these games (or at least haven’t played them with the affection that I have). The writers of “Mass Effect 3” are here to tug on your heartstrings and the degree to which it worked this cynical player was unexpected. I’ve spent time with these characters. I’m invested in not just their fate but — and this is the most remarkable part — their pasts. I have a history with these characters, memories that influence the way I interact with them in the most important chapters of their lives. That’s AMAZING. We’ve gone from memorization to memory. From hand-eye coordination to something that touches the heart.

And that’s the clear intention from the beginning of “Mass Effect 3,” which picks up some time after the events of “Mass Effect 2” and will be greatly shaped by your experience with that title and not just in memory. I can’t recommend enough playing through part 2 and importing your character to this title. Not only will skills and customizable options be imported but your history will be as well. Did everyone survive the end of “Mass Effect 2”? What alliances did you make along the way? What bridges did you burn?

It turns out stopping the Reapers at the end of the second game merely delayed the inevitable and the amazing opening act of “Mass Effect 3” starts with their attack on Earth. In the action’s most memorable moment, as he’s fleeing to a ship to get back to a place where he can come up with the strategy to save Earth, Commander Shepard encounters a young boy in a vent. He can’t reach him in time and has to flee. Moments later, he sees the boy’s ship blown up by the Reapers. The boy will haunt Shepard and anyone who’s emotionally committed to the experience.

Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3
Photo credit: EA

The writers of “Mass Effect 3” brilliantly bring back characters from the history of “Mass Effect,” allowing them to play major roles in the action of saving the universe from certain destruction. I have never before felt the feeling of “seeing an old friend” in a video game. When I was going through what I thought was just a basic mission early in the game and ran into former Normandy squad member Jack, it was like surprisingly running into someone on the street that you once felt close to. There was a moment in “Mass Effect 3” when I received an email that another former squad member was on the city base of Citadel and I dropped what I was doing to find them. That’s the kind of personal connection in a video game that has never existed before on a console. And when these friends of mine began to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was an emotional response on my part.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The core of “Mass Effect 3” is about building the alliances needed to save the universe. You will go through story and side missions designed to present you with what are basically political decisions. What species do you side with in a centuries-old debate? Which one will better serve the safety of the universe? What will angering the other do to your cause? Never before has a game blended shooter elements with strategic ones in such a successful way. And, once again, making “good” or “bad” decisions on a moral level will influence the options you get as the game progresses. Even the way you interact with the characters on your ship (and even try to romance a few) will change the game. I think it would be literally impossible to precisely recreate one playthrough of “Mass Effect 3” to another.

Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3
Photo credit: EA

The writing on “Mass Effect 3” is some of the best in the history of gaming, but how does it play and look? The combat is very similar to part two with a better grenade system and stronger melee fighting. The basics are the same. Visually, it’s similar as well but the shading is stronger. I’m still a little thrown off by some of the cartoonish character design but the human characters, especially Shepard and some of his human squad mates, look amazing. I must admit, while we’re on a slightly negative tip, that some of the environments start to blend together, especially when it comes to fighting repetitive Cerberus enemies. I wanted a bit more variety in landscape and combatants. It’s the only complaint.

“Mass Effect 3” also includes an accomplished multi-player portion although these games have never been about co-operative play for me. The fact is, however, that multiplayer has become an essential ingredient for a lot of players who won’t buy a game without it. It’s a familiar ingredient here with co-op play and an upgradeable system working with a streamlined version of game combat that allows for more limited weapons and powers.

“Mass Effect 3” came to stores with a heavy burden of expectations and has, not surprisingly, been greeted with a bit of backlash, particularly regarding the lack of closure in the ending. Show me your favorite game of all time and I’ll show you someone who HATES it. Everything that reaches critical peaks has a legion of people salivating to rip it apart. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that “Mass Effect 3” isn’t a complete success. Even if you’re one of those people who feels a little dissatisfied, ask yourself why — it’s because a game trilogy became so important to you that there was no way to adequately end it given the heart and devotion that you had poured into the series. Isn’t that an ambitious, amazing fact on its own?

“Mass Effect 3” was developed by BioWare and released by Electronic Arts for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC on March 6th, 2012. content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

Kellye's picture

Why? I'll tell you.

I’m sorry, I’ve got to disagree with you. ME3 is NOT a complete success. If it was, it wouldn’t have caused this kind of controversy about the ending. It is sad, with as much AMAZING stuff as there is in Mass Effect 3 (and the game is admittedly in my top favorite five of all time; the trilogy is easily my favorite series) that the last ten minutes of it were so jarringly terrible that it prompted fans to raise $80,000 dollars for charity to get the ending changed - though “fixed” is more like it.

As far as asking myself *why* the ending sucked so hard, there are entire forums and articles dedicated to the reasons that articulate them much more thoroughly than I ever could (my favorite being the Gamefront article “Five Reasons Why”) but none of the reasons have to do with the fact that the trilogy IS ending. Not only was I prepared for it to end in epic style, I was completely prepared for it to end on a bittersweet note - I had no illusions that Shepard and some of his/her crew (if not all) would be biting the bullet on this one.

The reason I and many, many other fans are upset is that the ending was unfinished, full of plotholes, lacked closure, and lacked choice. The quality of the rest of the game (and the rest of the series) only serves as a foil to the lack of quality in the conclusion. The hundreds of painstaking decisions you’ve made over the course of the series are negated by a diabolus ex machina that makes no sense in the context of the narrative.

Personally, I’m in the “this is all a PR stunt gone horribly awry” camp. As good as the writing is in the other 99% of the series, I refuse to believe that they dropped the ball this badly in the last ten minutes, to the extent that it comes off as Bioware deliberately trolling its core demographic. I’m hoping that at PAX my hunch will be verified and the “indoctrination theory” which has been sweeping the Internet will hold true.

I do believe that regardless of the outcome of PAX, in the DLC expansion Bioware will redeem itself.

In any case, the gaming industry has taken a hard lesson over this entire fiasco, so it will be interesting to see how they address video game epics in the future. One thing I hope they will not do is underestimate the power of a networked fanbase and their buying (or boycott) power.

Kellye's picture

Bioware's Friday Suicide Mission.

Kellye wrote:
I had no illusions that Shepard and some of his/her crew (if not all) would be biting the bullet on this one.

^ Typo: Should read “I had no illusions that Shep and co. would NOT be biting the bullet in this one.

Though the point sort of illustrates one of my main issues with the conclusion. People were *really* expecting Bioware to fulfill its claim that “your choices matter” with this installment, saying in pre-release interviews that there would be sixteen wildly different endings and all sorts of other marketing hyperbole. They even went as far as to deliberately say that ME3 would not end with an “A, B, or C” choice, which - to the horror of longtime fans - is EXACTLY what they did.

The game should have had a fully realized, *wildly different* set of story conclusions based off the much-touted “galactic” readiness that forced most players to buy into the new multiplayer mode in order to achieve the best ending. These endings should have ranged from best possible (and hardest to achieve) ending [intergalactic win/Shepard’s survival/reunion with crew] to the absolute worst ending [Shepard dies/crew dies/Reapers win and destroy all galactic life] with several gradients of ending between the two extremes.

This would have not only satisfied the fans and made them feel as if their hundreds of hours/dollars investment - not to mention their emotional investment - was worth it, but also would have ensured replay value, future interest in DLC content, and brand loyalty for prequels/sequels.

As the game stands now, many longtime Bioware advocates - their hardcore fans - are not only refusing to replay the games, they’re returning ME3 in droves and refusing to buy any further titles or downloadable content from Bioware. The boycott is also now spilling over into Bioware’s other titles, like Star Wars: The Old Republic.

If Bioware does not put out this fire on Friday, I think that they are going to be in some serious trouble from a public relations standpoint. The casual demographic will not float this boat - Bioware *needs* those fans which are most angry with it right now, because they are the word-of-mouth/preorder contingent.

Which is exactly why the company is taking steps to directly address the criticism, rather than brushing it off as the gaming media outlets seem to be hellbent on doing.

Kellye's picture

1. I have no affliation with

1. I have no affliation with Retake Mass Effect. While I support their endeavors, their fundamental platform, and their creative protests (tasty, tasty nerd rage) I will *never* be in the “boycotting Bioware forever” camp. I just generally like their games too much to blow them off over one screw-up, even one as monumental as this one. Right now I’m waiting patiently for them to make it up to me and the other hundreds of thousands of fans who are bewildered and hurt by the ending of the game.

2. I have not burned all of my Bioware merchandise on a pyre while playing a bagpipe and bemoaning the state of the industry under our oppressive corporate overlords.

3. I’m actually both replaying the game and getting into the multiplayer; the single player campaign is JUST as fun the second time around (though to be honest, I might stop right before the end), and the multiplayer is surprisingly addictive even though I’m not a major fan of the genre. I doubt I will only play it twice, and I have no plans to return it. Without the last ten minutes, I’d give it a 5/5. If you include the last ten minutes, it’s more like a 3/5.

4. I am still optimistic that Bioware can fix this. I just hope they take the opportunity to do so and strike while the proverbial iron is hot, because they are the only company I have ever rooted for, and I’ve loved their games since the Jade Empire/Knights of the Old Republic days.

5. Even if they didn’t fix the ending, I would still be all shut-up-and-take-my-money if they came out with a Garrus Vakarian spinoff game or DLC.

Just sayin’.

Mayowan's picture

Haven't touched SWTOR in weeks

Despite being known as a Star Wars junkie (yes, I attend conventions) haven’t touched SWTOR since I finished ME3. Not because my time has been spent playing ME3. Instead, I just can’t bring myself to touch Bioware or EA material at this time. With all the bull they are slinging, I simply refuse to send another dime their way. This ending is the industry equivalent to the Toyota Prius gas pedal fiasco. Until Bioware proves they are concerned about their customers, I say boycott the entire brand.

Amastad's picture

Also haven't played SWTOR since the ME3 ending

I also have completely lost the urge to play SWTOR since seeing the Mass Effect 3 ending. It’s a terrible waste of money since I’m stuck with a 6 month subscription.

I can’t help it, though. I have no desire to play the game now. Thanks, Bioware.

I’m just done.

Darth Cynicus 's picture

I am in the exactly same

I am in the exactly same position, except I haven’t played swtor in months (I was replaying ME and ME2 to refresh my memories and get a couple of different playthroughs). After ME3 I just lost any desire to touch either even though I was getting pretty far with SWTOR. I don’t say I won’t ever play their games but if they choose not to change ME3 I doubt I’ll go back to either of the 2.

Shep16's picture

Im sorry but yet another

Im sorry but yet another author who does not get it. There is no way the game is a complete success. I begars belief that anyone can defend the ending. To start with its not what was advertised and the plot holes, oh the plot holes. But clearly there is no point trying to argue this as very few publications seem to want to see the truth.

And for the record I have said goodbye to game series before but I am dissatisfied because the end was God awful. Im glad you liked it but seriously ripping an ending off from other games is not cool and this series deserved better. People have a reason to be upset or you wouldnt see a reaction like this.

Edward's picture

ME3 not good as a whole.

I spend a few hours on the Bioware forums now and then and i can assure you the majority of fans are not happy with the game as a whole. The only way to enjoy the game is to dissect it into its individual parts and mini-stories. Many people who replay the game avoid the end. ME3 achieved the opposite of synergy. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Here’s a perfect example. You dine at a fine restaurant and experience wonderful service and the food is amazing. At the end the manager slaps you. You could not say your experience overall was good, you could only say part of it was good. Furthermore, the slap will create negative feelings for the restaurant. You wont want to go back.

Many people have described the end to ME3 as a ‘slap in the face’. The analogy works, and i see people react like this to the game everyday on the Bioware forums. Many are not hardcore fans, as many enlist purely to express their disappointment.

Strange Aeons's picture

“a bit of backlash” Oh

a bit of backlash”

Oh dear. Yes, just a bit, I’d say.

Like that little protest that raised $80,000 for charity in a couple of weeks as a show of commitment.

Like the 55,000+ strong Facebook “Retake Mass Effect” page.

Like the informal polls showing a level of dissatisfaction with the ending in excess of 90%.

Like the 402 red, blue, and green cupcakes sent to Bioware’s Edmonton office to parody Casey Hudson’s statement about the absence of anything so crass as a simple “A, B, or C” ending in ME3.

Like a level of outcry that has been loud enough to reach the mainstream media and has prompted one of the founders of Bioware to step in personally and try to control the damage.

I’d put this in the “unprecedented nuclear firestorm of outrage” category, myself, but then I’m not one of those professional journalists who apparently are smart enough to “get” the ending, so what do I know.

No, this is just another case of an unpleasable fanbase that irrationally hates everything. Happens all the time, I’m sure, and is in no way remarkable or indicative of an exceptional, historic failure of execution by Bioware.

Certainly, it’s no cause for anything so work-inducing as genuine curiosity and thoughtful analysis by the media.

For example, you, as a member of the media, spend a good chunk of your article explaining how interactivity and player choice and the establishment of deep emotional connections with the characters (which play out interactively) are the defining elements of the Mass Effect series. Now, from my benighted perspective, the ending objectively violates every single one of these keystone design elements.

At the most crucial moment of interaction, the defining gameplay mechanic of the series (i.e., the dialogue wheel) is removed, and we have no ability to investigate or challenge any of the three morally repugnant outcomes we’re offered, each of which managed the impressive task of violating the clear lessons established by the previous games in its own unique way. We must simply accept what we’re told by a newly-introduced character of dubious motivation without question.

At the time when the consequences of all our choices should stand out in sharpest relief, they’re stuffed into a blender and homogenized into a single number that removes all granularity from everything we’ve accomplished for the last 150 hours and does not meaningfully alter the outcome.

The game then severs all connection with the characters that are the emotional center of the story, providing no resolution about their fate. I don’t know about you, but I was not fighting this battle to save “the galaxy.” I wasn’t even fighting it to save Earth. I’d never even been to Earth in the series; I don’t know anyone on Earth, and frankly Earth seems rather small in the scheme of the Mass Effect universe. More than anything, I was fighting it to save the characters whom I’d actually to care about. The ending utterly ignores three games worth of painstakingly-developed intimacy that made the series unique in favor of generic, manufactured, “rah rah save-the-world” garbage.

This is not even to mention the cascade of glaring plot holes or the generally cryptic presentation, which fails even the test of basic lucidity.

Still, with more impressive credentials and a platform on the internet, perhaps I too could understand why these issues can be so airily dismissed. I wish one of you exalted professionals, on whose opinions Bioware likes to lean so heavily, would actually take the time to tell us, in detail.

ccrashh's picture

I really think every person who has reviewed this game and given it a perfect score should have to explain all the mistakes and plot holes in the ending. If they can’t explain it, they should stop reviewing games. It’s one thing to call it “artistic license”, but it’s another thing to give glowing reviews to a dog’s breakfast. I honestly believe that the kind of people behind glowing video game reviews are no different than the people behind radio’s payola scandal many years ago. Money is changing hands somewhere. That’s the only explanation for outright lying.

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