Outstanding audio and visual presentation. Near perfect mix of exciting 3rd person combat and light RPG elements. Fun and addictive cooperative multiplayer. Tells an amazing story...
... that is diminished by the lack of the whole Mass Effect experience. Most side missions boil down to lazy, repetitive and uninteresting fetch quests.
Reviewing games must be simple… right? You play the game and then heap tons of praise upon it or smash it into the ground using its own weaknesses against it. Simple, quick, and easy. Then again, every once in a while a game comes along that has no greater desire than to drive you mad, calling into question the very means by which you evaluate games. Mass Effect 3: Special Edition for Wii U is a perfect example of this conundrum.
Putting all dramatics aside, ME3 is an absolutely brilliant game; it was one of the best games of the year when it came out on the competitors’ consoles and it still ranks among the best of the best. Yes, there was quite the controversy over the ending, but in an unprecedented move EA and Bioware re-did it, adding more closure and tweaking the final moments to please the franchise’s die hard fans. And to be completely honest, the original ending was never quite the earth-shattering betrayal a very vocal minority claimed it to be; it was definitely disappointing, but when the previous games weaved one of the greatest gaming tales ever told expectations can reach heights that make complete success all but impossible. Also, I personally find a crummy ending when the 30 hours of gameplay and story preceding it are nothing short of incredible.
Of course, Special Edition owners don’t have to worry about the original ending, as the disc comes pre-loaded with the new ending. So if that’s not the concern, then why is reviewing ME3 such a chore? You see, this really is an amazing game, a great entry in one of the franchises that defined this/last generation, but one can’t help but feel that Wii U is kind of getting the short end of the stick.
The Mass Effect series tells a three part tale with the choices and actions of your character, Commander Shepard, carrying over from game to game. So Wii U owners are only getting the last chapter, which wouldn’t be quite so bad if EA didn’t just release a complete trilogy collection for PS3, Xbox 360 and PS3 costs the same as ME3 for Wii U all by itself. So, the Wii U version has instantly been made a rather poor value, forced to stand solely on the quality of its Game Pad integration to justify its existence; and let’s be honest, three interconnected games for the price of one is hard to beat when you just have one of those games with a few new features. All that being said, does it really change the quality of the experience?
For the sake of this review, I say, “No!” If you are a Nintendo loyalist this is your first, and so far only, chance to experience one of the most acclaimed franchises of the last five years. Mass Effect 3: Special Edition effectively stands on its own, and that’s the way it must be judged.
The game begins with a lengthy motion comic that presents a relatively rough outline of the events of the first two games, occasionally pausing to let you decide the outcome of major plot points. Of course, there’s no real substitute to two whole games, but the comic does a decent job of striking a balance between covering the important events and keeping the whole thing to a reasonable length; it could have covered more but nobody wants to kick off a game with a two hour cut scene (except maybe Metal Gear Solid fans). However, there is one major plot thread that definitely could have used more of an explanation and many of the characters introduced in Mass Effect 2 are kind of skimmed over, making their presence in the game proper feel less significant. It feels weird to say this about a video game, but a little supplemental reading on the internet might not be that bad an idea, just try to avoid spoilers.
For those of you who are less aware of the franchise, here’s a brief run-down. You create and control Commander Shepard, a war hero in a sci-fi future where mankind has reached out into the stars and joined in the larger galactic civilization. Shepard finds him/herself thrust a conflict centered around the Reapers, a legendary race of machines that allegedly sweep the galaxy clean of sentient life every 50,000 years. Mass Effect ends with Shepard and his crew postponing the Reaper invasion, and Mass Effect 2 centers around Shepard’s quest to unite the galaxy’s strongest, craziest, and all around most dangerous soldiers to face a new threat that turns out to once again be tied in with the Reaper’s impending arrival. No matter how you play, the main plot moves forward, but decisions made along the way change who lives, who dies, and the way certain plot points play out. Mass Effect 3 picks up all these pieces and puts them into place as it reveals the outcome to longstanding feuds, wraps up characters’ personal arcs, and reveals the outcome of Shepard’s attempts to bring the disparate forces of the galaxy to stand against the reaper threat. Once again, I must admit that motion comic doesn’t do justice to all the plot lines leading up to the end, and the end itself will almost certainly leave plenty of folks disappointed, even with the improved ending. However, even with these issues, Mass Effect 3: Special Edition still trumps the vast majority of stories found in modern games.
From a gameplay perspective, the Mass Effect franchise has always mixed third-person, cover-based shooting with traditional RPG elements including hunting down sidequests, customizing your character’s stats and gear, building relationships with your party. ME3 is the culmination of the fine tuning of these elements, presenting wonderfully paced and exciting combat along side just the right amount of RPG ideas to make the experience feel uniquely your own without bogging things down in overly complicated inventory and resource management. Gunplay is tight and responsive, the cover mechanics make gameplay quite strategic, and the ability to customize Shepard’s basic combat skills with tech and bionic techniques (sci-fi talk for magic) adds another distinct layer to the proceedings, awarding players who employ all of the above to exploit enemy weaknesses and strategically move about the battlefield.
Most missions in the game embrace the combat, presenting well paced, relatively linear battles through interesting environments littered with exciting, blockbuster moments and major plot points. The opening scene of the game shows this brilliantly as Shepard fights through the Reaper invasion of Earth, as the massive mechanical beings descend upon cities, tearing apart buildings and destroy human warships. What would other wise be a fairly typical tutorial focusing on the basics of combat against the game’s easiest foes becomes an epic struggle with massive stakes. The encounters grow all the more exciting as the galaxy spanning struggle grows more desperate and new, tactically unique enemies are introduced into combat. Shield-wielding foes will have you stepping back and taking careful aim with a sniper rifle, cloaked, ninja-like Phantoms will catch you off guard, and the scream of the Banshee as it enters the battlefield will introduce a moment of dread once you realize the rapidly teleporting creature has a particularly nasty one-hit-kill technique.
Just like in any other RPG, combat is just one part of the story. Between missions, Shepard is free to roam about his/her warship, the Normandy, chatting up the crew or examining the Galaxy Map to select the next destination. Most of the map is made up of solar systems and planets that can be scanned for assets in the war, while the rest is reserved for the planets that play host to the story’s major events. The game’s major hub is the Citadel, a massive space station that serves as the capital of the galaxy. Meeting up with crew members, both current and past, allow for further character development and more than a few major events revolve around this galactic hub. The Citadel is also the major foundation to what I personally find the most disappointing part of the game – the sidequests. Some ancillary objectives are presented as important communications that present exciting missions in new locations, but the bulk are dull, simple affairs the involve Shepard overhearing some people on the Citadel talking about some sort of war asset, and then going off to a particular star system to scan planets until you find it. These war assets ultimately build up to decide the strength of your force going into the final battle with the Reapers and determines several aspects of the ending, however the whole process is made kind of moot because the bulk of the assets come from the main story lines and the character and combat-centric sidequests that are actually fun. Also, the biggest decider of your war asset value actually ties into the multiplayer, which applies a multiplier based on how much of it you played.
And thank goodness the task of boosting your asset score is not a horrible chore, because not only is the multiplayer enjoyable, it is actually really good. Instead of slapping together a senseless death match mode, Mass Effect 3 jumps on the horde-mode train but manages to do it in a way that stays true to the core tenets of the Mass Effect universe and gameplay. Like in many games nowadays, up to four players cooperate as they do battle with increasingly harder waves of enemies. Instead of just fighting and fighting until everyone dies, games are limited to ten waves and the constant combat is punctuated by objectives every few rounds; these range from holding down a small area to escorting one player as the carry an objective from one place to another. The objectives never pull you too far out of the action while still doing enough to add a little variety.
What really makes the multiplayer so enjoyable over the long haul is its use of the character classes and weapon customization from the single player. Each class balances straight up combat abilities, tech skills, and bionic techniques differently and then each class divides it up further with different species that have unique skills and stats. Killing enemies earns experience that is used to level up and unlock and power up abilities while completing objectives makes you money that can be spent on random item packs that give you everything from one-time use items like rockets and med-packs as well as weapons and attachments. Some might prefer the option to simply buy the items you want, but the randomness does add a unique appeal that should make gambling addicts happy. Of course the multiplayer would be useless if it didn’t work due to network or matchmaking problems, but thankfully it is all well implemented with only slight moments of slowdown here and there but no noticeable major issues, or at least I didn’t experience any.
The overall artistic qualities of the game also prove exceptional. While I personally am not a huge fan of the art style in the comic book sequences, the rest of the game is beautifully designed. Characters and environments are varied and colorful, balancing the the bright, shiny veneer of typical futuristic sci-fi with the torn and tattered aesthetics of a war torn galaxy. The only real issue I had was with the human characters, which just look a little stiff and plastic-like compared to the great alien designs.
The audio side of the experience fares even better than the visuals. First and foremost, major credit has to be given to the voice cast; every actor involved in ME3 gives an amazing performance, making each character memorable and as likeable, loathsome, or intimidating as they should be. The soundtrack is also very well done, and even though the blaring horns inspired by Inception trailers are starting to grow old, the rest of the soundtrack harks back to classic science fiction films, giving it a sound that differentiates itself from just about every other sci-fi game released in years.
Mass Effect 3: Special Edition is an absolutely amazing game. The lack of sixty hours of content leading up to it does rob the story of some of its impact and many characters don’t get the proper time needed to fully flesh them out, but the great writing and high stakes of the events still make the game’s thirty or more hours exceptionally compelling. The fact that such an interesting story with interesting player decisions can be seamlessly incorporated into a well crafted action game with well balanced RPG elements just makes it that much better. Add into the equation a great multiplayer mode that meaningfully ties into the single player fiction and top-notch audio and visual design and the end result really can’t fail.