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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Mass Effect 3’ soars beyond expectations, amazes critics

Published: April 20, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

“Mass Effect 3” is a third-person shooter RPG created by veteran developer Bioware and available on the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC. This is the final game in a trilogy that has developed an incredible fan following; they have come to love the storytelling and player involvement. The game not only reaches the expectations set for it by the previous games, but exceeds them in spectacular and incredible ways.

“Mass Effect 3” follows the story of Commander Shepard of the Systems Alliance, the government of all human worlds in the galaxy. During the past three years, Shepard has been warning the galaxy about a race of hyper-advanced starships, the Reapers, who would return as they did every 50,000 years to harvest all organic life in the galaxy. The game begins with the bulk of Reaper forces descending on Earth, and Commander Shepard is forced to flee the planet. Shepard gathers a squad of loyal friends to go with him/her (the player can choose Shepard’s gender) to resolve a variety of conflicts between different races in the galaxy, in order to build up enough military forces for a counter-attack to retake Earth and defeat the Reapers.

Arguably the most important aspect of “Mass Effect 3,” as well as the previous games in the series, is player choice and the ability of the player to influence how the events of the game play out. Not only does “Mass Effect 3” match the level of choice presented in previous games, it far eclipses them. As the player attempts to build a coalition of allies, many methods for gaining help present themselves. The questionable morality of some of the options, however, force the player to consider whether addressing the immediate problem of the Reapers is worth the long-term consequences of his or her actions. The player’s choices have a drastic impact on not only squadmates, but allies from past games and other popular characters—some of whom can be directly harmed or die based on the player’s choices.

One of the biggest gameplay improvements lies not in the weapon variety or powers, but in the overall mobility of the player. Commander Shepard can now climb up and down ladders, as well as sprint for an unlimited duration—an ability that has significant impact for many of the available player classes. Even more importantly, however, is the updated and re-vamped cover system which allows the player to run and roll between different forms of cover. This results in a highly increased sense of mobility, and makes it much easier to navigate the battlefield. The system of melee attacks, or close quarters combat, has also been significantly re-worked. While “Mass Effect 2” did fix many of the issues with the melee attacks in “Mass Effect 1,” “Mass Effect 3” has streamlined them to become a useful and viable part of the player’s combat tactics, instead of a clunky option that is only useful in extreme circumstances. Players can now use a class-specific heavy melee attack, which does increased damage to enemies and can be used to execute certain foes. The system of powers (abilities) in “Mass Effect 3” has also been streamlined from previous games, and allows players to have an even more customized role for their character. At the beginning of the game, players are allowed to choose one “class” for Commander Shepard, which determines what type of powers their character will have, ranging from technology-based abilities to biotics, which resemble telekinesis and other psychic abilities.

“Mass Effect 3” is also the first game of the series to feature a multiplayer component—an ambitious undertaking that has paid off for Bioware. Players use characters unrelated to their iteration of Commander Shepard to defeat waves of enemies, giving them a chance to experiment with other classes and abilities. While the multiplayer does provide direct benefits to the single-player campaign as a reward for progress, players who don’t wish to use it aren’t required to, and can still have a rich and complete “Mass Effect 3” experience.

Graphically, the game soars past all expectations. The incredible variety of backgrounds and combat zones also help to involve the player in the galactic struggle. The player will find his or herself fighting through space stations, frozen, “ice ball” worlds, vast spaceships and finally a massively devastated London. Foot battles with Reapers have also been masterfully executed, as the sheer scope of these mechanical behemoths will give any player pause. Additionally, each of the alien races the player interacts with show a different way life could have evolved, and reflect this in their overall design. Whether it’s the Turians, an avian species; the Asari, a race of pseudo-asexual blue women; or the Krogan, massive armored warriors who resemble some kind of reptile, all of the different races in the game add a sense of diversity to the game and contribute to the idea that everyone in the galaxy is in the conflict together.

The audio effects of “Mass Effect 3” are very well executed, drawing the player fully into the experience. The voice acting is also in line Bioware’s high audio standards, an aspect of the studio’s games that has vastly helped increase their popularity. Each character, whether a squadmate or a seemingly-random civilian, has a distinct voice, which make them all the more realistic to the player.

Just as well-composed as the audio is the soundtrack of the game, which is nothing short of a masterpiece. Many notable composers, including Clint Mansell, who recently gained acclaim for his work on the film “Black Swan,” worked together to create the soundtrack. The tracks themselves really compliment the action and plot of the game, whether it’s an adrenaline-pumping line during a massive battle or a hauntingly mournful ballad during Commander Shepard’s reflections on the current situation on Earth. Even when listening to the soundtrack apart from the game, the composers have been able to bring the struggle of a galaxy grappling with total war and its accompanying sacrifice to their listeners.

The ending of “Mass Effect 3,” however, has received far more anger than praise from the game’s fans. From the game’s release on March 6, there has been a storm of criticism about the ending, citing how those last 30 minutes of a more than 40-hour game go against the very nature of the “Mass Effect” series because they do not respond to player choices throughout the series or provide a good sense of closure. In response to this outcry, Bioware has announced that they are releasing downloadable content (DLC) called “Mass Effect: Extended Cut,” which will contain new cinematics and epilogue scenes. Casey Hudson, project lead and executive producer for the “Mass Effect” series, said that his team was releasing the DLC to give “more context and clarity to the ending of the game, in a way that will feel more personalized for each player.”

This scenario is unprecedented in the video game industry. The fact that Bioware (and the studio’s owner Electronic Arts Inc.) is willing to re-write their vision for the game to accommodate fan requests is nothing short of incredible, if not a dangerous precedent. While it may be deserved in this case, this will allow gamers to ask for the same treatment from other developers in the future. Due to Bioware and EA’s status as industry giants, this could result in players complaining to smaller developers that “Bioware changed their game for us, so why don’t you?” Whether as a new level of cooperation between designers and players, or as a bargaining tool for a studio’s customers, this could represent a turning point for the entire industry.

I believe this DLC is not only warranted, but necessary to maintain the reputation for player choice that the series has earned. Removing choice from the conclusion of a saga of games, books and comics that fans have been enjoying for five years smacks of either a terrible mistake on the part of the writers or a last-minute change by EA—a possibility I hope is true. As a longtime fan of Bioware, I find it difficult to believe they would create an ending that they had to have known would disappoint their fans to such an extent.

Despite the controversy surrounding the ending, “Mass Effect 3” is arguably one of the best games released to date and is a strong contender for Game of the Year for 2012. If you’re looking for a game that you can play through again and again, while building tangible emotional connections with the characters and places depicted in it, “Mass Effect 3” is an absolute must-buy.