Mass Effect 3 feels like an expansion pack for Mass Effect 2. In some ways, it’s a very good expansion pack. In others, it’s… Well, pretty shameless.
The game is also a huge pile of Hollywood films squashed together. Shamelessly.
Shameless in a good way, though. Mostly.
Mass Effect 3
Okay, maybe it’s not an expansion pack — more like a greatest hits compilation.
Everyone that ever lived crops up, all the different ME2 DLC armours and weapons are on show, most of your old decisions have some impact somewhere along the way (and it does tend to be an impact, rather than a faceless e-mail acknowledgement like in ME2). On that count, they have very much succeeded — or managed to produce a very strong illusion of having succeeded (I had a perfect save lined up so I don’t know how not doing things or letting people die in the Suicide Mission might turn out).
In terms of the mix of action and RPG mechanics, ME3 is a lot more like what ME2 should have been; in that it doesn’t entirely strip out all the RPG mechanics, but does keep the punchier combat.
The variety of enemies among husks is vastly improved, in that there are finally non-human husks running around doing species-related kinds of things. The variety of human soldiers is increased mechanically, with some people dropping turrets and others carrying huge bullet-proof shields. On the downside, the Reapers and Cerberus are about the only people you ever fight — the groups of enemies might have been spruced up, but there are still only two groups.
Weapons are customisable with mods in the same way as the original Mass Effect, but mods can only be installed at specific times — either at mission start or, in rare cases, during a mission at a loose weapon bench. This means there’s no deluge of looted mods in to pick through after every fight as in the original, but they haven’t been totally stripped out as in ME2. It’s a much happier balance, though ammunition types are still powers and I’d rather they were just mods too (always full-power cryo for me, I luff the icy smashy deaths).
Scanning for minerals was a contentious old beast in Mass Effect 2 — it’s not exactly a mini-game, and the limit on the number of probes you can carry doesn’t exactly turn it into some kind of finely-honed balance between getting what you want and making the best use of your resources. It is, pretty much, an unrepentant annoyance that adds nothing to the game.
Scanning might be reduced in Mass Effect 3 but it’s not exactly gone. Flying around the solar systems is given some kind of meaning by having Reapers crop up after a short while, chasing you until you leave the system (or get caught and die). This is all very well and good, but since there are no obstacles to avoid in-system you just pull for the edge and it’s over — not much to it. (Why not add clouds of hot gas or old space-land-mines or something to make solar systems like little assault courses?)
If the solar system-level scanner finds something at a planet, you get to go into the same old mineral scanning interface… except this time there are no minerals: just a single anomaly to find with your slow cursor. Hell, the panel at the side where the mineral detectors were is now just an empty plap — they didn’t even bother to cut it out and put the planet centre screen. Lazy lazy!
On the other hand, for main quest lumps where there is more than one mission on a single planet, the planet scanner is subverted into a nice little mission selection interface.
Mass Effect 2 suffered from (aside from not actually having a story) being too symmetrical; every character had one acquisition mission (well, apart from the cardboard DLC characters) and precisely one loyalty mission.
Mass Effect 3‘s structure seems much more organic. Actual side missions crop up in a more mixed way (from overhearing conversations to talking to your new secretary), the main quest missions have asymmetric structures — different numbers of sub-objectives of varying length and all that. Loyalty missions don’t exist per se, but occasional missions will demand the presence of one of your team by appropriate circumstance.
Either way, the less predictable structure makes the game feel much more varied and interesting. The cost is that the whole game feels much more linear; but I’ve always felt that non-linearity for the sake of non-linearity isn’t necessarily a good thing (I’ll trade a stronger story for non-linearity any day, because I think true non-linearity is an impossible dream until we invent proper AIs, and they’ll turn round and kill us all anyway).
Story-wise… Well. The actual quest structure might be a lot stronger than before, but I’m not at all convinced by the story. Everything falls into place just a little too easily, there are a few too many heroic sacrifices to make them carry much weight after the first one (pretty much all the old characters turn up in bite-sized walk-on roles).
I think the itty-bitty nature of the story, and the apparent lack of character depth (the prevalence of canned cardboard-cut-out conversations that made DLC characters Zaeed and Kasumi less than inspiring to interact with last time might not help the matter) compared to what we got in previous installments also contributes to the feeling that ME3 is just an expansion pack.
Then again, this is now a galactic war so there’s not really any time to focus on the touchy-feely stuff. You have giant killer robots to thwart.
And, well, there is the ending…
I want to avoid spoilers, but I will say that I think its conclusions are based on a flawed philosophy. Everything seems to hinge on a magical and arbitrary distinction between organic and synthetic life. Yes, one type might be squishy and the other might be metallic, but both are still just machinery — one happens to be based on chemistry that has a greater chance of spontaneously occurring and the other happens to use electronics that need to be assembled (and it’s all physics anyway). For a series that at least started out with pretensions of being hard (ish) sci-fi, they fair ended up with a very hand-wavy ending.
Of course, the word on the grapevine is that that isn’t actually the real ending, and the real ending will come later via DLC. If this is true, then it’s pretty shameless (and not the good shameless).
It is a good game, for the most part. I think the story lost its way with the handbrake-turn between Mass Effect and ME2 (in terms of escalating threat/Reaper visibility, the trilogy might actually have made more sense with the first two entries swapped around), so there’s still the buzzing edge of retconning throughout. It probably doesn’t help that the game throws up a lot of names that I assume are from tie-in novels I’ve never read, and the katana-wielding weeaboo assassin super-hero sort of ruins any credibility the series might have been trying to cling to.
I did enjoy it, for all its downsides. It’s big, bombastic, pure Hollywood thrills. The emotional rollercoaster might happen too fast to have any real impact but there’s still plenty of self-referential humour that raises a few grins along the way, and the horrors of an unwinnable war are still capable of tugging on the odd heart-string (the refugee teenager waiting for her parents springs to mind).
Of course, I’ve not tried the multiplayer yet. Maybe that’ll change everything. If you want to hook up over the Origin-mobile (if that’s even possible and it’s not pure random), let me know.