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Mass Effect 3 single-player review: This is it

Ludwig Kietzmann
Ludwig Kietzmann|March 6, 2012 6:00 AM
You know things are getting grim in the galaxy when the Inception horn comes out. The Reapers, ancient machines that harvest organic life, arrive en masse and emit an intimidating, brassy blare as they descend upon developed civilizations. One interpretation of Mass Effect 3, then, is that it's about aliens putting aside their differences and banding together to wipe a troublesome, trombone-heavy meme off the face of the Earth.

You'll be pleased to hear that BioWare doesn't blow it. The trilogy's spectacular conclusion hits hard, having built momentum across a tremendous universe, and alongside a legitimate player history, preserved in a huge list of variables and decisions spanning three different games. You're railroaded by some of the big, expensive outcomes from Mass Effect 2, but the little creases in plot and dialogue still grant a sense of ownership and tight continuity. That long, personalized thread is what truly sets the Mass Effect series apart from other science fiction. (The only significant betrayal I encountered in this regard was when the game failed to import my Shepard's appearance from Mass Effect 2.)

In some ways, however, it's disappointing to see so many of your relationships, choices, failures and successes boil down to a statistic in Mass Effect 3. Every thing you do -- and many of the things you've done in previous games -- gets funneled into a number that represents how likely the galaxy is to survive the Reaper onslaught. The number starts low, but grows as you sway more forces to your side by completing priority missions or sidequests. Even minor things, like saving a Salarian captain in Mass Effect 1, can add to your chances of victory.

The problem is that a scoreboard almost equalizes these events, so something as major as preserving or destroying the Rachni race (ME1) gets lumped on there without appropriate fanfare. It's an inelegant way of translating the state of a story, even if a score is perfectly suited to the language of video games. BioWare has bumped into this conflict before, though never as obviously as with the moment in Mass Effect 3 that transitions from a sad, tastefully done death scene into YOU GOT PARAGON POINTS! You can't knock Mass Effect for being a video game, of course, but the devotion to story and exceptional acting doesn't always reflect in the peripheral presentation.

Mass Effect 3 represents not only the culmination of your choices, as reflected in Commander Shepard's career and demeanor, but those of BioWare as a studio. It isn't polished with equal care throughout (Dude Shepard's string-pulled smile is still the scariest threat facing the universe), but the presentation is often breathtaking in its art direction and scale. BioWare has a firm grasp on what its universe looks and feels like by now (underneath all those lens flares). It remains a fascinating, lived-in place that sets the biggest possible stage, even when the best stories are the small ones.

BioWare finds a better harmony between character customization and shooting in Mass Effect 3. Categoric abilities now branch and close off alternate options once you make a selection, and weapon mods offer a good sense of progression, even if they don't quite let you build the one-shot, tank-killing sniper rifle you dreamed of in Mass Effect 1. Weapon weight is something else to consider, as traveling lean and mean greatly reduces cooldown time on your powers.

The shooting's much busier in this one, with new enemies threatening to turn the tide with buffs, crushing melee attacks or a supply of shielded turrets. There's less coasting from you, especially on higher difficulties, as you coordinate your squad's powers to quickly dispose of armored or shielded foes. The tactical options eventually become victim to attrition as you fall into comfortable combos, but that doesn't make it any less fun when you lock a guy inside a stasis bubble and shatter him with a cryo bullet to the face. (Protip: Cryo some more.)

If there's a tradeoff with more involved shooting, it's that snappy pacing is much harder to maintain. Some battles start to drag if the Reaper-altered enemies don't know when to let up, and a couple of larger, well-protected monsters (like the ghastly, wailing Banshee) can feel like relentless bullet sponges, especially if you face more than one at a time. There isn't enough variety in powers to withstand a drawn-out battle without repeating your tactics a couple of times over.

For every lull like that, however, there are two moments where every component of Mass Effect 3 comes together in an enrapturing way. This is the grand payoff following a very long setup, which adds an edge and extra pressure to Shepard's large-scale objectives, and helps more missions strike a perfect balance between shooting aliens and chatting them up. That history helps cement the camaraderie between established characters, who now face ominous odds and a sense of hopelessness. The story peaks, fittingly, when Shepard screws up a crucial mission (like, badly) and hits rock bottom.

As a finale, Mass Effect 3 provides an effective, action-heavy, sometimes sincere sendoff to the heroes and villains, moral issues and myths that course through the series. The plot device at the center of it all -- sorry, make that the device plot -- is hokey, vague and convenient, but it is anchored to some brutal choices, most of which have unfortunate outcomes no matter how nice you are. As you walk through a political minefield in your quest for allies against the Reapers, you'll see you can't often please one race without losing support from another.

In a similar way, the concluding catharsis of Mass Effect 3 won't make it the obvious favorite for everyone. It's the most refined and it's one of BioWare's best, but it trades in some of Mass Effect 2's mystery and unrepeatable brilliance for a big-bang finish. Rather than hurling yourself into the unknown, you're saying goodbye to what you've come to love over the last four years.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Mass Effect 3, provided by EA. The multiplayer servers were not active until March 5, which did not allow us enough time to adequately play it for full review. An additional review for Mass Effect 3's multiplayer mode will be published next week.

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