Mass Effect 3 Special Edition review: Mapping the galaxy

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Mass Effect 3 Special Edition review: Mapping the galaxy

For Wii U re-releases of existing games, we're republishing our original reviews with added evaluation of the new material. Keep track of all of Joystiq's Wii U launch coverage on the Wii U hub page!

The Wii U version of Mass Effect 3, saddled with the puzzling subtitle "Special Edition," doesn't introduce much in the way of console exclusive features. Of course, even without the handful of extra features, you still have one of the year's best games, though the conclusion to an epic trilogy may make an odd starting point for Wii U owners.

Helping to ease new players into the series is an interactive comic prelude, "Mass Effect Genesis 2." This is an extended version of the "Mass Effect Genesis" comic available on the console and PC versions of Mass Effect 2. It covers the events of the first two Mass Effect games, allowing players to make many of Commander Shepard's key choices along the way. The comic itself is pretty substantial, lasting a bit longer than twenty minutes.

Certain choices may confuse new players, notably whether to make Udina or Anderson Earth's first councilor at the end of the original Mass Effect. Regardless of the initial choice, the events of Mass Effect 2 conspire to make Udina councilor by the beginning of Mass Effect 3, but those events aren't covered in the comic. As such, Wii U players may find it strange that Udina is suddenly councilor after making the opposite choice in the prelude. Still, the comic does an adequate job of catching up new players.
%Gallery-165279%Mass Effect 3 Special Edition makes a few novel uses of the touch screen. The most useful is a map that's visible during combat missions and on the Citadel, the cultural hub of Mass Effect's universe. You can page through the various floors of the Citadel map, which is very handy for locating quest objectives.

During combat, players can command their squad via the touch screen. Teammates can be repositioned, or made to target enemies, by pressing their icon and dragging it to a specific location on the map. Squad powers can also be mapped to a set of slots on the touch screen, though their use in combat is questionable.

Activating a power is as easy as touching it. Touch screen aiming is manual though, meaning it doesn't home in on targets. Combine that with the second or two it takes to look away from the TV and press the appropriate power on the pad, and you wind up with a lot of misses. I suppose you could memorize each power's location on the touch screen to fire powers without looking, but personally I just stuck with the original control scheme. Honestly, the screen's best use is simply as a map, especially since it highlights enemy locations.

There's a special weapon that utilizes the touch screen to lock onto enemies, though I haven't found it after putting about four hours into the campaign. Like many other Wii U titles, you can also play exclusively on the GamePad screen, which works just as well as it does on other games. One feature I would love to see is the ability to read messages and browse Mass Effect 3's extensive Codex via the GamePad screen. Alas, these activities are still stuck on the TV.

Multiplayer fares just as well as it does on other platforms. Voice chat is initiated by pressing the touch screen, though I haven't encountered many chatty players. In fact, despite my best efforts, the only time I heard anyone speak was to ask if his voice chat was working. Whenever someone does deign to speak, it comes through the GamePad speakers. Incidentally, the handy touch screen map isn't available in multiplayer, instead replaced by a list of teammates.

Visually, Mass Effect 3 Special Edition is on par with its console counterparts. I didn't do any extensive comparisons, but it seems to be about the same, with no noticeable problems and no abnormal frame rate hiccups. When playing on a television, a few of the game's sound effects – gunshots, footsteps, Shepard's powers – are piped through the GamePad speakers. It's not as neat as the use of GamePad audio you'll hear in Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition or ZombiU, but it does add to the experience somewhat.

Mass Effect 3 Special Edition includes the "From Ashes" DLC, which was included with the collector's edition on other platforms. It also bundles in the Rebellion, Resurgence, and Earth multiplayer expansions, all of which are free downloads on other platforms. Overall, Special Edition is a fine version of Mass Effect 3, though the inability to play the other two games in the series, especially Mass Effect 2, makes it a strange beast for new players. It's also worth noting that EA has no plans to bring the Mass Effect Trilogy set to the Wii U.

If Mass Effect 3 Special Edition is your only shot at dipping into BioWare's universe, you may as well take it. If you've already experienced the previous games, and you don't mind missing out on importing your character, you'll find a competent port with a few novel extras.

Original Mass Effect 3 review by Ludwig Kietzmann:

Screens from original version of Mass Effect 3

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.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.
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