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Walking past two Krogan on the Citadel I overhear their discussion on whether there are fish on the Presidium. I walk up the stairs and find the groundskeeper next to the entrance of the club. I talk to him and learn that the lakes are reservoirs and he offhandedly remarks that the only place he knows where to find fish on the citadel is the Citadel Souvenirs store. I head over to the store, buy some fish and head on back to the two Krogans. I sell the fish for a handsome sum of credits, much to the delight of the Krogan. I earn +5 Renegade points for the lie as well as a recurring smile on my face every time I visit the Citadel.
Mass Effect 2 was heralded as one of the best games ever made. Art from the game will be displayed at the Smithsonian in an exhibition opening today “[exploring] the 40‐year evolution of video games as an artistic medium, with a focus on striking visual effects, the creative use of new technologies, and the most influential artists and designers.” Is Mass Effect 3 just as good? Even better?
Mass Effect 3 starts at the beginning of a war. The reapers are at lunar base and then earth. Gigantic lasers are ripping cities apart and Shepard is reinstated and ordered to seek assistance from other races and places in the galaxy whilst Anderson remains to rally the resistance. It sets a grim and urgent tone. For every second longer that it takes you to return with adequete support, the death toll rises, but the sooner you head the back, the smaller your chance of success. It is a fine balancing act that places the weight of the galaxy squarely on your shoulders.
Beautiful, gorgeous game
Your task to assemble the largest fleet in history takes you across one of the most beautiful galaxies imaginable. Mass Effect 3 contains breathtaking vistas of planets, space, spaceships and warfare on a galactic scale. I found myself stopping to look around more than once; even at moments that were pivotal to the plot or in the thick of combat, I just had to stop and appreciate my surroundings. Games often play out in a very narrow field of vision. Fixated on the task at hand, you are always moving and looking forwards. Flicking the analog stick for a 360 degree view made it a three dimensional world and for a few seconds I could displace myself completely into a world and universe so beautiful that I just wanted to stand there and look up at the sky.
Shepard, whether Renegade or Paragon, male or female is someone who always comes through right to the bitter end. There are some difficult choices to be made and some heartbreaking consequences to be had, but at least once, you will replay a mission because dammit, nobody dies on Shepard’s watch. There is a wall memorial on the Normandy where names of friends and soldiers lost are engraved. Slowly more names are added and some names cut very deep. Bioware has not lost their touch when it comes to creating living, breathing characters that you will go to hell and back for. The stakes are as high as they can get, but even though the story catapults forward on a grand scale, it remains personal. There are no strangers in Mass Effect 3 and you have the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of long-standing companions, each coming to terms with their own losses of friends, family and homeworlds as the war continues on.
Brave enough to be a series
Despite the publisher’s claim to the contrary, Mass Effect 3 is not a standalone game. It’s filled with memories; echoes and consequences from the past. Although the grand finale in a trilogy, I think it’s more Part 2 than 3. You can give Mass Effect a miss and start with Mass Effect 2 as the first is more a prequel that sets the tone rather than a vital component. The result of creating a game that follows on and ambitiously aims to transcend Mass Effect 2, is a harrowing tale that is unputdownable. There will be late nights, meals eaten with controller or mouse in hand because it’s that engaging. You and your crew have come a long way. Make no mistake, it is your crew. Your Shepard. Your story. The ending might be controversial and you may not always receive the option that you wanted when it comes to important decisions, but that does not detract from your emotional input. It’s personal.
Mass Effect 3 is not perfect. It is a game that tries to be everything for everyone and although it miraculously carries that off far better than I thought posssible; it is an impossible strategy with many flaws that ultimately comes back to haunt everyone. There are some minor annoyances, the most prevalent is a persistent lack of subtlety. I understand the gravity of the situation and the toll that it has taken on Shepard; there is no need to keep pointing it out. Really. I get it.
Galactic War Readiness
Sigh. Definitely one of the silliest and most annoying game mechanics I have encountered thus far. Your Galactic War Readiness starts at 50% and is affected by either playing the iOS game “Infiltrator” (and the iOS datapad app has a minigame that will contribute a tiny amount) or the multiplayer. At 50% you will find it extraordinarily difficult to reach an Effective Military Strength of 5000, which appears to be the magic number for total success. You have three options: 1. Completionist: collect everything, well virtually everything and complete virtually every side-mission, 2. Multiplayer: spend around 4-6 hours in multiplayer matches and 3. Mobile gamer: Buy the iPad game for £4.99 and slog through hours of game play there. Pick one, two or all three, whichever option you choose, hours of your life will fade away as you try to get to the point where you can actually get back to your solo campaign.
Narrative mode = Easy mode
At the start, you are given three game options: Narrative, RPG and Action. Narrative mode is “very easy” mode in reality. The only element of game play it affects are combat; your shields are near impenetrable and your health gets a big bump, whilst enemies have flimsy barriers, negligible shields and very little health. That’s it as far as I can tell. It is great that games have difficulty settings making it accessible for players who would otherwise really struggle with combat, but there is so much more than shields and health bars creating obstacles. More options would be nice: Here’s what I would imagine to be a very controversial one: Reputation: if you just want the straight up, feel good story, toggle this here and all dialogue options are unlocked. Here’s another – Galactic Readiness. If you want multiplayer to boost your Military Strength, toggle here and you will earn points through the multiplayer, just like you do in the solo campaign. Options are always welcome and another easy mode is a great edition, but it’s not narrative mode, it’s just very easy combat mode.
A story that betrays its roots
In a plot-driven RPG, it is the story that ultimately defines the game. This is a story of epic proportions set in a universe that reacts to you. Your actions have consequences and throughout, your decisions, whether made five minutes or five years ago, come back to either haunt or reward you. Despite this incredible accomplishment in continuity and scope, it is a story with some significant flaws. Some decisions simply do not tally with the mass effect universe you know and this leaves you at odds with the game, often at the most crucial points. It separates you from Shepard and although the strong emotional bond keeps you playing, it is frustrating when the cracks are visible.
Visually intense with gorgeous eye-piercing lighting. Perfect colour blind accessibility
It’s not a particularly flashy game, but there are some strong visual elements present. The colour scheme at times turn to bright blues and white. There are bright lights scattered throughout, but it’s only a small part of the game that actually contain these. The final act is the worst with a shaky camera combined with very strong bright lighting in the background eclipsed by movement, which creates the illusion of flash, be it very slow.
Combat sequences are visually intense. There is at times a lot of movement and particularly towards the end, the camera becomes very shaky and disorienting. The use of colour is spectacular, but if you suffer from visually triggered migraines, issues will crop up throughout the game. Again, the majority of the game is easy on the eye, but the frequent use of strong lights and visuals are demanding. Playing in shorter sessions should make it less taxing and I would be hesitant to recommend it to anyone struggling with strong visual cues.
Text size & HUD (Heads up Display)
The Heads-up Display is very well designed. Your ammo is indicated both by bar and a number. It is clean and a generous size. The radial menus for options are clearly visible, but the text explaining the options are small and difficult to read. There are subtitles for all dialogue throughout the game, but the font size is fixed and standard. Overall, I found the UI very accessible and usable.
Most definitely designed with colour blindness in mind. Colour-based options are red and blue; the UI is red and blue and even if you have difficulty distinguishing red and blue, dialogue options are also positional, i.e. paragon at the top, renegade at the bottom and for interrupts, paragon on the left and renegade on the right.
The camera sensitivity can be set to low, medium or high and makes the camera moves slower, normal or faster. You can also adjust brightness under graphic options and if you have vision problems, make sure the brightness is at the correct level.
Visual elements more than makes up for a loss of either special effects or soundtrack
Mass Effect 3 is a game that can easily be played without access to sound. The visual elements are executed well, both from an aesthetic as well as a functional point of view. You can see when you take damage, there is a radial dial that appears to indicate the direction the damage you’re taking is coming from and your squad members shout out helpful advice, that is subtitled, such as “flanking on our left, watch out!”. There is no reason why anyone with any degree of hearing loss cannot get the full immersive experience from the game.
Subtitles & Closed captioning
There are subtitles for all dialogue throughout the game, but the font size is fixed and standard. There are no subtitles in the multiplayer, objectives are provided via voice over only. However, there are few objectives and there are visual indicators to support objectives. For example: if the objective is to eliminate a specific target, the target is highlighted and directional arrows appear leading you to that target. As such, it’s not difficult to play without access to the voice over. Voice chat and a headset is optional for the average player, there is no expectation for players to use chat.
Reliance on auditory cues
There is some reliance on audio cues, but there are always visual indicators for audio cues. For example, if you cannot pinpoint your enemies through sound, a radial dial appears indicating the direction. It is harder to play well in the multiplayer without sound, but not impossible.
There are three sliders for music, sound effects and dialogue. There is also a Dynamic Range option, set to high as default with low as an alternative options. “Select high for high-quality sound systems or quiet environments. Select low for lower-quality sound systems or noisy environments. Dynamic range is the difference in volume between the loudest and quietest sound.
Not for the feint hearted but worth every ounce of frustration that uncannily adds to the dark emotional plot
A moderate reaction time is necessary for combat, even on the easiest mode (narrative mode). Soldiers do have an ability called “Adrenaline Rush” which slows down combat and make enemies move slower, which can be helpful. The Renegade and Paragon dialogue interrupts are timed, generously timed, but timed. Unless you are ready to interrupt, it can be difficult to beat the timer. I would recommend saving often, so that if an option does come up, you can reload and try again, now knowing when it will appear.
A moderate level of precision is required. During combat enemies do take cover or stop at some point; if you struggle to hit a moving target, wait until they are stationary, empty your clip/use your abilities and reload whilst they are on the move again. The new melee move comes in handy, but although it auto-targets, you have to be facing the enemy or you miss. Position yourself correctly, then hit/hold B. Scanning requires a little precision. Once you are scanning a plannet, you have to align your large reticule to a large dot on the surface. In general game play, you have to align a smaller reticule over the object that you would like to use. Multiple functions have unfortunately been mapped to one button which actually makes movement harder as take cover and jump over is, for example, both mapped to A. The analog stick has to be controlled with a moderate level of precision or you can end up taking cover next to the cover rather than behind it.
Pause and save options
You can pause at any time. There is frequent auto-saving throughout the game and you can save manually whenever you are not in combat. There is also an option to turn auto-save off. It is on by default. You can use Kinect to save by saying “Quick Save”.
Difficult to play with one hand on a controller as there are no button mapping options. The Kinect can be helpful, you use fewer buttons if also using voice commands, but support is limited as you can only use the kinect to issue ability commands and use items/start conversations. However, remapping on the PC for one hand is easily done.
Mass Effect 3 for PC comes on two discs and with that, comes the issue with two discs, i.e. disc swapping. For linear games, there’s usually only one disc swap involved about half way through the game. For Mass Effect 3, I stopped counting after 12. Even early side-missions were on disc 2 and I had to swap back and forth whenever I swapped from side-mission to main story. For anyone with a physical disability that cannot swap the discs themselves, this is a major annoyance.
There are five levels of combat difficulty: Narrative, Casual, Normal, Hardcore and Insanity. Xbos 360 controller options are: Vibration on/off, Invert Y-axis on/off, Stick Configuration Default/Southpaw, Trigger Configuration Default/Southpaw.
Challenging and difficult enterprise that should not be untertaken lightly
Reading, language and vocabulary
Mass Effect 3 follows an intricate science-fiction plot filled with dialogue and sci-fi jargon. Subtitles are timed, so that if you are reading without audio, you have to read as fast as the characters are speaking to keep up. Conversation wheels are text only, but are not timed and will remain until you make a decision.
Even if you played Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, it has probably been years since. If you struggle with memory issues, you will face the same problems as newcomers; you can tell that there is backstory, but you can’t remember the details or the minor characters from previous installments. It does not prevent you from playing, but it does detract from the enjoyment . It always feels as if you’re missing an inside joke. There is a tactical mastery panel on your private terminal where you can review combat, powers and squad members if you would like to refresh your memory.
There is a lot of information to remember, but there is also a lot of help. The game is quite linear and navigation is easy. The map has markers for missions and when scanning there are percentages to indicate how much of the resources you have uncovered. Some systems have none and the indicator only appears after you find the first, so it might be helpful to make a note of systems you have scanned that has none as you go along.
Focus, Organization & Planning
It is a complicated and complex game, but the game mechanics do everything they can to help you out. The armory has a fair amount of weapons with five upgrades for each as well as five additional mods, but it is very well organised and easy to use. Before every mission the armory is shown and you can load up both Shepard and two squad mates to your heart’s content. The talent trees are interesting, but if too complex, can be set to automatically level your skills, removing them from your to-do list.
You can play in short sessions, but these are 30 – 60 minutes rather than 2-5 minutes. You can play for a few minutes as well, scanning is a 5 minutes interlude and so is talking to an NPC on your ship or checking out the citadel, but the actual missions and combat sequences do require some dedicated game time. You can pause at any time, so breaks are there for the taking.
The game play is not completely linear, but Act-based. Once you complete an act, it’s locked and some side-missions and opportunities disappear. Side-missions and story missions appear in the same quest log and there is no obvious indication which is which, so you do need to keep track of where you are in the main plot when you veer off onto side-missions.
Your two squad mates are great to have. You can control their actions and time their abilities and direct their movement to specific spots, but you can also automate any or all of the above.
Math and computations
There is some reliance on math within the game, but not much. Weapons and armor are compared via bars rather than numbers. The only important number in the game is your galactic readiness as the ending available to you depends on this. 5,000 seems to be the magic number, 4,000 acceptable and anything below 2,800 is going to be bleak.
The solo campaign is an RPG in both narrative and RPG mode with lots of attention paid to squad and crew members. There is an action mode which removes your conversation choices and make these for you and display them in a cut scene, but it also removes vital game play elements, such as leveling up your own abilities. If you choose either Narrative or RPG mode, there is the option under “Options” to disable dialogue and I would recommend choosing this route. Building relationships and talking to crew members are important parts of the game and ignoring these might cause some problems down the line, however sacrificing interaction with NPCs also sacrifice control over your story. It becomes linear and may feel like a spectator rather than a participant.
There is an Auto Level-up option allowing you to turn on auto-leveling for either your squad only or for you and your squad. There is a toggle option for Squadmate Power use, turning it on will automate your squad’s attacks. There is a toggle option for hints and action icons. Turn on hints to display in-game instructions and directions and turn on action icons to display indicators when an action like exiting cover is available. Under “Narrative Options”, there is are two options for conversation mode – full decisions require participation and no choices are made for you whilst no decisions play automatically and all responses are chosen for you.
The Kinect controls can make a difference when playing Mass Effect 3 if you are struggling with the physical controls. They are well designed and implemented, but their scope is just too narrow to be significant. You cannot control your character by voice, you can only issue commands. If you are playing on normal, hardcore or insanity mode, the in-combat controls are just too slow to keep up. In narrative mode, you have a fighting chance, but it is quite often easier and a lot quicker to just hit a single button.
I made extensive use of the Environment controls, but be aware that voice control is only an option at the same time that pressing a button is an option. If you are running towards a door, until you are within range and your cursor opens the option, voice commands will not work. So don’t try to save time by opening doors ahead of time. Unfortunately, voice commands are only available for things that require a single button press and not for the really hard things, like using the analog sticks to control movement and point of view. Be aware that Kinect features are limited to the campaign and not available in multiplayer.
Kinect player dialects are under narrative options: North America, UK, Australia/New Zealand
Environment: “The appropriate command will display when you approach an object or person. When the gray command text turns white, you can say the command out loud (or hit A). If the correct command is heard, the mic icon will flash green. If Kinect does not understand, it will flash red. You can also save the game by saying “quick save”.
Conversations: “When speaking with characters, a microphone icon will appear in the middle of the conversation hub, indicating your opportunity to verbally reply. Read out the response you would like to give, and Kinect will select it automatically.”
Controlling Shepard: “In combat, you can use any of Shepard’s powers by saying them aloud”, like Warp, Singularity etc. “In addition to powers, Kinect works with items like first aid and grenades. To use the item, say “First Aid” or “Grenade”. “You can also switch weapons by saying ‘switch weapon’ or saying the weapon type: “Heavy Pistol”, “Submachine Gun”,”Assault Rifle”, “Shotgun”, “Sniper Rifle”, “Grenade”.
Commanding Squadmates: Say their name to indicate which squadmate then follow with a command. All commands above that work for Shepard, also work for squad mates. In addition, you can direct fire to an enemy in front of you by saying “Garrus, attack” or order your squadmate to move to the spot you are currently targeting by saying “Tali, move”. If you don’t specify a squadmate and just say “attack”, “move” or “follow me”, both squadmates will carry out that order. The same works for “cover me” and “revive”. “If a squadmate has the power that you say aloud, he or she will use that power before Shepard, even if you don’t say his or her name. The exception to this is ammo powers like Cryo and Incendiary. With these, you must specify the squadmate, or only Shephard will use them.”
Mass Effect 3 is the ambitious conclusion of an immensely popular series. It succeeds in ways I could not have imagined when I first starting playing Mass Effect years ago. The war begins with a bang and picks up pace through at least 20 hours of game play and carries Shepard to an end that is incredibly provocative and unequivocally final. Filled to the brim with everything your heart could desire; an epic war, romance, loss, success, failure and seeing your hero through right to the very end is a harrowing experience. Despite its flaws, it’s a story not to be missed.