The horrid creature standing before you might be a disgusting monstrosity, but you once spared this beast’s entire species from annihilation. Do you do so once more, and risk losing a valued squad members and a crucial alliance? Or do you allow an even greater threat to destroy it–effectively committing genocide–so you might make a speedy exit, even though this creature’s assistance could turn the tide of a vital galactic battle? In Mass Effect 3, such choices loom large, and not simply because there are many of factors to consider. Your actions often guide the course of events to come, sometimes in ways that see the loss of those nearest and dearest to your heart.
How deeply you grieve those losses depends on whether or not you have played Mass Effect and its sequel, and how close you’ve grown to the inhabitants of their irresistible universe. This is the first time this role-playing/shooter hybrid series has appeared on a Nintendo console, and it’s possible you haven’t played a Mass Effect game before. If so, you’re at a disadvantage: without a connection to the wonderful characters that have already crossed the playable hero’s path, you may place less weight on their ultimate fates. Yet even without that previous connection, it’s hard not to be drawn to your comrades in arms. Every character leaps off the screen, thanks to top-notch voice acting and great facial animations that effectively communicate the sting of sorrow and the rush of victory.
Nevertheless, leaping blindly into the final installment of a beloved trilogy requires a degree of faith, and the game at least allows newcomers to catch up on the spacefaring series’ plot developments via an interactive comic that has you making a number of decisions that determine the state of the universe prior to beginning the game proper. The attractive comic covers key plot points, and benefits from an outstanding narration. And while it’s no substitute for dozens of hours’ worth of dramatic storytelling and exciting gameplay, the comic gets the job done as well as could be expected.
Whether or not you’re new to the series, it’s hard not to be taken in by Mass Effect 3’s narrative. You play as the customizable Commander Shepard, galactic hero and star of the first two games. Galactic tensions are high: a sentient race of starships known as reapers are eager to harvest organic species and turn their vibrant planetary homes into lifeless husks. After a short exposition, an opening combat scenario cleverly combines the “big” of a reaper attack on Earth with the “small” of a single death. While there is plenty of action, the game continually subverts expectation. Every so often, the shooting heats up, only to lead to a climax that comes not in the form of an explosion or a boss fight, but in a simple quiet conversation, or a few limping steps.
The reapers aren’t your only adversary in Mass Effect 3: the pro-human organization known as Cerberus, led by the Illusive Man, complicates the conflict. Your ultimate goal is to rid the galaxy of the reaper threat with the use of a superweapon, yet the Illusive Man has different ideas and goes to some disturbing lengths to implement them. Discovering his goals and means is one of Mass Effect 3’s better story threads, in part because the Illusive Man is such a strong presence. Actor Martin Sheen brings a calm, chilling strength to the character, but also exudes a touch of vulnerability when the Illusive Man is forced to confront his own demons.
Much has already been made of Mass Effect 3’s controversial finale, so you should note that the Special Edition incorporates the Extended Cut ending, which closes some holes left open when the game was originally released on other platforms. And even if you feel ambivalent toward its ending, Mass Effect 3 is hardly lacking in memorable moments. The choices you make during story scenes using the game’s dialogue wheel have dramatic implications, and entire quests, conversations, and characters shift as a result of your actions. Other consequences are less sweeping but still emotionally affecting; a lover might fondly recall her previous entanglement with you, while still supporting your new romantic interest, for instance.
As a result, you might be delighted by characters other players never meet, share intimate talks with crewmates other players never interact with, and deal with decisions other players never make. Your entire attitude, governed by Mass Effect 3’s morality system (paragon versus renegade) when choosing dialogue options, can drive you to conclusions other players could never consider. Rising personal tensions are enhanced by the game’s ominous visual identity. A raging storm encroaches, giving battle an even greater sense of urgency. The sheer darkness of a subterranean ruin enhances the sense of danger. The art is effective, with touches of blue and crimson contrasting the cool apathy of space with the passions of its fearful residents. The Wii U release holds up rather well against the others, with only a few frame rate dips and less-saturated colors sullying an otherwise fluid and attractive experience.
Mass Effect 3 packs in plenty of excitement between story developments. The action plays out as a typical third-person cover shooter, with special tech and biotic powers livening up the core shooting. Mass Effect 3 provides a huge supply of guns and weapon modifications. There are five weapon types and loads of choices within those types, each with its own pros and cons. You find weapons and mods in mission areas and can purchase them from vendors on the space station known as the Citadel or from a terminal on your ship, the Normandy SR-2. You don’t just need to consider your play style when choosing weapons prior to battle–you also need to consider how their weight might affect your ability to perform biotic and tech skills. The heavier your loadout, the less often you can send the bad guys flying into the air.
And boy is it ever fun to toss the bad guys skyward, though that isn’t the only fancy skill you can perform. You might sprint and tumble about, sliding into cover and using cryo ammo to freeze a creepy cannibal before charging into it and smashing it to pieces. Or perhaps you would rather send a powerful shock wave careening toward oncoming troopers, flinging them over a facility’s railing and into the abyss beneath. As you level up, you eventually make choices about how to upgrade your powers. For instance: do you increase the Pull ability’s recharge speed, or do you learn to launch two Pull projectiles at once? Don’t assume that Mass Effect 3’s missions are all about guns and space magic, though. A pistol isn’t much help when you traverse a virtual space made of neon cubes and floating platforms.
On most occasions, you’re joined by up to two other squadmates of your choosing, who have their own powers to perform. While you can pull off these skills by pulling up a radial menu (which pauses the action), you can also tap corresponding icons on the Wii U’s tablet. The tablet interface can require a bit of pre-mission maintenance, especially if you switch out squadmates every so often, because there are a limited number of icon slots, and you must manually assign them. This micromanagement can be a chore, but using the tablet in this manner improves the experience overall, because you can utilize your squad’s powers in tactically efficient ways without ever pausing the game. The benefit to the action’s pacing is immense.
You can also use the tablet to manually position your cohorts, though doing so is laborious and rarely useful. But even if you do make use of the possibilities of manual squad positioning, your cronies show off their general lack of intelligence by crouching on top of crates, and your foes thoughtlessly tumble against walls rather than sliding into safer positions. Other minor flaws include camera angles going awry, weird cover system quirks, and a journal that doesn’t always fill in important details.
Yet the action rarely suffers when the faults emerge, due to Mass Effect 3’s varied level design. While there are times when cover is laid out in predictable ways and adversaries emerge as you expect them to, some expansive combat areas and aggressive enemy types give rise to diverse pacing. Shrieking banshees can destroy you in a single grab if you let them come too close, and hulking brutes constantly threaten to intrude on your personal space. In tandem, they create memorable, challenging combat sequences that require you to intelligently use the surrounding space to minimize danger.
Mass Effect 3 isn’t all talking and shooting. Outside of combat, you walk around the Citadel, picking up odd jobs and eavesdropping on diplomats and refugees. There are some wonderful moments to experience here: having a bizarre conversation with a virtual copy of yourself, checking in on an old ally in bad health, and punching an old nemesis square in the face. Refugees mourn the lost and missing, gazing at a collection of photographs that serves as an ad hoc memorial. It’s the subtleties that pull you in. A crewmate gets a tattoo to celebrate his newfound ambitions, you ponder the meaning of a human-on-AI romance, and you grab a drink in a busy nightclub. It’s a pity that the entertaining lesser races–the Hanar and the Elcor in particular–are in such short supply. Mass Effect 3 isn’t big on comedic interludes.
The side missions you pick up at the Citadel aren’t all that inspired. In some cases, you wander around searching for objects to interact with. In others, you head to the Normandy and take to the galactic map. You zoom about the galaxy from a top-down view, scanning solar regions to identify planets of interest. From here, you scan the planet itself, drop a probe onto its surface, and collect the artifact or object in question. This busywork is complicated by reapers, who appear in these solar systems after a few seconds and swarm and destroy you if you don’t make a swift escape. This game of cat and mouse is more annoying than entertaining, getting in the way when you wish you could just get the job done.
Galactic exploration is important if you want to tackle the reapers with the might of the galaxy behind you. The more side missions you conquer, the more fulfilling the finale becomes, though there is another way to prepare: playing Mass Effect 3’s online multiplayer. The more you play, the greater the galaxy’s state of readiness. There’s only one mode, the standard “defeat progressively stronger waves of enemies” mode, and it’s mostly fun. Tossing grenades and incinerating ravagers as part of a four-player force is a blast, especially when an objective draws you to a central point to defend an area or focus on a specific enemy. The action lacks the heft of Gears of War 3, or Uncharted 3’s speedy tempo, but benefits from a variety of classes and races to unlock, some of which were added to the other versions postrelease. It’s a pity that Mass Effect 3’s most substantial downloadable additions, Leviathan and Omega, are not included here, making this special edition not as special as it might have been.
Yet even without that additional content, you couldn’t rightfully accuse Mass Effect 3 of feeling incomplete–not with so many missions to undertake, so many individuals to engage in conversation, so many choices to make. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to spend time with some of the Milky Way’s most intriguing personalities, now is your chance. Just be prepared: bonds can be broken and ties can be severed. When your goal is no less than ensuring the survival of an entire galaxy, sacrifice is inevitable, and Mass Effect 3 makes sure you feel each and every one.