Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Mass Effect 3: First Impressions

Welcome home
This is it: the final installment in the epic Mass Effect series. The stakes couldn't be higher, but everyone is gathering for the final fight. I have never been this invested in a video game. The hype was tremendous, and now I have had a chance to play it for several evenings. So how does it measure up?

First, Mass Effect 3 looks amazing. You can tell that two years have passed since Mass Effect 2, and five since the first game. Everything from the environments to the characters to the animations is superb, and it's a good thing, because even though I'm only a few missions into the game, the set pieces I have already seen have firmly established the massive scope of the conflict.

That said, the writing has not been perfect. There have been a few great lines that had me smiling or raising my eyebrows - the reintroduction of an old favorite character had several tongue-in-cheek references to previous games, and there have been a few times that someone has said something that really brought home what people have lost and stand to lose. Overall though, the dialog has had to catch the player up on a lot of backstory in case the player is new to the Mass Effect series, and a lot of times it feels clumsy. The individual missions have also suffered some cringe-worthy dialog. The highlight was a moment when I was exploring a mysterious base and one of my squadmates said, "Look, a console. It has recordings of what happened here." It was the dialog equivalent of pointing something out by grabbing the player's head and pointing it.

The combat system feels slicker than in previous games. It is a refinement of the Mass Effect 2 system, which in turn overhauled the combat in the original game almost completely. It's nice not to have to re-learn everything like I had to in the transition from the first to the second games. One of the biggest changes is the tweaked cover system that allows Shepard to move between cover more fluidly. So far I'm not sold, though, because I've found that cover is now more "sticky" and it can be hard to leave cover when an enemy is attacking.

The writers at Bioware clearly knew that fans liked the characters, and even reintroductions to minor characters are given enough time to catch up and chat. The reintroductions to the major characters are full-on spectacles. That said, I was a little thrown by the instant camaraderie between Shepard and James Vega, the new character introduced in Mass Effect 3 to help new players get up to speed. Interestingly, the character introduced to help new players learn the backstory ended up throwing an old player like me for a bit of a loop as I tried to figure out why Shepard was such old pals with someone I had never met before.

Multiplayer is fun, though I find that the constant waves of enemies stresses me out. I was hoping from the start to unlock a turian soldier character, even going so far as to write up a backstory for the character I hoped to play. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when the first Veteran supply pack I unlocked had the turian soldier inside! As much as I love playing as him, I naturally intend to try every class, and hope to unlock lots more species (let's hope krogan is next... or salarian, that would be cool!)

The thing that sticks out the most in my mind, though, is the feeling of what I can only describe as magic behind the game. As this is my first playthrough, everything is new to me. I got so used to re-playing Mass Effect 2, where I had already seen behind the curtain and knew what to expect, that venturing into a brand new storyline, with new gameplay mechanics, is causing me to once again get deep into the gameplay experience. I had come to enjoy my replayings of Mass Effect 2 from a fond distance, but now I'm once again leaning forward in my seat, eager to see what happens next.


  1. I do think sometimes the writing underestimates the player's intelligence. In the Mars mission, the game tells you "There's this strange new woman scientist working here" and "someone on the inside must have been working for Cerberus to bypass security" and "someone on the inside must have been working for Cerberus to open these doors" and "that strange new woman scientist keeps poking her nose into places she shouldn't be" and THEN IT SHOWS YOU A VIDEO OF THE WOMAN SCIENTIST CAPPING TWO DUDES and Shepard goes GASP IT WAS THAT WOMAN! NO WAY! I think this might be because some of the writing (such as in logs you find and can read), the in-game dialogue, and the cut scenes aren't well integrated, leading you to feel you're being told the same story three times.

    I also agree about the cover system. Also, using space bar to sprint, go into cover, AND dodge is just too much, and I end up doing the wrong thing and getting shot far too often. On a console I can see re-using the same buttons, but on a keyboard I really could use more variety.

    Also, apparently your teammates do more damage if you specifically order them to attack. I don't know if that's always been the case, but it seems to be a case of a mechanic purely for the sake of the game system than of simulating anything real.

    Also, some of my favorite characters have been relegated to appearances that feel like those special episodes of a TV show where an old fan favorite from two seasons ago shows up again.

    All that being said, the game feels epic and beautiful and fun. I'm hooked on multiplayer, but I have to say, out of the two, I'm enjoying single player much more.

  2. The whole Mars mission was poorly designed, in my opinion. That's a shame, because it's the first "real" mission the player goes on, and thus forms a bad first impression. Fortunately, things quickly pick up from there.

    I agree that a lot of old favorites become walk-on roles in ME3, but actually, I'm glad they chose to have a smaller main squad in order to facilitate more inter-squad dialog. Now, which squad members they chose to make part of that group is something I'm a little less happy about. I have to assume that these were the ones the writers felt able to put into the most situations and get useful dialog out of.

    Well, that's what I've been telling myself.