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Mass Effect 3 (PC) Review Part 1 – Technical Overview (Minor Spoiler Warning!)
May 2, 2012Posted by on
So I know good and well that chances are high you’ve already read a dozen Mass Effect 3 reviews if you’re going to read any Mass Effect 3 reviews by now, but I really felt I had to give this one the time to experience it as fully as possible before making or sharing any opinions on it. Although I knew going in this was a controversial entry to the series for long-time fans, I refrained as much as possible from reading about what the issues were so I could have as objective an experience as possible, both for my own sake as a participant in this epic storyline, and for your sakes as you read my opinions, which I am inclined to believe aren’t exactly on line with most others out there. Take that for what you will, and read on if you are so inclined!
First off, let me explain how this review works: under normal circumstances I’d think one post was sufficient to review a game, but with so many rants out there about Mass Effect 3’s ending, I figured it deserved a post all of its own. I’ll do my best to keep all spoilers in part 2, so you may safely read this part if you have yet to play the game, but by necessity I will enter into some topics that you might enjoy more if you discovered them entirely on your own. Also worth noting is that I will be reviewing the PC version of the game only, and there might be minor technical differences on the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game. Now that you’ve been informed/warned, let’s get on with the review.
From the very first announcement of Mass Effect 3, I was curious to see how the graphics would stack up against its predecessors. All three games in the series use Unreal Engine 3 (which, as a sidenote, happens to be my personal favorite engine on the market right now), but thankfully that’s not to say nothing has changed in how things look over the past 5 years. Mass Effect 1 being game developer Bioware’s first time using the Unreal Engine, it naturally lacked a lot of the detail and polish that even others of its contemporaries using the same engine had. When Mass Effect 2 came along, then, the developers had much more experience, the engine had matured a bit more, and the result was not just good, but almost a benchmark of its day. With that kind of past to live up to, I wasn’t sure ME3’s graphics could successfully top the previous vast jump in quality, especially considering it was being designed with dated console hardware in mind. In the end though, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the leap in graphical quality from ME2 to ME3 is possibly greater than that of ME1 to ME2…with a few caveats. Most noticeable is that the increase in detail has caused a shift in the game’s overall art direction, causing certain characters–most importantly, a custom user-made Shepherd–to at first appear frustratingly different. However, this change is quickly adjusted to, and before long I was even wishing the first two games in the trilogy looked more like this one. I was, unfortunately, reminded of this multiple times throughout the experience, as several characters from ME2 received literally no update to their model or textures, making them stand out as noticeably poorer quality work than the rest of the world around them.
A less immediately obvious, but also less ignorable issue is that the increased graphics detail on close up areas means that far away areas took a serious hit in that same arena. Remember I said ME3 was designed with consoles in mind? Here’s one evidence of that, as the average gaming PC would have no trouble keeping up with large, fully detailed environments. This time around, Bioware hasn’t given us a benchmark, to be sure, although what’s there manages to keep up with the competition for the most part.
Take all the best elements from ME1, combine them with all the best elements from ME2, add in a few new, much needed elements, and throw out a few old, unneeded elements, and what do you get? Why, Mass Effect 3, of course! Although the first entry into the trilogy was heavily saturated in RPG elements, poor interface design and complexity bogged down a powerful system until players ultimately ceased tinkering with weapon and armor modifications and the like. In answer to this, Mass Effect 2 featured a much more watered down system that felt more like a third person shooter with a few RPG elements than an RPG where you happened to be able to shoot things. Mass Effect 3 corrects both extremes by reintroducing the weapon modification system with an entirely new face and revamping the existing ME2 armor modification system for a greater emphasis on the RPG-like performance upgrades these modifications provide. The new system is fluid, easy to navigate, and feels very natural to any player of the ME series.
Other enhancements include a dual status bar for health and shields, again combining elements from ME1 and ME2 to find the best possible solution, an enhanced cover system which allows for rolling and dodging in any direction, and arrows to indicate which direction you will head should you decide one of these new maneuvers is necessary. While some of the same movement frustrations from the previous games are retained in this one, they are not significant enough for me to knock off a point in the gameplay category. The shortcomings of the system will probably get you killed a few times, but even so Mass Effect 3 plays the best of the games thus far and will be a tough sucker to beat should Bioware decide to continue the ME universe in another game or series of games.
From effects to music to voice acting, there’s a lot to consider in the sound category, and ME3 earns the 5 boxes by sheer volume alone. But as a bonus, all these things are simply fantastically executed. I’m not sure I quite understand why game developers feel the need to change the sound of certain weapons from game to game, but while the new weapon sounds are decidedly more sci-fi than the previous games, they are excellently done and fit with the game’s tone very well. Other sound effects, from every form of explosion imaginable, to the screeches of digital zombies, to the half-awe-inspiring-half-terrifying blare of the mammoth sentient machines known as Reapers, are nothing short of the best anyone’s ever heard in an ME game.
Voice acting is also good across the board, with both new and returning voices giving their very best performances, except in cases where the script was hard on them (more on that later). Overall, in a game relying so heavily on character interaction, convincing dialogue is a must, and convincing dialogue ME3 has. Even Mark Meer, the voice of the male Commander Shepherd, had a performance I can say I truly liked instead of just tolerated.
Music is another thing I can’t say enough good about. I’ll admit I was concerned when I heard the developers were having a different composer handle the soundtrack, even though said composer was Clint Mansell, creator of the famous Requiem for a Dream (even if you don’t know it by name, I’ll bet you 5 you’ve heard the song before). I am happy to report that my fears were entirely misplaced, as my favorite recurring tracks from ME1 and 2 made a return despite the new composer, and the new tracks are some of the most fantastically emotional I’ve ever heard in a game. There are the driving, upbeat combat tracks of course, as well as an epic, Two Steps From Hell-esque sequence for the Krogans, but of real note are the game’s piano tracks. Suffice it to say I haven’t been so emotionally moved by a game soundtrack since Final Fantasy X, and that is no easy soundtrack to beat.
It is extremely difficult to review a story with so many twists and turns throughout based on player choice, so for the most part my score was given as a general comparison between ME3’s storyline and that of ME1 and 2. Ultimately I wasn’t as disappointed with the ending as most people, but there is still reason for Bioware to get a few people shaking their heads elsewhere in the game. By no means is the storyline terrible, rather it was its execution that I found most disappointing.
For starters, remember in the Graphics category I mentioned that several ME2 characters received no graphical update? Well, this creates a bit of a problem for the story, too. While it may be understandable for Samara to still be wearing her Justicar armor, it is nothing short of distracting for other characters to have not changed one bit since the last game. There’s just no sensible reason for people like Jacob Taylor or Miranda Lawson to still be wearing their Cerberus duds after dumping Cerberus for good. Obviously BioWare didn’t just forget to make any updates, though, considering they took the time to make an entirely new model for Jack. I have to wonder why the same wasn’t done for the rest, and yes, wondering things like this does detract from your experience of the story at hand.
While in previous games you were able to really interact with your crewmates at any given time, ME3 limits your conversations to where you can basically have just one actual dialogue with each crew member, after which you can simply listen to completely scripted comments that eventually degrade to a simple “Hey, Commander.” or even a rude “Not now”. Even if in the past, character conversations got to where they’d eventually be the same basic thing over and over, having the freedom to talk and decide what to talk about is still far better than constantly being brushed off. In a game emphasizing player freedom, I found this detail to be extremely jarring. The feeling of interacting with living, breathing characters is mostly maintained on actual missions, but the lack of interaction between missions left a huge hole in the game for me.
Also of frustration was sidequests. Usually these would begin by receiving an in-game email from someone requesting to meet with Shepherd at a given location, only a large amount of the time the characters I was supposed to talk with simply weren’t there. I even confirmed this by looking up video walkthroughs and ensuring I wasn’t simply missing something. Usually there was a second chance around the corner, but had there not been, several side quests would simply have been unavailable to me for no other reason than that Bioware chose an awkward way to start them off. These weren’t bugs, mind you; it was always a matter of seemingly unrelated decisions messing one another up without any warning that this would be a possibility.
And last but not least, no ME3 review would be complete without mentioning the reveal of Tali Zorah’s face. Many complained it was lazy for Bioware to merely photoshop a stock photo instead of create a proper, in-game model of the alien protagonist, but lazy or not, I personally have no problem with how the reveal was handled, and in fact I thought it was brilliant. The image could have been done far better, yes, but really, would everyone want the mystery of the character to be completely revealed, or completely left unrevealed? I think not, on both accounts. Going the picture route best treated the character on all accounts…even if the established-canon-breaking, poor photoshop job itself did not.
Sadly, this is not the only or the most subtle occurrence of a break from established canon in ME3. Granted, the universe Bioware has built up is huge and it is undoubtedly difficult to keep track of all details, but when the departure is plainly noticeable to the average gamer, you know the developers could have done a bit better. Again, I want to emphasize this does not mean Mass Effect 3’s storyline is all bad, as it is not. After an absolutely stellar story and delivery of that story in Mass Effect 2, the last chapter of the trilogy had a lot to live up to, and I was aware going in that chances were good it would fail in one way or another to meet expectations, seeing how high they were set to begin with. Overall I loved this epic conclusion to one of the best series I have ever played–if not the best–and was hooked from the first minute until the last of the credits rolled by. It’s just a bit sad to see that even after a three month delay Bioware still wasn’t able to do 100% justice on the first two games, though its failures are without doubt the exception instead of the rule.
5. The Verdict:
All in all I recommend Mass Effect 3 to anyone who has played the first two games in the series. Though its shortcomings do dampen the experience, by no means do they completely ruin it. The game is an epic 25-30 hour adventure sure to make you laugh, cry, love, hate, and wonder how on earth such an amazing series could possibly be over. While it could conceivably have ended better, consider this gamer satisfied with things as they are for the very reason that the game is dissatisfying. After investing so much time into Shepherd, his crew, and the Mass Effect universe at large, I didn’t really want an ending that minimalized the stakes by allowing every major character to survive, that allowed the Reapers to be wiped out exactly as planned with no repurcussions, and that explained at length the future of every character I cared about. Deep down, I wanted something that would push Shepherd and the others to their limits and beyond in an epic conclusion that would stick with me, and that’s what I got. Whether it has stuck with me for the right reasons or not will be further examined in Part 2. Until now, rest assured that if you’re considering purchasing ME3 to finish out your Shepherd’s story, although the game is not the masterpiece it very easily could have been, it is still well worth your time.