Thursday, May 03, 2012

Mass Effect 3: Collector's Edition (Xbox 360) Review

Easily one of the biggest launches of 2012 yet, Mass Effect 3 sees the conclusion to your Commander Shepard's story begun just over four years ago.  Set approximately six months after the conclusion of Mass Effect 2, the final installment of the trilogy sees the Reapers invade the galaxy pitting every species in a war for survival.

For a first in the franchise, a demo for the game was released prior to launch, and the impressions article I wrote for it was so detailed and spot on that it can almost serve as a review itself.  Since the bulk of what my demo impressions article says, both about story and gameplay, is quite relevant, there's no need for me to rehash the writing of it twice, so why don't you wander on over here and give it a read.  Don't worry, I'll sit here comfortably and wait for you to get back.

Alright, so now that you've skimmed through that, let's talk about the full version of the game.

Just like in Mass Effect 2, you can import your Commander Shepard, retaining his or her appearance and key decisions from past games.  Your primary goal is to unite the different races of the galaxy to make a stand against the Reaper menace, and along the way you'll encounter many characters, allies and enemies, from your past adventures.  I thought it was absolutely excellent when I saw someone I helped back in the first game doing well now, or when decisions I made were brought up in random discussions throughout all parts of the galaxy.  Such little nuances really lend credit to the story being my own but it all still feels like part of a larger whole.

The Normandy SR-2 functions like it always has, though it has been renovated by the Alliance.  The Tech Lab is gone and has been replaced by a secure access point leading to the conference room, war room, and communication room.  It's here that you can track your progress on the Galaxy at War, but more on that in a second.

The Armoury has been relocated to the Shuttle Bay, a section seen towards the end of Mass Effect 2 but not accessible normally.  Now it's a common spot for you to go where you can chat with a few crew members, upgrade your weapons, and remotely shop for extra goods.  Other little and larger changes to the ship exist, however for the most part you'll find everything where you left it from Mass Effect 2.

The Galaxy Map also functions like it did in the sequel in terms of navigation, however there are a few key changes in terms of execution.  Clusters on your Galaxy Map conquered by the Reapers now appear with a Reaper on them.  You can go to that cluster without issue, however scattered in the various systems will be War Assets that you can scan and collect.  Scanning will attract Reaper attention and if you scan too many times and a progress bar fills up, the Reapers will enter the area and give chase, forcing you to flee.  If you fail and they catch you you'll be loading a save.  If you succeed you'll need to wait until you complete your next mission before you can safely reenter that system again.

If you successful find a War Asset on a planet without attracting Reaper attention, you can enter the planet's orbit and search via a simplified version of the Probe mini game from Mass Effect 2.  No longer a chore, you can now quickly find the objective, launch a Probe (of which you have an infinite amount), and then move on.

Now, War Assets play a long term role in the game's final battle.  The number of War Assets you have will determine your effective military strength for the final conflict and have an impact on the game's ending, and your War Assets are also affected by your Galactic Readiness.  Your Galactic Readiness is a breakdown of how ready certain sections of the galaxy are for the Reapers, and the higher the percentage, the more of your War Assets are available for the final push.  While there are a few ways to increase your Galactic Readiness, the primary method is Multiplayer.

New to the franchise, Mass Effect 3 introduces Multiplayer in the form of a co-op survival game.  The N7 missions featured in Single Player this time take place on the Multiplayer maps and play in a similar style, somewhat teaching the player what's expected in Multiplayer.  In truth, I found these missions boring and contrived and I did not really enjoy them.  Multiplayer itself, however, wasn't too bad at all.

You can pick your class, weapons, colours, etc. and then search for a game where you're dropped into a key location to take on eleven waves against one of the game's three enemy factions:  Reapers, Cerberus, or Geth.  Every third, sixth, and tenth waves are objective based where you and your team, up to three other players, must hold an area, disable various devices, or eliminate marked enemy personnel all on a timer.  The final wave you must hold the extraction point to escape.  Successful completion of an entire match will increase your Galaxy at War percentage, however each day your percentage drops by 3%, forcing you to keep playing to keep it up.

While I personally thought the concept and integration to Single Player was cool, I did find that Multiplayer got very repetitive after several games and it just became a whole lot of grinding.  I was also disappointed that I had to spend so much time in Multiplayer to properly experience the end of what to date has been a purely Single Player experience.  In truth, I feel that the Multiplayer component for the game should have been implemented in a future title and not this one, as it was unnecessary.

As you play through Multiplayer you earn Experience to increase your various Powers and Credits to buy various Weapon and item upgrade packs.  EA has sunk to a low for the series and will allow you to purchase these packs for Microsoft Points as well, so if you want to make your $59.99 game cost $79.99, you can easily do so by buying several packs.  Such micro-transactions are optional, thankfully, but they still turn my stomach.

Combat, in both Single Player and Multiplayer, is the most refined in the franchise though the cover mechanics are still clunky and will mess up on you from time to time.  Interestingly though it wasn't until I started playing Multiplayer that I truly noticed there's only three factions to fight in the game, which somewhat makes story sense but does feel rather limited.  Gone are the several factions of mercs, the Vortcha, Varren, and even the Mechs that were so common in Mass Effect 2.  While the Reapers, Cerberus, and the Geth are far more developed than any faction in any previous game, it does still feel a bit cutback, though it's not the end of the world.

Visually, Mass Effect 3 looks really good.  Most of the game is on par with if not better than Mass Effect 2, having very detailed character models for a late generation title as well as gorgeous backgrounds.  The only major visual gripe I have is that in conversations, sometimes Shepard's head would twist at odd angles or the camera would close-up on a wall instead of the person he/she was talking to.  That's never happened in the franchise before and is embarrassing to see, but it happens rarely enough that it won't stick with you through your experience.

Audio wise, the voice acting is as strong as ever and the musical score is great, really fitting the mood and pacing of the story.  And for the most part the story is solid and an engrossing delight to play through.  The actual story telling and character development feels like a solid mix between the first and second games, with some great dramatic and character moments.  There are different points through the game were certain key characters can die, depending on your actions and choices, and especially for one character, when he sacrificed himself I honestly got misty eyed.  That alone is a true testament to BioWare's story telling and the overall Mass Effect experience, in how invested with these characters I've become over the last four plus years.

My only major critique here is that the level of choices during conversations has been reduced from the previous games, and many conversations feel more like traditional cutscenes as a result.  Paragon and Renegade interrupts have also been reduced in frequency, which is a shame as overall the more limited conversations make Shepard feel a bit more robotic.  Thankfully the writing is strong and generally, the conversations are well done.

No doubt you've heard about the uproar over the game's ending by now.  In my personal opinion, while the ending I chose wasn't spectacular, in fact it's the worst ending and overall climax sequence in the trilogy, it wasn't as horrible as everyone seems to be making it out to be.  It simply felt far more generic than I would have expected from BioWare.  What really annoyed me was the game's penultimate battle, which was a massive affair that I felt was far too tedious and it relied on one of my most hated game design elements:  infinite spawning enemies.

Personally, I feel that when a developer relies on infinite spawns it shows they simply were incapable of crafting a true challenge for me with the enemies and AI at hand.  It also frustrated me that once a cutscene kicked in, even though I was completely surrounded and outnumbered, all those enemies just vanished for no reason at all.  It's a shame, and though I felt the game got a bit more interesting for the final bit after this, it does end up being such a great experience that falters and feels a bit rushed at the very end.

Now, I picked up the Mass Effect 3: Collector's Edition for my Xbox 360, and it's quite the hefty package.  It's a nice cardboard sleeve that contains a Steelbook case containing both game discs, download tokens, etc.  The case has an image of Shepard on the front and FemShep on the back, and while my case wasn't cracked inside this time like with Mass Effect 2, it was scratched all on the outside.  What is it with EA being unable to properly package their collector's editions?

This frustration aside, the Collector's Edition also includes a very cool 70 page hardcover artbook, a code for the digital soundtrack, a fabric N7 patch, a 4x6 lithographic print, and the first issue of the Dark Horse Comics series, Mass Effect: Invasion.

In terms of digital content, you get a Mechdog pet who wanders around the Normandy's shuttle bay, extra Squadmate outfits, an N7 hoddie for Shepard, four N7 weapons (Pistol, SMG, Sniper Rifle, and Shotgun), a Normandy SR-2 Avatar Prop, and most important of all, Mass Effect 3: From the Ashes, the game's first DLC.  Because "From the Ashes" is a premium download for those who purchased the retail version of the game, I've written a separate review for the content (which includes minor spoilers) that you can read here.

As a whole, despite some shoddy packaging, the Collector's Edition of Mass Effect 3 is an excellent purchase that I don't regret at all.  The bonus content, at the extra cost of $20.00, was well worth it and a great addition to my game collection.

Mass Effect 3 ends the kind of journey we've never been able to experience before.  This franchise is the first of its kind that's allowed us to not only craft our own character, our Commander Shepard, but that's permitted us to carry that character and those exact choices through the entire trilogy, giving a real sense of entitlement and stake in the overall story.  The entire franchise is not only a testament to gaming, but to storytelling unto itself, filled with memorable and wonderful characters, locations, and conflict.  While the third installment of the franchise and final game of the trilogy is far from perfect, it ends weakly, reduces the conversation choices and involvement, and Multiplayer was inspired but not required for this title, the overall experience, which took me 55 hours, was a great one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

BioWare has done a superb job with the franchise, creating a universe that's provided an amazing experience of hope, humour, and character, and one that should not be missed by any fan of story driven games or fine science fiction stories in general.

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