Mass Effect 3 in the test - How to end an epic
We stare at the monitor in horror. "They can't do that!" They are the developers of Bioware ( Star Wars: The Old Republic ). And yet they do: in a dramatic cutscene, they confront us with the death of a character. A figure that we already met and loved in Mass Effect 1 , in Mass Effect 2 we have protected from many a catastrophe and who we finally ran into in Mass Effect 3 (finally!). Just to watch helplessly shortly afterwards as a mutant brutally flings our friend against a wall and smashes his body.
At this moment we feel anger, sadness, pain - and at the same time we are full of admiration for this game on another level because it can evoke such strong emotions in us. Bioware's ability to tell gripping stories in such a way that we can lose ourselves in them as sentimental, living characters reaches its peak in Mass Effect 3.
Actually, we didn't expect anything less. Shepard's latest adventure marks the end of a trilogy that started back in 2008. After testing the final PC version, we can say: Bioware has succeeded in a more than worthy series final.
The prelude: human vs. Reaper
It starts at the start: The Reaper, towering high-rise machines, attack the earth with massive weapon violence. Skyscrapers collapse, explosions shake the environment, there is chaos and destruction everywhere.
In the midst of this apocalyptic scenery, alongside Shepard's superior Admiral Anderson, we rush through a well-made tutorial, learn the basic controls on the dramatic escape from the reapers, jump over collapsing ledges and master the first shootout.
The fireworks that Bioware burns here could come from a Roland Emmerich film, but the developers always find time for quiet moments. So we meet a frightened boy in an air shaft, who doesn't want to be helped. Shortly afterwards we see the boy boarding a rescue shuttle. We already believe him in safety when the ship just starting is suddenly hit by a reaper beam and…. We don't want to reveal more here, but that's just one of the many dramatic moments we'll experience as the story unfolds.
The series finale: import your score
Later in the game, it is above all the many references to the two predecessors that keep touching us. At least if we import our Mass Effect 2 saves.
Then many of the decisions we once made influence more than 100 scenes and conversations in Mass Effect 3. This ranges from small comments from an AI companion ("Thank you for helping me back then") to major events We don’t want to reveal any of them due to spoilers.
Only so much: Given the experiences in Mass Effect 3, players of the predecessors will be amazed more than once, clap their foreheads or be annoyed afterwards about so many decisions that they made years ago - a narrative highlight like we do experience it too rarely in this intensity.
The story: gripping, versatile, emotional
But even beginners and players who have lost their Mass Effect memory or just want to start with a completely fresh, unencumbered Shepard will experience a consistently gripping, versatile and often troubling adventure.
It is about Shepard's desperate plan to unite all remaining free races in the galaxy under one flag and fight back the Reaper invasion. But that is easier said than done, because some of these peoples are hostile to spiders. The Turians, for example, want to use the Genophage virus known from Mass Effect 2 to prevent the kroganis who are ready to use violence, which will soon lead to the extinction of the entire race. It is clear that the lizard-like boys feel little desire to ally themselves with the Turians just to help a "human being".
We then work to convince peoples by completing great story quests. In it we look for a cure for the genophages, build a prosthetic weapon that could destroy the Reaper and again face the secret organization Cerberus, which makes dark plans with the reapers. Or does it just seem that way?
If you do not know Mass Effect and feel overwhelmed by all the names and terms, be warned: Even if Mass Effect 3 has all the relevant information on peoples, planets, political systems, important personalities, and previous events in well-structured texts, we recommend it we previously played the first two parts. You don't watch The Return of the Jedi without knowing the two previous Star Wars episodes.
The quests: how to tell stories
In addition to the main story, which takes around 15 to 20 hours, depending on the style of play, Mass Effect 3 offers numerous side missions that are no less exciting. But does Shepard have time for something like this when the Reapers are just about to shoot the earth down?
In order to preserve the logic, Bioware has closely linked all additional orders to the story. For example, we are supposed to destroy anti-aircraft guns on a remote planet and repair a radio tower in order to save a Salarian admiral so that he can command a battle regatta that is urgently needed for the war. Elsewhere we have to defuse a Cerberus bomb before it blows up half a moon.
The highlight: Depending on whether and how many of these quests we master, this affects the final of the game and which of our companions survives the last battle, similar to Mass Effect 2. In general, Bioware manages the story in an exemplary manner , which started four years ago, is rousing and, above all, understandably dramaturgically perfectly geared towards the grand finale: an end that could hardly be more haunting.
And another special feature: Mass Effect 3 makes serious, really closes the story. There are no unanswered questions, such as those known from many games (e.g. the Assassin's Creed series), all back doors are closed. A little tip: wait for the credits to end.
The feel of the game: action or role-playing?
With a lot of excitement, we not only looked at the plot and how Bioware closes it, but were especially excited about the general feeling of the game, i.e. how Mass Effect 3 would feel now.
No wonder, after all, Mass Effect 2 had a lot of discussions in the community, for many the title was simply too linear and action-packed. So much ahead: Mass Effect 3 does not break new ground here, but tries to do justice to both camps - the action and role players - with a clever trick. At the beginning of the campaign, we can choose from three play styles. "Action" is aimed at fighter natures who above all want to shoot straightforward and want to experience history as quickly as possible; Mass effect-to-go, so to speak.
The »story« mode is completely the opposite, puts its focus on the freedom of choice and, in return, massively reduces the demands of the fights. The »role-playing« mode is a mixture of both and is most reminiscent of Mass Effect 1. For fans of the first hour, this is the best alternative, even if the talent system is not as complex as when it started.
The bottom line is that Bioware has managed to create a game quality beyond the traditional genre division. It is not necessary, even leads the wrong way, if Mass Effect 3 is called a role or action game. It's just a class of its own: it's Mass Effect.
In the editorial department, for example, there were already a few players (including the editor-in-chief) in the second part, who approached the title very skeptically in view of the paper format ("disguised ball game", "role-playing light", etc.). Then to stare at the monitor with the jaw folded down after the credits and to mumble something about "great gaming experience".
Because for hard-core genre fans, each criticism is certainly justified in itself, but if the game principle works so perfectly in the sum of its parts, then this criticism becomes a mere academic discussion between theorists who now prefer to discuss rather than just play. Nevertheless, Bioware listened to the criticism and made Mass Effect 3 more customizable with the three game styles and other small changes.
The talent system: more than in Mass Effect 2
After all: With each of the very frequent level increases, we can miss Shepard and his companions new talents or expand existing ones. The selection of skills and the opportunities to improve them are far from being as diverse as Dragon Age , Skyrim or Deus Ex: Human Revolution , but they are somewhat more extensive than their predecessor.
What is new, for example, is that we have to choose one of two specializations from the fourth stage of each talent. Should Garrus deal more damage or get additional shield energy? Are we increasing the duration of Liara's singularity, or would it be better to extend it?
However, Mass Effect 3 has the same problem as its predecessor: the partially unbalanced balance of talent. A hero in the infiltrator class, for example, would be better advised to maximize weapon damage than to be invisible. We didn't even use the latter during the entire playthrough.
The upgrades: could be more extensive
For even more character customization, there are now workbenches distributed in the levels, on which we screw found mods and upgrades such as more precise barrels or larger magazines onto our ratchets.
That was already in Mass Effect 2, but we always had to go back to Shepard's ship, the Normandy, to be able to convert the weapons. The clever coordination of the shooting beating is also sorely needed, because organic goods have discreetly increased the demands of the action inserts. Already on the middle of the three levels of difficulty we have to be very careful to use the right type of ammunition.
Bullets that burn organic enemies, for example, are of no use if the boys hide behind thick armor. As in the predecessor, the selection of weapons and mods is limited. It is doubly annoying that the advantages and disadvantages of the articles only have a marginal effect.
The struggles: go for cover!
However, the right coverage is even more important than in the predecessor. Because those who stand without protection and shoot wildly are not only sifted through faster than they can say "Reaper". The weapon warps much more than if we fire at the enemy from cover.
New advertisements directly in the game world indicate where Shepard is looking for protection and between which cover he can jump back and forth. The latter turns out to be very fiddly both on the consoles and on the PC. Every now and then our hero preferred to release himself instead of laying down the desired pike roll or not being persuaded to go into position behind a box. So be careful of anything that is too ambitious.
The staging: pace & spectacle
Despite the sometimes shaky hero steering and the somewhat immature talent balance, the turbulent battles are consistently fun. This is mainly due to the motivating interaction between Shepard and his up to two companions.
Whether we give orders in peace thanks to the pause mode ("Garrus, take cover and James, throw a grenade into this group there") or let the AI colleagues act independently, the fights feel great and shine through their spectacular staging. Huge robotic grasshoppers open in glaring explosions, let common Banshees sizzling electric towers fire at us, or we suddenly face an adult Reaper, armed only with an assault rifle and puzzled with fear, whether the crumbling walls in front of us are the colossal laser beam of the colossus can withstand well.
We have to criticize (as with Mass Effect 2) the rather useful enemy AI. The opponents actively take cover and sometimes try to stab us in the back. Often enough, however, the enemies stand around rooted, run blindly towards us, or quickly rewind through “I am lent over the wall” routines.
It is doubly annoying that the program sends us to stationary guns every now and then, where we have to master stupid grouse deposits, even if they are usually quite short. In addition, Mass Effect 3 also knows all too clearly, when it comes to a fight, due to its level design. Are there a few boxes, tank locks or other cover options? Then a couple of Cerberus soldiers will turn the corner.
At first this may be angry, but we quickly got used to it. Especially since Bioware knows how to hide the level architecture, which is very well matched to the game mechanics, through the sometimes impressive sceneries. We defend an airfield from attacking husks on the rugged Turian moon Palaven, while a bitter space battle rages in the sky above us.
Or we explore a thousands of years old, pitch-dark Krogan ruin with a flashlight at the ready or fight our way aboard a Geth ship through the huge reactor core, which regularly forces us to take cover due to its regular discharges.
The decisions: a constant pros and cons
This is how we rush from one exciting, spectacular or dramatic event to the next without it disrupting the fact that Mass Effect 3 basically always builds up its main and secondary missions in the same way: mountain pigeon through tubular levels from A to B, shooting all enemies to clump and on the way press a button at the end.
Above all, the dialogues and the story dress the comparatively sobering game design in an exciting evening wear. It is similar to that of humans: If you take a look at the (either female or male) skeleton, it is completely obscure how a creature with such an anatomy could ever confuse, enchant, or even hex us with such an appearance alone. This works in Mass Effect 3 because the numerous conversations are not only filmed and edited fantastically, but also involve us time and again by letting us make decisions that are typical of series.
This ranges from the drama in detail (whether we are executing a prisoner or granting him mercy, for example), to alternative courses of action with far-reaching consequences that sometimes made us ponder, weigh, quarrel for several minutes during the test. And if we had had more time, we would have loved to sleep one night or two. Anyone who remembers Mass Effect 1 and the decision “Ashley or Kaidan” knows what we mean.
The innovations: rather spartan in nature
Basically, it all sounds like Mass Effect 2, doesn't it? Well, apart from the revised talent system and the dramaturgy, which has been further improved by the rounded storyline, Bioware has also fine-tuned various details in the mechanics.
For example, the long-term repetitive scanning of planets for raw materials was canceled and replaced by a less tedious, because faster, variant. In addition, Shepard got a cool, albeit a little too powerful melee attack for our taste. If we press and hold the corresponding button at the right moment, the Commander will even knock out entire groups of husk without wasting a bullet.
Apart from that, Mass Effect 3 controls just like its predecessor; Bioware has not changed anything in the user interface or in the pause mode. This was not necessary at all, these elements worked brilliantly in Mass Effect 2. Targeting or selecting talents also works smoothly with the classic combination of mouse and keyboard for PCs.
By the way: If you hope to be able to play on the PC with a gamepad, we have to disappoint you. According to senior designer Manveer Heer, "there was simply no more time to adapt the user interface of the PC version so that the Xbox 360 symbols are displayed." A weak apology, we think. However, the two previous PC Mass Effects already lacked gamepad support.
The technology: a little dusty
In terms of graphics, too, we will have to endure many a legacy of the (not very competitive) current generation of consoles. Mass Effect 3 is Unreal Engine 3, which was used in the first part of 2008 and can no longer hide how many years it has been under its belt.
The lack of detail in the surroundings is particularly noticeable compared to other current role-playing games. Bioware has given the PC version special HD textures that give the surfaces more details and structure. The general lack of polygons cannot conceal the higher-resolution textures.
However, there are no grounds for criticism regarding the character details and animations. Shepard and Co. are extremely realistic, typical of the series, and the detailed faces are like freshly cleaned shop windows with a direct view of every emotion of the characters - great. The sound is also at the usual high level.
The dynamic music accompanies the action appropriately at all times, the sound effects pop properly and well mixed from the 5.1 boxes, and the German speakers do a very good job. In the end, we were only extremely sad, disappointed in one thing - and stared at the monitor again in horror: when the game was over.
The multiplayer part is something completely new for the Mass Effect series. We cannot fight against each other, however, but only peacefully. Up to four players compete against increasingly stronger opponents (Geth, Ceberus or Reaper), similar to the Horde mode in Gears of War . Six maps from different parts of the galaxy provide some variety.
But really just something. Although the locations are clearly separated from each other visually (even if there was much more in the huge Mass Effect universe), they are all basically the same simple structure. Hose-like passages lead to a sniper position, which in turn is followed by open terrain. After all, this benefits the different classes. Their spectrum ranges from the infiltrator, including a futuristic variant of Harry Potter's invisibility cloak, to the soldier who throws grenades around and stuns opponents.
As you know from current multiplayer shooters, we collect points and money with completed missions. This allows us to improve our skills or unlock new ones and buy better shooting men. Alternatively, the latter would also be possible with bioware points, i.e. a real money currency. Exciting: In addition to new ratchets and upgrades, we will also gain access to other races over time. Not only do they look different, they also come with special tactical options. A krogan, for example, masters a powerful assault with which he literally breaks the booth with enemies.
»Second part of the demo Let's Play of Mass Effect 3
On the other hand, it is annoying: Since matchmaking is still a bit sick and always throws us into lobbies with much more experienced players, we initially feel quite useless. With three levels up per match, that's quickly okay.
The pure survival principle is loosened again and again by smaller missions. For example, a particularly important target would like to be switched off within a specified countdown, or an indoctrination system threatens our team. This is nice, but repeats itself very quickly.
After all, by completing co-op missions, we improve the readiness value of Shepard's alliance in the solo campaign. That means: The more we play online, the higher the probability that we will master the finale of Mass Effect 3 with as little loss as possible, similar to the character moral system plus Normandy upgrades from the predecessor. Good thing: According to Bioware, it is not absolutely necessary to play the multiplayer mode in order to experience the most conciliatory of all story ends. It only serves as a bonus if, for example, we have not completed all of the main game's side quests or have not scanned all the planets.
But is it fun at all? Oh yes, somehow. However, the whole thing is not really well thought out, it looks fake and does not match the single player campaign. Why can't I complete action-driven missions with a buddy and make deep decisions together? Bioware has already impressively proven that this works in Star Wars: The Old Republic. So the multiplayer remains a nice extra, but it loses its appeal after a few days.