I'm of the opinion that the majority of stories told in today's games are awful. Whether it is murder mysteries or war stories in a near future or grand adventures, barely any of them manage to cover the most fundamental components that make up a good story.
Based on these observations it's easy to conclude that game developers don't excel at storytelling, but there are exceptions. And Bioware may be the biggest one, and this is made clear to me just seconds after I've started playing Mass Effect 3. A load screen, something that normally puts me to sleep, shows the Normandy - one of the finest ships ever built, and my companion for hundreds of hours that has carried me and my crew all over the galaxy.
Where other developers spend hours trying to capture my imagination and lure me into their worlds, Bioware achieves it in seconds through an animation of a inanimate object. It's as if the Canadian developer activates a beacon in my brain, and all of a sudden the memories come flooding back and I'm ready to save the galaxy as John Shepard once again.
No effort is made to ease new players into the game. Instead we meet up with Shepard, who has been relieved of his duties, because of his somewhat unorthodox methods in dealing with the Reaper threat. His knowledge of the situation is the only thing that keeps him from being locked up, but most people seem happy to ignore the ominous signs of an upcoming attack. It's a brave start to the story, as it demands some explanation, but it also serves as a great excuse to travel the galaxy for a third time to put together a team equipped to deal with the Reapers.
But Bioware has been smart enough not to allow it to feel like something we've done before, and we quickly learn that recruiting your team is only a small part of a greater mission, where Shepard solves problems in the hope of getting all the races of the galaxy to join together in a fight for survival.
The story has a far greater scope than ever before, but the focus is also very different this time around. Where the first game was a science fiction tale with lots of surprises, and the sequel focused on wonderful character portraits, the third chapter goes hard into politics, racial characteristics, and even a bit of religion. For those of us who have followed the series from the start it's great to gain a greater understanding of the universe, but for newcomers it may be a bit hard to come to grips with.
The game mechanics have once again been revised, and the result is a system that has both become more streamlined, while at the same time allowing for more choices and adjustments. In other words, Bioware have found a great compromise of the two previous games.
This time you can tailor your equipment with various modifications, but it's not taken to the same extremes as in the first game. Scopes, armour piercing rounds, and larger ammo clips are some of the things you can equip your arsenal with; an arsenal that holds pistols, sub machine guns, shotguns, assault rifles and sniper rifles. You don't have to manage the guns for your whole team, as Shepard is the only one whose equipment can be altered, but you can switch the weapons of the rest of the members of your squad if you wish it.
The streamlined experience is obvious as you can pick three different ways in which to enjoy the adventure at the start screen. Action, roleplaying and story, are three different takes on the same game, and if you choose action the game will manage all non-action elements by itself and you only have to worry about taking care of the enemies.
You can also allow the game to control all the conversations and just lean back in your couch and see the story unfold as a spectator. It strikes us as a bit odd, as this has always been one of the series strong points, but it's a good solution that will invite more people in.
Few would argue with the fact that the combat system in Mass Effect 2 was light years ahead of the one found in the first game. And while the difference isn't as marked this time, it's still clearly improved. No matter which class you choose the abilities are better implemented. Your options have also increased, as all abilities now split into two branches as you upgrade them in your skill tree. For instance; you can choose whether your armour piercing ammunition should do more damage when you use it, or whether everyone in your squad gains access to the armour piercing rounds.
What really makes the combat more enjoyable this time around, is the improved artificial intelligence that allows enemies to move from cover to cover, and attempt attacks depending on their skills and equipment. Shield bearing Cerberus soldiers will attempt to get you out of cover, while Juggernauts patiently work to blow up your surroundings. Later enemies (that I won't mention here) make use of more complex tactics, things we've never seen in the series until now, and they elevate the challenge to levels we haven't experienced before.
All new features aren't for the better, however, and the hyped up inclusions of deadly melee attacks and grenades feels both unnecessary and poorly implemented. No matter how much you upgrade them, grenades never get potent enough, and it's hard to see how you can make effective use of them when they are so limited in numbers. Each class has attacks that are far superior to the grenades at their disposal. The inclusion of special melee attacks is also misguided, as it is very rare to find yourself in close combat, and when it happens the game finds it hard to judge where Shepard is in relation to the enemy. The result is that Shepard often screams as he strikes at thin air, and it breaks the illusion of him being a galactic saviour somewhat.
But Mass Effect 3 is greater than the sum of its parts, as it's an epic science fiction experience that manages to suck me in and capture my imagination in a way few other games have managed.
The dialogue is almost magic as it makes the characters come to life in front of me, even if I find it hard to understand why James Vega, a man with big muscles and few brain cells (that appear to have come straight out of the cast of Jersey Shore) was included. The friendship between Shepard and Garrus is something very special and it is cemented in scenes that most developers would cut away, but here they bring you closer to your digital squad than you ever thought possible.
As important are the invading Reapers, and seldom has the doom of a galaxy been communicated this effectively. After just a couple of minutes in the game, I was motivated to do whatever it took to take down the doomsday robots, even if took many hours before my efforts appeared as anything but a desperate last ditch attempt at salvation.
Mass Effect 3 is not the perfect game, and even the biggest fan of the series will find flaws. There are aspects of the combat that are out of balance, and the new characters are some of the worst in the series, and in retrospect the story pretty much makes all your efforts in Mass Effect 2 appear like an unimportant side mission.
Nevertheless this is one of the those rare experiences I just cannot get enough of. I dive head first into any rescue mission that can aid the fight against the Reapers and I vacuum all the surroundings for clues and secrets. I almost wear out the floors on the Normandy as I pace back and forth to talk to my crew - both about the invasion and their personal affairs. I'm forced to make some hard choices, and they're not always popular, but hopefully they will make all the difference when the final battle is at hand.
With Mass Effect 3, Bioware has created a final chapter that triumphs where so many other closing chapters fail, and it ends up being an experience that eclipses those of the previous games both from a gameplay and a story perspective. In my book, the Mass Effect series stands as the best gaming trilogy ever made, and as the best game in the series, Mass Effect 3 is something very special.
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