Mass Effect 3 Remains A Bold, Fascinating Relic Of Its Time

Mass Effect 3 is often seen as the weakest entry in Bioware’s space opera trilogy, despite being an RPG classic in its own right thanks to its excellent firefights and wonderful character moments that see all of your decisions culminate in a series of epic crescendos. I’m still working my way through it as part of the Legendary Edition and I’m loving almost every moment, my recent playthroughs of the previous two games only further cementing a fondness for Commander Shepard and his crew.

Out of all three games, I find the third to be the most fascinating. It’s a relic of its time in so many ways, yet was also magnificently forward thinking in ways that wouldn’t surface until several years later. It was BioWare at its best, while also being a sign of darker things to come for the esteemed studio. Dragon Age 4 and Anthem wouldn’t be possible without the foundations established by Mass Effect 3, an experience that adopted many of the shadier practices that have now become commonplace across EA’s wider library.

Mass Effect 3 is a shooter first and an RPG second, even more so than its predecessors. There is little time for conversations in the opening hours with Shepard being, well, shepherded between a selection of cutscenes and gunfights that need to firmly instil the fear and scale of the Reaper invasion before providing you with sufficient free rein to explore the galaxy. It’s a jarring disconnect when compared to the previous games, and pulls you into mandatory story sequences and overlong gunfights frequently enough that it begins to feel out of place.

BioWare and Electronic Arts were clearly shooting for something different this time around, aiming for a more widely appealing shooter experience while trying their best to maintain the RPG mechanics that had defined the series up until this point. While its emphasis on action is more than evident, Mass Effect 3 remains a commendable RPG, although many of its more impactful decisions are now in service to an ultimately linear conclusion. You’re railroaded through epic moments such as curing the genophage and establishing cross-species alliances on a near constant basis, the gravitas of the Reaper invasion forcing Shepard and company to make big decisions and to make them often.

Even when you are provided access to the galaxy map and the ability to take on side missions, actually embarking upon them feels tonally at odds with the main story. My Commander Shepard is a righteous hero, but even they must realise that helping a small colony of human survivors is a fruitless effort when trillions across the galaxy are being wiped out each and every minute. My time is better spent on the main path, ensuring that I’m moving closer and closer to saving as much of the galaxy as I can. But being an RPG, Mass Effect 3 needs to have these moments, occasions where you’re able to stop and smell the lore-infused roses. I welcome such instances, but goodness me they feel out of place.

Much like Dead Space 3, which was released around a similar time, Mass Effect 3 is the final chapter in a trilogy with infinitely more humble origins. Isaac Clarke began his adventure as a quiet space engineer simply trying to survive, each and every round of his plasma cutter proving invaluable as he carefully prowled the bloody confines of the USG Ishimura. Its understated horror was its strongest asset, a quality that was stripped away as the franchise grew more popular and EA geared towards action, seemingly convinced that such a trajectory would result in larger audiences and a greater return. I’m not sure it did, and the franchise faded into obscurity soon after.

Fortunately for us, Mass Effect 3 still maintained much of what makes the other two entries so magical, even if they’ve been streamlined in favour of bombastic set pieces and sequential combat encounters defining much of the campaign. It’s still an excellent game, as is Dead Space 3, but they’re relics of a time when corporations would meld a product in response to focus testing as opposed to asking players what they really wanted to see. The first Mass Effect is the favourite of many because it felt like a spacefaring adventure, one where the possibilities proved endless as you hopped across foreign planets in pursuit of discoveries, even though the reality was little more than empty plains and a few precious resources.

Mass Effect is all about embarking on missions to save the galaxy, the epic nature of such a task being trunctuated by linear mission design that simply fails to match this grand ambition. Despite being the oldest of the bunch, Mass Effect was easily the winner when it came to depicting the sheer size of the Milky Way. Its sequels would gravitate towards action and intimate character building, with much of the universe already being crafted and expressed to us in the first game. I can understand this trajectory, but it remains a loss that Mass Effect would slowly but surely lose touch with its RPG origins as the series morphed into an unstoppable blockbuster.

All this being said, I have a lot of time for Mass Effect 3, and I’m enjoying it far more the second time around, with much of its campaign fading into obscurity over the years in my head. It’s like a new outing, one where I can finally see my decisions throughout the trilogy come to a satisfying conclusion after all this time. Maybe the ending still sucks, I can’t remember, but I think it’s worth celebrating the trilogy’s final chapter as the relic of its time it very much is, while also fondly looking upon it in the modern landscape as something that not only holds up, but puts some of its contemporaries to shame.

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