Mass Ef­fect tril­ogy’s stun­ning final chap­ter

The Washington Times Daily - - Life - BY JOE SZADKOWSKI

Com­man­der John Shep­ard’s dra­matic cru­sade against a war­ring species set to con­quer the uni­verse con­cludes in Mass Ef­fect 3 (Elec­tronic Arts and Bioware, rated M for ma­ture, re­viewed for Plays­ta­tion 3, $59.99).

The final chap­ter of this cin­e­matic, all-en­com­pass­ing space opera is a mas­ter­piece mix­ing combat, role play, epic ex­plo­ration and a mas­sive player-driven story brought to life with a cast of fa­mil­iar friends and en­e­mies.

Story: From the open­ing game scroll — In 2157, hu­man­ity dis­cov­ered it was not alone in the uni­verse. Thirty years later, hu­mans found a peace­ful place among dozens of ga­lac­tic species, but this idyl­lic fu­ture is over­shad­owed by a dark past: Reapers, a sen­tient race of ma­chines re­spon­si­ble for cleans­ing the gal­axy of all or­ganic life ev­ery 50,000 years, are about to re­turn.

The lead­ers of the gal­axy are par­a­lyzed by in­de­ci­sion, un­able to ac­cept the leg­end of the Reapers as fact. But one sol­dier has seen the leg­end come to life.

And now the fate of the gal­axy de­pends on Shep­ard.

Play the role: Be­fore em­bark­ing on a bru­tal cam­paign of sur­vival that pro­vides dozens and dozens of hours of ac­tion, a new player has a dizzy­ing set of op­tions to cus­tom­ize his ver­sion of a John or Jane Shep­ard. That alone could take hours or min­utes, de­pend­ing on the player’s pen­chant for in­de­ci­sion.

My ea­ger­ness to get to the fun found me with the com­fort­able fea­tures of the hard­ened com­man­der John Shep­ard seen in the tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials.

How­ever, more choices still needed to be made.

The most im­por­tant was pick­ing from among six classes, in­clud­ing Sol­dier, In­fil­tra­tor, En­gi­neer, Van­guard, Sen­tinel and Adept.

I was tempted to choose Adept (lots of dark-en­ergy traps and tele­ki­netic power at­tacks) but ul­ti­mately stayed the fa­mil­iar course of a Sol­dier. Now, was I to be a spacer, colonist or earth­born? I’ll take born on Earth. (Specif­i­cally, an or­phan in the city streets, I en­listed in the Al­liance mil­i­tary at the age of 18.) I’m also a war hero and know how to deal with sig­nif­i­cant combat loss.

Also, the style of game can be cho­sen: more ac­tion and no com­mu­ni­cat­ing (played out au­to­mat­i­cally), more nar­ra­tivedriven, or the com­mon Mass Ef­fect ex­pe­ri­ence (a blend of both).

A player who al­ready has worked through the pre­vi­ous Mass Ef­fect ti­tles can sim­ply im­port their hero’s life and all of his foibles.

Now, within an evolv­ing story — of­ten de­fined by a player’s ruth­less or com­pas­sion­ate choices (us­ing the fa­mil­iar di­a­logue wheel of re­sponses) and a de­tailed ex­plo­ration of gal­ax­ies — the weight of his ac­tions are so sig­nif­i­cant they could doom en­tire species. Mass Ef­fect 3 never dis­ap­points at this level and makes mince­meat out of most mod­ern-day block­busters.

In fact, the story styling is so enor­mous, the sheer mag­ni­tude of the “what if” sce­nar­ios can crip­ple the un­cer­tain gamer, re­duc­ing him to sim­ply star­ing at the screen. De­voted fans, how­ever, will feel forced to en­joy mul­ti­ple play-throughs of the game just to see what can change.

Get to the ac­tion: Trav­el­ing aboard his trusty star­ship Nav­i­ga­tor SR-2, Shep­ard again bands with a rag­tag crew, in­clud­ing James Vega (who looks like a mem­ber of Gears of War’s Delta Squad), on­board com­puter EDI (now in a hu­man­like ro­botic form to travel on mis­sions) spe­cial­ist Sa­man­tha Traynor, pi­lot Joker Moreau and war cor­re­spon­dent Diana Allers, to scour the gal­ax­ies for al­lies will­ing to com­mit to stop­ping the Reapers’ in­va­sion.

Aboard the Nav­i­ga­tor, a player will find hours of tasks and en­coun­ters with crew mem­bers. Shep­ard can ac­cess an ar­mor locker, weapons bench, re­search ter­mi­nal (up­grades to weapons) and Med­i­cal Bay (to dis­trib­ute ex­pe­ri­ence points); use the Gal­axy Map to nav­i­gate to hot spots; and even visit Liara T’soni’s quar­ters for ad­di­tional ac­cess to re­search and mod­i­fi­ca­tions.

Just as in the other games, a pair of team mem­bers are hand­picked to fol­low Shep­ard into mis­sions rang­ing from col­lect­ing a Reaper ar­ti­fact from a Cer­berus lab on the planet Sanc­tum to bro­ker­ing a diplo­matic meet­ing be­tween a Kro­gan, Turian and Salar­ian.

Each squad mate can be con­trolled with sim­ple com­mands to move to lo­ca­tions, at­tack and un­leash some of their dev­as­tat­ing pow­ers.

Envy set in pretty quickly af­ter watch­ing one of my com­pan­ions, the leg­endary Thes­sian Liari T’soni, dis­play some amaz­ing Adept pow­ers that a Jedi would ad­mire. Oh well, I could have picked Adept.

I also no­ticed dur­ing the fire­fights that en­e­mies are much more un­pre­dictable this time, out while team mem­bers ac­tu­ally of­fer more con­sis­tent as­sis­tance.

Ad­di­tion­ally, Shep­ard has a much more in­tu­itive cover sys­tem to hide be­hind struc­tures and climb over them. It is a re­lief, as our hero of­ten needs his health to re­plen­ish when bat­tling en­e­mies such as Brutes.

Mem­o­rable mo­ments (in no par­tic­u­lar or­der): watch­ing a light­ning storm on Mars; ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the “War of the Worlds”-style open­ing scene as the Reapers be­gin to at­tack Earth; find­ing my­self un­able to help a child while un­der at­tack (a bit tough to di­gest); pick­ing off Reaper Husk hu­manoids with a tur­ret gun like “fish in a bar­rel” (so sayeth Vega); ap­pre­ci­at­ing the moun­tain­ous, water­fall-filled lands of Sur’kesh; vis­it­ing with the holo­gram Av­ina; and stop­ping by the Pur­ga­tory bar for a drink with Vega and his sol­dier bud­dies.

Vi­o­lent en­coun­ters: Shep­ard the sol­dier, who al­ways can carry up to five weapons and mul­ti­ple types of ammo, packs quite a wal­lop of sheer fire­power.

He also gets the new om­niblade, a laser-sword-like ex­ten­sion of his arm that will quickly de­liver fa­tal melee at­tacks.

For an ex­am­ple of sheer scale, I was able to amass quite an arse­nal within hours of the ac­tion, in­clud­ing the M-15 Vindi­ca­tor I bat­tle ri­fle, M-97 Viper I rapid-fire sniper-ri­fle, M-4 Shuriken I sub­ma­chine gun, M-27 Scim­i­tar I twin-gen­er­a­tor shot­gun and M-3 Preda­tor sidearm, with ac­cess to frag grenades, in­cen­di­ary ammo, cryo ammo and con­cus­sive shots.

Shep­ard will need ev­ery in­cen­di­ary bul­let as the game ramps up the fire­fights against hos­tiles fought at long range and close quar­ters dur­ing bru­tal and of­ten bloody third-per­son en­coun­ters.

Read all about it: Fans look­ing for more in­for­ma­tion on the in­cred­i­bly dense game mythol­ogy will find a spe­cial se­lec­tion of Dark Horse Comics’ se­quen­tial-art books avail­able for dig­i­tal down­load.

The Mass Ef­fect Me­gabun­dle ($33.33) of­fers al­most 500 pages com­pil­ing 15 books, in­clud­ing the com­plete In­va­sion, Evo­lu­tion and Re­demp­tion minis­eries, ready for read­ing on com­put­ers and mo­bile de­vices.

Also, for the pulp-pa­per tra­di­tion­al­ist, Mass Ef­fect: Home­worlds, No. 1 ($3.50), writ­ten by Mac Wal­ters, the lead writer of the video game, hits stands in late April.

Pixel-pop­ping scale: 9 out of 10. The life­like an­i­mated cut scenes can be jerky oc­ca­sion­ally, and the di­a­logue sync dur­ing long-winded con­ver­sa­tions might burp a bit, but the sheer beauty of the dy­nam­i­cally vis­ual con­tent should stun gamers.

It’s an awe­some mix of eclec­tic, species-driven char­ac­ter de­sign, in­clud­ing the mas­sive rep­til­ian Kro­gan, and ex­otic lo­ca­tions such as the Ci­tadel space sta­tion (home to a bel­liger­ent Ga­lac­tic Coun­cil), all of which re­ally suck a player into the mythol­ogy.

Star power: Like ap­pre­ci­at­ing an epic movie fran­chise, I’ve known many of these le­gends, such as crusty Capt. David An­der­son, Salar­ian Dr. Mordin So­lus and Turian tough guy Gar­rus Vakar­ian, for many years, and the chance to take part in this re­union is quite en­joy­able.

These vir­tual stars not only get an enor­mous amount of di­a­logue, but char­ac­ters also get an as­sort­ment of mem­o­rable lines, such as Com­man­der Bai­ley’s “We all lie to our­selves to deal with hor­ror,” or Dr. Karin Chak­was’ “A lit­tle more op­ti­mism and a lit­tle less re­al­ism, Com­man­der.” That takes the ac­tion dra­mat­i­cally above the com­mon in­ter­ac­tive gam­ing medium.

Ex­tras and un­lock­ables: Those new to the game will need to study the en­cy­clo­pe­dic Codex, hang­ing out in the Jour­nal area, which fills up with new en­tries as a player pro­gresses. Of­fer­ing a rich look at the mythol­ogy of Mass Ef­fect, it in­cludes lengthy (of­ten) nar­rated text on such top­ics as Aliens: Ex­tinct Species, Tech­nol­ogy, Known As­so­ciates, Reaper War, Mass Ac­cel­er­a­tors, and Plan­ets and Lo­ca­tions.

Mul­ti­player: An on­line co­op­er­a­tive mode called Gal­axy at War teth­ers to the main story but al­lows up to four play­ers to cus­tom­ize char­ac­ters. Species such as the Turi­ans, Kro­gans, Quar­i­ans and hu­mans work to­gether to de­feat waves of en­e­mies in squad-based combat.

Suc­cess in mis­sions can have a di­rect im­pact on Shep­ard’s Ga­lac­tic Readi­ness rat­ing and po­ten­tially de­cide the fate of the uni­verse as the solo cam­paign plays out.

Play­ers fight Geth, Cer­berus and Reapers within hot zones such as Fire­base Glacier, con­quer­ing three lev­els of chal­lenges.

Although the mul­ti­player mode is not re­quired to save the gal­axy ul­ti­mately, it is new to Mass Ef­fect — a fun and very cus­tom­iz­a­ble mode that will of­fer hours of ad­di­tional game play.

Final thoughts: Thanks to some ex­haus­tive char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment, heart-wrench­ing bat­tle scenes and that Codex packed with in­for­ma­tion, Mass Ef­fect 3 con­cludes a tril­ogy that plays out like Peter Jack­son’s grandiose “Lord of the Rings” films and will sat­isfy com­mit­ted play­ers and Shep­ard devo­tees alike.

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