Friday, April 6, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Collector's Edition - Xbox 360 Review

Mass Effect 3 is probably one of the most anticipated titles to come out in some time.  Like Diablo III will be in a couple of months, Mass Effect 3 has certain expectations that will be almost impossible to meet for some people.  In truth, I feel the expectations are higher here then for Diablo 3.  Certainly the wait has been shorter, but Bioware did something incredible when they brought choices made from the first Mass Effect into Mass Effect 2, changing certain parts of the storyline to add continuity to the storyline you crafted.

As a result, Mass Effect 3 has become a title that not only has expectations due to being part of a popular series, but because players have already become greatly invested in the storyline to date.  Along the way there have been books and iPhone games to help tide gamers over, but none of those things compare to the primary three games in the series.  There were a lot of design choices that people questioned along the way such as the addition of multiplayer and the ending of the game.  I would have loved to have rushed out a rapid review on this game so it could be just a bit more timely, but my personal policy of playing through a game until I am done with it/beaten it once would not allow me to do so.  Here are my thoughts on it.


Graphics - 8:

The visuals in Mass Effect have always been a bit of a mixed bag for me.  I really appreciate the visual style.  Scenes of space look impressive, there is a lot of detail both in the environment and the character models and a variety of lighting and smoke effects can be seen depending on where you are.  A lot of the game takes place indoors, and a good portion is outdoors as well as you explore the galaxy.

There have been bugs in the visuals however, that date back to the very first Mass Effect.  While facial expressions are great at conveying emotion most of the time, they can get into really odd states as well.  This seems to happen more with customized faces in my experience, than using the default Shepard.  That makes sense I suppose, given the amount of customization you can put your character through, but it is a bit disconcerting at times to watch my character talking to someone, tilts his head in such a way that the light on his face changes, and his eyes go weirdly vacant for awhile.  Also, textures have a tendency to pop in and out in some environments (outdoors ones seem to suffer more than the indoor ones).

Framerate concerns pop up during some combat, but it was rare for me.  I don't know whether to blame the sync issues with voice and lips on the video or the audio, but I'm inclined to think it is an issue with the video given the above flaws I have pointed out.  All the same, the worlds you visit are varied and sometimes beautiful and I enjoyed exploring them in large part because of the artistic design.  I had a few instances of limbs clipping through doors during opening/loading sequences.  Too many technical problems to give a perfect score.

Still, I could not get over the ability the faces had for expressing emotion.  The detail found in clothing, ships and panels on the walls was intricate and impressive.  Sometimes I found myself just staring out of windows whether on a planet or in space, taking in the moment's scenery, which more often than not was brilliantly realized.


Sound and Music - 10:

There is a lot going on in this game, and that is a good thing when it comes to the audio.  Whether you are in a firefight hearing the sound of shots being fired nearby, or comrades shouting out taunts or words of encouragement, the variety in in weapons fire and more - the combat feels alive and crackles with excitement around you.  I recently acquired some Turtlebeach headphones and played this game with them on, and there was some great use of audio in the multiplayer in particular where you could tell which direction creatures were coming from based on gunfire and the sounds that they made.  The same could be said of my surround sound setup in the living room.

It's not all perfect.  While the sound and music design was smart and well done, there were a few audio glitches that crept in now and then.  Not enough for me to take a point away, and maybe only four or five times, but the most annoying came on a sequence near the end of the game where I was powering up one of my weapons and then the game cut to a scene.  That charging sound effect kept whirring throughout the entire scene.  Easily the most egregious audio bug I ran into, and if it had happened more often I would mark down accordingly, but that particular issue only occurred once.

I have also been a fan of the music in this series, and that holds true in Mass Effect 3.  Whether there is a sad, quiet song in the background during an important conversation or the throbbing techno pulse of the Purgatory bar's dance floor, Bioware did an excellent job with the soundtrack.

Then there is the voice acting, which is superb.  Mass Effect has always excelled in this area, but even when things get a bit off with lighting effects or lip sync, the dialog is so well executed that you stay immersed in the story.  You become invested in these characters because they are so skillfully brought to life by the actors and actresses behind them.


Gameplay - 9:

I am going to start off with two of the most common complaints that came out on release day - but customized characters imported from the earlier Mass Effect games can be subject to an annoying glitch that essentially erases the customized appearance you had.  It is not something everyone seems to suffer from, but one of my friends definitely had that issue (I do very little customization and often use the defaults) and Bioware has apparently acknowledged it.  It sounds as though Bioware plans to fix this, probably in a patch, but I haven't noticed one yet at least.  There is also an odd issue where uploading your saves to the Xbox Live cloud does not work when you try to use a Mass Effect 2 file for Mass Effect 3.  I have no idea why it works just fine off of a USB stick transfer, and not the cloud, but there it is.

One other complaint: I did not care for the scan/chased by Reaper mechanic, but I will take it over the cumbersome scanning method used in Mass Effect 2.  Here it is much easier to zoom in on what you need to find and is not nearly as painstakingly boring.  However, I really hate the fuel mechanic for zooming around from one galaxy to another.  It does not really offer any challenge, and it is not in the least bit interesting.  It just adds a sense of 'grind' to the proceedings that I could do without.

The combat is going to be a mixed bag for some people.  It is quite clear that Bioware was attempting to tap into the popular shooter market more so than ever before.  Mass Effect has always been a third-person cover shooter, and those mechanics are here again.  The pace of the combat however feels faster and much more fluid than in either of the prior games.  However, for fans of the first Mass Effect who bemoaned this increase in pace in the sequel, you will probably find Mass Effect 3's pace even more annoying.

Personally, I loved it.  It still lacks the smoothness of Gears of War 3, which shares the same basic perspective and cover mechanics, but they are still pretty good here.  Once in awhile I did find myself sticking to the wrong environment when I was trying to take cover, but it was usually easy enough to slide from one direction or piece of cover to another that it did not bother me much.

In comparison to the inventory of Mass Effect 1, Mass Effect 3 is much easier to keep track of and use your weapons.  I really liked the ability to modify or put attachments on weapons too.  Some complained that there was not enough customization to your gear in Mass Effect 2, and considering what you could do in the first title, that was a valid concern.  I think Mass Effect 3 really found a good middle ground though, and some of the modifications were really significant.  Some are simply stat upgrades, while others like adding an enhanced scope actually alter how you use a weapon.  I got my 'Mail Slot' achievement (scored by killing 10 shield-wearers with head shots through the horizontal view slot) using a sub machine gun and a scope.

Menus are easy to move around in, and like most RPG games (which this one still is at its heart), there are numerous ways to upgrade as you level and tons of lore to sift through as well.  This is a fully realized world that has had life breathed into it through books, comics and various video games and it shows.

Aside from the sometimes quirky cover mechanics, the sprint button actually annoyed me just a little bit.  I noticed it more in multiplayer when I was attempting to bob and weave around objects, but you really can't sprint laterally well.  It is not a big deal, but it just seemed weird at times and almost made you feel somewhat 'on rails' when sprinting forward.

There is a lot you can do here to tailor your gaming experience too.  There are the usual menu options for adjusting your visuals and sound to turning on subtitles as well.  That said, there is a much deeper option in here as well.  When you start up a new game you are presented with three options that give you a more action-centric experience, or a more story-centric one, or the traditional blend of both.  I would lean toward the traditional one, or maybe the more story-centric one after a couple of times through the proper game.

Still, it appears that Bioware is again aware of and trying to be accessible to new players while also wiggling into the shooter marker a bit more aggressively than ever before.  On my son, it worked.  He immediately went for the action mode, so there is definitely a market out there for it and he says he likes it a lot better than his experience with Mass Effect 2.  He pointed out that this game feels faster and for him, more fun and though he has not yet finished it, he has gotten a lot further through Mass Effect 3 than either of the prior offerings.

That is not to say there were no bugs.  Compared to titles like Fable 3, Fallout: New  Vegas and Skyrim, sure - Mass Effect 3 looks blemish-free.  The reality is you still see items clip through surfaces (like an omni tool through a door when you are waiting for it to open), or voices from characters who are unseen (James and Iliara both had scenes in my game where you could hear them, and the camera even cued in on the asari - only she and James were both invisible at the time).

There was an odd, trippy virtual world experience partway through the game where on two separate occasions I had to restart the area because floor panels are 'generated' to meet you as you walk, and I ran/rolled the wrong way at the wrong time and found myself outside of the bounds of the forming tiles - effectively making me stuck.

I had some quest weirdness (there is a quest on the Citedel where you are tasked with saving someone's life) I ran into at one point as well..  When I ran to one door, I was told it was the wrong one, and when I ran to the other, it glitched and would not open - it sat there red instead of orange and I could not interact with it.  I left the commons and came back, and the door worked fine.  But on the whole?  Given the scope of the game, the content vs bugs is quite favorable.

Oh and speaking of trying to appeal to fans of the shooter genre, there's multiplayer as well.  I'll go into that next.


Intangibles - 8:

So, I will start with the feature that had a lot of people concerned from the day it was announced: multiplayer.  I was right at first slightly concerned.  Not because I did not think Bioware was capable of making a good multiplayer component, but because I was afraid it would take time and focus off of crafting the single player campaign, which is really what Mass Effect is all about.  Then I read that this part of the game was actually being handled by another development team and I was considerably more at ease.  At worst, the single player mode would likely be just fine even if the multiplayer component was a dismal failure, and at best it was a mode that could add replay value to a title that already boasted a lot of potential replay options

The good news is, I feel that it is more of the latter.  Tying it into the Galactic Readiness was a cool idea, because what you do in multiplayer can actually have a beneficial effect on your storyline.  Your Galactic readiness does have a decay factor, so even when you get to 100%, you have to play periodically to keep it up.  You do not need it - you can certainly get the 'best' ending (which I actually got) without it, but it is harder to do without a doubt.  I like that you can have so many characters in multiplayer as I have tried all of the classes so far.  Not only does success in multiplayer mean more success for your single player game, but there are a pair of systems built into the multiplayer that serve as hooks as well.

The first and foremost is the leveling system, which allows you to customize your character skill sets.  You can also earn credits, which are used to buy supply packages (you can use Microsoft Points as well for those who would like to jump start the process).  This system is akin to opening up a pack of basketball cards - you don't know quite what you will get.  You can spend more on your purchase to ensure you get an uncommon or a rare item, but there is still randomization involved.  This can range from anything to new race unlocks, customized appearance unlocks, near gear and supplies as well.

The game itself actually handles pretty well also.  I would like to see more maps, and the basic premise has been done before many times over.  It's essentially you and your team against waves of enemies.  Along the eleven waves to completion, sub missions get sprinkled in where you need to hunt and destroy certain targets, or find and babysit a key location - goals that can earn bonus credits if you complete them within the allotted time and add variety to the missions.  Nothing startlingly new, but still well enough done that I enjoyed my time with it.

There are the occasional issues with lag, but luckily this is a bit more of a tactical shooter than a quick twitch one like Call of Duty.  Certainly that can get you killed, but the game feels a bit more forgiving to me in those instances where things lag up for just a bit.  Additionally, they do not have matchmaking down pat yet.  It is up to four players against waves of enemies, but if the host leaves the lobby or mid-game, you get a message about it migrating hosts, but that does not occur - you are cast out into the lobby to try and find a whole new group again.

Finding a group in the first place is a bit of a challenge since there are plenty of search criteria there, but you need a group of four to win.  You need a really solid grou pto win on silver or gold difficulty.  And before your group of four can venture out into it, you need to all flag yourselves as ready and then there is a really brief countdown.  I think Bioware would do well to force everyone in a lobby to go active after say, 60 seconds or 2 or 3 minutes or something.  There are definitely reasons not to initially kick the group into active mode since you may be shopping or modding a character, but I have had hundreds of aborted lobbies now because there are one or two people who simply will not flag as active.  You can vote to kick them and get a replacement, but if it is the leader, you just wind up all kicked out of the lobby due to the lack of migration listed above.

Also, the online mode could use just a bit more content.  There's only a handful of maps right off of the bat, and you can only get to level 20.  Even with some clever unlockables such as races for the different classes that add a twist to them, it really does not take that long to max everything out.  I do like the community weekend bonuses for playing, but in some ways that just makes it easier to hit level 20.  I did so with two characters last weekend, and promoted that class (think of it as prestige in CoD).  Now, this does give you a chance to build up that class in new ways again (and I immediately got to level 6 with my first map with my newly minted level 1 character) - but it feels like an expansion in maps, levels and maybe modes would help keep things fresh longer.

All this talk on the multiplayer, and it is not even the most important aspect of the game?  Sure, but by now most people are familiar with what Mass Effect brings to the table.  You get a cover-based shooter on top of RPG trappings such as experience, levels, weapon customization, character customization and a storyline that is both excellent and something you help craft with your choices and actions.  Some people are unhappy with the ending.  Very unhappy.  Angry even. 

Was it everything I hoped it would be?  No, not really.  For a game series that defined itself by the impact of your decisions throughout, there were very few actual endings (I watched a collection of videos of the endings, and it is quite disappointing to see just how little variety there is between the different endings) and the weight of your decisions felt a bit discarded.  That does hurt the replay value though quite a bit, and dings the final score of the intangibles section as a result.

Still, worst ending ever?  Ruining the franchise?  The talk of lawsuits?  I don't think so.  Worst-case scenario in my mind?  You spend five or ten minutes disliking the ending.  That does not diminish the hundred plus hours you spend across the three games getting to that point.  This is an instance where the journey and your ability to impact it is a good that far outweighs the bad.

Even so, it appears Bioware is at least listening to fan feedback.  Will they change the ending?  Hard to say, but it has been done before (like in Portal to set it up for a sequel).  If they do, what I would most like to see is not necessarily a drastically different ending, but one that takes into account more of your actions along the journey.  It has not yet been made clear if the ending will be expanded upon, if it will be something tacked onto the game itself or through some form of DLC episode or game content.

On the whole though, there is a branching story with lots of choices you can make that alter where it goes.  You can have all sorts of squad combinations.  There is a wide variety of ways you can go with your gear and leveling powers.  There is a multiplayer mode as well.  There are plenty of reasons to play and replay this title.


Overall - 8.75:

One of my co-workers put it best in my mind:

I was happy with it.

If you knew this co-worker, you would understand this is high praise.  He plays more games than I do, and he goes through them faster than I do.  I'm not sure if I have ever seen him replay a game before, but he just finished his second tour of duty with this one.

Another friend of mine?  His thoughts were:

The first eight or ten hours were tough for me.  It did not really feel like mass effect, but then I got into it and I felt right at home.  He went back and beat Mass Effects 1 and then 2, and now has that new imported character working through another round of Mass Effect 3.

I had eleven friends on the Xbox Live network the other night and eight of them were playing Mass Effect 3.  Some liked it better than others, but I think it is a testament to the appeal and interest this game has generated.

For me personally?  It is a good third game to one of my all-time favorite video game series.  It is far from perfect, but I have yet to play the PERFECT video game.  I have no single favorite, no one game I would champion as the greatest of all time, but Mass Effect 3 is probably up near the top of that list. 

I will toss in the disclaimer that language, situations, all of that may not make this title appropriate for young kids.  For those who dislike shooters, you spend a lot of time running and gunning.  This is not the perfect game for everyone, but it is one I readily recommend to my friends - the whole two or three who haven't tried it yet for themselves.  This was already a long review, but there is a bit more for me to talk about below for those who are interested in the Collector's Edition.



The Collector's Edition:

- Metal case with images of Commander Shepard on it: Nice quality case, and I am personally a fan of these sort of tin cases in general.

- 70 page hardbound art book: This was one of my favorite pieces since it has hundreds of illustrations in it.  Most of them can of course be found online as well, but as a fan of the series, I really enjoyed thumbing through it.

- Limited Edition Mass Effect comic by Dark Horse Comics: Not an amazing comic by any means.  It has the look and feel of a slightly lower quality comic that is the sort of thing you find pitched in as a promotional material for a product, but it will still find a nice home in what is left of my old comic book collection.

- N7 patch: Quite simply, a small patch that my son immediately wanted.

- 4x6 lithographic print of the Normandy.  I'm not sure if these prints vary in what you get or not, but the Normandy is cool and it looks nice, though I would have preferred some sort of character art personally.

- Additional in-game content: You get an arsenal pack that includes the N7 Sniper Rifle, Shotgun, Sub Machine Gun and Pistol.  You get an alternate costume pack for your squad mates.  There is a robotic dog wandering around the lowest level of the Normandy.  The weapons were alright, nothing amazing though they added variety.  The alternate costume pack looked okay as well, but I seldom get into worrying about alternate outfits.  The robotic dog was a bit disappointing as he just walks around in big circles and all you can do to interact with him is get in his way or sometimes tell him to 'stay'.  Kind of hoping they add a few interactive items for him on a future update.

- Digital Soundtrack: I love the music from this series, and that includes this title as well.  Of course in time you can usually find these things for download in other places, but it was nice having it already in official format on day one.

I was unable to buy this on pre-order from GameStop, Best Buy or Amazon - but I was able to get it direction from EA who had it to me within two days of the release.  Considering I was closing out my time with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the delivery time was just fine and I am overall very pleased with the purchase.  Here is a quick screenshot someone else took of the various pieces of the Collector's Edition.  It should be noted that this person framed the lithograph and the patch, that is not part of the actual collection.

And for my parting shot - a compilation of the endings of Mass Effect 3. It is really a bit sad how little variety there is between them, but here you go - for those of you curious what all of the fuss is about: