Wii U had a rock solid line-up of launch titles to accompany it last year. From Grade-A third party franchises such as Assassin’s Creed through to Mario, a classic staple in the Nintendo canon. Oddly enough, more than a few of these launch games were sequels, or even third games in series’ that have already been around for some time now, just not on a Nintendo platform. Mass Effect 3: Special Edition, as the numbered titles implies, is no stranger to this phenomenon, but that doesn’t stop it from being an absolute powerhouse, and one of the console’s best games to date.
The argument of whether or not video games can or should be considered “art” has been a point of contention in the media for quite some time now. Some believe that the form is lowbrow and has no place in serious artistic discourse, but then there are those who believe that video games are to be experienced, and that their purpose is to tell a story and engage with players on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. That second group is made up of those who make games like Mass Effect 3.
Without delving too deeply into the plot, you take on the role of Commander Shepard as his or her — depending on the gender you choose to play — home planet Earth is being invaded by giant sentient machines known as Reapers. It is your goal to traverse the Milky Way and unite different alien races in preparation for war against the Reapers, all in the name of taking back your home. Uniting the galaxy to win the war is your general overarching goal, but the story tends to branch off into many different threads that all contribute to the main plot whilst also delving into the personal lives and conflicts of the characters around you. As with many RPGs, storytelling is a major aspect of Mass Effect 3, and it has one hell of a yarn to spin. And for anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to delve into the Mass Effect universe, there is the option to watch an interactive motion comic before starting your adventure that concisely covers the events of the first two games. Because it's not possible to import save data from previous Mass Effect games into the Wii U version, you will be asked to make certain decisions during the comic that influence the events of the past. Some of the characters that are present in Mass Effect 3 are dependent on the decisions that you make as the comic plays out.
Not only is the story behind this one well written, but the aesthetics of the game are also something to behold. From the war-torn streets of Earth to the polished and sparkling corridors of the space station known as the Citadel, every single environment is beautifully rendered down to the most minute detail. The spectacle isn’t just reserved for the environments, as the characters are equally as detailed and realistic and move smoothly during both action and cinematic sequences. The Wii U does well to keep pace with the action, but there is a very slight drop in frame rate when the gameplay is at its most frantic. All of the dialogue is articulately voiced by a who’s who of actors and personalities from Martin Sheen to Jessica Chobot, making the personas even more lifelike than the static and flat text driven characters that we so often see in other titles. A sweeping soundtrack that matches the tone of the game with precision compliments all of this as well.
At the core of its gameplay, Mass Effect 3 is an action RPG. As far as combat is concerned, it plays mostly like a third person shooter, but with a strong emphasis on tactical assaults rather than straight run and gun action. Depending on which class you choose for your character, you'll have different abilities and weapons that you can use in battle. Completing missions will earn you experience points which can be used to level up your character’s abilities, and you'll also earn credits, the currency used in the Mass Effect universe used to purchase weapons, weapon upgrades, armour, and sundries. During most missions you'll also be accompanied by your choice of two squad members based on who your allies are in the game, all of which come with their own unique abilities and levelling systems. During combat you have the choice of either letting these characters run free and aid you in any way that they see fit, or you can command them to certain spots on the battlefield.
Though the game does boast an open world environment in regards to allowing you to choose the order in which you complete missions and explore the universe, most of the missions are rather linear in the execution. Once you begin a mission, you'll have very specific objectives in the environment in which the mission takes place, many of which involve locating a certain point on the map or defending a base after you arrive. Though missions can get a bit repetitive in that they mostly follow the same formula of seek and destroy, the diverse locations and reasoning behind the task at hand easily mask the repetition and make each operation feel fresh in its own way.
The way Mass Effect 3 controls is the standard affair for most shooters, with the L and R triggers used to scope and shoot while the face buttons allow you to switch between weapons and other abilities. The GamePad’s touchscreen displays a mini-map during missions and can be used to reassign your character’s special abilities — both of which can also be done by menus on the big screen — but the action in game is usually frantic enough that you won’t have much time to be constantly looking down at your controller. The Wii U Pro Controller is also compatible, and provides an experience that is equally as fulfilling as that with the GamePad. Whether you choose to use the GamePad or the Pro Controller is entirely dependent on personal preference, or on whether or not you choose to make use of the GamePad’s few additional features.
As with many modern RPGs, choosing the side of the good and evil dichotomy on which you stand is vital to the way in-game events play out. In general, helping people and saving lives throughout the universe will score you points on the side of Paragon while going against the grain will identify you as a Renegade. How citizens of the universe perceive you will affect the ways they interact with you, and it will also change some of the statements you can choose to make in conversation. It is not always clear which decisions you make will land you on which side of the fence, but much the same can be said about the choices you make in real life as well.
If you prefer not to traverse too deeply into the plethora of side missions, the main campaign will take most players between 15 and 20 hours to complete. If you do decide to explore the rest of the galaxy, the side quests can easily add up to an additional 20 hours of playtime. Beyond gaining additional experience points to level up, completing side missions can be useful in adding to your Galactic Readiness, which is representative of how prepared your troops across the galaxy will be once you decide to finally engage the Reapers in a final battle. It’s also worth keeping in mind that because every decision you make in the game alters the course of conversation and events, every gamer will have a different experience with this title, ensuring that multiple plays through are necessary for those of you interested in seeing everything that the Milky Way has to offer.
Also extending the amount of time you can get out of Mass Effect 3 is the online multiplayer. Though the only mode available is a sort of survival that frantically pits you against wave after wave of enemies; the variety in foes, locations, and weapons keeps the multiplayer feeling fresh. Much like single player, multiplayer allows you the option to choose from different playable character classes, each with different powers and abilities that can be levelled up. Experience and credits are earned by completing multiplayer campaigns, and the more you play the more powerful and versatile your characters will become; meanwhile the credits that you earn during multiplayer matches can be used to purchase equipment packs containing different weapons, characters, and items, all of which can only be used in online play. Playing multiplayer matches also affects your overall Galactic Readiness in single player, so squeezing in a few online matches might benefit players seeking out a different ending to the campaign. The inclusion of other play modes such as Deathmatch or Capture the Flag would have been welcome additions, but the online play remains fun nonetheless.
Many of you may remember the controversy and fan-uproar surrounding Mass Effect 3’s ending from a few months back. Developer BioWare addressed these concerns by releasing free downloadable content that extended the game’s ending, altered some of the final scenes as well as adding some additional side missions. Fortunately for Nintendo gamers, Mass Effect 3: Special Edition comes with that additional content seamlessly added into the game already on the disc. Future paid DLC available for other versions of the game are regrettably missing from this Wii U port, but the fact that we get the full and complete version of the main journey is reason enough to rejoice.
Starting with the third game in a series may not seem to make sense, and it could be jarring to some players, but that shouldn’t be enough to stop anyone from experiencing this game. It truly is a work of art made with the eye of a filmmaker, and a testament to what video games are capable of in regards to both gameplay and storytelling. Despite the rare occurrence of frame rate drops, and the stunted online play, Mass Effect 3: Special Edition is a love letter to video game and science fiction enthusiasts everywhere, as it does all it can to please the fans and engage newcomers to its immense and beautiful universe.