Monday, March 12, 2012

Mass Effect 3 - Intensity Makes Good Gaming

There's a reason Bioware's Mass Effect series is popular beyond belief. It's engaging, it's addictive, and it has ever right to be described with any superlative you can think of. I have a feeling it didn't need the hype machine constructed around it by the pertinent marketing departments: Gaming this good generally finds an audience and sells copies numbering in the millions.


Shepard, customized.
Sure, certain games don't sell to their publishers' expectations. As a fan of Tim Schafer, my heart broke when Psychonauts and, later, the rocktastic BrĂ¼tal Legend sputtered. But karma has a way of correcting itself, and sometimes makes games packing pure awesome, but lacking hype, such as Kingdoms of Alamur: Reckoning and Enslaved: Osyssey to the West, sleeper hits via word of mouth and positive reviews.

In the case of Mass Effect 3, there was never any doubt. But why?

ME3 is built on a game engine that, while tuned up to be pretty by modern standards, is aging rapidly. It's full of DRM, which PC gamers hate with a passion. The sheer amount of DLC seems ready to nickel-and-dime its audience straight into their graves. The resource harvesting system sucks. The action sequences, while fun, tend to be overlong and pale compared to third-person action games, such as series Infamous, Prototype, and such.

So why can't I stop playing ME3?
A welcome face, bruised but welcome.
The answer lies in aspects of the game that often get overlooked by reviewers in both the core and mainstream press: The writing, in terms of both story and dialog, is tight; the drama is so real it's downright affecting; the voice acting is Hollywood-good. As a role-playing series, the Mass Effect games offer a ridiculously satisfying method of evolving your character, the charismatic hero Commander Shepard. The universe in which the action takes place is as fully fleshed out and alive as any found in sci-fi books and movies - even the heavyweights like Star Wars, Star Trek, The Hitchhikers "Trilogy," and so on.

That's all good stuff, to be sure. There is, however, one other factor, as intangible as a thought.  Don't worry, I'm not going to cop out and say "playability." That horse is dead and there's no sense in flogging it.
Squaring off against this guy is a symptom of being 'hosed.'
No, the factor in question intensity, and it's been artfully built up through two games to inspire powerful feelings of dread, hopelessness, and real heroism in the third. When the Reapers arrive - and boy, do they make an entrance - you don't know how the hell the forces of good can defeat them. Reaper ships look as large as cities. The enemy wields harvested bodies from friendly, galactic against you. Earth gets totally owned in the opening sequence; the more you explore the universe, the more you see the devastation caused by the Reapers' initial assault.

There's a tidal wave of death sweeping across the known universe and there seems to be little even Shepard can do to stop it. ME3's main conflict make those in the first two games look like battles against hangnails.


Saving the world, one bullet at a time.
Pop on a good set of headphones, or better still, a multi-speaker sound system with a subwoofer you can feel. Settle in and get immersed. Just be sure to take breaks once in a while - the intensity makes the action dire, and it's conveyed so well it makes most thriller films, sci-fi or otherwise, seem tame. As for a score - I can't offer a perfect grade because ME3 is, as all games are, imperfect, I'll give it:



9.7 heart palpitations out of 10 - and a Durham on Games DURHAM'S CHOICE award!

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