Mass Effect 3 introduces players to another chapter in the life of player-created universal war hero Commander Shepard, recently relieved of his Alliance military rank and position. We last saw Shepard working alongside the extremist human group Cerberus to stop the threat of the Reapers: an ancient synthetic menace thought extinct, come to harvest and assimilate the various races of the galaxy after being dormant for over 50,000 years. The opening scene sees an Earth base in turmoil, clamoring in fear and preparation of the coming Reaper threat. As Shepard and longtime comrade Admiral Anderson plead for the Council races to unite for the imminent battle ahead, a blast rips through the office; the Reapers have come to take Earth, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Surrounded by death, destruction and confusion, all resources quickly become scarce, and the Earth is slowly taken hostage. In the midst of all this, it becomes clear that if the Earth is to survive then the races of the galaxy must stand together and fight as a united fleet against this enemy, so Shepard and Anderson decide that Shepard must go to get the help himself…leaving Earth in order to save it. As the ship departs, Shepard catches a glimpse of a young boy he spoke to minutes earlier, boarding a shuttle to safety. As the shuttle lifts off, a Reaper catches sight of it, taking it down in a fiery blaze. That sight solidifies the importance of the mission, shows the ruthlessness of the enemy, and serves as the entire premise of the game.
Story – 5/5:
What makes the story of Mass Effect 3 so immersive is the fact it’s being told all around you: refugees tend to their sick and needing in docking bays, decimated forces set up small camps in an effort to make a final stand, hospitals so full that patients must lie awaiting service in the hallways…every place you go tells the story of a galaxy torn apart by harsh intergalactic massacre. You get a rare chance to see the real effects of what war can do: Lives taken away, the people those lives were taken away from, the moments when nothing else matters, and the moments when people grasp the little that’s left. The mission at hand upon leaving Earth, is to amass an army large and powerful enough to take the galaxy back from the Reapers. In order to do so you travel from planet to planet, most of which have already suffered heavy losses in the midst of battles still ongoing upon your arrival to ask for help, a lot of times the result being important leaders stripped from important situations, or rushing toward hasty solutions that require prices too heavy to pay.
These situations play a huge contrast from the previous titles in the sense that while the other Mass Effect games called for a race against time, you are completely out of time in this installment: The enemy holds entire civilizations hostage, and every moment you spend delaying a final battle is a moment where a good soldier’s life is put on the line, because the war continues, regardless of what you’re doing or have planned.
Amidst all of this, you do however get the chance to reunite with key characters from the previous installments like crew mainstays Garrus Vakarian and Tali’Zorah vas Normandy, as well as enjoying the return of popular Mass Effect 1 characters Kaidan Alenko and Ashley Williams as squadmates. There are many other characters whom you as the player reunite with and would like to hear more about their situations and spend more time possibly even carrying out missions and holding conversations with them, but in light of recent events you find that a lot of them have their own loved ones to protect, and while they might have been present for your suicide mission against the Collectors, things have changed: they must put their personal priorities first this time. The game still however does an excellent job of offering closure to these storylines involving these characters, as you get the choice to offer a helping hand in each of their personal plights and journeys, leading to them eventually helping in some part with the final battle, whether it be on the frontlines or in some kind of support role.
All of your choices and decisions in the game lead up to the breathtaking finale: an all-out battle in the atmosphere, skies and ground of planet Earth. These moments are the most intense and gripping battles in the entire series, as you’re put in the middle of the most infested points of the battlefield and forced to survive against waves of ruthless enemies, all in a last ditch effort to set things straight once and for all, wiping the Reapers off of the face of the galaxy after dealing with their effects for so long. At the very end, you stand with nothing but choices, and what these choices stand for is the subject of uncertainty: a theme that stayed with the game the entire way through, driving home the message that you choose the choices you make…you don’t create them. It was an epiphany that blew my mind, and for a game story to be able to pull that surprise and emotion out of me is something worth mentioning, because it forces you to feel something other than the “Hey, this game is hot!” of other titles out nowadays, by giving you a plot that’s worth more attention than that.
Gameplay – 4/5:
BioWare put a lot of thought and care into showing you the density of the situation, and how it affects not only the people around you, but more importantly Commander Shepard himself by forcing you to make the good or the bad decisions, very rarely offering you a neutral choice in the matter. This small omission from the system paves the way for some of the most compelling scenes in gaming history, due to you as a player being forced to take sides in difficult situations that sometimes don’t allow you to find a common ground. This is skillfully done using the ever-intuitive “Conversation Wheel”: a diagram that shows up at the bottom of the screen during most cutscenes, that allows you to make paraphrased dialogue choices (and sometimes actions, normally shown enclosed in brackets) that turn the tide of the conversation, and can cause, depending on stats like influence and reputation, many changes and effects, ranging anywhere from the violent to the romantic.
From time to time, key decisions are shown on the left side of the wheel in blue and/or red depending on your Paragon (good) or Renegade (bad) levels respectively, which in turn were built up based on the regular dialogue choices you made on the right side of the wheel during most other conversations, as well as some quick-time event sequences that occur during cutscenes. Notable also is the fact that most choices made using the Renegade or Paragon options tend to immediately affect the situation at hand, forcing it in your favor as opposed to the regular choices which may or may not do more than just changing the words used, while the rest of the conversation stays the same. Notable improvements have been made to the decision system, like the ability to hold conversations by speaking into the Kinect, as well as being able to eavesdrop on certain NPC conversations, picking one side or the other based on who the first of the two people you speak to. This is very useful as it cuts down on how many conversations involve a cut-sequence, allowing you to make those less-important decisions on the fly instead of wasting valued time to say…settle a dispute about drink refunds.
Of course, no triple-A title out in this generation would be complete without some kind of a combat system, right? Luckily enough, the game’s combat system has been drastically improved upon, delivering the most authentic shooting experience in the trilogy to date. The shooting itself is now much tighter than it’s ever been, and battle length has been heavily streamlined due to the useful voice commands offered by playing with the Microsoft Kinect accessory, which allows you to call out squadmate commands, attack/ability names, and switch weapons. That in itself still needs to be worked on a little more however, as certain weapon and ability names, as well as specific character commands are a little easier to say than others. The Kinect also seems to often pick up the words that game characters say, which can be highly counterproductive when the characters say something phonetically similar to an ability someone has, thus activating said ability against your will during battle.
Regular movements outside of battle have gotten some very useful upgrades in the much-needed dodge roll, as well as the ability to climb ladders, and an infinite sprint. The cover system still needs a little bit of work however, as it can interfere with some of the other animations like the new quick vault used by pressing the “A” (“X” on PS3) button twice when approaching a cover. I also often found myself unable to separate from cover unless I pressed the down button, or alternatively “A” to perform a vault from cover, which in my opinion is still too slow to be of any kind of use when trying to get out of a line of fire, and with the changes BioWare made to the AI, you don’t want to be stuck or moving too slow when enemies decide to flank you from both sides and a grenade lands in your lap.
Weapons are now customizable with certain modifications found on missions and purchased in stores, which can increase a number of stats ranging from accuracy and fire rate, to weight and ammunition capacity. ME3 also marks the return of multiple weapon upgrades readily available from the “Procurement” database located in the Normandy’s shuttle bay. Ammunition is handled the same way it was in Mass Effect 2, using actual ammo clips as opposed to Mass Effect 1’s heat-sink system, and with the exception of a few really tight situations ammo is rather plentiful throughout the game so players never have to go long without a full reload for their weapons of choice.
Graphics – 4/5:
While Mass Effect 3 boasts the best character graphics in the series to date, with a host of new facial expressions and animations that truly convey drama not possible in the previous installments, the environments you encounter have a quality unseen on most multiplatform titles, so you can definitely see the positive influences of a partnership with EA throughout each and every scene.
Ironically however the most beautiful visual moments of the entire game were all of the scenes that involved Reapers. I recall one boss battle in particular that pits you in a one-on-one standoff against one, where all you have is a laser that calls in attacks from space, while the Reaper of course has the trademark giant death beam that doesn’t have nearly as far to travel to get to you. You’re constantly on the move against this dark monolithic marvel while attempting to call these attacks, while the Reaper closes in the distance between the two of you with each successful attack. At the end of the battle there’s a slow-motion sequence where the giant Reaper looms over you, blocking site of the sky behind it, and charging an attack that has absolutely no chance of missing you. While you attempt to strike the final blow before time runs out, you get a chance to see the Reaper in full murderous glory, and watching the beam’s light get brighter and brighter in front of you is terrifying in a way only something so beautiful could have made so.
The visuals aren’t without their faults though: I had a couple times in the beginning chapters of the adventure where cutscenes had issues loading, as well as a couple game freezes, and camera issues during some scenes that forced the camera out of character focus, showing background when a character was supposed to be on-screen saying something. While they were small and could possibly be fixed in future patches, the problems did cause a slight disconnect from the experience when they took place which is a notable problem in a game like this.
Sound – 5/5:
If there was any aspect I enjoyed over everything else in the game, it had to be the sound quality: Every voice, footstep, shot and explosion was skillfully mixed and blended into a realistic wall of sound, making you feel as if you were truly walking through the different locations as they faded in and out of your range, some of the louder and more prominent sounds lingering on even after you’d left the room of origin. The Reapers, as you watched them wreak havoc, would let out their booming sounds of destruction, playfully compared to the heavy brass featured in the main suite for the movie Inception. When you hear it throughout the game however, that playful allusion quickly separates itself from the equation once the visuals match the audio.
Female Shepard’s voice actress Jennifer Hale also outdid herself for the final installment, showing a much wider range of emotion than I’d ever experienced playing through the first two: yelling out commands at the top of her lungs, screaming at insubordinate comrades and teammates, and most important of all a lot more laughter than in the previous titles. The other characters also held their weight as well, with excellent delivery of the masterful dialogue featured in the storyline, one of my personal favorites being the performance of Brandon Keener, the voice actor responsible for Garrus Vakarian.
The soundtrack is also fitting and powerful, mixing the best of the electronic atmosphere featured in ME1, with the more orchestrated cinematic feel of ME2, Two somber piano-heavy compositions at the beginning and end were written by guest composer Clint Mansell, whose most recognizable work is probably the orchestral version of his Requiem for a Dream main theme, which has been used in various movie trailers worldwide. This time around he creates one of three best compositions on the soundtrack: “Leaving Home”, which plays as Shepard leaves Earth at the beginning of the game. The simple piece sets the entire mood for the story, making it only fitting that his other contribution, “And End, Once and For All,” is a reprise of that same piece.
A long time ago I decided that the choices I made in life, whether I felt they were good or bad, wouldn’t always give me the outcome I looked for. There are certain things in life that whether or not you’ve done everything you can will always affect you the same way, and our true strength as human beings is determined in those unexpected moments, where even if we know the outcome isn’t in our favor, we know to make the choice anyway. I like to think that Bioware’s third installment in what I’ve come to believe is one of the greatest stories ever told in gaming history, skillfully culminates that idea into a form that transcends the known conventions of gaming and evolves the entire experience into something much more meaningful, setting—no, becoming the bar for interactive storytelling the world over.
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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