I recently spent the better part of 1,000 words explaining why, after no small amount of personal distress, I decided to let go of my obsession with experiencing Mass Effect 3 in the “best way possible—if there is such a thing—and just play through the damn game on its own terms, come what may. After 15 hours back on the Normandy with my crew, you might call me hypocritical for coming back with a column explaining the ideal way to play Mass Effect 3. And you might be right. But to be fair, this time I’m not focusing on the peripheral parts of the experience: the visuals, the sound, the controller and so on. I’m talking about the direct experience of what’s going on in your head when you play the game. In other words, a lot of your enjoyment from Mass Effect 3 is going to depend on your attitude. It might sound picky, but no game in recent memory has boasted quite the buildup or payoff that Mass Effect 3 does—if you play it right, that is.
First of all, I might have to burst some bubbles. Electronic Arts and BioWare Project Director Casey Hudson have emphasized how accessible the Mass Effect three-quel is for newcomers to the series. That’s understandable from a marketing perspective, but it’s completely wrong. It takes about 30 seconds into a truly “new” game in Mass Effect 3—when it asks if you suffered the loss of Kaidan, Ashley or “numerous” unknown people in the earlier games—to realize that it simply shouldn’t be played on its own. There are simply too many gnarls to the series’ plot, and too many of its twists are made poignant by the simple fact that they are chosen by the player. But by the same token, I can’t imagine a more rewarding game to cap off a trilogy so long in the making. Even if Mass Effect 3 were junk, I’d have to play it. Like a good round of poker, I’ve been at the table too long. By now, I’m committed to the plot.
For a game with the predominant theme of sacrifice, it’s strangely fitting that you have to make some concessions to properly enjoy Mass Effect 3. I know it’s a little pretentious to help someone enjoy a single-player game…but you’ll just have to deal with that. You might thank me later.
Be a completionist
Mass Effect 3 goes out of its way to instill a sense of imminent demise. The Reapers are coming, and you’re not ready. I give the game a world of credit for selling me on the notion that Earth is totally screwed if we don’t do something right now. But like just about any game with an apocalypse-to-come, there aren’t any gameplay mechanics that are naturally compatible with that notion (I should note that in some ways, the Dead Rising games actually take a shot at this idea.) In other words, you can take all the time you want. It’s an odd juxtaposition to the game’s oppressively ominous tone, and it lessens the immersion a bit. But once you get over it, there’s plenty of good story content to soak in. So go ahead and scan every planet, listen to every conversation and talk to everyone. Really, everyone. Like you’re playing Dragon Quest in 1988 and you have no clue where to go. Besides, if you aren’t playing Mass Effect 3 for the story and dialogue, why the hell are you playing it at all?
Forget the DLC
Electronic Arts managed to irk more than a few fans when word got out that Mass Effect 3 would reserve a sizeable chunk of downloadable content (DLC) exclusively for players who bought the $80 Collector’s Edition. (Unless you fork over about $10 for it, of course.) What really upset people, though, was that the “From Ashes” DLC, as it’s called, included a new party member. What’s more, this character is a Prothean. If you’ve put in a few hours across Mass Effect 1 and 2, that sounds like something you wouldn’t want to miss.
But for better or for worse, it’s nothing to lose sleep over. “From Ashes” is a reasonably well-put-together piece of content, but it doesn’t add anything qualitatively new to the experience. On top of that, I certainly haven’t seen any Prothean-sized holes in the story so far. After an admittedly interesting introduction that you can catch on YouTube, he’s a pretty forgettable character.
Adjust your expectations, but don’t lower them.
Mass Effect 3 puts you face to face with a lot of major issues that the series has teased out over the years, and for the most part, it lets you decide how they play out. That, of course, is the central draw of the whole game. But if you expect “big decisions” to mean “flexible decisions,” you’d be wrong. Where the original Mass Effect’s story had a blank slate to work with and its sequel had some wiggle-room, Mass Effect 3 carries the significant burden of tying everything up. That means that in terms of player choices, Mass Effect 3 flows more like a river than an ocean. But that otherwise disappointing fact comes with an important silver lining, which I think more than makes up for it. Unlike its predecessors, Mass Effect 3 is primarily about seeing how old decisions resolve themselves, which is rewarding in its own way. It’s different, but refreshing once you get used to it.
Mass Effect 3 feels like a subtly different game, but given all the loose ends that BioWare needed to tie up, I applaud them for making the necessary changes to maintain the core experience while adjusting it to be a conclusion rather than a table-setter.