The final game of the Mass Effect trilogy was always going to have a difficult time. Not only was it a sequel to one of the most acclaimed games of all time, but it was also the end of an epic science fiction trilogy. That's usually a recipe for at least mild disappointment. And with the sheer amount of emotional investment players had over multiple games and years, the first thing everyone talked about with Mass Effect 3 was its story.
That's understandable, but it sells Mass Effect 3 short. Here's the thing, Mass Effect 3 isn't a great game because of its story. Oh, don't get me wrong—the story is incredibly important to the game, and it's mostly great, albeit with, ahem, a few teensy-weensy issues at the end. But the story of Mass Effect 3 isn't isolated from the rest of the game. This is what makes it special. More than its two predecessors, Mass Effect 3 utilizes its level design, combat mechanics, and more in order to harmonize its gameplay with its story.
There are two overall themes in Mass Effect 3: war and resolution. Mass Effect 3 is the story of the grand galactic war, a World War II metaphor where the ultimate evil has arrived, threatens to dominate and destroy everything, and only a grand alliance of every not-evil group in the galaxy can defeat them. It's also about resolving the stories set up in the previous games in the series--from the resolution of the Krogan genophage (arguably the single best piece of world-building in the series) to minor stuff, like the final fate of Shepard superfan Conrad Verner.
And if it doesn't serve those purposes? It's gone. So long, hacking mini-games. See you in hell, time-consuming planetary scanning. This is a game about shootin' and talkin'. Sure, there's a bit of exploration and side questing to be done, but that's largely a sprinkle of flavor—everything is about war and resolution.
The real benefits of this thematic streamlining in Mass Effect 3 show up in the combat. This process doesn't work if it doesn't channel players into parts of the game that work well. For the most part, Mass Effect 3 does this really well. Most every time you go into combat, the encounter design corresponds to the emotional state and motivations of the player, and these feed into the themes of war and resolution.
The Evolution of Mass Effect
That's a little complicated, so let's take a step back and look at the evolution of combat, level design, and storytelling in the Mass Effect series. In the first Mass Effect, well, the nicest way to put it was that it was a charming mess—an ambitious attempt to fuse an RPG with console/Halo-style shooting, a third person perspective, and a tiny bit of a Gears of War-style cover system. While it had its moments, it rarely served as a coherent vision for what the game should look like. In Mass Effect 2, a more complete Gears-style cover system was implemented, plus distinct character classes with very different play-styles, as well as a novel system that demanded different weapons for different enemy defenses—like powerful single-shot weapons for armor, and multi-shot guns for shields.
On the surface, Mass Effect 3's combat system is almost identical to Mass Effect 2's—it's the same interface built around ducking behind cover and using the proper weapons and skills to break down enemy defenses. But the game's designers, particularly the level designers, demonstrate far more ability to synthesize the needs of the story with the needs of the obstacles that Commander Shepard has to overcome.
ME3, like its predecessor, is built around a series of "levels" that last roughly 30-60 minutes. But the key difference is that each of these is designed to fit its storyline. In Mass Effect 2, most missions followed a roughly similar progression path: you show up in a new area, have some easy fights against weak enemies, then take on some harder enemies, then fight a boss. It's a design built around the idea that a cover shooter follows a linear progression: fight, move forward, fight harder, move forward again.
Mass Effect 3 utilizes a much-improved model. Each fight is designed to fit the needs of the story when it appears. Let's take the attack on the Citadel, which is the start of the middle third of the game. Narrative-wise, this is a sneak attack—it surprises players, Shepard, and the rest of the characters in the game. So the first fight after the sudden revelation of a new campaign mission serves as a surprise as well: Shepard and her crew have to fight an entrenched Cerberus position.
This is a tough fight—arguably the hardest of the entire sequence. Cerberus has a strong entrenched position that you can try to push directly through, or work your way around. They've got conventional troops that you've fought a dozen times before at this point, but the level design is such that it's difficult to find a single point of attack to nail them down--you have to methodically push forward and gain your footholds to win--which directly corresponds to Shepard's needs in the scene. Once you win, you meet with a sympathetic character (Commander Bailey) who helps explain the scene to do, and serves as an ally guiding you through the next section—which is significantly easier, but also helps you discover what's happened.
After uncovering the full details of what's happening--a badass assassin sent to kill the Citadel Council-- you have to push forward to catch up with them. This includes fairly linear fights that involve running forward while under pressure—Mass Effect 3 ramps up again when it needs to . Suddenly you're being told to progress as fast and directly as you can while being confronted with Cerberus' top-tier troops: the sneaky Nemesis, the powerful Atlas mechs, and for the first time, the elite Phantom assassins, forcing a brand new set of tactical challenges at the point when the narrative is hitting its climax.
And all of this supports the twin themes of war and resolution. For the entire first part of the game, the Citadel's apparent unwillingness to confront the urgency of the war is a key point—and this surprise attack changes that. It's also the resolution of the stories of Shepard's political antagonist, Councillor Udina, as well as two former squad members: Thane, and Kaidan/Ashley (depending on who you picked in Mass Effect 1).
Unfortunately for discussion of Mass Effect 3, this sort of attention to design is largely imperceptible to most players. Harmonizing player motivations with level and encounter design has the net effect of making that design feel invisible--you don't notice the things that are supposed to be happening! Sure, the galactic war gets crazy intense, but that's just background noise. This focus on level design apparent if you're playing at higher difficulty levels, where you might die a lot, or in the multiplayer, whose maps are built on keeping players from getting too comfortable, but otherwise? The quality of Mass Effect 3's level design can be seen by how rarely people complain about Mass Effect 3's level design.
The very best sections of all of the Mass Effect trilogy feel this way. In Mass Effect 1, Virmire and Ilos have this feeling—and the former, especially, is one of the series' high points. Mass Effect 2 cleverly puts its very best sections at the beginning and end--the Omega levels, particularly Archangel's recruitment, and the Collector Base both manage to combine player emotion and level design. The turning point, however, was the Lair of the Shadowbroker DLC for ME2, particularly the first half involving the chase across Illium—a brilliant collection of some of the best writing and especially best level design of the trilogy.
What makes Mass Effect 3 special is that this model of level design is spread across the entire game. This isn't an accident: at the Game Developer's Conference in 2013, Bioware's Dave Feltham gave a presentation on how, using the lessons learned from Shadowbroker, Bioware explicitly designed ME3 levels to elicit emotions (using Tuchanka, the best section of the game, as an example.)
It's because of this commitment to level design that Mass Effect 3's story can take prominence. The epic galactic war feels properly intense because when it needs to be, it gets explosive, horrifying, or pensive, as needed. And the plot resolution? That matters more because the game successfully brings players up when it needs to, and lets players down gently when it has to. The fact that it's so successful is what lets players worry about which choices they made, who they dated in the end, and oh that goddamn ending. It's a double-edged sword, and one that makes ME3 something of the forgotten installment in the trilogy apart from controversy. Mass Effect 3 deserves better than to be only remembered for how much people fought about the last fifteen minutes.