It's a rare game that can get me as excited as a Mass Effect release. There's just something about the space opera setting, persistent main character and tight third-person shooter gameplay that really gets me chomping at the bit. The series has had its ups and downs, with the toning down of the RPG elements being a sore point for some but the advances in gameplay making it worth the loss to others. But however you may have felt about the individual details the Mass Effect games have always been quality releases.
It should come as no surprise that Mass Effect 3 is no exception. While Dragon Age 2 was busy taking a step back for its sequel in terms of storytelling and dungeon design the Mass Effect developers have always pushed forward. From the sound design, graphics, storytelling and gameplay mechanics the series has advanced massively from the somewhat repetitive first game.
Mass Effect 3 picks up six months after the events of Mass Effect 2: Arrival. The actions Commander Shepard took to delay the Reapers have paid off but they left him under military lockdown after all was said and done. But now that the Reapers are returning the Commander is being loosed on the galaxy to stop this threat the only way he knows how gathering everyone who will follow him and leading them into battle with the enemy.
A lot of promotional material has focused on Earth being destroyed but the threat is much more massive in scope than that. The Reapers aren't just destroying Earth or even the Sol system, they're slowly but steadily taking over the entire galaxy. All of the homeworlds of the civilized peoples are being invaded with the Batarians being the first to fall even before Earth. People of all species are being kidnapped to be harvested or turned into specialized forms of Husks. It really does paint an incredibly bleak picture of what awaits you should Shepard fail. Even flying around the galaxy isn't entirely safe as you need to scan planets for war assets but doing so causes the Reapers to zero in on your position and chase you out of the sector.
The plot of the game is pretty simple and can be summed up in one sentence Shepard must travel from planet to planet, solving the galaxy's problems so they can help Earth deal with the Reapers. But of course nothing is ever even that simple so his / her work is really cut out for them. Cerberus' presence complicates matters further, forcing you to fight a three way war against the Reapers and them as well at the same time. Luckily this really lends itself to a massive amount of variety in the sort of missions you're going to get which helps keep them fresher and more enjoyable.
Making the game feel even more epic is the huge amount of returning characters. Party members like Tali'Zorah and Garrus Vakarian will be happy to join you on the final leg of this trip as well as some who didn't join you in the last game like Liara T'Soni. Your party is smaller than it was in Mass Effect 2 but the group fills out your requirements nicely a soldier for example will have no problem getting the tech and biotic aid he needs. Even better is that your romance with these characters will carry over from previous games, giving a more cohesive flow to the game universe.
More importantly than the party members is the sheer amount of throwbacks to previous games. Did your party survive the suicide mission at the end of ME2? Then they will all return in some capacity to help you out here. Were they all loyal? Well they might actually survive the situations that they get themselves in. Made a decision in the original game, such as whether to save the council or not? It will impact your readiness for the final battle. Even characters from the books make an appearance.
Unfortunately there are some problems that mar this product, the most egregious of which are the storytelling problems.
As this is the final battle in the trilogy featuring these characters there is a pretty high mortality rate. Even if your buddies survived past games then they might croak it during the events of this game. This sounds dramatic but there is a very clear pattern to which characters are going to die and once you notice it the drama drains almost entirely out of all of these scenes. Since the ones in the most danger are the NPC's it also carries little impact in general if you didn't care about the character in question.
In addition to that there are a few characters in the game that just act in a way that feels out of character. Oh sure some can say that there's no way for a writer to write characters out of character but that really doesn't seem to be the case. A notable example of this is the Salarian Dalatress, leader of the Salarian people. Whereas most of their people stick to logic for making decisions she comes off as your typical, slimy weasel of a politician. Something rather dramatic also occurs with a particular human that doesn't really feel consistent with the information we have on the character from past games. This is just two examples of a problem that pops up every now and again with some of these characters.
But these problems are fairly easy to ignore when you're having a blast with actually playing the game. It plays similarly to Mass Effect 2 but refined in almost every way. Moving around the battlefield feels much more fluid, allowing you to move from cover to cover or even over it in a fashion that will feel natural to any third-person shooter fan. It allows each class to shine in their own fashion whether that's from a sniper staying mobile so he can get clean headshots or a Vanguard using cover to move in with his shotgun. Or for an Adept to run in terror so as to hide from enemy gunfire.
Another refinement is in the RPG elements. Mass Effect 1 offered an almost overwhelming amount of customization options, ranging from armor types, armor mods, weapon types and weapon mods. That's without even getting into the skills themselves, giving you a huge amount of choice. ME2 went the exact opposite direction giving you scant few skills to choose from and a woefully limited amount of weapons to choose from. Weapons you could miss during the missions at that.
Mass Effect 3 takes a happy middle ground here. During the missions new weapons and upgrades will be found during the missions much like in ME2. But if you happen to miss them they can be purchased at a shop alongside various other weapon, armor and equipment upgrades. These weapon upgrades can be applied to your weapons as well as those your squadmates use. Paired up with the ability to modify your armor and change the costume your squadmates are using, each of which has a different bonus to their abilities (bonus shields, increased power damage, etc) there is a whole lot of customization available before even getting into the new skill system.
The skills are probably the most impressive part of the game to receive an upgrade. Each character has five abilities (Shepard having eight) and each skill has six levels. The final three levels of each skill have two choices often based on two entirely different playstyles. All of this allows for a great deal of customization even amongst your party members. Characters are distinguished more by their weapon selection and abilities than simply by their class which makes your choice of party much easier to custom tailor to every mission type. Should you make a mistake in how you set up their abilities ME3 allows you to re-spec the character in the medbay.
But even if you happen to have the perfect setup for a mission prepare to die anyways as the difficulty spikes are all over the place. The exact locations of these vary by class with areas where enemies spawn in right in top of you being fatal for Adepts and Engineers while a Vanguard might have an easy time with this complication. This is likely a problem brought on by the variables of the character class you choose, the power decisions you make and your particular party setup but it ends up being no less frustrating for it. Even worse, Soldier and Infiltrator Shepard's will have an almost laughably easy time about clearing most levels but yet the "boss" encounters will still cause you deaths simply based on it often being unclear on what you need to do.
One thing that doesn't let you down is the improved graphics. Continuing the proud tradition of Mass Effect games the graphics have been on a steady climb and Mass Effect 3 showcases this rather excellently. All of the characters look absolutely fantastic, with the pebbling on the Asari being clear as day and the details on the armor of Cerberus troops being quite easy to see. Watching an Atlas bear down on you, the pilots eyes glaring at you from the cockpit, is an intimidating experience.
Probably the highest point of the Mass Effect series itself has always been the sound design and that stands up quite proudly as well. All of the voice acting is incredibly effective and believable. But more importantly is the soundtrack which is just awe inspiring. The music all retains the Mass Effect "sound", feeling both incredibly ominous and oddly calming at the same time especially as you near the finale.
Sadly that finale is one of the biggest letdowns with the game. While it's true that any ending would have upset some gamers this ending manages to be both gloriously unsatisfying without actually doing anything to resolve a lot of dangling plot threads. The much vaunted 16 endings actually translate into three endings with a bunch of incredibly minor variations, most of which are really just grades of how bad the ending is. What's worse is that the ending really seems to have nothing to do with the themes presented in the series thus far, feeling more in line being a grand finale of the Terminator series than Mass Effect which is just bad writing all around. It's one awesome action sequence leading up to lame exposition and a whimper of an ending.
For some the ending is likely to be a huge deal breaker, retroactively making the previous games a whole lot of wasted time. But for others they'll simply pretend that the last ten minutes or so of the game are non-existent while enjoying the rest of the journey.
If that's a problem then you can always find some solace in the multiplayer mode. It's not something that is going to redefine multiplayer games in the future but its integration with the main game is actually pretty inventive. Honestly, for all the concerns people voiced about adding multiplayer to a single player series, it works pretty well. In a way it almost feels like the single player portion of the game except you only have to worry about your actions, your party member should be able to take care of themselves as you try to seize valuable resources for the war against the Reapers.
Being entirely realistic about the issues the game has, deciding to not play the series through to its finale because of the ending would be an incredibly bad idea. Mass Effect 3 is an incredible journey with a terrible end, an experience that shouldn't be missed if for no other reason than to serve as a bit of a obituary on Commander Shepard as well as the series itself. Bring the fight to the Reapers, don't let them take the galaxy. Commander Shepard wouldn't approve.