Mass Effect 3 (360/PS3/PC)
Release date: March 6, 2012
Barreling through Mass Effect 3, it occurred to me that the only thing I really miss from the original Mass Effect is the grainy filter that made everything look just a little more cinematic. I think that says a lot about the series; it's changed so much, but it's always been moving forward, getting bigger and better as it spiraled toward its dramatic conclusion. Everything that's been left behind as the series matured deserved to be thrown away. Mass Effect 3 is progress.
It's epic, gorgeous, touching, harmonious progress. To save the galaxy, dozens of disparate races have to work together. They've got their differences, but of course they'll sort them out with a little help from Commander Shepard. Human, turian, krogan, quarian, geth, gay, straight, robot, meathead, poor, rich—everyone's got a part to play.
There's harmony between the game's action and RPG elements, which strike a much more refined balance compared to the last two games. And there's a newfound harmony between paragon and renegade, the game's opposing schools of decision-making. Being more or less of a dick no longer precludes you from certain actions or dialogue choices; it's all good, so you can act how you like and just enjoy watching the consequences.
There can be no harmony without dissonance, though, and ME 3 is no exception. There's the dissonance of inconsistent writing, of muddy textures, of absurdly long and frequent loading times (on Xbox 360, at least), and of an extremely narrow field of view. Yet for all that, it's undoubtedly the best Mass Effect game yet.
At times, Mass Effect 3 feels like a tribute to itself. Older characters, both major and minor, march through it in ceaseless procession, as if to remind Shepard what's at stake in the battle to save the galaxy—and to remind players why they're so invested in the series. The only reason this doesn't always feel like a monkey masturbating with its own numb hand is that the vast array of characters is far and away the best part of the series (aside from Shepard him/herself, who remains as unlikeable as ever).
Let's rewind a bit—[insert your name here] Shepard, newly reinstated to the human Alliance forces as commander of the SSV Normandy, has been trying for several years to convince the galactic council that a threat is coming. Now the Reapers, an ancient race of humongous genocidal robot squids, have arrived to cull the galaxy of organic life—and the galaxy is not prepared. It's up to Shepard to unite the races in preparation for the apocalypse, and that's what you'll spend most of this game doing—much as you spent most of ME 2 preparing for the "suicide mission" at the end.
The Reapers couldn't be the only villains, though, or the game would be too repetitive, or short, or focused, or some other thing that game developers try to avoid. So the pro-human group Cerberus reprises its original role as the bad guys—in ME 2 they were your allies, but in ME 1, you'll remember, they were simply terrorist cannon fodder. By the end of 3 they'll be squatting squarely in supervillain territory. The whole thing makes you feel sort of dirty for cooperating with them in the first place, a sentiment which Shepard expresses more than once
It's certainly something profound that, in a game about an entire galaxy uniting to fight a common threat, humanity's greatest enemy is itself.