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.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE GUNS
While Mass Effect 2 was a massive overhaul of the first game, there's less of a jump between the second and third. Combat, dialogue and exploration feel nearly identical, although Shepard's got a few new moves, like a valuable dodge roll, that make ME 3 feel even more like Gears of War than ME 2 did. And I mean that in a good way. Aside from that, the Commander remains as stiff as ever in his normal movements.
You can still combine different biotic and tech powers, apply ammo mods like fire and freeze and direct your allies to take or hold positions. But there are a few basic additions and changes that make the combat side of the game a lot more enjoyable. For example, weapon customization, noticeably absent from ME 2, has triumphantly returned as one of the best (re-)additions. There's an enormous number of guns and armor to purchase from the Normandy or around the Citadel, each unique in look and feel.
A new weapon loadout system rewards players who carry fewer weapons with a bonus to the speed at which their powers recharge. And upgrade benches found throughout various locations allow you to upgrade and customize weapons with attachments like scopes, stabilizers and extended barrels. Overall, there's a much greater focus on customization and other RPG elements, which should please fans left wanting by Mass Effect 2's more streamlined combat and inventory. Even different armor pieces come with specific attributes and bonuses now. My Shepard ended up looking like a sad mix between Captain EO and Tron, but he sure could kick ass.
Bioware did everything they could to make battles feel as epic as possible. There are always ships zooming by in the sky, gargantuan Reapers bleeding lasers in the distance, and a constant influx of allies and enemies. Much more than in previous games, they've mastered the art of the set piece, of making you feel like one force in a larger conflict—even when you're leading the charge. And the few times you do get to go head-to-head with a skyscraper-sized Reaper are exhilarating; there's just something awesome about fighting an enemy that enormous.
A FEW EXTRA ARMS AND LEGS
It wouldn't be a Bioware game without plenty of side quests and other distractions. Many are worthwhile, while many more are simple fetch quests or random planet-scanning tasks. Those have been made slightly less tedious since the last game, though many will still complain of their dullness. I can't argue with that, but sometimes it feels relaxing to explore the galaxy from the comfort of the Normandy, scanning for artifacts and reading the planets' often weirdly detailed descriptions and histories. Besides—it's totally optional.
Multiplayer, a new edition in 3, has players teaming up against waves of enemies while completing various objectives (mostly "hit these switches"). Credits earned let you upgrade weapons and equipment. Unless the combat is your favorite part of the game, multiplayer will likely serve as little more than a distraction. Then again, your progress in multiplayer can translate to a better campaign ending (in case you made some poor decisions in the previous games and don't feel like replaying them). It's up to you how much import you want to put on that.
But let's be honest—you didn't play the first two games because you were hoping all along they'd tack on some co-op play. You're invested in this series for the details, the drama, and the characters. If you haven't played the first two, it's worthless to play this one. The joy is not in the archetypal hero-unites-enemies-against-even-worse-enemy plot, but in the nuanced and personal stories told on that backdrop. If you haven't met this cast before, then watching them parading around in front of you isn't going to do much good, is it?
Never before has a video game trilogy remembered players' decisions, actions and relationships from the very beginning to the final chapter. By the finale, your choices will have snowballed to affect events you couldn't possibly have foreseen. Every time something doesn't go your way you'll rack your brain trying to figure out where you went wrong and what you could have done differently. There's a lingering sense that your version of events is distinctly yours, and that's an amazing feeling for a virtual world to create.
No matter what you personally think, Mass Effect will always be considered one of the greatest achievements of this generation of games. It's a massive sci-fi universe, fleshed out through millennia of lore and scores of characters. And it totally explains what Bioware was actually thinking about while they were making Dragon Age 2.