Let's start this off by pointing out that, if you haven't played at least one of the other Mass Effect games, there is no point whatsoever in you playing Mass Effect 3. Despite BioWare claiming this is a perfect entry point into the series – which was a statement that always made my eyebrows twitch in confusion like a pair of startled lemmings – it isn't. At all. While you'll get the gist of what's going on, not knowing the characters or the setting and having no familiarity with them or reason to care about anything that's going on will make it a rather stale experience.
In short: unless Garrus is your bro, unless you're desperate to see behind Tali's mask, and unless you're wondering what the hell happened to President Bartlet's eyes, forget about playing this game. Go and pick the others up, play them back to back, and then import your character into Mass Effect 3. Go on. Off you go.
Have they gone? Right. Let's talk game.
Mass Effect 3 does a fair bit right, but it does two things spectacularly. For starters, if you import in a character that's been through the first two games, the series on the whole is – without hyperbole – one of the single most cohesive and coherent experiences in gaming. Decisions you made in the first game will come back to haunt you, and characters you left alive will return, for better or worse. This is your galaxy, and it's how you made it. It might all be smoke and mirrors, but it's really thick smoke and really reflective mirrors.
The second thing it does really well is deal with character arcs. Some of the new characters are well-defined, with interesting personalities and heart-breaking backstories of their own, and you'll get a bit of alone time with all of the characters who've survived thus far. Some of these scenes are humorous, some are touching, and others are simply rather well-written moments that remind you of the bonds you've established with these figures over the course of the last two games.
You might have expected “ending the series” to be one of the two things Mass Effect 3 does spectacularly, but, um... not exactly. By now you'll have almost certainly seen the controversy that's arisen about the game's ending, and while I don't have 15,000 words spare to discuss it in detail, it's fair to say that some are a bit disappointed. The disappointment mostly stems from the game's final 15 minutes, though, and there are still plenty who actually like the ending as it stands.
Putting that aside and taking the game as a series of endings on the whole – which it pretty much is, as it wraps up almost every piece of plot that's been flapping loose since the first game – it works hard to give you choices that feel like they have meaning. Just about every major vein of plot that's been bubbling away under the surface since the first game erupts here, and your decisions (with the help of any reputation that you've built up through side-quests) will change the course of the galaxy.
The only problem with these decisions is that the “good” options are usually both fairly obvious and without much in the way of negative consequences. Characters might try to bully you into taking a more selfish route, or warn you of problems that may ensue, but by and large few of these potential issues will actually come to pass. It's not that I want more characters to die, exactly, but if I spent five minutes weighing up my options before deciding to sacrifice a long-standing companion for the greater good, having them actually survive makes my decision feel hollow. Still: there are plenty of heart-rending decisions to be made, and plenty of opportunity to screw up. Just not as much as I might like.
The actual gameplay is pretty much lifted wholesale from Mass Effect 2, with the action split largely between self-contained combat missions (which play out, in Mass Effect 2 style, as a third-person cover shooter) and wandering the Citadel, which serves as the game's hub. You can venture through space, dodge Reapers, scan planets, and complete side quests - though most of the latter are either simple fetch quests, or are related to a past party member. This obvious split between combat and everything else makes the game feel divided into discrete sections, but while the flow is a bit lacking, the actual action itself is good fun.
There've been a few improvements to the combat mechanics since Mass Effect 2. Melee plays a more sizeable role, now, and levelling up your characters offers far more in the way of choice, with all of the skill trees offering a variety of either/or branches to pick from. Enemies, too, have been given a bit of an upgrade; each of the three forces you'll face off against have more varied troop types than before in addition to a few particularly nasty big enemies that can, on occasion, induce genuine panic. The Banshees that turn up towards the end spring immediately to mind, being that they're pretty much the poster-child for enemies which require you to have a spare pair of trousers on hand.
But the combat mechanics are fundamentally the same as Mass Effect 2, and so you'll probably have a good idea of how much you're likely to enjoy it. If your Shepard is a Soldier, it's still a fairly rote cover-shooter. If he or she is a Vanguard, then the combat still resembles a lethal (and hilarious) game of pinball; if you went Infiltrator, then you've still got nifty stealth abilities and some nice boosts to sniper rifle damage; and so on and so forth. Importing your Shepard gives you the option to switch class, however, so if you were unhappy with how combat worked in Mass Effect 2, you can always try something else while carrying on with the same story.
The problem with lifting the gameplay from Mass Effect 2, though, is that the game never really gives you a sense of the galaxy at war outside of the dialogue and the environments. Flawed as a lot of Mass Effect 1's gameplay was, it gave a real sense of a vast galaxy in which a lot was happening. There were a huge number of planets to explore, a number of quest hubs to wander through, and a huge amount to do, with a ridiculous number of enemy types – even if most of them were simple reskins. Mass Effect 2 pared things down to three small-ish quest hubs, reduced the enemy types (but focused more on making them individual), and generally made things feel more personal – which was absolutely fine, because the main thrust of the game was to build a small, intimate squad.
Mass Effect 3 takes its cues from the second game and retains the smaller, narrower focus. This works fine in gameplay terms, but poses a bit of a thematic problem when the game's focus is on the entire galaxy being embroiled in a war for survival. Indeed, outside of the story missions, there's never any sense of a looming threat or impending doom, and it's pretty rare for even those sections to make the player feel anything of the sort.
Once you've finished the single-player story (and possibly spent 30 minutes venting your rage at the ending on the internet) you're not quite done with the game, though, because there's still the multiplayer to consider. It's a co-operative four-player Horde mode in which you try to survive against 11 waves of enemies, spiced up with “missions” every few waves. You might have to take and hold one location, or kill off certain enemies within a time limit, and these help keep things interesting.
As you play you earn experience points and credits, the latter of which can be used to purchase packs of random weapons, upgrades, and character classes. This is addictive in much the same way as slot machines – you might get some utterly useless items, or you might get a fantastic new shotgun and a brand new character class to start levelling. While you're unlikely to spend an entire evening embroiled in the multiplayer, it's an entertaining way to kill an hour every now and then, and regular bonus weekends – offering unique rewards for completing unique objectives – should ensure a relatively high server population, and give reason to head back to it every now and then.
I've said “but” and “the problem with” a lot throughout this review, and I'm not sure that's entirely fair. Mass Effect 3 is a good game – the combat's enjoyable, and I rather love the melodramatic writing and the characters. I can't think of another game which has given me such a sense of having tailored the events through choices in the past two games, either. It's just that it's the closing part of a trilogy with which players will have likely spent upwards of 60 hours, and we all have our own ideas as to how we wanted to see things play out. Invariably, a lot of us are going to be disappointed, and there's a constant nagging sense that it could've been better if only things were done slightly differently.
There's no doubt in my mind that you should play this. If you've played the first two Mass Effect games, then you owe it to yourself to do so. Even if you're not a fan of the ending, it's worth it solely to once again see your characters; to see how things turn out for them; to see the impact your decisions have had on the galaxy; and to decide how to resolve all of the plot threads that have been tucked away since the series started in 2007. If you haven't played the other two then you really should: as a trilogy that flows together and remembers the decision you've made, Mass Effect is pretty much unparalleled, and it's all combined with likeable characters, decent dialogue, and a rather good sci-fi universe.
In short, it's an excellent trilogy. A few disappointments in the third part fail to lessen the impact of the rest of it, and they certainly don't mean you should skip the whole thing.
So buy it, play it, enjoy it, and possibly shed a little tear now that the series is over. Just don't expect to be entirely happy with how everything pans out.