Taking a moment to look at the new memorial wall on the Normandy is just as quiet and solemn a moment as it is exciting and gratifying. On one hand, it will force you to remember the great characters that you lost, and make you think of how they may have impacted the final stretch of your journey. On the other hand, it shows you that the game remembers; a choice that I made five years ago that resulted in the series' first major character death still echoes well into the third game. Mass Effect 3 is absolutely filled to the brim with moments like these, and whether they're equally reflective or exponentially bigger and badder, they end up creating an unforgettable testament to the world you've shaped, and the character you've built in Commander Shepard.
It's precisely this heavily branching mythos that makes it nearly impossible to provide any kind of plot summary. The absolute most basic overview I can provide is that Shepard will find him or herself on Earth at the outset of the game. The long-awaited Reaper invasion arrives swiftly, and Shepard must soon venture out into the greater galaxy to raise support for the war effort to stop the synthetic menace and reclaim Earth. Ultimately, however, each player's Commander Shepard will be unlike the next, and the plot will end up varying in ways both large and small. Here the genius of Mass Effect 3, and the series as a whole comes into full view. There's an intricate web of choice and consequence on display that's dictated not just by major the Paragon/Renegade choices of past and present; new bits of narrative are revealed based on the interactions you've had with major characters, the order in which you complete missions, who you take with you on said missions, your thoroughness in completing quests, and the outcome of Mass Effect 2's brilliant suicide mission. The number of elements the game keeps track of and factors into the story is simply awe-inspiring.
Though Mass Effect 3 has been heavily marketed as easy to get into even without having had played through the previous two games, it's not recommended. As the last game in a trilogy, much of the experience thrives on dealing with the long-lasting effects of all the decisions you've made thus far, and BioWare does an excellent job of showing you what all your decisions have lead up to. If you choose to make a new Shepard rather than import a character from Mass Effect 2, you'll encounter some extra exposition to get you up to speed, but the experience will no doubt lose a lot of its impact. If you haven't played the first two and have a sudden interest with the arrival of Mass Effect 3, I strongly recommend you play through them first. The original is a little hard to play at this point, but its storytelling is still top-notch (no to mention it's short), and Mass Effect 2 is just as ambitious and spectacular as it ever was.
The game's main campaign is comprised of what are by far the most well-constructed and memorable levels the series has yet seen. The action in these missions is relentless, and the environments you'll tear through are usually filled with visual wonders. Most importantly however, most all story missions are opened and book-ended with impactful moments of dialogue and choice that both play up the connections you've fostered to the series' large cast of characters while also leaving you huge decisions that go above and beyond any choices the previous Mass Effect games have offered.
There are also numerous side quests to hunt down. Some are so phenomenal that most players will no doubt see them as inseparable from the main campaign while others are a little humbler in terms of presentation. N7 missions introduce you to the game's multiplayer maps and give narrative reasons for why they should be constantly defended in the game's wave defense mode, dialogue-driven quests on the Citadel usually reunite you with old friends and offer great insight into some of the war effort's smaller concerns, and scanning missions make a return in a much quicker, more accessible form. While not all of these quests reach the pinnacle of presentation and design that the most significant ones do, the rewards they offer in terms of story and experience points make them worth checking out.
Mass Effect 3's final level is made apparent after only a few hours. Much like its predecessor, Mass Effect 3 uses the foreboding presence of its finale as a means to incentivize seeking out side-missions to increase your preparedness. Readiness is tracked in two ways: gathering War Assets by completing singleplayer quests increases Effective Military Strength, and Galactic Readiness is boosted by playing multiplayer matches. However, unlike the previous title's brilliantly divergent coda, Mass Effect 3's last mission will play out in pretty much the same way regardless of the two ratings. At no point are you shown how each of your War Assets helped you in the end, or how playing those multiplayer matches helped against the Reaper threat. Luckily, much this content is rewarding enough to warrant experiencing for its own sake, but it's a true shame that BioWare failed to follow up on Mass Effect 2's ingenious suicide mission, especially since increasing these ratings is made out to be of the utmost importance.
Though its predecessor made great strides towards delivering a combat system on par with AAA cover-based action titles, Mass Effect 3 easily takes a spot in the pantheon of third-person shooters - a rare accomplishment amongst story-heavy games. Beyond taking cover and issuing simple squad commands, the crux of the game's combat is its six distinct cla.sses. Though there are certain shared abilities, each cla.ss has two or three exclusive special powers that drastically change your approach to the game's intense combat. The Vanguard, for example, thrives on close-quarters combat thanks to a forceful charge move that will simultaneously give you a shield boost and knock your foes back a few yards. Meanwhile, the Engineer plays a more defensive role, using stun powers and a deployable drone to fend off enemies. Most importantly, however, you'll never feel as if you've chosen the wrong cla.ss despite variances in tactics, each cla.ss is capable of dishing out plenty of damage.
While the expertly-crafted cla.sses are at the center of Mass Effect 3's action, the combat is plenty thrilling in its own right. BioWare claimed that combat would be decidedly faster and more challenging, and that appears to be absolutely true. Even on normal settings, many firefights are downright difficult, but feelings of frustration will likely never set in - mastering the positioning and tactics required to best the game's most challenging encounters is always a joy. Additionally, the game's faster pace, cinematic melee attacks, weighty gun sound effects (courtesy of DICE), and vast enemy variety all add up to make it one of the best third-person shooters on the market.
Though Mass Effect 3 is just as unconcerned with variety as its predecessor was, the expert ebb-and-flow pacing keeps the proceedings fresh and engaging throughout. When you aren't mowing down hordes of baddies, you'll be wandering around either the Citadel or the once-again refurbished Normandy to chat with companions or take on some simpler, quieter quests. Thanks to great writing, delivery, and hopefully the player's connection to the Mass Effect mythos, these scenes always resonate. With the stakes higher than ever, BioWare's usual M.O. of punctuating stretches of extreme action and harrowing decision-making with moments of reflective quietude works better here than it ever has, and you'll quickly forget that there really isn't much to do in the game besides walking, talking, choosing, and killing.
Luckily, traditional role-playing elements are a bit more prevalent than they were in Mass Effect 2, and their presence adds a bit of depth to the game's rather straight-forward proceedings. Weapons can now be slotted with upgrades, armor is much more customizable and focused on stats, and branching skill trees offer fun ways to tailor your cla.ss more to your liking. It's also great to see just how well these added RPG flourishes are balanced with the game's skill-over-stats combat; your equipment and specializations definitely have tangible effects on the game's battles, but enemy encounters don't lose any of their twitch-based ferocity in the process.
This mix of weighty combat and light role-playing also serves as the backbone for the game's surprisingly strong multiplayer mode. Though many originally scoffed at the idea of Mass Effect's own four-player spin on multiplayer gaming's latest craze, the Horde-esque wave defense mode, any amount of hands-on time with Mass Effect 3's slick shooting mechanics will show just how well-suited it is to an action-centric game type. The premise here is simple: players must work together survive ten increasingly difficult waves of enemies, scrambling from their defensive positions every few rounds to complete a simple objective. Though there is only one mode of play, and this formula is never changed, it's endlessly entertaining not only because it's a pure distillation of the game's incredible combat, but also because of its challenge and addictive rewards system. On the game's Bronze (low) difficulty, matches feel like simple run-and-gun affairs, but should you go up to Silver or Gold you'll find that excellent teamwork and communication are all but required.
The multiplayer also has its own unique spin on online gaming's now-standard means of artificially boosting replayability. Experience points are used to upgrade skills much in the same way they are in the game's singleplayer component, complete with branching skill trees that lead to further specialization. The credits you earn, meanwhile, unlock equipment packages that can contain anything from spare ammo reserves and medi-gel to new characters and weapons. The contents of the packages are determined mostly by chance, and it's this element of randomization that can end up being the multiplayer's biggest frustration as often as it can be its biggest draw. There's a certain MMO sensibility to it as striking gold with a lucky pack feels immensely rewarding, while receiving nothing of interest for all your hard work is a huge disappointment. Still, the multiplayer is superbly crafted, and is an absolute blast even if you don't always get the loot you want.
Mass Effect 3 is not the most technically stunning game on the market. Not by a long shot. The game is running on an engine that's at least five or six years old at this point, and small graphical glitches aren't uncommon. Luckily the game's art direction is more cohesive and inventive than ever before. The game expertly mixes the ultra-clean old-school space opera aesthetic of the original with the dystopian grit and grime of Mass Effect 2. The game also doesn't shy away from ambitious set-pieces. Within the first few levels alone you'll encounter Reapers as tall as skyscrapers and get a front-row seat to a smoldering planet while fighting on its neighboring moon. The engine is old and imperfect to be sure, but BioWare pushes it to its limits to fantastic results. Though I've already mentioned many of the game's strengths in terms of audio, intuitive overall sound design, and newcomer composer Clint Mansell's fittingly bleak soundtrack bolster the presentation even further.
One of Mass Effect 3's most awe-inspiring qualities is its exceptional pacing. Somehow the game manages to give you the sense that it's sprinting head-on into its inevitable conclusion, all the while giving you a mature, restrained view of the impact you've had on its universe. And though it's undeniably frustrating that the endgame doesn't take your authorship into account, BioWare nevertheless accomplishes their goal for the Mass Effect series with the utmost success. You'll step away from Mass Effect 3 with a clear sense of how the ideals you've instilled in your Commander Shepard have spun a wildly branching narrative yarn into a singular, unforgettable story. Just as soon as I finished my first playthrough I went back to the original and started another, pondering the innumerable ways in which it could all be different.