It's about the journey, not the destination.
And Mass Effect 3's journey far outperforms its destination. Its now-infamously terrible ending is made worse by the extended edition DLC, which fills the unnecessarily poetic and wholly nonsensical finale with painful exposition that saps any energy or mystery from the game's narrative. It's the stale crumbs at the bottom of the cookie jar, the pathetic prize hidden within the Cracker Jack box.
But a disappointing fifteen minutes, even if it serves as the conclusion to a trilogy three games and hundreds of player hours in the making, cannot diminish Mass Effect 3's power, its status as the most heartfelt and ironically human RPG Bioware has ever made.
Mass Effect 3's focus is no longer on its imposing foes, the massive Reapers whose bodies loom ominously over battlefields, their crayfish-legs crushing civilizations underfoot. It's instead on its companions, an eclectic collection of lizard-people, robots and others, some of which have fought alongside player-character Shepard since the beginning. The game plays to its character-driven strength, emphasizing missions that deal not with the carnage of the Reaper war, but with the moment-to-moment companionship, the bond that develops between brothers-in-arms.
On that front Mass Effect 3's levity is its greatest strength. The grittiness of Mass Effect 2 was exhausting, both visually (environments had more brown than puddle of mud) and tonally, as characters all took themselves so seriously. Mass Effect 3 knows when to have fun, to poke at its characters through often sitcom-esque situations that make friendships feel real, not desperate.
One mission in particular starts with a meal in a sushi restaurant, smoothly transitions through a shootout in a used-space-car dealership, climaxes in a battle with an evil clone, and concludes with a booze-fueled party. It's beyond silly, but the ability to relax with your crew, to bond with them through simply “hanging out” instead of through constant straight-faced conflict creates an attachment to these awkwardly animated mannequins.
That's not to say that the combat isn't deserving of its own recognition. Mass Effect 3 is a game that demands to be played on the highest difficulty, where the otherwise straightforward third-person combat transforms into a flurry of explosive biotic abilities (the Mass Effect universe's version of the Force), tech-based powers, and bullets. Its polish stands nowhere near the level of Gears of War, but its third-person shooting is made all the more thrilling by outstanding enemy variety that forces the use of every tool in your arsenal. Everyday gun-grunts are a rarity, as nearly every enemy comes with a “twist” (like turning invisible or consuming the corpses of fallen enemies for stat boosts) that forces the player's hand into creative combat when pressed into a corner.
And there certainly is plenty to shoot. Mass Effect 3 is rife with side quests, most of which feature in-depth stories beyond the level of “go here, kill a thing.” They feel like a proto-Witcher 3, serving not as a checklist but rather exhibiting Bioware's ahead-of-its-time approach to world-building. Though some simplistic fetch-quests are technically present, even they, framed within the overall context of the Reaper war, take on a certain significance.
Mass Effect has always been known for its non-traditional narrative structure, but Mass Effect 3's feels the most valuable. While ME2's Suicide Mission inconsistently encouraged (through loyalty missions) and discouraged (through killing off crew) questing, Mass Effect 3 plays like a slow burn, a gradual buildup of strength in a desperate attempt to face off against gods.
It's irritating that Bioware (or, more likely, EA) decided that you either need to buy DLC or play the mediocre multiplayer to be able to gain enough resources to get the “perfect ending,” but the DLC is well-worth the price of admission. Though its sub-stories add little meaningful content to Mass Effect lore, and in one case give away far too much, they're worth playing for no other reason than to be able to spend more time with the Normandy crew.
And in the end, that crew is all that matters. Through interactivity videogames unlock emotions never before accessible to any art form. Some capture triumph. Others freedom. But Mass Effect 3 captures the emotion of comradery, of friendship, in an intimate way unrivaled by any other piece of art, game or otherwise. It has its flaws, its ending the most heinous, but Mass Effect 3 is a spectacular triumph, and a shining beacon to why videogames have a bright artistic future.