Sacrifice. It's Mass Effect 3's major theme, and rightly so. After all, the reapers were coming--it was only a matter of time. And now, those sentient space vessels are here, and with them, a galaxy's worth of destruction. Mass Effect 3 brings the sound and the fury, but these aren't meaningless shows of laser fire and alien devastation. The series has earned its right to showcase such destruction by drawing us close to its characters and teaching us of its universe.
Mass Effect was about time and place; you discovered the Milky Way's landmarks and races, guided by memorable characters like Tali and Garrus, who served as representatives of their cultures. Mass Effect 2 was about people; you learned more about old friends and made new ones, and drew each of them close to your heart. Mass Effect 3 fearlessly manipulates those personal bonds, forcing you to make difficult choices and consider the greater good--even when the greater good isn't always clear. The game is structured less like Mass Effect 2 and more like Dragon Age II: three dramatic acts, each concluding with major events that might leave you in tears, or at very least, shivering from the emotional impact.
Mass Effect 3 is focused more on plot than the previous installments were, and at first, you might miss Mass Effect 2's more obvious personal touch. You meet some new characters, but you develop few new meaningful relationships. A couple of notable exceptions aside, your party members are familiar faces, and as Commander Shepard, you aren't traveling the galaxy seeking individual crew members, but rather the assistance of entire races. Some of the plot devices seem a bit transparent; what are the chances that Shepard would just happen to find an old acquaintance on almost every random planet? But once the plot is in motion, the human element returns, and poignantly so. Mass Effect 3 frequently reminds us that the loss of a single shining soul often takes on more meaning than a planetwide massacre. (After all, what carried more emotional weight in Star Wars: Obi-Wan's death or Alderaan's destruction?)
Like Star Wars, Mass Effect 3 is an incredibly fulfilling story that deftly balances plot, character, conflict, and resolution. After a short exposition, an opening combat scenario cleverly combines the "big" of a reaper attack on Earth with the "small" of a single death. That one death haunts Shepard until the moving and jaw-dropping conclusion. While there is plenty of action, developer BioWare subverts our expectations. Every so often, the shooting heats up, only to lead to a climax that comes not in the form of an explosion or a boss fight, but in a simple quiet conversation, or a few limping steps.
The reapers aren't your only adversary in Mass Effect 3: the pro-human organization known as Cerberus, led by the Illusive Man, complicates the conflict. Your ultimate goal is to rid the galaxy of the reaper threat with the use of a superweapon, yet the Illusive Man has different ideas and goes to some disturbing lengths to implement them. Discovering his goals and means is one of Mass Effect 3's better story threads, in part because the Illusive Man is such a strong presence. Actor Martin Sheen brings a calm, chilling strength to the character, but also exudes a touch of vulnerability when the Illusive Man is forced to confront his own demons. Not that Sheen outshines any given actor. A few inessential characters aside, the galaxy's inhabitants seem authentic. You hear stoicism, fear, or resignation in the simplest of line readings.
The series' focus on player choice is as vital as it has ever been in Mass Effect 3. The effects of choices in previous installments have an impact in extraordinary ways here, more so than in Mass Effect 2. Sometimes the nods to prior choices are subtle. A lover might fondly recall her previous entanglement with you, while still supporting your new romantic interest. At other times, the impact is far more dramatic. Entire quests, conversations, and characters shift as a result of your actions in previous games (not to mention, your decisions in this one). As a result, you might be delighted by characters other players never meet, share intimate talks with crewmates other players never interact with, and deal with decisions other players never make. And as in previous Mass Effect games, your entire attitude when choosing dialogue options (paragon or renegade) can drive you to conclusions other players could never consider.
This intense narrative is met with an equally intense presentation. Mass Effect 3 is more atmospheric and darker in tone than even Mass Effect 2 was. You hear more expletives and raise your voice in desperation far more often, and the environments you do battle in reflect the rising pitch. An ominous storm encroaches, giving battle an even greater sense of urgency. The sheer darkness of a subterranean ruin enhances the sense of danger. The blue and rose bands of light that periodically stretch across the screen may seem old hat after Mass Effect 2, but the trick remains effective. That blue is also the color of Garrus' eyepiece, Liara's skin, and a harvester's glowing lights. That rose is the color of Wrex's armor, Mordin's forehead, and the Normandy's war room terminals. Both hues are used in the game's various interface elements, which makes other colors more effective when used. Witness, for example, the starkness of Jack's black-and-white ensemble and how it contrasts with the rich colors around her.
These are exquisite details, though other details come across as a bit sloppy in comparison. The frame rate stutters on occasion. Camera movement and viewing angles occasionally go askew; the camera might jitter in weird ways during cutscene transitions, or focus on a wall instead of the character speaking. A scripting error could force you to restart a mission should an event not trigger properly. And if you play on the PlayStation 3, you could run into a crash or two. These flaws stand out because Mass Effect 3 is otherwise such an elegant experience.
It's also packed with action. The basic third-person shooting is the same as Mass Effect 2's, though it has been given a few minor tweaks. You can now deliver a charged-up melee attack, for example, and slide around corners while still in cover. Such mechanics don't drastically change the flow of battle, which is still occasionally sullied by returning Mass Effect combat quirks: occasional cover glitches, unintelligent friendlies that crouch on top of crates, and enemies that thoughtlessly tumble against walls and end up going nowhere as a result.
On the other hand, the improvement in level design is remarkable. Unlike the previous game, Mass Effect 3 isn't about "take cover behind the obvious barriers, shoot the enemies that predictably emerge, and then do it again." Combat areas are more expansive and some enemies are more aggressive, so not only are you given room to move about, but you must use that space. One such enemy is the banshee, which destroys you in a single grab if you let it come too close. These shrieking horrors join charging brutes, dogging you in tandem in a memorable combat sequence and providing a challenge the previous games lacked, at least on normal difficulty.
And so you can't always trust a single cover spot to provide sanctuary--not when you have three guys in humongous robot suits blindsiding you. You sprint and tumble about, sliding into cover and using cryo ammo to freeze a creepy cannibal before smashing it with a powerful shock wave. As you level up, you eventually make choices on how to upgrade your powers. Do you increase the Pull ability's recharge speed, or do you learn to launch two Pull projectiles at once? Don't assume that Mass Effect 3's missions are all about guns and space magic, though. A pistol isn't much help when you traverse a virtual space made of neon cubes and floating platforms. Facing an old nemesis isn't a battle of guns--it's a battle of wits.
Nevertheless, you do a lot of shooting, and Mass Effect 3's primary customization element is in its huge supply of guns and the large number of modifications you can make to them. There are five weapon types and loads of choices within those types, each with its own pros and cons. You find weapons and mods in mission areas and can purchase them from vendors on the Citadel or from a terminal on your ship, the Normandy SR-2. You don't just need to consider your play style when choosing weapons prior to battle--you also need to consider how their weight might affect your ability to perform biotic and tech skills. The heavier your loadout, the less often you can send the bad guys flying into the air.
You may also spend credits to level up these weapons, which gives Mass Effect 3 a fine sense of progression. A dinky pistol and submachine gun lead to assault rifles upgraded with scopes and sniper rifles with damage modifiers. And if you've never found much use for certain weapons, the broader level design may have you rethinking your approach. If you were never inclined to use a sniper rifle, now you can find a good vantage point to zoom in and let loose. You may never have let an enemy get too close before, but a nice shotgun and a melee attachment can make it a snap to fend off hawkish husks that intrude on your personal space.
It's worth noting that Mass Effect 3 has added a notable feature to the series, but has lost another. The Xbox 360 version supports the Kinect peripheral, allowing you to call out commands to teammates ("Liara: Warp!"), perform your own skills ("Pull!"), interact with objects ("Open!"), or choose dialogue options. This is all absolutely functional, and sometimes even enjoyable. For instance, calling out to a team member to let loose a biotic power means you don't have to pause the game to pull up the radial menu. On the other hand, there's enough of a delay when speaking your wishes aloud that it's more efficient just to push a button. The feature lost, on all platforms, is that of hacking minigames. They were fine diversions, but Mass Effect 3 varies its pace enough that you won't likely miss them.
Mass Effect 3 isn't all talking and shooting. Outside of combat, you walk around the Citadel, picking up odd jobs and eavesdropping on diplomats and refugees. There are some wonderful moments to be had here: having a bizarre conversation with a virtual copy of yourself, checking in on an old ally in bad health, and punching an old nemesis square in the face. Refugees mourn for the lost and missing, gazing at a collection of photographs that serves as an ad hoc memorial. Again, it's the subtleties that pull you in. A crewmate gets a tattoo to celebrate his newfound ambitions, you ponder the meaning of a human-on-AI romance, and you grab a drink in a busy nightclub. It's a pity that the entertaining lesser races--the Hanar and the Elcor in particular--are in such short supply. Mass Effect 3 isn't big on comedic interludes.
The side missions you pick up at the Citadel aren't all that inspired. In some cases, you wander around searching for objects to interact with. In others, you head to the Normandy and take to the galactic map. The way you zoom about the galaxy is much as it was in the last installment, though the details differ. No longer do you scan planets looking for resources. Instead, you scan solar regions to identify planets of interest. From here, you scan the planet itself, drop a probe onto its surface, and collect the artifact or object in question. This busywork is complicated by reapers, who appear in these solar systems after a few seconds and swarm and destroy you if you don't make a swift escape. This game of cat and mouse is more annoyance than entertainment, getting in the way when you wish you could just get the job done.
Galactic exploration is important if you want to tackle the reapers with the might of the galaxy behind you. The more side missions you conquer, the more fulfilling the finale becomes, though there is another way to prepare: playing Mass Effect 3's online multiplayer. The more you play, the greater the galaxy's state of readiness. There's only one mode, the standard "defeat progressively stronger waves of enemies" mode, and it's functional, even fun. Tossing grenades and incinerating ravagers as a unified group is a blast, especially when an objective draws you to a central point to defend an area or focus on a specific enemy. The cooperative play isn't particularly special, however; out of context, the action is fine but lacks the heft of Gears of War 3, or Uncharted 3's speedy tempo. Spots of lag can also hinder the experience, however, as can the possibility of having a few enemies get stuck in some unknown place and forcing you to restart the match.
The multiplayer's overall structure is more interesting than the action. You choose from one of six classes and level them separately, and earn credits as you play. You use these credits to unlock packs that contain a number of random items--special ammo, a weapon mod, an on-the-spot ammo refill, and so on. (You can also spend real money on them if you are so inclined.) Because so many of these items are expendable, and because the flow of rewards is slow but steady, you might be drawn to stick with Mass Effect 3's multiplayer even after you've reaped its single-player benefit.
Mass Effect 3 has its flaws, but they're of minimal consequence in a game this enthralling. By filling the Milky Way with vibrant, singular characters, the series has given you a reason to care about its fate. Ostensibly, Mass Effect 3 is about saving the galaxy, but a galaxy is just a thing--an idea, an abstract, a meaningless collection of plutinos, planets, and pulsars. But the game is actually about saving people. And there's a big difference there. Watching cities burn from orbit tugs at your heartstrings; watching a beloved companion die cuts to the bone. Whether you possess a storied history with the series or come with a clean slate, Mass Effect 3 expertly entangles you in its universe and inspires you to care about its future.