If you are reading this, there is a good chance you have played Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 and most of the DLC content already. If not, stop reading now and go buy ME1. Due to the nature of the trilogy, some spoilers from ME2 will sneak into this review. You have been warned. *waves stick at unbelievers*
For the rest, I am probably preaching to the choir: You have either finished ME3 and are here to troll me, or you are currently saving the galaxy from the Reapers. One year has passed since the events ending ME2 (a time-frame that will not be lost on those who bought The Arrival DLC). Shepard has been relieved of command due to relations with Cerberus and has been left to put on a bit while being off-duty.
That is, until the Reapers attack and all hell breaks loose on Earth. The Alliance Fleet is in disarray, Joker and EDI steal the Normandy from dry dock and Shepard is returned to active duty. The mission: get help from the races living on the Citadel and take Earth back from the Reapers. Shepard will need every scrap of help and resolve possible. Luckily there are friends, both old and new and a few reluctant former enemies that might, with some convincing, unite with Shepard to face the Reapers. If Shepard can balance all the politics and baying for blood, of course.
The problem with any sequel, specifically the ending of a trilogy, is keeping the level of epic action in place. ME1 and ME2 had some astounding moments and implications, and ME3 lives up to its predecessors. Besides the non-existent introduction to James, ME3 makes great use of previous choices that Shephard made, the ramifications of some of them affecting your war effort adversely. Characters remember you, either bearing a grudge or willing to do a favour for their saviour; making for a rich, immersive experience. Even the DLC of ME2 makes a difference, with those characters making an appearance, or reference to the events of the DLC. Fret not though, those that missed (or refuse to get) the DLC will be brought up to speed, albeit not with a perfect outcome. Those who did fork out for the DLC will be happy to know that their choices reflect in the game, and are generally a better outcome than if the DLC was skipped.
Continuing with the romantic theme of the previous titles, a few new crushes have been added, this time including the option for both same sex relationships. Loyalty is earned mostly through conversations rather than arbitrary missions, making for believable characters. Once earned, Shepard can choose to use the signature ability of that character. Don’t be surprised if your lovers from ME1 and ME2 have issues with your infidelity. The new characters added to the ship crew, from party members to ship-bound lackeys, have interesting stories and backgrounds.
The resource collection modes of ME1 and ME2 have been removed completely. With access to more shops in the Citadel, equipment and upgrades can all be bought using credits. The planet scan interface is still there, but only for finding anomalies. To find anomalies, the Normandy can do solar system scans, which run the risk of alerting the Reapers to your location. (Yes, we all are going to miss planet surveys and the Mako.)
Weapon upgrades and modifications are back, allowing players to add a little extra kick to their favourite weapon. Enjoy that light sniper rifle that doesn’t reload after every shot, but want it to hurt a little bit more? Spend some credits in your armoury to improve your favourite weapons, or turn something lethal into an unfair advantage. Besides upgrading the version of the weapon, every gun in the game can have two modifications applied to it. These range from scopes to armour penetrating rounds to bayonets for some mêlée carnage. These modifications are bought or found during missions, and also come in various versions, making hunting for them a rewarding task. The weapon model even changes to reflect the modifications.
Power development and levelling have taken a turn, with each skill broken down into 7 parts, rather than 4. The first 3 parts of a skill are standard, with the final 4 being a binary choice. Will your incinerate do more damage, or hit more opponents? Would you prefer faster cool down times, or have it do extra bonus damage to frozen targets? This extra level of customisation means the squad can be tailored to suit your play style as well as your weaknesses. Powers also have more interactions now, allowing for some impressive explosions and effects.
Using the Microsoft Kinect to order squad members around and to make conversation choices is a great addition, as it never feels compulsory. There is something satisfying about voicing the renegade conversation options out loud. A little awkward if you have other people within earshot of you commanding your squad around. It mostly works really well, even though my Kinect still picks up a few game noises as squad commands or conversation choices.
Besides losing the film-grain effect completely ME3 still looks and feels correct, while improving on several points. Some may find the facial structure changes irritating, as you may lose your ‘face’ from ME2, but all in all, the change makes for more expressive faces and characters.
ME3 sticks to the shooter with RPG elements style, with a few changes. The sprint function works better, and a double tap when approaching cover results in Shepard vaulting over it without losing too much speed. Some enemies employ smoke screens, making a target lock impossible. The health bar no longer refills, but rather only recharges the current segment of health, making the use of cover even more vital. Shepard no longer carries a heavy weapon into every fight, making exploration more rewarding, as well as making some fire-fights more memorable and perhaps a bit harder than those battles in ME2 when all one had to do is switch to the Cain and shoot the big bug/ robot/ alien/ computer/ human.
To address the space elephant in the room, the ending of the game; The posts about Casey Hudson have shown that many fans are angry. Perhaps they are right to be angry. Personally, and I can see the torch-bearers from here, I loved the ending. It hit me in the pit of my gut and made me sit and think. Yes, maybe it could have been longer, or perhaps explain itself more, but I have always enjoyed fantasy novels that use this method of storytelling to end an otherwise infinite franchise. The story ends and it is fitting, considering everything Shepard has gone through to reach this point. Our doomed hero has faced insurmountable odds, has died, come back and lost many loved ones, all to save the galaxy. Again.
With Shepard being allowed to choose what weapons to use in battle, with weight slowing power recharge times, Shepard finally feels like a true war veteran. The gun and cover system is done well, with cover areas looking less obvious than they did in ME2. The AI feels more realistic, working to flank or corner you. With all those prospector elements removed, Shepard spends more time doing what is important:
shopping, drinking, dancing and getting laid saving the galaxy. Again. A bit too much time is spent travelling back and forth to the Citadel. Also, depending on how you choose to do N7 missions and the like, expect a bit more disc-swapping than in ME2.
Design and Presentation: 8.5/10
While having the Codex and Journal combined was a nice feature, the Journal could have included more information or updated a bit more often, especially for side quests. The game looks amazing, with no texture pop-in visible in my play through. Some annoying sound issues, such as characters cutting themselves off mid sentence is perturbing, making subtitles necessary and needs to be fixed. Some load intervals are awkward, especially those that don’t use a load screen.
Taking between 20 and 30 hours to complete the single player side of the game, and with a great, well-built multiplayer component, this game will keep you busy for a very long time. I will be replaying this game when time allows to see what I can do differently.
A fitting, great end to a trilogy that made everyone take sci-fi seriously again. The story of Shepard will not leave memory any time soon and will be a topic of debate for a long time. But really, even though it happens less often than in previous games: Who keeps handing Shepard that damn assault rifle?
[Mass Effect 3 is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360]