The third in the Mass Effect trilogy is not so much trying to conclude the saga of humanity and its allies’ battle against genocidal machine race The Reapers as it is to out-bombast every other game it possibly can. Cutscenes showing a nick-of-time escape from certain doom hit every half hour, almost every battle contains an Alamo finale and enemies of absurd size show up regularly, only to be brought down spectacularly moments later. See also: Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut review
Between the action is galactic-scale decision making, with you holding the fate of entire species in your hands. If there is, as is more than likely given early sales reports, a Mass Effect 4, it’s going to have a hard time topping ME3 in the epic stakes.
There is a price to be paid for this torrent of spectacle, and that is, perhaps inevitably, that Mass Effect 3 is a more rigid game than its predecessors, throwing out much of the already diminished from ME1 to ME2 roleplaying in favour of more ultra-dramatic cutscenes, more setpiece boss battles and, most especially, a hell of a lot of intense combat.
Often enough, the fighting is exciting and varied, as you bring to bear your character’s customised abilities and those of your preferred crewmates against vast legions of space zombies, armoured xenophobic thugs and energy-shielded robots. Other times, the battles are rinse and repeat, grinding survival affairs that are formulaic in both engagement and location. Too much development time and effort, perhaps, was spent on the big chest-thumping moments, leaving the workaday stuff that much more ordinary.
The quieter moments remain, and are often the game’s best, but they’re now A-B courier missions rather than explorable hubs. This is forgivable to some extent, in that the game’s plot hangs around urgency – the impending destruction of nearly all sentient life in this galaxy by gigantic machine beings the Reaper – so to bumble around rummaging through bins, looking for sidequests and chatting to passers-by would rather spoil the mood. But there’s no escaping ME’s evolution into primarily an action game, interspersed by conversations in which you make increasingly hard decisions that affect both individuals and people in their millions.
Some of these decisions are horrifying: the stakes, the consequences, the short-term benefits in your war against the Reapers versus potential long-term repercussions that might well lead to a different war… It all builds on themes, characters, species and conflicts built up across the last two games, to the point where if you don’t retain your Mass Effect 2 savegame (and that in turn wasn’t generated based upon your Mass Effect 1 savegame) you’re going to miss out on a hell of a lot and quite possibly be unable to raise all the allies you need for a best case scenario outcome.
Similarly, if you made reckless or brutal decisions in the previous games, that may well come back to bite you on the power-suited bottom in the finale. If you weren’t in the habit of making and keeping friends, don’t expect to have too many people on your side here.
There are, depending on your decisions, some highly moving moments and, regardless of what you choose and do, some incredibly dark and bleak ones. Well-written and especially well-performed, when Mass Effect 3 celebrates and moves in a little closer to a main cast it’s built up over a half-decade, at its most powerful. As has always been the aim, this is a game that tries to out-Star Wars Star Wars, and it’s in the chemistry of its characters that it most succeeds at this.
Silly and mercifully optional romance sub-plots and their resultant soft-focus sex scenes tend to undermine this, but at least it’s a chance to do something other than point a gun or go fetch something on the other side of the galaxy.
Whether the eventual endings do the series and its characters justice is an argument that will rage eternal, but one thing is quite clear – that this is not the end. And a mile-wide mercenary streak is the single greatest failing of what’s broadly a triumph. It’s filled with opportunities for DLC, while if you want the ‘best’ ending but don’t want to undertake all the grindy fetch quests and didn’t make all the right decisions in the earlier games, you’ll need to either put a fair bit of time into the exciting and immediate if quickly repetitive co-op multiplayer, or play through the woeful iOS spin-off Mass Effect: Infiltrator.
In both of those, you can optionally shortcut your way to victory and thus to higher, plot-affecting ‘Galactic Readiness’ in Mass Effect 3’s singleplayer by spending real money. Fair enough, Mass Effect has become a commercial juggernaut, but its owners’ hunger for money-making opportunities does threaten to undermine what’s supposed to be a powerful, self-contained story.
For all that, and even though it’s arguably fallen so far into rote gunplay that it isn’t quite the equal of its rightly-revered forebear, Mass Effect 3 is an uncommonly spectacular game and as much a must-play as 2012 is likely to offer.