I don’t want to spoil anything about Mass Effect 3 for you, so all you really need to know is this: Yes. Yes, you should get it. Yes, it lives up to the hype. Yes, it’s the ending the series deserves. Yes, it’s an incredible adventure that will terrify you, make you laugh, and more than likely move you to tears more than once. And yes, that character you care about comes back.
As the game begins, the Reapers have made Earth the first stop on their harvesting tour of the galaxy. Their arrival signals not just the end of the world, but the end of every world as they set out to destroy all organic life. Your experience with the Reapers makes you the best choice to fight them, and the Alliance is willing to let bygones be bygones – and give you back your ship – if you lead the charge against the Reaper armada. Your mission in Mass Effect 3 echoes that of Mass Effect 2: Then, you were gathering resources and personnel in hopes of increasing your chances of surviving a suicide mission. Now, you’re doing much the same thing in the hopes of increasing your chances in a face-off against the Reapers … which is also probably a suicide mission.
You don’t have to have played through either of the first two Mass Effects in order to enjoy Mass Effect 3, as the game does a pretty good job on catching you up on the important people and events from its predecessors without dropping huge walls of text on your head. Saving the Earth is also a pretty easy concept to grasp, so even complete newcomers to the story should have no trouble embracing the adventure. Even though you can jump in just fine, there’s no question that your experience will be greatly enriched if you played through the first two games. Mass Effect 3 does a masterful job of calling back to the first two games, their DLC, and even the Mass Effect novels, referencing practically every encounter you had or decision you made. The world of Mass Effect 3 feels lived in and worn out, and that effect just isn’t quite the same if you don’t understand the full weight of the experiences that have made these characters who they are. You can understand the basics about Maelon’s genophage research with just a few lines of dialog, but his work takes on a whole new timbre when you’ve seen its effects first-hand.
One of Mass Effect‘s core strengths has been its story, which is particularly well crafted in Mass Effect 3, in part because it gets to tie up so many loose ends. Rather than leaving options open for a sequel, the game makes the most of the chance to take the sum of your decisions and show you the outcome. What did you do with the Rachni queen? What did you tell Conrad? Did you dance? It almost all comes back, one way or another, but never in a way that feels forced. Everything you experience in Mass Effect 3 feels like the natural, organic culmination of your actions – whether you can live with the repercussions or not.
Mass Effect 3‘s combat kicks things up a notch or twelve, as well, a change that’s not always entirely welcome. The new enemies are daunting (and at times terrifying), but while you could get through Mass Effect 2 with minimal attention to cross-disciplinary styles, Mass Effect 3 seems to really, really want you to coordinate your attacks with your squadmates. Perhaps that’s because it’s easier to do so now that you can use voice commands to control your team (assuming you have a Kinect), but the combat can be frustratingly difficult at times. Your squadmates can be shockingly stupid sometimes, apparently forgetting that they’re supposed to be backing you up in a fight. During one particularly brutal encounter, I discovered that my two companions had never followed me into the room and instead were crouching behind some furniture in the hallway. The game’s cover mechanic is equally hit and miss, at times letting you roll from point to point with split-second accuracy, and at other times leaving you wide open to assault as you try in vain to take cover behind a wall. The voice controls work fairly well – though there were times that the Kinect seemed to misunderstand me – but it felt odd to be barking orders at my companions one minute, then listening to Jennifer Hale chat them up back on the Normandy. Using the Kinect is fun from a gameplay perspective, but it doesn’t mesh well with the story elements.
Both Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 had resource gathering, but neither effort was particularly successful. Most of the drudgery of that task has been removed from Mass Effect 3, and the result is actually rather addictive. Upon entering a system, you’ll scan the area to see if you can find anything valuable, but instead of having to scan the entire planet, you can just zero in on the hotspot. Some material just floats around in space, so it may take you several scans to find everything in a particular system, but each scan helps Reapers target your location. Spend too much time looking, and you’ll have to outrun enemy ships. The resources you collect aren’t just rocks and minerals this time around, either, and you can immediately see the effect that finding them has on your campaign. You won’t feel obligated to track them all down – you’ll feel motivated to.
Mass Effect 3‘s pacing and story are so well done that it’s exceptionally jarring when a technical issue breaks the flow. Aside from the combat problems already mentioned, characters will vanish during cutscenes, leaving you talking to empty air (and having the air reply). Shepard herself will occasionally jump back and forth during her updates to Alliance HQ, as the game assembles the dialog based on the various possible outcomes. None of the issues are enough to diminish the overall enjoyment of playing Mass Effect 3, but they can certainly jerk you out of the moment.
Everything you’ve done in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 has led up to this moment, a weight that Mass Effect 3 bears with grace and pride. Everything you do feels important – every side quest, every scan, every conversation, every shot fired feels like it impacts your likelihood of success in a very real and tangible way. You never lose the sense that you’re fighting for the survival of all life, everywhere, but it also never feels overwrought or excessively dramatic.
Bottom Line: Mass Effect 3 is the ending the series and its fans deserve.
Recommendation: You – and Shepard – need to see this through to the end. Together.[rating=4.5]
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
We were unable to review the multiplayer portion of the game prior to publication.