Each individual Mass Effect player experience is so varied that dishing out criticisms regarding the underpinning direction of the series is a task that nearly verges upon foolhardy. Commander Shepard, more than almost any other video-game protagonist in recent memory, isn’t so much a heavily scripted aspect of the narrative as he—or she, depending on your gender selection—is a vessel in which to conduct detailed social experiments with surprisingly humanistic on-screen counterparts. Sure, there’s some strong TPS combat, top-notch graphics, and terrific sonic flourishes on display throughout, but what has ultimately made the Mass Effect franchise so inherently vital to the digital pantheon is its ability to resourcefully rid itself of the majority of responsibilities and blame for storyline developments that initially appear displeasing.
Dictation of the characters’ actions, dialogue, and, eventually, their emotional statuses rests within the hands of the one holding the controller—and thus dissatisfaction with how events pan out is chiefly the fault of that possibly misdirected soul. BioWare continues to expertly present a myriad of critical choices that coincide with a collection of personality types, and discovering a way to transfer how one feels at any given moment into the context of the gameplay is a particularly frequent option. Upset that a primary squad member, one you had been developing a strong relationship with, was permanently killed off? Well, that’s totally your bad, and you should amend your key decision-making process accordingly. As has always been the case with Mass Effect, its dramatic weightiness and grim sensibilities can often become depressing, but the overall package is so meticulously assembled that moody reservations can be effectively minimized to momentary shrugs.
Mass Effect 3 more or less repeats the successfully tested formula of its predecessors, albeit with a fresh coat of thick polish, and does well to bring the trilogy to a generally adequate conclusion. While there’s a feeling that many of the paths chosen fall short of harnessing sufficient gravity when the final scenes transpire, echoes of many of the game’s established morals and overarching themes resoundingly ring out: War is a bitch and harrowing sacrifices and sorrow are unavoidable. Whereas past Mass Effect titles were largely galaxy-hopping affairs, this third incarnation focuses on the impending decimation of Earth itself by a perilous alien race called Reapers, returning after a 50,000-year hiatus to lay waste to our home planet. The stakes are higher, and if you’re carrying over a save file from Mass Effect 2, even more depth is added to the circumstances. The player’s steady dedication to the story is rewarded in kind, the previous work placed into your hero is intact, and of course, bonuses are granted to those who have stuck with the series since its inception.
The marked loyalty missions of Mass Effect 2 have been strangely axed, yet the flow this provides is surprisingly fulfilling. Mass Effect 3 lives or dies by its skillfulness in balancing being both the last chapter in a lauded tale and an introduction for the curious to see what all the hype is about. BioWare does a grand job of this, creating preset starting molds for those without prior save data and occasional recaps, usually through character interactions, that bring novices up to speed with all the intergalactic turmoil and diplomacy that has fueled the amplifying fire up to this point. Commander Shepard’s, rather, your success still relies on how well you can gain the trust of others, as allying with interplanetary factions (some of whom you may not be on such great terms with) in order to combat the onslaught of Reapers effects how bumpy of a ride this terminal quest will be. To some extent, you can get away with not having played Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2, but the passion-fueled impact level is weakened substantially. Reunions with memorable comrades and rivals add layers of excitement, and without being a Mass Effect veteran, you’ll find yourself repeatedly asking, “Who the hell is that and why do I care about them?”
Not all that glitters is gold, however, as Mass Effect 3’s intense focus on a commendable main campaign detracts from some of the series’s signature bells and whistles. The RPG elements are somewhat toned down, with less intensive side quests and the decidedly unnatural customization screen that allows players to decide if they want their Mass Effect 3 journey to be all action and limited story, the opposite, or somewhere between those two scenarios. This comes off like BioWare attempting to please everyone, to cater to both shooter junkies or role-playing addicts, but I can’t help but label this aspect as a misstep. Mass Effect is at its most inviting when it allows its generative genre to manifest itself with the player’s in-game determinations, as opposed to having them pluck a predetermined tonal style from a starting menu. Other negatives include framerate drops and customary battle-sequence glitches that have plagued the series from the outset. Nothing in such a gigantic, fully realized universe can eclipse technical perfection, so lumps must understandably be taken.
Third-person, wave-based tactical skirmishing, though not Mass Effect 3’s strongest critical area, is still widely pleasurable. Weapons are numerous and customizable, if not all that creatively designed. Mastering cover-and-blast maneuvers is essential, and more of a platforming angle has been added this time around. Shepard can leap over lengthy gaps and more climbable structures have been placed about the landscapes. AI fights with more gusto and oftentimes sly team-based strategies. Mass Effect 3 has level caps, but its NG+ mode, something I jumped into almost immediately, allows for further advancement and the acquisition of any achievements bypassed on the first playthrough. An above-average multiplayer setting is also present, and is required for obtaining all PSN-related trophies, but opting out of joining forces with another hardly subtracts from the quantitative product.
On the strength of its tertiary episode in combination with what has come before, the Mass Effect trilogy deserves to be considered a monumental three-pronged achievement in not only video gaming, but modern entertainment as a whole. Although Mass Effect 3 basically boils down to an exceptionally furbished cherry sitting atop a prepared ambrosial pie, the fact that it so cogently rattles the conscience of its audience with its absorbing storytelling is enough to accept it as unambiguously integral.