The first two Mass Effect games both had epic moments in them, but Mass Effect 3 is a finale that consists of almost nothing but. This is still (much like its predecessors) an RPG that always puts plot before action and never rushes anything at all, but its universe’s impending catastrophe adds a punch to every single facet of it. The narrative has more barnstorming “events” in it than both of the previous games combined, but just as many of those involve quiet conversations as involve blockbuster action sequences. You are constantly aware of the sheer heft of your situation as well as the choices that you’re forced to make within it, which – predictably enough – makes for easily the most dramatically engaging Mass Effect story of the three.
And whilst it’s also the best-looking game of the trio, it’s not quite as technically adept as its immediate predecessor was. The frame-rate occasionally suffers during a couple of the story’s bigger blockbuster beats and character models look disjointed and lifeless on occasion, but it’s a fair trade; everything about Mass Effect 3 is bigger and more adventurous than what came before it. Wisely, changes to the core fundamentals of play are pretty minor. A chargeable melee attack – deliberately finicky and leaden, which means that using it involves significant risk – and hand grenades are two new options in combat, but series vets are going to know exactly where they stand.
You no longer scan planets for minerals – which is either a big relief or a bit of a shame – but the system that replaces it involves zero grinding. You scan planets (and clusters of debris) by simply passing over them and triggering a beacon; if there’s something there you can source it immediately, but if you set off too many beacons in too short a period you’ll get ambushed by the Reapers in real-time. These attacks are rather easy to evade but (bizarrely) are surprisingly tense and energising all the same. That said, Mass Effect 3 is just generally less “gamey” and more fixated on narrative than the previous two, so if you grew to enjoy the raft of mini-games that appeared in Mass Effect 2 especially, there’s nothing here to replace them. It’s a comparably no-nonsense approach, and it suits the story perfectly.
What’s not surprising is that the game’s most self-conscious moments – the bigger action set-pieces, basically – don’t work quite as well as the rest of it. Shepherd is more limber and far easier to control during ground combat, but when you’re encouraged to pilot a gun-turret or hijack an Atlas mech unit, the game becomes functional rather than gripping. When you’re on your feet, barrelling through an area whilst utilising your companions shrewdly, doing battle is as compelling as it is in any third-person action game this side of Uncharted; but when it attempts to offer up a deliberately unbalanced, Gears of War-style turkey shoot, it feels like an inorganic, half-baked attempt at wooing the hardcore action crowd… and nothing more.
This small handful of faltering steps may seem to bode unwell for the controversial multiplayer component, but that actually turns out to be a very discernible success. The concept isn’t original – it’s very much based on Gears of War’s Horde mode, surely the most influential multiplayer system this generation – but its smart emphasis on unlocks and customisable player / weapon loadouts makes it ripe for a comparison with something like Battlefield. It’s essentially about ten times better than it had any real right to be, and Bioware have clearly spent time ensuring that it’s something that you’re actually going to want to spend time with once you’ve finished with the campaign; or as a nice pit-stop on your way to a second playthrough.
The ridiculous nature of the ongoing fan backlash – a few disgruntled players are currently demanding that a brand new ending is delivered via DLC – is as idiotic as it sounds, but the finale of Mass Effect 3 can’t help but feel a tad anti-climactic. You never get to see the consequences of a few significant choices that you make in the final third of the game, so players who’ve been with the series since the beginning are bound to be left with quite a few unanswered questions. However, if it happened in a movie, the ending would be celebrated as being bold and befitting. Nobody expected a Game of the Year contender last time; this time, everyone demanded one. Minor niggles in a game this rich and ambitious simply have to be instantly forgiven: Bioware have unquestionably delivered.
Mass Effect 3 is available now on PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.
Watch the launch trailer for Mass Effect 3 below: