It's almost impossible to review Mass Effect 3 in a vacuum. Sure, it's possible to play it having never played or completed the earlier titles - and it's even quite likely you'll enjoy the experience. But despite the push to claim "Now is a great time for new players to join the series!", I seriously doubt it will have even half the emotional resonance with those who haven't already spent 40+ hours with the characters in this series.
I don't say this as a slight; it's not like the game's world is too esoteric or that they haven't ensured that major plot points are re-explained if required... it's just that this is the epic, spectacular ending to the most grand-scale space opera ever.
Yes, I just said that. In terms of hours and media (games, books, comics - even an interactive one) it's probably right up there with Star Wars. But unlike Star Wars, it's not about a petty battle between ideologies with some space magick thrown in for good measure. Not to denigrate a series I love to bits, but its scale pales in comparison to the overall story of Mass Effect. This the conclusion to a story about the entire galaxy - about what life is, and whether it deserves to survive.
It is about a cycle which has gone on for millennia, involving horrifying creatures which feel like they'd be straight out of HP Lovecraft's brain if he'd lived in a different era. It's a war story - about bringing together species who hate each other to fight for the common good.
I suppose, before I talk any further, I should describe the game's mechanics, as that's often pretty important. Mass Effect 3 is much like Mass Effect 2 - it's a third-person action game with RPG elements (though much of this can be skipped by selecting ‘story mode' at the beginning; a good thing for people who aren't so interested in blasting things apart as they are playing out a good yarn).
It's based around firing at baddies with a variety of weapons, managing your fire-team and ducking between cover using a tolerable but arguably flawed cover system. Between fire-fights, you have the backbone of the game - and what I think is the best part of the series.
You command your ship, talking to crewmates, flying between worlds, leading away missions and keeping an eye on the state of the epic war against the Reapers.
The previous games in the series experimented with a few clunky “mini-game” elements to perform tasks such as scan planets, crack terminals and hack computers. Blessedly, these elements have fallen by the wayside. The closest thing to an awkward mini-game is that you sometimes find yourself having to flee a system in your ship if you use the ‘scan' function a few too many times in an enemy-controlled star system; and that's not a huge problem.
In short, Mass Effect 3 feels, on balance, a lot more streamlined and playable than its predecessors - and with that out of the way, I can get back to what really matters: The story.
As stated before, Mass Effect is huge in scope. You are fighting for the existence of every species and every planet in the galaxy, against horrors so powerful that some sentient beings (both biological and synthetic) are actually siding with them, either by choice or without realising the power being exerted on their minds.
That's one side of the story; the other side is much more personal. Every surviving character from the previous Mass Effect games is back, and your relationship with them - and their story - concludes here.
This is where I feel you get the most out of having immersed yourself in the universe before. Characters who have grown hugely (and hugely close to you) over the three games may die here - some sacrificing themselves for you or some other purpose, others due to more petty actions. It's a rare game in that some of these deaths are genuinely tear-jerking. Two deaths in particular forced me to put down my controller for half an hour and sit on my balcony, calming down.
It's a hugely intense experience, if you let it be - and it's made all the more powerful due to the genuinely unique experience you will have with the game based on your choices in both this game and its preceding ones. If you choose (and you should) to play the games in sequence, decisions and mistakes made in previous games continue to come back to haunt or help you.
Some are a little random, but nice - a young scientist, civilian or commando whose life you saved or spared years ago on the Normandy SR-1 or during your outing in Cerberus in Mass Effect 2 may be able to help you now - or may be out for revenge.
The biggest decisions are where it gets interesting. Many difficult moral choices are presented to you in this game, just like the last - but as the game proceeds, these choices get harder and harder to make. In the beginning, the game has a sense that you, the almost mythological figure ‘Commander Shepard' can do anything. You unite species and factions who have warred on and off for years. You convince nasty, selfish people to put down their grievances with the world in order to save it.
You are unstoppable.
Except that you aren't. As the game proceeds, you find your choices get more complicated. If you can't convince two factions to set aside their differences, what will you do in order to save the galaxy? Will you help one side destroy another so more of their fleet survives to fight by your side against the most powerful threat the universe has ever known? Wouldn't that be genocide?
Every few hours in-game, you find yourself pausing and pondering. The calls get harder and harder, and things become less and less black and white.
You may even have to stab a friend in the back in order to save the world - and the worst part is that you may never know if there was another option. Perhaps, if you'd made a different decision all those hours or weeks ago... you might not have had to make that choice at all.
It's a painful, exhilarating and hugely powerful experience which will stay with you long after you finish and watch the credits roll all the way to the end.
It's dark, epic and gives the right gravity to every moral question it chooses to include.
I can't say I loved the ending, or even really liked it... but it made sense in context, and despite how I feel about it... the whole series? Well, it's an experience I'm glad I had.