The first time I started to tear up a bit, I'd only been playing for two hours.
Because of the vagaries of the review process and pre-release games, I was playing a newly-created Commander, rather than importing the adventure of the Shepard I played in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.
About two hours in, I stumbled unexpectedly onto a memorial for those members of the Normandy's crews who had been killed in action somewhere along the course of previous adventures. This Shepard — while still all fire and determination — had neither made the same decisions along the way nor had as good luck as my "real" Shepard. There, etched on the memorial, were the names of many lost who I as the player remembered saving.
I wanted to weep for them, then. I wanted to be out of this alternate reality where so many good people were gone, wanted to go back to my Shepard, where I had kept people safe. But for Eve Shepard, my new Commander, this was reality. And so she and I set our jaws and marched grimly forward. War, this game was only beginning to teach me, has terrible costs.
Here are the real questions everyone has: did my favorite feature from Mass Effect come back? Does my favorite skill from Mass Effect 2 carry over? And what about the romantic relationship I chose, or my favorite companion, or that great gun? Is it my Normandy, my Citadel, my galaxy? Do my choices matter? Is this, in short, truly the Mass Effect title for which we have all been waiting for so very many interminable months?
Yes. Yes it is.
This is Mass Effect 3: The Reapers have come, just as Commander Shepard spent two games trying to warn everyone they would. Most species' homeworlds are burning, all around the Milky Way. This still-mysterious alien race is a genuinely existential threat, and the odds of full victory against them are inescapably slim. Even if they should be driven back, billions — perhaps trillions, or more — of lives will be lost in the endeavor, and Shepard bears the weight of that loss more than almost anyone else.
This is also Mass Effect 3: Commander Shepard and a half-dozen of the galaxy's finest are personally going to kick. some. ass. The no-nonsense Commander has the human Alliance's fastest, stealthiest ship at her disposal, and as the Reapers invade, she and her hand-picked crew are out to unite every alien race in the galaxy and save the damn world once and for all.
And this is Mass Effect 3: In this hybrid third-person cover-based shooter and RPG, the player takes on the role of Commander Shepard (available in both male and female varieties). Shepard is an Alliance Marine in this heavily populated science-fiction universe, humanity's finest leader and soldier. The player can choose from six different character classes, each focusing on a different set of powers, tactics, and weapons. Shepard's reputation precedes her, as choosing either paragon (diplomatic) or renegade (success at any cost) options in dialogue and in missions adds new ways to charm or intimidate her way through conflict. Now, in the capstone of Shepard's trilogy, it all comes down to one final battle for survival against a massive alien threat.
Every action the Commander does or doesn't take influences the Galactic Readiness meter, which the player can access from a console on Shepard's ship, the Normandy. Here, Shepard can see the total effect missions have had on the status of every surviving spacefaring species. The higher the number, the stronger the chance for allied forces of civilization to take down the reaper threat.
To see every detail ME3 has to offer would take playing through many, many times. The end result of three games' worth of "either / or" choices certainly isn't an infinite set of possibilities, but there are still quite a few of them. The presence of certain supporting characters, for example, is mutually exclusive, since Shepard had to choose for one or the other to die during the events of the first game. (Even a newly created Commander must pick one or the other up front.) Similarly, the number of times Shepard must choose one side or the other in an irreconcilable debate, in the third game alone, is staggering.
Indeed, the word of the day is "choice." The Mass Effect franchise has always rested on the idea that the player gets to pick Shepard's path, and in this last installment BioWare seems determined to give the player a small array of options for almost everything. Are conversations not your thing? There's an option to make them into cut-scenes. Is reflex-action combat too challenging? There's an option to make it significantly simpler (you only need to bother taking cover in the hardest of fights). Like your helmet? See it in cut-scenes. Hate it? Turn it off.
Shepard's casual wear and combat armor are both customizable, almost exactly as in ME2, but weapon upgrades hearken back to the first game. Every gun has a series of upgrades, I through V, that can be purchased in stores or on-board the Normandy. Each of the five possible gun types also can be equipped with any two of five modifications (each of which has levels one through five; there's a theme here), which are both found and purchased parts. The advantage over Mass Effect's original system is that the many varieties of weapons, armor, and upgrades are clean, very clearly delineated and don't end up being a massive inventory to haul around. Buying an upgrade from M-92 Mantis III to M-92 Mantis IV? Congratulations, that III you were carrying is now a IV, with its same, current modifications attached; it's just more powerful now.
Mass Effect 3 is very much the sum of its parts — but those parts also include two previous games. As promised, it really does blend the better features of Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 into a solid whole. Skills, items, art direction, characters, locations... in every element, a player who has come through the whole trilogy will be able to spot the union and balance of the previous two titles. The clearest way to see this "1+2=3" philosophy at work is in the locations Shepard can explore: for example, the spaces that are available on the Citadel or on the Normandy. Certain areas and ways of getting around have come in from both games, with locations old and new brought to life in vivid ways.
One place where Mass Effect 3 has been streamlined over its immediate predecessor, though, is in galactic exploration. Shepard no longer needs to scour the galaxy for mineral resources (perhaps the Alliance has finally provided all the necessary iridium). However, a number of planets and systems do still hold various missions and war assets. Unfortunately, they also hold reapers. Fast, angry, deadly reapers.
In lieu of scanning every planet in every system individually, the Normandy can essentially put out a medium-range ping upon entering a solar system. Points of interest and planets with points of interest then become highlighted, and the Normandy can then launch a probe (which no longer need replenishing) onto those particular worlds. While strip-mining aficionados will no doubt be disappointed, the detailed historical and geographical entries for every planet found are still present for the player to read.
All of this said, EA has been very clear that a player new to the franchise can start with Mass Effect 3 with no ill effects (sorry), and it's true. If the player is playing a Shepard new to ME3, the game does a good job of dropping in enough information about what has come before to give a sense of history and relevance to characters, locations, and species. Dialogue options include asking for background on the story so far, and navigational and combat tips in the first hour or two (also optional) do a good job guiding the player into gaining a feel for how the game handles. The controls and mechanics are all very well-refined now and it's an easy game to pick up and jump straight into.
But the truest, deepest emotional impact in the game comes from syncing Shepard's past experiences with the player's. When Shepard expresses warmth and relief on encountering an old friend like Dr. Liara T'soni, a player who has already been through 40-80 hours of adventures with her is much more likely to feel similar warmth and relief to go with. A player who is new to the franchise will be more removed from the world, its characters, and the many references large and small that weave it all together.
And really, Mass Effect 3 is, at its core, an emotional story. No matter the choices that have come before, and no matter the choices made in this game, the toll of the conflict weighs heavily on Shepard at this point. The consequences of a galactic-scale war are staggering, and in many cases for the Commander, the best available option is only marginally less dreadful than the path not taken.
That set of "good" and "bad" choices has always been at the heart of the entire Mass Effect story, forming paragon and renegade paths for Commander Shepard to take. Yet from the first moment of the first game, it has been a tremendous disservice to the franchise to associate paragon and renegade options with "good" and "evil" choices. Rather, both are effective in different ways. Along the course of the first two games, I came to think of them roughly as the "love me" and "fear me" schools of leadership.
I developed a bad and lazy habit, over the first two games, of choosing Paragon options whenever I didn't know what to do in a given situation, figuring they'd be most likely to map onto what I considered the good and right option, or at least the correct tone. I like to be kind, and I like to be diplomatic, and it became a little too easy to let the position of a remark, on the dialogue wheel, substitute itself for actual thinking. That instinct did not serve me at all well over the course of Mass Effect 3. "Kind" and "correct" are not always going to be compatible. Another hard lesson, often repeated.
Action and inaction, too, are both shown to be kinds of decisions. The difference between, "I killed [someone]" and "[someone] died" is oppressive, and through actions taken or not taken, both Shepard and the player have to grapple with it.
For all that it brings two games' worth of experience and polish to its design, Mass Effect 3 is not perfect; no game is. Every rare now and again I did encounter a graphical glitch, such as a squad mate briefly becoming invisible for a two-line conversation. The use and abuse of lens flare effects had me humming the Star Trek theme and cracking J.J. Abrams jokes while I explored, and I found myself mildly disappointed that there were no longer decryption or hacking tasks of any kind.
On the story front, certain "surprise" plot twists seemed, to me, to be broadcast in flashing neon lights hours before any character managed to wonder about them. Occasional conversations take a left turn at hackneyed, run off the cliff of cliché, and explode into a glorious wreck of pompousness. And I wish that a few "old friend" characters had better, more fulfilling cameos, while I could have done perfectly well without some that were in the game.
Most of all, I am absolutely sure that fans will be talking and arguing amongst themselves at length about the entire final act and the ultimate conclusion of the story for months, if not years, to come.
But Shepard's story — the story of this one leader, the reapers, and the galaxy-that-is — had to come to an end somehow, at some time. Mass Effect 3 is definitively the conclusion of that story, and with every moment I laughed aloud, with every moment I sobbed, and with every moment I shouted extremely unprintable words I knew that it was worth the wait.
Update: A few words about multiplayer. I don't usually enjoy online multiplayer, and was a bit worried about its addition to a fundamentally single-player game, but actually it works out very well. It is true that diving into multiplayer enhances the final galactic readiness number that measures Shepard's collected assets heading into endgame. It is also true that the bar measuring those assets can be maxed out without touching the multiplayer at all.
But having that permanent 50% readiness sitting there may annoy completionists into having a go at online play, and it's worth doing. The maps used for online play are all in the single-player game as N7 missions and the available character classes are the same as in the single-player game, so there's a level of easy familiarity in the multiplayer from the start.
The mechanics are sound and although having success right out of the gate with a brand-new level 1 character can be a challenge, levels — and with them, increased powers — come quickly, even from failed missions, making survival (and ass-kicking) much more likely.
I've never played the Mass Effect series just for the sake of combat, instead viewing it as a necessary part of a much bigger story. So I was surprised to find myself diving into a few "extra" multiplayer matches — above and beyond my personal goal of reaching 80% galactic readiness — just for the fun. With a decent group (which the vast majority of mine were, despite being random matches with strangers), it's satisfying to survive waves of enemies and to feel one's character and personal skill both getting better.
That said, while many players will no doubt play online for a time just for fun and for achievements, I don't know how many will stick with it overall as they complete the single-player game and set it aside. The maps and missions aren't that diverse and begin to feel all the same very quickly. A player motivated by achievements and character growth could certainly spend a few weeks maximizing their own record, although the game doesn't necessarily support the player focusing on a single character very well. Clearly, it's designed for experimenting with a lot of different classes and trying a lot of different things. I simply want to focus on my Infiltrator but I keep getting assault rifle and shotgun upgrades and mods when I buy item packs with credits earned from missions, and that's not helpful at all to my sniper self.
Still, the credits earned on missions provide more than enough virtual cash to keep me in a steady stream of upgrades without spending real money, and the play is both satisfying on its own and as a contribution to the galactic war effort that is Mass Effect 3. All in all, it feels like a worthy and entertaining addition to the game but not in and of itself a reason to run out and play it.