Just as a note, there are spoilers in this review, and I will mark out where they will begin, but please be careful to not scroll down too far in-case you notice something you didn't wish to.
"Space. It's huge." Oh wait wrong series...
Mass Effect 3 was one of 2012's most eagerly-awaited titles by a long-shot. With EA's big advertising effort they aimed to draw in new players to the series as well as preparing fans of old to see and experience Commander Shepard's final, long-awaited battle against the Reapers. The Reapers - a race of sentient machines who destroy all advanced organic life every 50,000 years - have invaded Earth and are laying siege to the planet, so where's the one soldier who has faced and destroyed one of them before, and perhaps the only person who will give humanity any real chance against them? Attending a court-hearing of course. Shepard is on trial for the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of Batarians on a colony near a mass relay which he destroyed just after the events of Mass Effect 2. But what do you know, the trial is rudely interrupted by a platoon of Reapers attacking Earth and looking to put an end to the human race (then again a giant hand-shaped, laser-shooting, droning machine coming out of the sky would usually create some sort of attention). Mass Effect 3 throws you right into the action as you and Admiral Anderson have to fight your way to save some civilians and then escape from the Reapers and their slaves.
Since most of the focus on the game is inevitably about the story, choices and dialogue which you participate in, let's have a look at Mass Effect 3's gameplay. It has gotten quite a shake-up since Mass Effect 2 - while ME2 had a more refined combat system than ME1, it was still quite simple, and after a little while boring. The majority of the game was spent with a submachine-gun and shooting from behind cover; you could get through the whole game just by using the one gun and never really needing your biotic or tech powers to help you along, and so variation in combat was lacking. Mass Effect 3 is quite different: RPG elements which featured in Mass Effect 1, such as weapon and armour customisation, are back and they do make a difference. You will first of all come across a number of different variations of each weapon category which was something which was evidently missing in Mass Effect 2 as you could only find at best perhaps 4 different types of each weapon to use. Here, you will usually come across up to 5+ types of each weapon to use, and you can also buy more advanced weapons from stores on the Citadel. If you go to the docking bay of the Normandy you can even upgrade each weapon type to improve damage, ammo capacity, and more.
Arguably the main difference is that using different weapons and upgrading them and using different attachments do make a difference this time around. As you progress through the game you will notice that enemies do become more resilient and tougher to fight, and improving your loadout is an important aspect of gameplay, especially getting more more-advanced weapons. You can also find and buy different armour sets and pieces (including the awesome-looking fleshy Collector armour, resembling the main antagonists from Mass Effect 2).
Actual combat is much improved. On looking at some of the combat being shown off before the release of Mass Effect 3, some fans - myself included - voiced concerns over the general speed of combat which seemed to increase tenfold since the previous game. And it is fast. But who cares? It may look a lot more swift than before, but for a man/woman who in cutscenes has been able to dodge gunfire and massive explosions so well, you'd expect that s/he'd be profoundly agile. But the best part about it is that it is fun. I have never enjoyed combat in Mass Effect so much. You can dive away from grenade explosions when needed, evade gunfire more easily, and batter enemies more effectively with melee attacks (you even have a special high-powered omni-tool attack, which is arguably a little over-the-top, but it does come in handy). Enemy AI is much improved too, and the variation in enemy types means the game is a lot more diverse than it ever has been. Admittedly, one flaw does remain which has remained throughout the series from the start: the poor cover system. While there are some minor improvements in moving from cover to cover, the actual action of getting into and out of cover can still be as troublesome and irritating as ever, proving to still be quite rigid and sticky (for lack of better terms). All in all, Mass Effect 3's combat isn't a revolution by any means, whether it be for an RPG or for a third-person shooter, but it's a lot more fun than it has ever been and additions such as weapon attachments and armour upgrades make an important difference during gameplay as you progress, and it shows.
Onto, well everything else. One of the most pleasing aspects of the game for fans of the series is the level of interaction you have with your crew members aboard the Normandy, and which the crew themselves have with each other. It's not the simple case of walking into a room and knowing exactly who is going to be there and in what exact position they're going to be in; characters move around themselves on the Normandy and even converse with each other, providing some interesting and mostly humorous dialogue which you can rudely interrupt if you feel like it, or just join in at times. Arguably one of the best features of this new level of interaction is on the Citadel, where your own crew will often leave the ship just as you do and will be in different areas waiting for you to have a chat with them, or perhaps they'll just pouting at losing at poker like James Vega often is. You also have moments where you'll come across two people talking who are on opposing sides of a discussion, and you can choose to support one person's argument or the other. You will notice too that your crew is significantly shorter than what you may be used to if you have been re-playing Mass Effect 2 in preparation for ME3, but it allows for more dialogue with the crew that you do still have with you and closer relationships with those people and it really is wonderful for fans of the series to be able to enjoy all the extra interaction with crew members this time around.
The Citadel makes its real return to Mass Effect after being able to enjoy and explore it in its entirety in Mass Effect 1. The version ME3 has is a lot bigger and extensive compared to the cock-tease of a Citadel given in ME2, but it still is fairly small compared to the original Citadel. Yet what Bioware have done well with in ME3 is reduced the annoying things you had to do in ME's Citadel in order to explore it. Elevators are a lot quicker, areas in which nothing would happen are basically left out, so that you're left with a number of smaller areas in which there is activity - and so there is less walking through large halls of space - and in general it is a lot easier to get around and a lot quicker to explore the whole Citadel. Completing small assignments on the Citadel also return, although they are slightly disappointing in that the majority of them simply involve handing things you have found on missions or scanning to people who you haven't even talked to at all. But on the whole the return of the Citadel is quite a pleasant one, and the fact that everything is compressed into smaller areas makes it less of a hassle to explore when you're just looking for people.
The Normandy ship is in general the same as the one you left at the end of Mass Effect 2; the only real differences are the crew, and the comm room and the new "war room", in which you can track your progress of attaining allies to help your fight against the Reapers. You are given a list of all of the individuals, groups or fleets which have agreed to assist you, and a bar at the bottom of the screen (titled "Effective Military Strength", or EMS) portrays your level of readiness to take on the Reapers at any given time. Some players have complained that in order to get the necessary amount of EMS needed to achieve the best game ending, you are required to play the multiplayer mode of the game which helps increase your "Galactic Readiness", which is something Bioware initially disregarded as false but some players are still claiming they have not been able to get the necessary amount of EMS which the developers have said was attainable in in single-player alone. Scanning is still featured on the world map but in a much less repetitive and peevish form than in ME2. You don't need to scan individually every single planet any more to find out if there is anything worth checking out there; there are no resources (such as Platinum and Eezo) in Mass Effect 3, and now you scan while controlling the Normandy within a system. The scan rings out around the ship, and if any planets within the scanning range have anything worth checking out, you can investigate them. However, scanning can attract Reapers, and if you scan too much they will enter the system and will chase you out (unless you prefer being eaten by them, OK they don't actually eat you but it looks like they do). The issue with this is that once you fly out of that cluster, the Reapers disappear, and you can just re-enter and will have a 2-3 second head-start on the Reapers during which you can grab anything you may have missed. It is an interesting idea from Bioware but in the end it is very ineffectual, but at least scanning is a lot less monotonous than before.
On to the main story of the game: please be aware there will be some spoilers ahead, especially on discussing the ending.
The general story and mission structure is one of the things Bioware did really well in Mass Effect 3. To give a context to those who perhaps haven't played previous games, in ME1 you are given a set of 4-5 planets in which you need to explore and complete the mission that you are given in them; the sections you are given to explore and to complete the mission in are quite large and in doing everything some of the missions could take up to 3 hours or so. You can also of course visit the Citadel and explore other smaller planets with the Mako, and some will have side-missions there. Mass Effect 2 was a bit different, but arguably more simple: you are given many different locations to visit, and in some missions (which are for the most part not too long and not too short) you will recruit characters, and in some you will make them "loyal" - between these smaller missions you will have 4 very important, main missions. You also have some side-missions you can do but they will only be available if you find them through scanning planets and finding something worthwhile searching. In Mass Effect 3, there are numerous essential missions, but you aren't given them all at once and told to just go through them all; as you progress so does the narrative and with that different important missions will be given to you. Mass Effect 2's problem was you would spend such a long time simply recruiting characters and then making them loyal, and you would spend such a small amount of time doing actual missions which seemed important and necessary and which were thus more engaging. What Mass Effect 3 does is give you more crucial missions throughout the game, and as the game progresses you can feel you are getting closer and closer to the end. There are very few side-missions - that's the bare truth of it, but even with the side-missions, in getting a briefing either by Admiral Hackett or EDI you are made to feel that these missions are important, that they are integral to the overall plot of the game. You will also find that if you avoid some of the side-missions and just go through with the priority missions first, some missions may disappear, as changing situations can be marked by the passage of time.
As mentioned previously the dialogue between your crew on-board at times can be pretty funny and interesting to listen to. Mass Effect 3 has more dialogue than any of the Mass Effect games so far, but admittedly some of the dialogue in general is mediocre at best. Of course that's not to say all of it is bad, a lot of it is humorous and some of it is marked by some impressive voice-acting (the fact that a lot of people have hardly even noticed that Mordin was not voiced by Michael Beattie this time around but William Salyers attests to this), but some of the lines that have become typical of Shepard over the years really lose their effect when they are repeated so often (such as the classic paragon line in which Shepard summarises someone's actions, and then justifies those actions in order to console them), not to mention some of the awful "seductive" dialogue in romancing characters.
PLEASE NOTE, THERE WILL BE A LOT OF STORY DISCUSSION AHEAD AND A LOT OF MAJOR SPOILERS, SO IF YOU WISH TO AVOID THEM IGNORE THE REST OF THE REVIEW.
Although Mass Effect 3 does have some very enjoyable missions and moments, unfortunately a lot of the set-pieces used and moments in the game do seem to be suspiciously familiar to players who are acquainted with Mass Effect 1. The following are some of the more obvious examples which I have found. Here are some major spoilers for Mass Effect 3, so look away if you don't wish to see them:
(Mass Effect 1 / Mass Effect 3)
Talking to Sovereign who says your efforts to stop the Reapers are pointless = Talking to the Reaper on Rannoch where it effectively claims "your resistance is futile"
Attack on the Citadel = Attack on the Citadel
The VI Vigil on Ilos = The beacon on Thessia and therefore the Prothean VI
The final destination and location of place from which Sovereign / Saren can allow the Reapers into the galaxy is the Citadel = The final destination and missing piece of the Crucible is the Citadel itself
Driving towards the Conduit to launch you to the Citadel = Running towards the beam / conduit (it is even titled "The Conduit")
The final scene with Saren who is fully indoctrinated = The final scene in the Citadel with The Illusive Man who is fully indoctrinated
Saren kills himself = The Illusive Man kills himself (this is only if you have and use the Paragon/Renegade options in conversation)
But there are many positives to what Bioware have added into the Mass Effect world in terms of the narrative. Additions to the character roster such as James Vega, Cortez and Traynor are by no means incredible or marvelous additions, but they add cool and yet down-t0-earth and interesting characters who are still trying to come to terms with the realities of the war and the effects it has on the world and their lives. Another new characters in the series is Kai Leng (who has appeared before in the book Mass Effect: Deception), who is one of the main antagonists in Mass Effect 3, seemingly plying his trade as The Illusive Man's right-hand man. Although considering this is the same team that created an antagonist as good as Saren in Mass Effect, and Harbinger in Mass Effect 2 (who was a lot more obscure than Saren evidently, but who still maintained a strange interest in Shepard which still hasn't been fleshed out), you would expect Bioware may have come up with a better antagonist than an assassin with a sword and regenerating shields who only has about 10 lines of dialogue in the whole game.
However, despite all the positives in the majority of the game and its structuring, the oh-so controversial ending which the internet can't stop talking about does create some problems. Disregarding whether people simply dislike it (or hate it) just because they expected a different or better ending, the main issue is that the ending(s) puts you in a situation where, after all your choices and all your decisions, after bringing your character through two or three games to the finale and carrying every decision and feature of each playthrough over, after entering this journey with Commander Shepard and his / her crew to the very end - almost everything you have done and carried through seems to be made redundant. It is as if you have allowed the Rachni species to live on through what is probably the final queen of that race that is still alive; as if you have brought together species who would never dream of working together again for the same cause; as if you have assembled different crews and interacted with and met different people and made the decisions you made with each of them (to assist them, to romance them, to eventually save them or end up getting them killed); it is as if you have gone through everything, yet all of your decisions were pointless because not a single one of them seem to make any real difference once you get to the end. It's not just that; Bioware have championed the series for its wonderful system of carrying across decisions which will have a large impact at their time finally, and who have said that there will be various endings to this series to assert and to uphold that - yet every ending is essentially the same, no matter what you have or haven't done, no matter who has lived or who hasn't. The fact that some gamers have filed FTC complaints against EA for false advertising (as they are the publisher and therefore the ones who could be held responsible) may seem a bit extreme at first, but when you think about what EA and Bioware have together promoted the Mass Effect series for with the importance of the decisions you make, perhaps the fans - who in the end simply want to see an ending where their decisions make the difference for better or worse - are right to complain.
There have been theories that much - if not all - of the ending is an indoctrination and that none of it actually happened; there have been theories that choosing 2 of the 3 endings is you (as in the player, and Shepard) submitting to indoctrination; and there have been theories that Bioware just chucked those endings in at the last minute since they never really knew where they were going with it. If Bioware were actually bold enough to do the first, and actually give players a simulated, fake ending, and perhaps would later give us the real ending in an update or through DLC it would be almost like an experiment (an incredibly bold experiment, mind you) and it could be a stunning feat for Bioware to achieve if anything like that is the case. - OK, Bioware are under EA so realistically us getting a real ending through free DLC is NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN, but still just maybe...
How do you judge a game like this then? The majority of it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience, it feels like it has been made just for the fans with the different levels of interaction between crew members, better mission structures, added RPG elements, and all the other positive changes and additions, and Bioware ought to be praised for this especially when they could have easily tried to streamline the series further and play to newer, more casual players. Despite its flaws the whole first 90%-95% of Mass Effect 3 is absolutely fantastic, from its thoroughly improved and enjoyable combat system to the general narrative and level of interaction with the world, but then the ending comes into play. Is it really happening? Do our choices actually still matter? Have we been duped into thinking that our choices ever mattered? Did we just get indoctrinated by a video-game and the developers of it? Why has so much been left unconcluded? There are lots of questions, and for a game which is supposed to close-off and finish a series that isn't a good sign, but considering how enjoyable a game Mass Effect 3 is before you get to that ending, and considering the possibility that Bioware has mind****ed the whole video-gaming and internet population, perhaps it is all better than we think. Have Bioware right at the last turned their backs on everything that the whole Mass Effect series has been about and everything that it has built-up to? We just don't know yet, especially concerning the developer's ambiguous feedback on the nature of the reaction to Mass Effect 3. While the ending may put a sour taste in your mouth, Mass Effect 3 is a strikingly good game overall, especially for fans of the series. The paradox of that is that it is the big fans of the series who will be hurt most by the ending (if they are of the collection of players who have an issue with it, that is).
But don't get caught up in the hype, maybe it's not as bad as it seems. Maybe it was all a dream and Shepard will wake up in 2012, look out the window and realise that nothing ever happened. Yeah, the endings we actually got are totally worse than that.