In 2007, Bioware (famous for Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights) introduced us to their latest creation titled Mass Effect. It transitioned into a trilogy of sci-fi action roleplaying games, taking place on Earth and many other locations throughout the galaxy - whether or not they truly exist is up for debate, naturally. Initially, we're introduced to Commander Shepard, a character whom players can craft to be who they want; Shepard is fully customisable in terms of male/female, changing his/her hair, facial features, and background - to an extent of course. We followed Commander Shepard as he/she went after a rogue Spectre named Saren Arterius in the first instalment; battle the Collectors, an alien race hell-bent on abducting entire human colonies to aid the Reapers, in the second instalment; and the trilogy comes to an end as the Reapers bring the battle to Earth for the final conflict.
For some background information, the Reapers are a race of mechanical beings who come into the galaxy after hibernating in an extra-galactic dark space every 50,000 years to completely obliterate all living species to start anew. The Reapers are believed to be the Ramante - or the anti-life - a form of the plague which came as the companion to life. This is prophesied with the Reapers' intentions to cleanse the galaxy of all living species so that it can start anew; in Mass Effect 3, it is revealed that the Reapers consider themselves to be the order that handles the chaos of the universe.
In Bioware's final instalment of the trilogy, the storyline is focused on Commander Shepard and his/her battle with the Reapers. The story is much more serious than that of the previous two games, and the tone is less humorous than the others, but there is plenty of humour and comic relief throughout the game. We're given more information on the Reapers and their purpose (as aforementioned) and even though we're left with some unanswered questions, it's done in a style that leaves it open for fan interpretation, something that a lot of fans fail to realize and complain about. However, Bioware has confirmed that they will be releasing free downloadable content that ought to satisfy the disappointed fans.
It's indeed true what fans are saying about the game's ending; your choices throughout the game do not directly influence the ending as they have in the previous games. Commander Shepard's story comes to an end regardless of the decisions you make, but the method of the closing of his/her story can be changed depending on how prepared your character is for the battle with the Reapers. For instance, if you spend enough time exploring other galaxies and collecting war assets, your "Galaxy at War" readiness will improve, thus influencing the methodology of the ending, but not directly impacting the outcome. SPOILER ALERT: regardless of what choices you make, Commander Shepard will most certainly die, but the result of Earth and the living species will change slightly. However, depending on how your GAW readiness is percentage-wise, you might see a cutscene at the end of your game where Commander Shepard's body is shown under rubble and he/she takes an inhaled breath, showing that he/she is [barely] alive, but Shepard's story still comes to an end.
Not too long after the intense introduction of the game, you'll be back as the Normandy's captain and make your way around the galaxy saving lives, executing missions, and preparing your squad for the fight on the homeworld. Since the primary goal of the game is to gather a personal army to take to the frontlines against the Reapers, a lot of the game is revolved around recruiting missions. But that's not as bad as it sounds; you won't be running around the Citadel doing favours for people in order for them to join your cause, but with the galaxy and every life at stake, you'd think people would be more willing to dive through the door to the Normandy and help in any way they can. But where would be the fun in that? In classic Mass Effect style, you'll roam the galaxy and help people in need, collect information on the Reapers, Cerberus and the Illusive Man, and miscellaneous side quests to aid you in your quest - all in classic mission form.
Since the primary concept is of gathering an army you'll be updated with your current Effective Military Strength in the Normandy's War Room. Your total strength shapes very little of what happens in the final battle, as I've said previously. So one might reconsider spending hours on side quests, unless you truly want to experience everything the game has to offer; doing so would be wise, as the time you take to do all the side missions will add to the overall time it takes to complete the game, and that is rather rewarding. Most of the side quests amount to little more than planet scanning; but don't worry, it's not as bad as Mass Effect 2's feature of it. It's actually less tedious and a little more interesting. However, exploring the galaxy does get a little cumbersome as the Reaper invasion is in full force, and if one spends too long on the galaxy map, the Reapers will detect you and come after you. Should they capture the Normandy, you're presented with a rather disheartening "Critical Mission Failure" game over screen, prompting you to load from your last save. The N7 missions are basically the multiplayer maps with some story thrown in. Needless to say, these feel very lacklustre. At least the primary, story missions are some of the best in the series.
Having only six squadmates (seven if you either purchased the N7 Collector's Edition or purchased the day-one downloadable content) is a little lacking when compared to the previous games, especially considering the necessity to build up an army of sorts in this instalment. The seventh character, a living Prothean named Javik, who coincidentally happens to have a Jamaican accent, is a rather important character considering that the weapon you're trying to build on the side of gathering an army was originally designed by the Protheans, but they were wiped out by the Reapers before they could actually build it.
Mass Effect 3 brings a new feature to the table that we've never seen before in the series: multiplayer. It offers an interesting distraction from the campaign; even though it's just like Horde Mode in Gears of War, with waves of enemies assaulting you and your team, minus the depth of it. The strangest part of it all is that participating in multiplayer is actually a key component that ties into Commander Shepard's war effort and Galaxy at War readiness, which assists in getting the "best" ending.
Thankfully, the shooting has been improved substantially. Combat rolls are finally in place along with a new heavy melee feature, unique for each class. The one of a kind (to the Mass Effect series) feature the game brings to the table is being able to pick up and instantly kill the enemy parallel to your cover spot. A weapon's weight is also heavily integrated into combat. Your encumbrance is proportional to how quickly your powers recharge so choosing your weapons carefully is more important now. Also, each weapon can be customised with modifications that can be installed on weapon benches. Finally, hacking has also been removed; now Shepard will automatically hack a door or safe him/herself.
The game also gives you the choice of choosing three modes at the start if you don't import a previous save; "Action", "Story" and "RPG". It's highly recommended to not play the "Action" mode as it basically eradicates all dialogue choices, leading to a more dumbed down game.
What I do like is the Xbox Kinect integration; you can speak out dialogue choices, command your squad during combat, and even use it to open doors, pick up weapons, or examine datapads. The only flaw is that you'd better keep all other noises silent, or else it might interfere with you're attempt to communicate via the Kinect, as it's quite sound sensitive.
Using the Unreal Engine ever since the first game, Bioware has improved upon the series' looks with each new instalment. It may not look significantly better than the last one but the faces look more detailed, lip-syncing is superior, armours and weapons are slightly more detailed and the overall look is crisper, though the texture pop-up still exists and characters often disappear from conversations. Hair still looks hideous and your human allies seem to have better hairstyles than you.
As always, the soundtrack is amazing and very well put together. Never once does the audio feel out of place or inappropriate. Luckily for those who purchased the N7 Collector's Edition, a digital copy of the soundtrack comes included.
All in all, Mass Effect 3 is an amazing closure to a well received and brilliant trilogy that will undoubtedly go down in gaming history. All we can hope for now is a few Commander Shepard references in Bioware's upcoming Mass Effect-like creations.