After over a hundred hours of play, countless interactions with party members, NPCs, and enemies, and watching my character and those around him grow, I'm glad to say that Mass Effect as a series is one of the best things to ever happen to video games.
In 2007, the original Mass Effect was released for PC and Xbox 360, a role-playing game with shooting elements for action segments. I appreciated the dichotomy--combat was (for the most part) a skill-based action affair, and all story segments were handled through a dialogue system that felt more natural than previous RPGs' list-based responses. Having your character--Commander Shepard, a male or female Alliance soldier--actually speak the dialogue encouraged you to do more actual role-playing than most previous role-playing games, and helped pull you further into the game's detailed sci-fi world.
2010's Mass Effect 2 created something of a divide among fans. Removing the first game's horrendously clunky inventory system, streamlining abilities and shooting during combat, and trimming down many of the first game's RPG elements to create a more action-oriented experience created a lot of fan outcry over the "dumbing down" of the space opera. Exploring planets in the Mako ground vehicle was replaced with scanning planets for minerals, creating something of a time sink that many fans found to be the worst part of an otherwise great game.
Mass Effect 3 takes the best from both games and combines them to create the most solid blending of action and RPG gameplay we've yet seen. Die-hard RPG fans with your atrophied claws for hands incapable of precise motor control will be disappointed to find that combat still requires you to be able to shoot straight, but the greater emphasis on using cover and your squadmate's abilities means that you can't just shoot your way out of most situations now--you have to use your head.
Shepard is more agile now, able to smoothly mantle cover, switch from one safe spot to another, and quickly blindfire to get enemies off your back for some breathing room. Grenades have been re-introduced, only instead of those irritating hockey puck things from the first game, they're standard grenades thrown in an arc. Enemies are smart--they'll flush you out of cover and funnel you into killboxes with ruthless precision, flanking you and whittling down your shields--and this is on Normal difficulty!
With the new importance of abilities, you're given plenty of options with leveling them up, adding to the RPG feel. For the last three ranks of abilities, you can choose between different upgrades (such as an area-of-effect ability doing more damage, or lasting longer) and how you want your characters to develop. Weapons now have weight, so you can choose to carry just one weapon (like I do) so your abilities have faster cooldown, or you can lug an entire arsenal into battle and have an answer for every situation. Even planet-scanning, something that was universally reviled in Mass Effect 2, has been changed into a much more intense affair. Run into a system, scan for resources and side quest items, launch a probe on a planet, and get the hell outta dodge before the Reapers catch up to you and ruin your day.
There was a lot of worry when it was announced that Mass Effect 3 would have cooperative multiplayer--fans worried that resources being diverted to multiplayer would take away from the single-player experience, the meat of the game. To them, let me say:
Multiplayer affects single-player and is technically a part of the story experience. Using the solid shooter gameplay of the single-player game, you can design multiple characters, customize their armor, arsenals, and abilities, and level them up just like your Shepard to "hold the line" and fight waves of Cerberus troops, geth, and Reaper Husks, like Horde Mode from Gears of War. Biotic and tech abilities light up the battlefield, giving unique and creative tactics to the game and ensuring it's more than just another third-person shooter. There's no local multiplayer, sadly, so you'll have to play online--BioWare has stated that they're interested in adding it, so that may eventually become available through DLC.
Mass Effect's story isn't something I can easily condense. In short, it starts out as:
Then in the second game, it feels more like:
And finally feels like:
Mass Effect 3 feels darker, more militaristic, and harder-edged than previous entries in the series. The stakes are higher, and every moment you spend goofing off and doing a side quest (like I always end up doing in RPGs) makes you feel a little guilty, since you actually have a real goal with a real deadline.
After delaying their return and fighting their minions for two whole games, the eldritch Reapers--a vicious race of living starships--are finally here. Commander Shepard has his/her toughest goal in front of him/her--unite the squabbling races of the galaxy against a much greater threat than their own pride.
Of course, this being Mass Effect (and an RPG), you'll have to help others before they help you, but it always feels different--brokering peace treaties between ancient enemies, fighting in massive ground battles, negotiating tense hostage situations, and having to make heartbreaking decisions are just a small part of what you'll have to do to make sure there's more to come back to at the end of the mission than a smoking heap of rubble.
Big choices have always been a part of Mass Effect, but this time, it's the final chapter--those decisions are even rougher. Do you save a general's men from being overrun, or save the general himself so he can help you negotiate a treaty? Do you let a hundred people die to save a thousand elsewhere? Often, a seemingly small decision from a previous game will come back with great repercussions in this game, often meaning the difference between life and death for characters in your party. For people who get emotionally invested in their games, Mass Effect 3 takes it as far as it will go, rewarding players who have followed the games by featuring returning roles for every (surviving) character and giving everybody one last chance to say goodbye in the face of annihilation.
The game's graphics really stand out, with exceptional detail in the world and characters. You can see the detail on alien crewmembers' skin, see the dents and scuffs of their armor. Light effects like explosions and weapon bursts pop with incredible visual clarity, and the strong voice acting and music give a sense of urgency and gravitas to the whole production. Everyone knows this may be their last ride, and the cast pulls out all the stops.
Even while doing everything else right, Mass Effect 3 has a few problems. Your Journal--normally a tightly-organized checklist detailing who to talk to and where--is much more vague now, forcing you to run around aimlessly until you find people you can interact with. A huge bug at launch kept me from importing the same Shepard I've had since the original game--while all my decisions and story were intact, I had to create a new character model from scratch, and while I was able to get him mostly right, he still felt kind of off. Hopefully BioWare will get around to patching that. The PS3 version has terrible graphical glitches and screen-tearing that will also hopefully receive a patch--everyone should get the chance to enjoy this great-looking, great-playing game as the series thunders toward its epic conclusion.
I should go.