It's tempting to say that there hasn't been as fully realized a science fiction universe in a generation as the one presented in the Mass Effect games, which include the just-released Mass Effect 3 (read GameSpot's review here). The game's impressive reach is supported by novels, comic books, apps, and a fanatically loyal fan base (that recently forced a tie-in novel back to the editing desk for corrections to continuity). Sci-fi blog io9 makes much the same argument, calling it, "one of the most important pieces of science fiction narrative of our generation."
Does the trilogy's end deliver? We step back into the shoes of Commander Shepard for one last trip through the galaxy.
Seeing Mass Effect evolve from its first iteration into the glorious epic that has not left my Xbox 360 for an entire week straight is by far one of the most satisfying experiences in all my years covering the industry.
And to be totally honest, Mass Effect did not click with me when I first played the original in 2007. I found it inaccessible and foreign. Its dialogue-driven narrative formula failed to capture my attention, which prevented me from considering its story important. Trudging through that first title proved worth it, though, as Mass Effect's true colors were in full display by the time the end credits rolled--and that's its story, of course.
As the franchise matured, so, too, did its accessibility and charm, its brilliantly developed characters and subplots, and its sense of scale.
Five years later, not only is Mass Effect 3 considered among the elite of 2012's most anticipated games, but it also marks the final chapter in what has become one of gaming's most blockbuster and dramatic series.
Mass Effect 3 (screenshots)See all photos
Mass Effect 3 holds nothing back. It's the best-looking iteration of the game that BioWare has been able to code out with cinematic sequences that other developers would be wise to try and aspire to achieve. It runs smoother than its two ancestors and at times seems to perform beyond expectation. It's emotional. It's marvelously crafted and written. Its pacing is that of an expertly penned thriller novel. It's the type of game that can be watched as easily as it can be played.
Veterans of the series will love the fact that the game can import your Mass Effect 2 character and level, with the option to completely change the sex, appearance, name, and class of your Mass Effect 3 avatar. Not only will your level carry over, but so will your past decisions. Better yet, the game peppers the Mass Effect 3 experience with little personal Easter eggs that are relevant to your playthrough.
With each sequel to Mass Effect, it seems the RPG side of the game colonizes in the dialogue-driven areas and less on the battlefield. There's no denying that Mass Effect 3 can be classified as an action game first. It's true, Mass Effect 3 lets players coast when it comes to the RPG elements of the game (like asset assignments and leveling up), giving the option to place those decisions on autopilot. But the RPG hard core can rest assured that most of those shortcuts are totally voluntary.
What's not voluntary is guiding your character through the intricate Web of encounters with other humans and alien species, all while attempting to save your home planet of Earth. The inclusion of our home planet in Mass Effect 3 brings the story arc full circle, smartly dropping players into an environment where Commander Shepard immediately comes face to face with the trilogy's universal enemy, the Reapers.
Mass Effect 3 also has a few technical improvements that players will be glad to hear about, including a refined cover system, tighter aiming and controls, a multiplayer mode, and Xbox 360 Kinect support.
Interestingly enough, the few times I've used Kinect to play Mass Effect 3, it has performed really well. Players can speak several commands that add a new and occasionally awkward dimension to the experience, but it's nevertheless impressive. I can't say that speaking a line of dialogue is quicker than just pointing an analog stick at it (because it's not), but for those who really want to assume the role of Commander Shepard on a level never before available, the option is there for you.
After several hours with the game, I only found myself using the Kinect features to speak "quick save" and for certain weapon selections. Shepard can carry five classes of weapons and it does appear to be easier to speak the weapon class as opposed to jumping into a selection wheel.
No matter how you play it, Mass Effect 3 delivers on so many levels and does an unbelievable job of condensing a jaw-dropping and massive universe into tightly packaged sequences of action and dialogue. From its amazing story to its varied galactic environments, to the little things like weather effects and musical score, Mass Effect 3 can and should be enjoyed by gamers of all ages, both seasoned and new to the franchise.
It's a title that will be tough to top this year and a game I'm sure I'll be talking about again this December.
Pop-culture enthusiasts of a certain age (say, 37 or so), might very easily find themselves so steeped in "Star Wars" that they'd be able to recall the name of the little droid that blew a fuse, allowing R2-D2 be sold to Luke's uncle on Tatooine (it was R5-D4, and yes, you probably had the action figure). In the same vein, someone who came of age playing the three games (to date) in the Mass Effect series would very likely be able to tell you what the Krogan Genophage was (a biological weapon designed to keep a warlike race of aliens from reproducing).
The swag of Mass Effect 3 (photos)See all photos
If anything, the effect is probably heightened because of the interactive nature of the games, which resists the kind of passive consumption that allows movie exposition to fly by unabsorbed. Instead, Mass Effect 3 (like its two predecessors) makes use of a massive in-game encyclopedia, providing an astonishing level of depth to the game's characters, locations, and backstory, from political organizations to the history and geological makeup of the tiniest moons.
A few years ago, if you had asked me which of the then-new BioWare game series, Mass Effect or Dragon Age, would grow to be the dominant brand, I'd have voted for the sword-and-sorcery-filled Dragon Age. Especially on the PC side, it was a more ambitious game, with four-member parties (as opposed to three in ME1), a world that felt more wide-open, and character development and dialogue trees that offered a level of subtlety missing from many of Mass Effect's sometimes obvious good guy/bad guy choices.
But since then, Dragon Age II was a critical disappointment (but a fine, though different, standalone game), while Mass Effect 2, and now 3, stuck with the winning formula of strategic action alternating with dialogue-heavy exposition.
That's not to say there aren't differences among the three games in the series. With each new installment, the focus seems to turn more toward pure action, while I recall more missions in the original game that could be completed through nonviolent diplomacy, or that at least offered that as an option. Another issue is that there are a few too many characters and settings that show up for the second or third time. Some sense of continuity from the 2007 original is good, but it feels like there's a bit of repetition as well. One especially positive change: the tedious resource mining from Mass Effect 2 has been replaced with a much less time-consuming version.
Of course, your experience may be different, because large chunks of your game may be different. Depending on the character you import from the previous game's save file (you can also choose to skip that and start over), different characters may be alive or dead, and different allegiances may have formed. The big beats remain the same, but much like how Skyrim added a lot of different color depending on your species or race, Mass Effect 3 has a lot of extra content and interaction built in that covers different decisions and play styles.
Particularly striking is the memorial wall of the dead on your spaceship, filled in with the names of characters who didn't make it during the previous two games. Yours well may have different names than mine, depending on how you played each of the games.
With shockingly good writing and voice acting for a video game (and yes, that's still an important distinction), games such as Mass Effect (and Skyrim, L.A. Noire, and others) highlight the plateau we seem to be on today with immersive interactive entertainment. We're still interacting with characters who feel like wax museum automatons, trying to best "play" the conversations to our advantage, rather than truly interacting. It's certainly not an issue specific to Mass Effect. Instead it may be the next uncanny valley game developers need to conquer in order to make this the default creative medium of the future.
Which is not to say Mass Effect 3 isn't addictive fun, because it is. The levels and missions have been carefully tuned to keep players engaged, and as the one guy out there who usually prefers the dialogue scenes to the fighting, there's more than enough to the game's story arcs, unexpected relationships, and just interesting tableaux one may run across while trying to save the galaxy to make this not only the first really important game of 2012, but also an early contender for being one of the year's best.
Editors' note: We'll follow up later this week with more on Mass Effect 3's online multiplayer and Kinect features.