The Galaxy has been plunged into war. The Reapers, a race of intelligent machines who cleanse the Milky Way of advanced, organic life every 50,000 years or so, have returned. In their opening salvo they have occupied Earth and attacked dozens of other worlds, including launching a major assault on the turian homeworld. Commander Shepard, who has been warning the various races about the Reapers for the last three years, manages to escape from Earth on his ship, the Normandy, and sets about unifying the Galaxy against the Reapers. But this is easier said than done.
Mass Effect 3 concludes BioWare's epic trilogy which began five years ago. Long-term players will have guided their version of Commander Shepard (whose gender and abilities can be adjusted by the player) through three games totalling 65-80 hours (depending on what side-missions you played) to reach the grand finale of the story. As a result Mass Effect 3 has more weight than most computer games. Though assembled from some fairly generic ingredients, the Mass Effect universe has become immensely popular, making it the most successful new space opera franchise to appear in any medium since Farscape and the Stargate TV shows in the late 1990s.
The game has a similar structure to the first two. You spend most of it on the Normandy with a choice of where to go next. There's a number of main storyline (or 'priority') missions to complete before the final showdown with the Reapers on Earth, but there's also a large number of side-missions to undertake. The mineral-scanning mechanic from the second game has been replaced by a new system where you can scan planets and star systems to search for items of interest and then recover them. Whilst this risks detection by the Reapers, the items you discover can be of immense cumulative value in the war.
The game tracks your readiness for the final battle with a new war room installed on the Normandy. From this console you can see how the allies you have made in the main and side-missions are faring against the Reapers, as well as the tangible impact of the items recovered from planets on the war effort. The game measures these factors with a score. How high the score is when you launch the final assault on Earth determines how successful you are and the details of the ending that you get.
Mass Effect 3 calls upon the full resources of the storylines and characters established in the first two games (and even some of the spin-off novels) to deliver an immense series of pay-offs. The war between the quarian and the geth is resolved and an opportunity arises to cure the krogans of the genophage disease to win their loyalty (though this might come at losing the support of other races who fought the krogan in prior wars). Whilst Mass Effect 3 has a relatively small pool of characters to take on missions compared to the second game, just about every single major character (and many minor ones) from the series reappears. Some of them don't make it to the end (this is war, after all) and others only have fleeting appearances, but the game does an impressive job in wrapping up almost all of the plot points left dangling from earlier in the series.
Something that Mass Effect 3 does well - and easily its greatest achievement - is giving real value and depth to the relationships established over the course of the trilogy. One of the best (and funniest) scenes in the whole trilogy comes when Garrus and Shepard just decide to hang out on a building rooftop and talk the breeze with some drinks to hand. There's a whole bunch of ongoing subplots that are carried out entirely through dialogue, such as Shepard trying to convince a nervous new comm officer that her skills are of worth in the war or EDI attempting to understand human behaviour better. These elements, based on role-playing and characterisation, are handled well by the game. They're not quite as well-written as previously (most of the franchise's better writers, including Drew Karpyshyn who is credited with the best work, bailed before Mass Effect 3, some of them to work on The Old Republic), but still effective. This extends to tons of 'slice of life' conversations going on at the Citadel as refugees search for family members and security officers struggle with the influx of people, adding detail and depth to the struggle.
An unfortunate problem is that the game's journal is a rather sorry thing compared to the previous games. It doesn't track your mission progress, which given the sheer number of missions you can have going on becomes rather tiresome. The game also has a number of quest-related glitches that leaves several missions uncompletable after a certain point in the game, but the journal and map both insist they can be finished, resulting in you wandering around confused. It's a tribute to the game's quality that, whilst irritating, these problems only had a minor impact on the enjoyability of the game.
Combat, the meat of the game, is mostly unchanged from Mass Effect 2. The biggest change - and problem - is the addition of a combat roll move. In theory this allows you to roll from cover to cover, but it is pretty much totally unnecessary. Unfortunately, BioWare chose to make the 'roll' button the same as 'cover' and 'use', with the result that the game often gets confused about what you are trying to do and has you rolling into the enemy's crossfire when you're actually trying to duck behind one of the many chest-high walls in the game. If you've imported a character from the previous games, you will retain your level which is nice, but means you're so powerful that combat in the game is trivially easy. There's a couple of enemies (most notably the Reaper Banshee) that require more intelligence to deal with, but overall combat is so easy as to be almost perfunctory in the game. This isn't helped by the fact that you have dozens of weapons to choose from, but the original starting weapons are actually all you need to complete the games (with suitable upgrades).
The game unfolds with a crisp pace, complete with an effective, doom-laden atmosphere (helped by Clint Mansell's excellent soundtrack). The scale of events is epic with a capital EPIC, and there are multiple individual showdowns, confrontations and battles huge enough to be end-of-game bossfights in other titles. The final scenes on Tuchanka (the krogan homeworld) are brilliant, as is the battle to reclaim Rannoch (the quarian/geth planet). The game also knows when to reward the player and when to punch them in the gut; the loss of several planets (including one major one) to the Reapers with attending death tolls in the billions is dramatically powerful and has major repercussions throughout the game.
Events culminate in a massive assault on Earth...which is where things fall apart. The Reapers rather conveniently make a series of embarrassing tactical errors that give you a shot at victory. But during the final confrontation, the game suddenly makes a hard left turn into unexpected weirdness. Remember how the Neo/Architect conversation in The Matrix Reloaded sucked and was universally loathed? BioWare seem to have decided that is a good model on how to end a story. Whilst it undercuts expectations not to have a massive bossfight at the end, that doesn't necessarily make it a good idea. The other problem is that the revelations in this conversation make no sense, and go against what you've just spent three games and 60+ hours learning and experiencing. Thematically, the Mass Effect games are about free choice, cooperation and not letting old arguments derail future chances at peace. The ending throws that out the window and offers you a fairly boring choice of which of three buttons to press (and no matter which one you press, there is immense death and destruction waiting). The games have had their hard knocks, but the ending is downright miserable to the point of making the entire trilogy feel pointless, and totally out of keeping with the tone of the series to date.
This has led to the suggestion that the ending of the game is not real and in fact a hallucination. That's entirely possible (the supporting evidence is rather impressive) but, if so, it shows that BioWare has not learned from the mistakes of the creators of Lost and Battlestar Galactica. We shouldn't have to parse and fanwank the ending. This isn't Twin Peaks, this is an epic space war story, and epic space war stories need endings. Return of the Jedi, for all its faults, had a decent ending. Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine had decent endings (wobbling only when they brought in mystical events and implausible backstory revelations, but they were relatively minor). BioWare claim they wanted a bittersweet ending, but we've had tons of bittersweet moments in the game up to that point with billions dying, planets burning and major characters biting the dust. Ending the game in a further bloodbath of millions of innocent civilians followed by a nonsensical conversation, a really weird ending cinematic and then a cheesy post-credits sequence straight out of The Big Book Of Overused Cliches That Should Never Be Used Again, Ever is an idiotic move, a failure of the writers, the game designers and the Q&A testers who should have told their bosses this would never fly (although to be fair they may have done, and been ignored).
The fact that the ending to Mass Effect 3 (****, with the ending costing the game a full star) sucks should not overshadow the achievements of the rest of the game. BioWare has pushed the ability of computer games to showcase real emotional relationships rather than just explosions and bullets further than before and some of their decisions were surprisingly brave. But ultimately the ending is cheap, nasty and nonsensical and cannot help but put what has come before in a less flattering light. The game is available now in the UK (PC, X-Box 360, Playstation 3) and USA (PC, X-Box 360, Playstation 3).