And she’s not above turning to her friends for comfort and advice. Her interactions with companions – the series’ brilliant branching dialogue system, which allows us to intuitively select responses and questions even before other characters finish speaking, remains unchanged and is still the best in the business – remind both Shepard and the player of all of the events both personal and political that have led us to this point.
While the story still takes centre stage, this final chapter has a different tone than its predecessors in that it’s been designed to keep us in the thick of battle. Whereas many of the locations we visited in previous games were cities that we could explore at leisure, nearly every time we touch down on a new planet in Mass Effect 3 it’s with gun in hand and enemies all around.
Gone, too, are the hacking mini-games, ground vehicle exploration sequences, and trial-and-error scans of planets in search of valuable resources. We can still scan planets for war assets and artefacts, but now we know exactly where to look, making the process much less of a time waster.
Basically, when we aren’t chatting with other characters on the galactic Citadel or exploring our ship, we’re fighting. This strong focus on combat would have been more problematic in earlier Mass Effect games, the third-person, cover-based battles of which were rarely more than mediocre. Thankfully, BioWare has made some significant strides in the series' gunplay. Our enemies are more challenging, our weapons more diverse, and combat scenarios are more interesting. Most memorable for me were a slow-paced but thrilling fight through a multi-level garden in a school under siege, as well as a desperate battle leading up to a temple the Asari homeworld in which my blue-skinned allies repeatedly sacrificed themselves to defend my approach.
The combat isn’t quite as polished and satisfying as in, say, a Gears of War game – movement remains a little awkward, and the button mapping for special abilities never felt comfortable to me – but it’s a significant step up from previous Mass Effect games and rather addictive once you get the hang of it.
The improved fighting mechanics becomes doubly important when you consider the game's multiplayer component. That’s right; for the first time in the series, Mass Effect gamers can play together, joining forces on small maps to face down wave after wave of increasingingly fierce enemies while attempting to secure mission objectives.
Traditional RPG lovers may be tempted to simply skip this mode, but I’d advise at least giving it a try – and before you finish the solo campaign. That’s because the two are linked. As you work through multiplayer missions you help to increase the combat readiness of the forces set to repel the Reapers at the end of the game. In other words, your success in multiplayer may impact the game’s ending.
Truth be told, though, I found this to be a rare chink in Mass Effect 3’s armour. The multiplayer might be decent, but foisting it upon players who may have no desire to play online is just bad form. Clearly, BioWare (and its owner, Electronic Arts) would like nothing more than to attract the legions of gamers who adore online shooters, but in doing so the studio risks alienating its core RPG fanbase, many of whom prefer single-player experiences.
Those same purists are also likely to lament the series’ ongoing reduction and reshaping of traditional RPG features, including character and skill development. These elements still exist in Mass Effect 3, but are often hard to recognize. They’ve been altered to ensure they have believable context within the game’s world. We find new technologies while on missions, then analyze and apply upgrades back on our ship. Characters still level-up and receive ability enhancements, but they the bonuses they deliver on the battlefield are often all but imperceptible.
However, concern over the form taken by character growth and statistics is, at least in this case, a trifling issue. The most important part of a role-playing experience is the story being told, the characters with whom we interact, the emotions we experience, and whether we feel as though we’re a part of the game world and that our decisions truly matter. With Mass Effect 3 – and throughout the entire series – BioWare has captured these elements in a way that should inspire envy and admiration in every other studio working in the genre. Put simply, it sets a new benchmark for the telling of video game stories.
Mass Effect 3
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Windows PC
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release: March 6, 2012