As I played through the final game in BioWare's masterful Mass Effect trilogy, I found it strange to think that no one else knows my Commander Shepard, an ebony-skinned woman in her late thirties with a messy, lightly silvering bob. Thanks to a system that carries custom avatars forward from one game to the next, millions of players have differing perceptions of what Shepard looks like. (I suspect in most cases he's a man, which just seems wrong to me).
Stranger still is that the discrepencies in our perceptions go far beyond Shepard's appearance. I've made thousands of decisions over the trilogy's 150-hour arc, and all of them have been logged and fed into what I can only imagine to be a wildly complex narrative algorithm designed to ensure plot continuity. Everything my Shepard has done – the political decisions she's made, the alien species she's helped or condemned, the characters she's saved, killed, and sacrificed, the romantic interests with whom she's flirted, made love to, and cheated on – has altered the story in ways both subtle and overt, ensuring that my experience of Mass Effect is unlike that of anyone else.
Taken as whole, the series represents an extraordinarily ambitious – and culturally progressive (more on the series' controversy-inducing social agenda in another story coming later this week) – work of interactive storytelling.
It's also one of the most compelling speculative fictions yet created in the world of games, filled with worlds and species that work together to create a believably vast and organic virtual universe. Thanks to a surfeit of historical detail, terrific artistic design, and an excellent cast of actors (including the likes of Oscar-nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo), species like the matriarchal Asari, warlike Krogan, science-driven Salarians, and nomadic Quarians have become almost as real to me as exotic cultures on Earth. Their natures, philosophies, and plights are engaging enough to bring out the armchair xenobiologist/xenosociologist in just about anyone.
And it's not just alien-laden space opera. You can tell at least a few hard sci-fi writers have infiltrated BioWare's team of talented scribes by the science-y descriptions of hundreds of worlds and astronomical phenomena that can be called up on command. Granted, text accounts of microbial life evolving on an asteroid and star-sized gas giants that have failed to ignite aren't for everyone, but this geek found them fascinating. They add a level of depth and authenticity to the star clusters we explore that you won't find in any other game. I made a point of reading every one.
It's worth adding that the complexity of the series' sprawling narrative means Mass Effect 3 will likely consternate newcomers. Despite BioWare's claims otherwise, trying to dive into the series at this point would be akin to trying to make sense of the Star Wars universe by watching only Return of the Jedi.
Indeed, we've spend so much time investing ourselves in this massive, rich, and nuanced galaxy that it seems a shame it all must end.
But end it does.
The final chapter begins on Earth in Vancouver near the end of the 23rd century (check out our interview with the series' art director to learn more about his team's take on the future architecture of Canada's west coast metropolis). The threat of the Reapers – a race of synthetic beings that wipes the galaxy clean of advanced sentient life at 50,000 year intervals – has finally materialized. These Mountain-sized machines arrive to crush not just humanity's cradle, but every civilized planet in known space.
It falls to Shepard to unite the galaxy's mistrustful and warring factions into a single fighting force capable of repelling the galactic invaders. We travel to scores of planets, carrying out missions with intent to earn trust, goodwill, and, most importantly, gratitude bestowed in the form of war assets that will be used in the final battle against the Reapers.
As in past Mass Effect outings, BioWare has done a superlative job of creating a sense of scale and desperation – and not just via the number of locations visited and diversity of races threatened by extinction. Gorgeous level design delivers sweeping vistas of grand cities and alien landscapes that give the proceedings a galactic epic-ness and show us exactly what is at stake in this final fight.
It would be easy to become lost in the enormity of it all, but BioWare cleverly anchors our experience to Shepard, who keeps things personal and manageable. Her – those of you with male avatars will need to bear with my choice of pronouns; I can't imagine my protagonist as anything but my so-called "FemShep" – fear of responsibility takes the form of nightmares in which a child she failed to save before leaving Earth repeatedly burns to death.
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