|Mass Effect 3
Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
BioWare Corp./EA Games
Mass Effect 3 opens with a monstrously powerful race of aliens laying siege to 22nd-century Vancouver, the opening salvo in a far-reaching invasion of the galaxy's many occupied planets.
I think I know how future Vancouver feels, because this game has invaded my free time, laid waste to my productivity and occupied my poor overwhelmed brain. But unlike the smoking ruins of Vancity, I am ever, ever so grateful.
Wrapping up the three-part space opera conducted by the storytelling maestros at Edmonton-based BioWare Corp., Mass Effect 3 takes place six months after the events of Mass Effect 2, itself considered one of the best games of 2010.
As series hero (or heroine) Commander Shepard, players will travel with the crew of the starship Normandy to dozens of far-flung worlds, battling the invading alien Reapers, facing off against the high-tech soldiers of the shady Cerberus organization and forging an alliance between bickering alien races.
Failure means the elimination or enslavement of all intelligent life in the galaxy. So, no pressure.
BioWare's games are known for their stories, and Mass Effect 3 is among the studio's best work. Given the action takes place across many solar systems and involves dozens of sideplots and hundreds of characters -- not to mention story-altering decisions the player might have made during Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 -- the whole thing is wonderfully distilled and easy to follow.
As a blend of the action and role-playing game genres, the Mass Effect series has always excelled at the latter but struggled a little with the former.
Mass Effect 3 smooths out many of the bumps with the game's action, with stunning setpiece sequences and tense, tactical shootouts. You still won't mistake it for Battlefield 3 but it's come a long, long way.
And so have these characters. Most of the surviving major players from Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 show up in this final instalment in one way or another, whether as active allies or sideline supporters. Series publisher EA has said Mass Effect 3 is a great place to dive into the series, but they couldn't be more wrong -- to experience the true emotional impact of the game, it deserves to be played after the first two instalments in the trilogy.
And the impact is significant. Players know that in the Mass Effect universe, no character is safe, and some heartbreaking losses will be suffered this time around. As Shepard travels the galaxy to unite alien races and gather resources for the war against the Reapers, he or she will have to make one gut-check decision after another. Turns out that in the deep black of space there are many shades of grey.
If all this wasn't enough -- and it really, really is -- Mass Effect 3 features a new cooperative multiplayer mode that's surprisingly addictive, thanks in no small part to a system of acquiring upgrades that's a lot like buying packs of hockey cards. I decided to give it a quick try and ended up playing for four hours straight.
If there are problems with Mass Effect 3, they stem from the developers' boundless creative vision scraping up against the technological limitations of the gaming hardware. Shepard and crew visit places that are geographically enormous -- a sprawling space station, a massive alien dreadnaught, dozens of different planets that are homes to billions of souls -- yet they all feel strangely confined and linear.
And because the game gives players freedom in deciding what order they tackle missions and at what pace, the Reaper invasion sometimes doesn't feel as pressing as it should. Would Shepard really act as an interplanetary FedEx service with annihilation on the galaxy's doorstep?
But these small issues are easy to overlook in a game that's massive in scope yet intimate in feeling. From white-knuckle battles to quiet moments with crewmates to decisions that were so tough I literally had to put the controller down and walk away to think, Mass Effect 3 is a feat of technical and storytelling wizardry that speaks to the eyes and ears, to the brain and to the heart. And, damn, it's really hard to say goodbye.
Mass Effect 3's handful of missteps are forgotten in the face of an experience that's exciting, emotional and deeply rewarding. It's difficult to imagine fans of the series not loving this epic conclusion to gamedom's best sci-fi story.