This review comes to you somewhat incomplete. I'm about 15 hours in. I've almost cried twice already. I don't mind admitting that. Not naming any names, there is a scene some way in that is one of the most well crafted cut sequences I've ever seen in a video game, and one of the most deftly handled character send offs I've seen in any medium, period. It's that good. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that a character will die. You're at war. The galaxy is at war. Billions are lost every hour you play. The Reapers continue their seemingly unstoppable onslaught while you, valiant Commander Shepard, desperately fly doing everything you can to stop them. But no matter what you do, you can't save them all.
This is what makes the losses of Mass Effect all the more poignant. As you look up from the surface of a moon and see a planet bathed in the continent-sized firestorms of a giant death-machine invasion, you can't help but feel the nagging doubt that not everyone is going to make it home. Your fears are later confirmed. It is in this tangible sense of loss that Bioware's scifi epic reaches its true maturity. All the strand established over three massive games all intertwine. These are the characters you know and love, the ones you NEED by your side. If you're not fighting for the countless organics across known space, you can be damn sure you're fighting for them. The war creates a sense of tangible urgency in a manner that I don't think was present in the other games of the series. In one stand out scene, one character remarks to the other how he cannot understand the lightness the Citadel residents are taking day to day life. Ever knowing, Shepard remarks that it's all a front to disguise their terror at what is really happening out there. Sure, it's a neat little narrative trick that allows Bioware to employ the usual RPG side quest tropes, but at the same time it also explores peoples reaction to a total war on this scale. It's just another facet that demonstrates the developer's singular storytelling and worldbuilding strengths. And the killer aspect: it's almost a throwaway line that many will simply miss. This is why I'm a only halfway through. I feel the need to take my time and savour every single moment I can. To live in this world, if one can indeed live with a 3D rendering of something that is not strictly speaking there.
On the gameplay front, Mass Effect follows the cover-based shooting action formula that was so well-refined between parts 2 and 3. While it generally plays second fiddle to the story, the action is meaty and fulfilling, mostly thanks to the redesigned sounds of the weapons. These now sound suitably futuristic and satisfying violent. Interspersed between the usual galleries of chest-high walls are some truly epic set pieces, including one that will no doubt stick in the minds of all who play it. Let's just say it involves a Reaper and something equally big and much angrier. The side quests, such as they are, are tied to the main story in every possible way, allowing players to flesh out the game as much as they wish. The mining mechanic has been replaced by something equally topical, which sees the Normandy recovering potential assets for the war effort as opposed to 2000 unites of palladium. Yet again, Bioware have taken one of their mechanics and have made it seemingly crucial to the conclusion of the tale they are telling.
And Mass Effect 3 is a conclusion. Like it or not, it's the end of the story as we know it. The game is the purest form of the series we know and love. It never feels like there is a moment wasted because they very rarely is. Whether it's a quiet chat where you break an asari's heart, or whether you're running for your life from a gigantic alien doom ray, Mass Effect 3 never fails to pull you into its world. If you haven't played the series up until this point, for the love of God buy the first two Mass Effects now and play all the way through. If you don't, you're missing out on one the finest if not THE finest science fiction epic of recent years.
- Jack Whelan