Gamers finally have their own equivalent to J. J. Abrams's sci-fi television epic, Lost: hundreds of hours invested in complex character arcs, romances, and high-octane action sequences that culminate in a hasty ending that raises more questions than it answers.
Perhaps I've spoiled Mass Effect 3 by telling you its ending will leave a bad taste in your mouth. But I haven't spoiled the best part of the game: the entire rest of the story before that ending, which displays skillful dramatic pacing and clever reimplementation of past plot points and characters. Dismissing the entire narrative arc up until the game's slapdash conclusion is tempting, but unfair.
Aside from a few small gameplay changes (collecting planetary minerals has been simplified, and hacking mini-games have disappeared), this game bears a strong resemblance to Mass Effect 2 in all the right ways. Mass Effect's ongoing theme of diversity— through the matter-of fact presentation of multiple races, genders, and sexualities — continues here; this game even includes a romance between a human and an artificially intelligent robot. Plus, you've got a colorful collection of humans and aliens on board your ship, with various sexual orientations; of course, if you already had a significant other in your previous Mass Effect saves, this game will import that information. These romance side-quests emphasize the game's overarching story about overlooking engrained cultural prejudices. As Commander Shepard, you spend much of the game convincing different civilizations to work together to defeat the onslaught of destructive machines called Reapers.Mass Effect's other key element, player choice, appears throughout. You'll consider minute changes like which powers you and your teammates will utilize in battle, as well as bigger decisions about which civilizations to side with in the battles that unfold during the Reaper invasion. You could choose to focus on combat, or you could focus on talking to characters, or you could do both.
BioWare's extensive dialogue trees can at times seem stilted and overwrought, and the cover system during combat may unintentionally glue you in place and force you reload a prior save. Also, the design of the weapon load-out screen seems unnecessarily complicated. BioWare games have had moments of wooden scripting and poorly designed menu screens before (in previous Mass Effects and in the Dragon Age games), but usually players will forgive these awkward moments in favor of the stronger scenes.
It's unfortunate, then, that one of the game's jerky narrative missteps happens in its final few minutes. You could shut the story off right before it ends and turn instead to the multiplayer mode, in which four-person teams fight cooperatively. Mass Effect games have never had multiplayer before; now, players can fight alongside other real people and work together to defeat synthetic life — you'll be fighting against AI enemies, see.
If you don't mind the lack of closure, teamwork-centric multiplayer matches do seem like a more fitting thematic end to this series than the one the campaign provides. But if you must see the ending, you can use multiplayer combat to level up your Effective Military Strength score in the single-player campaign (or you could do all the story's side-quests instead, if you hate multiplayer). If you max out your EMS, you'll get to choose the game's "happiest" ending — but it'll still be bittersweet. Oh, well — the first season of Lost still holds up, right?