Return of the Jedi (spoiler free)
Does Mass Effect 3 deliver? The short answer is sort-of-yes. ME3 is not a rotten egg like its cousin Dragon Age 2. If you enjoy the series, you should buy ME3 because you will enjoy playing it. The long answer follows.
Note on Spoilers: this review may have spoilers from Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, but not from Mass Effect 3.
Note on Review: for this review I started a "new" character without imports from previous titles and played as paragon.
Being the final installment in a beloved trilogy, ME3 has a lot to live up to. The series has pioneered what developer Bioware calls "cinematic conversations", a popular mechanic now present in all Bioware productions and emulated by competitors. It has also successfully hybridized one of the most popular modern game genres (third person shooting), with one of the most historied (the role playing game), and this hybridization earned its second installment numerous game of the year awards along with introducing a new generation to AAA gaming. And as if that wasn't enough, the series has created an impressively detailed and entirely original universe to serve as backdrop.
The point is that fans have reasonably high expectations. I think they will have the same disappointment that Star Wars fans have with Return of the Jedi. ME3 has neither the outstanding narrative and character development of the trilogy's second installment, nor the ground-breakingness of the first. Rather, it feels like it is capitalizing on its own success and not breaking out with something fresh.
The issue here is the story. As anyone who has interest in the series and access to the internet knows, the Reapers have launched their extinction event with earth as the starting block. Surprise, its up to Shepard to stop them. Your main quest will focus on rallying forces across the galaxy for one huge counterattack, even as the Reapers are destroying civilizations left and right. Unfortunately the tone of this is off. Games can rarely handle any serious attempt at sentimentality and ME3 is not anything special. Moments that are supposed to make us feel sympathy are empty, and the already bland Shepard seems more robotic than usual. Several character death sequences feel undeserved, like the writers thought that just by offing someone it would add drama. Narrative climaxes are frequently duds. It was just hugely disappointing that I didn't get the same emotional investment that came with ME2, and it is due entirely to a narrative that is less ambitious, prone to depending on cliche gimicks like wailing refugees or friendly forces getting mowed down in last stands (over and over again). Like in a second rate disaster movie, the writers are hoping if they throw enough destruction and dread at us then it will elicit emotional response. They just don't have the courage to really get into a story here, to develop character.
Speaking of character, players may also be disappointed with characters. While Bioware has graciously brought back many fan favorites, there are also almost no new ones. While ME2 felt like a new adventure with new players, ME3 feels more like a reunion of old pals who spend more time sitting around talking about the good old days then getting off their ass and making some new good days. Sometimes they are reintroduced in ways that seem impossibly coincidental, and are killed just as carelessly. This is not to say that on a whole the characters are a disaster because players have already put a lot of investment into them and just hanging out with them again is fun in and of itself, but they are disappointing.
Speaking of disappointing, a few thoughts on the ending. If you have avoided learning the ending thus far don't worry, I'm not going to spoil it here. However, I will say that it probably will not give you the closure you expected. It seems deliberately mysterious and ambiguous. Almost as though the writers were not completely sure how to wrap up every loose end with the overall story and so they elected for something resembling 2001: A Space Odyssey, an ending that is final, but completely open for interpretation. You must wrap up the narrative loose ends for yourself because the game can't do it for you. Some will like it. Most will not. I did not.
So that is the bad part. The good part is that the rest of the game is pretty much excellent. Presentation has only continued to improve. The Citadel in particular is better than ever, with crowds, ambient noises, and an inspired futuristic design that is all metal, silicon and holographic lights, almost a galactic hotel designed to be the most pleasant possible destination for sentient beings everywhere. It's good they did this well, as you will be spending a great deal of time here. The Normandy is almost identical to its appearance in ME2, which is not necessarily bad. Players get to visit the Asari home world for the the first time, which is cool. Planets and space stations are all done up with the expected care and ambition of a AAA game, and some of the back drops for larger battles are very good. In particular, Reapers pacing across a moon orbiting the dark side of a burning home world provides a satisfyingly epic scope for one mission.
Combat continues to be refined and improved. The improved shooting we saw in ME2 is back. Players are rewarded for head shots and power combos, and ME2's shields and health system remains unchanged. While the enemy diversity is slightly less than in ME2, I felt that battles were planned out better, with more thought to terrain. The AI also seems to be much better, with enemies using their powers intelligently and in support of each other. The enemies also feel more aggressive, exploiting their superior numbers when they are ahead and hanging back when they are behind. I played on Hardcore difficulty and as a frequent shooter and rpg gamer I found it to be a satisfying challenge, with only two or three battles being frustrating. My only complaint was that there were noticeably fewer boss battles than in the past. I always thought that the series did boss battles well.
Bioware has wisely heeded the time proven rule that sequels should always have more guns than their predecessor, but the inventory system is more or less the same as ME2. When you acquire a gun, you have it forever and can choose it in you pre-mission loadout screen. Weapons can be customized as before, and armor combinations are a way to boost character stats. Also, you can now access any store you visit from the Normandy's shuttle bay, which is a welcome convenience. The biggest change is the new weight system. Weapons now have a weight, which effects your total encumbrance. High encumbrance ratings have a negative impact on your power recharge times, and a low rating vice a versa. Additionally, any class can use any and all weapons. This is important because a biotic or other power-focused class can choose to go into combat with only one or two guns and in return can use powers in rapid succession. Very deadly. And fun. >:)
There is a co-op wave-combat multiplayer component that is not particularly necessary but also does no harm. It can effect the "Galactic Readiness" of your single player campaign which affects the game's ending. This is still optional however as Galactic Readiness can be built up in the campaign without multiplayer.
ME2's planetary scanning mini game has been replaced with a faster, more efficient version, and again, vehicle sequences are gone. Actually, there are no mini games at all besides the planetary scanning, but that is not bad in my opinion. Rail shooting sequences are graciously none existent, and there are only a few stationary turret sequences. Additionally, there is now the option to have all conversation sequences go automatically without player input, which I fear some first time players will choose to their detriment. In the final analysis, the stripping down that took place in ME2 has been continued, but not to an extent that is unexpected or catastrophic.
I guess this is as good a time as any to point out just how excellent and successful the gameplay formula is here. By mixing the story element of an RPG (which is an RPG's most important element) and the combat controls of a shooter (which is a shooter's most important element), Bioware has made a series that is incredibly accessible and just plain fun to play. I imagine that we will continue to see this formula replicated by other studios and that is a good thing so long as it does not herald in the death of the classic RPG as some players have lamented. And I do hope that we get to return to the Mass Effect universe. This game will divide fans on many levels but I imagine they will all agree they want to see more Asari, Turians, Krogans, Volus, Hanar and all the other stuff we've come to love.