Fun while it lasts, but sadly not as special as its predecessor
It's tough coming into a game like Mass Effect 3 with a universe you've come to love and characters you can't wait to adventure with again, all the while knowing this is it. It has to end. (… Well, for now, at any rate.)
It's also tough going into ME3 knowing that it's very unlikely to be better than its predecessor. That's not really Bioware's fault, but the simple fact that it's the third and final part of a trilogy. The story has to be wound down, conflicts must resolve, characters must reach their ends. None of that is rarely as exciting or interesting as setting up the conflict or getting to know new characters or be knee-deep in the story, not knowing where it's going to go next.
As you play through the opening missions of ME3, it quickly becomes clear that this is a story of a showdown and there's not much (any) deviation from that. I held out hope that we might see interesting side-episodes and mini-stories within the greater arc of The Reaper Showdown, much like in ME2 where the best storytelling occurred during your teammates' personal missions -- and not the main Collector storyline -- like awesome standalone episodes in a sci-fi series. That's not the case in ME3. Side missions are minimal, limited to planet scanning fetch "quests" and Cerberus shoot-outs on recycled multiplayer levels. Progression with your squadmates is limited to conversations on the Normandy, where you'll eventually unlock access to one of their unique abilities. So you're 100% focused on the Reaper invasion. But that should be enough, shouldn't it?
Well … the quality of The Reaper Showdown storyline is a mixed bag. A lot of characters can (and will) die, and I was surprised how inconsequential any of it felt. I hate to compare it to the suicide mission at the end of ME2, but it's pretty jarring how different that experience feels to ME3, where the stakes are supposedly so much higher. I felt much more tense and involved in ME2's endgame, and felt visceral pain and sadness at the end after losing a few squadmates in the final push. In ME3, however, the experience just feels less … intimate? Less involved? Maybe the man behind the curtain had been exposed too much with Mass Effect. When you know too many of the game mechanics, it can detract from the emotional connection you might otherwise have with the story and characters. When you know pressing up is Paragon and down is Renegade to every single situation you encounter, it can make resolving situations feel less authentic. Watching a numerical stat bar fill up as a way of quantifying how prepared the universe is for a final assault steals some of the drama from the situation. Whatever it is, I felt very disconnected and never felt a twinge of anything throughout ME3's many supposedly dramatic events.
There are high moments, of course -- the fate of Mordin Solus, the resolution (or lack thereof) between the Geth and the Quarians, and strangely a short little scene with Garrus on the Citadel before you embark on the final mission. But these moments felt very few and far-between for a game I spent 30-some hours on and a series I've put well over 100 hours into. The simplest way to put it is very little feels surprising in Mass Effect 3. These are familiar sci-fi situations that may remind you of other games or other movies or comics or television shows you've already experienced. The aliens are coming! We must defeat them! In the past, Mass Effect made a name for itself with the rich world lore and awesome character development and back-stories. Here in ME3, the game focuses so much on The Battle With Aliens, and that's to its detriment. You can tell great war stories, but here it feels like you're going through the motions a bit. The sense of familiarity also extends to the much-maligned ending sequence and the deus ex machina explanation behind the Reapers and your eventual resolution with them and the universe. It's a clever attempt to do something beyond WE DEFEATED THEM, YES but it still feels a bit simplistic and unsatisfying.
I guess genre fatigue might apply to all science fiction or fantasy these days, when everyone is mining those genres for the next big entertainment franchise. It makes you really appreciate those few standouts that offer a truly unique take on genre conventions … things like Battlestar Galactica in years past or Game of Thrones more recently … (or Mass Effect 2). Mass Effect 3 is by no means a disappointing game. It's still plenty fun to play through and see how it all wraps up, but it is not a special game and that's a shame because the potential was certainly (and obviously) there.