Commander John Shepard's dramatic crusade against a warring species set to conquer the galaxy concludes in Mass Effect 3 (Electronic Arts and Bioware, rated Mature, reviewed for PlayStation 3, $59.99).
The final chapter of this cinematic, all encompassing space opera offers a masterpiece mixing combat, role play, epic exploration and a massive player driven story brought to life through a cast of familiar friends and enemies.
Story: From the opening game scroll — In 2157, humanity discovered that it was not alone in the universe. Thirty years later, they found a peaceful place among dozens of galactic species. But this idyllic future is overshadowed by a dark past: Reapers, a sentient race of machines responsible for cleansing the galaxy of all organic life every 50,000 years, are about to return.
The leaders of the galaxy are paralyzed by indecision, unable to accept the legend of the Reapers as fact. But one soldier has seen the legend come to life.
And now the fate of the galaxy depends on Shepard ...
Play the role: Before embarking on a brutal campaign of survival that provides dozens and dozens of hours of action, a new player has a dizzying set of options to customize his version of a John or Jane Shepard. That alone could take hours or minutes depending on his penchant for indecision.
My eagerness to get to the fun finds me with the comfortable features of the hardened commander John Shepard seen in the television commercials.
However, more choices still need to be made.
The most important was picking from six possible classes including Soldier, Infiltrator, Engineer, Vanguard, Sentinel and Adept.
I was tempted to choose Adept (lots of dark energy traps and telekinetic power attacks) but ultimately stayed the familiar course of a Soldier. Now, was I to be a spacer, colonist or earthborn? I'll take born on earth (specifically, an orphan in the city streets, I enlisted in the Alliance military at the age of 18). I'm also a war hero, and know how to deal with significant combat loss.
Also, the style of game can be chosen between more action and no communicating (played out automatically), more narrative driven or the common Mass Effect experience (a blend of both).
A player who has already worked through the previous Mass Effect titles can simply import their hero's life and all of his foibles.
Now within an evolving story — often defined by a player's ruthless or compassionate choices (using the familiar dialogue wheel of responses) and a detailed exploration of galaxies — the weight of his actions are so significant that they could doom entire species. Mass Effect 3 never disappoints at this level and makes minced meat out of most modern-day blockbusters.
In fact, the story styling is so enormous, the sheer magnitude of the "what if" scenarios will cripple the uncertain gamer, reducing him to simply staring at the screen, However, devoted fans will feel forced to enjoy multiple playthroughs of the game just to see what can change.
Get to the action: Traveling aboard his trusty starship Navigator SR-2, Shepard again bands together with a ragtag crew including James Vega (who looks like a member of Gears of War's Delta Squad), onboard computer EDI (now in a human robotic form to travel on missions) specialist Samantha Traynor, pilot Joker Moreau and war correspondent Diana Allers to scour the galaxies for allies willing to commit to stopping the Reapers' invasion.
Aboard the Navigator, a player will find hours of tasks and encounters with crew members. Shepard can access an armor locker, weapons bench, research terminal (upgrades to weapons), Medical Bay (to distribute experience points), use the Galaxy Map to navigate to hotspots and even a visit the legendary Asari Liara T'Soni's quarters for additional access to research and modifications.
Just like the other games, a pair of team members are hand picked to follow Shepard into missions that range from collecting a Reaper artifact from a Cerberus lab on the planet Sanctum to brokering a diplomatic meeting between a Krogan, Turian and Selarian.
Each squad mate can be controlled with simple commands to move to locations, attack and unleash some of their devastating powers.
Envy set in pretty quickly after watching one of my companions, Liara T'Soni display some amazing Adept powers that a Jedi would admire. Oh well, I could have picked Adept.
I also noticed during the firefights, enemies are much more unpredictable this time out while team members actually offer more consistent assistance.
Additionally, Shepard has a much more intuitive cover system to hide behind structures and climb over them. It is a relief, as our hero often needs his health to replenish when battling brutal enemies such as Reaper Brutes.
Memorable moments (in no particular order): Watching a lightning storm on Mars; the "War of the Worlds"-style opening scene as the Reapers begin to attack Earth; my inability to help a child while under attack (a bit tough to digest); picking off Reaper Husk humanoids with a turret gun like "fish in a barrel" (so sayeth Vega); appreciating the mountainous, waterfall-filled lands of Sur'Kesh; visits with the hologram Avina; and stopping by the Purgatory Bar for a drink with Vega and his soldier buddies.
Violent encounters: Shepard the soldier packs quite a wallop of sheer firepower and can always carry up to five weapons and multiple types of ammo to get the job done.
He also gets the new omni-blade, a laser-sword-like extension of his arm that will quickly deliver fatal melee attacks.
For an example of sheer scale, I was able to amass quite an arsenal within hours of the action, including M-15 Vindicator I battle rifle, M-97 Viper I rapid fire sniper rifle, M-4 Shuriken I submachine gun, M-27 Scimitar I twin generator shotgun and M-3 Predator sidearm with access to frag grenades, incendiary ammo, cryo ammo and concussive shots.
Shepard will need every incendiary bullet as the game ramps up the firefights against hostiles fought at long range and close quarters during brutal and often bloody third-person encounters.
Read all about it: Fans looking for more information on the incredibly dense game mythology will find a special selection of Dark Horse Comics' sequential-art books available for digital download.
The Mass Effect Megabundle ($33.33) offers almost 500 pages compiling 15 books including the complete Invasion, Evolution and Redemption mini-series ready for reading on computers and mobile devices.
Also, for the pulp paper traditionalist, Mass Effect: Homeworlds, No. 1 ($3.50), written by Mac Walters, the lead writer of the video game, hits stands in late April.
Pixel-popping scale: 9 out of 10. The lifelike animated cut scenes can be occasionally jerky, and the dialogue sync during long-winded conversations might burp a bit, but the sheer beauty of the dynamically visual content should stun gamers.
It's an awesome mix of eclectic, species-driven character design including the massive reptilian Krogan and exotic locations such as the Citadel space station (home to a belligerent Galactic Council), all of which really suck a player into the mythology.
Star power: Like appreciating an epic movie franchise, I've known many of these legends such as crusty Capt. David Anderson, Salarian geneticist Dr. Mordin Solus and Turian tough guy Garrus Vakarian for many years, and the chance to take part in this reunion is quite enjoyable.
These virtual stars not only get an enormous amount of dialogue, but characters get an assortment of memorable lines such as Commander Bailey's "we all lie to ourselves to deal with horror," or Doctor Karin Chakwas' "a little more optimism and a little less realism, Commander." That takes the action dramatically above the common interactive gaming medium.
Extras and unlockables: Those new to the game will need to study the encyclopedic Codex hanging out in the Journal area that fills up with new entries as a player progresses. Offering a rich look at the mythology of Mass Effect, it includes lengthy (often) narrated text on such topics as Aliens: Extinct Species, Technology, Known Associates, The Reaper War, Mass Accelerators and Planets and Locations.
Multiplayer: An online co-operative mode called Galaxy at War tethers to the main story but allows up to four players to customize characters from species such as the Turians, Krogans, Quarians and humans that work together to defeat waves of enemies in squad-based combat.
Success in missions can directly impact Shepard's Galactic Readiness rating and potentially decide the fate of the universe as the solo campaign plays out.
Players fight Geth, Cerberus and Reapers within hot zones such as Firebase Glacier, conquering three levels of challenges.
Although, the multiplayer is not required to ultimately save the galaxy, it is a new addition to Mass Effect — a fun and very customizable mode that will offer hours of additional game play.
Final thoughts: Thanks to some exhaustive character development, heart-wrenching battle scenes and that Codex packed with information, Mass Effect 3 concludes a trilogy that plays out like Peter Jackson's grandiose Lord of the Rings and will satisfy committed players and Shepard devotees alike.
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