Mass Effect 3 certainly has its work cut out for it. The closing act of a beloved trilogy whose predecessor is a legitimate contender for greatest game of the seventh console generation, it has to wrangle many combinations of its older sibling’s dangling narrative threads into something resembling meaningful closure without feeling rushed or coming off like an interactive checklist. It almost goes without saying that it will have to do so in spectacular fashion too, taking the climactic moments from its older siblings and adding twenty percent more awesome.

The setup is simple: along with most of the Milky Way, Earth has been invaded by the giant insectoid quasi-robotic Reapers, and the outlook is grim. Despite Shepard’s warnings regarding the invasion, most races have been caught with their pants down and thus have sustained astronomical casualties, yet cannot seem to see past their differences to unite against this deadly common enemy who now seems positioned to conquer and destroy the entire galaxy. Shepard’s task, then, is to somehow build up enough of an army to thwart the Reapers, if indeed it isn’t too late to do so already. It’s do or die on the largest conceivable scale, but some finesse will be required to make allies of centuries-old enemies, and there will always be sacrifices.

However straightforward this narrative seems, it plays out in a manner heavily influenced by the myriad choices made by players in the first two full games and the avalanche of DLC that followed, assuming they played them at all. Although codex entries and carefully written cutscenes will provide Mass Effect newcomers with the back story required for full understanding, this would seem to be the difference between hearing about an event and actually being there – the facts are in order but the emotional centre of the game will surely be absent, and those smaller connections and neat character moments the franchise is famous for will pass undetected.

Mass Effect 3 co-op screens

Should a player insist on starting fresh, the game compensates for the lack of play history by removing a few crew whose stories aren’t core to the ME3 experience and asking a series of setup questions that are at once meaningless to newbies yet of obvious import. On the flip side, those who load their Commander Shepard from the prior games can be safe in the knowledge that over 1000 variables come with him or her, even if a recognisable face does not always make it.

New players won’t be the only ones getting their first showdown with a Reaper: a new body or two join Shepard’s squad, which is much reduced this time around regardless of who survived Mass Effect 2. Almost all Mass Effect 2 survivors not immediately available for squad duties crop up eventually in one way or another, but despite most being unplayable, none are unfairly dismissed or given the short shrift development-wise.

There have been changes though. The hypnotic mining minigame has been replaced by a planet scanning mechanic that attempts to add drama by attracting Reapers if overused but instead merely frustrates with zero-stakes pointlessness, and the hacking minigames have been expunged altogether. It’s no exaggeration to say that all other alterations are positive, however.

Combat is still slightly janky but is a step slicker than it was, and a step faster too. Running now feels less like driving a mech around, and infinite run, improved cover mechanics including vaulting, and an upgraded melee system are all excellent additions. A third-person staple, the combat roll, has also been introduced, along with blind fire and the ability to resuscitate squadmates locally without expending medi-gel (distance healing still uses it though). Elsewhere, class-based weapon restrictions no longer apply to Shepard – which is great, although they are still in place for everyone else. Instead, Shepard’s combined weapon weight affects his power regeneration, making a light loadout advisable for all except the soldier class.

It is tempting to stagger about with a full arsenal though as there are many sound weapons, and all of them suit a relatively narrow set of circumstances and play styles. All can be modded to the hilt too – the usual scopes, larger clips and damage-enhancers are all present, and only need be found or purchased once and fitted to everyone’s gun of that particular type. Armour, on the other hand, has no encumbering effect and may be added in a piecemeal fashion to boost certain stats or as a whole suit geared towards a particular class. Having to return to the Normandy to equip separate parts is a hassle though.

Enemies aren’t much smarter this time out, but they do attack in some vexing formations – grenades are tossed and husks rush forward to flush Shepard’s squad from cover, while harder-hitting troops deal damage from mid-range or set up deadly turrets… then the Brutes arrive. A few new enemy types keep things fresh, the best of which is a towering and terrifying wraith-like being that teleports toward the player and relishes impaling them gruesomely on one spindly spectral arm for a creepy insta-kill. Greater verticality and openness in the level design department means that Shepard and company are often under attack from two or more flanks as well, so staying put behind the farthest cover from the enemy is rarely an option for more than a few seconds.

Where on its body an enemy is shot also matters beyond the traditional high-damage headshot – a foe with a mere sliver of health remaining will stay defiantly upright if you shoot him in the shoulder pad rather than in exposed flesh.

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