Thankfully biotic powers are as destructive as ever, and more flexibility is given to the player by way of a branching skill tree for each power. Further, good relationships with the Normandy crew grant Shepard the use of an additional two powers per member, although only one crew power may be “equipped” at any time. Speaking of equipping, the Kinect integration delivers: anything that previously required accessing the GUI wheels can now be activated with just word or two, which proves incredibly handy for pairing a certain ammo type to whatever weapon Shepard is currently wielding, or just for weapon switching in general. Even squad commands regarding positioning as well as weapon, ammo, and power use can be given using just voice and the target reticule. It’s fantastic, and set to “Australia”, the software has no problem with the Kiwi accent.
One of many great things about Mass Effect 3 is that every mission Shepard completes – however incidental – accumulates war assets, which in turn fill up a “galactic readiness” meter in the Normandy’s new War Room. Once this meter hits a threshold, an all-out attack may be mounted on the Reapers, with war assets colouring the outcome for the allied forces.
This means that seemingly inconsequential side-missions – many of which are picked up simply by catching a snippet of a conversation between strangers on the Citadel – contribute to the plot’s main thread, lending them some import while giving Shepard a reason to go artifact hunting for some alien rather than murder hostiles (although admittedly the latter generally happens wherever Shepard goes).
As more resistance forces are brought on-side and prepped, some big decisions need to be made – choices which may decide the fate of entire races, in fact. None of these are easy, and they are made all the tougher by the fact that Shepard usually has loyalties to members of both sides. The deaths of old friends and allies come alarmingly quickly here, but the game is never less than reverent in the way it handles these moments, and Shepard reflects, mourns, and even has nightmares over lost brothers and sisters in arms. Fortunately what could have been clumsily cheesy is instead tastefully understated and quietly gut-wrenching, yet the narrative momentum never wavers.
Multiplayer is a first for Mass Effect, and the wave-based survival mode here is surprisingly solid. It’s nothing but gravy on top of the main campaign’s meaty offering. Pitting teams of up to four non-Shepard players against ten waves of enemies per location (of which there are six), a full game takes about half an hour, and sees the team battle the clock to hack consoles or kill specific enemies, or simply survive until the next round.
Seven races and all campaign classes are playable, although only humans are unlocked at the beginning. Experience rewards for completed missions are generous and are shared equally, with bonuses given out for number of headshots, kills, and so forth. Leveling is tied to class rather than race, and races differ by power load-out as well as in dodge, melee and cover movements. Only two weapons may be taken into battle, but the full upgrade system from the campaign is available, if slightly tweaked by requiring earned credits (or Microsoft Points for the impatient) to be spent on bundles of random item packs so a particular item may or may not appear within. Classes and races may also be unlocked this way, and single-use bonuses such as self-resurrection and full ammo replenishment may also be found.
Fun in itself for a few hours – particularly when all four players are unloading lead and biotics on swarms of hapless enemies – the multiplayer also falls under the Mass Effect: Galaxy At War umbrella. This means that progress in the multiplayer boosts the campaign’s galactic readiness meter, quite dramatically in fact. Despite this, the best endings of the game can still be achieved without touching this mode – more quests will need to be completed in singleplayer to compensate is all.
Mass Effect 3 is an utterly brilliant bookend for an outstanding franchise. At once incredibly immersive, moving, funny, thought-provoking and technically accomplished as well as action-packed, it tries to be many things at once and somehow excels at all of them. When a game is this huge (at least 35 hours for a thorough singleplayer experience) and yet serves up very few dud moments, minor quibbles such as occasional framerate stutters or rare clipping issues seem almost too trivial to warrant a mention. Even the ill-conceived endings that currently have the Internet in a lather can’t significantly dilute the enjoyment that is to be had here, as much as they try.
The creativity shown in alien and planetary design alone is to be marveled at, but that such assets sit inside one of the most brilliantly fleshed-out and intriguing universes seen in gaming seems outright unfair. Then there’s the soundtrack, the narrative, the voice acting, the direction, the customization, the choices – oh, the choices – it’s fantastic in almost every respect.
Mass Effect 3 is the real deal, for this reviewer’s money the best game released in the last 12 months – and possibly the next 12, too.