George Lucas, take note: THIS is how you make an epic space opera
For the third game Commander Shepherd is back at the helm of the spaceship Normandy, leading his intrepid crew in the endgame against the Reapers – a robotic species hellbent on eliminating all organic life in the galaxy, as alluded to in the previous episodes. However, the individual species in the Alliance are initially unconvinced that they should all band together to defeat the threat, so Shepherd’s faced with the twin objectives of uniting the galaxy’s bickering species and helping locate an ancient superweapon that just might defeat the Reapers. All of this while trying to keep one step ahead of the fascistic human-centric organisation Cerberus, who have their own shadowy agenda.
It’s an interesting reflection on the unique character of Mass Effect that this iteration offers three kinds of gameplay choices when you begin: action (conversations play as cutscenes, edited down to focus on the first-person shooter aspects of the game); story (action sequences are limited, allowing you to focus on the conversations and plot); or role-playing game (the normal ME experience, including both modes). If you’ve played the first two, you can import the Shepherd you developed over your previous games, or select a few options that affect which characters may or may not recur. And if this is the first time you’ve come on board, you can get up to speed quickly thanks to the codex entries that explain the rich backstory.
The character animations are sleek and the backgrounds detailed, but it’s the story, the choices you make as you move through it and the way it builds the relationships between the characters, that transforms this from a shiny run-and-gun shooter. Among the explosions and spaceships and laser guns, it’s ultimately all about something larger, beautifully illustrated in the opening sequence in which Shepherd tries to save a child during the Reaper invasion of Earth only to be told, correctly, “you can’t save me”.
It’s that certain knowledge that people are going to die no matter what happens (including some you've spent three games fighting alongside) that makes Mass Effect 3 such an affecting piece of art, as well as a masterpiece in gaming.