When it comes to RPG shooters, it's always been easy to find a guns-blazing, blood-and-guts title that might just include a little storyline to keep you interested. But the latest trend in the genre is to create a contest that focuses on much larger and more complicated situations, digital adventures that necessitate a hero who's handy with his words and wits as well as his weapons. And the Mass Effect games have always been examples of that cutting-edge breed.
Commander Shepard, the series' male or female protagonist (depending on which gender players choose), is the sort of character who's always had to outpace long odds. Why, Shepard even died in a previous game and was brought back to life to battle again. But with Mass Effect 3 the commander is facing his toughest challenge yet.
The deadly Reapers, a synthetic alien race that has been secretly behind all the conflicts of the first two games, have finally reached Earth with their unimaginably powerful force. But taking them on won't be as easy as simply grabbing a bazooka and repeatedly pulling the trigger. No, Shepard must also fulfill quests for different alien factions, fend off a power-hungry organization led by the chain-smoking Illusive Man, construct a super weapon to repel the invaders and somehow weave together a coalition of space-going warriors to defeat the Reapers before our pitiable planet gets reduced to cinders.
A Selfless Shepard
At the core of the game is a player's freedom to make important choices. You shape your path through the narrative with an inventive dialogue wheel that allows you to decide what your hero should be thinking when he encounters and converses with other characters along the way. Will he be a rough-and-tumble renegade or a paragon of diplomacy and grace?
That element, combined with the Mass Effect 3's intricate storyline, yields a gaming experience that's vast, varied and deep. It introduces us to a number of well-defined, multifaceted space alien characters while deftly balancing its political intrigue and conflict with a jaw-dropping conclusion.
If that sounds like a pretty impressive résumé, well, it is. This is a story of sacrifice, of heroes who fight and die for the common good—from the thousands who face off against an unbeatable foe to the single soldier who lays down his life for a comrade.
You can even find some spiritual parallels in this selfless storyline if you're looking for them. After the game plays out, for example, one (of several) conclusion shows a little boy, hand-in-hand with his grandfather, asking to hear stories of "the Shepard," the one who gave so much to save so many.
A Steamy Boudoir
Of course, as with the previous entries in this series, that wide-ranging story and abundance of choices is also where things can—and often do—get messy. The social and moral decisions players make impact everything from team morale to who might land in Shepard's bed for a little after-hours "interaction."
The first Mass Effect caused quite a stir with reports of its in-game intimacies. Well, once again, Shepard can woo female or male love interests and, with a little steering of the dialogue, wind up in the middle of simulated sex. Characters are always at least partially dressed or strategically covered, and the camera cuts away before the caressing gets too heated, but damage is certainly done, and cleavage and bare backsides get onscreen treatment.
It should be noted you can avoid these sexual trysts if you choose to. That said, you can't dodge the provocative, formfitting outfits. And you're bound to run into sexualized conversations as well, including salty comments from openly gay characters directed at their same-sex crewmates.
The M in Mass
This isn't an overly gory game, as M-rated titles go. There's light blood spray when characters are shot, for instance. But the life-and-death nature of the battles can get pretty intense. Watching a building explode from a distance is one thing. Watching a beloved companion die in front of you is much more emotional. One scene even spotlights a small child climbing onto a transport just before it's detonated. (Shepard is plagued with nightmares about this young boy, seeing him burst into flames in his dreams.)
Fighters combine assault rifles, submachine guns and shotguns with bladed melee weapons and special biotic powers to slice and dice foes. Freezing an enemy with cryo ammo and unleashing a biotic shock wave will smash him into icy bits. Another biotic option rips an enemy asunder at the molecular level, leaving him scattered in smoldering charred chunks. And, of course, there's the old-school approach: blowing an opponent's head off with a well-aimed shotgun blast.
If that doesn't have you ducking, there's also some explosive language to watch out for. F- and s-words, as well as milder profanities, pepper some conversations.
As with all the games in this influential franchise, Mass Effect 3 offers a compelling adventure. But even as it enfolds you in an immersive universe full of difficult choices, some of those choices snare you in situations that are anything but heroic.