BioWare's second Mass Effect outing saw the series somehow evolve into a bona fide blockbuster. Two years later and the end is near for Commander Shepard and crew in their battle against the Reapers, the race of sentient machines bent on wiping out all organic life in the universe, and BioWare is determined to go out with a bang.
Naturally, that means more shooting. If the original game was a very clearly-defined RPG that happened to feature tactical gun-based combat, and its sequel tilted more in the direction of the latter, Mass Effect 3 can sometimes feel like a third-person shooter with dialogue interludes.
Yet judged as a shooter, Mass Effect 3 is enjoyable but unremarkable fare. There's a larger selection of weapons than its predecessor, all of which can be upgraded and modified, and some of them are enormously good fun. Though you'll sometimes find them trying to flank or flushing you out with grenades, opponents tend to overwhelm you in numbers and power rather than any strategic effectiveness.
It's up to you to shake things up with squad commands and the use of biotic powers, because while BioWare knows how to stage action, it's less confident in balancing and varying it. A great many objectives revolve around protecting a crucial asset or holding a position for a certain time, and while turret sections, boss battles and the odd shooting-from-a-moving-vehicle interlude are welcome twists, these are all still pretty familiar ideas.
But, of course, the combat is just one element of the Mass Effect experience. This represents the culmination of a tale spread across three games and dozens of hours, a story finally coming to its dramatic climax. And what a story it is. It's not necessarily that it's well-written - though it often is - but more that it's well-orchestrated. This is a script moulded by its players, a journey guided by decisions you might have made two games ago.
For the most part you'll be visiting the same planets and taking in the same set-pieces, but who you take that journey with and the roles they play alongside you changes significantly. It's similar but different, just enough to encourage discussion of commonalities and differences with other players.
Mass Effect's other ace in the hole is its willingness to up the stakes. It's never a choice between brutally bludgeoning someone and presenting them with a bouquet of red roses; instead, these are the kind of dilemmas that have you putting the controller down, scratching your head and mulling over for minutes at a time.
Elsewhere, it isn't afraid to dream a little bigger. BioWare has broadened its canvas when it comes to set-pieces, and though its ambitions occasionally clash with the limitations of the game engine, the results are often spectacular. An early highlight has you fighting on the surface of a moon while its mother planet burns in the background, the first staggering sight of many.
The multiplayer game is also far from the perfunctory check-box addition you might expect. Again, context is key: these co-op missions tie into the narrative with levelled-up characters contributing to your galactic readiness. It might be little more than a Horde mode with additional mission objectives besides 'kill everything that moves', but it's surprisingly well-constructed.
There's little here to convert non-believers, but then this game is not for them. This is one for the fans, and few who buy it will be left unsatisfied by how the story - their story - ends.
Virgin Media verdict:
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