Commander Shepard has spent years warning the galaxy of the threat posed by the Reapers, sentient machines that cyclically wipe out all organic life in the Milky Way every 50,000 years. The Reapers were constantly written off as a myth and the warnings went unheeded, even after a single Reaper almost wiped out the Citadel, the center of all galactic civilization. But now machines have arrived, wiping out entire planets and colonies with terrifying ease, and there’s no denying them now as we near the end of our cycle.
This is it.
Mass Effect 3 takes place shortly after the events of Mass Effect 2, after Shepard neutralized the Collector threat that was harvesting humans for the Reapers. The Cerberus-built SR2 Normandy has been seized and retrofitted by the Alliance, and Shepard has been grounded for cooperating with the terrorist organization. All of that red tape nonsense is thrown out the window once the Reapers hit Earth, far sooner than anyone had anticipated.
The Reapers are the superior species in every conceivable way — they’re smarter, stronger, and possess greater numbers. Simply speaking, conventional tactics will meet with catastrophic failure, and no single species will be able to defeat them. Shepard, then, is given two unprecedented objectives: breaking the cycle that has undone the galaxy countless times over, and convincing every race in the galaxy to put their differences behind them to amass an army to do so.
As you would expect, this does not come easily. Despite the undeniably massive threat, political issues make cooperation uneasy. You’ll be forced to mediate for the good of the galaxy, but every victory comes at a price. A lot of people will die — good people — even before you engage the Reapers. Overall the game feels oppressive — even scanning planets (more on that later) is risky business — as your enemy towers over you and decimates entire populations, forcing you to make huge sacrifices for the tiniest shred of hope. The story is emotionally taxing, but one of the most worthwhile experiences in all of science fiction, especially if you’ve followed the series from the beginning.
The actual fight for the galaxy is still as dynamic and compelling as it’s ever been, bringing back the squad-based cover mechanics that make Mass Effect the most action-y of all action RPGs. You bring two crewmates along to help you fight on missions, telling them where to take cover, who to attack, and assigning their most effective powers to directional hotkeys. Bringing those that best compliment your class is both highly effective and highly rewarding; using the right powers and abilities sways the momentum in a fight considerably.
As a whole, the gameplay in Mass Effect 3 is a happy middle ground between the original Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. You still select your weapon loadout before a mission as you did in ME2, but weapon attachments make a comeback to enhance your arsenal. You don’t have to find a dozen heat sinks so that everyone has one, though — once you buy or find an attachment, it’s applicable for everyone. It’s ME1‘s item management, streamlined in ME2 fashion; it’s smart, and very welcome.
There’s plenty that’s unique to ME3, however. For one, every weapon has a set weight, which affects your power cooldown time. If you carry too much with you, you’ll have to wait longer between using your powers. If you pack light, you’ll receive a bonus and can cut cooldown considerably. Whether you prefer heavier, more powerful weapons or relying on your powers is up to you. You can also adopt a power from one of your squadmates, and, more importantly, you also have the option to reset how leveled those powers are. The first time’s free, but it gets considerably more expensive with each reset. This was introduced in last month’s Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, and it’s great to see the feature make its way into Mass Effect 3. Hopefully other RPGs take note of this.