Sacrifice. It's Mass Effect 3's major theme, and rightly so. After all, the reapers were coming--it was only a matter of time. And now, those sentient space vessels are here, and with them, a galaxy's worth of destruction. Mass Effect 3 brings the sound and the fury, but these aren't meaningless shows of laser fire and alien devastation. The series has earned its right to showcase such destruction by drawing us close to its characters and teaching us of its universe.
Mass Effect was about time and place; you discovered the Milky Way's landmarks and races, guided by memorable characters like Tali and Garrus, who served as representatives of their cultures. Mass Effect 2 was about people; you learned more about old friends and made new ones, and drew each of them close to your heart. Mass Effect 3 fearlessly manipulates those personal bonds, forcing you to make difficult choices and consider the greater good--even when the greater good isn't always clear. The game is structured less like Mass Effect 2 and more like Dragon Age II: three dramatic acts, each concluding with major events that might leave you in tears, or at very least, shivering from the emotional impact.
Mass Effect 3 is focused more on plot than the previous installments were, and at first, you might miss Mass Effect 2's more obvious personal touch. You meet some new characters, but you develop few new meaningful relationships. A couple of notable exceptions aside, your party members are familiar faces, and as Commander Shepard, you aren't traveling the galaxy seeking individual crew members, but rather the assistance of entire races. Some of the plot devices seem a bit transparent; what are the chances that Shepard would just happen to find an old acquaintance on almost every random planet? But once the plot is in motion, the human element returns, and poignantly so. Mass Effect 3 frequently reminds us that the loss of a single shining soul often takes on more meaning than a planetwide massacre. (After all, what carried more emotional weight in Star Wars: Obi-Wan's death or Alderaan's destruction?)
You shouldn't take a pistol to a Reaper's fight
Like Star Wars, Mass Effect 3 is an incredibly fulfilling story that deftly balances plot, character, conflict, and resolution. After a short exposition, an opening combat scenario cleverly combines the "big" of a reaper attack on Earth with the "small" of a single death. That one death haunts Shepard until the moving and jaw-dropping conclusion. While there is plenty of action, developer BioWare subverts our expectations. Every so often, the shooting heats up, only to lead to a climax that comes not in the form of an explosion or a boss fight, but in a simple quiet conversation, or a few limping steps.
The reapers aren't your only adversary in Mass Effect 3: the pro-human organization known as Cerberus, led by the Illusive Man, complicates the conflict. Your ultimate goal is to rid the galaxy of the reaper threat with the use of a superweapon, yet the Illusive Man has different ideas and goes to some disturbing lengths to implement them. Discovering his goals and means is one of Mass Effect 3 s better story threads, in part because the Illusive Man is such a strong presence. Actor Martin Sheen brings a calm, chilling strength to the character, but also exudes a touch of vulnerability when the Illusive Man is forced to confront his own demons. Not that Sheen outshines any given actor. A few inessential characters aside, the galaxy s inhabitants seem authentic. You hear stoicism, fear, or resignation in the simplest of line readings.
The series' focus on player choice is as vital as it has ever been in Mass Effect 3. The effects of choices in previous installments have an impact in extraordinary ways here, more so than in Mass Effect 2. Sometimes the nods to prior choices are subtle. A lover might fondly recall her previous entanglement with you, while still supporting your new romantic interest. At other times, the impact is far more dramatic. Entire quests, conversations, and characters shift as a result of your actions in previous games (not to mention, your decisions in this one). As a result, you might be delighted by characters other players never meet, share intimate talks with crewmates other players never interact with, and deal with decisions other players never make. And as in previous Mass Effect games, your entire attitude when choosing dialogue options (paragon or renegade) can drive you to conclusions other players could never consider.