Despite all your efforts in the first two games, the Reapers (sentient machines that destroy all intelligent species in the galaxy) have returned. The game opens with the Reapers launching a devastating attack on Earth, and it’s up to you to unite the warring other species to defeat the Reapers.
If you have the final save game from the previous installments, you can again import them into ME3 to have your choices carry over and affect the game’s storyline to an extent. Destroyed the Collector Base in the second game? The Illusive Man is ticked off, and there’ll be hell to pay this time around. Did you save the Rachni on Noveria in the first game? You’ll have the chance to see them again, and they can help your war efforts against the Reapers. Events and characters that were part of the first two games are mentioned and referenced in ME3 without much exposition, which feels natural and perfectly in keeping with the storyline.
From the opening sequence through to the final moments, Mass Effect 3 really does carry a sense of “This is it, this is the end.” There are sequences to truly drive this home: frantically battling for survival amongst the ruins of a decimated world as a Reaper over a mile tall lays waste around you. Trying to stop the 300-year-old genocidal war between the Geth and the Quarians to unite them in the face of a greater enemy. Attempting to overcome the Krogan’s deep-seated hatred for the Salarian sterilization plague to create a more formidable alliance against the Reapers.
The choices made in Mass Effect 3 are some of the most complex and gut-wrenching of any game I’ve played. Characters that I have grown attached to, and feel like old friends with, over the course of 150+ hours (95 hours for the first game and 66 hours for the second) are placed in the line of fire, and I have to make decisions where I may or may not see them again. You are forced to let thousands die to save billions; and your character questions this trade-off: What makes him better than the Reapers? What gives him the right to choose who lives and who dies on such a massive scale?
The vast majority of the game has you playing peace-maker in time of desperate war, which may sound counter-intuitive, but it works. As you build alliances and obtain promises from the various groups, you begin amassing War Assets. Once you achieve a certain level of Assets, you can begin your attempt to push back the Reapers. To increase the number of War Assets, you perform small side quests for various characters on the Citadel, and to increase the strength of those Assets, you’ll pursue cooperative multiplayer games.
Yes, that’s right: multiplayer in what has been a single-player action RPG series. But it works, for the most part. The multiplayer has you creating a new character, one of several difference classes, and joining together with up to three other people. The four of you then attempt to defend a particular place (Urban wasteland, Science facility, Communications array, Power reactor, etc.) against a series of increasingly difficult attacks. A good group that understands teamwork, and works together well, will make it through a round of multiplayer in approximately 15-20 minutes. After each successful round, you gain XP and credits that can be used to level-up your character, choosing new skills, as well as purchasing new weapons and random perks. Even if you fail the mission, you’ll receive a small amount of XP and credit.
As you win the multiplayer game, you raise the Readiness levels of your War Assets from 50 percent up to 100 percent. As you raise the readiness levels, the effective strength of your military and War Assets is increased. You will need a minimum level of strength to begin the assault on the Reapers, and thus the ending of ME3. To reach this minimum, you can simply follow the in-game story missions, and you’ll have a low chance of succeeding. To have a higher chance, you’ll need to do the sidequests. To ensure that you have the greatest chance of success, you’ll need to play several days’ worth of multiplayer (winning each round of multiplayer raises the readiness level between 3-5 percent), but keep in mind that readiness levels decay at 1-3 percent every day, back down to 50 percent. It’s a bit of trickery to get you to play the multiplayer that feels a bit underhanded, especially if you simply want to try and get the best ending possible for your single-player game.
Speaking of endings….
WARNING: HERE THERE BE MASSIVE SPOILERS
The endings, all three of them, are remarkably similar and vary only in small details. This is somewhat disappointing for me, considering BioWare’s touted “Your choices will make a difference” mentality. Even though I understand that there are sometimes no-win situations in war, it still feels a bit like a let-down to have done everything “right” and yet to still have what feels like a “bad” ending. I also understand the need for a Hero’s Sacrifice (ala The Hero’s Journey monomyth) to help reset the balance, but when the results of that sacrifice are minimally different, there’s not much in the way of closure to be had.
The Reapers, in essence, play at God by choosing to wipe out entire civilizations en masse. This is, in part, what your character is fighting against in all three games — that our civilizations deserve the rights to determine our own existence. However, at the end, your character is forced to play the exact same role as the Reapers: choosing to destroy entire civilizations while using some mysterious super-weapon that nobody understands or knows what it actually does. Given these no-win choices by a true Deus ex Machina (in a plot twist that invalidates much of the writing in the first two games) feels a little like a betrayal of my time and effort investments. A betrayal of the choices I’ve made, and the trust of the characters I’ve gained over 200+ hours of gameplay during the past five years.
Everything leading up to the final two hours of Mass Effect 3 for me –95 hours of the first game, 66 hours in the second game, and 35 hours in the third game — is taut and fun. It’s some of the best action and RPG gaming I may have ever played. Those final two hours feel like BioWare was phoning it in.