Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, partial nudity, sexual content, strong language, violence)
Bioware wants everyone to enjoy "Mass Effect 3," which is why it's instituted options that allow players to enjoy it purely as a third-person shooter (with all role-playing upgrades and moral crises handled automatically) or a role-playing game (in which you still must fight, but against a considerably more generous difficulty curve).
But if you've been with the "Mass Effect" trilogy from the beginning and have no desire to play its closing chapter in a compromised state, let there be no confusion: Everyone is invited to play, but "ME3" was very much still made for you.
Bioware poured an encyclopedic ton of galactic mythology into the first two chapters of its space epic, and without spoiling a single story point, "ME3" pays it all off magnificently. The battle against the galaxy-cleansing Reapers is thrilling and narratively exhaustive enough to enthrall new players - instead of assembling a squadron, as you did in "ME2," you're rounding up an entire galaxy's worth of warring races to defeat the Reapers - but there is a considerable bonus for those making return visits. The conditions of "ME3's" core conflict produce some jarringly unlikely alliances, and the sheer number of loose ends Bioware ties up (with regard to characters and entire sectors of space alike) is staggering.
As per series custom, "ME3" provides the option to import a save file from "ME2," and it'll tailor itself to reflect the choices you made (and, perhaps, the characters who consequently perished) in those first two games. Also per series custom, the ending you see will come down to some brutal decisions you'll have to quickly make en route to your showdown with the Reapers. No one does this stuff better than Bioware, and "ME3" does it better than ever.
The actual act of playing "ME3" has changed little from its predecessor: It looks great, benefits from reasonably smart A.I., and as cover-based third-person shooters with light squad management abilities go, it hits enough competent marks to uphold its part of the package. Seeking cover remains occasionally problematic when embroiled in a 360-degree fight: Sometimes an attempt to find cover will result in a roll that leaves you more vulnerable than you already were. Occasionally the enemy count skyrockets and things just fall apart. But these moments are rare and, over the course of a 30-hour game that mostly plays without incident, forgivable.
A note to Xbox 360 owners: If you have a Kinect that's suffering from neglect, plug it in. "ME3" uses the Kinect's voice-recognition abilities better than any game ever has, and being able to manage your squad and change weapons without pausing to use the radial menu is a surprisingly valuable time-saver.
And a note to those who couldn't stand "ME2's" space-mining minigame: "ME3" brings it back in an altered, reduced and surprisingly tense new incarnation. It's still wholly optional, but give it a chance.
"ME3" marks the series' first foray into multiplayer, and the result - four-player online co-op, tasking you (as a lower-level soldier) and your teammates with eliminating waves of enemies - is your standard survival co-op mode. The combat feels the same, and with six character classes to upgrade and lots of perks, challenges and gear to unlock, the mode certainly has legs. It isn't wholly fresh, but it's very solid.
The one ingenious aspect of the multiplayer is how it ties back into your solo campaign. Your efforts to battle enemy forces feeds into the larger war against the Reapers: The more waves you take out in a sector of the galaxy, the stronger your fleet becomes in that sector. You need not participate to see "ME3's" story reach its conclusion, but your story might have a happier ending if you do.