It's difficult to know where to start with a title as massive as Mass Effect 3. As a role-playing, narrative driven, third person shooter, the series has been setting the standard since 2007.
In the following five years a wealth of history and lore has developed behind this title, and come March, there is a tsunami of expectation charging at the game.
Does it meet our expectations? It sure does. But does it exceed them? Perhaps not. Mass Effect 3 is a brilliant title that is set to make the fanboys weak at the knees and sate the desires of any gamer. It easily meets the standards we've come to expect of Bioware, but as spacious as it is, it's still no supernova.
Mass Effect 3 kicks off right where Mass Effect 2 left off. The indomitable Commander Sheppard has been put on gardening leave, while the galaxy's political hacks wonder what to do about his doomsday prophecies.
They don't have to wait long, the game is only minutes old before the Reapers are literally on Earth's doorstep, and (thankfully) Sheppard's little Cassandra act is over. Before long you are rampaging your way across the Milk Way, building together an alliance of aliens, so that when that one big blow is swung, all organic life has a chance of survival.
To go too much further into the story would be be unfair. I know a good many gamers have been chomping at the bit to get their hands on this title, so I'm not going to ruin things. All I will say is that the writing team have done a masterful job of the meta-narrative. Mass Effect 3's narrative development hangs together in a much more uniform way than any of its peers.
Part of this has to do with the way the game is structured. Unlike its predecessor's - which often took a little while to build up a head of steam - Mass Effect 3 clearly sets up the game's narrative arc, and then promptly sends Commander Sheppard off on his (or her) ass-kicking way. There isn't much waiting around here.
This clear meta-narrative is undoubtedly one of the game's greatest strengths. I'm the kind of gamer that will put down an action fuelled experience if the story-line is making me snore. But I don't need to worry about any of that here, in fact, if all you care about is what happens next, then you have the option to set yourself to narrative difficulty, which lets you romp through those annoying running, shooting and fighting bits.
Whatever you choose you won't be bored. At any level there will be enough depth, complexity, subtlety and surprise to keep you engaged. But I'm betting the majority of gamers out there will want as much shooting as storyline - and Mass Effect 3 gives you plenty of that too.
One of the problems with Mass Effect 2 was that it took a very ambitious approach to its role-playing mechanic. The result was an expansive game, but a disjointed one. In all honesty, I'm a fan of when developers push the envelope, because it means they can learn from their mistakes.
Bioware have certainly learnt from theirs. In the series' third instalment everything is connected. Side quests feed into the overall story in a more believable way, and character building-exercises (such as siding with different citizens in disputes, or enticing pissed off humans to join the Alliance navy) all clearly fit within the ethos that Bioware have woven. And its a pretty good ethos - nothing gets the heart pumping and the emotions cracking like a balls-to-the-wall race against the clock for the future of humanity.
It's just a little bit of a shame that (once again) the writing team seem to have dropped the ball when it comes to snappy one liners and conversational dialogue. Often the conversations Shepard has seem oddly stilted. Part of this is out of the writer's control - one of the reasons this game is so engaging is that gamers are given the option about which emotional path to trod down next, but still sometimes I had to wince. This criticism is hardly a deal-breaker, and the more you play the less it seems to matter. But it's worth noting all the same. The voice acting is also uniformly quite good, and given the sheer amount of dialogue that this title offers up, just getting it all done is impressive in itself. But given the talent on show here (Seth Green, Freddie Prince Jr, Martin Sheen, Michael Hogan and Mark Meer) I was expecting something with a bit more zing.
Perhaps it was the facial animations that have made me turn my ire on Mass Effect 3's vocal characterisation. It sure isn't the rest of it: the back-stories, lore, relationships and unique abilities of your squad-mates and NPCs are impressive and engrossing. But annoyingly, when they talk to you, their lips don't seem to move. Its a niggling concern that makes you look at the rest of the title's graphics through slightly narrowed eyes.
Perhaps it's evidence of the PlayStation 3 showing its age, but there were moments in my play-through when Mass Effect 3 looked a little, well, unpolished. In some environments, the textures appeared spartan, and in the heat of battle, frame-rates were jumpy. In addition, not much thought was put into the game's GUIs.
This is surprising, given the amount of time you are expected to pause the action in order to use them. However, their clumsiness is only made all the more remarkable due to the rest of the game being so sleek. Holistically, Bioware should be proud of the visual feast they've put on for us.
And there is one aspect of the Mass Effect 3's visual aesthetic that can brook no criticism. The designer set pieces are simply stunning. From the game's first few moments it's apparent that Mass Effect 3 is a title that is painted on a broad, wide canvass. Some of the backdrops and settings that you fly to, fight in and forage across are literally breathtaking.
One of the title's earliest missions sees you fly to a moon just off the Turian homeworld. In the distance you can see the planet below glowing with death and destruction. All the while, Reaper exterminators are marching sentinel-like across the surface of the barren rock you are standing on, obliterating everything in their path. It's almost surreal, but it's definitely magnificent.
Bioware also deserve praise for Mass Effect 3's combat. While it doesn't quite deserve to be called "magnificent", it's clear that the developers took a good hard look at its immediate predecessor, and have improved on the game's action in almost every-way.
Mass Effect 2's often linear combat sequences were engaging, but they were a little boring as well. Thankfully, just by getting the basics right, this time around the combat feels both more entertaining and more authentic. Gone are the cookie-cutter environments that plagued Mass Effect 2, and in have come more realistic settings, with the combat improved to make better use of them.
Other additions give the combat a special edge, and some of them - such as introducing height as a tactical imperative - are so simple, yet so, so effective. Additionally, the abilities and load-outs of your squad members are more fluid this time around, meaning that gamers are not forced into the combat style preferred by Bioware's developers, and can put more of themselves into the game.
Personally, I'm a fan of this flexibility. Gamers lead busy lives too, and sometimes we don't have the luxury of trying things differently in a second, third or fourth play-through. But even in that first experience, the customisation options on offer give you enough scope to shape your combat to fit you, rather than in most games, where it's the other way around. Making use of this customisation has also been made easier, as credits are gifted to Sheppard as he (or she) progresses. Fans who nearly broke their thumbs grinding planets for minerals can take a heavy sigh of relief.
But alas, Bioware is still plagued by that old Achilles heel - crappy artificial intelligence. Poor enemy reactions and frustratingly idiotic squad mates makes the combat mechanic more challenging and problematic than it needs to be. On a practical level this can be countered by throwing your hands in the air, and setting the difficulty to "ridiculously easy", but even then some problems arise. Poor AI wouldn't be such a problem for this title if it was consistent, but unfortunately it is not. My play-though ran the entire gamut of poor AI decision making; I had idiotic Cerberus soldiers gazing at walls on the one hand, only to be insta-shotted by boss units from halfway across a map on the other. This frustrating fluctuation between easy and insane was matched only by my fluctuations between bemusement and rage.
But perhaps I am gilding the Lilly. Mass Effect 3's AI isn't perfect, and it has a few problems. But it's by no means terrible. By god, we've seen far worse. It's just that in a title that is as well balanced and as tweaked as Mass Effect 3 is, the sore spots stand out all the more.
Because in the round Mass Effect 3 is an excellent title, and a fantastic game. It has everything that gamers want in a solid RPG title. It has an engrossing storyline that links well with its forebears but still offers something new. It has great graphical set pieces, with atmosphere in spades. And it has solid combat that, while being a little rough around the edges, is still worth the price of admission. Bioware's third instalment in the Mass Effect saga is sure to give hardcore fans exactly what they wanted, and it will almost certainly bring a smile to the face of the not so familiar player.
When we put gaming in perspective that's all a great title ever really needs to do. But while it improves on its predecessor and providers gamers with an engaging experience, there was still something missing from the Mass Effect 3 experience.
What Bioware offers is certainly worthy of high praise, but just like its forebears it lacks a tipping point. It is hard to say exactly where this tipping point should be. Each individual aspect of Mass Effect 3 has great strengths, followed only by a few minor weaknesses. But what separates the truly stupendous from the merely amazing is that often elusive je ne sais quoi. Mass Effect 3 burns brightly. But that extra spark would have transformed it from a shining star, into a blazing supernova.