BioWare's contentious climax to the original Mass Effect trilogy isn't... really... all that contentious. Sure, there's the phenomenally underwhelming ending that makes some wild leaps in logic, but besides that Mass Effect 3 is undeniably the successor to 2. I don't think it's as masterful as the Collector-hunting-comrade-collecting journey, but it's riddled with great character moments, tense dilemmas, and energetic firefights. Whatever failings it may have (of which there are quite a few), I honestly feel that the team at BioWare did the best they could.
The worst part about Mass Effect 3—and an aspect I believe is more detrimental than the unsatisfactory ending—is that everything revolves around the ongoing galactic war. On one hand, it absolutely makes sense within the confines of the story. It avoids classic RPG tonal dissonance of, say, breeding racebirds while an apocalyptic meteor descends upon the planet, but it robs Mass Effect of its leisure and gentleness. Gone are the innocent times where you could stop by a store and inquire about an alien race's history; now you'll eavesdrops to garner war assets and convince old friends to become statistics in your army. Every conversation, every expedition, and every interjection is designed to further aid you in the war.
I'll reiterate that while it's understandable in universe, the galactic war becomes a black hole that saps a lot of joy out of the series. On every mission people constantly radio in to tell you to "HURRY UP", leaving you no room to soak in some of the prettier backdrops. Puzzles and minigames have also been entirely removed, reducing the gameplay loop to "gear up -> shoot shoot shoot". The silver lining is that the downtime in Mass Effect 3, where you're allowed to sit back and chat with your companions, feels a lot more well deserved. This is part of the reason why the Citadel DLC (where you're on shore leave) is so unanimously well-loved, and remains the crowning jewel of the Mass Effect experience. But even if you happen to play the game without it, there are still a lot of small character moments that'll put a smile on your face.
Perhaps the greatest improvement Mass Effect 3 holds over its older siblings is that your crew actually interacts with one another. To people that haven't played the series this may not seem like a big deal, but your squad is central to Mass Effect experience—if not the driving force itself. It's honestly kind of strange thinking back on the previous two games that, outside of a few exceptions, the soldiers on your ship never strike up a conversation. Mass Effect 3 remedies this by peppering in various radio chats you can eavesdrop on, as well as some unique lighthearted banter that'll pop up during a mission. It makes the crew feel more alive and cohesive, rather than guns for hire that only respond to their captain.
Unexpectedly, there's also more character customization than in Mass Effect 2—something that I honestly didn't expect (or remember). Fully upgrading an ability lets you pick three of six enhancements for your power, which can make your squad feel more specialized... even though you'll likely just choose "damage up" every single time. But what really surprised me was that Mass Effect 3 allows the player to carry any weapons they want into combat—at the price of slowing power recharge speed per armament. This had a significantly larger impact on how I played than any of the dopey mods from the first game ever did. With each weapon carrying its own magazine size, fire rate, damage, and specific weight, I had a lot of options to play with.
When it came time to storm the battlefield, I found myself having roughly as much fun with the combat as I did in 2. There are significantly less enemies protected by armor and shields in Mass Effect 3—turning my singularity into a potent anti-cover weapon—but this is offset by foes tossing grenades as frequently as their Uncharted 3 brethren. While explosives are a good way to de-trench the player from their favorite piece of cover, all it really served to do was slow down the gameplay as I bounced back and forth from one waist-high rock to another. I wrote in my entry on The Division how natural it felt to zip around cover, and my point of comparison was Mass Effect 3; far too often the game rewards you for staying stationary and simply shooting enemies before they can shoot you.
I would still classify most of the combat as entertaining (even if you get into routine habits), which is more than I can say for the mission structure. There's been a mass exodus of missions unrelated to the main campaign, creating of a drought of creativity in the level variety. Missing are the strange and unique side missions found in 2; Mass Effect 3 has you shooting Cerberus soldiers at a civilian base in one mission, and then shooting Cerberus soldiers at a Cerberus base the next. Side missions aren't the biggest draw to the Mass Effect universe, but they were a source of mystery in the previous games. Here, there's no time to tickle your curiosity—there's an enemy that needs killin', and a war that needs winnin'.
I've saved discussing the story for last again not because I don't have a lot of opinions on it, but mainly because it's impossible to discuss without delving into spoilers. Suffice to say, I don't think the ending is that bad (again, a big part of the experience is the journey, not the destination), though it's a lot better on replay when you're prepared for the blindside. The other big story beats are interesting and engaging, though it can border on embarrassing how easily galaxy-wide turmoil is wrapped up, or how quickly old friends make themselves scarce (hello David... bye David...) But I give Mass Effect 3 a pass largely due to the fact that it had a lot of ground to cover and variables to account for. Honestly, the one thing I cannot overlook is how essential the DLC is to the experience: Javik, the Leviathan, and the Citadel content all add some excellent flavor to the game's universe, and hiding the first two behind a $10 paywall is naked greed that spits in the faces of the fans.
I've read and understood plenty of arguments calling Mass Effect 3 a disappointment, but it was always going to be hard reaching Mass Effect 2's heights. 2 was a connective story that had a lot of freedom, whereas 3 had to play it by the rules and wrap up any loose ends. How well it does this depends on what characters you've grown attached to, how fascinating you find a galaxy-wide war, and whether or not you're okay with Shepard's dialogue options getting massively pared down (goodbye middle choice!). Beyond that (and the ending [and the crushing seriousness of the war]) there's not that much to hate. The character writing is as sharp as its ever been, the planets and vistas are genuinely jaw-dropping, and the gameplay remains fun long after you've downed your 1000th Cerberus lackey. Mass Effect 3's reputation may be visibly troubled, but the game is a solid product that—at its worst—occasionally skirts mediocrity.
Images obtained from: PNGKey.com, reddit.com, gamewatcher.com, GameSpot.com