Mass Effect 3 left me in a hard place, when it comes to writing a review. I'm sure that, by now, savvy, intelligent, well-connected devourers of gaming media such as yourselves have probably already gleamed enough articles and podcasts to learn that Mass Effect 3's ending leaves a lot to be desired, and as much as I wanted to call the web traffic to that affect an over-reaction, I can't. It's very unsatisfying. I won't go into specifics, but let's just say that whoever was in charge of developing the story for the third act of ME3 must have watched the series finale of Lost and thought it was genius.
So where's that leave me? Mild-mannered writer for a site nestled in the back alley of the games media world? How much do I let a poorly wrapped up story impact my review for a game that was, in most every other respect, simply amazing? After all, story isn't a problem for a large portion of games. Mario, Street Fighter, Tetris--no one poo-poos those titles for nearly non-existent story, so how much can I let ME3's sully an otherwise excellent game?
And Mass Effect 3 is excellent. Combat has been evolved from ME2 with just a couple minor tweaks, but those tweaks are oh-so-sweet. Melee combat received the most changes, and the result is quite possibly the most satisfying close-quarter combat I've experienced in a game (everyone upset about the unfair hand Vanguard-class characters were dealt in ME2, your problems have been resolved and over-compensated for) .
Customization of your Shepard is deeper now. Powers go up to Rank Six (opposed to ME2's Rank Four), and each of the upper Ranks have two options for bonuses, allowing you to spec your Shepard just the way you want them. Classes no longer suffer weapon restrictions; now you pick and choose your loadout based on the amount of weight you're willing to lug around on your back, with lighter loads being rewarded with faster cooldown times for your powers and heavier ones adding to your cooldown.
Your squadmates have always been a selling point of the Mass Effect series, and I don't feel that they disappointed here. Your individual squad possibilities may vary, depending on your actions both in ME2 and 3, but their interactions felt more lively. You'll see them occasionally interacting with each other on the crew deck and hear more mid-mission banter back and forth; you really don't realize how much time they spend playing I'll-just-stay-in-my-room-till-Shepard-talks-to-me in the earlier titles until you see ME3. I did break my own rule about not downloading DLC into my review playthrough by getting the Prothean squadmember (who is awesome), but, in my defense, I wasn't sure which of our staff would be writing the review, so my conscience is clear on the issue.
Visually, the game looks great (I heard talk of some framerate issues on the PS3 version, but saw no problems in the Xbox 360 version). The art direction for much of the game is superb, walking the tightrope between "super-clean 70's" and "modern flash and awe" sci-fi realms very adeptly. The sound design is good as well; although I don't think they pushed the envelope there quite as hard as they did in ME2, there are quite a few times you'll feel that shiver down your spine when you hear a particularly tough enemy before you see them.
Oh, hey! Mass Effect has multiplayer now! And it's pretty good! I've made it fairly clear in the past that I'm not a huge multiplayer participant, but I actually enjoyed the multiplayer and imma go play some more even now that I'm done with the single-player campaign. The multiplayer is four-person squad based, eliminate ten waves of non-player enemies, then defend a landing zone until your team is extracted, with occasional side goals randomly popping up along the way (eliminate specific targets, control a point for x amount of time, etc.). Your loadout to start is next-to-nothing, but you can supplement it by purchasing packs with new weapons and races randomly inserted in them (think the Madden Card system, for those familiar), which can be purchased with in game credits or real world money. The multiplayer is tough (I know you think you're a BAMF when playing as Shepard, but your random multiplayer soldier ain't Shepard), and an N7 ranking lets others know how much time you've put in, so make sure you refine your match searches to an appropriate difficulty setting (I had a lot of lobby-mates try to kick me out when I searched for matches with a beginner character and vague match parameters; requesting Bronze difficulty fixed that). Time spent in multiplayer will also help your single-player campaign, but is in no way a prerequisite for the main story.
Oh, that story. Mass Effect is known for its tough decisions, and I have to make another one here: the bad story most definitely hurts the total game. Mario and Street Fighter and Tetris don't have good stories and still end up good games, sure, but you don't play those games for the story. You absolutely play a Bioware game for the story. If a Mario game has janky platforming, or a Street Fighter has bad versus modes, or Tetris has bad puzzle mechanics, then you would consider those games broken, because that's why you play them. Mass Effect 3's storyline is why you play it, and that storyline is broken.
So in the end, the part of me that played the last half of the Mass Effect 3 is giving the game a lower score than the part of me that played the first half wants to, but it's one of those tough decisions a person has to make. All the things I liked about the game are ultimately just gravy, and it was a good gravy, but Bioware invited me over for a steak dinner then served up tofu and steamed veggies when I arrived, and that main course is what's important. I don't know if it's an effect of the studio being spread too thin, or EA forcing an aggressive production schedule on them, or what, but whatever is going on, Bioware needs to nip it in the bud. They've worked very hard for years and years to get the triple-A pedigree they enjoy today, but one more disappointment like Mass Effect 3 or Dragon Age II, and they could quite possibly lose that pedigree.