The following review may contain mild spoilers for Mass Effect 3. If you're sensitive to such things, please skip to the Co-Op portion of the review which begins on page 3.
The Reapers have come. Commander Shepard's big "I told you so" moment arrives in a terrifying way: Earth has been decimated, and the rest of the galaxy is being overrun. Current technology can only stave off the Reaper advance, and the disparate fleets of the Alliance and Council races cannot survive on their own. It's up to Shepard to not only try and formulate a plan to save everyone, but to unite all of the species in the galaxy under one banner to try and defeat the Reapers once and for all. It's simple: live together, or die alone. Victory at any cost.
My Shepard is not your Shepard. For five years now, I've roleplayed the most ass-kicking space lady this side of Private Vasquez and somehow also managed to become the greatest diplomat in the universe. Your Shepard might be a bald space marine with a short temper and a penchant for shooting people in the face, or a man determined to succeed, no matter what sacrifices must be made. My party members are old soldiers, old friends. I care about them. The game capitalized on this in ways that can be surprisingly touching.
Mass Effect 3 has a feeling of finality that persists throughout. Story arcs that were seeded in prior games reach their conclusion. Decisions you made back in 2007 with the original game can come back to haunt you, or gambles you made might pay off spectacularly. Characters you've met in the past (granted you managed to keep them alive) again cross your path. Sometimes they'll join your desperate fight, but often they have their own problems to deal with. Again, their personal stories are wrapped up, and not always for the best. The sheer number of loose ends that get tied up during the 30-hour (for me, anyway) campaign is almost startling. For those of you who played the DLC episodes for both prior games, there are some interesting pay-offs that other players might not catch.
As you might have heard, the last ten minutes of the game or so are incredibly polarizing, but while I understand and even agree with (some of) the criticism, I didn't feel like the nearly 100 hours I've spent with these characters and this universe have been wasted, nor will I be calling for the King's Justice to be meted out on Bioware.
While Mass Effect was an RPG masquerading as a shooter and Mass Effect 2 was a shooter masquerading as an RPG, Mass Effect 3 tries to split the difference between the two. The combat system from ME2 has been largely unchanged, though Shepard now has the ability to make evasive combat rolls, and her melee capabilities have been greatly enhanced with the new OmniBlade.
Weapon modification is back, as are an almost unnecessary amount of options to pick from, especially when combined with the 8-10 different versions of each weapon type (each with 10 levels of upgrade). About a third of the way through the game, I just stopped trying to figure out which weapons would be an upgrade and stuck with what felt comfortable. You can also customize Shepard's armor with a variety of stat-boosting pieces, but none of them ever felt particularly substantial to me, so I ended up aiming for a balance of small upgrades vs. what looked the coolest.
While the storyline is engaging throughout, a number of rather inane sidequests have also been added and tied into both the fan-favorite planet scanning minigame and the new Galaxy at War metagame - more on that later. There are a good number of sidequests that play out well, but the vast majority of the ones you'll come across are randomly discovered when you walk by people in the Citadel and overhear their conversation. These usually involve finding some macguffin in the planet scanning mode and returning the item to the character, who is understandably surprised that you happened to find that item during your travels. I wanted to skip these, but they are tied in to your war rating and (again) the Galaxy at War.
Planet scanning has been simultaneously streamlined and made more annoying. While searching for various sidequest items, the Normandy can send out a scanning ping to detect whether or not there's something to scan for. Send out too many scans and you'll be greeted with a fleet of Reapers chasing you down like a lame game of Pac-Man. If you get caught, it's an instant game over. Luckily, the game quicksaves for you each time you enter a new solar system, so you won't lose anything but load time.
The Galaxy at War metagame measures two things: Shepard's effective military strength and the preparedness of the galactic militaries to fight off the Reapers. Your military strength is increased by gathering war assets through questing, and is affected by the aforementioned preparedness stat. The galactic preparedness level is set to 50% by default and can only be increased by playing co-op or ancillary products such as Mass Effect Infiltrator (iOS). Increasing preparedness is the easiest way to boost your effective military strength (which ties into events leading up to the ending), and thus becomes the target of more gamer ire, with accusations of forcing people into playing the multiplayer mode in order to get the "best" ending.
Which finally brings us to the co-op. While campaign co-op in a Mass Effect title remains an unrealized dream, Bioware has added their take on the now-standard wave based survival mode for four players.
Your co-op career will begin by creating a character from one of the series' standard classes. To start off, you're restricted to human characters, though you will eventually unlock other races to choose from. Pick some colors, name your character (which is visible only to you, sadly), and you're off to matchmaking. Some basic filtering options are available finding a game (or setting up a private match): map selection, enemy force selection (Cerberus Operatives, Reapers or Geth) and challenge level. I've heard that some PC players may need to forward ports on their routers to get things working smoothly, which is unfortunate.
If you're just starting out, be warned that a few times I brought a fresh level 1 character into a match, I got booted by the host. Luckily, most people aren't jerks, and completing a round will gain you multiple levels and (mostly) remove the problem. Just be sure you aren't trying to bring a lowbie character to a Silver or Gold-level challenge. Additionally, though Bronze-level challenges can certainly be completed with moderate difficulty by two players, you'll want to ensure that there are at least three players in a match for better chances. If the difficulty is cranked, I would not advise trying it with less than a full group unless you are a bit of a masochist.
Matches take place on one of six maps, which you'll recognize as being shared with the N7 missions available during the campaign. Each match contains 10 rounds of galactic manshooting, capped off by a final escape sequence. For most rounds, you'll simply be fending off ever-increasing numbers of enemies that get more powerful as you progress, but every few rounds, an objective will be added to the mix. These objectives are instantly familiar to anyone who has played a competitive multiplayer game. Need to hack a computer? Capture and hold a control point for a set amount of time. VIPs spotted in the area? You'll have to kill 4 marked enemies under a time limit. Failure to complete these objectives in the time limit results in a game over, and no, you cannot restart a match from the current round. Luckily, you still earn XP and Credits for failed matches.
The final round is always a 2-minute retreat to an extraction point, and you'll be pinned down by the most powerful forces your enemy has to offer. If you make it out, congrats! You've not only earned valuable XP and Credits for your character, you've added about 3% readiness to your single player campaign's Galactic Readiness rating! This is where the controversy lies, but Bioware is insistent that you can still get the "best" ending without touching multiplayer. Considering I played a ton of it for this review, I can't comment on that assertion.
Leveling your character is satisfying, though with the reduced number of abilities you can carry compared to Commander Shepard, you usually end up maxing out almost every skill tree. The level cap is 20, and once you've reached it, you get the option to "promote" your character to the Galaxy at War, increasing Shepard's effective force rating. It's nice, I suppose, but I was able to max that meter out without much trouble. Once you've unlocked other races, I'd recommend trying them out - each has different abilities. My human Sentinel was able to make evasive rolls, but didn't have the Overload ability that I craved, so I switched to a Turian, which had the skillset I wanted at the expense of mobility.
Credits are used to buy one of three levels of booster pack: Recruit, Veteran and Spectre. Each contains five random items, such as medi-gel or rockets, or even new weapons and characters. A good baseline strategy is to buy several inexpensive Recruit packs to round out your arsenal before saving up to buy the higher tiers, which give you increased chances to get more powerful weapons, characters and supplies in higher quantities. For those of you who like burning money, you may also purchase the boosters using whatever currency your platform favors, but be warned that the contents of the boosters are randomized, so you may end up dropping $2 for an item you already have. (Just play more co-op guys, it's okay!)
While writing the above, it may seem that this is just another by-the-numbers horde variant, but the beauty of the system lies in the character classes. Combining biotic/tech powers that complement each other is one of the keys to doing massive damage, and that always requires pairing off with other players who have those abilities. Good coordination will almost always result in success, and the mode does little to reward lone-wolf players (unless they're a high level Vanguard, which is totally overpowered).
When playing with friends (or anyone using a headset that isn't rude), I can honestly say I had more fun in Mass Effect 3's co-op than I normally do when I play other modes of this type, even the venerable Horde mode. There's something hilarious about having a friend pick a Krogan character and do nothing but headbutt their way to victory while their co-op partners clear a path. I can certainly see myself coming back to this mode in the future, and hopefully Bioware will release some new content for it.
While some people just cannot be pleased, I'm very happy with Mass Effect 3. I found the conclusion to the trilogy to be satisfying on many levels (just not that final few minutes), and I had genuine emotional reactions to several of the story beats. The co-op caught me completely off-guard with how fun it is, and I'll definitely be playing it for the foreseeable future. Highly recommended.
This Co-Optimus review of Mass Effect 3 is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.