In many ways Mass Effect is an unlikely success story. Starting out as a slightly awkward role-playing game with big ideas wrapped around a surprisingly deep - and, let's be honest, rather nerdy - sci-fi core, BioWare's second outing saw the series somehow evolve into a bona fide blockbuster. Two years later and the end is near for Commander Shepard and crew in their battle against the Reapers, the race of sentient machines bent on wiping out all organic life in the universe, and BioWare is determined to go out with a bang.
Naturally, that means more shooting. If the original game was a very clearly-defined RPG that happened to feature tactical gun-based combat, and its sequel tilted more in the direction of the latter, Mass Effect 3 can sometimes feel like a third-person shooter with dialogue interludes. This assumes you whizz through the story missions and ignore much of that wandering-around stuff, but it's telling that there are options to streamline the role-playing mechanics significantly, and even for the game to make all choices for you. That might be a useful option for the indecisive among us, but it speaks volumes of BioWare's intent for its combat to match up to genre standards.
Yet judged as a shooter, Mass Effect 3 is enjoyable but unremarkable fare. There's a larger selection of weapons than its predecessor, all of which can be upgraded and modified, and some of them are enormously good fun. Most new guns are salvaged during missions, and you'll soon pick out a few favourites, like the burst-fire SMG, or a wonderfully messy shotgun that takes ages to reload but can take even armoured enemies down in a single blast. Though you'll sometimes find them trying to flank or flushing you out with grenades, opponents tend to overwhelm you in numbers and power rather than any strategic effectiveness.
It's up to you to shake things up with squad commands and the use of biotic powers, because while BioWare knows how to stage action, it's less confident in balancing and varying it. A great many objectives revolve around protecting a crucial asset or holding a position for a certain time, and while turret sections, boss battles and the odd shooting-from-a-moving-vehicle interlude are welcome twists, these are all still pretty familiar ideas. Meanwhile, snapping into and out of cover can be something of an imprecise science, and when your shields are down and you're low on medi-gel, that's the kind of minor irritation that can prove fatal.
But, of course, the combat is just one element of the Mass Effect experience. This represents the culmination of a tale spread across three games and dozens of hours, a story finally coming to its dramatic climax. And what a story it is. It's not necessarily that it's well-written - though it often is - but more that it's well-orchestrated. This is a script moulded by its players, a journey guided by decisions you might have made two games ago. Heck, even if you're coming to the series afresh, you get to choose a backstory for your male or female space hero, before making a couple of key decisions veterans will get to bypass, chiefly whether you sacrificed whiny boy band member Kaidan or beautiful racist Ashley.
Somewhere at BioWare there's an enormous flow chart with every decision branching off in another direction, circles and lines headed every which way, keeping track of how it all slots together. It's a remarkable achievement and it helps make every player's journey feel personal. This idea even feeds into cutscenes: it's quite something to witness your Shepard wearing the armour you've equipped coloured in the tints you picked out carrying the gun you just modded and talking to the squadmates you chose at the start of the mission. Sure, for the most part you'll be visiting the same planets and taking in the same set-pieces, but who you take that journey with and the roles they play alongside you changes significantly. It's similar but different, just enough to encourage discussion of commonalities and differences with other players.
BioWare also proves itself a master of context, making every step you take feel important. Shepard might be a bit of a blank slate (that's certainly true of male hero, perhaps less so of his spunky female counterpart) but he or she is a hero who people look up to. Make a difficult decision, and you're constantly reassured that you've made the right choice. Elsewhere, characters will frequently let you know how honoured they are to serve under you, that you're the only one brave and capable enough to repel the Reaper threat. It's hugely empowering.
Mass Effect's other ace in the hole is its willingness to up the stakes. It's never a choice between brutally bludgeoning someone and presenting them with a bouquet of red roses; instead, these are the kind of dilemmas that have you putting the controller down, scratching your head and mulling over for minutes at a time. After all, more often than not, they're a matter of life or death. Like a TV exec brought in to shake up an under-performing soap, no one is safe from BioWare's scythe.