It helps make even the smaller decisions seem significant. Here, you're frequently forced into uneasy alliances, trying to keep previously warring factions sweet to unite against a common foe. If the first game set you as a fairly standard world-saving hero, and the second as intergalactic relationship counsellor, flitting between planets on missions to cajole others into committing to your cause, here you're a peacekeeper, trying to avoid a war breaking out aboard the Normandy just as the battle to save the universe rages outside the airlocks.
As such, the decisions you make here are all a means to a noble end. You can play the virtuous hero, constantly appealing to everyone's better nature; or you can opt for the results-oriented approach, issuing blunt ultimatums, shouting, and getting your hands dirty for the sake of saving life as Shepard knows it. Whether you're Paragon or Renegade, the points you earn count towards a total reputation figure, ensuring you don't try to game the system by picking all 'good' or all 'bad' options to unlock the best abilities.
Meanwhile, BioWare sensibly grounds the action to convey a greater sense of threat. The first time we see the Reapers, they're descending on Earth, and it's not long before they're branching out. Before long, your galactic map will be dominated by these metallic hermit crabs, and their presence has an effect on your approach to mining. What was a bizarrely compelling bit of mindless busywork in the last game is now a careful side pursuit, as you send out signals in the hope of receiving one in return. Should you hit paydirt on a planet, you can start searching and send out a probe, only this time you're not searching for minerals but for war assets which could prove crucial in the final reckoning. Yet every time you ping a signal, the Reapers will start to trace it; do it too often and they'll enter orbit accompanied by a terrifying, otherworldly sound. At this point you'll need to escape to the safety of another cluster, though if you're caught, you can merely resume from where you left off, a rather feeble punishment that lessens the sense of danger. Before long, these searches feel too much like hard work.
Attempting to manage your mission codex can be something of a chore, too. Walk past NPCs and their conversations will register key data in your codex pertaining to sidequests. Often, they can be as simple as retrieving an artifact from another planet through mining, or obtaining an item elsewhere. But they remain highlighted in your mission summary until you complete them, and for many, the pile-up will prove alarming. Worse still, there's an unseen time limit to many of these and it's easy to miss them because you opted to tackle something else first.
Then again, BioWare does manage the difficult task of making even the most minor aside feel like a crucial part of the bigger picture. Before you could be forgiven for wondering why you were titting about when the galaxy needed saving, but here everything you do contributes to the war effort. Sure, researching a medi-gel upgrade might seem small fry next to the possibility of an entire race being wiped out, but there's a tangible reward for every minor action that could potentially change the tide of battle against the Reapers.
Elsewhere, it isn't afraid to dream a little bigger. BioWare has broadened its canvas when it comes to set-pieces, and though its ambitions occasionally clash with the limitations of the game engine, the results are often spectacular. An early highlight has you fighting on the surface of a moon while its mother planet burns in the background, the first staggering sight of many. Replacing Jack Wall was a controversial move, but Clint Mansell's plaintive piano themes prove the perfect backing for the game's most moving moments.
The multiplayer game is also far from the perfunctory check-box addition you might expect. Again, context is key: these co-op missions tie into the narrative with levelled-up characters contributing to your galactic readiness. It might be little more than a Horde mode with additional mission objectives besides 'kill everything that moves', but it's surprisingly well-constructed.
There is, in short, a hell of a lot of game here, and at a time when free social and smartphone games have analysts wondering aloud whether full-priced retail games can cut the mustard, here is a package that represents exceptional value. There's little here to convert non-believers, but then this game is not for them. This is one for the fans, and few who buy it will be left unsatisfied by how the story - their story - ends.
Version Tested: Xbox 360