Who is Commander Shepard? Depending on the player, Shepard could be a man born on Earth with an extensive history as a War Hero, or Shepard could be a woman from a space colony notorious for her brutal efficiency in battle. Shepard could be a person of any ethnic descent, and just as many possible appearances, skills, and personalities; Shepard is everything and yet nothing at all apart from what the player creates, and while we know that Shepard's primary feats involve his/her success against Saren and Sovereign, in addition to the Collectors, Commander Shepard's narrative overall has been one firmly built through the participation of Mass Effect's audience. Tack on an involving and suspenseful premise, unforgettable characters, choices that players could import into the game's sequel for a customized playing experience and an equally fascinating universe and you have the foundation of all the adoration the Mass Effect franchise has received.

Now, after several years of triumphs and sacrifices throughout the player's journey as Commander Shepard, players must accomplish yet another impossible task:  uniting the galaxy's various alien races in the ultimate assault on the Reapers, a sentient machine race that's wiped out evolved forms of organic life in the galaxy for countless millennia. I have to say that what Bioware allows players to experience encapsulates everything players have been anticipating.

Mass Effect 3 is more than just the bookend to a franchise, more than another conclusion to an epic story that's been crafted and perfected for years. Mass Effect 3 is the culmination of a storytelling phenomenon that has set a new standard for video games, and it holds its own by lifting the bar even higher than expected in some cases. It's a guaranteed GOTY contender that follows the series' tradition of stellar combat, revived RPG elements, and choice-centered gameplay to deliver yet another emotionally engaging narrative, one that is simultaneously polemical and breathtaking. Did I mention the multi-player doesn't suck?

Those who've already played the franchise's previous entries know where Mass Effect 3 begins: on Earth, during a hearing involving Shepard shortly after the events of Arrival. Shepard has repeatedly thwarted the Reapers in numerous attempts to invade the galaxy, yet has still been unable - even despite literally dying and being revived - to convince skeptics of the oncoming threat of the Reapers. Soon, players witness the confirmation of Shepard's warning as Reapers descend upon Earth with their indoctrinated minions in a hellish and abjectly mesmerizing onslaught. So begins Shepard's ultimate mission: the task of gaining the alliance of other races to retake Earth and hopefully stop the Reapers once and for all. This of course, like all grandiose and compelling epics, is plagued by complications.

Players who followed the series' previous entries will finally glimpse the chief conflicts between the Galaxy's races, such as the intense feud the Quarians have with the synthetic Geth, epitomized in a brutal skirmish on the planet Rannoch. Winning the allegiance of the Krogan and Salarian races will also be difficult, due to the Salarian race's involvement in the creation of the very plague that has wreaked havoc on the Krogan race. Throw in the added threat posed by Cerberus, among other galactic conflicts, and you have the gist of several problems that your actions may have influenced based on previous playthroughs. It's an experience that is incomparable if you transfer your save instead of playing through default - I have experienced both.

One thing that Bioware has excelled at conveying in the Mass Effect series is a unique and involving atmosphere that captivates the player. Traveling through the Citadel and primary locations of the first - especially Feros and Ilos - cemented the otherworldliness of the Mass Effect universe. It was more than a Star Wars or Star Trek knock-off; it lived and breathed its own personality and aesthetic. In the second, players were treated to an increasingly diversified experience with planets as stark in design as Illium and Tuchanka; even Omega, the seedy doppelganger of the Citadel. As players continued to explore, a sense of true character was established, and with ME3, the scale and detail has been perfected through the myriad glimpses we're given of the Reaper threat throughout the course of the game.

Reapers soar throughout the sky, lifting their tentacled appendages to fire destructive laser beams. Watching these colossi up close when you're knee-deep in ground zero is always astonishing. Swarms of genetically-altered husks engulf the battlefield and remind you of the nefarious threat's indoctrinating power and overwhelming influence. The equally diverse abilities and functions each of these unique enemies possess also makes their introduction more than cosmetic. In addition, each planet you visit, from Palaven's moon to Thessia, is marked by the Reapers' presence, so the feeling of their sheer power and corruptive force never escapes the player. Players are also given a more personal glimpse at Shepard's struggle.

Mass Effect 3 allows all people who've beaten Mass Effect 2 and transferred their save to meet the survivors of the Collector mission in some capacity throughout the game's events. Those who haven't however, are given a sufficient alternative to complement their choices, but in nearly all cases I have to say that meeting a few of your old buddies carries profound depth, especially those you formed relationships with in the previous games. A few aren't handled as well as they should've been, but the new cast of characters you will interact with in addition to a few staples of the series are a sufficient way to marry the old with the new without alienating players. Of course, the main purpose of the things you'll do aside from developing the tools necessary to defeat the Reapers are significant as well.

In Mass Effect, sidequests mainly served the purpose of being a diversion or a chance for accumulating more experience. In Mass Effect 2, the introduction of Loyalty Missions that influenced the final mission gave players a chance to connect with their squadmates meaningfully. There aren't missions as personal as those in the previous entry, but the bulk of all sidequests will contribute to the final confrontation through the introduction of War Assets players can collect to build their Galactic Readiness, a system that will modestly influence the successfulness of Humanity's battle against the Reapers. There are multiple ways War Assets are attained, such as by scanning planets and star systems for these elusive tools. Stay too long however in Reaper territory and you run the risk of alerting them, triggering an amusing sequence in which the player must escape before they overwhelm the Normandy.

Combat-wise, Mass Effect 3 is still mostly ME 2 with a revamped and dramatically improved cover system that offers myriad special maneuvers - although using them can get sloppy due to them being mapped to the same button - and a modest infusion of more RPG elements... if the player wishes them. The ability to choose different play styles is a great way to avoid compromising elements that players loved on both sides. For those who do crave a deeper experience, branching paths allow for a lot more customization when it comes to distributing points to develop squad powers, and the new inventory system makes customizing your weapons entertaining without overwhelming you with tedium.

There's also quite an arsenal of weaponry and upgrades for players to use as they build their characters. While the varying execution sequences with the Omniblade are a bit overpowered, they remain entertaining and are tempered on higher difficulties. Also, the addition of the Kinect's voice recognition system makes micromanaging your squad's abilities a cinch and is surprisingly accurate.

The conversation system is noticeably diminished in comparison to previous entries. Scenes often play out with scripted dialogue and a few conversation options to optimize the game's cinematic quality. This approach works in some cases and fails in others, especially moments when players are faced with choices that basically drag them through the scenes rather than engage them. While the new Reputation system isn't as punishing as the system used in Mass Effect 2 was and factors both the Paragon and Renegade meter when allowing you to meet certain conversation requirements, there also isn't much of a gray area to explore due to how limiting they've become. The addition of neutral points that increase the gauge with each completed mission makes it much easier for those who religiously play as a particular alignment.  

More pressing concerns involve how simplified certain elements are. The lack of a detailed journal for tracking sidequests makes completing these tasks a chore. Players will find themselves searching around in assignments that are essentially fetch quests that usually involve scanning different worlds, conversations, and little true action or involvement. Several intriguing side plots are cheapened by this new approach, such as a rescue mission on the Elcor home world.

The lack of multiple hub worlds also makes the questing system feel a bit too monotonous and compartmentalized. These flaws may detract from the wonder and thrill of exploration in the previous games, but not enough to become a serious issue- although the disc-swapping Xbox 360 players will have to endure is annoying. There are a few bugs that also detract from the experience.

The greatest concern players had, however, involved the inclusion of a co-op multiplayer system into Mass Effect 3 that contributes to the player's Galactic Readiness, but is not necessary. Ignoring the debate surrounding that, I can say, after spending quite a while getting familiar with the system, that I've enjoyed it and that it's well-oiled. Players can unlock new skills and play as different races on six excellently-crafted maps in several waves ala' Horde mode that make for kinetic and frequent entertainment as experience is gained. The way that your multiplayer experience intersects with the campaign also grants the multiplayer system great appeal. It's a feature that has modest replay value, and is a great alternative for players looking for a break from the monotony of the typical competitive experience. However, multiplayer certainly isn't what has defined this series.

As a narrative experience, Mass Effect 3 comes with numerous highlights that effortlessly build upon the toll of the sacrifices of Commander Shepard and the supporting cast players have seen evolve like never before. There are losses Shepard will experience that conclude moments in the game with an emotional verisimilitude that flow with poetic resonance, especially whenever the game's phenomenal scores are playing. Everything feels authentic; I remember shouting in excitement when I saw one character survive an otherwise life-threatening conflict, and quietly reflecting as Shepard bid farewell to others.

There's plenty of gems hidden throughout this battle against the Reapers and Cerberus, with an emotional and existential struggle driving Shepard that's amplified through recurring dreams that haunt Shepard. Another gem is actually found in a character that's DLC: Javik. I strongly recommend that players acquire the From Ashes DLC, as the Prothean introduces a critical new perspective to the struggle and is hands-down the best new character players can interact with. Those who've played with him know that Mass Effect 3 just doesn't feel as definitive without him.

As far as the game's ending is concerned, Mass Effect 3 doesn't quite conclude as successfully as I'd imagined and there are a few notable issues surrounding how it was executed. However, I'm still content with the open-ended approach Bioware has taken. It's one that has provoked incredibly strong emotions for its departure from the series' previous narrative style, yet is one that I refuse to allow to color my perceptions of the final product. No story after all, and thus no ending, is truly canon, and as numerous Youtube videos have shown, players have literally created endings that suit them.

Concluding, I'm drawn to a scene just before the inevitable final assault. Players have one final time to reflect on all the things that have transpired, and see their most personal choices pay off in a moment of pure genius that brings the relationships you've established throughout the series full-circle. One final thread of hope is also given to the player that's simple, evocative, and one of my favorite moments in the entire series. What this can mean varies from player to player, but when I witnessed it, it reminded me of why I and, by extension, Shepard fought in the face of insurmountable odds: I fought for Wrex; Tali; Garrus; Jack; Anderson; Liara; numerous others. Sure, one could go the generic route and say it was all about "galactic peace" or the "uplifting of humanity", but no great struggle, as all great stories have proven, is motivated without some personal element.

My relationship with them gave me the strength to succeed many times before, and their survival meant more to me than any gimmicky excuse I could conjure up. Mass Effect 3 is a nearly flawless blend of numerous aspects that will stand out as one of the definitive experiences of this generation, if not gaming in general. The fact that this story has literally been several years in the player's making only sweetens the deal, even if somewhat bittersweet.

I'm Commander Shepard, and this is the best RPG series you'll ever get a chance to play. Period.

9.5 out of 10