Mass Effect 3 was far and away the best game I played this year. Spoilers are certain to follow.
Unfortunately, I can't talk about the finer points of Mass Effect 3 both as a bookend and a stand-alone title without mentioning the Internet-at-large's reaction to the last twenty minutes of the game. I believe the vitriol aimed at BioWare for writing their game how they wanted is childish and misdirected. The word 'entitled' has been thrown around a lot in the press, and I'm going to continue to use it; paying $180 does not give the buyer the right to demand an ending he or she prefers.
I imagine to some degree BioWare is proud that its flagship IP was so well-liked that it caused this much outcry when the last moments of Commander Shepard didn't meet expectations. But reacting with seething hatred toward the developer/publisher, publishing fever-dream conspiracy theories on YouTube, and crafting a fan-made comic about what really happened is absurd. Knowing that the last 0.5% of a video game ruined an entire trilogy for some people means that they probably took the lore a little too seriously. And I say that having argued that Mass Effect is a better science-fiction property than Star Wars.
And in all seriousness: how did you expect it to end?
All of the focus on the ending completely disregards how great this game was in just about every other aspect. The gameplay, for the first time in the series, was tight and satisfying. The feel and sound of the space rifles is great; finally, bullets in Mass Effect feel like they do some damage. Also, biotics combo with other effects, and feature a dubstep-like bass, making each skill sound completely devastating. But the strongest argument for Mass Effect 3's gameplay is that the multiplayer is great in a way it has no right being. Mass Effect multiplayer should be shallow and middling, but the multiple races and classes keep it interesting match-to-match, and post-release support has boosted replayability. This is the most fun a Mass Effect game has been.
But nobody plays Mass Effect for cover mechanics and third-person shooting. The story in the third installment is as strong as the first two games, providing a 25-30 hour conclusion to one of the best continuous stories every told through the video game medium. The spotlight on the final hours of the game ignores that then entire game is the end of Commander Shepard's journey, and the payoffs are pretty astounding. Two galaxy-wide conflicts are resolved in order to bring every species together in the fight against the Reapers, and the climax of each of those subplots is immensely gratifying, if not also mortifying and game-changing. The Reaper elements in the narrative are about as good as they can be, the final moments included, but, at least for me, that's not what I come to Mass Effect to see. The setting, species, and their interactions are what will continue to entice me to purchase more Mass Effect titles. And in Mass Effect 3, those elements are the best they ever have been.
There's been some discussion about how EA and BioWare handled the story DLC, and that From Ashes and Leviathan should have been included with the main game due to their story implications, and I have a difficult time agreeing with the sentiment. Neither are absolutely necessary to get what you wanted from Mass Effect 3. I view that content like I view other gaming franchises that include narrative from licensed books. All outside content is still canon. I view these packages as such: outside narrative. All that being said, play the DLC packages. Well, maybe skip Omega.
Of all of the titles I played through in 2012, Mass Effect 3 was the only retail game I felt driven to complete multiple times. The story played a large part in that, as I wanted to see the changes from playing my Shepard, to a renegade Shepard, and than a full Paragon Shepard. And those differences are certainly worth seeing, and provide a deeper appreciation for how much effort BioWare put into making the end of their story so varied based on player experience. As I type this, I'm in the middle of an Insanity playthrough, and I'm having a great time with the difficulty surge. For me, these praises could not be sung for any other game released in 2012.
I cannot wait for the next title set in the Mass Effect universe, and I'm absolutely positive BioWare will deliver. But if the final moments in this bookend spoiled everything for you, I feel pretty good, all other praises standing, that this will be where you'll exit the ride.