By CHONG JINN XIUNGbytz@thestar.com.my
The end is nigh. You decide the fate of humanity.
THE stage is set for the final showdown between Commander Shepard and the Reapers in Mass Effect 3. It is the moment fans have waited for since the original game was released five years ago.
The action RPG has grown in popularity over the years and has a tremendous following. The bar has been set sky high, so let's see if Mass Effect 3 ends with a thud or bang.
A galaxy in chaos
Bioware's games have always emphasised strong storytelling and ME3 is no different as the single-player campaign puts you in the galaxy's most trying time. An ancient machine race, the Reapers, have returned after a 50,000 year hiatus to wipe out all intelligent life.
The story immediately hooks you in as you scramble to gather what resources and allies you can to face the enemy.
Getting support from the various alien races is no easy task as Shepard needs to broker truce between old enemies like the Krogan and the Turians.
And the Reapers aren't the only enemies you face in ME3. The shadowy pro-human organisation Cerberus has come out of hiding and has its own deadly agenda.
ME3's visuals are some of the sharpest and most detailed that we've seen for a videogame. No doubt the game looks its best on a PC but its console counterparts aren't too shabby either.
Also, the console version occasionally suffers from low frame rates when there is a lot action but the PC version sails through smoothly.
Just about every character and alien look their best in this final outing. When you talk to the aliens you can make out fine details like the scaley skin of the Krogan or the reptile-like skin of the Turians.
Ironically, most human characters' facial animations look wooden and lifeless in the game. Apart from the main characters, many don't seem to convey a lot of facial expressions - their glassy eyes almost never blink.
The voice acting is also some of the best that we've heard and it's not surprising as it has an all-star cast that includes Martin Sheen, Keith David, Seth Green and Carrie-Anne Moss.
Apart from the main story missions there are tons of other side missions to undertake. Missions range from rescuing civilians in distress, investigating suspicious activities or dealing with Cerberus attacks.
Interestingly, some missions have a time limit. While you are off saving one world, you could miss out on saving others. While we were quite taken aback by this, it makes sense - Shepard is just one person and sometimes you just can't save everyone in a war.
ME3's campaign lasts about 18 to 20 hours depending on the number of side quests you undertake. It'll keep you busy for a long time and it's definitely good value for your money considering the amount of content it has.
ME3 is a game that is simply packed with action. Shepard can now dive and roll away to escape danger and can jump over certain obstacles like broken bridges.
The movement controls didn't work well all the time - we had trouble getting out of tight spots like when cornered by enemies. Apart from that, aiming and shooting feels tight on both the console and PC.
Going out with guns blazing is not a good idea in this game. You will have to use tactics to coordinate your attacks with your squadmates to tackle the tougher foes.
Some crafty opponents like the Cerberus combat engineers can even set up mobile turrets and then there are the bullet absorbing Reaper Banshee that can use biotic powers to ruin your day.
Shepard can bring up to five weapons into battle but there's a trade off - for every extra weapon he carries, the cooldown of his powers increases.
This is a very interesting mechanic which forces you to choose the balance between raw firepower and biotic abilities.
Aside from that nothing much has changed by way of combat. You can still issue commands to your squadmates to use their abilities, and they are pretty good in battle and generally don't get in your way.
Much of the roster comprises of the original Mass Effect cast and you'll see the return of Liara, Garrus and Tali.
It's a shame that you have a smaller squad this time but there is more character development and you really get a chance to bond with them.
Like in the previous games, player choice is crucial in determining the outcome in certain situations, and it's not simply a matter of choosing Paragon or Renegade response.
ME3 masterfully depicts how the line between good and evil is truly blurred in times of war. And whatever decision you make will decide the fate of the universe.
We actually spent a lot of time in ME3's multiplayer mode, Galaxy at War. It basically plays like the popular Horde mode in Gears of War, where you and three mates have to survive 10 waves of attacks.
The game mixes things up by adding random objectives - for instance, in some rounds you are required to eliminate a key enemy or hack computers within a certain time period.
You'll be facing off against different types of factions - Cerberus, Geth, Reapers - across six maps.
The biggest problem is the limited number of maps and before long you'll find that most players only stick to one or two maps.
A typical round takes about 20 minutes to complete to fight off 10 waves. Battles can be pretty intense and you really have to work together especially when the heavy hitters show up later in the game.
Playing multiplayer is also critical to success as this increases your galactic readiness level for the final battle against the Reapers in the main campaign.
Mass Effect 3 delivers an engaging story with you having to amass an armada to fight the Reapers. Desperation and horror await you but that's only to be expected as billions of lives are at stake here.
The slick combat system does not disappoint and there are plenty of action packed moments.
The four player multiplayer mode adds a new dimension to the single-player campaign. It would have been a lot more fun if there were more maps available.
Also, you probably have caught the buzz about the game's ending and after having seen it for ourselves we can only say this - you won't walk away happy.
Bioware has said that it is going to address the issue by working on additional game content although it is unknown when the changes will roll out. Here's hoping they will get it right this time around.
But it's the journey that matters and we enjoyed every bit of our final sojourn in Mass Effect 3. It has been a memorable trek across the galaxy meeting fascinating characters that made the adventure unforgettable.
Pros: Enjoyable single-player campaign; terrific voice acting and visuals, improved weapon customisation, engaging multiplayer mode.
Cons: Unsatisfactory ending; inconsistent frame rate for console version; limited multiplayer maps.
MASS EFFECT 3
Action role-playing game for PlayStation3, Xbox 360 and PC
PC SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS: Windows XP (2GB RAM)/Vista (4GB RAM), Windows 7 (4GB RAM), 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, AMD Radeon 4850 512MB/nVidia GeForce 9800 GT 512MB, 10GB HDD space, DirectX9.0c compatible sound card