Mass Effect 3 is going to be the biggest game of 2012, and the series has come to define this generation of games. It's a smarter kind of blockbuster: one where the space conflict is undershot with moral conflict, and player choice drives both.
ME3 is about reacting to decisions made four years ago in a completely different game, and bringing the story of a vast and complex galactic war to its spectacular climax.
ME3 will have to resolve more than a thousand decisions made over two games, but Bioware says it will also give them the chance to do something new. This is the final chapter of the series: this time, they can give your decisions consequences that no sequel could account for. They can let you decide the fate of the galaxy. But it wasn't always like this.
Before Bioware made the seminal Star Wars RPG Knights of the Old Republic, such power was rare in consoleland. Yet KOTOR marked the start of an evolution that would eventually bring the Western RPG to prominence on every format - with Mass Effect, four years later, the start of Bioware's attempts to fuse player empowerment with the fun of modern shooters. Its combat was ripped from Gears of War and character progression was presented in simpler terms. It was an RPG - but with no barriers.
The mix worked - though not perfectly. The new Unreal Engine 3 tech was an upgrade, but one Bioware were only just beginning to master. The combat was more accessible than previous games like KOTOR and Jade Empire, but unsatisfying compared to the Gears benchmark, while the missions were punctuated with floaty and unconvincing driving sections in the Mako lander vehicle. The original Mass Effect achieved a lot, but nothing compared to what was to come.
It seems unthinkable now, but Mass Effect was only a moderate commercial success. Published by Microsoft and exclusive to Xbox, it sold 1.6 million units in its first six weeks. Two years later, ME2 would sell two million copies in its first three days.
Through inaction, Microsoft gave away the biggest potential exclusive of the generation. EA purchased Bioware shortly before ME's release, and while ME2 still launched first on Xbox it came to PS3 a year later. It may turn out to be one of this generation's biggest regrets for Microsoft if ME3 continues the series' growth at anything like the rate of ME2.
With ME2, that growth wasn't undeserved. Bioware responded quickly and accurately to every major criticism of the first game, and kept pace with the trends in gaming. They stripped out the Mako sections and devoted a whole team to improving the combat; the result is a much smoother cover shooter with tactile, punchy guns.
Without ever compromising the powerful element of player choice, Bioware tweaked their RPG into a near-perfect hybrid of traditional role-playing and modern action games. The sales confirmed it was exactly what gamers were looking for.
ME3 is going further. If one word could describe the new combat system, it would be 'heavy'. Weapons fire slower, sound deeper and pack more punch. Melée is no longer a playful slap: each character class has a different instant takedown performed with the holographic blade. The cover system has kept pace: you can now sneak around corners and dive from cover to cover. It's effective enough that it actually adds a stealth element.
One of the few criticisms of ME2 was the narrower selection of weapons and fewer interesting ways to upgrade them. Again, Bioware show no resistance to changing their design decisions to adapt to player preferences: each one of a much larger selection of weapons can now be fitted with multiple mods, and each changes the way you use it.