Imagine you create a galaxy, one you can hold in the palm of your hand, and it’s yours to shape, and define. You create life, propel it forward and watch it flourish among the unknowns of the universe. Then the day comes for you to end it; it’s a moment you knew would come to pass, as all life must eventually cease. How would you do it? How could you? Every journey has a final destination and Mass Effect is no different, as its very inception was crafted around the idea of a trilogy. It came into this world finite, and those of us fortunate enough to begin the journey in 2007 knew deep down that it couldn’t last, and it didn’t. Yet there is something magnificent within this bittersweet symphony, for when we step back and weigh what we’ve done and what we feel, we look beyond the fact that it’s a product of numbers and data: BioWare created life. As the credits rolled and curtain fell on my legacy, I set my controller down and wept. Never in my life had I been so disturbed, yet simultaneously enthralled by a game.

In 2007, I began a journey to stop Saren with a ragtag crew of outsiders and malcontents. Five years later, they were no longer characters pantomiming an epic; they became friends, lovers, bitter enemies, and casualties of war. BioWare birthed a reality, gave it a name, and allowed me to exist within it. Now, as I leave it, I don’t feel that sense of completion that usually accompanies my final battles. I have no idea how I can ever look at another game the same after what I survived. This wasn’t Shepard’s journey; this was mine. This is mourning. This is the realization that one of the greatest stories ever told in this medium, or any medium, has come to an end.

This game will emotionally abuse you. After over 40 hours, I felt as though I’d been hung on a hook and re-purposed as BioWare’s emotional punching bag. You may ask yourself after reading statements like the one above, “Why on earth would I want to experience that?” The answer also resides in that first paragraph. If you want to know how a game’s story should be told, then this is it. This is the ravager of your paradigm, this is virtual reality without any of the failed peripherals. This is immersion accomplished through the suspension of belief, thanks to a combination of highly-successful elements.

Newbies to the series should play the other two first  will hit the ground running as Earth’s stage is set with a devastating Reaper invasion. This race of hyper-advanced sentient machines has finally arrived, just as Shepard said they would, to wipe out all organic life. After a harrowing escape from the initial strike, Shepard is forced to abandon the homeworld and take to stars in search of a means to defeat these monsters. Right off the bat, the stakes are impossibly high and there’s little time for anything other than action. Thus the daunting task of uniting the galaxy against certain doom falls upon Shepard, as per usual.

Character creation should look familiar to veteran players, though it seems that fans can’t import Shepard faces that originated in ME1. This was my dilemma, though it was easily forgotten as I discovered that my previous choices all carried over. I could re-create the face and not miss a beat. The textures and character models were vastly improved, so I found myself making characters over and over for the first three hours and watching them walk around. Know that if you import a save, you won’t be prompted to choose one of the three gameplay modes (story, action, RPG) and will instead bet set on past game defaults. Players starting brand new Shepards will have the opportunity to select one of these modes, though they seemed more like option profiles than real modes. Once selected, they can be changed through the menu by adjusting combat difficulty and dialogue interaction options.

Mass Effect 3 acclimatizes players to combat very quickly, and you’ll soon discover that BioWare’s added a few more tricks for the now-acrobatic Shepard. The cover mechanic is a bit more versatile, allowing you to shift along the sides of barricades while avoiding fire. There’s also the flying leap, which allows Shepard to cross medium-sized gaps in walkways, as well as the dreaded ladder. All of these maneuvers require some combination of a thumbstick and A button, which can lead to confusion when both ladders and multiple barriers are in close proximity. Yet leaping from cover to cover proves invaluable as the game progresses, and you’ll come to wonder just how the hell you survived Mass Effect 2 without that ability. One of the most welcome additions to the button commands is the heavy melee, a move that initiates a mini-cutscene of Shepard putting either an omni-blade or biotic fist (depending on your class) through an enemy’s face. Meanwhile, combat itself isn’t too different from ME2. Thermal clips are a constant necessity, along with grenades, if your class possesses that skill. As a Vanguard, grenades really weren’t my thing. I did, however, have plenty of biotic bowling balls to hurl at enemies. They ended up being quite effective. What really changes combat this time around is the shift in weapon specializations. In ME and ME2, each class had its preferred weapon. In ME3, that restriction is downplayed. Instead, weapons have weight values that affect each class’ power recharge time. Each class has a different weight capacity, which can be increased by leveling up. Your weapon choices are no longer restricted; just balance weapons with your preferred recharge weight.

The re-introduction of weapon mods help with this weight mechanic, as certain weapons can be modified with lighter materials. Scopes, extended barrels, and even stunner attachments all have some visible effect on each weapon they’re applied to, allowing players to see the performance differences while on the field. Overall, weapon mods have been vastly improved since Mass Effect, which basically just left you with a mountain of various useless ammo types or out-dated scanners. Now, mods are simplified. Buy a new upgrade or find one in the field, and that attachment will be upgraded across all weapons. There’s no more selling off excess tungsten rounds; who has time for that when the galaxy is at stake?

Leveling hasn’t changed much between Mass Effect 2 and 3. Each ability can be customized by selecting a specialization during the last three ranks, which leads to a very diverse array of abilities if specialized correctly. I ended up focusing on abilities that damaged armor severely, boosted my shields after a charge, and allowed for massive shotgun damage. That combination resulted in Commander Shepard, the teleporting shotgun monster who ate bullets and belched shockwaves. It was exactly what I wanted; close range devastation and virtually no ability cool downs. BioWare’s also thrown in some new class abilities, like Nova, which will have you living out all your Dragon Ball Z fantasies if you equip yourself properly. Overall, combat is more intense, exciting, yet comfortable all at once. Its not without its challenges, as you’ll come to face some unbelievably fierce enemies, but there’s always a way to win. The same rules of the past apply to the present: choose a squad that compliments your abilities– there will be nothing you can’t blow up.  Combat in ME3 is the most enjoyable and cinematic of the trilogy when paired with great level design. Transitions between combat are seamless cutscenes, as cameras spin around Shepard until they’re fixed in the third person view. No more fading to black from mission to mission. Action moments will crop up, which are viewed by pressing down on the thumb stick. There’s just usually so much going on around you that you have to take the time to view action on the horizon and understand what’s coming up next. It’s easy to put your blinders on and push forward, but do that and you’ll miss out big time.