March 06, 2012 at 08:05 AM EST

You could argue that videogames don’t really need stories. After all, the whole medium was built on abstraction mixed with semi-hallucinogenic non sequitur. Pac-Man needs to eat, but colorful ghosts are making his life difficult. Mario is trying to save the princess, but homicidal turtles are making his life difficult. Those Tetris blocks are trying to align themselves efficiently, but gravity is making their life difficult. And there are plenty of modern masterworks that imitate those earlier games’ minimalism: Indie platformers like Braid or Limbo, artsy cult hits like Ico or Dark Souls. These very different games share some common themes: simple in presentation but thematically complicated, easy to understand but difficult to fathom. (Coincidentally, many of them are just plain hard to play.)

So let’s say those games represent the Poetry. What about the Prose? Well, if you’re a believer that videogames can tell genuine stories — filled with interesting characters who make difficult decisions while speaking dialogue that doesn’t sound translated backwards from Finnish — then odds are good that you’ve already reserved your copy of Mass Effect 3, which arrives today for the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. If you’re a franchise newcomer, a brief description is in order. In the Mass Effect series, you play as Commander Shepard, a space-soldier living in a massive space-confederation near the end of the 22nd century. Here’s the quick way to describe the plot of the Mass Effect trilogy: Shepard has to defend the galaxy from an impossibly powerful race of ancient beings, and along the way she/he meets a colorful cast of characters. And, in Mass Effect 3, he/she has to race around the galaxy building up an army while those powerful beings try to annihilate earth.

Ah, but in that “she/he” lies the series most distinctive feature. Like a lot of other games, you get to build your Shepard from scratch — deciding their gender, their skin color, certain particulars of their past. Mass Effect however, turns the whole process of character customization into a game unto itself. You decide how Shepard responds to pretty much every interaction. And some of those decisions have huge consequences — which carry over from game to game. When I interviewed lead writer Mac Walters, he pointed out that creating Mass Effect 3 doesn’t just mean crafting a satisfying ending to a massive mythology-heavy sci-fi ensemble drama — it means crafting several satisfying endings, depending on the decisions the players have made.

So, does Mass Effect 3 live up to all our hopes and dreams? I’ve played about 20 hours of the game with my Shepard. (Her first name is Slate. She’s a lady with short red hair who doesn’t like authority but loves helping the less fortunate, which is either a reflection of my inner being or a reflection of what I’d like my inner being to look like.) I can tell you that although, the storytelling in Mass Effect has always been the drawing point for the series, the creators have done an impressive job of refining the combat system. Levels feel less repetitive. In the first two games, it occasionally felt like every secret base was designed by the same intergalactic corridor company. Now, individual levels are purposefully filled with distinctive geographic traits. Some of this is just well-designed icing on the cake: There are now ladders to climb and tiny gorges to jump over, and in a few subterranean levels the only source of light is a Dead Space-esque gun lantern.

The game as a whole feels more expansive than its predecessors. That’s true of the basic game mechanics: You can customize hyper-specific weapons with various modifications, which reinstates the RPG-flavored inventory-porn of the original Mass Effect. (By comparison, ME2 was a relatively streamlined affair — although streamlining isn’t necessarily a bad thing.) The only major misstep I’ve noticed so far is that, three games in, BioWare still hasn’t really figured out what to do with the galactic exploration. In the first game, you landed on planets that all looked the same and picked up hidden treasures; in ME2, you scanned planets from space and fired mining probes that occasionally kickstarted quick little side-missions. In ME3, you’re not mining and you won’t stumble on any side-missions; instead, you fly around a solar system hitting your scanner, and if you hit it too often, then Reapers attack you. It looks and plays like a mini-game designed by the interns of the month.

But a videogame this size is bound to have its imperfections — it’s the equivalent of a thousand-page novel, or a couple seasons of a TV show. And the real question is: Does the story of ME3 hold up? So far, I’d say yes. The vast majority of characters in Mass Effect are still funny, emotional, intelligently written, and fascinatingly weird. It’s oddly addictive to just wander around crowded spaces and overhear the bystander dialogue. In its first twenty hours, Mass Effect 3 has managed to impressively hit both registers of science-fiction. On one hand, it brings the genre down to an emotionally realistic level, with sharp dialogue delivered by a fine voice cast. On the other hand, ME3 can do epic, epic science fiction. I’m talking like Iain M. Banks epic, with situations that freely cross over from soap-opera sci-fi into nightmare-fantasy. That’s true of the big moments: If you saved the Rachni in Mass Effect 1, you’re in for a surprise here. But that’s also true of the myriad small moments. I just had a conversation with an alien whose race lives for 1000 years, and she realized that — if we lose the war at the center of Mass Effect 3 — then even if she escapes to the furthest point of the cosmos, she’ll live to see the end of everything. Not the end of the world, or the end of many worlds; the end of our entire modern existential notion of being. It’s a heavy moment in a game full of them.

I’ll be writing my full review of Mass Effect 3 when I finish the game later this week, since it seems silly to judge such a story-based game without knowing the ending. But in the meantime, let’s use this space to talk about the game. Have you already gotten your copy? How do you think the new game compares to ME2? What do you think of new character James Vega — the only major new addition to the Mass Effect cast, who is voiced by a barely-recognizable Freddie Prinze, Jr.? Franchise newcomers, are you sufficiently interested in ME3 to go back and play the first two games? Anyone else agree that Mass Effect is better with Lady Shepard? (Jennifer Hale is a freaking goddess.)

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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