Mass Effect 3 has finally arrived (and with it, the reaper invasion). While the concluding chapter in the three-game space opera can be played in a number of ways -- player choice is, after all, one of its driving forces -- the reality is that some approaches are going to be more effective than others.
So what starter tips should you know before you sit down to save the galaxy? What list of basic dos and don'ts can give the player the best experience stepping into Commander Shepard's boots? Here's what you should know.
Do play the first two games first, if at all possible. A huge portion of the experience in Mass Effect 3 stems from the player recognising faces, places, and events. The re-appearance of a minor tertiary character from ME2 in a new location in ME3 doesn't have much import to someone who's never met the guy before, but to a player who remembers past missions, there's almost no end to the onion-like layers.
Each game is admittedly more accessible to a wider array of players than the one before it, and the combat and other mechanics of the first Mass Effect title can feel antique in many ways. At the very least, you'll be better off reading summaries and perhaps watching some videos of ME and then starting with a ME2 character to import to the new game.
Don't rush any of it. Time is short for the galaxy, it's true, but that doesn't mean you need to blow through the game in as few hours as possible. Pretty much every single action Commander Shepard can take -- every item found, every side quest -- ties into Galactic Readiness in some way. The more you do, the better the odds. And side quests aren't always going to be available (they often disappear as circumstances change), so take the time to do them as they come up.
Not only does taking the time to complete missions and conversations increase Shepard's chances of success, but also... well, the Mass Effect universe is a favourite of many fans, and this game really is the capstone to the trilogy. If you like the places and people, spend time enjoying their company while you can.
Do explore, eavesdrop and talk to everyone. This ties in to the point above, about not rushing. Simply walking through a space like the Citadel will give you many, many chances to hear small conversations that add up into a sharp, devastating picture of the condition of the galaxy. A snippet here from a salarian, a conversation there between two asari, a glance over there at a batarian comforting a human... it all works together to flesh out the environment and make it more alive than in either previous game, even while the death toll mounts.
This goes double for the Normandy. Seek out your crew and your squad and talk to them. You'll hear them challenge you, comfort you, and grieve with you. And if you're interested in a romance, well, it's hard to get close to someone you've never spoken with.
Do really TALK to everyone. Own the dialogue scenes. Yes, there's a mode in options that strips the player of input in dialogue scenes, but I wouldn't recommend using it. For one thing, the dialogue is where the player really gets to define Shepard for him- or herself. The way the Commander interacts with others is the core of the character. Moreover, on occasion the player may wish to investigate, ask more questions, and gain a better understanding of certain parts of the situation. But if you can't make choices, you can't ask questions or gather information. Also, in all honesty, reducing the conversations to cut-scenes just makes them boring.
Do pick whatever fighting style you like best. There's no real "optimal" build, picking among biotic powers, various firearm tactics, and new melee abilities. Any Shepard in any of the six character classes will be equally effective. Personally, I don't like playing biotics. (I also generally dislike playing mage classes in fantasy-themed games. Personal preference is all.) So I don't. I leave the gravity-defying purple powers to my squad. But an Infiltrator Shepard with stealth and sniping abilities suits me very well indeed. Other players feel very differently, and would never give up their shotguns or their Warp power. Whichever it is you prefer, run with it and maximise your favourite skills.
Do remember to upgrade your weapons... It's easy to find guns on the battlefield, but it can also be easy to forget about them. When you've settled on favourites, make sure to buy upgrades as soon as you can afford them. Similarly, make sure you use weapon mods! These, too, are easy to find and buy and, like guns, have five levels of upgrades. Make sure, as you go, that you apply the mods that suit your play style best to the weapons you like best, and then upgrade the mods in addition to the guns.
...And don't forget your squad, while you're at it. Garrus, my sharpshooter, was going into the last act of the game with a level I generic-r-us sniper rifle with no mods on it, because I forgot to take the time to look at his weapons. The team got much more effective against gross and menacing enemies when they had the right equipment for the job. Go figure.
Don't be afraid to change settings on the fly, until you find your balance. Cover-based combat doesn't come easily to everyone. If you're having immense trouble with it, don't feel bad for dropping difficulty down to "narrative." You'll still see Shepard kicking arse, but you won't feel like throwing your controller across the room trying to make it happen. Likewise, there are times when fights that are supposedly difficult feel surprisingly easy. Want to work harder for it? Kick the difficulty up a notch or two. The AI for both enemies and allies is smarter, now, and if you want the game to challenge you, it will.
Similarly, you can change the settings for having your squad use their powers on their own, and for having them level up automatically. Enjoy tactics? Turn off squad powers and get into the details of placement, command, and strategy. Rather go in guns blazing and trust your crew to do their own thing? That works too.
Do play on whatever platform you're the most comfortable with, and have the most friends using. Mass Effect 3 is now infamous for adding an online multiplayer co-op mode. While diving into the multiplayer isn't required in order to come to a successful conclusion in the single-player story, doing so will increase your Galactic Readiness and help lead to a positive outcome. Want to enjoy multiplayer more? Play with people you know.