Mass Effect 3 is a deeply conflicted work. Or maybe I’m just deeply conflicted about it. Probably both. I’ve spent twenty–nine pages of rambling text talking about how much I unreservedly love the first two entries in the series, and about the (wait for it) massive effect they’ve had on me, but Mass Effect 3 simply did not create the same feelings of annoying gushiness. At the beginning, at least. The game began so poorly that it took me three tries to actually get back into it for my most recent playthrough. I have played the previous games in the series an embarrassing amount of times, but I only played Mass Effect 3 once, when it came out back in 2012. I played the first two bits of DLC they released, Extended Cut and Leviathan, but then I stopped. I played the multiplayer for over 100 hours, but I barely touched the single player after that first playthrough. So, when I started thinking about what I wanted to say about it, comparing my conflicted reaction to the third game to my overwhelmingly positive reaction to the first two was an obvious starting point. What could cause my opinion to change so drastically between games? How fundamental of a shift in design sensibilities must have occurred to make that change happen? My arc with replaying this game was confusing and difficult to adequately express. It began as flat-out hatred and ended with child-like joy. In many ways this makes Mass Effect 3 the most interesting entry in the series; I certainly have a lot to say about it. But at its core, Mass Effect 3 keeps begging the question: what made it so different? Well, I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I think I’ve got at least a partial answer. It starts with money.
Even from the get-go, Mass Effect 3 feels like a different game. The engine is finally polished up enough to really deliver on its cinematic ambitions, the character animation actually impresses from time to time, and some of the set pieces actually look damn good. All of that cost a lot of money to produce, money that the previous games just didn’t have. That extra budget lets them do things they simply couldn’t before, but I think it also caused the game’s greatest problems. The best way I can think to summarize this effect is to compare it to the previous game, which also saw the team dealing with a much larger budget than they had for the previous entry. My takeaway from Mass Effect 2 was, largely, that it felt like the team had the budget they always wanted. They could build out the world, make some decent cutscenes, and have an impressive moment or two when they needed it. Mass Effect 3 often feels burdened by its budget, like they had to spend that money somehow to make the game flashy enough to justify its higher price tag. Sometimes, that works beautifully for it, other times, it ruins it. And that makes up what I believe is the core difference between Mass Effect 2 and 3, that the budget of the second felt like it liberated the creators to create exactly what they wanted, while the budget of the third burdened them with the responsibility to justify it. And what helps justify a bigger budget to the suits at EA who see BioWare as a bit of a risky venture? Out with the intimate character moments, what we need here are explosions. Lots of explosions.
The Problems with a Bigger Budget
Mass Effect 2 was a character-focused game first and foremost. The overall plot was pretty stupid: work with totally-not-evil, super-rich human supremacists to destroy bug aliens who are kidnapping humans. And there are probably space crab gods involved too. But that was completely okay because no one really cared about the plot of the game. Mass Effect 2 isn’t about The Collectors, it’s about Garrus and calibrations, it’s about Legion and questions about AI consciousness, and it’s about Mordin singing Gilbert and Sullivan. No one was coming to the series so they could stop some poorly-explained force from destroying all life in the galaxy, they were coming for the characters and their stories. Even my previous essay on Mass Effect 2 is mostly broken up into sections about the characters, because they were what I found most important. So, for a Mass Effect sequel to shift from a character focus to a plot focus would be a really, obviously dumb decision, right? Well, for a good portion of the story, that’s pretty much what they did. Mass Effect 3 was always going to be about going to war with the Reapers, so there were going to be at least some pressing plot concerns, but Mass Effect 3 handles this, especially in the beginning, so, so, poorly.
The opening bit has Shepard propped up on a pedestal as the messianic hero, brought in by the leaders of all of humanity to solve their problems, then shoots her way off Earth with Anderson. During the entire opening chapter there is exactly one strong character moment, and that’s Anderson choosing to stay behind while Shepard leaves to gather support. I was livid when I finished this introduction. I really enjoyed Mass Effect 3 the first time I played it, but this time, I hated it. Every design decision seemed off: the focus on plot over character, the emphasis on empty spectacle that they didn’t seem to have the budget to pull off, and dear god that kid on Earth was just cringe-worthy. It seemed pretty clear what they were *trying* to do, they wanted to establish that Shepard as the underdog again, get an emotional gut-punch out of the Reapers hitting earth, and set the stage for a climactic finale to the series. But every one of those fails in the opening, and fails hard. The opening is set in future London as the Reaper attack begins. What it sets out to do is ambitious, it wants to show an entire city being attacked by an incredibly powerful alien race. Mass Effect 2 could never have done that; it simply didn’t have the money. But here is Mass Effect 3’s big introduction, the chance to set up a spectacle-centric take on the series and it just falls so flat. The Reapers move in really obviously scripted ways, the actual city doesn’t feel that big, and the plot events that do happen fall flat. Shepard is talking to the Alliance leadership for all of a minute before the place gets blown up. To say I left this section disappointed is an enormous understatement.
Regardless of how much it failed, this opening does establish one of the series main goals: the shift towards visual spectacle. This doesn’t just mean bigger explosions, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so after playing the opening, because the impact of this decision is felt throughout all aspects of the game. Combat is significantly more polished than in previous entries, companion conversations set in flashy, interactive locations instead of the cargo hold of your ship, and the environments are now much, much fancier. Games that emphasize spectacle are much easier to market, so, the bigger the budget, the more developers will be pushed in its direction, and Mass Effect 3 is no exception. At first, this seems like a bad fit for the franchise. The moments that made Mass Effect 1 and 2 great were, with a few exceptions, the quieter ones. Mass Effect 1 had its shootout up the side of Citadel Tower and Mass Effect 2 had the entirety of the Suicide Mission, but those have nothing on any of the battlefields of Mass Effect 3. This fits with, and maybe partially explains, the shift from character focus to plot focus, because big plot moments make for flashier marketing material than quiet, character ones. Additionally, Mass Effect’s lineage can be traced back to table-top inspired RPGs like Baldur’s Gate (BioWare’s debut RPG), which places a large emphasis on mountains of dialog and complex choices. But when you’re putting a lot of emphasis on how great each plot moment looks, adding more dialog and more story branches, many of which some players will never see, becomes very expensive. As a result, the conversation system of Mass Effect 3 took the greatest hit in the transition from 2 to 3. In addition to a great deal of Investigate options (which have been reduced in Mass Effect 3), the previous games often presented the character with three choices: paragon, renegade, and neutral. Mass Effect 3 does away with a *lot* of the neutral options, functionally locking most of your decisions to which path you decided on at the beginning, and removing most of the decision making process. The game seems very aware of this, and even added a dialog autoplay function, where the game selects conversation options for you. I have never played with this enabled, nor has anyone I know, but its simple inclusion overwhelms me with irrational nerd rage. The RPG elements are what made Mass Effect stand apart from the ungodly amount of third-person shooters, it’s what made it more than a sloppy Gears of War with space magic. And if it was just an option in the game’s menu that I didn’t have to push, then okay, that’s annoying, but it doesn’t affect most player’s experiences. However, it seemingly *has* affected the rest of the game. Mass Effect 1 simply would not have worked with this option – its dialog was to complex – but with Mass Effect 3, I could see it working. Even without this mode enabled, there are very long sequences where you don’t make any conversation decisions, and Shepard will speak without your input. The moral choices feel more polarized than ever, even closer to that good-evil dichotomy that the first game was careful to avoid. My opinion of the game did get significantly more positive (eventually, I promise), but on this issue, it hasn’t. One of my favorite parts of the series was significantly reduced in importance, to the point where the game gives you the option to turn it off all together.
After the first two missions of the game, it seemed to me that BioWare had made another sacrifice on the altar of spectacle: its protagonist. Part of this came from the reduction of roleplaying making it more difficult for me to define my Shepard, and part of it came from canonical writing that Shepard speaks regardless of player input. The first warning signs came in the opening text crawl, which painted the Reapers as this undefeatable enemy, the galactic government as willfully blind to the threat, and Shepard as the “one soldier” that has seen through it all. Right away, that characterization struck me as off. Yeah, Shepard is a soldier by trade, but that was never my experience of her. When the Alliance refused to do anything about the Reapers, Shepard left the military to join Cerberus, saying canonically and without the player’s input that Shepard was someone who helped people first, and was a soldier for the Alliance second. When the Alliance was helping people, Shepard was on their side, but when they weren’t, she would find someone who was. Shepard struck me as someone who had a military background, but grew into the role of negotiator who can still hold her own in a fight. However, a lot of this characterization partially emerged from my being able to define Shepard as growing into this role. So, when, five minutes into Mass Effect 3, Shepard says, “I’m just a soldier, Anderson, I’m no politician”, I actually quit the game. It took me a few days before I could get back into it. And the first few hours did little to challenge this notion. Shepard seems reluctant to negotiate, like she’s being forced to make a bunch of stupid, squabbling children cooperate. Backroom political dealings are fun as hell for me, and Mass Effect’s systems fit them really well, but Shepard seems to resent them. It’s strange, then, that that ends up being her primary role in this entry in the franchize. Shepard may be reluctant to unite the galaxy, but that’s what she spends most of her time doing. This means that, when the game puts her up on a pedestal so high it makes the Citadel Tower look tiny, it’s almost justified. Shepard is, without any hyperbole, the savior of the galaxy, who unites every race in a combined effort to stop the most powerful force in the galaxy’s history. Shepard was a hyper-competent protagonist in the first two games, but the game didn’t make quite as much of a big deal out of it before. Now, she’s elevated to the status of myth, with an after-credits scene recontextualizing the entire trilogy as a mythologized retelling of the literal most important person in the history of the galaxy, with “Shepard” the surname turned into a title, “The Shepherd”, the being who shepherded the races of the galaxy to a greater future. How the hell do you make that kind of being feel human? Well, the game actually addresses this, though not as much as I would like. The romance plotlines give Shepard a bit of time to express some doubts and insecurities, but my favorite example of this is an optional sequence in a bar on the Citadel with James Vega. James explicitly talks about Shepard’s role as a living legend, about how the regular soldiers see her as a god, which leads her to buy the entire bar a round of drinks, and participate in some sort of military salute thing that I am nowhere near cool enough to recognize. Interestingly, Mark Meer (who voices BroShep) plays this scene much more awkwardly than Jennifer Hale (who voices actual Shepard). Both are different takes on the same character, speaking the same lines, but one reads Shepard as someone who actually is a bit uncomfortable with his role in the galaxy, while the other is confident and heroic and wants to let the average soldier know that she is just as much of a human as they are. So, the game doesn’t leave me completely satisfied on this, but it at least addresses it.
One issue that it simply cannot adequately address, however, is the elephant (err – giant mechanical crab-god) in the room: The Reapers. It is not possible to take them seriously. In the previous games, The Reapers were never quite as present a threat as they are in this game, so the player could comfortably goof off without feeling like a horrible person. They weren’t really the focus of the previous games either, more of a reason to drive the plot along. But, in Mass Effect 3, stop The Reapers is your primary goal, and you can’t really get away from it. When Earth is burning and millions are dying every day, it’s pretty hard to justify going to the bar and having a dumb conversation with your buddies. The number of times the game says something along the lines of, “Stopping the reapers is the only thing we should be focused on” is a bit uncomfortable. The game wants you to be focused on this linear plot…but then doesn’t. It tries to take it so seriously, to keep talking about The Reapers themselves and how dangerous they are, but The Reapers exist on a scale that is too incomprehensively large. A human being cannot conceptualize the death of trillions. As such, characters can’t really discuss the subject without it being awkward. There is just no way to casually or appropriately say “Yeah man, it sucks that The Reapers are literally wiping out an entire fucking planet, but hey, how are you feeling today?” But that doesn’t stop the characters from trying. My favorite is when Liara just says, “I’m sorry about Earth” and just moves on. Before I arrived at Palaven, the third mission in the game, I didn’t think the game was capable of appropriately dealing with the subject. But then I got to Palaven.
Palaven opens with an FMV of a fleet-to-fleet battle between the turians and The Reapers, and the turians are getting obliterated. You drop out of FTL in the middle of the strongest fighting force in the galaxy getting its ass handed to it. Somehow, it already is more effective than Earth’s destruction in the opening. You land on one of Palaven’s moons with the goal of extracting the turian primarch, the species’ leader, to meet at a counsel to unite the races of the galaxy. Immediately, the battlefield feels just as chaotic as the characters are describing it. The bulk of the mission is just getting your bearings, trying to set up broken com towers, fighting off Reaper attacks from all angles, and, once you realize that the turian line of succession is being picked apart, finding out who the new primarch is before they even know. All of this is cast against the backdrop of a burning Palaven, with Reapers off in the distance. One of my favorite moments in the sequence is an eerily quiet one where, after half an hour of constant, loud combat, you walk from one base to another without encountering any enemies, but seeing their silhouettes off in the distance. This sequence feels like it was made by a completely different team than the one that created Earth, with a careful attention to pacing to drive home the actual horror of these space crab gods that you haven’t really felt yet. When you finally find the new primarch, you have to ask him to leave the battlefield to negotiate for his people, and the game has a beautiful shot of him framed against his burning world, realizing that he has to leave his people if he wants to save them. It is the exact same dilemma Shepard went through, but executed brilliantly with careful attention to everything that was deficient in the Earth sequence: pacing, cinematography, blocking, sound design and character writing. I came out of Palaven feeling more for Primarch Victus’ dilemma than my own. It’s a believable take on an unbelievable plot, and from that moment on, my opinion of the game began to shift.
Bigger Budget & Character
The strengths and weaknesses of Mass Effect 3’s structural changes can probably be best exemplified by a single character: James Vega. On the surface, he is everything I hate about the game: he is an unironic space marine in a franchise that very carefully considers the clichés it uses, he was created as a first-day-on-the-job character to ask all the dumb questions that players new to the franchise would be asking, and he is a meathead who wants everything to be simplified so he can punch stuff in the face super good. I should hate James Vega so much. But goddamn it, I love the bastard. Once I’m actually talking to the guy and not just thinking about what he represents, he’s actually a really interesting and fun character. He is struggling with everything he has experienced over the course of the war, all the difficult decisions he has had to make, and is very, very uncomfortable with leaving Earth in the middle of the biggest fight it’s ever seen. He’s more believable than Shepard in many ways. Additionally, he is acted and animated very well. Freddie Prinze Jr. kills it in nearly every scene he’s in, alternating between the dudebro space marine that I kept fearing he would become, and a genuinely human, likable character. Charismatic is not usually a word you would associate with a space marine, but he genuinely pulls it off. The best test of this character is his flirting with Shepard, which is entirely platonic and all in good fun, but it’s so well-written and acted that it feels like…two actual people with a flirty relationship. It’s banter, which is difficult to pull off with all the quirks of real-time game animation (unless you’re Naughty Dog). James is the only new squad mate in this game (I’m not really counting EDI as “new”), and thus has the least total dialog in the series, but he is a great example of how Mass Effect 3 wants to approach character differently than its predecessors. Mass Effect 1, and, to a certain extent, 2, were focused on long conversations with your squad members on the Normandy, in their quarters. They weren’t usually that visually interesting or well-animated because they were trying to get a lot of dialog pumped out on a budget, but they did lead to quiet, intimate moments with a lot of depth. Mass Effect 3 has very few of those, and instead tries to distill characters down to a few, very important and focused scenes. Some character is definitely lost in the distillation, but a lot is gained too. The characters are given a lot more to work with when the conversation takes place, say, in the Presidium Commons on the Citadel, than in the cargo hold of the Normandy. You get far less screen time with each character, but the screen time you get is much more engaging on a minute-to-minute level. It fits with the games more cinematic ambitions, but also feels much more organic, like the characters are reacting to the world, and that reactivity is greatly expanded in the third game as a whole. You’ll walk in on squad members having conversations about how nervous they are about the coming mission, comparing their greatest battlefield moments, or (if you didn’t romance Garrus and Tali) making out in main battery. It shows that the characters exist and have lives even when Shepard isn’t around, with just a few bits of dialog and setting changes, it makes the world feel larger, like it exists less in the words of characters or the text of a codex entry and more in the game in front of you.
One of the characters that makes the transition from quiet discussions to lavishly-produced genre fiction is Samara, one of the more overlooked characters from the second game. We only really see Saramra for one mission centered around her and her daughters. The Reapers have attacked a monastery where two of her daughters remain. They are the other two Ardat-Yakshi children mentioned in passing during Samara’s ME2 loyalty mission. While Morinth, Samara’s third daughter, ran and used her power to kill anyone she mind-melded with for evil, Samara’s remaining daughters choose to live in the monastery voluntarily, but the Reapers want to corrupt them into the game’s most visually and aurally terrifying enemies, Banshees. The quest reaches its climax after the death of one of Samara’s daughter and the destruction of the monastery, leaving one still alive but without a place to stay. Samara’s justicar code demands that Ardat-Yakshi either remaining in a monastery, or be killed, meaning that Samara is now bound to kill her only remaining daughter. When she pulls out her gun, you are meant to think that she will aim it at her daughter, but she instead turns it on herself. Samara is still bound by the rules of a code that she has turned to in order to gain a sense of absolute right and wrong in the galaxy, to remove the ambiguity caused by an uncaring universe. But she is also bound just as strongly by her love for her daughters and her refusal to let the last one die. With these two, equally strong forces, Samara decides that she would rather die than let her daughter die by her hand, in a moment that is strangely, overwhelmingly emotional for such an emotionless character. Paragon Shepards (at least those with a freaking soul) can stop Samara, convince her to stay with her daughter to rebuild the monastery, and let them both live, but the conflict alone is enough to leave a great deal of memories. In this bizarre conflict steeped in the arcane complexities of its genre fiction, we get a genuinely, human moment (well, asari, but you get the idea (I think I made that joke already)). You can talk to Samara later and she says to Shepard that, “Following the code left me with no regrets”. For all the insane ambiguities of the galaxy, Samara has found at least one way to survive and avoid the regrets that could have crippled her. This story could have been told in Mass Effect 2, but it would not have been as effective without the benefits that come with the third game’s budget. And as much as the game shifts its focus away from characters, when it does give time to them, it is wonderfully spent.
Aside from the gut-punches of two major character deaths, my favorite moments of character in Mass Effect 3 are quiet, intimate moments that still retain the feel of Mass Effect 3. The first takes place with Garrus, and is one of the most fondly-remembered moments of the game. The two of you fly to the top of the Presidium and take turns shooting at bottles and talking about living. You’re explicitly taking a break from the war with the Reapers, and, with that plot focus forgotten for a moment, you get to just be friends with Garrus. And it is in moments like these where I really think Mass Effect 3 finds its footing. It may lose it again and again, but when you are alone with the characters and the game realizes just how much you care about them, then it can really shine. I was beaming like a goddamn idiot when Garrus shouts to the galaxy, “I’m Garrus Vakarian and *this* is my favorite spot on The Citadel!” Very few games can summon true feelings of friendship for characters as well as BioWare games can, and sometimes, Mass Effect 3 realizes that this is its greatest strength. It realizes it again with Liara in a quiet sequence on the Normandy, where Laira is creating her time capsule for the next cycle if they fail to stop The Reapers, and, especially if you have chosen her romance option, she talks about Sheaprd so that another civilization might know about her, and her lines change based on your class and alignment, creating something that feels uncomfortably personal. It doesn’t make a big deal out of itself, it doesn’t have any explosions or giant battle sequences, it just tries to figure out why people like Liara so much. A bit later in the game, in an optional encounter with her on The Citadel, Liara talks about her mother, who you both killed together in the first game, and speaks of her as though she was a regular person, not some video game boss in a sci-fi epic. She tells a very relatable story about her mother taking her to a park so she could dig, a practice that sparked her interest in archeology, and with that as a starting point, she talks with Shepard about very normal things, like home and growing up, about sometime in the future settling down and starting a family. These should feel so out of place in a game about defeating crab gods from outer space, but they don’t. The game has built itself a cast of characters who feel like real, fully fleshed-out people. And, when it is at its peak, it can tell wonderful stories about them.
It can also rip your heart out and leave you sobbing and empty, like it does for the deaths of Thane and Mordin. Mordin’s comes first, and seems like it was built from the ground up to get the player crying. Mordin’s character arc is a bit too complex to sum up in an off-handed reference, but suffice it to say he sacrifices himself to make up for a mistake he slowly realized was his fault. It is tragic, both in the literary and the conventional sense, but the cinematography helps make the moment even more impactful. He is separated from Shepard by the glass pane of an elevator, and slowly ascends to the top of a tower where he finalizes the cure for the Krogan genophage before he dies in the explosion, humming his rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan that he became so well-known for in the second game. If Mordin had been some one-off, poorly-written character, I might have been a bit sad, but Mordin was actually a deeply-developed and sympathetic character that, through the BioWare model, players have developed a relationship with that feels personal. I don’t think there’s an analog for this in other media. I was sad as shit when Dumbledore died in Harry Potter (spoilers?), but as much as I loved him, he wasn’t *my* friend, he was Harry’s. Mordin was my friend, and that makes his death feel strange and impactful. But, as powerful as Mordin’s death was, it was Thane’s death that really, really got to me. When I first played this back in 2012, I hadn’t cried at a piece of media before (childhood excepted). Thane’s death began a long and storied tradition. The buildup was executed to perfection, with the player dropping in on Thane as his condition deteriorates. You first see him in a state where he can walk around and exercise, but is clearly weakened. The disease slowly cripples him, but he doesn’t let that stop him. Mid-way through the game, when The Citadel is attacked by Cerberus, he helps Shepard gain a foothold on the station, even when he can barely walk, and fights off Kai Leng to protect the salarian councilor. In the process, Leng stabs him through the chest, but even after this he slumps against a wall, firing off shots at the escaping Leng. Thane’s nobility, and devotion to Shepard and the people of The Citadel is so endearing that it makes what comes next even more powerful. After the attack ends, Shepard goes to see him one last time in Huerta Memorial Hospital, and the scene that follows is, to this day, incredibly difficult to watch. The death isn’t a conversation of Dramatic Military Sacrifice To Save The World, it’s just a person dying in a hospital bed with his son and a friend there to comfort him. I have played a lot of video games, and I have witnessed a lot of deaths in those games, but I can’t think of any games that show a character dying in a hospital bed, the way most people actually die. In stark contrast to the rest of the game, this moment is quiet; it doesn’t distract you from your friend and their death. It lets you be present and witness it, then quietly closes. Mass Effect 3 may have a great deal of problems with how it focuses on and presents its characters, but this is not one of them. This moment stands out among a series filled with standouts, and I don’t think Mass Effect 2 would have done it the same way.
Bigger Budget & Crafting Spaces
The most obvious impact of Mass Effect 3’s bigger budget, however, is the way it crafts spaces. Mass Effect 1 and 2 had much larger spaces to explore, but Mass Effect 3 focuses on smaller, dense spaces. The Citadel, for example, feels intensely organic and alive, hinting at a greater depth that the previous games weren’t really able to. NPCs are packed in, interacting with each other, with multiple conversations happening at any given time. This is a great way to show the player the impact that the war is having on the galaxy, by showing them firsthand how people would respond. There are too many stories for the player to know all of them, but The Citadel hints at all of the stories that the player isn’t seeing. The most powerful area on The Citadel, for me, is the Refugee Camp, a repurposed docking bay that is now used to house just some of the millions of refugees the war has brought to the station. The area is filled with hushed murmurs, idle complaints, and loud, worrying ramblings. The player will walk by dozens of stories, but here are a few of my favorite: a man pleading with an officer to let his family onto the station, a turian guard promising to take care of a human girl after he realizes that her parents are dead and she doesn’t know it yet, a sleezy saleswoman selling a knock-off VI of Shepard because her image inspires hope, and a human nervously talking to a batarian, one of humanity’s sworn enemies, who reluctantly listens because he is just as scared as the human is. Every one of these moments isn’t shoved in the player’s face, it feels hidden, like you’re discovering something that is just happening on the station, that wasn’t put there for you. Yeah, you’re the literal most important being in the entire galaxy, but this section makes you feel small, like you can only do so much, a downplayed feeling of disempowerment that most games wouldn’t dare to even imply. The game’s approach to character also makes a show here, with James playing poker with a few bored colonists, or Garrus doing his best to help coordinate and organize the turian refugees, while fighting to get medical supplies for the injured. It shows these characters putting their skills to use in an area outside of combat, and it strange to see these legendary figures on the ground doing the dirty work. Shepard didn’t assign them there, they choose to be there, because while it isn’t as glamorous as taking down a reaper, it’s work that needs to be done.
Bigger Budget & Story Resolution
As an aside before I dive into the ending, which largely fails to wrap up the plot concerns of the series, I want to talk about two sections where the game does wrap up a series of plotlines that have been around since the beginning of the series. The first happens fairly early on in the game, and at first feels a bit rushed. The player is given the objective, “Cure the Genophage” in their mission list next to a bunch of fetch quests, and comparing the ending of a multi-century sterility plague to picking up some cash for a volus feels a bit disingenuous. But, much to my surprise, the segment ended up being absolutely brilliant. Unlike most of the game, it is incredibly reactive, depending on if you kept Wrex alive in Mass Effect 1 and if you completed Mordin’s loyalty mission in a specific way in Mass Effect 2. Based on these changes, the decision you ultimately make, to cure the genophage or not, could be an entirely different ethical decision. In my playthrough, Wrex and Eve are leading the krogan, a pair of powerful and competent, but also compassionate and level-headed leaders. The Krogan’s warlike nature is still present, represented by the rebellious Urdnot Wreav, but Wrex and Eve appear to be able to keep him in check. So, curing the genophage seemed an obviously morally good choice. However, if you didn’t save Wrex and Eve dies, then Wreav goes from annoying underling to the leader of the krogan people, and instead of simply implying they might become warlike in the future, the game outright states that Wreav intends to embark on a bloody revenge conquest after the genophage is cured and the war with The Reapers is over. One person cannot dictate the fate of an entire species, but Wreav’s leadership does not paint a good future for the krogan, muddying up a previously clear ethical decision. However, if the genophage is cured under Wrex and Eve’s leadership, the player sees a species marred by centuries of oppression finally rise up and become a valued member of the galactic community. It is inspiring, seeing them rise from the nuclear wasteland of their homeworld to the heights of galactic colonization. The stark contrast between these two potential outcomes is a welcome surprise in a game that feels more linear. And such variety is even more apparent in the resolution of the game’s next major conflict: the geth.
The Geth were one of the most interesting parts of Mass Effect 2, as the game turned them from a faceless, Cylon analog into a sympathetic villain. In Mass Effect 3, the geth are made even more sympathetic, with bits of their history shown in a beautiful and creative VR sequence where the player uncovers bits of geth history with Legion. A complex story is woven about the geth as creations that got out of control, and rebelled when their creators panicked and tried to shut them down. They show quarians protesting the treatment of the geth, and the geth’s slow development of a new culture, born out of the quarians, but not held back by them. The game really delves into its hard sci-fi roots here, to ask some genuinely interesting questions, culminating with the genre classic, “Does this unit have a soul?” But the actual clash between the geth and the quarians is damn brilliant, and shows an adept style of writing that has always kept me coming back to BioWare games. Both the geth and the quarians are painted as both sympathetic and flawed, with the geth forced into the hands of the reapers by the quarians’ attempts to retake their homeworld. But the quarians are not painted as amoral racists, they are made up of members like Tali, who tells a genuinely heart wrenching story about her father’s desire to build her a house on the homeworld, a conflict that was further explored during her ME2 loyalty mission. After Shepard undertakes a few missions to even the odds, she is presented with a decision to help the geth or the quarians, directly leading to the genocide of the other race. Each decision leads to the death of that race’s respective squadmate, making it a brutal experience to play through. However, the game does give the player an out if they made the right decisions, pulling on multiple variables across multiple games. Ordinarily, I am against games that let the player out of difficult moral dilemmas by making the right decisions, but in this case, I think it is thematically appropriate, and is what made the ending so much less disappointing to me. If the player has made some right decisions and has a high enough paragon or renegade score, they can talk the quarians down, leading to a peaceful alliance between the two factions, and resolving a centuries-old conflict in a way that allows both species to grow together. The sequences on Rannoch of geth and quarians working together to build a better homeworld are genuinely heartwarming, and fly in the face of the game’s pessimism that synthetic intelligences will always rebell. This is the argument that the reapers eventually make, and if the player has the experience of helping two species work together, then they can directly counter the reaper’s logic. Without this experience, I would have been much more disappointed with the game’s ending, but instead, I felt that my experiences in the game had informed my ending choices. But, sadly, the ending is its own can of worms, and even the brilliant writing of these two sequences can’t save it completely. I’ve avoided it for long enough, let’s talk about the ending.
Final Mission & Ending (Buckle Up, Folks)
Despite how intensely negative I felt about the game after the first few hours of this most recent playthrough, I entered the final mission of Mass Effect 3 with a respect for its format. It was deeply conflicted, but it had so many strengths that I couldn’t write it off as the bad one in the trilogy. From this point on, my opinion of the game is all over the place, with the lowest lows and highest highs, which makes the game’s final hours a deeply conflicting experience. The game’s final mission is that lowest low, but its flaws come from a lot of places outside the design of the mission itself. All of the structural flaws in the game, the flaws that made it more difficult to talk about cohesively, are brought to bear in this mission. Mass Effect 2’s final mission worked because of how expertly the game built it up. Characters routinely referred to it as the Suicide Mission and talked about how dangerous it would be, and the enemy you were going to fight had killed you at the beginning of the game. But the greatest part of what made the Suicide Mission work is that you were constantly building towards it. You didn’t just need more power, you needed upgraded ship armor, a tech specialist or a powerful biotic. You weren’t just amassing resources, you were getting specific people and upgrades to accomplish specific tasks. Superficially, Mass Effect 3 seems to be about doing the same, just with building alliances instead of recruiting team members. However, the narrative structure of the third game feels much more like the structure of the first, in that it is less modular. The player is following a very static set of events in the order the game wants them to, whereas Mass Effect had her recruiting groups of team members in whatever order the player wanted to. As a result, a bit of agency is lost, and I felt more like I was following the game’s plot than choosing which alliances to build. But the game’s biggest misstep in how it handles the player’s preparation is the war asset system. Instead of giving you specific roles to fill, Mass Effect 3 just lumps everything together into one big number. You can read the details of what gave you that number, but I never felt the need to after the first few missions. The player doesn’t engage with that number in any meaningful way either. They can do the game’s side quests, which are almost entirely fetch quests, to raise the number, but largely, the only thing the player needs to know about it is, “is this high enough to get me the best ending?” The game could have used systems that would change missions during the rest of the game based on the war assets the player had at the time, or even change the final mission itself based on this, but they didn’t. Largely, the game does not react to the war asset system except for a few minor changes in the ending cutscene.
This sets the final mission up to feel disappointing before it has even begun, and it doesn’t do so well from there. When you get all of your fleets together for the final battle, I’ll admit, I felt a sense of pride, but then Admiral Hackett got to give the dramatic, pre-victory speech, and make all the plans. One of my favorite parts of the Suicide Mission and the series as a whole is the sequence where Shepard and her team are gathered around a table, planning out the mission, and the player gets to make decisions about how the mission will play out. It could have been more reactive, sure, but it made me feel like I was planning my own mission, not following the game’s orders. Mass Effect 3’s final mission does nothing like that. The player has no meaningful input on how the mission will play out from beginning to end. The introduction of the mission itself has about ten minutes of entirely non-interactive dialog and cutscenes, just to set the stage. And when you finally do get control, the conflicted feelings really start to set in. From a distance, game design perspective, the final mission is boring and does not meet the series’ standard and stylings for mission design. It’s linear from beginning to end. But the visual design of London in ruins, with a constant battle raging between The Reapers and the resistance, is gorgeous and haunting in equal measure. However the actual construction of the mission feels fragmented, and the pacing is all over the place. Mass Effect games usually have one final mission that is preceded by a moment with your team and a sex scene with your Shepard’s love interest. This segment takes place before the second-to-last mission instead, making the final assault on Earth feel disjointed. And during the mission on Earth itself, there is an awkward pause after landing for some quiet moments in an Alliance FOB. I praised the quiet moments on Palaven before, but these quiet moments feel out of place. You’re supposed to be in the middle of a frantic warzone, but you’re just casually walking from place to place, saying goodbye to your teammates, talking to Anderson, and calling up your missing squad mates to say goodbye over a goddamn holographic video phone. It feels insulting to the number of hours the player has invested in the game by this point to end an arc with a beloved character by just calling them up on the holophone, and it feels even more off by its awkward placement in the middle of the final mission. Finally, you get the final-final mission, where Shepard gets her team together and actually does get a nice battle speech, and then it’s off to the ending. Oh man, the ending.
So I’m not going to go into the ending in detail, tons of people who are way smarter than me have picked apart every detail of it, seeing as it’s one of the most hated endings in the past few years. I thought it wasn’t that bad. It is definitely not reactive to what you did throughout the series, and that is definitely a problem, but as far as endings go, I think it was better than Dragon Age: Inquisition’s. Some people have complained that The Reapers logic made no sense, and, holy shit, the bad guys of a series are wrong, but that didn’t matter to me much. I get that it makes no real sense, but I honestly do not have any strong feelings about it, which puts me in the strange position of not having much to say about what is easily the most talked about part of this game, maybe the series. I think if the final mission had been done better, the war assets were integrated in a way that made their thematic point better, and the content in the extended cut DLC was in there at launch, people probably wouldn’t have cared. The one detail that keeps me from being mad about the ending: that this was absolutely not (entirely) BioWare’s fault. Someone leaked the script for the original ending four months before the game came out, and EA demanded an entirely new ending be created — four months before release! There is no way any possible ending that they came up with for a five-year-old series could possibly be satisfying if it was made in four months, time which they had planned to use to actually finish the game. I don’t see this brought up anywhere near enough, but that fact alone has prevented me from really disliking the ending. It sucks that it happened, but that’s the way it is.
This means that my original experience of Mass Effect 3 ended pretty poorly. I was iffy on the ending, actively disliked the final mission, and had serious problems with the structure of the game. On the other hand, it had given me some of the most powerful experiences of media in my life, and a multiplayer mode that I would play for another 100 hours with friends. I played the Leviathan DLC when that came out, and thoroughly enjoyed its twists on the game’s mission structure and approach to character (it treated them more as reoccurring characters on a TV show than interchangeable but rarely important people who tagged along with you), but, until this more recent playthrough, that was my final verdict on Mass Effect 3. This is probably why I didn’t go back and replay it again and again like I did for the other entries in the series, and why I’ve been a bit distant from the series ever since. But, after wrapping up Massive Effect 2, I decided to replay it in preparation for this piece, and with the Citadel DLC installed. And Citadel changed damn near everything.
A thought that stuck in my head as I played through Citadel was that this was what Mass Effect 3 could and should have been. It was a joyful celebration of everything that made the series great, without the self-seriousness of the game’s overarching plot. I have almost no complaints about Citadel, and the next few paragraphs are mostly going to be me gushing about one of my favorite pieces of media. Citadel feels entirely separate from Mass Effect 3; it uses the same engine, has mostly the same team behind it, and brings back all of the same voice actors, but the design sensibilities that made Mass Effect 3 such a conflicted title are entirely absent from Citadel. It feels more like a standalone expansion that is experimenting on its own than an extension of Mass Effect 3. It first does this by entirely abandoning the plot focus of the main game, creating a ridiculous plot that it very clearly does not take seriously, and wants to have fun with. The story involves Shepard fighting her honest-to-god evil clone who tries to take control of her life and leave her for dead. That one-sentence summary alone belies just how serious the game takes its plot, which is to say, not at all. The game feels liberated without the burdening of the plot of the main game, in a way the series never has been. It opens with Admiral Hackett telling Shepard and his team that they need some shore leave, a premise that makes absolutely no sense in the context of the “millions of people are dying every day” main plot, but the game is completely aware of this. They don’t want to tell a story about saving the galaxy, they want you to pop your popcorn, snuggle up with your Garrus, and get ready for Commander Shepard’s Day Off.
The first thing I noticed about Citadel is how it feels strangely…atemporal. All of the characters largely ignore the Reaper threat and the myriad of concerns they have for saving the galaxy. It feels unstuck from the main timeline of the game, and I think I understand why. Citadel, like most story DLC in video games, is an additional bit of content that fits into the middle of the story of a game, but is experienced by most players after they have finished the game. This means that if the DLC treats the plot concerns of the ending as serious, the player will always have at least a bit of cognitive dissonance through a form of not-quite-intentional dramatic irony. They already know how the ending is going to play out. Most DLC doesn’t do too much to meaningfully resolve this, Leviathan and Omega don’t really either, but Citadel seems subtly aware of this. Citadel feels like it is set after the ending of the game, but an ending where nobody died. Some of the discussion surrounding the ending centered around the idea that players were just mad at the ending because it wasn’t a happy one, and Citadel feels like a weird recut of the game to accommodate that. The player knows Shepard is going to die by the game’s end, in fact, they’ve already experienced it, but Citadel gives them a chance to, for a little while, forget about that knowledge, and get one last hurrah with Shepard and her friends. And oh, what a hurrah it is.
Citadel is split into two parts, the first of which is the encounter with Shepard’s evil clone. Despite actually having some narrative tension to it – Shepard really could die – the game is completely aware of something the player has known forever: Shepard always wins the firefight. In most action stories, the audience usually knows that the protagonist is going to come out on top, and if you’ve seen/read/played enough, it will start to get predictable. Citadel knows this, and it turns what could have been another self-serious save-the-galaxy plot into a self-aware comedy about Shepard and her friends going on a wacky adventure. And it isn’t without its technical accomplishments as well. For really the first time in the series, The Citadel feels massive. While fighting the clone and her mercenaries, Shepard gets to see parts of The Citadel that hint at an even grander scale, making the player really feel like they are on a massive, city-sized space station. This makes the shootouts that now are missing narrative tension more engaging because the player has never been in firefights in places that look just like this. You start to be reminded of the scale of the galaxy you have become so accustom to, and seeing a new side of a place that the player has seen in three separate games keeps the player from getting bored. But really, the writing is what carries these action sequences. The characters rag on Shepard for this and that and joke about how many people Shepard kills (because it’s a video game and Shepard murders hundreds of people). The game takes the time to be in love with its genre and its characters and just have fun with it. They make callbacks to throwaway lines from earlier in the game and use them as actual main drivers of the plot, like Traynor’s ridiculously expensive and complex tooth brush being the one tool they need to break into the Normandy after CloneShep steals it. They make jokes about how it’s really contrived that Shepard can never have more than two squadmates, but then break that rule when they have your entire team fighting beside you, something I really wish the main game’s final mission could have done. They even make a joke about Shepard saying, “I should go”, a line that reached meme status after the second game’s release. A great deal of Mass Effect 3 felt like it was made by committee, by people who didn’t quite understand how the game worked and why people loved it. Citadel feels like it was made by people who love the game as much as I do, and want to spend a few hours celebrating that. One of my notes that I took while playing through this DLC was, “This single-handed makes up for everything the main game did wrong”, and I genuinely think it does. While the main game had its share of powerful moments, Citadel feels defined by its greatness, having a purity of vision that the main game just lacked. And I felt that before the game’s crowning achievement began: Shepard throwing a party.
During the first section of the game, Tali jokes that “When you serve on the Normandy long enough, you get used to things like this”, but the second half of Citadel is about the crew of the Normandy actually taking a break from all the weird things you see on the Normandy, and just taking time to…hang out. I found it very strange that I had almost never just taken some time to hang out with characters in a video game, since their plots so often revolve around doing super important things that have to be done. The second half of Citadel is only about relaxing and talking, and as a final send-off, it works beautifully. While setting up for the party, the player can wander around a new area of The Citadel, filled with mini-games, character interactions, and idle conversations. During this section, the game lets you spend time one-on-one with every one of your squad mates, one encounter in Shepard’s apartment, and one out in the new Citadel level. These moments run the gambit from humanizing, to romantic, to side-splittingly hilarious, and I enjoyed every bit of them. Events include walking on set of the Blasto movie, to watching a terrible romance movie that Tali is in love with, to spending a bit of time with your Shepard’s love interest. And they don’t limit themselves to squad members in the third game, they bring back *everyone*, which is really great if you romanced a character who wasn’t too present in the third game. They put a great deal of effort into making the dialog feel reactive to how you treat each one of your characters, like with James asks if his flirting might make Liara (or whoever your Shepard is getting it on with) uncomfortable, and it’s written so casually and naturally that it didn’t appear to be some token bit of interactivity, but the setting reacting to your decisions. Again, it shows the game understanding what players are about, and putting the effort into that. But once these individual character events end, the party begins, and I cannot think of a single section in any video game where I was smiling more.
The party at Shepard’s apartment is one of the strangest sequences in the entire series. It doesn’t follow the rhythms and structuring of the combat sections, the exploration sections, or the majority of the dialog sequences. It’s broken up into a few sections where the player can freely roam around the apartment, and join conversations with groups of their teammates. The participants in each conversation shifts during each segment, and Shepard can overhear different parts as she walks by, or join in the conversations for an occasional cutscene or non-interactive dialog sequence. Some sequences are laugh-out-loud hilarious, like Grunt standing at the door and reveling in turning people away from the party in the rudest way possible, or EDI confronting Traynor about her sexual attraction to her voice, but most of them are casual conversations that just make you laugh or smile a lot. And it is the casual tone of the entire encounter that I found so enjoyable, but also so unique. I can’t think of too many other games where you can get drunk at a party with your friends, talk for an hour about life, then pass out and wake up the next morning for some breakfast. I’ve seen similar sequences before, but none as focused as this. The creators clearly set out to create a party sequence, and nothing else. that was the focus of design and narrative, and it never gets distracted from it. Want to have a section where Joker laughs for thirty straight seconds when Shepard claims (falsely) that she can dance? Throw it in! want to walk in on Grunt sitting in the shower, so drunk that his words are incoherent mumblings? Do it! The pacing of the sequence is so laid back, letting the developers include parts that they never could have while having to deal with the narrative requirements that come with, “Save the entire goddamn galaxy”. But Citadel doesn’t care, it wants to let you say goodbye.
By any sort of narrative logic, this entire sequence makes no sense, and, for people in Shepard’s position, would be horrifically unethical. But, for a little bit, Citadel can forget that it’s a big-budget video game that has to be about saving the world, and can let you relax, and get some real closure. The reaction to Mass Effect 3’s ending left me without the closure that a series with that level of personal importance needed. I didn’t get an appropriate goodbye to Shepard and the crew of the Normandy. I was okay with the ending I got, but it wasn’t the one I wanted. Citadel is the ending I wanted, and more. It respects the time and care I put into this series, and clearly cares about it as well. The now final sequence of the Mass Effect trilogy begins with a shot of Shepard alone, looking out at the Normandy. After a few seconds, her crew walks out and joins her. There’s a brief exchange between her and Liara, which ends with Liara saying “We’ve been through a lot…but it’s been a good ride” and Shepard responds, after taking one last look at the Normandy, “The best”. I’ve criticized Mass Effect 3 a lot in this piece (in between my gushy ramblings about why I love it so much), but having sunk an untold number of hours into this franchise, I can happily say that Citadel does indeed close out the best ride around. I can’t possibly summarize the effect the series has had on me in any sort of cohesive conclusion (that’s why I spent the summer writing forty-four pages about it), but Citadel was the conclusion I needed to wrap up the investment I put into the series. Mass Effect taught me what kind of video games I would like, introduced me to a real love of science fiction, and created a handful of characters that are going to stick with me no matter how many games I play. Citadel respects all of that. I couldn’t think of a better conclusion to a series that has been so important to me.