Mass Effect Tenth and a half year retrospective: Mass Effect 3

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If Mass Effect 3’s legacy is anything and it is considerable, it is that games can provoke a loud and emotional response for its story’s conclusion as well as the elder mediums, that of books, cinema, and the like. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a positive response either. For 98% of Mass Effect 3’s total amount of content, you could make the persuasive argument that Bioware made the best possible trilogy capper it could with what its aging hardware generation could muster, especially for those carrying Commander Shepard’s personalized story from 1 and 2. It was grander, more technically and mechanically refined, and definitively for both the invested and the newcomer, a heart-wrencher.  In some ways, Mass Effect 3 is how you conclude a three part story, game or otherwise. In others, not so much.

The time of destruction Commander Shepard has long feared and warned the galaxy about has come: the Reapers have returned to continue their endless, cyclical harvest of advanced sentient life. Trillions are at risk, billions at best will die, no matter the Commander’s decisive action. He/she first must leave Earth behind to build an intergalactic coalition of species, along with a doomsday weapon to combat the ancient monsters and save their homeworld among many others.

What made Mass Effect 1 special was Shepard beginning his/her quest to become humanity’s avatar, a representative to all of what their species is to the galactic community, especially with a Lovecraftian threat discovered. Mass Effect 2 was special for both its further solidifying of the handcrafted universe its developers had created, as well as a heavier focus on caring for Shepard and their compatriots, or at the very least, seeing what made them all tick. Mass Effect 3 is special because it actively puts everything you’ve become attached to in even greater peril than ever, and lets you know from the start that you can’t save it all. Sometimes to win the day, Shepard must either let his darlings be killed or kill them him/herself. Few legends aren’t built without sacrifice. Shepard cannot be exceptional in that regard.

The most divisive aspect of Mass Effect 3 outside of its endlessly picked apart conclusion, is what I’d call the “tightening of the adventure”. There is less emphasis than ever on exploring and learning about a wonderfully realized galaxy like before and more on trying to put out the flames it’s engulfed in. It makes sense, considering a horrifically brutal galactic war is happening, but going from four hub areas( not counting your space vessel, the Normandy) on four distinct worlds back to one, the giant cylindrical space station, the Citadel, is an off-putting experience, initially.  There’s fewer options in your dialogue wheel, going from three to two in a more, frustrating binary sense. You can have up to seven squad members than 2’s 12. There are fewer missions, optional or otherwise, likely to insinuate a tighter more desperate pace, than the relatively urgent but laid back recruitment drive of the prior game. By Mass Effect 3, the universe and most of its characters have been established. You should know the world, now you have to save it and tie up any other loose ends that were set up. This criticism of a smaller space to operate, despite the staggeringly high stakes is understandable but much easier to fight against than the more agreeable problems of how it can all turn out.

Of the seven characters Shepard can bring along for their final tour of duty, four are returning from Mass Effect 1( should they have survived up til now) and the new three are not entirely new in more ways than one. Kaidan or Ashley, your human teammates of ME1, are up to working with you again depending on who didn’t bite the dust in the original. Liara, now operating as an information broker of considerable influence, is back full time from her short great stint in ME2’s Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC. Garrus and Tali are,assuming they are alive from the last game, back to be the only two characters to be full time members in all three games, bless Bioware for that. Wrex, the sixth member of your crew from the first, makes an awesome encore party member in one of ME3’s excellent DLC offerings, but only in that DLC.

The newcomers include ME2 character,EDI( voiced by Cylon Tricia Helfer), going from a holographic AI to one with an appropriately sexy robot body, that is endlessly lamp shaded for those reasons and Shepard can play matchmaker with her and Seth Green’s lovable Normandy pilot “Joker” Moreau. James Vega,( played with revealing commitment by D-list actor Freddy Prinze Jr.) is the rather divisive new human squad addition. A super jacked Hispanic soldier in the Human military force, the Systems Alliance, he becomes a tag along member with Shepard’s team escaping from Earth when the Reapers invade. He quickly becomes the most reckless member of Shepard’s team, as his youth, rage at Earth’s predicament and desire to make up for tragic mistakes in his service marks him as a noble yet understandably hotheaded brute of a character. I go against some of the grain in actually liking, not loving James. He acts, as Bioware intended as a stand in for newcomers to the franchise, who perhaps start with ME3 in their experience with the series. He also acts as an outsider looking in to the inner circle of friends and allies Shepard has acquired over the years.

The final teammate, Javik, is my favorite addition, due to being an exceptionally cranky Prothean who managed to survive his species’ extermination the last time the Reapers invaded through cryrostasis in hiding. He is the sole surviving member of his race and is probably the most motivated member of Shepard’s party out of vengeance. His cold and severe outlook on life both from living under the Reapers onslaught and the Imperialist standard of his race’s empire create a nice contrast to the rest of Shepard and Co. He also serves as a mirror to a more “renegade” Shepard in terms of behavior: Do what must be done to win, no matter how ugly.

The interactions with your seven man team in and out of combat remains a defining and crucial part of the Mass Effect experience in 3. The squad members actually bother to leave their quarters on the Normandy and interact in other parts of the ship as well as disembark onto the Citadel without Shepard’s need to tag along. It helps make the crew feel more organic and real and that is especially important considering the dire tone in play.

Mass Effect 3, while not without moments of relief comic or otherwise, doesn’t let you forget you are stuck in the mother of all wars. The constant news reports, sheer number of wounded or displaced people on the Citadel, and the understanding that everything you do up until the end of the game is simply slowing down a certain doom. It can wear on you, as it definitely wears on Shepard. The culmination of a possibly tragic pre-game background and the events of the first two games show their weight on the Commander. If more of your overall team of characters have died up til now, the heavier it feels. There’s even a memoriam wall on the Normandy with the list of those who’ve died serving on the Normandy and like it or not, it will almost certainly fill up more as 3 means to go on. It’s a war story, and going into knowing that helps.

The means that Shepard utilizes to build up the galactic forces for one last climatic push are called “war assets”. It can be as small as an individual of no small importance like an unrecruitable teammate from a prior game to an entire fleet of ships to supplies and tools to build your weapon to quell the Reapers, the Crucible. The act of acquiring them is one of the most enjoyable aspects that pertains only to 3. Scanning solar systems across the galaxy in search of resources big and small replaces the divisive mining portion of 2 and it is made more thrilling as every time you scan a system, the Reapers will detect you eventually and give chase. You can also find them by doing numerous side quests on the Citadel and finding them lying around so to speak  during combat drops. It’s hard to lose sight of what’s important in Mass Effect 3 and that is anything but a detriment.

Speaking of combat drops, almost every mission involving combat involves being flown in via shuttle with Shepard and two squad members breaking down the game plan. It reinforces the wartime feel in this manner and the combat itself is easily the best in series. It was so improved from ME2, that Bioware made a successful multiplayer mode to accommodate the huge amount of freedom it entails. You are no longer forced to use only a certain style of weapons based on class. For instance, if you chose Engineer for Shepard’s class you could only use a shotgun and pistol. Now, you can pick any combination of weapons you want, having all five types being assault rifle, pistol, shotgun, sub-machine gun and sniper rifle at your disposal. You can upgrade and customize individual weapons and Shepard’s suit of armor down to the benefits and drawbacks. Mass Effect 3 makes you a master of arms, and the fluid and fast combat with adaptable enemies, varied design of levels, coupled with the increasing stakes attached, make ME3 if anything, the most fun to play in the broadest sense. The combat is so well paced at times, it almost shortens the game in some ways.

It sounds like a fine way to end a trilogy and for the most part, it is. But as you were likely waiting to see me extrapolate on; The game’s very end has, despite legitimate post launch improvements, created a seemingly permanent bad aftertaste to many. Can’t say I’m not one of those people. It remains very real how surprised I was at how.. incomplete Mass Effect 3’s original endings were. Again, it has been decently addressed by a studio which did seem to care about the severe blow-back that followed the game’s March 2012 release. The details of what didn’t and in some ways still doesn’t ring true about the conclusion(s) is so long and deep, that even for an essay that is part of a ten year retrospective analysis, it would take too long to fully digest all the spinning plates.

What I can say shortly, especially for those who still don’t know about the specifics is that it involved a whole lot of unanswered questions( a couple that were brand new), bitter lack of closure, as well as murky retconning of some of the series core themes, right at the 11th hour. The wounds have healed even after replaying, but a bit of that initial, quiet exasperation lingers despite the free extended cut that clarified a lot. One prevailing consequence that ending started was a new suspicion and mild contempt for Bioware going forward with later additions from the studio: Dragon Age Inquisition and Mass Effect Andromeda. Inquisition, the third entry in the sister series to Mass Effect, while largely acclaimed by critics, has overtime had a much divided response from the playerbase, especially longtime Bioware fans. Chalk it up to mixed feelings on the open world structure, weak antagonist and repetitive combat being the aspects which give fans umbrage. Mass Effect Andromeda on the other hand, that would take an entire article to dissect what went wrong there, and it is likely more the fault of quite likely literally evil publisher EA, then it was the poor, inexperienced B-team at Bioware’s Montreal studio than the veterans in Edmonton, Alberta.

Now, Bioware’s next project,Anthem, is turning a lot of heads in the wrong direction. That mostly comes out of eschewing a lot of the elements of Bioware’s established formula and creating a new episodic experience. It takes more than a few notes it appears from Bungie’s polarizing Destiny series of online, shared world shoot-em-ups. Many fear Bioware may legitimately be in trouble following Andromeda’s disastrous release last year and the lukewarm pre-release reception Anthem has been getting. For some like myself, Dragon Age Inquisition could end up Bioware’s last good game, others would say it was Mass Effect 3. More bitter and temperamental voices may declare Mass Effect 2 all the way back in 2010 as being their last good one. It is mostly a subjective whirlwind of opinion and no one can make up a general consensus, for better or for worse.

Mass Effect 3 is still a damn fine way to conclude the trilogy Bioware embarked on in 2007 and no journey no matter how memorable is perfect. Mass Effect 1 and 2 had their own problems too, though they do seem ever smaller compared with what to complain about nowadays. Shepard’s story is complete, I believe that much but I couldn’t tell you if Bioware’s is nearing a needlessly sorrowful conclusion as well. It could be even more uproarious than anything ME3 could conjure up. If the end is near, so be it.

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