Ever Effective: A Retrospective Review of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition part 3 of 3 (Spoilers included) (WARNING: EVEN LONGER THAN LAST PART, KEEP PACING YOURSELF)

Prologue: Signs and Portents

Mass Effect 3 is possibly one of the most acclaimed and well regarded games to also fall under the category of “divisive.” There are as many defenders as they are detractors to the conclusion to Commander Shepard’s story. Some of those same people might hold both views at the same time.

No matter how it ends, it left the Mass Effect universe in one hell of a pickle for a follow-up. The last… massive effect puts the galaxy in a state that is hard to imagine any further story or tale being told, with or without Shepard. It does give ME3 this almost oppressive sense of finality but at the same time left the writers for the franchise in a mental block as to what should come next.

Namely, which of the three base conclusions should a Mass Effect 4 follow? Is it even possible to write up a narrative that would allow for all three different conditions of the state of the galaxy you make in the end to be honored? Not to mention all the smaller decisions that came along for the ride such as individual character fates, how many of Shepard’s friends, allies and love interest were around. One scenario and only one scenario allowed Shepard themself to live.

Part 1: The Coming of Shadows (What came after and where we’re going)

For a while, Bioware’s answer for the fourth Mass Effect was essentially not so much “to boldly go” but “to boldly flee”. Instead, they contrived a scenario where sometime inbetween one of the three games a whole bunch of denizens from the Milky Way decided to leave their home galaxy and head over to Andromeda, a whole new celestial neighborhood free of all the custom decisions Shepard ordained.

Even if Mass Effect: Andromeda was a project that hit on all or enough cylinders, even if it had writing and storytelling prowess on par with the original trilogy, even if it was a beautiful, creative, emotional new beginning to the franchise, it could never escape the shadow of its real intention: that Bioware had written themselves into a corner and they saw no other way for fresh new adventures than breaking the internal logic of its own universe & continuity and having most of the same species deciding to follow through on a really dumb idea.

Mass Effect Andromeda is one of the most depressing disappointments I’ve ever played. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it and I got the game for free through PlayStation Plus. Barring all the lazy similarities Andromeda’s story and characters had with the first Mass Effect (a team of six that was curiously close to the original’s makeup, researching a dead alien civilization for secrets and even a villain looking for a McGuffin like Saren who acts even closer to Sarris from Galaxy Quest), it was just not a fun game to play for the most part.

The Frostbite 3 engine, which had mostly served Bioware’s prior title well( with some ugly exceptions here and there) in Dragon Age: Inquisition, was horribly used and perhaps not even capable of the kind of game Andromeda was meant to be, though some of the background visuals were outstanding. I am well aware that ME: Andromeda had a terrible development cycle and that most of the work on the game was done in the project’s last year and a half.

On top of that, the team leading the project wasn’t the main Bioware team that had worked on the trilogy, it was a somewhat inexperienced b-team from Montreal, though there was also some help from a studio in Austin, Texas and a couple of veterans from the original Edmonton staff like writer Mac Walters and Aaryn Flynn. Montreal had done some good work such as with the ME3 expansion Omega and clearly there were people who did care in spite of the needless complications that occurred. Some of that caring can be sussed out in the final product, but not nearly enough to be redemptive.

Upon release and to some extent to this very day, Andromeda is an embarrassing mess in terms of performance. There are still annoying and immersion breaking bugs that I experienced in my attempt playing it in the Summer of 2019, two years after launch. The biggest complaint was when it came to the either unconvincing or unintentionally hilarious facial animations that made the original trilogy by comparison look more state of the art.

Now, of course because the original three were released between 2007 and 2012, some of the animation and models can look or are dated. But it is much more consistent and it is shocking how often I can forgive the slips-ups when they happened, which might have also been due to me giving more of a shit to boot.

Commander Shepard [Nice] Blank Template - Imgflip
Image from imgflip (Just remember this is an aberration in an overall experience that can last many players over 200 hours.)

It’s not just silly or stunted performances of character faces or how the eyes move or react to the surrounding environments like the infamous “My Face is Tired” woman who did receive an update to make her less…terrifying, but it just felt more obvious than ever that you weren’t looking at real people. Obviously, everyone in the original trilogy were not real too but the suspension of disbelief was much more in effect there than with Andromeda.

Maybe these bad facial and body animations would’ve been allowed more leeway if you know, the writing and characterization was up to at least the standard of past games, but it wasn’t. Very few if any of the characters came close to the original cast in terms of memorability or likability. The best characters were at least passable with a couple of standout moments.

Ryder, the new customizable protagonist to succeed Shepard was possibly the worst offender. He/she had a dialogue system that was closer to the Dragon Age system than the original trilogy’s Paragon/Renegade. Yes, that system was binary and the new “tone” system Ryder had was meant to address that. But it rarely registered into making one feel as if there were crafting a distinct character that could feel unique compared to someone else’s interpretation.

Most Ryders generally feel the same, no matter how the dialogue system was used and the deflating lack of consequential choices offered Ryder and the player, where more than ever the choices really did often feel like an illusion, added to the sameness if someone decided for whatever reason to get through Andromeda more than once.

The two areas where Andromeda actually did seem to offer a commendable sense of player agency was in one department Bioware Montreal did have both experience and time to work on and the other was something that had basically become a core tenet of Bioware overall: combat and romance.

With romance, Bioware Montreal was generally more adept at getting that down. Considering how awkward a romance system can be when done wrong, I figure the studio feared the negative reaction to that coming out as below-average as most everything else did. Some of the romance options for Ryder (that I’ve watched on Youtube) are actually quite convincing considering the game it’s part of and even crazier, the love scenes which are the most explicit in Bioware’s history, are not cringe-inducing. Again, it must have been Bioware realizing how much more scrutiny would come in those moments.

With combat, Andromeda hits a stride where the greater open-endedness of being in an open world environment allows Ryder to be far more versatile in how they traverse and shoot up enemies. Jumppacks, no locked behind cover system and the ability to speed through the area makes it a case of Andromeda actually innovating where otherwise it is recycling and regressing.

The problem is that Andromeda’s combat is tied to a narrative that never hooks you like any of the prior MEs, often involves checking off the stock, stale objectives of older RPG games or MMOs even and that again, the never really patched jankiness of how Andromeda plays gets in the way. Also, there is so much superfluous shit that gets in the way of Andromeda giving you something interesting, funny or dare I say it relevant.

As much as the individual members of Ryder’s team and the crew of the new ship the Tempest feel average at best alone, when they banter or communicate with one another and Ryder, that’s where you will best feel that sorely lacking Bioware magic and may even fool yourself into thinking you are actually experiencing the old Bioware. It’s those moments, often when you’re riding and listening to your squad’s chit-chat through the new all-terrain vehicle to replace ME1’s Mako, the Nomad, or are just walking and talking shop around the Tempest where you can almost forgive the whole thing. Almost.

Bioware followed the misstep of Mass Effect: Andromeda with a far greater misstep that honestly could’ve killed the studio: Anthem. Anthem was Bioware’s first new property since Dragon Age’s debut in 2009 and it was wasted on a transparent attempt to copy the same formula of games like Destiny and the Division.

I have never been able to categorize what kind of genre those games fall into and frankly I don’t want to bother discussing a game like Anthem that is antithetical to virtually every tenet of a Bioware game. Far be it from me to say a studio can’t do something starkly different than prior works. Guerilla Games, the Dutch developer of grim sci-fi military shooter Killzone blind-sided everyone with a successful new franchise in 2017’s Horizon: Zero Dawn that was color, tone and gameplay-wise the opposite of the earlier IP. The sequel, Forbidden West, coming next year is one of the hottest titles in the PS5’s future.

Of course, any game studio should play to their strengths or should be given the time to cultivate new ones. Bioware really was never given the chance to with Anthem and of course EA’s despotic interference with the creatives at Bioware and another rushed development cycle broke the chance for Bioware to expand into a new genre. Even then, even before Anthem’s shitsstorm launch, it was painfully apparent that all the components that me and many others had come to expect and hope for in a Bioware title were sorely missing.

Last year, at the Game Awards, Bioware showed off a teaser for the next, untitled Mass Effect. This is on top of the also-untitled fourth Dragon Age, which was announced seemingly forever ago with few concrete updates. Much like with Andromeda so that’s a great sign there. Due to the appearence of a dead Reaper in the background and a shot at the end which definitely showed Liara, all signs are pointing to this being Mass Effect 4.

So, yeah, we might be getting a follow-up to at least one outcome of Mass Effect 3 and with that comes the promise that yes, Shepard’s story isn’t quite over. It certainly won’t be over for their surviving circle of friends at least. There are so many ways Mass Effect 4 can go terribly wrong and so many ways it could actually go right. I’m expecting a “passing the torch” style narrative not dissimilar to The Legend of Korra, the Star Wars Sequel trilogy or the new slice of Gears of Wars, starting with 2016’s Gears of War 4.

That in and of itself, will be a tricky thing to pull off considering Korra is a consistently polarizing series in the Avatar fanbase and well, I need say not a thing about Episodes 7-9 that you don’t already know and are weary of being reminded of. It might come to pass that if the tentatively titled Mass Effect 4 falls apart like Andromeda, Bioware may resort to a complete reboot that must ignore much of the bottlenecking lore that the Reapers create or perhaps to echo a line Shepard can give to one of the new characters in Mass Effect 3, let old ghosts rest.

Let’s talk about Mass Effect 3 finally. I went through this pre-(post?)amble about Mass Effect and Bioware after ME3 mostly because it’s important to note that as much as Shepard’s (last?) chapter might leave you conflicted at best, it could be and was definitely worse in the end. If anything, it might highlight better where Mass Effect 3 shines.

Part 2: Point of No Return (the JMS Connection, authorial intent and expectations)

Video from Youtube (Episode III: Return of the Reapers)

Every time I arrive at playing Mass Effect 3, after I have played with a newly crafted Shepard from ME1 and ME2, I don’t enter it feeling “Aw hell, let’s get this over with” or “Should I really bother?” I’m actually excited, pumped to get going.

That’s because Mass Effect 3 always offers something satisfying, something amazing and most importantly, something thought-provoking. There is plenty to the final product of Mass Effect 3 that feels that against all odds, Bioware succeeded. They did indeed complete an incredible trilogy of interactive space sci-fi that will, as history has proven, continue to resonate well after the original run. Next Spring will be the tenth anniversary of ME3 and it will on some level feel like a milestone on the calendar as far as I’m concerned.

What always impresses me most about ME3 is that it is unrepentant about what it’s really about: tearing down the assumptions of not so much what Commander Shepard is as a custom-tailored space hero, but how it feels to be in control of that character. There are plenty of moments where you will feel like a badass, whether you be Paragon or Renegade. There are many more moments where you feel small, weak, behind the curve of an utterly pitiless nightmare you’re living through. But first, a word about Babylon 5.

Both franchises have a giant space station, it being the titular location for B5 and in ME’s case it’s the Citadel, as a major part of the narrative. Both stations are multicultural hubs for intergalactic culture and also act as a seat of interspecies political and ambassadorial authority.

Both series involve a darkly-textured, extremely dangerous menace that is ancient and almost unknowable in its whole intent. Babylon 5 had the Shadows, Mass Effect has the Reapers. Both stories involve the galactic community taking its sweet time coming to recognize how dire both threats are and both the Reapers and Shadows use indoctrination through agents that make the ability to fight them much more difficult.

In time, a big galactic war begins against the Shadows. Due to creator J. Michael Straczynski always fighting to ensure his five season planned vision of the series survived cancellation, he had to go to great lengths to rewrite the story to allow it to have either an earlier stopping point or a different conclusion that still reflected what he always intended.

The big war against the Shadows ends surprisingly early at around the mid-point of the fourth of five seasons. I was well expecting the Shadow War to conclude with the end of the show, much like how the war with the Reapers will end one way or another by ME3’s closing. I experienced Mass Effect first, having watched all of Babylon 5 for the first time with my parents earlier this year.

Obviously, my bias is in favor of Mass Effect’s take on the concept and If I’m being honest, B5 is a show I respect more than love for its ahead-of-its-time planned out, serialized storytelling and innovation with connecting with its audience through the internet that was unheard of in the 1990s.

It is rarely the best acted show with some performances almost consistently making me roll my eyes than not. I do feel really shitty insulting B5 in any way, not just because I know people that love it but because it’s legacy is quite a formidable thing indeed.

Getting back to its connection with Mass Effect, B5’s pretty abrupt (due to behind the scenes factors) resolution to the Shadows would be like if around the first to second act of Mass Effect 3 the Reapers were taken care of. Like that. Wouldn’t that feel weird as hell and even wrong? Again, Babylon 5 is hardly just about the Shadows, as there are many other narrative spinning plates the show had to deal with. The Shadows were easily the most interesting aspect (aside from a related human civil war) for me so seeing their sudden departure also made B5 a less compelling show going forward. Fans of the show I feel would begrudgingly side with me there as the final season is widely viewed as a mixed bag.

There are other major plot elements to Shepard’s trilogy including the Genophage and the conflict between the Quarians and Geth and by extension organic vs synthetic life, but those are very much intertwined with the Reapers and are also given proper resolutions in Mass Effect 3.

Part of the enduring reason for the conclusions for Mass Effect 3 being seen as “unsatisfying” even after the Extended Cut did much to improve matters was that there is no “golden ending” offered to the player. No way for all the hard work you put into not one but three games to lead to a finale where the sweet outweighs the bitter.

How Mass Effect 1 and 2 can conclude is partially responsible for this problem of expectation. Mass Effect 1 will always involve you decisively defeating Saren and the Reaper Sovereign. You will always end that game with Shepard coming off the battlefield with victorious pride beaming in their face. You did it, great job, high five!

The endgame choice you make relates to a matter of moral prerogative. You are given the option to save the Citadel Council, who represent three important alien species. The whole game you have been trying to prove Shepard and by extension humanity’s worthiness in the galactic arena. The council is often dismissive, never takes your claims on the Reapers’ danger seriously and you even have the ability to rage-quit several meetings with them via hologram, if only to humorously tick them off.

Then, at the last hour, you are given the choice to save the Council during the final battle with help from Humanity’s space fleets. Doing so will save the Council and earn enduring respect in some form from the represented races. It comes at the cost of a lot of good men and women in the process.

Or, you can hold those ships back to face down Sovereign the reaper alone which in turn will result in the Council’s demise. There are two given reasons for Shepard’s choice to forsake the Council: cold pragmatism or pettiness. Either way, you do end the game on the note that Shepard and friends had a clear victory. For many, the paragon choice to save the Council was the Golden ending and choosing your mentor/father figure Captain Anderson (voiced by the great Keith David) to be Humanity’s councilor was the icing on the cake.

Mass Effect 2 is even more evident about offering a “golden ending”. As mentioned in the part about that game, it’s the result for the Suicide Mission where everyone makes it out of the mission alive, the Collectors are blown up and you cruise happily into ME3 having lost no one this go around.

Mass Effect 3 is explicit about the notion that you can’t save everyone and no one really takes issue with that at least. In the final war against the nearly invincible Reapers, it would make no sense for Shepard to again manage to keep everyone alive. The Collectors were minions of the true foe and that true foe will never let you off easy. The best case scenario of your over-time collection of friends and allies survival is to lose up to three of them.

I won’t mention the three common losses Shepard suffers, but again you cannot avoid it. Even without Shepard’s inevitable personal loss, Mass Effect 3 is all too happy to remind you that the best case scenario on a galactic scale still involves billions upon billions dying or worse being transformed into enemies you then face. Garrus eloquently confronts Shepard with this reality with the simple but brutal calculus that in the end “ten billion here will die, so twenty billion over there will survive.” You might be a badass space hero, but again, you are but one man or woman. Nothing can save them. The best you can do is make sure they didn’t die for nothing.

This is all before you reach the infamous “Catalyst” section that ends the trilogy. There are four base conclusions, with a fourth added in the Extended Cut to rub it in that you either use the three original endings or everyone you ever knew or love will die.

Each of the three color coded “solutions” offered Shepard give and take something from you. That perfect conclusion that was possible with the Suicide Mission, impossible here. In the interest of making this article have a more conclusive feel, I will detail and spoil the three catalyst choices at the end. I placed this point of discussion here early on to emphasize why fans felt and continue to feel bitter about there never being a totally happy possibility. It’s because Bioware nurtured that attitude with the earlier games and possibly didn’t do the best job of bracing their audience to that no longer being possible.

The three endings always having a catch do hurt me, as it was intended, but at the same time, it does do something right in the end that I’m glad Bioware stuck with. When you have a truly imposing antagonist like the Reapers, you shouldn’t have an easy way out in defeating them. In the end, it is respecting the power of the Reapers that the trilogy expertly built up that there is no easy victory possible. To do so would be to diminish them and would that in turn make the fans happy? I should hope not.

Once again echoing Babylon 5, Mass Effect 3 will end the trilogy even in the best of circumstances: In Fire.

Part 3: No Retreat, No Surrender (Party Members, Romance)

Video from Youtube (Wake up, get up, get out there.)

Let’s talk about who makes up the Commander’s party for the last run. Instead of 12 members like last time, it is reduced to 7. This is, in Bioware’s own words, to make Shepard’s last team feel more intimate, closer knit and it is thematically a wise, almost inevitable direction. Four of the members are veterans of the original game, returning for, in my best Dom Toretto voice “One last ride”. Three are new, with one of them actually being a character from ME2 I opted not to mention due to her becoming a party member: EDI, voiced by Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer.

Suddenly Curvy: Looking at Mass Effect's EDI through Queer Theory – The  Queerblr
Image from the Queerblr (Before you ask, of course the game brings up her appearence)

EDI is in many ways the opposite interpretation of a Cylon like the ones Helfer played in the mostly acclaimed reimagining of Battlestar Galactica. The Cylons are the AI antagonists that attempt to drive their human creators to extinction. As the four season show progresses, a complexity to Human/Cylon relations cultivates.

BSG 2003 goes out of its way to present the Cylons as being exceptionally advanced, to the point that most are so convincingly human that there are a number of major characters who don’t even know they are Cylon. Overtime, the number of things the Cylons share with the Humans creates a rocky but eventually decisive connection: it is the uplifting message about humanity and a potential artificial intelligence’s sharing the world that almost makes up for the frustrating end to the show, that I do find much more unsatisfying than anything in ME3’s last hours.

The several Cylons that Tricia Helfer portrays represent both the danger and the potential of AI co-existence. One is a seductive femme fatale whose story arc has evolve into an overall decent person that comes to fall in love with the same guy she had as a mark.

EDI is never really treated in an ambiguous light. While much of the Normandy crew, including Shepard, can express misgivings about her due to the Mass Effect universe having a poor history with AI (the Geth namely), EDI is true to her word in being not just the Normandy’s resident assistant but in some perspectives becomes the Normandy itself.

It is the initially hostile relationship Joker the pilot has with EDI that helps reflect the growing dynamic she eventually shares with everyone living on the Normandy. EDI is always patient and is only ever remotely aggressive in a comic passive-aggressive way. Eventually, the circumstances of ME2’s suicide mission forces Joker to give more control of the Normandy over to her and she never betrays or goes against the crew like HAL from 2001.

Instead, against all odds, EDI comes to view each and every member of the crew of the ship, including AI-despising ones like Tali, as her crewmates. The care they give to her home and that the Normandy’s denizens come to recognize her utility helps her become a warm if ever formal figure. Joker himself begrudgingly also comes to like her by ME2′s end.

In ME3, right after the explosive opening to be discussed down the road, Shepard and crew make a stop at Mars to find information on the almost literal plot device that will be the only thing that can defeat the Reapers. However, Cerberus is also after that information and you first encounter The Illusive Man’s full on army that he deliberately hid from you.

One of the agents that is in the Archives is a Dr. Eva Core, named after one of TIM’s old flames from before he became all evil and stuff. I say “named” as that is actually a full blown AI that takes on a sexy body, either because the Illusive Man is still working through some past relationship issues or well, if a seductive female robot worked so well in BSG, why not here?

A fight with Dr. Core deactivates her but also seriously wounds either Kaidan or Ashley who escaped from Earth with you at the start of the Reaper invasion. Once Dr. Core is brought onboard the Normandy, EDI decides to hack the body for information on Cerberus, without the crew’s permission. It causes the Normandy to go haywire for a little bit and scares the hell out of Shepard and the crew but EDI’s initiative is ultimately entirely to their benefit.

That is definitely true for Joker, as not only can EDI act as his co-pilot more officially now, but well look at EDI’s picture again and tell me that a guy like Joker wouldn’t find something to appreciate. This leads into the most evident example of a romance happening not involving Shepard. For once, Shepard can be a wingman/woman to both Joker and EDI in getting them to have, in more ways than one, an unorthodox relationship.

The player can opt for Shepard to scuttle the relationship before it happens between the two and instead have them be just friends/co-workers. One of the endings for Mass Effect 3 can make Shepard’s decision to make the relationship happen feel like you committed an act of treachery. Possibly because it sort of is. EDI herself acts as a maypole for the series theme for if organic and artificial life can have a positive relationship, like with the Geth and Quarians.

That she is a party member and will have some kind of relationship with everyone’s favorite weak-boned pilot means that what she represents cannot ever be ignored. The most popular or to put it another way seen-through ending players have chosen for closing Mass Effect 3 and by extension the trilogy is the one which sacrifices EDI and by extension the Geth. That choice is perhaps related more to the player’s priorities than Shepard’s as there is a very personal, emotional reason that many including myself would be willing to go ahead with killing a genuine friend and newly benevolent race of machines. I’ll delve more into that conclusion of course, but I’ll give you a hint with Jaime Lannister’s infamous, immortal words from Game of Thrones:

“The things I do for Love.”

Now for someone completely new.

James Vega - Mass Effect 3 Wiki Guide - IGN
Image from IGN (Not exactly dumb muscle, not exactly brainy bruiser)

James Vega remains the most polarizing new addition to the Mass Effect cast in 3. He was specifically meant to be an audience surrogate for players who might choose ME3 as the first game they play. In practice, I think James actually works perfectly fine, never enough to make him a new favorite nor is he chosen often to accompany my Shepards out on the field, but still.

Freddy Prinze Jr voices the Hispanic hunk and does a fantastic job with the kind of role he has. You might know Prinze Jr. as being one of the textbook washed-out actors from the 1990s, though he has had a career revival in possibly the best place for such a thing: voice acting. Following ME3, Prinze Jr returned to Bioware to portray the even more muscular Iron Bull for Dragon Age: Inquisition. Fans were far kinder to Prinze Jr’s character there than before, some considering Iron Bull to be one of the best companions in the entire Dragon Age series.

Freddy Prinze Jr also struck gold for voicing youthful Jedi mentor Kanan in Star Wars Rebels. The point is, knowing where the actor was heading in his voice acting makes me respect his work with James for Mass Effect 3 even more. The worst thing that Vega brings to the table is that he will (optionally) call Shepard by a nickname, “loco“, which does get on my nerves from time from time. But I did choose to let James call me that, didn’t I? His nickname for Femshep is far less grating maybe for how he says it, “Lola“.

Despite already having considerable and tragic to boot combat experience before the Reapers struck, James is meant to be the latecomer to Shepard’s story who gets to experience intergalactic politics and their infuriating complexity with front row seats. He’s also acts in some way as an apprentice with Shepard as their mentor. Considering Shepard is nearing the end of their tale, it does make narrative sense for James to be here.

That being said, is it really a surprise that, love or hate him, many like myself rarely pick him for fighting alongside Shepard? You have Shepard’s returning friends and possible love interests, you have a newly playable EDI and there is the significant new member to be discussed right after James. Like Kaidan, Ashley or Jacob, James is surrounded by others that are more interesting or have more history with the commander. That being said, with the possible exception of Kaidan, James is the odd man out that I would favor spending time with the most, so hey.

Mass Effect 3: How to Recruit Javik | Screen Rant
Image from Screenrant (The most pissed member in the trilogy. Care to know why?)

Javik was a risk of a character that in the end payed off immensely. He wasn’t a risk because as mentioned last time he was once only available shamelessly as a piece of DLC at launch, but because he’s part of a race that was thought to have been systematically wiped out or worse by the Reapers. And the Reapers are known for their pants-shitting efficiency.

He is the last surviving Prothean, recovered in a stasis pod by Shepard, Liara and the Normandy crew on the planet where it all began: Eden Prime. Against all odds, the technology of his time period has allowed him to survive 50,000 years into the future where no one else did. This is a small approximation of how Javik must have felt about making it, though unlike the below example, he did know of his intended destination.

SB-129 | Encyclopedia SpongeBobia | Fandom
Image from Encyclopedia Spongbobia

More so than Captain America, who as of now, has always had a frozen down-time of under a century, Javik is utterly a being out of time. He is so uncomfortable with the fact he now exists in a period where all the lower species that were either once little more than cavemen or food, now control the galaxy he once had.

However, what gets him together is that he still has a purpose, one purpose, to kill the reapers, avenge his race. Unless Shepard intervenes later on, it is all he has to live for. When that is done…

Javik is the most apparent party member in the trilogy that I would call a renegade figure. He is ruthless in his advice for Shepard, only sees allies as tools for fighting the Reapers, no more no less. He has a hatred for synthetic life that is not entirely the fault of the Reapers devastating his time period. His attempts to interact or socialize with the rest of the Normandy crew is either cold advice for the battles to come or a whole lot of trolling.

Despite being the biggest jackass in Shepard’s entire lineup of squadmates, he is my favorite new addition to the team. Javik is only a jerk because he has known no other way to live. Hell, maybe his jerkass personality is the reason he thinks he made it that far to get frozen to the future.

Javik has lived the full nightmare of the Reaper’s harvest. He was part of the last generation of Protheans born in a hopeless war that had lasted for centuries. He was born with the knowledge that victory against the Reapers was impossible. Eventually, he and a million other surviving Prothean soldiers realized that maybe victory wasn’t impossible….50,000 years later.

Javik planned to have himself and that million of his people get frozen in stasis and re-emerge right before the Reapers would return, based on the cyclical nature of their invasions. They would force the civilizations of the new era to fall in line and prepare for the mother and father of all wars, or else. Sadly, his Reaper-transformed people, the Collectors, now hapless agents of the enemy, revealed their plan and the plan went from 1 million Protheans to the future to 600,000 to several hundred to ultimately just him.

All Javik can do is fight alongside the one person that has any hope to defeat his lifelong foe: Shepard. So long as Shepard never wavers from his commitment to defeating the Reapers or becomes indoctrinated, Javik will be satisfied. He will even stomach serving alongside the AI EDI, though he rarely fails to advise Shepard to, as has become meme-worthy, jettison her and eventually the returning Legion out the air-lock.

Before the Reapers, one of the subservient races under the dominating Prothean empire, the Zha, had created their own artificial intelligence, the Zha til. A brutal war was fought against the AI race that usurped their creators and the Protheans were going to win, but those big stupid bio-synthetic cuttlefish had to come and ruin everything.

As you may have surmised by my mention of a “subservient” race, the Reapers did not harden the Protheans’ hearts, they were already a douchey, conquering empire. Perhaps not every Prothean was as hardass as Javik as, again, the war made them colder than ever, but they were not the benevolent, inquisitive, decent folks that were heartlessly slaughtered by the Reapers that Liara had hoped.

You first met Liara in ME1 as she was exploring Prothean ruins. She has a near life-long interest in the departed civilization, especially due to the many tell-tale signs that her species the Asari had known the Protheans back in the day. Ancient aliens but for real. She is…disappointed that Javik’s anecdote and knowledge of his people means her observations came to the opposite conclusion of what she had hoped.

The relationship between Liara and Javik is one of the best in the game that doesn’t directly involve Shepard. Liara is trying both to find the Prothean she had hoped for in Javik and Javik in return wants to both instill in her the harsh truth while also having return her focus to the more pressing matter of avoiding extinction.

While it never really comes to pass like it can between Joker and EDI, the makings of a romance between the two is ever intriguing. This feels more possible as something that happens after the events of ME3, depending on Shepard talking down Javik from committing suicide when and if the Reapers are defeated and he survives the war. If Shepard plays his dialogue cards right, he can convince Javik to consider a post-war life dedicated either to living on the Hanar homeworld( where they believe Protheans are their Gods) or perhaps to travel with Liara through the galaxy, helping her write a book.

Who knows: maybe being around positive influences like a paragon Shepard, Liara and the less vengeance-minded members of the Normandy will soften his heart and maybe just maybe the Prothean and the Asari will find a reward for surviving and defeating the Reapers: happiness with each other.

Obviously, this is barring Shepard being and staying with Liara romantically and this is doubly true in the one scenario Shepard gets to experience a life after the Reapers. Well, if not Shepard or Javik, Liara could always see if her Drell partner Feron is still up to giving it a go. If Javik surviving the unsurvivable is proof that life finds a way, why not love?

For most players, Javik is fun to bring out and about due to his many often humorous observations on the galaxy compared to the galaxy of yesteryear. He is especially great to bring to missions that involve past party members that can’t journey with Shepard anymore or for critical Reaper lore-related missions, especially the mission on the Asari homeworld of Thessia.

Javik’s inclusion in that late-game mission makes it almost an entirely different experience tone-wise compared to anyone else that can come along. For at least your first playthrough of ME3, bring Javik along to Thessia. It will be worth it. Also, his deadpan sarcasm is just delicious in voice actor Ike Amedi’s Kenyan-like accent.

Now for your returning favorites.

Kaidan/Ashley: the Survivors of Virmire

Mass Effect: Why You Should Save Kaiden on Virmire | CBR
Image from CBR (That which doesn’t kill you makes you marginally more interesting)

You can and never will be able to get all six of your Mass Effect 1 party through alive. At the crucial battle against Saren on Virmire, either Kaidan goes or Ashley goes. They didn’t get to return to Shepard’s side in Mass Effect 2 due to Shepard’s uneasy alliance with Cerberus. Though they were dead right in that Cerberus is quite bad, they also come to realize that they were dead wrong about Shepard’s choice to be working with them against the Collectors.

By the start of Mass Effect 3, they are forced by the Reapers’ apocalyptic assault on Earth back into Shepard’s life. It seems at first that either Kaidan or Ashley will be one of the two starting party members for ME3 along with James, following the tradition of two human characters always being at the start. This is somewhat subverted in that they’re temporarily back in the party, much like how Captain turned Admiral Anderson, Shepard’s surrogate father essentially, is a temp member during the fight off Earth. Right up until Anderson makes the hard but wise decision to stay back and lead the resistance.

If you play your cards right or possibly wrong, it’s possible for Kaidan and Ashley to only ever be in Shepard’s team for the second mission occurring on Mars. In one of the best examples of consequence based on how the player uses the dialogue wheel in the trilogy, Shepard can subtly sow the seeds to several different outcomes to their relationship to the Virmire survivor (VS). Obviously, if you had a romance with either in ME1, this will be reflected in the tone of the still estranged rapport they share.

Following them being knocked out of commission by the robot that will eventually be EDI’s body, they are taken to a hospital on the Citadel where they make their recovery. It has irked me that when Shepard (optionally) visits either at the hospital right after you make it to the station the first time, the wonderful love theme ,”I was lost without You“, plays. Even though Shepard’s words to the comatose Ashley/Kaidan can be made to infer he sees them as either a friend or a good comrade-in-arms, the romantic soundtrack makes it seem that no matter your build of Shepard, they can’t help but harbor loving emotion for the VS.

This is especially weird when Femshep is talking to a conked out Ashley, as under no circumstances can that combination get romantic. All the other variables can involve either a rekindled romance or a brand new one down the road, but if I have a commitment to keeping my Shepard’s love story with Tali or Garrus going( as I always do playing a straight Shepard), this feels…wrong. Of course, it leaves the door open to players who might be considering Ashley or Kaidan for a first time relationship but my point stands.

When I play Shepard male and gay, I always opt for one of the two choices: newcomer to be discussed later Steve or Kaidan. Due to Kaidan’s history with Shepard spanning three games, it always makes more sense for my gay Shepard to go with Kaidan.

There is something very heartwarming about the scenario I’ve been describing playing out with a Shepard who has had no relationships thus far due to his orientation and now, seeing this man he has grown to slowly care about, now clinging for life on a hospital bed, talk to him with encouraging words that are as applicable to speaking with a person you care for as a friend, brother from another mother as you would someone you want more from.

Eventually, a major development in the plot thrusts Shepard and the VS back together and one of three scenarios will play out. Due to the stressful circumstances, Shepard can be in a position where they can actually shoot and kill Kaidan or Ashley. You can either show great remorse or borderline sociopathic lack of caring in doing so based on the pre-established morality path or how they went about gunning them down.

However, and this will probably be the case for most players, Kaidan or Ashley will survive that Space Mexican stand-off and will later be waiting next to the shuttle door to the Normandy. If you were unrepentantly antagonistic towards the VS in both ME2 and the first half of ME3, they will grimly decline to rejoin the Normandy. Because they got bad blood. Hey.

Or, if you were more conciliatory, friendly or dare I say it loving earlier on, they will be gnawing at the bit to get back with the crew and will be a little heartbroken if you decline them, though you are rewarded with them becoming a war asset( more on that system later). For most completionist players, those genuinely interested in their return or have plans to fully romance them, Shepard gratefully welcomes them back.

In terms of combat, Kaidan is more fun to bring than Ashley. Ash is a straight up soldier in her abilities and that of course is reflective of the character. Kaidan’s class is a Sentinel, a biotic but with skills that reflect both tech and soldier backgrounds. He is very well-rounded ability-wise, perhaps to make up for him seeming like a more average biotic character in the first game.

Liara, Garrus and Tali: To the End of the Line

In a certain lens, Liara is actually the third party member to have Shepard’s back in all three games. She is responsible for getting Shepard’s remains to Cerberus before the Collectors and she is a temporary member of the party in ME2’s Lair of the Shadow Broker. It once again reinforces Bioware’s bias in favor of the character and to be more charitable to her use in the trilogy, it was perhaps necessary for one major non-Shepard individual to survive no matter what through the course of the trilogy. Liara is only vulnerable at the very end if you have rushed your way to the finish line.

Having some kind of constant in Shepard’s life, no matter how malleable Shepard can make their life is important. It is perhaps due to the consistency of Liara’s presence and how she is all but committed to Shepard no matter what that speaks a lot to what is so desirable about her to so many people as a love interest.

Liara as a love interest only feels appealing to me based on certain circumstances that you really have to work for. The minimum number of party members you can have in ME3 are three: if you never recover Javik from his slumber, you get Kaidan or Ashley killed before recruiting them again( or they contemptuously refuse to come back) and Garrus & Tali did not survive the suicide mission (painful requirements there). All you will have is James, EDI and Liara. Liara is the only long term character that will accompany you into battle in that scenario.

From that perspective, if all else are dead and you don’t wish to romance the two new non-party member LIs aboard the Normandy, all that’s left is Liara. You, of course can decline all love, but with the pain Shepard has endured from just losing all those teammates, having Shepard come back to love with Liara or more powerfully, fall in love for the first time with her can be quite a thing.

As it was in the first two games, there is a moment where Shepard and their lover will go to the captain’s quarters for possibly one last night together. You can decline a night to remember, this time without killing the relationship at least, but come on, are you seriously not going to go through with it by that point?

Due to them being love interests since the first game, Kaidan, Ashley and Liara get romance scenes that last longer than the other love interests aboard the Normandy (Samantha, Steve, Garrus and Tali). I do get it, but at the same time, I wish Garrus and Tali had had scenes as lengthy as the three mentioned above because even if they were not romantically connected in the first game, they were still there for Shepard since the first journey. They have enough history to earn that moment with the Commander.

It’s not the part where Shepard and the LI start getting busy in the sheets that makes those moments so beautiful. The PG-13 love scenes are actually kinda hokey looking, especially involving Shepard with Kaidan or Ashley( never taking off the nightwear is kinda part of the problem).

It is the talk that happens before the whoopie (might) begin that is where the heart of the moment happens. The best ones involve Kaidan with Shepard of either sex or Liara. Ashley’s kinda puts me off due to that sequence involving one too many moments of the couple saying “I love you”, when one would have sufficed.

Liara’s in particular stands out despite me never preferring her pairing with Shepard barring that extreme scenario I mentioned earlier. It is a moment that would feel just as perfect with the other love interests: Shepard and Liara holding hands lying on the bed, looking at the skywindow above Shepard’s quarters, staring out at the stars, thinking that maybe just maybe, there is a place out there where they could truly hide from the reapers and live a good life.

Below is the outstanding love theme for Mass Effect 3, the best of the trilogy. I enjoy the moments with the melancholic, reflective piano more then the part with the snyth that signifies that talking is done and it’s time for some loving action. Hell, If I could find a version of this track with just the piano, I would buy it in a heartbeat.

Video from Youtube (Composer Sam Hulick claims this was his favorite track to record, or so I hear)

Garrus and Tali’s shorter scenes are given weight through their romances being so great altogether and by what they discuss with Shepard the morning after.

ME3 Shepard and Garrus: Love and Light by CaptBuck98 on DeviantArt
Image from DeviantArt (She broke your throne, and she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the hallelujah.) (Editor’s note: not my Femshep with her Garrus.)

Garrus as a character arc has new responsibility thrust upon him before meeting up with Shepard. Due to him being the one Turian in the galaxy with any experience fighting anything Reaper-related, he has become an advisor for the defense of his homeworld of Palavan. The Turians have the best military in the galaxy and it is barely keeping the Reapers from curb-stomping them.

Once again, Garrus departs to be with Shepard while still assisting with military matters relating to his race’s fight for survival. No matter what, romance or no romance, nothing can and will keep Shepard and Vakarian apart.

Replaying Mass Effect 3 with my Femshep and romancing Garrus, I came to recognize that I don’t have the same enthusiasm in that pairing as I do with my male Shepard and Tali. It could be a reflection of me being a straight man, but I feel more earnestly about making the latter pairing as happy as I can and dreading the many scenarios that will force the two apart for good.

Just because I don’t have the same emotional connection to my pairing of Garrus and Femshep that I do for my MaleShep and Tali doesn’t mean I can’t immensely respect how Bioware handled it. As I surmised in the second part, the Shepard/Garrus romance is mostly the same as a friendship, just with more to it. It reflects that almost no matter what, these two are meant to be together in some way.

Many have interpreted the romances possible in Mass Effect 2 as Shepard and their possible lover not exactly falling in love wholly. It’s either a case of hooking up right before potential death or a “friends with benefits” kind of deal. For the most part Femshep and Garrus’ romance in ME2 really is that, with the lingering potential of it growing into more if they survive the Collector Base.

Mass Effect 3 is where you get to decide if your Shepard truly loves the returning love interest, in this instance Garrus. I will admit, while my straight male Shepard was steadfast with no temptation to ever be with anyone other than Tali, I did wonder if perhaps my Femshep would be better suited to Kaidan, Liara or newcomer Samantha. Did I really think Garrus is her love of her life?

But certain moments with Garrus reminded me that it in the end, the Femshep I had shaped would love Garrus. Garrus has never turned on her, has always been there for her. She in return never turned her back on him. They’ve seen so much, experienced so much and can’t imagine their lives apart. Also, having Shepard fall in love with someone with less obvious attractive features tracks well with a woman like Shepard who stands apart from everyone else.

Maybe the most out of all the love interests, Garrus and Femshep is a tribute to blossomed trust, commitment and that not every romantic relationship need be borne out of sexual or romantic attraction. Sometimes, those attributes can come after the fact.

That being said, I am more willing to let my Femshep make the ultimate sacrifice and let Garrus go in the end than I could with Shepard and Tali. Maybe it’s because I think Shepard knows Garrus can bear that parting better than Tali could. Doesn’t mean that Garrus and Shepard’s possible last moment together doesn’t make me choke up somewhat.

Happy Birthday Commander Shepard, You Deserved A Happier Ending
Image from TheGamer (We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.)

Now let’s talk about Shepard and Tali. Oh man, here I go.

I cannot truly bring myself to agree even begrudgingly with the haters of Mass Effect 3 mostly for the fact that this is the game that has the real love story between what is possibly my favorite video game couple. As brought up earlier, Mass Effect 2 either offers a fling or the potential for something to grow overtime. Mass Effect 3 is the payoff and here they genuinely delivered.

As Garrus grows into a bigger role due to the dark circumstances of the galaxy, so does Tali. She is made an admiral in her fleet, replacing her father. Due to her bad experiences as a leader in Mass Effect 2, she is certainly not comfortable with the role. even more so as she dragged into a war she doesn’t want. Not against the Reapers, but the Geth.

Right as the Reapers launch their galactic invasion, so do the Quarians foolishly decide to assault the Geth to take back their homeworld of Rannoch. Even without the timing being just horrible, it also plays into the Reaper’s hands. The scared Geth run to the Reapers for help and upgrade them to give themselves a chance against their creators.

Thankfully, Shepard and Tali have a mediator that can help end not just the new conflict between both species, but could well spell the birth of a new paradigm in organic-synthetic relations: our robobro Legion! Assuming you didn’t sell it to Cerberus or it died fighting the Collectors of course.

More so than the curing the Genophage arc that can involve Wrex and Mordin, the arc with Rannoch definitely ties into one of the essential themes the controversial endings pose: can we co-exist peacefully with artificial life and how can that be seen through?

It is with earlier decisions you make with Legion and Tali in Mass Effect 2 and especially how you parse your words here in Mass Effect 3 that you get to mold your Shepard’s very much life or death viewpoint. Much like how Garrus and Shepard’s relationship is a matter of true trust, getting the best possible outcome with how the Geth and Quarian conflict resolves is a matter of how you treat Legion.

Legion does give Shepard many moments to ponder whether he/it/they should be trusted. Legion not sharing some information earlier than it should. It thinking that maybe the Code the Reapers give to upgrade it’s people would be of benefit instead of detriment. Shepard placing faith in Legion even when you might be compelled otherwise will be far more impactful than you first realize. It’s not just stating an opinion, it’s laying the groundwork for avoiding a scenario where no one ends up happy.

Eventually, Shepard, Legion and Tali’s fight against the Reaper controlled Geth on Rannoch culminates in one of the most epic missions in the series. First a fight through the main Geth base with bitching music playing in the background. Then, you discover that the base is being controlled by a full on Reaper itself. It emerges from its hole underground and starts chasing your ass.

Eventually, the Quarian Migrant Fleet above fires down upon it, giving the reaper pause. In most playthroughs, namely the ones that do not involve a Shepard/Tali romance, Shepard gets out of the escape vehicle, decides to sync up their gun as a targeting laser so the entire Quarian fleet will rain death down upon the Reaper. In these instances, if Legion is alive, they will say to the Commander simply good luck, but in an endearing way. Then it’s boss battle time.

However, if you’re romancing Tali, the atmosphere of the scene changes dramatically. Shepard still gets out of the vehicle, gets his gun synced up with the fleet, ready to directly kick a Reaper’s ass for once. But a certain exchange occurs between the two that I will deign not to spoil because hey, I would like it to be as freshly impactful for yourself as it was for me. I might have internally fangirled harder here than I have at any other point in my life.

So, following the battle against the Reaper, you then have to make a choice with regards to the Reaper Code and Legion’s use of it. On the one hand, the Geth will be more powerful without any Reaper control whatsoever and that will be a definite asset in the battles to come.

However, the Quarian fleet is about to recommence their attack on the Geth fleet after downing the Reaper and if the Geth are fully armed & operational and if they attack their creators in self defense at that certain moment, well… I’ll just let the music exclusive to the scenario where you side with the Geth play.

Video from Youtube (You’ll need a moment or three after this happens. Or you’ll reload your save.)

The moment is brutal if you aren’t romancing Tali. It’s brutal if Tali isn’t alive to see the horror that occurs in this sequence. It’s downright sadomasochistic if you are romancing Tali and let this moment happen. I have only watched this scene online and never had it happen while playing it. And I never will.

There are only two other moments in Mass Effect 3 that will make you feel as emotionally devastated. Both involve Mordin and Wrex in relation to the Genophage Cure and you will feel like the biggest son of a bitch if you go through with two despicable acts of betrayal against them.

If you side with the Quarians over the Geth, it’s not much better and is just as cruel a moment to witness though I can’t say I wince in quite the same way as the alternative. But I do wince.

But in the event you wisely broker peace, Tali stays aboard the Normandy and is the last member of the squad to join up in Mass Effect 3, assuming you still haven’t woken up Javik. If not romanced, Tali stays as your ever friendly Quarian friend and if Garrus is alive and also not romanced, the two end up together at the end. Awww.

If you have her in Shepard’s heart, Tali gives him a gift back in his cabin and it’s a picture of her unmasked. Finally! But the original photo used for Tali was immensely disappointing, mostly due to it being a lazy photoshop of some real person off the internet with some alien characteristics added. I just quietly accepted it and thought well, my Shepard didn’t fall for what she actually looks like in the first place and that’s part of what’s so affecting anyway.

Mass Effect 3 remaster swaps out Tali's stock photo face | Rock Paper  Shotgun
Image from Rock Paper Shotgun (No, I did not envision Tali as alien Megan Fox.)

In one of the best revisions I can think of in any Remastered Edition of a video game, Bioware did correct this in the Legendary Edition by giving us a new built-in-house photo of Tali that doesn’t play up her sex appeal unmasked and makes the whole thing more heartfelt as an expression of love on her part for Shepard.

Mass Effect 3 remaster swaps out Tali's stock photo face | Rock Paper  Shotgun
Image from Rock Paper Shotgun (Better late than never.)

So, eventually, inevitably, we reach the climax of the game and here is where my priorities with two fictional entities having a shadow of a chance of a happy ending gets in the way of the again pragmatic reasons for Shepard’s endgame choice to be elaborated on later.

But, like the final encounter Shepard can have with Garrus or any lover in the party, Tali’s last moment with Shepard…is just hard to avoid tearing up at. Sure, there is a way for those two to (offscreen) reunite after it all ends. But chances are good this is the end. Hear their hearts burst again.

ME3 - Shepard says Goodbye to Tali (Extended Cut) - YouTube
Image from Youtube (We have all the time in the world)

Well. I just made myself sad. Well, don’t worry, there’s plenty of other romance options that you don’t have to tearfully say goodbye to right before the end. Let’s start with the two that are fresh new members of the Normandy’s crew.

Samantha Traynor and Steve Cortez: A gay old time (Also, all the other LIs)

How to Romance Samantha Traynor - Mass Effect 3 Wiki Guide - IGN
Image from IGN (British accent, vaguely Indian ethnicity, loves strategy games, showers and lady-bots)
Mass Effect 3: How to Save Steve Cortez | Screen Rant
Image from Screenrant (American accent with slight Hispanic undertone, loves flying and watching stuff fly, liquor, chocolate bomb cakes and affectionate men)

Mass Effect 3 is not the first Bioware game to have gay love options. It certainly felt that way back in 2012 and if you can believe it, it was seen as controversial. A lot of the reasons are not reasons that would hold up at all in 2021 and I’m not entirely certain the rest are good either. As mentioned in an earlier part, Bioware had planned a lesbian romance option in a Star Wars game, the first Knights of the Old Republic.

With the recent announcement of a top to bottom remake for the first KOTOR, it now seems perfectly likely that the intended to be gay character of Juhani will be romanceable by a female protagonist. Still, consider the boldness of Bioware at least trying for a gay romance option in a Star Wars game in 2003. Liara, due to the particulars of her being a mono-gendered alien species, was a loophole Bioware used to get essentially a lesbian romance option in the first Mass Effect. Was that controversial? Of course, but more for the supposed explicitness of the love scenes, which really weren’t at all.

The first Bioware game to have unambiguous gay options was Dragon Age: Origins, where there was the Bard/Archer/Assassin Leliana and the Inigo Montoya-sounding elf assassin Zevran, the most Latin Lover elf you will ever bear witness to.

A male DA1 protagonist can romance Zevran and a female protagonist can romance Leliana. Oddly enough, I don’t remember there being any outrage about that game’s inclusion of LGBT characters. Maybe because those two can also be romanced by the other sex as well. Bisexuality as a solution in allowing inclusion would continue into Dragon Age II, where all of the romances save one were romanceable by the protagonist Hawke of either sex. Mass Effect 2 kinda had a bisexual option in the Normandy’s yeoman Kelly Chambers, but there is disagreement over whether she is a true romance option or not.

Mass Effect 3 was the first game, possibly anywhere I can remember, that had exclusively gay love interests. Maybe it was that distinction that made the difference. Who knows? Are they good options for a gay Commander Shepard? Yes, I’d say so.

Samantha Traynor is the comms officer and data analyst for the Normandy SR-2 following it entering Alliance hands after Cerberus. She, along with Steve, were never intended to be full time crew members for the ship, but the Reapers beginning their genocidal harvest on Earth has a way of changing plans.

She serves in the same role as Kelly as the person who notifies Shepard about messages and people around the ship who need the Commander’s attention. However, she has a larger role than Kelly, perhaps to offset her falling into the lazy convention of the female crew member being designated to the bridge alone, often called the “bridge bunny.” She is also a code cracker, being able to alert Shepard to special missions that only come out of her initiative, and is responsible for Shepard being able to save a returning Jacob and Jack from a pretty awful fate.

She also assists in improving the Normandy’s targeting and diagnostics settings alongside EDI, making her a much more productive member of the crew. She grows from a shrinking violet who suddenly finds herself surrounded by modern legends, let alone Shepard, to becoming an experienced, confident young woman who is very much at home on the Normandy crew. Her story arc is one of the sweeter ones, whether or not Femshep goes beyond being just a friend to her.

Steve Cortez was originally just the guy overseeing the retrofits for the Normandy’s hanger bay, but again, the flight from Earth drastically changes his role, makes him arguably one of the most important figures in the entire war: being the guy who gets Shepard and their squad to the battlefield. In a scenario where the Reapers are defeated or neutralized, the galaxy owes just as much a debt to one Steve Cortez as they do Shepard, though the entire Normandy crew should get the same treatment as four hobbits from Middle-Earth in that event.

<img src="https://i.redd.it/jur4a5csq6h11.jpg&quot; alt="No matter how many times I've seen LOTR, this scene still makes me tear up
Image from Reddit (I would have Shepard, Garrus, Tali and Joker be the ones in place of the halflings here.)

Anyway, aside from being the impromptu shuttle pilot for the Normandy SR-2, he also makes himself the requisitions officer, so Shepard can buy stuff at a mark-up price when not on the Citadel and also manages the armory as co-quartermaster alongside James. Those two have a back and forth that makes it fun just to visit the hanger deck on the off-chance they jokingly bicker at each other.

Unlike Samantha, who has in truth very little baggage aside from uncertainty on the status of her parents, Steve is a grieving widower to his husband, who he lost to the Collectors during the events of Mass Effect 2. Shepard can optionally hang out with Steve and help him move on from his grief, and this is accomplished quite well even if you never intend to romance him. Otherwise, it would be impossible for Femshep to help him out.

Getting Steve to move on from his sad past actually saves his life during the final battle against the Reapers on London, Earth. If not helped emotionally, Steve dies ironically in the place he was most useful: his shuttle. Considering the tendency I have to interact with the Normandy crew as much as I can, it is actually hard not to become Steve’s friend and ensure his survival, barring you rushing through the game or letting the Reapers win in the end.

Some have complained that Steve being a love option is awkward due to him being a man grieving his love’s death, when that was the same reason Kasumi wasn’t romanceable in Mass Effect 2 and still isn’t in Mass Effect 3 (though Kasumi would be willing to make an exception for Jacob). I think it’s fine, Bioware wanted to give players, gay or otherwise, a homosexual love interest for Shepard and I think the execution of the romance is done well.

Samantha as a love interest also works. She is one of the few love interests in the series that does not have any real personal issues. This works due to both being refreshing to have by the third game and also acts as contrast to Shepard and her mountainful of shit she must work through from the war alone.

In a time where the fate of sentient life hangs in the balance, Femshep finding happiness in someone that is basically normal and uncomplicated makes sense. Of course, Shepard falling for her means that now she must also worry for Samantha’s safety, but her being almost entirely on the ship during the course of the game means she is possibly one of the safest characters period. Only certain outcomes to the game’s end puts her in any real danger.

I must also commend Bioware on the visual execution of both Samantha and Steve. It’s somewhat apparent that both characters didn’t have a face model based off of them, they were crafted in the model creator that fuels most of the human NPCs. That being said, them not looking overly attractive or sexed up adds to them having a feeling of naturalness. This is particularly potent as Shepard, a character whose default appearences are super attractive, can find love in someone who wouldn’t necessarily be a neck-turner.

So yes, Mass Effect 3, the first Bioware game to have completely gay characters for Shepard to fall in love with work. They are not given any stereotypical affectations, like the flamboyant but still well written, well-layered Dorian from Dragon Age: Inquisition. Samantha is mostly more feminine than the cliché “butch” archetype and you would not know Steve was gay until he told you so. This is great considering ME3 was one of the first video games to push this progressive message back then.

The other love interests barring a news reporter you can bring aboard the Normandy (and she is really only available for a one night stand), are the returning love interests from Mass Effect 2. They can not rejoin your squad as they have their own work to deal with outside the confines of the Normandy.

Miranda, having defected from Cerberus, is a woman constantly on the run. She is both trying to outlast and hinder the Illusive Man and his plans while also making sure her dear sister Oriana is still safe. In the few moments that she and Shepard can meet up, she comes to apologize for a hypocritical plan she almost put in motion: to have a control chip placed in Shepard’s head to keep them firmly in Cerberus’s command. Ironically, Martin Sheen’s TIM himself was the one that talked down Miranda.

Considering she fled her evil father for more or less the same reasons, Miranda is torn up about it, whether her or Shepard are in a relationship or not. I was never a fan of Shepard and Miranda being together though I can see why some do like the pairing. Not being capable of being back in Shepard’s team for ME3 is part of the reason it’s not easy to choose someone other than Garrus and Tali for Shepard’s heart.

At least Miranda’s storyline culminates in a late game mission where you get to meet her father and learn that if anything she might have been understating how deplorable he is as a person. As for Jacob, his return and development is quite heartwarming and surprisingly deep if you didn’t romance him and kinda messed if you did.

Not the biggest problem considering Jacob might be the least romanced figure in the series. For those who did stick with Jacob going into ME3, it can be quite a jolt to learn that he has moved on in the six month interim to another woman, Dr. Brynn Cole, a fellow Cerberus defector trying to get a whole bunch of like-minded fellows away from Sheen’s hands.

The Citadel DLC adds a moment where when meeting Jacob for a day out on the town, a once romanced Femshep can slap him for what he did. Jacob does feel like he deserved it, but on the other hand, his affections for Dr. Cole are genuine. Jacob sees in Brynn an opportunity he thought he was never going to get while facing dire odds under Cerberus and Shepard: a family life.

He wants to be a far better father than his own, and his commitment is strong enough that he politely declines returning to the Normandy. When you don’t romance Jacob or can’t in MaleShepard’s case, Jacob’s story arc is great.

Jack probably has the best not returning party member romance. She has a great redesign for her character, has become a rough on the outside, tender on the inside teacher to a bunch of biotic students and has certainly become a better person for everyone who isn’t in Cerberus. Her long-distance relationship with Shepard is given the most work and attention and that’s more evident in the extra screentime her love story with Shepard has in the Citadel DLC. I mentioned that if there was anyone else that a male Shepard of mine would romance that wasn’t Tali, it would be either Kaidan or her.

Thane’s fate is set in stone, should he survive the suicide mission. Many fans wanted there to be an optional storyline where players could get Thane a cure for his terminal illness, which in turn would make it possible to return to Shepard’s crew, especially to get back to his “siha.” I admit, I would’ve liked a possible scenario where Thane could’ve made it but having Thane be beyond saving was the point.

Aside from there needing to be party members in Mass Effect 3 that must die to reinforce that the Commander could not save everyone in their life, Thane actually serves a greater purpose in ME3 than he does in ME2. Aside from being a romance option for Femshep and being able to upgrade the Normandy’s probe supply, Thane doesn’t bring a whole lot to the party during the suicide mission. He’s not a tech specialist, not good for leading the second team apart from Shepard’s and he is not a strong enough biotic for a section that requires a great biotic. Also, he’s dying slowly but surely. How much can he really offer Shepard in utility for ME3?

Well, how about protecting the Salarian councilor’s life during a huge battle against Cerberus on the Citadel? All while confronting the Illusive Man’s smug as f**k hitman?

Mass Effect 3: How to Defeat Kai Leng (Boss Guide)
Image from Screenrant (The Troy Baker voiced tryhard that Bioware wants you to hate as much as they clearly did.)

Thane’s heroic defense of the councilor will lead to a katana through the chest that accelerates the fatal diagnosis he has. If Thane isn’t alive for ME3, another fan-favorite character will take the killing blow, much to Shepard’s surprise and horror. If that character is also dead, well, let’s say the councilor is in some serious shit.

Don’t worry, in spite of the many things Kai Leng does to make both Shepard and the player yell “oh, come on!”, his eventual fate by your hand is one of the most satisfying things you can do in the entire series.

Thane knew he never had a chance at survival and was perfectly alright with it. He only ever expresses fear of death if he falls in love with a female Shepard and she falls in love in return. Still, he leaves this life and maybe enters a new one like an absolute champ. Never having been the biggest fan of Thane, his departure and subsequent memorial given to him in the Citadel DLC is some of the most emotional stuff in the trilogy.

Many still think Bioware did Thane wrong by making him incapable of saving. This arc works if you remember that survival was never the point of Thane’s narrative. Never the takeaway of who he was supposed to be to Shepard. As a friend, a comrade in arms or a lover, Thane was meant to be a man who in his last months of life actually lived after living a life in which he mostly did not. Rest in peace.

Part 4: The Wheel of Fire (all the other characters, the story, DLC, endings and final thoughts)

Video from Youtube (The board is set. The pieces are moving.)

The other surviving party members can be summed up as such.

Wrex and Mordin as talked about earlier are the essential players in the “Genophage Cure” arc alongside Eve, a female Krogan whose newfound fertility can mean that the once elusive cure is now feasible. Giving the Krogan the ability to breed again is essential as it means securing a once impossible alliance between that species and the rest of the galaxy against the Reapers. Aside from the Geth, there is no better class of ground troop than a Krogan and they will be invaluable long term in facing off the Reaper’s more conventional forces.

I already mentioned the stomach churning betrayals you can commit against both Mordin and Wrex, but actually preventing the Genophage cure can be both a pragmatic and even ethical thing to pull off under different circumstances. If Wrex died in ME1, his brother Wreav will take his place and he is very much the wrong Krogan at the wrong place at the wrong time in the event of a cure being undertaken.

He represents the worst traits of his people and only the more open-minded, not bloodthirsty Eve being around to be a fail-safe against him is the only way letting the cure happen here seem right. However, if Eve doesn’t survive the process of making a cure, (which is where Maelon’s blood-soaked research becomes a net positive), you can actually allow Mordin to survive and avoid a terrible backstab by Shepard’s hands and be convinced that at least, the cure can be postponed.

Mordin will fake his death as well as the cure being implemented and Wreav will be too dumb to realize he’s been duped. He will covertly join the team underseeing the Crucible’s construction and you will be able to also secure the assistance of the Krogan, Turians and the cure-hating Salarians in one fell swoop. And all it will cost you is the survival of one beloved Krogan teammate from the first game and a likable new Krogan character. Essentially, it’s a trade: do you want Wrex to live or Mordin?

Speaking of Krogan, there’s also Grunt. He’s not nearly as important as Wrex, but the circumstances of his place in ME3 can still be meaningful. If he survived the suicide mission and was loyal, his mission involving the returning Rachni species can actually give you a fake out heroic last stand. When I first played Mass Effect 3, despite having gotten his loyalty last time, I thought I was in for the first of many sad goodbyes for my crew.

However, a loyal Grunt will make it out of that Aliens inspired mission and will have a very humorous part to play in the already humorous Citadel DLC. You even get to have a cute Cowboy Bebop reference. There’s not much more to Grunt in ME3. If you have his loyalty, he has gained honor among his people by having a respected battlemaster in Shepard and further proved his worth by leading his own team of Krogan. He happily fights the Reapers going forward and it’s implied that he will be one of the few characters in the series who will be satisfied no matter the outcome of the war, just like with the Suicide Mission. In the end, Shepard more than delivered in fulfilling his purpose in life.

Samara’s return ties in with an introduction to one of the most unsettling and toughest enemies in the trilogy: the banshees. Basically, Reaper-transformed Asari where all the sexual aspects of that race are played for straight up horror. Like their name implies, they have a horrific screech which is certainly intended as a demoralizing weapon, not unlike the scream of the Nazgul. What’s worse is that after you kill them, they release one last screech to unsettle you even in victory.

Even with upgraded weapons and abilities, Banshees take awhile to down and if they get too close which is not hard for them on behalf of their teleporting ability, they can one-shot Shepard just like that, not dissimilar to the Cerberus Phantom unit. Depending on your difficulty, banshees are either one of the scariest or most annoying foes Shepard and friends will ever face. The nature of the banshees makes Samara’s mission almost akin to Resident Evil IN SPACE.

It should be noted that all the missions detailing a returning party member will be available even if they aren’t alive to be there. Aside from the replay value due to the member’s absence, there is almost always a consequence. No Jack means that not all of the named biotic students will survive that mission. No Grunt means that the leader of the Krogan squad in his place is doomed to die. Basically, those missions always come with less of a sense of victory because Shepard wasn’t careful enough to keep useful allies alive down the road.

Samara’s possible death in ME2 does involve a difference in the mission where she normally is present, a monastery for Asari who are Ardat-Yakshi, the same succubus-like beings as her daughter Morinth. Obviously, the Reapers can see the value in turning those into weapons.

While I believe you can more or less have a very similar outcome to that mission without Samara, her absence removes one of the more potentially startling moments in the trilogy. A moment where we witness the end result of her Justicar code’s absolutism. You can prevent a really disturbing, sad moment from playing out, but still. It goes to show that deaths in the suicide mission doesn’t just mean losing characters you might care for, but missing out on the fullest extent of future content to boot.

The two remaining characters are the DLC members of Mass Effect 2: Zaeed and Kasumi. Assuming they survived, they return in the form of side quests that involve running around the Citadel, the only hub area in the game aside from the Normandy.

Zaeed’s story ties in with a returning minor character from ME1 and Kasumi’s is actually quite consequential for a couple of species’ fates. It also features a cool as hell reference or two to Alan Moore’s Watchmen of all things. Like the fate of Grunt, having Zaeed and Kasumi’s loyalty will also determine their survival as well. I do wish more of ME2’s party could’ve returned to Shepard’s side, but Bioware wanted a more focused, intimate group of characters for the Commander’s last journey. I would’ve gotten a kick out of Robin Sach’s Zaeed rejoining the team, but here we are.

I have mentioned rather irregularly many of the main plot beats of Mass Effect 3 from the opening hours involving the escape from Earth, the mission on Mars, recruiting Javik, re-recruiting Garrus, Tali, and the VS, as well as the major acts surrounding curing(?) the Genophage and resolving one way or another the Quarian and Geth dilemma. After the…discussed to say the least conclusion of ME3, Bioware released three major pieces of DLC to further highlight the narrative background both of the Reaper War you take part of and to just give you more time with the characters you’ve come to know and love.

For whatever reason, Mass Effect 3’s length without the DLC additions often feels short. It could be that Mass Effect 2 was so big even without its DLC or maybe it was Bioware having some truly great pacing, but I always felt that the conclusion to Commander Shepard’s story wrapped up faster than it should. Unlike the still great DLC additions that made ME2 feel at times bloated, ME3’s DLC makes the length feel more appropriate, more satisfying in terms of content for a single playthrough.

The first addition was Leviathan, released several months after the original game release and I think a month after the Extended Cut. Like the EC, it was meant to give more clarification to the nature of the Reapers, so the contended options to defeating them at the end would make more sense. A better context to what exactly the Reapers’ purpose is.

Many would say that content like Leviathan should’ve been in the game in the first place like with Javik and the mission that accompanies him. The structure of Leviathan feels both stand-alone yet still part of ME3’s narrative, as it should be. What is frustrating about all three of the story expansions is that their placement in the finely tuned narrative direction is hard to figure for the most part. Like ME2’s Arrival, certain expansions on modern versions like the Legendary Edition are made available to the player well before they should be experienced.

Omega, the second DLC about helping Carrie Ann Moss’ Aria take back her criminal empire home of the same name from Cerberus, is easiest to position for placement. I like to play Omega first, soon after the Cerberus coup attempt on the Citadel. Your Shepard should’ve leveled up enough by then and there is a real sense of necessity to it happening right after the Citadel siege, due to it feeling like Shepard is directly getting back at Cerberus after that brazen attack.

Leviathan should be played second, right after the tragic mission on Liara’s homeworld of Thessia. That mission’s outcome is among the darkest in the trilogy and one of the few times Shepard and his crew look and feel broken or nearly so from the result. Some of the best interpersonal drama occurs onboard the Normandy in its aftermath.

Much like taking the battle to Cerberus at Omega, the Reaper history-based Leviathan DLC feels appropriate after Thessia due to Shepard not only learning more than they ever had about their terrible enemy but that there’s an entity out there that can kill them easier than they can. And that contrary to the reaper Sovereign’s claims in Mass Effect 1, they had a beginning and now more than ever, they can have an end.

Leviathan is a mystery that takes Shepard on an investigation based hunt that culminates in one unique as hell encounter with the titular entities. It might in truth contain some of the best content to justify some kind of plot thread for the recently announced in all but name Mass Effect 4.

Omega is both a relative deep dive into the confident and cold Asari crime boss Aria and her connection with an old flame, Nyreen, a female Turian who has been leading a guerilla war against the Cerberus occupation. She is the first female Turian ever seen ingame and also acts as proof that even Aria is not without a soft, romantic side, though she would be loathe to openly admit it.

Omega is the most combat oriented of the three expansions and appropriately so due to it being a bloody campaign to take back a space station built out of a giant asteroid. A place that was plenty bloody before the occupation.

The third and final expansion, Citadel, is the best by far, though many have complained that it’s tone is often at stark odds with the dark war story that is the rest of Mass Effect 3 overall. It is by design a tongue in cheek celebration of Shepard and their potentially large circle of friends, allies and loved ones.

It’s placement is often the hardest, especially due to the happier, care free tone, but for those who want to see the most it has to offer, playing right before the point of no return which signals the endgame is best. Others have decided to actually play it after beating the game, as after the ending you are placed right before that point of no return.

Due to its brighter, more comic feel, it comes across as a more pleasing and ultimately satisfying conclusion to Shepard’s story. There is still a bittersweet note it ends on that, chronologically speaking, it always occurs before the finale and that there is no getting around what will be in store for the Normandy crew. It also marks an end of an era, an era that depending on who you asked, ended with the Citadel DLC, Dragon Age Inquisition or its narrative epilogue, Trespasser, for Bioware itself.

We have yet to have a renaissance that gives us something recalling the Bioware of old. Maybe Mass Effect 4 or Dragon Age 4 will give us that. Maybe it won’t.

More so than any other piece of Mass Effect content brought up yet, what occurs in the Citadel DLC I will keep under wraps as it really is a fun even psychologically relieving time to be had with some great surprises and excellent fan-service. Of course, certain events that your Commander Shepard might let happen leading up to that point might make it harder to swallow playing through Citadel.

Certain outcomes for the Genophage and Geth/Quarian war make Citadel even more inappropriate than before to experience. All the DLCS are optional and you’re not forced to play them. That darker than normal storyline for Shepard might even have you willfully ignore it because that Shepard hasn’t earned that kind of adventure. The Citadel DLC is for those who have done their best as Commander Shepard, those that have the most friends still around before the climax. One last moment of happiness before that bell tolls.

Now then. Let’s discuss the moment that for many completely changed their parasocial relationship with Bioware the developer, created new unfortunate implications to how a game’s audience can affect its development down the road and may be in truth one of the most consequential events in gaming history. Strange as it seems, the fallout of Mass Effect 3’s endings had more of an effect on games themselves than they did for it’s world and characters.

The pain of the original endings has numbed, the adversarial discourse is not what it once was as bigger more damning fish to fry arrived in the form of Bioware’s Mass Effect Andromeda and Anthem. But the ripples of what occurred in March 2012 are still felt even now.

Shepard’s last act involves them getting onboard the Citadel, taken over by the Reapers, now hovering over Earth right below London. It is the place where a reaper will be created, one born every cycle. It is also the place where the superweapon, the Crucible, will be activated. The thing that triggers the Crucible to turn on and expel it’s reaper destroying energy is the Citadel itself, now known in this context as the Catalyst.

By the time Shepard, forced to leave their team and possibly love of their life behind for their safety, arrives inside the Citadel through a skybeam that was so in vogue in the 2010s’, they are badly hurt, bleeding to death. Even in seemingly the best case scenario where Shep gets the job done, getting back to the people for which they maybe fight for the most seems all but impossible. In the words of one Hunter S. Thompson, all that’s left is to maintain.

Shepard isn’t alone. Anderson also made it aboard and is at first in a better spot than Shepard. Sadly, the Illusive Man in person is also there. He’s the reason the Reapers have the Citadel as he spilled the beans to them. If it wasn’t apparent before, it’s undeniable now that TIM is indoctrinated. All the self-destructive, seemingly pointless even to Cerberus own motive’s actions are now easily explained in that his organization had become brainwashed. A throwaway explanation, but it tracks with how the Reapers insidiously can make their biggest enemies into agents in their service, deluding into thinking it’s all to defeat them.

The final confrontation against Shepard and the Illusive Man is deliberately echoing another indoctrinated opponent, Saren. Even the way Shepard can help the Illusive man break control of the Reapers is basically the same as Saren’s and also requires having enough Renegade or Paragon points. It does seem cheap that it’s the same method, but it does fit into the intended idea that the Illusive Man should not be fought like a typical video game boss through violence but through words: TIM’s own best weapon.

The focus of the drama can feel wonky for the player at least the first time because the player and Shepard’s attention might be focused elsewhere. While the Illusive Man does deserve one final confrontation and resolution, the player is emotionally wrapped up in that (1), Shepard may very well be dying. (2), Anderson’s own life is now in the balance and that distracts from whatever points Shepard and TIM might be making at each other. (3), the player might be very anxious to get back to getting the Crucible activated so they can stop the reapers and save everyone and everything they care about.

Of course, as the Reapers intend, The Illusive Man is one more obstacle for Shepard to personally contend with and there has to be somewhere to resolve this character’s own arc. The emotional considerations of the player might get in the way of appreciating what can be had in this otherwise great final encounter and how it does, whether you like it or not, foreshadow what’s to come immediately after.

No matter what, the Illusive Man will die, either by Shepard’s gun or his own and Shepard will open up the Citadel, the first step in using the Crucible. Before that infamous moment of truth, Shepard and their father figure Anderson have one last talk, before one of their stories comes to a somber end like TIM’s. All while this plays in the background.

Video from Youtube (I think I’ve got something in my eye…)

As sad as Anderson’s unavoidable passing is, it is fairly predictable. When’s the last time that the hero’s mentor/father figure made it out alive? Sure, there’s Gandalf thanks to being resurrected and I guess there’s Morpheus in place of the hero and love interest dying in his place (until Matrix 4 at least). You probably saw it coming as I did. But it was a well done end for Keith David’s contribution.

All that said, my mind often pondered more about Shepard’s state than Anderson’s. I see my Shepard, bloodied, tired, seeing in his or her face both a desire to wanting it all to just stop while knowing they can’t yet or knowing there is someone out there that needs them to keep going, even if they may never see them again. This part, more than anything, seeing Shepard view Anderson’s passing and then seeing how much blood they had lost, almost broke me.

Many fans who despised the endings to come and may still do, wished that this is where it had ended. Aside from it avoiding those ending options, I don’t really get that. So, when it’s all said and done, you wanted just one ending where Shepard just dies and doesn’t even activate the Crucible, even before you knows if it works or not.

No matter your thoughts on that having been the ending point, Shepard is then delivered to a new portion of the Citadel and meets this.

The Catalyst (Character) - Giant Bomb
Image from Giant Bomb (Dread it, run from it, I still arrive.)

This ghostly figure calls itself the Catalyst, an artificial intelligence that has been residing within the Citadel this entire time and is also the master of the Reapers. It takes on a form of a child that Shepard could not save during the flight from Earth and represents their guilt over everyone else they could never save.

This unnamed human child also comes to represent potentially people that Shepard could’ve saved but did not. There are a series of three dreams that happen right after a major point in the story. The night after Shepard returns to the Citadel after Earth and Mars, after the end of the Genophage arc and the night before the final run leading to the Crucible activation.

Fans tend to dislike this child being shoehorned as an obvious symbol of Shepard’s survivor guilt or PTSD they have accumulated down the road. Yes, this child does feel forced and I don’t think much of it either. However, during the dreams where Shepard chases after the child in slow motion, you hear the whispers of the party members and other important figures in Shepard’s life that have not made it. The one you left behind on Virmire. Almost always Mordin and always one way or another Thane and Legion. If you are particularly bad at keeping your group of friends and allies alive during the trilogy’s course, it can get deafening how many Shepard ends up hearing by the third and final dream.

It recalls to my mind the River of Sorrow from Metal Gear Solid 3. Snake wades through a knee deep river following after the Spirit of the Russian secret agent, The Sorrow, all while confronting the ghosts of each and every enemy you have killed up until that point. It’s insanely inspired.

Memorable Metal Gear Moments: The River of Death
Image from Metal Gear Informer

In essence, more so than a guilt trip for Shepard, it is a punishment for players who have, intentionally or otherwise, lost too many acquaintances. The dream is longer, there are more voices for the player who has lost more than usual. For the average player, the voices are few if still sad. Either way, Shepard will never forget the lost, even if they had no choice in some of their cases.

So, why has the Reapers’ mastermind taken the form of this child? It’s not that cryptic in interpretation. This is obviously not meant to be the actual appearence (if it even has one) of the artificial intelligence that was created a billion years ago to create and command the Reapers. It takes on this form as a means of persuasion on Shepard through a familiar face, to make the Catalyst’s offers to a weary Shepard easier to advocate for.

The Extended Cut did much to further clarify this entity and its purpose and to also add evidence that a popular fan theory called Indoctrination was incorrect. Many years later, some developers at Bioware would admit that the Indoctrination Theory was actually an awesome concept and wished that at least some aspect of it could’ve been worked into the game.

The Indoctrination Theory was one of the most intricately crafted attempts at grasping for straws ever put forth from a fanbase. Even I was compelled to want it to be true. Even if it’s implications weren’t exactly cheerful, it did do much to make the original execution of the endings feel easier to swallow, because it meant they weren’t real.

Ever since Commander Shepard first encountered something remotely Reaper-like at the start of Mass Effect 1, they had been exposed to technology that would overtime weaken their resistance to Reaper control. Many moments throughout the trilogy would have Shepard exposed to a device or a location that was explicitly trying to brainwash you. The derelict reaper you find Legion in. A giant reaper artifact that blasts indoctrination waves in the Arrival DLC. Fighting a whole bunch of Reaper enemies in Mass Effect 3 alone probably didn’t help matters.

Finally, at the end of the journey, a weakened, bleeding out, mentally frayed Commander Shepard should be in a position where at long last, this utterly, uniquely strong willed human being is finally, mentally vulnerable. Right before meeting the Catalyst, The Illusive Man himself used the Reaper’s powers to control Shepard like a puppet and shoot Anderson, which leads to the latter’s death.

Now, we have the ruler of the Reapers itself, giving Shepard several options in how to finally end the war. Two of those options keep the Reapers around. One of them in essence accomplishes what the Reapers have been trying to do from the very start. Now, isn’t that awfully suspicious?

The option to “destroy” the Reapers is under this theory, a metaphorical, psychological decision. It is this decision where Shepard refuses the options that benefit the Reapers. According to the theory, right after “Destroy” is picked, Shepard will reawaken back on Earth or at an earlier point, and the real ending should happen. Or, it ends on the note that while you don’t get to see Shepard physically destroy the Reapers, he mentally defeated them. It can be assumed that the Crucible is activated and the Reapers are simply destroyed.

Of course, Bioware never intended this. Those abstract, short and closure-lacking endings which initially felt like you were picking your favorite color (like Monty Python) more than deciding the fate of the galaxy were meant at face value. In spite of Bioware knowing that they had a “mind games” angle to the narrative that could be purposed by the fanbase as it was.

The Extended Cut did all it could to add new scenes which cleared up genuine question marks that were not intended to be left. How did Shepard’s crew get back on the Normandy and then end up crash landing on a jungle planet? Did Shepard actually get up to the Citadel? Are the Mass Relays blowing up once the Crucible is fired, which should mean that no one survives, which would render any option given entirely pointless? What exactly goes in to every use of the Crucible given and what will the state of the galaxy and your collection of friends be like after that decision?

The Extended Cut did answer those questions. You didn’t have to like those answers, but hey you did get them eventually.

The red Destroy ending does accomplish what you and Shepard intended from day one: end those damn dirty cuttlefish forever. But, there’s a catch. It doesn’t just destroy the Reapers, all artificial/synthetic life will die. The non living technology the galaxy has can be repaired like spaceships and the mass relays, don’t worry about that. EDI and the friendly Geth that have taken up arms alongside you. They dead.

So, yeah, the cost of destroying the Reapers and by extension the only way Shepard gets to live and be with the ones they love, is to render EDI and Legion’s arcs moot. This distressing problem given Shepard and the player is entirely on purpose and while it will definitely hurt, it does tie into the series’ philosophy that you must be prepared to make hard choices that will leave something or someone unhappy.

With all the emotional investment fans had gotten with Shepard and friend’s journey over three games, being able to accomplish through hard work a perfect happy ending was much desired. After all, players could be given perfect outcomes to the suicide mission, the fate of the Geth and Quarians and arguably the Genophage cure. Why not the last gasp?

Because it ties into themes that Bioware has been trying to hammer home for several games, reflects one of the core tenets that a person like Commander Shepard cannot have it all and should not expect to. Also, if it were possible for there to be a perfect ending, would it not stand to reason that the player base’s choice of ending would be bottle-necked? Many alternative conclusions with food for thought attached with them would be ignored in favor of that “golden” ending.

At the very end and when facing a complex, extremely powerful enemy like the Reapers, why cheapen the solution by offering one that yes leaves you emotionally the happiest but at the expense of the main antagonist’s presence.

The other two solutions will involve Shepard’s death, no way around it. The blue “control” ending has Shepard transposing his body into a new entity like the catalyst that now becomes the new master of the Reapers. This entity is molded off either the paragon or renegade identity of your Shepard. A paragon Shepard will use the reapers to rebuild the galaxy and will take on a benevolent guardian figure who will be just as committed to the well-being of everyone that Shepard knew and cared for as the protection and prosperity of the galaxy. The reapers will hurt the innocent no longer.

A renegade Shepard will lead to an entity more frightening, dangerous and with plans that could very well lead to a dark future for the galaxy. This entity will likely use the Reapers as nigh unstoppable enforcers of their despotic will and in time, might go back to the same exact conclusion that led to the cyclical harvest.

The third option, the green “synthesis”, is often framed as being the best one, despite also involving Shepard’s sacrificial death. Due to him/her having both organic and synthetic elements, on part of their resurrection from Cerberus, they can themselves act as a catalyst towards merging both types of life into a new one. This effectively ends the problem the Reapers were created to fix: the inevitable conflict between organic creators and the created.

A new unity is born, everyone in the Milky Way, including the Reapers and their transformed minions are now friendly, and can feel and read each other in a way that creates perfect communication and cooperation. Free will is still possible in this scenario, but because everyone has the answers to what to do or can easily settle arguments without violence, it appears to be the best of both worlds.

If you convince EDI and Joker to get together, they are now on a physical level more compatible than ever, possibly capable of having kids now. For everyone except Shepard, who must die for this to happen, it’s apparently as positive a conclusion as can be hoped for.

There is some debate that this is not as cheerful or positive a conclusion as it is framed especially with EDI’s elated narration of this narration. Some have said that the forced merging of both kinds of life will lead to future, unforeseeable problems and that it shouldn’t necessarilly be able to wash away the fact that the Reapers are now all of a sudden pals with everyone else. Even with this vaguely explained “understanding” that has been achieved, that shouldn’t negate the righteous anger and desire for retribution against the reapers that countless survivors would still have. Would Javik be so willing to bury the hatchet, all being said?

Of course, for most people the biggest turn off is that again Shepard must die for what is otherwise the seemingly most positive outcome of Mass Effect 3. Most people like myself, in spite of weighing the benefits and detriments of Control and Synthesis, still choose Destroy in spite of knowing that EDI and the Geth will be wiped out.

We do it because we know, not Shepard, that our commander can only survive this way. Because it still accomplishes what we have wanted to do from the beginning. Because despite the Catalyst’s warnings that the same problem that led to the Reaper’s creation will arise once again, this is the option where the reapers are gone. This is the option where they and their genocidal machinations will plague the galaxy no more. From now on, we for better or worse will make our own fate. It might be a bad one. It might be built on the deaths of friends like EDI and the Geth, but it is still our choice.

Many fans like to think or hope that EDI and the Geth are not beyond saving. Well, if they aren’t beyond saving than so should the Reapers in theory. Mass Effect 4, based on the clues of its teaser seems to be aiming to address those questions and perhaps has the best world state to justify a future story to be told. At least it avoids a world where everyone has green electronic wires and glow on their body.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Most chose Destroy only thinking about getting Shepard back with Tali, Garrus, Liara and everyone else. I sure did. In a sense, it could be a judgment call the game is making on me, deciding on my emotional needs rather than the pragmatic big picture. It’s hardly an invalid stance, but it is one where you will forfeit the standards you likely had for EDI and the Geth as individuals who deserved respect, a chance. To one last time quote Jaime Lannister, in the end it came down to many people for one reason:

The things I do for love.

Video from Youtube (Here it is, the one thing that comes as close to perfect in ME3’s end. I dare you to say otherwise.)

Whether the endings frustrate, anger, satisfy or still confuse you, the impact it left on the series is immeasurable. It affected the direction of the next game, Andromeda, and it will affect the direction of the next Mass Effect. I delved early on into the consequences of how Bioware drew Shepard’s trilogy to an end and now I have expressed how I feel about the endings as they stand in 2021.

I no longer hate them, I started not hating them when the Extended Cut at least added better emotional closure, making me feel as if at least, no matter what you will say, Bioware did something. It stemmed from the fact that more than a few at Bioware must have felt like you did. No matter the artistic or philosophical merit of what these endings are about, they were initially given to the players in a manner that was cold, quick and without feeling. Not the note they wanted to end a hundred plus hour investment on.

As has been brought up by others like Noah Caldwell Gervais, the Extended Cut would not exist if on some level, the people at Bioware themselves didn’t feel let down by their own work. That they didn’t feel that this groundbreaking trilogy didn’t have more of a send off than it deserved. It was a mutual dissatisfaction between creator and consumer that possibly resulted in the beloved Citadel DLC.

Both Bioware and their audience had just as hard a time as Shepard in gritting their teeth and letting go.

This is the end of a lengthy, maybe too lengthy deep dive into one of the most essential pieces of interactive entertainment I have experienced. I appreciate the patience of anyone and everyone who read through it the whole way.

I have a hope that the Bioware that created the imperfect but heartfelt Legendary Edition this year have yet the prowess, the imagination and the determination to craft new, wonderful and thought provoking stories in their vision of the future. I hope this is just as true for what form Dragon Age 4 will ultimately take.

I want to fall in love in again, experience pain, joy, fear, wonder and curiosity in this universe vicariously again. I perhaps am asking too much to have a new set of Mass Effects that can meet or surpass the games of old, it might be impossible.

But Shepard’s story is all about making the impossible possible. It could happen, but I must always ready myself for it to never happen.

Video from Youtube (Everything is clearer now, Life is just a dream, you know, that’s never ending, I’m ascending.)

I will delve next into my new slice of horror movies watched for the Halloween season. I hope to not take too long into telling you if this crop of 80s’ era horror cinema is effective or not.

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