A month ago, I began a massive play through of the entire Mass Effect series. I purchased every DLC to make sure everything would be complete. This was meant to be something special for me. At one point, Mass Effect was my all time favorite series and, despite everything, part of me still loves it. So, while playing it, I tried to see the entire series as one giant narrative. I focused on the themes that were carried through the series as well as those that were abandoned. A number of plot threads were dropped throughout the series. Plot threads like dark energy, which played a prevalent role in the 2nd game, wasn’t mentioned at all in the 3rd game. There were plot threads the kept on reoccurring, like Synthetics versus Organics. This one was appeared in every game, ending up playing a central role in the 3rd game.
Believe it or not, this is not meant to be a review of the ending of Mass Effect 3. All the weapons and armaments for that debate have long fallen cold and silent. Nothing can be gained by revisiting the old battlefields. We all have our opinions on it at this point, and I’m willing to bet all our opinions are set in stone. It is impossible to do a review of the game, or the trilogy, without looking at the ending. So the ending will be looked at as the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy rather than Mass Effect 3, to see if anything new can be garnered.
This is a review of Mass Effect 3 and the trilogy as a whole. The first thing to be examined is the gameplay. This section will be about the aspects of the game which makes it a video game: battle interface, sub-quest mechanics, weapons, level design, graphics and music.
Independent of the narrative of the series, Mass Effect 3 was the perfect third person shooter game. The game mechanics were, bar none, one of the best of the seventh generation. The fighting was intuitive, a clear refinement from Mass Effect 2. Aiming the weapon was simplistic, just quickly lining up a shot using the right joystick and pulling the right trigger. To aim, use the left trigger. It’s just that simple. You could aim, run, and shoot at the same time. That’s useful in the intense firefights that break out in the game.
The BioWare team kept the same idea with weapons that they did in the first game: they all ‘feel’ different. Each gun has it’s own unique quirks. Some of them have more kickback. Others may take a little while to reload. They all were unique enough for people to develop their own favorite gun. Mine was the Particle Rifle, Javik’s favorite as well. My number two was the Widow Sniper Rifle. I could drop everything short of Brutes in one clean shot. Cannibals explode when I shoot them. Literally explode. It’s a very satisfying visual, emphasizing the sheer power of the rifle.
The dialogue wheel, the staple of the Mass Effect series, still manages to impress. When it comes up with prompts for Shepard’s replies, the player can choose at the very least two options. Sometimes it’s up to five! The fun thing, Shepard doesn’t actually say what you chose verbatim. What he says reflects the spirit of what you chose, but phrased in a way that fits with the scene at hand. It’s a nice touch, allowing scenes to feel like they flow more naturally and letting the player still feel like they are controlling the scene.
Mass Effect 3 is somewhat different in its subquests as opposed to Mass Effect 1 and 2. With the first game, he talks with people in order to find new things to do. Like scan the Keepers or agree to go look for missing family or to try to “rescue” Jenna. In the second game, sometimes Shepard talks to others to find something new to do and sometimes he happens to overhear someone. It comes off more like, “hey, I found this along the way and I remember hearing you say something.” In the third game, it’s creepy. Shepard doesn’t talk with anyone. He walks past, listens in, does the quest, then appears out of nowhere to give the person the item they wanted. There were only one or two fetch missions where he was asked to do something. Everything else, he was creepy.
The level design was excellent. The DLCs offered far more creative level design, like shifting landscapes on the Leviathan DLC or all the different things to do on the Citadel DLC. But with the main game, each level had a different layout with their own unique challenges to them. It shows a great progression from the first two games, where the levels only really differed based on where Shepard to get cover. This one felt more like an actual world that Shepard was in. For example, when Shepard was back on Earth, there were tons of burnt out buildings and rubble. It was tough to navigate through it. Some of the burnt out buildings were could be cut through, but Shepard didn’t have to go through them. Them being there made sense for the setting and gave additional cover if the player wanted to use it. This sort of option was missing in the first two Mass Effects.
The soundtrack improved, if that were possible. Everything felt far more intense because of it. When Shepard was leaving Earth, you couldn’t help but feel sad from Clint Mansell’s dulcet tune “Leaving Earth.” Or when the genophage was cured and the opening theme from Mass Effect 1 started playing… that was awe-inspiring. They did a great job with it.
And as always, the graphics were nothing short of amazing. I couldn’t tell you the amount of times I had Shepard stop and look around, taking in the beauty of the surroundings. The dust storm of Mars, the corpse of the human Reaper in the Collector base, the fires consuming Garrus’ home on Pavalen, and the beautiful surrounds on Lesuss, are all some examples of breathtaking scenery in the game. The colors are vibrant, the scenery rich and detailed, and the people all looking fairly realistic. It is, by far, the best graphics in the entire series.
Mass Effect 3 has almost everything that it needs to be a great video game.
In Mass Effect 1, only two people had to die in the story: Jenkins and Ashley/Kaidan. It was possible for Wrex to be killed, leading to a total of three potential deaths. Jenkins was the first casualty in the war versus the Reapers. Ashley/Kaidan showed the importance of sacrifice in the trilogy, showing there was something to be gained as well as lost from death. Wrex’s death, unlike the other two, was entirely Shepard’s choice. It reflected his personality and drive to finish a mission regardless of the cost. I never thought it made sense for Shepard to kill Wrex, as Wrex didn’t betray Shepard. He wanted to work with Shepard, but also wanted to see his people cured of the genophage (Saren was developing a cure). That makes him sympathetic and his death would only show how ruthless Shepard truly is.
In Mass Effect 2, nobody had to die in the story. But it was possible for the entire team, including Shepard, to die as well as the entire Normandy crew, except the doctor. So thirteen squad members and approximately twenty crew leading to a total of thirty three potential deaths. All the deaths could happen at the end of the game and reflects the choices made throughout the game. If Shepard did the loyalty missions and upgraded the Normandy, the squad could survive As for the Normandy’s crew, if they live or die depends on how fast Shepard comes after them. So everything is a direct consequence of Shepard’s actions. In other words, every decision the player makes will play a role with people living or dying.
In the first two games, Shepard still had agency in the face of death. The death happened because he allowed it to happen. In Mass Effect 3, deaths were treated very differently. Shepard no longer had the agency. Deaths happened outside of his control. Both primary and secondary background characters that Shepard occasionally interacts with died in the game:
|Killed||Might Die||Suicide (possible)||Self-Sacrifice|
The first column shows eight people being killed in the third game. These deaths are unavoidable, assuming they survived in the previous games. This isn’t including current or former party characters, pretty much secondary characters that Shepard interacted with in previous games. Several characters from the first two games were killed off screen: Kal’Reegar, Charr, and Emily Wong. Four more characters will die, assuming Shepard didn’t have them killed off in previous games: Morinth, Fist, Rana Thanoptis, and Aresh Aghdashloo. Morinth was turned into a Banshee no matter what Shepard does, leading to her being killed by Shepard’s hand at the end of the game. The other three were killed off screen. Finally, Admiral Anderson dies at the end of the game. He was the last casualty of the Reaper War. Anderson’s death may be the most tragic, as Shepard was the one who shot him in the stomach, leading to his death.
Nine more only has the possibility of dying, depending on what Shepard does. Assuming they survived the first two games, here’s a list of them: Kelly Chambers, Miranda, Wrex, Wreav, Kaidan/Ashley, Cortez, Jack, Septimus Oraka, and Falere. Shepard could play a direct role in the deaths of Septimus Oraka (pretty much setting up a hit on him with Aria), Falere (shooting her down while she begged for her life) and Wrex (he’s upset that Shepard lied to him about curing the genophage, so Shepard kills him to cover it up and so he wouldn’t have to pay for helping commit genocide against the Krogans). Wreav dies on the mission to cure the genophage. Kaidan/Ashley could be gunned down by Shepard while trying to kill Udina. Miranda dies in front of Shepard if he cannot talk Henry Lawson down or kill him. She will be fatally shot while she kills her father. Kelly Chambers can be killed by Cerberus if Shepard doesn’t recommend she change her name. Jack will be captured by Cerberus and killed by Shepard if he doesn’t save her from Grissom Academy. Cortez dies in a shuttle crash if you don’t help him get over the loss of his significant other, most likely not having the will to survive.
There are five possible suicides in this game, all dependent on Shepard’s actions. Tali could commit suicide if Shepard decides to pick the Geth over the Quarians, leading to the extinction of the Quarian race. Samara blows her own head off if Shepard doesn’t stop her, she wanting to take her own life rather than violate her Justicar Code. Dr Garvin Archer will kill himself off screen if Shepard kills off the Geth, making all the pain he did to David for nothing. Aeian T’Goni (the PTSD Asari in Huerta Hospital) will kill herself offscreen if Shepard uses his Spectre access to give her a gun. Finally, The Illusive Man (TIM) will kill himself in the same fashion as Saren (though he doesn’t come back the same way, praise the Maker) if you can convince him that he’s indoctrinated. These five stand out as distinct from any of the deaths that came before it for one reason: it was done out of despair rather than as a heroic sacrifice.
There were two instances of self-sacrifice that was unavoidable. One of them was avoidable depending on your choices all the way back in the first game. Legion’s self-sacrifice (or murder-by-Tali) was needed to give the Geth free will. Legion gained a sense of self, calling himself “I” rather than “we” for the first time. His first decision was to die so the rest of the Geth could have the same as him. Legion was selfless, as a hero should be. Thane/Kirrahe sacrificed himself to fight Kai Leng off long enough to save the Salarian Councillor. Once again, sacrificing himself to save an innocent person. The only sacrifice that’s avoidable is Mordin’s, and that is only available if Wrex was slaughtered by Shepard in the first game. Mordin’s sacrifice makes quite a bit of sense. He was responsible for continuing the genophage, resulting in the deaths of millions of Krogan babies. Out of all the team members, Mordin was the closest to being a monster. A charming monster, sure. But a monster none-the-less. I hate to say it, but he needed to be punished for his crime. Yes, he cured it, but he was the one who also inflicted it. Him giving his life to make up for his horrific crimes/mistakes works.
I believe the change in tone with death is apparent. The third game showed many different facets of death. It can be noble or tragic, fill us with hope or despair. Show us the depth of nihilism or be a special gift to the galaxy. This was a very drastic shift, one that would put a depressing spin on the game. In the other games, Shepard could control who lived and who died. Now, much of it was outside of his direct control.
Synthetics versus Organics
The distrust between Synthetics and Organics laced all three games together. It wasn’t just the Geth’s actions in the first game, which was pretty bad as they laid waste to Eden Prime and the Citadel. Think about that AI that was laundering money on the Citadel. It assumed that Organics would destroy it if anyone found out about it. That’s why it activated its self-destruct so quickly. It was so convinced the Organics would destroy it that it planned on joining the Geth. Isn’t that telling of the hatred the Organics have with Synthetics?
The first game orientated the Synthetics as paranoid, wanting to attack Organics because that was their nature. The second game called this into question with Legion. Legion presented a different Synthetic, a different Geth. The Geth wanted to live in harmony with the Quarians, but the Quarians attempted to destroy them. The Synthetic versus Organic dynamic quickly became more of a misunderstanding and fear rather than anything else. The Organics feared what they could not understand or control, believing the Synthetics would rebel against them for being treated as tools. The Synthetics only wanted to exist. Nothing else. In this way, we saw a switch. The Organics wanted to attack the Synthetics because it was their nature. The Synthetics were victims, uncertain how to react to the Organics’ aggression. Some of them choose to hide behind the Perseus Veil. Others joined with Nazara, possibly for religious reasons or maybe she gave the Geth a way to fight back.
The game hinted at a resolution to the conflict by having Tali and Legion agree to give a little bit and show some faith in each other. Unfortunately, this resolution didn’t lead to anything as the Quarians attacked the Geth, pushing the Geth into the hands of the Reapers. We all know how that ended, so no need to go into it. The significant thing here is that the conflict carried through all three games and never really changed much. Either the Synthetics attacked or the Organics attacked.
The conflict should have come to a head with the peace between the Quarians and Geth. Or maybe when Shepard decided to back up the Geth and let the Quarians die (it’s a different matter if the Quarians killed the Geth). But no, the conflict was reintroduced again in the ending. The spin put on it was that the Synthetics would always turn against Organics, no matter what. This is an entirely new spin, as it was disproven in the 2nd game by Legion and the Geth. This spin required the Synthetics to be necessarily evil in some important way that wasn’t present in the second and third game. If it was only in the first game, with the Geth being a destructive and unknowable force, then this new spin would have had some traction. Unfortunately, it did not. The only thing it could do is reassure Shepard that the conflict occurred over millions of years and through thousands of cycles.
So while the theme was present through the game and in the ending, the ending’s take on the conflict was radically different than throughout the narrative of the game.
The Gates of Hell
Feros. Ilos. Noveria. Virmire. The Citadel. Omega. Horizon. The Collector Ship. The Derelict Reaper. The Omega Four Relay. In all of these, Shepard and his people fought against impossible odds over and over again, never giving up or giving in. They were the ones who beat the impossible odds. They were legends. Heroes. For all intent and purposes, gods.
This will help others develop a bond that others will never understand. I think we see hints of that bond throughout the game with small talk between the different characters in battle. This was best displayed in the Citadel DLC for Mass Effect 3, where they all faced certain death and they were flippant in the face of it. Repeatedly.
This theme was sort of present in the third game, as Shepard and the crew faced impossible odds with almost every mission. Shepard did the impossible over and over again: curing the genophage, siccing a Thresher Maw on a Reaper, solving the Geth/Quarian conflict, and so many other impressive feats. The difference between the other two games and the third game was death. No matter how impressive Shepard was, someone died. Something was lost for everything that was gained. It made storming the Gates of Hell into a type of hell, one that repeatedly wore Shepard, and the player, down. This wasn’t present in the other games.
So much has been said about the ending that it is a challenge not to repeat the same things over and over. For those who hated the ending, and believing it to be inconsistent with the series, nothing needs to be said to remind them of that. For those who didn’t mind the ending or even liked it, nothing more needs to be said to remind them of that. Talking about the elements of the ending is more like attempting to open up old wounds. So what could be said about the ending that hasn’t been said before? What new way can the ending be approached?
From the moment Harbinger hit Shepard with its beam, the game played very differently. It was as if there were different programmers who designed a different game engine. Shepard’s gun shook. He could no longer heal. He didn’t have access to his power wheel. He stumbled, limped, and fell over. He couldn’t run. His vision was blurry, having dark tendrils eat away at the corners. He sounded unsure of himself, weak. There were so many things that wasn’t there in the previous two games or in the third game that was within the gameplay of the ending.
Even independent of what was said in the ending, or how the narrative played itself out, everyone should be able to agree that it played and felt different than the rest of the game. It did have story justification, as Shepard was hit by Harbinger’s beam (although it is questionable that he survived it as that beam could destroy ships and Shepard is not as sturdy as a ship). So he could be pretty badly injured in a way he wasn’t before. Some may disagree with it, but at the very least, it is an explanation.
The problem with it, no matter the stance on the ending, was that it played differently. Video game gameplay should be consistent from beginning to end. It’s that type of consistency that lets everything ultimately feel consistent. Deciding to drop that consistency is jarring, making the scene feel disjointed from the actual game. While it may serve a purpose in the game itself, it invites criticisms. These criticism are valid, since the gameplay was so, that it was possible to argue that the ending did not fit into the rest of the game.
My Opinion and Conclusions
The game was too dark, filled with too much death and not enough heroics. I had the most fun when the characters interacted together. I liked the devil-may-care attitude the team had in the Citadel DLC. It was the same attitude that Shepard had in the Shadow Broker DLC in Mass Effect 2. That’s what the game should have had, and then turned deadly serious after the Reapers attacked Earth. Rather than attacking it immediately, build up to it. That way, you can keep the humor going and some lightheartedness.
Yes, I enjoyed playing Mass Effect 3. The gameplay was excellent. The story was good, but just too dark for my tastes. Personal opinion, I know. But with a game where every victory feels like a loss, the game quickly wore me down. I liked the fall of Thessia, but I lost that battle and war. I liked getting Garrus, but hated that I ran from the fight and was unable to really help. I liked that I helped cure the genophage, but lost Mordin in the process. This theme kept on repeating itself over and over. I wanted to laugh while playing the game. They gave that to me with the Citadel DLC. The rest of the game should have been much closer to that DLC than what we received.
Despite it being dark, I find myself liking so much of the game. There were great moments that’ll stay with me forever. Legion’s sacrifice. Mordin singing before he died. The Reaper coming down on Thessia while the Asari commandos screamed for help. So I don’t want to give the impression I hated the game. I didn’t. I just hated the ending. And yes, I do believe the game should have been different, but I respect BioWare’s right to decide on the direction of the game as long as it didn’t violate the game’s narrative. For the most part, they didn’t do that, so any complaint I have on the story is only an opinion. I realize that, so I can still say my opinion while being a fanboy over the game.
Also, what in the world happened to Ganto Imness, Kenn, Detective Anaya, Xeltan, Mess Sergeant Gardner, Patriarch, Lantar Sidonis, Harkin, Niftu Cal, Cole, Chorban, Doran, Elias Kelham, Helena Blake, Dr Daniel Abrams, Gianna Parasini, and Erinya. There was a lot of the Mass Effect universe that wasn’t touched on. A lot of characters not talked about. Characters that I cared about. But we were introduced to new ones instead. While that’s all fine and good to have Vega doing pull-ups, it would have been nice if BioWare would have made more of an effort to include in far more characters from the past games than was there.
I loved a lot of the DLCs. I hated the ending. I loved my Shepard. I loved multiplayer mode in the third game. I loved the characters and interactions. I loved a lot of the plot. I loved the Normandy.
And well, I loved the Mass Effect Trilogy.