Archive for April, 2012

Mass Effect trilogy comparisons

April 9, 2012

I got into Mass Effect 1 about a year ago and fell in love with the series. Everything about the first game, from the setting, to the characters, to the interspersal of balls-awesome to jaw-dropping-funny to tearjerking-sad, rubbed me the right way, such that purchasing ME2 and pre-ordering ME3 were no-brainers for me. And now that I’ve finished, I feel the need to write this series comparing the progression of the Mass Effect trilogy. Currently, it will go over the setting, story, gameplay, and characters, as well as a special segment about the ME3 ending. Ctrl+F for any of those words to skip to them, because it’s late and I don’t feel like looking up how to do HTML anchors.

Setting:

In the year 2148, explorers on Mars discovered the remains of an ancient spacefaring civilization. In the decades that followed, these mysterious artifacts revealed startling new technologies, enabling travel to the furthest stars. The basis for this incredible technology was a force that controlled the very fabric of space and time.They called it the greatest discovery in human history. The civilizations of the galaxy call it…MASS EFFECT”

Having just gotten into shooters and finished Halo 1 and 2 for PC, my next move was Mass Effect on the recommendation of my roommate. Set in a strange and wondrous new future in which humanity discovers a technology cache left by an extinct race called the protheans that allows them to alter the mass of objects at will, becoming part of galactic society at large and joining all the other species who have also found similar technology caches, Mass Effect 1 was, in a word, amazing. The sheer expansiveness and scope, as well as the many details uncovered over the course of the games, did a superb job at immersing me into this strange new world, as well as illustrating how the ability to manipulate one of the fundamental principles of the universe changes everything. Faster-than-light travel is achieved by sending ships through giant mass relays, which create a corridor where the mass of a spaceship is temporarily reduced to zero, giving it near infinite speed. Guns work by chipping sand-sized flecks off a block of metal, propelling them, and reducing the mass to zero, completely eliminating the need for ammo. Magic works by exposing babies to element zero, who then grow up to become “biotics” who can wield the mass effect with hand gestures. From the in-game encyclopedia to conversations with random passerby to even the idle elevator chatter between your squadmates, I could believe that this was a living breathing world, one that we could be living in if only we could unlock the secrets of the Higgs boson.

The universe is also deep and engaging, filled with many alien races and exotic locales. The major players are the Council races, who have formed a sort of Space-UN that based out of a space station at the center of the mass relay network called the Citadel. They are the asari (monogender female natural biotic space elves), salarians (short-lived smart fragile types), and turians (space Romans with a militaristic and pro-civic-duty culture), but there are also hanar (peaceful space religious jellyfish), drell (ninja lizard folk), quarians (technological genius space jew/gypsy/Bedouin), volus (finance dwarfs who are bad at fighting), and krogan (proud warrior race guys). Each of these races have their own distinct history that shape who and what they are. The quarians accidentally created the geth (a race of AI), tried to shut said AI down for fear of the anti-AI laws, and were driven off their homeworld and now live on a vast fleet of migrant ships. The krogan are supertough explosive breeders who saved the galaxy from destruction once only to turn into conquerors themselves and were stopped only after they were hit with the genophage, a depopulation bomb that raises their infant stillbirth rate to 99.9%, which in turn led them to become into a race of death seekers and mercenaries. But these races aren’t just defined by their hat; you always run into individuals who subvert their race’s stereotypes, from a valley girl quarian to a volus biotic god to a krogan who tries to save his romantic relationship with an asari by singing love poems in the public square.

Amidst this strange new world, the game presents several main themes:

First is simply “what is humanity’s place in the galaxy?” Humanity’s development at the game’s outset is very much the skilled newcomer; despite being the youngest race on the galactic scene, they’ve also made the most progress in the shortest amount of time and are known for being the most innovative/unpredictable. Their first brief war against the established galactic powerhouse ended in a draw, they are widely known to be the most innovative, even inventing the concept of a spaceborne aircraft carrier. Is humanity’s future to be a respected equal in a multilateral society? Or is to take up the homo sapiens’ burden to lead the rest of the galaxy to greater heights without being held back by the entrenched established powers? In other words, should humanity be Space-Europe? Or Space-America?

Second is “what is the true nature of synthetics and organics?” The Council (the Space UN) has always had laws against the development of AI on grounds that synthetic life is inherently opposed to organic life. One only has to see how many films we currently have about robots turned against their masters to recognize why this resonates among us. But is this really true? Are synthetics inherently hostile to organics, or do they only attack because they know how much organics distrust them, and would rather not go gentle? Is “synthetic/organic conflict” really a chicken-or-the-egg question?

Third and finally, is “to what extent can a race be judged based on its hat?” The turians are stuffy traditionalists, the krogan are violent blood knights – yet Garrus Vakarian, your turian squadmate who sticks with you across all three games, is quite the independent individualist and cowboy cop, and Urdnot Wrex, your krogan squadmate from ME1, yearns to make his people into something better than a race of mercenaries. Yes, in many ways, stereotypes exist because they are based upon facts – Garrus is a good soldier, and Wrex is easily your most likely squadmate to suggest a violent solution, but it is always important to note that while individuals may conform to stereotypes, they are not necessarily identified by them.

Across all three games, these themes are visited and revisited, and the resolutions based on what choices you make. This is a part of what makes this series great – it is entirely possible to have big grand debates on what really is the “right” thing to do in a lot of the choices you are presented with.

Story:

ME1:

At the game’s outset, the human Systems Alliance has colonized substantial parts of space, and you are Commander Shepard, a human military officer who is sent to oversee the shakedown run of humanity’s newest and most advanced spaceship, a stealth frigate. Along the way, your mission is sabotaged by a rogue Spectre (think space-cop-with-a-do-whatever-you-want-and-get-away-with-it-badge) named Saren Arterius who is leading an army of geth (robots who haven’t been seen outside their hometurf since they rose up against their creators), and things spiral from there, resulting in you becoming the first human Spectre, picking up a ragtag crew and forging them into an elite fighting force to stop Saren’s plan to destroy the galaxy once and for all.

As previously mentioned, the great attention to detail from the set design to random conversations to even the gameplay itself leads to intense immersion in the setting. Combat will make you feel like a badass future space marine. The main plot gives you a great deal of openness and freedom. You start off on the tutorial level (the aforementioned shakedown run). From then on, the leads you have on Saren unlock mainline missions on three worlds, each of which leaves you with a choice to be made. Afterwards, you reach Saren’s main base, at which point a sacrifice must be made or several, and then it’s a race against time to stop Saren once and for all. In between, you will come across many sidequests, most of which end up giving you a real sense of exploration. You hear from someone or come across an intelligence cable or get tapped by your former commanding officer to help them with something that requires your specific set of skills picked up over a long career, land on a planet in your armored personnel carrier, look at your map, check out anomalies, and investigate. Often you run into sticky situations and deal with people who will comment on your character’s background before a shootout starts. The main missions are similar, and in my opinion the integration of vehicle segments and on-foot segments really added to the atmosphere. Note: this is merely about integration between vehicle and on-foot segments. The actual driving mechanics are in the gameplay section. Go there before you start complaining about the Mako.

Being an RPG, Mass Effect has a karma meter, and your decisions change the story’s progression. Interestingly, instead of a good/evil bar, you have a paragon/renegade bar instead. Basically, either way you are the hero who saves the galaxy, but paragons are the idealistic individualistic hero who is generally compassionate and gives others a second chance, as well as being in favor of a multilateral power balance between the races of the galaxy, while renegades are the cynical pragmatic anti-hero who believes that a dead enemy is an enemy that can’t rise up against you a second time and having more of a humanity-first mindset. For example, in the Mass Effect backstory, there was a bug-like race called the rachni that almost destroyed the galaxy until the krogan were found, technologically uplifted, and used to wipe them out. You encounter a queen hatched from an egg and experimented on to breed more docile rachni.  By the time you meet her, she’s trapped in a containment cell, and you have your hands on the button to flood it with acid. She promises to be good in return for you letting her go; the paragon choice is to take her word (which is given under considerable duress), the renegade is to finish the job the krogan started (and possibly lose an ally in the process…as well as committing, you know, genocide). Also, your ability to charm/persuade is determined by how many points you put into the relevant skills, so you are also not penalized for not sticking to one morality.

The one problem, however, is that while paragon/renegade is supposed to be idealism/cynicism, the game itself presents it as good/evil a bit too many times. For example, there is a mission where there is literally no point in taking the renegade path. Colonists have fallen under control of a mind-controlling plant alien, who you must kill to release them from its control. Naturally, it sics the colonists on you. You can use acquired knockout gas or punch them to nonlethally disable them for paragon points…or you can gun them down as a renegade. Being that they’re all colonists armed with light arms, and you’re a badass space marine with top of the line upgraded armor and weapons, and flanked by similarly badass individuals, and also supposedly loyal to humanity, there’s pretty much no reason at all to pick the renegade option. Also, in the final choice, the paragon option is the only one that actually makes tactical sense – the Big Bad and his goons have attacked the Citadel defense fleet. He has split his forces so that he must go to activate a mass relay, separated from the rest of the battle. At this point, the human fleet can come in. Now, basic tactics points to the best thing to do is to swoop in to relieve the Citadel fleet. Why? Because there’s only three possibilities: either the Citadel fleet can deal with the rest of the Big Bad’s flunkies, in which case coming in to help only reduces losses on your own side (if you outnumber the enemy by a factor of x, you can outfight them by a factor of x^2); if the Citadel fleet is of equal strength, then coming in to help is still the better option; if the Citadel fleet is weaker, then your human fleet will still have to deal with the Big Bad’s mooks. Sometimes it is done well though; in the Bring Down the Sky DLC, batarians (space North Korea slavers with a hate-on for humanity) hijack a human scientific installation on an asteroid and try to crash it into the human colony world of Terra Nova. In the end, the terrorist leader reveals he has hostages in a room with a bomb, and presents you with a choice: go after him and doom them to kaboom, or save the hostages, allowing him to escape. The Paragon choice results in you saving hostages and being thanked of course, but the Renegade choice ensures that he can’t try the same thing again, as well as sends the message that hostage taking will not work on humanity, at the cost of some innocent lives.

Finally, something must be said about the twist at the end, where you finally find out the true nature of Saren’s super-advanced warship (“I am Sovereign”), why the protheans went extinct (“Reaper…a name given to us by the protheans to name the destruction they could not understand”), learn of the real origins of the Mass Relay network (“Your technology is based upon the mass relays, our technology. By using it, your civilizations develop along the paths we desire.”), sacrifice a beloved squadmate whom might have been your love interest (“Fight hard. Die proud.”), take down a mechanical eldritch abomination (“Rudimentary creature of flesh and blood…you exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it””Fifth fleet, hit it with everything we got!”), and decide once and for all what humanity’s place in greater galactic society is, the first among equals in a multilateral society (“By the Goddess, it’s the Alliance!”), or the leader of the free galaxy (“They’ve…closed communications.”). You won the battle, but the war has just begun, and it ends with you striding off, grimly determined to continue the fight. All in all, between the vast setting, the engaging characters, the plot twists, the uniquely non-exclusive karma meter, and the sheer immersiveness of it all, Mass Effect 1…rubbed me the right way.

I’m Consultant Zhang, and this is my favorite game on my external hard drive.

ME2:

Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, was by and large a disappointment. At the end of ME1, everyone was up and ready to fight the Reapers, the immortal race of sentient starships waiting in the edges of dark space, poised to wipe out all organic life. At the beginning of ME2, this was forwent in favor of pretending the problem does not exist and doing absolutely nothing to prepare, while a mysterious new race called the Collectors are abducting humans from their colonies. Meanwhile, you die in the very beginning and are brought back to life by Cerberus, a humanity-first terrorist organization with too much of a fondness for playing with syringes and initiating idiotic experiments that only result in more humans being killed, some of which you foil as part of sidequests in ME1, one of which could have been your Shepard’s backstory as the sole survivor of a surely brilliant and well-thought-out and not at all frivolous experiment called “let’s you (marine squad) and him (thresher maws, big giant sandworms that spit acid) fight”. Project Lazarus (the project that resurrected you in the first place) is their only project that has ever succeeded. Overall, it tried too hard to create artificial moral ambiguity by forcing you to work with the big well-intentioned-extremist organization and making said organization the only faction who cares about the missing colonists due to everyone else being given a case of terminal idiocy,

The Council (Space UN leaders) that you might have sacrificed human ships to save? Dismisses the abductions as a human problem and continues to believe Reapers don’t exist. Liara, the cute biotic archaeologist who might have been your love interest? Refuses to join you to go on her own revenge quest against a guy who did something bad to you in the past but isn’t exactly in a position to threaten you now. Ashley/Kaidan, the one you chose to save in ME1’s endgame, and who also might have been your love interest? Blows up at you when you show up to save them from a Collector attack as soon sa they see that Cerberus is backing you, refuses to even let you explain yourself, even if you have a squadmate from ME1 with you. Wrex…well, Wrex is actually trying to unite the krogan clans, so he gets a pass. But otherwise…the sheer amount of stupidity on almost every single major ME1 character’s part to allow the plot to move forward is just ridiculous.

Overall, the plotline is to gather up a team of the most skilled individuals in the galaxy and go on a suicide mission to the Collectors’ home based beyond a mass relay that no one has returned from. But each of your new squadmates (because only two of your previous squadmates are willing to take “I didn’t contact you in the past two years because I was dead, and I’m only working with Cerberus because they resurrected me through magic-science and only for this one mission to save human colonists because no one else wants to do anything” for an answer), comes with some kind of personal issue that affects their performance, and not completing their “loyalty mission” reduces their changes of coming back alive. The endgame has a rather interesting “suicide mission” mechanic, where you need to pick squadmates for certain specialist roles, and choosing the wrong specialist results in people getting killed. This I found to be interesting, but also a little too easy for what’s supposed to be a suicide mission as long as you do what the game strongly hints you do. As much as it would be emotionally damaging, I think it would have been improved if having everyone survive was not possible. No matter what, some squadmates will die even if you did everything right. There is actually a fanfic called Renegade Reinterpretions which reimagines the storyline of the entire franchise; their suicide mission does have this feature, which is what actually got me thinking about it in the first place. Then again, some people do manage to lose people even though the game all but shouts at you to do everyone’s loyalty missions, so maybe I’m just that much smarter than the average human.

Setting-wise, Mass Effect 2 introduces you to the Terminus systems, which are the lawless frontier areas of space that refused to live under Council control. Unlike ME1, however, in which many of the places you visit have someone to talk to or something to kill, ME2 only has a few places where there are NPCs to interact with, and there’s no investment in completing sidequests. In ME1, someone will contact you about a problem they have, and you choose to solve it or not. In ME2, most sidequests are instead you going into random star systems and scanning random planets for no reason other than “something might be there” or “I need more minerals so I can upgrade my gear” (even though you should theoretically be able to buy more minerals elsewhere). There’s no sense that you’re really helping anyone, other than a little mission summary screen at the end and the occasional email. In addition, most sidequests are much too similar: go to a place, find mercenaries, kill mercenaries, grab loot. With ME1, at least, there’s usually a little exploration to be done and always the chance of a thresher maw popping out to keep things interesting, along with a little part where your questgiver thanks you for your efforts. A lot of your efforts in ME2 seem ultimately meaningless.

Speaking of meaninglessness, a lot of your previous actions you made in ME1 get little more than a nod in ME2, with renegade actions getting the worst of it. Saved the rachni queen? A single message from a passerby about how she’ll help you against the Reapers. Killed her off? Nothing. Saved the Council? They’ll still blow you off. Blew them up in ME1 to replace them with humans? Turns out humanity doesn’t have enough political clout to keep things that way, and they new Council still blows you off. Also, the persuasion points are now combined – your ability to intimidate is determined by renegade points obtained divided by total paragon/renegade points possible to obtain, thus returning to the old RPG model of penalizing you for not sticking with one morality path. Also also, the paragon-good renegade-evil dichotomy is worse here. There were quite a few decisions that really should have been the opposite way around. For example, in Tali’s loyalty mission in which she is tried for treason against the quarian fleet, if you cannot use the persuasion option, the paragon choice is to lie about the war crimes her late father committed and get her exiled from the fleet, while the renegade choice is to tell the truth, resulting in Tali being acquitted, but her father being unpersoned and costing you her loyalty in the process. Now, think about this for a minute: Tali is a good friend – in fact, she and Wrex were my favorite squadmates from ME1, and she is one of the only two ME1 squadmates to join you again, but committing perjury just because your friend asked you to is considered paragon, while telling the truth and letting justice be done is considered renegade? What the hell, karma meter? Plus, some bones they do throw renegades are unsatisfying due to a sense that you could not have predicted the results. Example: if you let the council die in ME1, the turians will decide that this is grounds to break the space-Washington-Naval-Treaty that limits the ratio of dreadnoughts each Council race can have and start building more ships, which presumably leaves the galaxy better prepared for the Reapers. The problem is that there is nothing hinting this might be the end result for such a major choice, and so there’s no sense of agency for the player, no sense that “yes, I caused this good thing to happen”.

In addition, ME2 feels like almost an entirely disjoined story from ME1. In ME1, your main antagonists are the geth, who you later find out are servants of the Reapers due to a belief that the Reapers are the ultimate expression of what synthetic life should be. Along the way, you discover many fundamental truths about the MEverse, as well as a lot of backstory as a direct result to your travels that’s at least tangentially related to your quest to stop Saren and the Reapers. ME2 adds pretty much nothing useful to the overall narrative. The two biggest revelations are that Reapers reap organic races to use their genetic material to make more Reapers, and that the Collectors used to be protheans, genetically altered to be the Reapers’ servants. Besides those two things, there is nothing new brought to the table. The Collectors-as-a-new-enemy angle came out of nowhere, with not a single hint that this was what ME1 was working towards, and neither of the two revelations really impact what you the player has to do anyways. The revelation is an example of a violation of the law of conservation of detail – only tell the player/viewer what they need to know. It is important, for example, to know that [SPOILER ALERT]Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father in Empire Strikes Back, because that sets up Vader’s eventual redemption and heel-face turn by Luke in Return of the Jedi[END SPOILER], but it was not necessary to know that Anakin Skywalker was a pretty good pilot and used to be an ace podracer. Reaperoduction and Collectivization is interesting, yes, but it doesn’t really affect anything; their presence to the MEverse is not unlike ketchup on a steak. Far more useful was the visits to the krogan homeworld and the quarian migrant fleet as part of the recruitment and loyalty missions for some of your squadmates, which give you more information on the depopulation bomb’s effects on krogan society and additional insight into the quarian-geth conflict respectively, which in turn shows up in ME3.

There’s a lot of other minor inconveniences for ME2 as well. The elevator sequences with squad chatter are gone, replaced by generic loading screens that take way too long. Your ship is too big, requiring you go go through the same generic loading screens if you want to talk to your squadmates. Your squadmates have very few dialog options in between mission, which in turn makes it hard to form emotional attachments to them. Only about half your squad – including Garrus and Tali – are actually likeable (more in the characters section). The text is way too small. Also a host of gameplay issues, to be covered in the gameplay section below.

I have heard the proposition that the “theme” of ME2 was what it means to be a hero when no one is watching and without support. I will say that this is a good theme for a movie or tv show or book, and a terrible theme for an interactive piece of media like a video game. With the former, you have the actor’s skills to convey to you the character’s feelings of frustration at being the one man, alone, betrayed by the country he loves, now its last hope in its hour of need, allowing you to empathize with the character’s feelings of negativity. In a game, you the player are that character, so instead of empathizing, you are the one who feels all that negativity. Being that games are supposed to be fun, this is generally not a feeling games should impart to the player, unless it is like Bioshock where you realize you were working for the Big Bad the whole time, or in Modern Warfare 2 where your character gets shot and burned to death by your CO, but the common thread with those games is that you the player have a chance afterward to set things right.

The one plus I have for ME2’s story is that you at least get to meet a few interesting characters, namely Mordin Solus, the salarian doctor who developed the genophage, and Legion, the aforementioned geth squadmate who gives you insight into the geth side of the conflict. And of course, having Garrus and Tali back was great, even if Tali was nerfed into near-uselessness. But by and large, ME2’s story is mostly forgettable in the grand scheme of things.

And by forgettable, I mean this: consider other trilogies. In Star Wars, A New Hope was the discovery of Luke as a Jedi and showing the first real blow the Rebels struck to the Empire. The Empire Strikes Back was, well, exactly what it said on the tin, but also the revelation of the relation between Luke, Leia, and Darth Vader, thus setting things up for the final battle of Return of the Jedi. Or in Lord of the Rings, Fellowship was meeting everyone and starting the quest to Morder, Two Towers was Frodo and Sam continuing their quest and meeting Gollum, while the others strike at miniboss Saruman and gather their forces, setting the stage for the destruction of the Ring and the destruction of Sauron’s host in Return of the King. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, season 1 was Aang needing to learn waterbending, so they take him to the Northern Water Tribe, along with introductions to what the war is like, Season 2 was Aang needing to learn earthbending, so they take him to the Earth Kingdom, while Zuko’s story arc really kicks off and you see more of what the war is like, then in Season 3 Aang needs to learn firebending, so they take him to the Fire Nation to do that, while gathering everyone they met from seasons 1 and 2 for one big strike against the Fire Nation while Aang faces Fire Lord Ozai.

The common thread between all of them? Part 1 gives you introduction and builds the world, Part 2 gives you as much or little worldbuilding as required but still moves you towards the eventual goal that Part 3 is supposed to work towards, and Part 3 is the culmination of all that. In ME1, you met your squad and uncovered the truth about the mass relays and fight the Reapers. In ME2, you fight the wacky wayside tribe and learn what happens when love blooms between a Reaper and an organic race, and the sole contribution of the ME2 plot (note: the plot, meaning the main storyline, not the characters or the ship upgrades obtained, etc) towards ME3 is…100 or so war asset points if you kept the Collector base. Everything else you learned was largely irrelevant.

I have not played any of the DLC for ME2 other than Arrival, Zaeed, and Firewalker, so I can’t really comment on a lot of them storywise, only that they were pretty ordinary.

Also, what’s better than 300000 dead batarians?

300001 dead batarians!

/trollface

Seriously though, I fuckin’ hate batarians and batarian apologists. They’re nothing more than the space version of that schoolyard bully who comes crying home because one day they picked on the new kid who turned out to be a black belt.

ME3:

And now we go full circle. Mass Effect 3 is, in my opinion, what Mass Effect 2 should have been. The Reapers are here and they’ve hit Earth first, so you, as Shepard, have to convince all the factions of the galaxy to put aside their differences and grudges and unite for survival. Meanwhile, Cerberus shows its true colors, ending in a hare-brained scheme to try to control the Reapers, and so half the game is stopping the Reaper assaults in key areas enough for your alien allies to be actually able to spare troops and ships to tak back Earth, and the other half is shutting down Cerberus’ attempts to sabotage your efforts.

The sense of exploration is back, albeit somewhat reduced; you still travel around the galaxy using the same terrible toy-spaceship GUI in ME2, but scanning this time is both much faster and more relevant – instead of just finding minerals so you can have a fancier gun, you’re now scanning for lost technology to build a superweapon or cultural relics to boost ally morale or just warships/commando teams cut off from communications waiting to be reconnected with their parent units, each one giving you a higher score towards the fleet you can summon at the endgame. Also, planet scanning was simplified from ME2, with an additional caveat – your scans alert Reapers, and if you scan too much in a Reaper-infested system, they will come after you.

The overall narrative structure is more linear than ME1, but also more free than ME2. ME1 gave you three plot-worlds in the beginning that you could do in any order, followed by two more plot-worlds plus a final dungeon, along with free reign to do sidequests whenever you want. More fun in that it let you complete everything, but also led to fridge logic as to why you were tagging mineral lodes or collecting ancient turian combat insignia while ignoring the distress call from the human colony under geth attack since the main storyline started. ME2 had you drop whatever it is you were doing as soon as a Collector mission hit. More logical yes, but just adds to the feeling of being railroaded. ME3 finds a middle ground along with adding a sense of urgency –  a small number of sidequests are available between plot chapters, you can do all of them in whatever order you want prior, but some sidequests are unable to be completed if you wait too long.

ME3 really gets the galaxy at war aspect across. As you walk around the Citadel, you’re surrounded by civilians affected by war, be they refugees, waiting loved ones, soldiers on leave or awaiting deployment, or anyone in between. Quite a few sidequests involve you delivering dying messages from soldiers and delivering them to their widows. News of the war, as well as the extreme measures being taken in some theaters, is everywhere. There’s a good deal of continuity with the previous games; the conclusion to the Blue Rose of Ilium nearly brought sand to my eyes. And all the races you’ve met – turian, asari, salarian, quarian, geth, krogan, vorcha, geth, drell, volus, hanar, elcor – all have a role to play, especially as you travel the galaxy and pick up war assets.

Specific chapters of note: Tuchanka and Rannoch. On Tuchanka, you finally get to resolve – or not – the racial tension between the krogan and the salarians due to the latter developing a depopulation bomb that was used on the former. One of your squadmates from ME2 plays a pivotal role, and the resolution to that chapter is just heartbreakingly beautiful, a glorious capper to one scientist’s quest for personal redemption. Or, if you didn’t play it right, heartrendingly tragic as you tried to outsmart everyone, only to be forced into a confrontation with a former friend that turns ugly. Or, if you played it right the other way, magnificently in its bastardry and bastardly in its magnificence, and it’s really hard to tell which it was. Seriously, this chapter literally made me cry, it was just that good. Rannoch, on the other hand, allows you to resolve the quarian-geth conflict, but only if you made the right choices. Otherwise, much like Tuchanka, one beloved teammate will die following the genocide of their entire people, all because you did not do enough.

As for the choices you can make, they finally fixed (sort of) the paragon-good-renegade-evil dichotomy here. A lot of choices now only raise your general reputation – adds one point to paragon and one to renegade. And paragon choices you’ve made previously can backfire. and if you did what the karma meter thought was the right thing back in ME2…it will be harder for you to achieve a perfect resolution in ME3. Otherwise, one squadmate that followed you throughout ME2 will die, and genocide will happen again. Of special note, in both cases you are given reasons to betray a squadmate who might have stuck with you through thick and thin. In Tuchanka’s case, Urdnot Wrex may have been a brogan…but once you are finally on your way to deliver the genophage cure, he starts to idly talk and dream about restarting the “ancient glories of the krogan”, the same ancient glories that led to war between krogan and the rest of the galaxy in the first place. Add to the mix that the current genophage is actually meant to stabilize krogan reproduction rates – Tuchanka is a death world where only one of every thousand krogan grow to infancy. In the previous games, you come across many worlds where krogan settled, and the result is always the same – population explosion leading to overuse of resources leading to those worlds quickly becoming barren. Imagine what happened when rabbits and cane toads were introduced to Australia, now imagine the rabbits having assault rifles and armor and all the ferocity and does-not-give-a-shit-ness of a honey badger, and you can start seeing the wisdom in not curing the genophage. As for Rannoch, most Shepards probably went through the previous two games sticking up for quarians as much as they could, except now they’ve gone and provoked a war with the geth without bothering to at least talk things out first. Yet Tali’s been a good squadmate, and you certainly don’t want to doom her people, but it is they who are the aggressors and they who are the weaker war asset to have. Legion has also been a good squadmate who’s made a pretty compelling case for his own people’s right to live, and you also don’t want to doom them, but they’ve also started augmenting themselves with Reaper tech even if it for defense, and we all know the track record of those who accept help from the Reapers.

I will say, though, that the Cerberus chapters are the weak parts of the story. It is revealed early on that Cerberus turned against humanity and went all for itself, wrecking the hopes of pretty much any renegade player who supported them in ME2 based on a humanity-first mindset. In addition, they have some victories that unfortunately seem a little too scripted. For example, their best operative, cyborg-ninja Kai Leng, shows up to foil one of you late-game missions. He succeeds at this, mainly because both he and his air support have plot armor. It is impossible to get rid of all his shields via combined Overload and anti-materiel rifle headshot, and the gunships that you used to take down all the time in ME2 are now unable to be targeted at all. Afterward, he sends you a taunting email that gets you angry at his character for all the wrong reasons – your anger isn’t at what he has done, but rather at the fact he’s only able to send you that email because the plot protects him. Now, it is true that your first confrontation with Saren on Virmire back in ME1 was similar, but with a key difference – after you deplete his health, an explosion knocks everyone off their feet in a cutscene, which gives Saren the opening he needs to get away. Frustrating, maybe, but understandable. Here, you are held back by an enemy that you should have been able to kill in combat, but are not.

Kai Leng deserves a special mention here, as far as weaknesses of this game goes. Bioware makes the same mistake they did with Zaeed, by confusing “badass” for “character”, instead of merely a facet of character. A character is badass not just because of what they do, but what other options were available to them, and what kind of enemies they fight. Kai Leng has very few onscreen accomplishments, consisting primarily of cutting down a terminally ill (admittedly, pretty badass beforehand) drell who should have died of his disease six months ago and was fighting pretty stupidly in the cutscene, chasing down and (depending on how ME2 went down) possibly failing to kill someone less badass than you, the aforementioned getting to your objective before you and surviving a fight with you due to plot armor, and finally fighting and ultimately getting killed by you – hardly achievements to brag about. In the first instance, he has a fight scene against Thane Krios, a drell assassin who was one of your ME2 squadmates, and ultimately kills him. It is supposed to be an emotional scene, and begins your revenge quest against Kai Leng, but it falls flat because the way the scene played out, Kai has a sword and biotics, while Thane has a gun and biotics; not only does Thane insist of running at Kai for their fight for some bizarre reason, but he also doesn’t take the effort to finish Kai off after knocking him to the ground with a biotic punch. And so while Thane’s death may seem sad for others, to me it was just highly meaningless – you get the feeling the only reason he died was because he put himself into the enemy’s preferred attack range and because he apparently didn’t learn to never assume your enemy is down unless you know he’s dead.

Also Kai Leng is ethnically Chinese and trains wushu, judging by the butterfly kicks that are his dodging animation, yet he uses a straight-edged katana. Where the fuck is your cultural pride, guy?

Apart from Cerberus, the only other real annoyance I have with the main story is the Vent Kid. See, in the beginning of the game, the Reapers attack earth, and you see a little boy hiding in a vent. You’re too big to fit, so you beckon to him and try to get him to come with you, but he simply says “you can’t help me”. Something makes you look away, and when you look back he’s gone. Later you see that he got on to an evacuation shuttle that’s immediately shot down by a Reaper. Then you start having nightmares about him. The part that bugs me is this: why is my Shepard so torn up about this? I understand this from my paragon wuxia hero Shepard who does actually want to save everyone and is so far pretty successful at that. But my other two Shepards? One is a colony kid who (as far as she knew prior to an event in ME1) was the only survivor of a batarian slave raid on her home colony and crawled through a mountain of corpses to get to where she is today. The other…caused those mountains of corpses. It makes no sense for the failure to save one little kid to affect them that much.

But on the whole, ME3 is the game that ME2 should have been, with you running across the galaxy looking for allies. Even better, your paragon/renegade decisions in the previous games finally come to a head here. The rachni chapter is concluded, the final fate of the Feros farmers is revealed, even the random fanboy and one of the collection sidequests from ME1 somehow managed to get tied together. Finally you get a sense that all your previous choices mattered, that all your efforts have led up to this one moment of awesome. Also, the cool blue color scheme of ME1 is back, as opposed to the unsightly orange of ME2. And that is wonderful.

There are some who like the ending. Most of my friends who played it found it wanting. I myself don’t care for it. I know there are some who still haven’t reached it yet, and it’s really so polarizing that it deserves its own section, so suffice to say that a SparkNoted version of my views is: the ending works if and only if you take a part that makes up maybe 20% of the trilogy, being generous, alongside a single line of dialog with one squadmate to be the main theme of the entire franchise, as well as accept everything you are told by what could possibly be a figment of your imagination or space-Cthulhu’s brain at face value. Otherwise, it fails hard at resolving anything.

To conclude the story review, right now, I will say this: If I were designing the series, here’s what I would do. ME1 is still ME1. ME2, instead of railroading you to work with Cerberus, is just the first half of ME3, focusing on anti-Cerberus efforts while trying to discover lost tech left by previous cycles, having it so that Cerberus is still trying to find a way to control indoctrination and Reapers, but it is they, not the Collectors-out-of-nowhere who are trying to build their own because they found a derelict Reaper, and because their operations are in the Terminus, you would still end up having to recruit the more engaging ME2 squadmates (namely, Mordin). Same as ME2 regular, except without Council acting like idiots and the main enemies actually being someone you knew from ME1. And then ME3 starts with Arrival, and ends with everything being wrapped up in a satisfactory manner that gives closure to all the plotlines introduced, not just one, even if that ending is “you can’t stop the Reapers, but you can do what the protheans did – seed beacons all over the galaxy with instructions to continue doing so until one day, a future cycle will end up defeating the Reapers for good.”

Gameplay:

Mass Effect is a standard Bioware RPG, except due to being a Third Person Shooter, action is more fluid. You put points into your accuracy with various weapons; if you are a tech class you have abilities to overload shields or hack enemy mechs, and if you are a biotic class you have a host of telekinetic abilities. Powers can be mapped to keys for immediate use, or accessed by pausing and selecting a target.

ME1:

The combat really made me feel like I was a future super soldier. As previously mentioned, there are not ammo limits due to future guns shooting sand-grains of metal propelled forward via mass effect, so the only real limit is the amount of heat this generates. Fire too much, and the gun will overheat, rendering it unable to be fired for a short period of time and promoting firing in bursts.  Powers are fairly varied and can be combined for great effect; one of the best combinations is using biotics to lift up a krogan warboss, rendering them weightless, then throwing them great distances. Vehicular combat, while cumbersome at times, is no more cumbersome than certain other games. The wide open environments on sidequest worlds make it possible to use a variety of tactics, from rushing in and running people over with your APC, to sniping the enemy from hundreds of meters away and thinning the herd before going in, to simply sitting atop a cliff and blasting everyone to bits you’re your APC cannon. And before anyone starts complaining about the Mako, I will say this: the Mako did not, for me, handle any worse than the Warthog from Halo; to the contrary I preferred actually being able to shoot while driving, and in addition the problems were because most of the planets you landed on were way too mountainous. There was nothing wrong with the Mako by itself.

The inventory system, on the other hand, was somewhat clunky. You end up with so much loot that you start getting the idea that all Spectres fund their missions by having a gunrunning operation on the side, and there is no sort option for what you have. But overall, I found ME1 fun to play.

ME2:

Alright, no way to say this but blunt. I hated the shit out of ME2’s gameplay. First off, air-cooled guns were replaced with heat clips, which have a finite capacity to store heat until they have to be ejected and replaced with a fresh one. If you think this sounds like magazines in modern guns, congratulations, you have seem why this dashes any feeling you the player may have about being in the future. Not to mention in-universe, this is nothing but sheer idiocy: imagine if you were an American soldier in Iraq, or a Vietcong guerilla: would you want a gun that you’d have to have a little fire discipline to use effectively, or a gun that fires a little bit faster but turns into a stick once you run out of magazines? ME1 made me feel like a true future warrior. ME2 made me feel like a WWII grunt. Honestly, I don’t know what the worst part is, that reintroducing the need to reload and adding a complication to the military logistics chain is presented as an advance in technology, or that people actually seem to buy this line of argument, or that people accept it because it makes the game harder and therefore better. To the third, I would like to say that neither easiness nor difficulty is to be commended on its own. There is good difficulty, achieved by making enemies tougher (like Covenant Hunters from Halo being vulnerable only on the orange spots) or making the AI better (like how ME3 enemies try to flank you). Then there is artificial difficulty, achieved by simply giving enemies more shields/health depending on difficulty level, or by giving you not enough shots with your primary weapon to kill everyone.

Or, by making it so that using powers now create global cooldowns, meaning you can only ever use one power at a time, while making it so that powers can only affect one type of protection at a time when there are three different protection types, at most. This means Throw will not work on anyone with biotic barriers, armor, or shields; Overload only works on shields, Incinerate will only work on armor, etc, making the power-heavy classes (Sentinel, Adept, Engineer) pretty useless as far as offensive powers go. The other nitpick about powers is how points now must be spent in an arithmetic fashion – level 1 powers need 1 point, level 2 needs 2, 3 needs 3, etc. In ME1, even if you weren’t working towards a power level, every little point at least increased the efficacy of your powers or passive stats. In ME2, you’ll usually end up with a few squad points left over.

Also, there is way too little variety in what weapons and weapon upgrades you had. ME1 did suffer from an overly diverse inventory, yes. The proper fix for that is to reduce the amount of gear available, reduce drop rates, add a sort feature, etc. It is not to get rid of everything altogether. You are basically stuck with a high-damage-low-fire-rate weapon and a low-damage-high-fire-rate weapon for each class, unless you choose to buy DLC weapon packs. On a related note, ammo upgrades are now powers, which leads to the conclusion that tech genius Tali managed to forget how to stick an incendiary upgrade pack into her shotgun between the events of ME1 and ME2. In my opinion, what should have happened was that Incinerate and Cryo Blast became the Soldier powers. Techers get to keep some form of Sabotage along with Overload and biotics are still biotics, with ammo upgrades still available to everyone, along with heat clips being an upgrade that lets you immediately cool down a weapon a limited number of times if you didn’t want to wait for your gun to aircool.

Finally, perhaps I just haven’t played any good ones, but cover-based shooters are currently proving way too gimmicky for me. Just hug a chest-high wall to be impervious to almost all damage while popping out and slowly whittle down the enemy’s health. I prefer cover utilized like in Halo, where it exists, but you can’t hug it – it will only protect you as much as you put yourself into proper position.

I also found the vehicle sections inferior as well. Here, to replace the almost-universally-reviled Mako, we were given the Hammerhead, which is a fast and light hovertank that can jump and speedboost. It does handle much better and shoots guided missiles with good frequency. Unfortunately, it also can’t take hits at all, and there are those fans with too much time on their hands who note that the Hammerhead will freeze up on a certain planet when the Mako handles fine on a different planet with a lower temperature. In addition, the Hammerhead missions are very much stand-alone and not integrated with on-foot segments, adding to the overall feel of gimmicky-ness to the whole deal.

All in all, gameplay in ME2 felt way too generic compared to ME1.

ME3:

Again, like with story, this is what ME2 should have been. Heat clips are still there (boo), but at least gun capacity can be upgraded, and enemies drop more often. The weight mechanic (the more guns you carry, the long your power cooldowns) is also pretty unique and adds an additional consideration when deciding which gun to take into battle. But best of all, where ME2 gave us artificial difficulty, ME3 gives us true difficulty in the form of more enemy variety and MUCH enhanced enemy AI. They’re actually forcing me out of cover by throwing grenades, or concealing their movement with smoke grenades, or setting up turrets/long range support to pin me while their flunkies/melee specialists flank, or…point is, now they actually fight smart. If only ME2 was like this. On a related note, the DLC squadmate pretty much proves that heat clips are a step backwards; he is a prothean frozen in time that you recover. At this point, prothean technology is still more advanced than what the Council races have, and it should be noted that his gun still aircools, with the heat clip being used to vent all heat right this moment – that is, the more advanced gun is still the ME1 gun.

Additional movement options (combat roll, crawl around cover, fire and advance to next cover) are nice, although sometimes they are clunky. More than a few times I’ve wasted seconds on my cloak because I wanted to leave cover in a corridor and sprint out, only to run to the other side of the corridor. But that combat roll saves like no other. Also, I am very much a fan of how heavy enough weapons gib enemies. Nothing like a round of chunky Cerberus salsa to make my day. Especially when it comes from an anti-materiel rifle or a Carnage shot.

If there is one negative part, however, it would have to be enemies’ abilities to either dodge or no-sell my own powers. I have lost track of the sheer number of times a Cerberus flunkie has managed to elude my Incineration blasts by simply moving backwards or sidestepping. These are supposed to track the enemy, how are they not hitting? Also, I would like it very much if games with grenades would have it so the grenade lands where your targeting reticule points, instead of making you aim upwards to simulate the lob. Yes, in real life, you do throw it up higher. In real life you also have much better control of your arm and can rely on more than a wild ass guess as to how much you need to overshoot the target for it to land where you need it to.

Characters:

ME1:

Everyone was engaging and, best of all, has something in their backstory or some kind of hidden depth that adds to whatever your initial thought of them might be based on their character type.

Ashley – tough soldier woman, but as you converse, you find out that she also has a deep love for Tennyson poems, and dresses in sensible armor to boot. Starts off semi-racist (though more humanity-first than alien-hate), but can be mellowed out.

Kaidan – relatively well-adjusted, but as the first generation of human biotics, has a pretty rough backstory. Starts off as a firm believer in multilateralism, but can be persuaded into more of a humanity-first stance.

Wrex – BROGAN. As mentioned before, violent and fight-happy like all krogan, and quite resigned to his people’s fate (“You ask a krogan if he’d rather fight for credits or find a cure for the genophage, and he’ll choose fighting every time. It’s who we are.”). Later conversations reveal that he’s also one of the few who think there’s something more to what the krogan can be. Also the designated cynical deadpan snarker.

Garrus – didn’t use him much, but a turian who breaks the mold. Normal turians are supposed to follow orders even if those orders are bad. Garrus thinks that’s stupid…which is why he quit the Space-UN-Police to work with you. Has a distinctive sharp-pitched British-accent-mixed-with-Southern-drawl voice.

Liara – cute somewhat naïve archaeologist girl with mad biotic skills. She starts off not knowing much about the rest of the galaxy, but you can help her learn – especially in regards to this strange emotion humans call “love”.

Tali – cute spunky action girl; what your little sister would be if she was sweet and charming and can blow up geth with her shotgun, when she’s not hacking them to blow each other up instead. You can call her out on the fact that her people created the geth and then tried to destroy them, to which she will tell you to get off your moralizing high horse because even if that was a terrible decision, her people have already paid for it may times over in millions of lives lost and the fact that they are now stuck as space nomads who have to live in enviro-suits becomes living on a sterile spaceship wrecked their immune systems.

Over the course of the game, you will develop deep relationships with all of them. This is in addition to the many many side characters, some of whom will make you seethe with rage (“look, I didn’t sign on for this [terrorism thing]. This was supposed to be a simple slave grab.”), others of whom will make you cry (“it hurts when she…when I remember me.”), others of whom will make you bust a gut (“I’ve had enough of your snide insinuations.”).

ME2:

You got more squadmates. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same problem as the second Transformers movie did, that there were so many robots that your finite attention is diluted, resulting in each one getting less individual focus. Also, some characters just are way bland. Examples, in rough order of acquisition:

Jacob: Cerberus flunkie who joined because the human government has too much red tape. Decently well adjusted, which is surprising for a fictional character. Unfortunately this also makes him a bit lacking in personality.

Miranda: Cerberus flunkie cheerleader bitch, genetically engineered to be perfect, who doubles as Ms. Fanservice. Every single Cerberus experiment gone pear-shaped was the work of a rogue cell, or The Illusive Man (Cerberus’ leader) didn’t know about it. It’s almost hilarious how she presumes to be in charge. At one point she introduces herself as my second-in-command, and this is sufficiently early on that it merely leaves you thinking, “no, Miranda, you’re not the second in command. That would be Garrus. Then Tali. Then Chakwas, then Joker, then everyone else, then my aquarium fish, then the trash compactor, and then you.” If you were a Sole Survivor Shepard, nothing should have stopped you from murdering both her and Jacob, then stealing their shuttle and high-tailing it as soon you left the Project Lazarus base.

Garrus: One of the few squaddies worth having. Really grew between ME1 and 2. Went from that squadmate I never really used to the one I used all the time because he can snipe things. Really becomes a bro here, as one of the few non-Cerberus people you can trust, who will even take your side against your idiotic human ex-teammate on Horizon. Garrus Vakarian, battle-brother, comrade, FRATURIAN.

Jack: HATED Jack. It’s like Bioware tried to go for a darker and edgier River Tam from Firefly, except they forgot part of what made River great was that she wasn’t dark and edgy, but a scared little girl who happens to have massive powers that she doesn’t understand and causes her pain. Here…I get that Jack’s a broken bird, and some like healing their wings, but I think that for most people, one look at her would be enough to determine that she’s just not worth the effort of healing. Jack was the result of a Cerberus experiment to create the perfect human biotic by cutting into children and making them fight each other in gladiator games. Her loyalty mission involves going to blow up the abandoned ruins of the lab where she grew up. Afterwards, she has a “confrontation” with Miranda, who continues the “it was clearly a rogue cell, and The Illusive Man didn’t know about it, so you can’t blame Cerberus” line, and if you don’t have enough morality points you will lose one of their loyalties. Personally, I would not have minded spacing both of them. Also…wearing pants and a cable tie around the breasts isn’t conducive to battlefield survival.

Mordin: The very model of a scientist salarian. One of the other few squaddies worth having, and the only one to actually have varied dialog when you visit him between missions. Provides much humor. When you meet him, he’s running a clinic on a wretched hive of scum and villainy, providing free medical care to those suffering a plague outbreak. He has a pleasant demeanor, which makes the revelation that he worked on the genophage and is responsible for millions of stillborn infants all the more shocking. Better yet, he maintains it was the right thing to do, as otherwise there would have been a massive war of extinction between the krogan and other races. Thus, Mordin also exemplifies what it truly means to be a renegade – you will make the hard choices that result in untold deaths, and it will eat you up inside, but ultimately you know that the galaxy is a safer place for it.

Grunt: The Team Krogan, or as I like to call him, Wrex the Lesser. Genetically engineered to be the “perfect krogan,” whatever that means. Acquired by opening the breeding tank he was grown in. Could have been dislikeable, except for a youthful enthusiasm for fighting and killing things, which oddly enough stimulated my parental instinct. What’s that, Grunt? A mountain of Collector corpses just for Mama/Papa Shepard? I’m so proud of you! Implications for my fatherly abilities…disturbing.

Samara: The Team Asari. A justicar, which is like a wandering knight-errant who has an unbending morality code. Her loyalty mission involves hunting down her space-succubus daughter. Blandish until you start talking with her and uncover a somewhat tragic figure pushed to the life she chose. Cruelly enough, you can also betray her for her daughter on the grounds that if you were sufficiently renegade, then her code will require her to try to kill you after the mission ends. Unfortunately, this piece seemingly never pans out. Come on, Bioware, throw the renegades a bone here.

Thane: Drell assassin suffering from a terminal disease and wants to go out doing some good in the world. Great with sniper rifles, greater for murdering Collectors by the dozens. Seriously, his powers are pretty much tailor-made for destroying Collectors and husks. Character-wise, seems to be a Kaidan replacement, being the real grounded one who isn’t a Cerberus flunkie. Has some interesting backstory, but still mostly bland. Storywise, exists to be a cystic fibrosis stand-in and tell you all about drell culture.

Tali: Cute as ever. She became less useful due to shotguns being nerfed and powers not working on things with protection, which means no more hacking geth tanks like in ME1. Her loyalty mission lets you meet the quarian Migrant Fleet, however, so there is that contribution at least. One of the few worthwhile squadmates.

Legion: A geth sniper who you meet in one of the later missions. In what I feel to be one of the weaker moves of the franchise, reveals that not all geth are against organics – in fact, the ones you fought in ME1 were what they called “heretics” because they want a future given to them by the Reapers, while the true geth want to develop their own future and in fact don’t even harbor grudges against the quarians for trying to wipe out the geth, to the point where they’ve actually been taking care of and maintaining the quarian homeworld for the quarians’ eventual return. And just like that, the geth crossed into Na’vi territory, going from what might have been tragic victims forced to act by outside forces beyond their control to Purity-Sue who you almost want to get killed just because they’re so unrealistically good. Look at the Na’vi! They live in harmony with their planet, they’re nice and natural, they’re happy in their simplicity, they just these perfect people who live on a beautiful world without pollution that these humans want to wreck just to mine minerals! Look at the geth! They’re just misunderstood, they just want to be left alone and loved by their Creators and they bear the quarians no ill will for trying to kill them, and it’s only the bad ones that you fought in ME1, and even them were just a tiny minority of all the geth! The problem with this new interpretation of the geth is that it makes them more perfect than Miranda can ever be, which in turn removes the ability to see them as real people. It is also conveniently forgotten how they would immediately attack and destroy any ship that ventured into geth space. Again taking a page from Renegade Reinterpretations, I think it would have been superior if it were the pro-Reaper geth who were the true geth, allying with what does really amount to be the pinnacle of synthetic life, and it were the anti-Reaper geth who were the heretics, driven to cooperate with organics. Anyway, the geth parts also lets you ponder the thought of how much should a different minority color your feelings about the population as a whole. In spite of this though, Legion himself is still pretty cool, giving you insight into the geth thought processes, even if it may not have been the best plot twist. Plus, all the fun of “teaching” that came with Liara get repeated with Legion.

Zaeed: Guddamn hardened badass who used to be a merc captain, is what they were going for here, but they forgot that “badass” isn’t character, a mistake they repeat with Kai Leng in ME3. Provides some much-needed firepower early on, prior to the acquisitions of Grunt or Garrus. Doesn’t really do much, however, other than serve as a meatshield Mind-bogglingly, in the suicide mission, he is not an acceptable choice to lead a fireteam. There is some said about him being too much of a death seeker, and how in all his previous missions no one else came back alive, but that should be irrelevant – just because he has a death wish doesn’t mean he loses all knowledge he would have had of tactics.

Kasumi: never got her DLC. No comment.

ME3:

Your previous surviving squadmates return here – Garrus, Tali, Liara, and whoever survived Virmire are back. In addition, you get two more squadmates.

EDI: The AI of your ship that Cerberus built now can upload herself into a captured cyborg infiltrator body. It is great and more than a little heartwarming seeing the robot girl learn what it means to be human. And also more than a little endearing that with every new thing she learns, she repeated affirms her determination to stand with you, organic life, against the Reapers. A compelling addition to the team.

James Vega: A new squad member who replaces Wrex as the team shoot-stuff-guy. Your standard soldier who was the sole survivor of a successful mission and now feels survivor’s guilt. He is meant to be the character who represents a newcomer to the franchise, and I’m sure there’s a joke about how Bioware’s trying to appeal to the Call of Duty crowd somewhere. On the whole, he’s fairly bland as a character. Would have preferred a team krogan again.

As for the others:

Kaidan – Oh Kaidan, such a dork. Still retains his ME2 idiocy early-on, and it takes nearly getting killed by a Cerberus cyborg infiltrator to snap him to his senses…after which he then thinks he can rekindle a romance with you. Despite you romancing someone else in ME1. Despite blowing you off without giving you a single chance to explain yourself in ME2. Despite not even showing any sign of support at your trial in the beginning of ME3, when James freaking Vega showed you more support. Despite the fact he distrusted you enough to pull a gun on you during the Cerberus takeover based purely on the fact you worked with Cerberus on exactly one mission that ended up with you stealing the ship they gave you and converting the entire crew to abandon Cerberus. Sure Kaidan, we’re totally cool enough after that, that I’ll let you jump in my pants. Dork.

Tali – Became much more useful now that hacking and sabotage are combined, so she’s actually able to bring her powers to bear on things that aren’t geth. Still totes a mean shotgun and deploys combat drones. Grapples with the chains of commanding due to a recent promotion, after which you can console her. Also has led me to refer to straws as “emergency induction ports” forever.

Liara – finally returns. Pretty useful and good emotional support throughout the games. Her Singularity is a very rechargeable insta-disable on most enemies. That cool-head-on-shoulders thing comes in real handy, as she’s the one who gets the idea to create more prothean beacon equivalents (data recordings about what the Reapers are and how future generations can fight them).

Garrus: becomes a true bro here. He was with me in almost all my missions. Becomes a real beast once I gave him the anti-materiel rifle, and his maxed out Overload one-hit-kills shields. More importantly, as the only real seasoned soldier, experience officer, and part of my crew since game one, he’s also the only squadmate I can truly talk war with. Tali and Liara are civilians at heart; EDI is more concerned with learning to be human; Kaidan is a bit too mellow; James is a bit unseasoned; Garrus, being tapped by his own people as their only Reaper authority, grapples with much of the same issues that Shepard does, making decisions that sacrifice one million here to save two million there and wondering if it was worth it. You feel a true kindredness with him that almost makes me regret not romancing him with my femShep. That’s the terrible calculus, Gar-bro. But we’ll push through it. Order me a Jack-and-diet if you get to that bar in heaven first.

Ashley – I haven’t played any of the Sheps where Ashley survived Virmire as of this writing, so no comment.

Javik – Day 1 DLC for money is a terrible idea that is a relic of the era before object-oriented programming and downloading game installations directly on to your computer. Never got From Ashes, probably will never. No comment.

The main draw is that everyone from the previous games shows up again. Sometimes they fall a little flat (Aria T’loak! Give me a quest to pick up merc bands to help you take back your crime empire! Spend the rest of the time looking sulky at the Citadel bar.), but other times they are great (Hey Thane, OH MY GOD ARE YOU NOW FIGHTING AN ELITE CERBERUS NINJA OPERATIVE THAT IS WONDERFUL). Most character threads from the previous games are tied up or at least given a nod. That is…until the ending.

Ending:

Note – this part assumes you have finished the entire trilogy. If spoilers will ruin stuff for you, and you think you might revisit the earlier installments, stop reading. Otherwise, proceed.

Alright, here it is. Most people I’ve talked to have hated the ending. So far, out of my circle of Mass Effect friends, exactly 1 person has liked it. Now that I’ve finished and have some time, here are my thoughts.

Premise: In ME3, you discover plans for a secret weapon of some kind called the Crucible, which was developed through the efforts of all the survivors of the previous Reaping cycles. Part of the game is to collect war assets so that enough brilliant minds are working on it that it can be finished. But it needs to be activated by a thing called the Catalyst to work. Once you reach the Catalyst, it manifests itself as a little boy that you failed to save in the beginning of ME3. The Catalyst informs you that he is the “intelligence behind the Reapers”, and that the reason behind the cycles is because organic life and synthetic life are, in fact inherently opposed to each other. Organic life will always create synthetic life, at which point it will always rebel against their creators and cause a massively destructive war, and so the Reapers were created to prevent this by allowing organic civilization to flourish up to the part where they can build synthetics, then harvesting them and turning them into DNA goo and converting them into Reapers to preserve their “essence” before they can destroy themselves in the inevitable organic-synthetic war. This was the best solution that this being of logic could come up with, but he wants to see if organics can do any better, so the the fact that you made it to the Crucible means that you forced him to alter his logic. In the end, you have 3 choices: use the Crucible to control the Reapers and make them go away, destroy all synthetic life including the geth and EDI, or synthesis – let it rewrite the collective DNA of every organic and synthetic to make a new lifeform. Whichever one you choose, it requires using the mass relay network to propgate the energy wave, destroying the network in the process. The animations are mostly the same, differing only in the color of the wave, and squadmates who make it off the Normandy otherwise. And then, after the credits roll, it is revealed that the events of the game are a story relayed to a child by his grandfather.

This ending works if you accept the following:

  1. That the “role of synthetic life” theme mentioned way back in the beginning of this piece is the primary theme of the trilogy.
  2. That the other primary theme of the trilogy is that everyone should make their own future instead of relying on the future others build for them.
  3. Everything the Catalyst tells you is to be accepted at face value.
  4. The grandfather is either telling his grandson history (like how in my native Texas, we sometime bounce the young’uns upon our knees while regaling them with tales of the heroes of the Alamo) or quasi-historical legends (like how in my other native Beijing, we sometimes bounce the xiao-zai-zi upon our knees while regaling them with tales of Guan Yu of the Three Kingdoms who crossed five passes and killed six enemy generals to return to his sworn brother and liege lord). Not just a bedtime story.

Regarding point 1, that was something of a theme in ME1 that got expanded upon more in ME2 and 3. And in the end, you finally resolve this by deciding whether synthetics are to be the servants of organics (Control), to be destroyed completely (Destroy), or to merge and live in harmony (Synthesis). Regarding point 2, there is the fact that because every other race discovered the mass effect technology left by the Reapers and found the Citadel, maintained by a species called the Keepers that no one knows anything about, whatever technological progress they made stopped there, limited by what the theory behind mass effect will tell them in a situation not unlike Harry Turtledove’s “The Path Not Taken” short story. This is further expanded upon by how in the current cycle, because the Council races are stuck into developing along the paths started by mass effect technology, they are at an utter loss when confronted by outside threats like the rachni or the krogan, and why humanity who began space travel before finding the mass relays are the most innovative of the races. This is also expanded upon by Legion’s explanation that the true geth rejected Reaper help because accepting it limit geth development to Reaper visions, while denying it leaves every possibility open. Thus, blowing up all the mass relays also enforces this theme, that by destroying what the Reapers left the galaxy, you’ve now opened up all possibilities for everyone. Regarding point 3…it’s a game, I suppose taking what you are told at face value goes with the territory. And finally, if it turns out to just be a bedtime story, this would, in fact, make the endings suck. Because then it means nothing you did really meant anything, none of the characters you got attached to mattered, it was just a story and nothing more.

Here’s why they don’t work:

  1. The question of the nature of organic/synthetic existence was indeed a theme. It was not the only theme. And really, it was not much of the trilogy as a whole. It actually was not the main theme of ME1 at all; to be a theme, it has to be something that is actively debated throughout the story, and the end of the story leads you to a conclusion. In ME1, it’s pretty much unambiguously decided that organics and synthetics are inherently opposed – both need space to grow, so conflict is inevitably unavoidable, but there is ultimately no real negotiation that can happen because organics don’t have anything that synthetics want. The only time this is remotely questioned is in a side conversation with Tali that leads up to the previous point, so that’s 0% of ME1, which was really focused on the “role of humanity in greater galactic society” theme. In ME2, this is brought up a little bit with EDI’s existence as the AI of the rebuilt Normandy. But it only really shows up after you recruit Legion and start talking to him, as well as on his and Tali’s loyalty missions. We can calculate how much of the game’s content this is as follows: You have ten squadmates (assuming no DLC). Each has a loyalty mission. Eight have recruitment missions. In addition, you have six more mainline missions (Get out from Lazarus, Freedom’s Progress, Horizon, Collector Ship, Derelict Reaper, and Suicide Mission), in addition to a host of sidequests. This makes for twenty-four missions total, out of which three (Legion’s LM, Tali’s LM, and let’s include their entirely skipable conversations as another mission) deal with organics vs synthetics. This is a whopping 12.5% of ME2 dedicated to that theme. Even if you count conversations with EDI and that brief interlude where you play as Joker to unshackle her, this is still less than 20% of the game, a percentage that goes down if you assign any mission value to the sidequests, or if you include DLC missions, as well as a percentage that is not noticeably higher than the krogan-salarian conflict or Thane’s personal guilt complex or Miranda’s daddy-issues. As for ME3, this is revisited only on the geth-quarian segments. Now, there are 15 Priority: [location] missions, and the geth-quarian ones make up exactly three of them, after which nothing is heard about them ever again, so that is 20% of ME3. 0% of ME1, 20% of ME2 (being generous), and 20% of ME3 makes for 13.3% of the whole trilogy dedicated to the organics/synthetics plotline, and yet somehow it’s important enough to warrant the ending to the entire franchise being based around it?
  2. ME1 was great because all that technology was explained and both seemed advanced and was advanced, whether in the fluff or in actual gameplay, and it was treated just as technology. ME2 started a bad precedent by beginning to assign morality to technology, culminating in the possible destruction of the Collectors’  Reaper-producing base on the grounds that you’ll “find a way to win this war without sacrificing the soul of our species,” along with a single line by Legion about building your own future vs asking for others to give you their future. This falls flat for the following reasons: it wasn’t using mass effect technology that hampered the galaxy, it was the fact that the galaxy was prevented from advancing by both the Keepers who kept everything functional so that there was no need really find out how it worked, and by the Reapers were there to reap everyone before they could find out how it worked. Also, you are given hints that even though the Reapers gave everyone the mass effect technology, they can still be beaten with enough effort. Vigil, the prothean VI from the end of ME1, tells you that the Reapers do harvest new tech developed during each cycle, so it’s not like using pre-existing technology really preventing new technology from developing. One mission in ME2 has you going on board a derelict Reaper who took a near-death blow from a massive mass accelerator cannon, indicating that even the technology they gave you could be used to defeat them. The end scene to ME1 as well as several Codex entries and cutscenes in ME3 demonstrates that Reapers can be killed if you shoot them enough and don’t let them get the drop on you. Some of your best assets, like the Thanix cannons/missiles, the Normandy II, and EDI herself, are derived from Reaper tech, proving that just because the source of the technology is the Reapers doesn’t make it bad. And even the geth, when threatened, used Reaper code to turn themselves from a collective hivemind of programs into fully-fledged AIs. “Make your own future” rings especially hollow when you consider that the entire Crucible, the thing that lets you actually stop the Reapers, is technology inherited from every single organic race from every cycle before the current one. Also consider that in real life, just how much scientific progress is made not by cloistering yourself off to “build your own future”, but by standing upon the shoulders of giants. If “make your own future” was a theme, it’s a spectacularly bad one unsupported by pretty much the entire franchise as well as real life. Destroying the relays, as far as story is concerned, is nothing but literary symbolism bullshit to demonstrate how we’ve thrown off the limits the Reapers imposed on us, even though it wasn’t the tech itself that was limiting, a symptom of the cancer that’s plagued literature since the first English professor of some ivory tower liberal arts college decided symbolism-hunting was a worthy pursuit.
  3. The Catalyst introduces himself as the intelligence behind all the Reapers, beings who are known for indoctrinating organics to serve their bidding. Why on Earth would you accept anything he says at face value? Why aren’t you even trying remotely to argue with him? “Organics and synthetics are fated to always fight each other? Really? What about that peace I’ve negotiated between the quarians and geth? What about Joker and EDI, who are almost certainly getting it on once I finish this?” Yes, it is possible that the answer would have been, “look, Shepard, I’m just a machine. I’m limited by what the code that wrote me says I can do. Just pick one of three and run with it.” Yet the question is why does Shepard not even make the effort to ask? Or even just decide, “screw it, I’m not trusting anything you say. Each cycle is only one more Sovereign-class Reaper being made anyway, so as long as we’ve destroyed more than one, that’s score one for Team Organics. And at least two were destroyed on Palaven, and presumably more, we’ll keep building warning beacons for future races and just attrition you to death until one cycle, in the far future, the last Reaper will look upon the works of organics and despair.”
  4. OK, this will only be in response if the events turned out to be just a bedtime story the Stargazer was telling his grandkid. “But The Princess Bride was a bedtime story too, and that was awesome.” True, but herein lies the fundamental difference between a participatory entertainment like a video game and a non-participatory one like a book. You read/watch instead of enact The Princess Bride. You don’t fall in love with Buttercup, get kidnapped by pirates, become the Dread Pirate Roberts, fight a master swordsman and Andre the Giant, utilize your immunity to iocane powder, become tortured to mostly dead, rescue the princess from her marriage to a warmongering prince who will kill her so he can war, kill the man who killed your father, and ride off into the sunset. You are told, from the very beginning in fact, that this is a story. Their efforts are part of the story that you enjoy because it is their story. In Mass Effect, you did all those things. You saved the krogan (or not). You brokered peace between the quarians and the geth (or not). You saved the rachni from extinction (or not). You demonstrated to the galaxy that humanity has the capacity for self-sacrifice (or not). You were the Dark Knight that protected humanity even as the rest of the galaxy called you terrorist and spat upon your name (or not). And you were never told that this is a story until the end, making it seem like a bigger slap to the face that in spite of everything you did, all your efforts didn’t even matter to the fictional people in the “real world” of the games. And not even Buzz Aldrin voicing the Stargazer – a move that seems to me more planned to deflect criticism by drawing the support of astronomy nerds – can salvage it. It also makes you wonder what kind of life the kid’s going to have if your Shepard was renegade, but not renegade enough, such the kid’s legendary hero is the same guy who gunned down two of his closest friends and allies all just so he could fulfill a backroom deal to solicit both krogan and salarian support back on Tuchanka.

Of course, because if point 4 is actually true, my anger will pull a Destroy Synthetics ending on every piece of technology I own, let’s pretend that never happened, so let’s move on to other matters.

More reasons the ending doesn’t work:

  1. Plot holes – The Normandy is with you when the final battle to take back Earth starts. It dropped all your squadmates on the ground. It’s actually being used as the flagship by Admiral Hackett, who’s directing the battle. So what’s it doing trying to outrun the mass relay energy wave? And if you got one of the better endings, and EDI and/or your love interest was your ground team, how exactly did they get picked up by the Normandy to begin with? Did your band of brothers who stuck with you when you had to take back the Space-UN-HQ from an army of robots, work for a terrorist organization, go on a suicide mission, stand trial for wiping out 300000 civilians, fight eldritch abominations on foot, and hundreds of other near-death experiences ditch you now? I’ve heard it posited that maybe they gave you up for dead when Harbinger shot everyone, and so they thought the next best thing was to flee the scene and spread as many warning beacons to the future as they can, yet this should have been explicitly stated if that was the case. It still does not answer how it was that parts of your ground team got onboard the Normandy in the first place, or why Hackett agreed to let the flagship bail in the middle of battle.
  2. The Catalyst’s terrible logic – For being the intelligence behind the most advanced AIs in the galaxy, the Catalyst sure is pretty dumb. It wants to prevent synthetics from killing organics…by creating synthetics to kill organics. Sure, some of the races in each cycle are preserved in Reapers, and by “some” it really means “a small proportion of one species.” You know that not all species get harvested, because the Reapers in this cycle went from going after the turians to going after humanity once the human Shepard defeated the turian Saren. It’s also a given that the vast majority of organics will be killed trying to resist the Reapers. So, to draw a comparison, what the Catalyst came up with is really not unlike trying to save the pandas by throwing all of them into a meat chipper, sticking maybe half the resulting panda slurry in a freezer, welding that to a Roomba, and declaring Mission Accomplished. Not to mention what happens if the organics in a cycle gets destroyed by their synthetic creations – what then? Do the Reapers just wipe out all the synthetics in that case? Additionally, if Synthesis was within the Catalyst’s power to do so, why not just do it the first time around, instead of choosing the option that leads to most prolonged suffering?
  3. No closure – What happened to everyone else, who’s not Joker, EDI, or my love interest? Wrex, brogan? Garrus, fraturian? Tali, little sister who’s now all grown up? James, over-bulked gorilla? Kaidan/Ashley, reconciled friend? Liara, always have my back?The turians who helped you? The salarians? The asari? The krogan who you’ve spared a long slow genocide (at least, I hope you did, you monster)? The quarians/geth who (hopefully) are now working together after 300 years of hate? No closure is actually given to any of their plotlines. And this is not a case of me (or anyone critical of the ending) being unable to accept open-ended endings. I liked the wuxia classic Flying Fox of Snowy Mountain, which had a cliffhanger (will Hu Fei kill the man to avenge his father over a misunderstanding? Or will he let himself die to end the cycle of revenge? Or will his hesitation mean that the snowy ledge upon which they are fighting collapses before he makes a decision, dooming them both? It doesn’t matter, because he’s already come to terms with his inner turmoil.); I loved The Grey (does Ottway win, or does the wolf alpha? Doesn’t matter; the point is that the man vs nature conflict is resolved – nature wins, and the man vs himself conflict is resolved – go down fighting. Once more into the fray.); I rather liked The Lady Or The Tiger, because the whole point is that woman is fickle and you are supposed to make up your own ending based on how misogynistic you are. This is not the case with Mass Effect – throughout the series, we were told that you are supposed to defeat the Reapers and decide who makes it out based on what choices you made in the three games (or not, since we were also told that it would be possible to lose to the Reapers). Yet, once we reach the ending, this was not resolved at all – yes, we beat the Reapers, unless you think Indoctrination Theory (see below) is true and you didn’t choose Destroy, but there was no answer at all to whether any of the races made it out alive. And that is a terrible thing, because if the krogan didn’t make it out alive, then that means Mordin Solus died for nothing. If the quarians or the geth didn’t make it out alive, then that means Legion died for nothing. If the asari didn’t make it out alive, that means the protheans who pinned their hopes on them died for nothing.
  4. No other themes resolved – ME1 was all about humanity’s place in the galaxy (in case you were tired of my favorite words in the English language, they were “one among equals in a multilateral galaxy or leader of the free galaxy”), and your ending choice was supposed to reflect that, except it didn’t. Save the Council? The former. Blew them up? The former, except even more so because now the other races elect angrier Councilors to replace the ones that died. This was supposedly a choice we were to have, except the choice was made for us. And the thing is, it didn’t even have to be that way. Blowing up the Council didn’t necessarily have to yield an all-human Council, but at least one pro-human Councilors would have been nice. Instead, this was ditched entirely, and oddly enough either proves the paragons right (being one of equals makes the others more likely to help you) or the renegades (“more likely” means nothing if it just makes them think about it harder). Similar to the previous point, none of the “how much can you judge a race by its stereotype/hat” plotlines were really resolved either. Yes, you made peace between the quarians and geth, but how long will it last without the common enemy of Reapers to make them hang together? You cured the genophage, but can Wrex and (to a greater extent) Eve really prevent the krogan from trying to recreate to Krogan Empire, especially since their lifespans are finite? We’re never given the answers to any of those. Again, this does not mean that I can’t take open-ended endings. The thing is, there’s a difference between open-ended and not-answering-anything, and this is definitely a case of the latter, as we were promised that all our choices would culminate into definite endings, and that did not happen.
  5. You got your magic all up in my science – How, exactly, did the Crucible’s options even work? I can understand a massive energy wave that destroys them all or a massive signal that controls them all, the strain of propagation for which destroys all the mass relays. I cannot understand a massive wave of energy that rewrites the DNA, computer code, and building materials of every organic and synthetic being in existence. Where in the name of Athame did that come from? Also, how does the Crucible/Catalyst decide what “synthetic life” is even supposed to be? Alright, the geth, sure; EDI, fine; AVINA? The Hammerhead VI (virtual intelligence)? Tali’s combat drones? Whatever future!Microsoft’s version of Clippit is?

On a more meta level, we the players were promised wildly divergent endings based on what choices we made, and explicitly told that the endings would not be you choosing three buttons. Yet this is exactly what happened. All endings are the same, differing only by what color the beam is and who makes it out of the crash-landed Normandy. No closure to anyone and anything else, in addition to all your war assets having very little additional contribution to the ending scenes beyond their combined totals allowing you to choose a button instead of having one chosen for you.

All in all, the ending resolves (kinda) one plotline, while leaving a multitude of other questions unanswered, and so my final verdict is that the endings are on the whole highly unsatisfactory.

Also, the Catalyst/Vent Kid looks like Joffery Baratheon/Lannister from Game of Thrones, and that is just another reason to hate him.

The Catalyst/ending? Or Joffery?

Yes.

Indoctrination Theory:

If this turns out to be true, I will shiv a dude. Simply because if you were being slowly indoctrinated all along, then there really is no meaning to anything you did. The ending is still “pick 3 buttons”, except now two of the three are bad, the same things that didn’t get resolved still aren’t resolved, and the whole game becomes an exercise in being trolled by Bioware.

Alternate considerations:

I personally hate when people bitch about something without offering any alternatives, so here’s my vision of what a better ending would be. My personal suggestions for improvements are very simple.

  1. No space magic. But isn’t there already magic in the form of the Mass Effect and biotics? Nay, for in the words of the illustrious Edward Elric and Agatha Heterodyne, “it’s not magic, it’s science!” I would say, no energy wave. The Catalyst is the intelligence behind the Reapers? Fine. Let it control them. And let the Crucible allow you to hack into and control the Catalyst. You can use it to tell the Reapers to destroy each other/dive into the sun/ram asteroids/stand there and get shot at until they die/whatever. Or you can be in control of an immortal fleet of sentient starships, waiting at the edges of dark space, ready to be sicced upon the enemies of humanity. Simple, sensical, and doesn’t invoke the questions of “what do you mean, ‘all synthetic life’?” and “Five words, star child: EDI and the geth.”
  2. More meaningful war asset implications. Currently all they do is enable you to make choices or not at the Catalyst. What would be great is if you had, short of anything else, radio chatter reflecting at least one asset from every race, be it an exultant “scoped and dropped! I love this rifle” from an asari commando squad, or “Payback time! Destiny Ascension, hit it with everything we’ve got!”, or a human squad going “we’re being overrun by husks!” interrupted by the characteristic roar of krogan, or a “badassfully: for Dekuuna.” Something to let me know that these war assets that I’ve spent the game acquiring are actually being put to use somewhere.
  3. Actual divergent endings. I would have it so you could return to Earth and start the endgame as soon as you stuffed the Cerberus coup on the Citadel. The endings would be layered something like so:
    1. Worst ending: you don’t stop the Reapers. Your war assets are too few, so the Crucible gets blown up midway and everyone dies.
    2. Next best: you don’t stop the Reapers. Your war assets are too few, but the Normandy and other stealth-capable ships get away and plant all the life-habitable worlds they know of with beacons detailing everything that is known about the Reapers along with plans for a new Crucible.
    3. Next best: same, except you get a cutscene showing some future race discovering the beacons, and eventually destroying the Reapers.
    4. Best: Everything works. You get your choices as outlined in Point 1.

Feel that my suggestions aren’t that great? OK, fine. Then again, this is something I pulled out my ass in like ten minutes. I’m sure if you gave me Bioware’s story department’s budget, I’d come up with something superior. But really though, I’d have to say the ending is an unfortunately unsatisfactory end to what was otherwise a highly satisfactory game series.

This has broken the 18 page/16K word mark, and I think this has gone on long enough. If you made it through all that, thank you very much. You, sir, are a true brogan. Or an asisari, if you’re a girl, ma’am. Please leave a comment though. Even if it’s just “tl;dr”.