It is finished. It is glorious.
Before Christmas, I knew three things about the Mass Effect series:
- It was science fiction.
- It starred Commander Shepard, who could be a dude or lady, depending on your preference.
- The Internet hated the end.
That was enough for me, though, so I let my daughter know I was interested and she passed that information on to the proper authorities. Lo and behold, Christmas morning, my very own copy of the Mass Effect Trilogy for PS3.
Mass Effect is a sprawling science fiction epic. Games like this can be a little daunting for me. So many options! In fact, so many SECRET options. In the main menu, before you even start the game, is an innocuous little option called ENTER CUSTOM ID. This looked like a name change option to me, and I’m not really into renaming my characters. Shepard was cool with me. Skip it! Let’s go! Turns out that ENTER CUSTOM ID option is loaded with choices, from gender to character class to backstory. It’s fantastic stuff, but it was invisible, at least to me. So my Shepard was stock out the box – a male soldier born on Earth who was the sole survivor of some mission gone horribly awry. Mass Effect is an old game (time moves faster now, deal with it). The menus and controls felt clunky, and it didn’t autosave the way I expect a game to autosave. As a privileged and entitled gamer of the year 2013, I expect to die and pop right back up damn near where I fell. Mass Effect says nerts to all that and sends you back to a frustratingly distant point in the past. I learned to save often. The graphics were impressive enough for me, but I’m pretty much impressed with anything that looks better than my old Atari 2600.
Hell, you are no doubt thinking. What a crappy game. Why did you keep playing it? Well, I’ll tell you. While it might be a bit poor in controls and graphics and menu clarity, this game is rich as hell in story and character. In some games, the cutscenes are little payoffs or rewards for completing a level or defeating a boss. In Mass Effect, the cutscenes are the game. The choices you make in conversation, the relationships you develop with other characters, the characters who live and die as a result of those choices – that’s Mass Effect, and that’s what makes it incredibly immersive and affecting. I won’t remember what gun or armor I had equipped to Commander Shepard in any given firefight, but I will always remember having to choose to leave one of my soldiers behind to get the rest to safety. I will always remember choosing whether to let the last survivor of an ancient race live or die. I will always remember the life and death argument I had with Urdnot Wrex.
And I would get to continue remembering those things as I started Mass Effect 2, because each game in the series allows you to import saves from the previous one.
All the choices my Commander Shepard made – life or death, good or ill – followed me from Mass Effect into Mass Effect 2.
Mass Effect 2 felt much more like a modern game. The controls were different, but my frustration with the change was just that – I got used to the new button configuration in no time, and certainly preferred it. Mass Effect 2 autosaved the way my entitled and lazy soul expected, so there was no more “I have to go all the way back WHERE?! Done!” business. The structure felt both more open and more constrained. In Mass Effect, I could (and did) race through the main plot, leaving side missions to rot on the vine while I cruised from A to B. In Mass Effect 2, while that is still an option, everyone in the game makes it very clear that it is not a wise option. As my chore list grew longer and longer, I grew more and more frustrated with the grind of it all.
Guess what redeemed it.
That’s right – the characters. Every mission began with a groan and ended with a grin. Each apparently bland mission I’d be sent to complete would crackle with characterization. By the time I was ready for the terrifying final mission of Mass Effect 2, I knew each member of my crew in a way I knew only a couple in Mass Effect. I cared about them because I had worked alongside them to exorcise some demon from their past. As I made more life-or-death choices and sent them on suicide missions in the game’s Thrilling Conclusion(tm), I was genuinely worried for them. I wanted them all to come back safely.
And I was heartbroken. Genuinely heartbroken.
Because I knew my choices would continue to haunt me in Mass Effect 3, and the characters I lost on that final mission would not play any role in that game. I would feel their loss. I just knew it. I didn’t know it would affect an entire race, though.
Mass Effect 3 carried over most of the gameplay elements of Mass Effect 2, with a couple of tweaks here and there. At first the urgency of the impending threat to Earth didn’t gel well with the Galactic Errand Boy structure of the game, but once I accepted that the Thrilling Conclusion(tm) would wait until I got there, I settled down and got to work. There are chore lists long enough to choke a Reaper, but the little character moments carry them along once again. Differently, this time, though, because rather than getting to know my new crew, I was treated to moments with members of my old one.
That treat was noticeably absent on one very important mission, and before I realized it, I was making genocidal decisions because I missed a woman who died on my final Mass Effect 2 mission. Every argument the members of her race made to me, I rejected. “You’re not her. What do you know? In fact, your very presence here offends me, because I’m sure if I hadn’t let her die, she’d be here in your place.” I didn’t think it, but I felt it. And before I knew it, it was too late. I’d doomed them all.
Mass Effect 3’s ending has driven the entire Internet insane, it seems. Coming to it a bit late, I experienced only the Extended Cut ending, which I hear fixes some of the problems gamers had with the original ending. I had no issue with the ending. It felt satisfying to me, and it gave me a sense of closure. If you didn’t like it, feel no obligation to convince me to hate it. All opinions are held. As for me and my Shepard, we learned to love an unlovable crew of misfits, we met a sketchy alien we wouldn’t trust with our laundry and learned to trust him with our lives, we prevented almost as many genocides as we caused and we went out like Big Damn Heroes. And we are probably going to do it all over again very soon.