By: Patrick Morris
Mass Effect is a trilogy that started strong and somehow finished stronger. Mass Effect 3 is a nearly perfect final chapter that sets a new high water mark for the series as a whole. This epic conclusion provides an outstanding level of finality on both a grand and more granular scale in a way that few games that came before it had and even fewer have since. After the proverbial dust settled Mass Effect 3 stands as the high point of the series in gameplay, story telling, and subplots making for an incredibly gratifying end to a trilogy that will go down in history as one of the all time greats the medium has to offer.
The game opens on the reunion of Shepard and Captain Anderson and wastes no time in getting straight to the action, after two games of build up the Reaper war has finally arrived at earth. When it becomes apparent that Earth will be ground zero on which the Reaper war will be won or lost, Anderson makes it his mission to stay on earth and establish a resistance while Shepard once again takes command of the Normandy in a quest to broker an alliance of all the races of the galaxy to fight the Reapers. The feeling of finally uniting the galaxy is what truly sets Mass Effect 3 head and shoulders above it's predecessor.
Plot has always been the bread and butter of the Mass Effect games and the third entry is no different. Where Mass Effect 1 focused on the relatively smaller scale conflict between Shepard and Sovereign, and Mass Effect 2 was more of a character driven drama, Mass Effect 3 is the culmination of the ground work laid by it’s predecessors making the expansion of scale feel properly earned. Meeting Javik on Eden Prime to learn about the Prothean's and their war with the Reapers does an excellent job of putting a face and much needed mannerisms to what had previously only been spoken of legends while effectively maintaining their mystique, and simultaneously raising the stakes of the war. And later on in the game Shepard's encounter with the Leviathan provided a backstory to the Reapers and explanation of the catalyst of this ongoing conflict.
After gathering as many forces of the universe as the player deems necessary they are treated to a brief cutscene of the initiation of the attack to take back humanity's home world. This scene stands out as a pivotal moment that will largely determine the player's enjoyment of the entire trilogy; will it be a triumphant climax to three game's worth of paragon work or a lackluster sign of a galaxy divided as humanity is left to stand on it's own as the result of a renegade Shepard? For my first playthrough I got to experience the former climax which ilicited emotions on par with or even exceeding the similar moment in Avenger's Endgame. The story and emotions are bolstered by the utilization of revisiting settings and the unexpected return of some of the best characters from the first two games. That perfect mixture of new and old led to me doing something I havent done since Red Dead Redemption 2 and saving the party mission for last to have one final send off with these characters. Mass Effect 3 feels like it's own unique experience but also the ultimate nostalgic victory lap as you savor what at the time audiences were sure would be their final moments in this universe.
And those moment's were priceless. With as strong as the main plot of Mass Effect 3 is, it's the subplot's that propel it to that level of excellence. The idea of uniting the galaxy to fight as one against the Reaper's is an extremely romantic one but the destination would be nothing without the journey. The subplot's of Mass Effect 3 are not as personal as it's predecessor's character centric one's, but they demonstrate how those character's have grown. Garrus no longer being a lone wolf vigilante driven by revenge and instead embracing his status as a force to be reckoned with for the Turian race, and Grunt getting in touch with his Krogan roots and making up for lost time by leading a squad of Krogan warriors against the Rachni, are just two examples of the character growth shown in Mass Effect 3 being a direct result of the loyalty missions of Mass Effect 2.
The major subplot moments of Mass Effect play out like the best episodes of Star Trek while also progressing Shepard toward her end goal. The Krogan genophage subplot that has been a point of tension between Shepard and the Salarian's since the first game and the choice to side with either the Krogan's or the Salarians is one that presents moral ambiguities with either outcome. That combined with Mordin's sacrifice to cure the genophage makes for a better subplot than many game's main plots. In a similar vein to see the Quarian conflict with the Geth from a different perspective and come to the realization that while Tali'Zorah's good hearted nature is not representative of the Quarian's as a whole led to me be significantly more understanding of the Geth and their actions. Ending that subplot with Legion's sacrificing himself for the survival of the Geth after long questioning whether or not he had a soul left me questioning what the idea of having a soul means.
Unfortunately while these and other subplot's have the potential to offer the highest highs the game has to offer they can also be completely missed based off the players actions and choices from the first two games. But this is counteracted by allowing the player to construct an artificial save import at the beginning of the game by indicating the choices they made rather than importing an existing save. Overall the subplots are the meat and potatoes of the first two acts of the game, and by taking the player on a tour of familiar locations with some old friends Bioware elevated a comfort food to something that can easily be in consideration for some of the best moments of an entire generation of gaming.
Gameplay in Mass Effect 3 is at an all time high for the series. Movement, shooting, and other combat are all more fluid and dynamic than ever before. But the non gameplay systems are improved as well. The skill tree has been improved significantly allowing for more granular levels of player choice that changes and compliments the moment to moment combat in a truly meaningful way. Choices made in the skill tree like whether to improve the effectiveness of one's own shields or the recharge time of the entire squad's shields and whether to boost an individual's damage or area of effect allows for different investment in different characters making the choice of which squad mates to take on any particular mission more variable than ever.
But Mass Effect 3 doesn’t improve upon it's predecessor's in every way. Dialogue options have been significantly simplified when compared to the first two games, to the point that that simplification works to the game's detriment. Mass Effect featured dialogue options in which the paragon and renegade choices were clearly defined but the game existed in a significantly more morally gray area in which even choosing nothing but paragon choices could lead to an undesired outcome. This system was streamlined in the sequel to make time for the significantly increased quantity of content. Despite the decreased complexity of dialogue options in the sequel, the first two games conversations still give the player enough rope to hang themselves with in a lot of pivotal conversations throughout if they're not careful.
Dialogue options in Mass Effect 3 feel as though they’ve been boiled down to strictly paragon and renegade. This adjustment to the straight forwardness of the dialogue is understandably necessary as the developers were in the process of wrapping up a 100+ hour epic with dozens of different possibilities and bringing them all to a somewhat similar and logical ending point. But it also resulted in this threequel being the only game in the trilogy in which I never struggled to get the desired outcome out of any particular conversation. For example, Samantha Traynor is a character with which a primary romantic relationship can be formed; but that relationship is built off nothing but paragon choice after paragon choice. All the subtlety and nuance involved with previous romantic options like having to be more assertive with Ashley or more compassionate with Liara is gone. All this led to the highlights of the story shifting from being the choices I was making in the first two games and how those changed the plot to the actual substance of the paragon plot in the third game, making me feel like less of an active participant and more an enthralled observer.
The one time this pattern of straight forward dialogue is broken occurs after all the different possible storylines have been forced through the regrettably necessary decision tree bottleneck. During the conversation with the catalyst as the three, but secretly four, options became apparent to me none of them felt purely paragon or purely renegade and each one had their own distinct downsides. I have always been opposed to the idea of wielding a weapon that I have deemed too powerful for my own adversaries and so philosophically the idea of the control ending felt hypocritical. But on the other hand I have always avoided when possible the act of forcing an important choice on anyone else thereby circumventing their own free will, and so the idea of synthesizing was morally questionable to me as I would be left thinking about the organics who had no interest in being any part synthetic and their counterpart synthetic organisms. And of course I'm against genocide so the idea of sacrificing all synthetic life to destroy the Reapers felt contrary to the themes and character's that had rung most true to me as I played. The final choice of which ending Shepard would execute on felt like a truly no win scenario and morally gray enough to stand up to any of the most complex decisions of Mass Effect 1, it's just a shame that such an ambiguous and dissatisfying decision had to occur at the very end of the trilogy when finality was needed most.
After six weeks of playing nothing but Mass Effect and binging the entire trilogy I cannot think of a better way for Bioware to have ended such an intense epic. Despite the oversimplification of the dialogue system the best gameplay, story, and subplots of the entire trilogy make for the best overall Mass Effect experience to date. What seperates good science fiction from truly ground breaking science fiction is when the creators pose a question or make their audience think in a way they never have before and Mass Effect 3 does exactly that. Having been raised an atheist the idea of a soul was one that was always closely tied to religion and therefore something I never believed in; but Mass Effect 3 made me question what it is that makes a soul and led me to believe in the idea of, not one gifted from god, but one that is developed as the emotional essence of an individual and what makes us more than electrical currents being moved through organic matter.
When I started giving games review scores I was planning on working on a twenty point scale from 0-10 in half point increments. Then I have Mass Effect a 9 and I stand by that score. But after Mass Effect 2 improved upon it's predecessor in almost every way I had no choice but to give that game a 9.5. Now having played Mass Effect 3 and seeing that while it isn't a 10 it is definitely better than Mass Effect 2 I am forced to break my scoring system and give Mass Effect 3 a 9.8/10.
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