This is a spoiler warning!!
About a month ago I finished a run through one of my all time favorite games, Mass Effect 2. To no ones surprise, it's still a damn masterpiece. It's not perfect, and their are plenty of things to nitpick, but all in all it's a game that earns its place in history. After finishing it, I was both eager and nervous about the prospect of continuing the story of The Shepard in it's sequel, Mass Effect 3. I was one of the many fans who found the ending of 3 to not only be disappointing, but downright insulting. It's a game that soured me on the entire franchise, only to be redeemed at the last moment by it's amazing DLC. Five years later, I've forgotten most of the details of the plot, but the lingering resentment still hits me. It's time to boot up the game, and take a look back at Mass Effect 3.
Mass Effect 3 continues the tradition of an in world character creator, this time consisting of entering your records for reinstatement into the Alliance military. It's one of the little details I've always appreciated in Mass Effect, and I was happy that they brought it back. The opening throws you directly into the action, with pretty much no setup. If I hadn't just played the Mass Effect 2 DLC Arrival, I'd likely have no idea what was going on. Shepard is on earth and it gets attacked by the Reapers in roughly three minutes. Suddenly you're fighting for survival, which hits on the key theme of the entire game. This is war, and you don't have time to take a breather.
The moment to moment gameplay of Mass Effect 3 is by far the best in the trilogy. Combat is fast and fluid, aided by new tools like the combat roll and heavy melee. Unlike the stop and pop gameplay of 2, 3 focuses on mobility and quick strikes. Playing as a vanguard here is a joy, everything just flows together. The skill tree strikes a nice balance between the simplicity of 2 and the complexity of 1, offering unique branches and multiple skills and buffs to choose from.
After escaping Earth on the Normandy, you're told the ultimate objective of the game. You must rally the disparate races of the galaxy together for one final push against the reapers. To defeat the reapers, the galaxy must unite to build the ultimate weapon, The Crucible. The plan seems solid, except that we have no idea how to fire the weapon, and need something called The Catalyst to do so. It's down to Shepard to do what she does best, and wing it.
You're first real mission takes place on Mars, where you pick up The Crucible plans and fight against Cerberus forces, who for some reason oppose you trying to destroy the Reapers. Joining you is either Kaiden or Ashley from the first game, and James Vega, the only starting party member in a Mass Effect game that ends up being vaguely interesting. By the end of the mission, Kaiden and/or Ashley is taken out of commission and Edi, you're ships AI from 2, inhabits a robot body. I really appreciate how every single main mission has huge ramifications, not a moment is wasted. Of course, there are side missions here to fuck things up.
There are 2 main types of side missions here, N7 quests and "miscellaneous" quests. The N7 quests are fine but get old in a hurry. They basically consist of some wave battles on a multiplayer map with a little bit of story thrown in. The other side quests you get are almost all atrocious. As you walk around hubs, you'll just overhear random people talking about their problems and get a quest. After overhearing these problems you then go out to find the item they need. Sometimes you find these items in mission, but most are found by scanning on the galaxy map. You scan the map by letting out pings while flying your toy ship around planets, hoping to get a response. Complicating things somewhat is that every ping you let out draws the Reapers towards you, and you'll quickly be playing a dumb game of cat and mouse with them. This makes the already tedious fetch quests to get items you overheard someone say they needed take way too long. You have to flit in and out of solar systems scanning constantly all the time trying to get a hit on an item. These quests are absolutely worthless, but I can't help but do them because I have a completionist problem. I just don't understand why the developers thought these kinds of quests were a good fit. Maybe they wanted to pad out the length, but this is not the way to do it.
After this mission, we're introduced to the infamous dream sequences. I think the concept of Shepard feeling the weight of the galaxy on her shoulders is a fine one, my problem is the kid. This random kid that Shepard interacts with for ten seconds before he's killed by the reapers is just not a good fit for the role of emotional anchor. They could have pulled it off so much better if these dreams were about the loss of Earth, or possibly even the person you left to die on Virmire back in the first game. Something that players could connect with, not a random kid we just met an hour ago. It's funny, because when you have a conversation with a squad mate afterwards about the dream, Shepard talks specifically about not being able to save everyone, and how every persons death is on their hands. I feel like so much more could have been done here, if only they hadn't relied on the kid.
From Ashes is the first piece of DLC you can access after escaping Earth, and it's arguably the most vital piece of DLC in the series. In it, you find a living Prothean, the species who came before you and fought the reapers 50,000 years ago. This character is absolutely vital to the story, he provides so much context that you'd never know about if you don't plop down the ten bucks for him. Incidental dialogue is heavy in this game, and Javik always has something of importance to say. You can take him on any mission and he'll chime in with information you never hear anywhere else. One late game mission totally changes based on his presence, without him you'll miss on uncovering the past of an entire species. It's obvious that he was cut to sell as DLC, and should have been in the main game.
One thing I quickly came to appreciate about Mass Effect 3 is it's dedication to detail, and it's goal of wrapping up every single thread from the first two games. I don't just mean obvious things like the Genophage or Geth war, but the little things. Your shuttle pilot mentions to you in conversation how he lost his husband on a colony name Ferris Fields. This colony is brought up by background characters talking to each other on the Normandy in Mass Effect 2, but is never mentioned anywhere else. This little detail is something most people will never notice, but one I appreciate. There are multiple examples of this, such as the Krogan and Asari couple from Mass Effect 2 coming back as shopkeepers and having their own incidental quest line, or the way your crew mates will talk about their past adventures with each other, adventures you influenced with your choices in previous games.
After picking up Javik, I recruited Garrus and helped out the Turians on their home world real quick before going off to tackle the biggest problem in the universe outside of the Reapers, the genophage. To make a long story short I ended the genophage and lost Salarian support in the process, but more importantly I lost my main man Mordin. Mordin's death is one of the few things I remembered about the game from playing it years ago, and even though I knew it was coming I couldn't stop myself from feeling that emotional gut punch.
The hits kept on hitting when the Citadel was attacked by Cerberus, and my other main man Thane was taken down by a guy with a fucking sword. Kai Leng is so fucking stupid I just can't stand looking at his dumb face. Why does he exist? Who thought a dorky space ninja would be a cool antagonist?
After crying a single tear for Thane, I decided to give the Omega DLC a shot. This was actually my first time ever playing through this DLC. It's okay, but there really isn't any stand out moments in it. You and Aria, who I liked as a character in 2 but found to be kind of boring this time around, are out to take Omega back from Cerberus. You're joined by the first ever female Turian, who ends up being a completely boring throw away. The whole DLC builds up these creatures called Adjutants who almost wiped out Omega before Cerberus showed up, but when you finally fight them they aren't any stronger than most standard enemies. It's heavily combat focused, and lacks the character and plot that makes the main game worthwhile. It's not actively bad, but there isn't really anything good I can say about it.
The great problem solver Shepard continued her Journey on Rannoch, the home world of the Quarians and the Geth. This moment is one of the most interesting in the game because it relies so heavily on your past choices. If you don't make some very specific choices in 2, you won't have the ability to save both races. Instead you'll have to choose between the two, and the consequences for the other species are dire. I managed to broker a peace once again, but I really wonder how many people had to make a choice between one genocide or another.
At this point, the races of the galaxy are either with you or not. Your forces are ready to attack, but the catalyst remains a problem. Hope seems lost, but then the Asari inform you that they may have what you need by way of a secret temple on their home world. This is the mission I was referencing earlier while talking about Javik. In the Temple, you explore the history of Asari society, they're myths and legends as well. If you don't have Javik, it's just Liara talking about the basics, but if you do have Javik, things get interesting. Javik explains the real history of the Asari, how the Protheans guided their culture through it's infancy and protected them from foreign invaders. This mission ends with an info dump in the form of a Prothean VI similar to Vigil from the first game. Cerberus swoops in and promptly steals the VI before you can get the info you need. There's only one thing to do now, take out Cerberus so we can take out the Reapers.
Before we can take out Cerberus and initiate the final conflict, we have two more pieces of DLC to tackle, Leviathan and Citadel. Leviathan is basically Bioware's attempt to retcon the ending by introducing the precursor race of the Reapers. These Leviathans invented the Reapers on accident. They created an AI to preserve life, and this AI found the Reaper harvest to be the best way to do this. The gameplay consists of a few new missions in new areas, tracking down these creatures by following their trail of mind controlling orbs. There are some cool little detective sequences that help you narrow down search areas, but overall it's more of the same.
Citadel is a god damn masterpiece. It's the best piece of DLC in gaming, and it's what many consider the real ending of the trilogy. The content consists of 2 main parts, a mission where you chase down your clone and a huge party with your squad afterwards. The mission is a super fun, off kilter, sometimes 4th wall breaking romp with your whole crew. It's a constant bombardment of references and in jokes that will make any fan smile. After finishing it, you get to throw a party at your new apartment and you can invite basically everyone you could ever want. This party really highlights every characters personality, and is full of great moments and conversations. You can even control the atmosphere of the party, from a more laid back cocktail type atmosphere to a full on dance rave. You can't help but crack a smile while you play through it. If this was all that was included here it would be worth the asking price, but Citadel is the gift that keeps on giving. After all this, you're given access to an all new hub full of mini games and featuring multiple vignettes about all you're different squad mates from across the series. The highlight of this area is a fully featured combat arena that allows you to face any set of enemies you want on multiple brand new maps with modifiers to up your score. Not only that, this combat arena let's you use a bunch of squad mates from Mass Effect 2 who weren't playable in 3 before, complete with their own new skill trees. The arena even has it's own set of quests where you have to win fights using specific settings. Citadel is the perfect send off to the series, and caps itself off with one final melancholic cutscene of Shepard and the crew reminiscing about there journey.
Unfortunately, this perfect piece of DLC is not the real ending to the series. Instead, Shepard and crew head off to finally take Cerberus out of the fight, and get their hands on the VI once more. One final battle with Kai Leng later, and we have the VI back and find out the the Catalyst has been the citadel all along. The Illusive Man reveals his plan to you, he will control the reapers using the Crucible. Since he's obviously indoctrinated, he also tells the reapers of the nature of the Citadel, and they subsequently take it to Earth for safekeeping. They've closed the Citadels arms, so the only option we have is to get to a teleporter the Reapers have set up on Earth to open them up. Now the real final fight is upon us, back on the Earth we lost at the beginning of the game.
The final assault on Earth starts out promising. The atmosphere is oppressive, it's clear that Earth is done for. The fact that any resistance has survived to this point is a miracle. You're desperate, and you have only one chance to get to the beam that will take you to the Citadel. You fight through the streets and corridors of a destroyed London in an effort to take down the Reaper guarding the beam. You have very few missiles left with the power to take down a reaper, and the beam is messing up your targeting system. Edi can fix it, but it will take time, time enough for one final massive wave of Reapers to attack. This is the final battle of the game, and it's awesome. There are so many enemies here that you can't help but feel overwhelmed. It's a fight for survival that forces you to play hit and run, hoping you can hold out long enough for the missiles to hit. Finally taking the Reaper down feels so good, but this feeling of hope is soon dashed. Harbinger shows up to replace his fallen comrade, you have nothing left. The only option left is for everyone to run for the beam, and hope someone makes it.
It's at this point the game takes a serious turn for the bizarre. Since I have extended cut installed, some scenes are different than I remember, but it doesn't help. In fact, the extended cut manages to make the ending even more unbelievable. You really expect me to believe that the Normandy can set up shop and pick up my crew in front of Harbringer for a full minute without getting shot down? Who thought that would be a good addition? When you finally get through the beam you end up in bizarro world. Anderson talks to you over the radio, he says he makes it but ended up somewhere different, when there is literally only one path. They try to explain this away by saying the walls are shifting but the area is so small that there's literally no way you could miss Anderson even with wall shifts. The Illusive man shows up from literally nowhere, for pretty much no reason. After dealing with him, you and Anderson activate the Crucible before Anderson passes away, it's the one good moment of the entire sequence. If they ended the game here, it would be disappointing but acceptable, instead they proceed to introduce you to AI that controls all the Reapers. This AI takes the form of the little kid for no explicable reason other than "we take a form you can understand." Why the kid and not any other person in the world? Then I was given my options for ending the game, the infamous red, green, and blue paths. Do I want to use space magic to merge every species into some sort of hybrid? Or do I want to become a super ghost that can control the Reapers actions? In the end I took the only sane choice available, and destroyed every synthetic being in the universe, Reapers included. Not like it matters, because all the ending are virtually the same anyways, at least as far as you see as a player. None of the long term ramifications of these choices manifest, instead the Normandy crashes on a garden planet for no reason and you get a short slide show about rebuilding. That's it, except for the super ham-fisted epilogue scene where a kid talks about "The Shepard" because word play is cool I guess.
At least it's not Andromeda.