(Please forgive any and all grammar and spelling errors. I did not proofread this)
Originally I wanted to write this immediately after finishing the game so I could get all my thoughts out while they were still fresh in my head. After reading the 1am ramble I’d started, I decided it might be better to leave off until everything sank in. So now that the “oh my God I actually finished the game” shock has finally hit me, I think I can provide a more coherent review.
Be forewarned: as the parenthesized part of the title states, there are spoilers for all the endings of the game. In fact, there are spoilers for the entire game, so if all you know about is the ending, turn back now and wait until you’ve experienced the awesomeness, because there is much awesomeness to be experienced.
Put simply, Mass Effect 3 is epic shit. In fact, it’s not just epic shit, it’s “oh my God I have to put another eighty hours into this” epic shit. I’m not exaggerating when I say that ME3 – the entire trilogy, really – has completely revolutionized gaming. BioWare games have always been spectacular, but Mass Effect 3 rises above and beyond the rest.
For starters, and this goes for all their games, BioWare doesn’t pull any punches, especially not in Mass Effect 3. After ME2, I was fairly certain that there couldn’t possibly be anything more disturbing than the fate of the colonists in the Collector Base. Oh dear, was I proven so very wrong. Within the first ten minutes of the game, BioWare kills a kid. I’ll admit, I admire games, movies, and TV shows brave enough to kill a kid, and before you accuse me of being a sociopath, allow me to explain. Modern media has, in the case of movies, games, and TV, very much desensitized us to adult death. Nowadays, people seem to get more upset when animals are in danger onscreen – who cares about the expendable characters? However, when a kid dies, it suddenly makes everything real: it reminds people that the innocent get caught in the crossfire and there’s nothing anybody can do about it. That’s when it really sinks in for viewers and players and death actually begins to mean something.
Along the same morbid line of discussion, another thing I like about Mass Effect 3 is that the Reaper War is portrayed as war should be: horrifying. What I dislike about games like Call of Duty is that, besides the lack of a discernible plot, it portrays the soldiers as having a good time just picking off the enemy while being suave and tough at the same time. War is nothing like that: it’s not cool, it’s not funny, and it doesn’t just affect the soldiers. Mass Effect 3 shows us everything that the other war games don’t: the devastation, the refugees, the injured, the civilians who fight because the only other option is to die, and the people who risk their lives to help whomever they can. The emergency housing in the Citadel is almost disturbingly real, complete with a memorial wall, injured refugees with barely enough corner space to lie in, and people crowded around video terminals, desperate for news. The hospital is full of frantic doctors trying to save everyone they can, and at one point two of said doctors get into an argument about whether or not they should try to save everyone or just let some people die so as to save supplies. What hit me the hardest was the audio recording found in the Ardat-Yakshi temple of an asari’s goodbye to her bondmate. The sound of the injured woman sobbing her last words of love literally hurt to hear, and now, nearly two weeks after I finished that part of the game, I still remember the dialogue almost word-for-word and even the bondmate’s name. It’s chilling, but it’s what makes the game brilliant. The presence of the wounded, the dead, and the people who have lost everything reminds you that you’re not just fighting the Reapers – you’re fighting them for a reason.
That’s not to say the game is entirely doom-and-gloom. In fact, there are moments where it’s downright hilarious. The dialogue between the crew of the Normandy and some of the quips thrown around during missions provide trademark BioWare humor without seeming to make light of the Reaper War. The back-and-forth between Joker and EDI in her new form are too priceless to miss, and it’s worth hanging around the café in the Citadel just to hear Liara and Matriarch Aethyta have at it. The quips Wrex and Mordin trade over the radio in the final mission on Tuchanka had me laughing so hard I couldn’t shoot straight (though, considering the circumstances, that was a bit of a problem). Even Shepard has a few good jibes of her own (I always play FemShep. Who is this MShep you speak of?), especially when she’s teasing a very drunk Ashley. It’s the sort of cutscene you play on repeat for a good bout of giggles, and it’s only one of many.
Endearing as the humor is, it’s the return of familiar faces that really connects the players to the game. True, there are a few new people helping you out, but seeing Liara, and Ash, and Tali, and Garrus, and everyone that’s followed Shepard through her battle against
the Council’s stupidity the Reapers brings a real sense of camaraderie and solidarity to the gameplay. By following the characters through all three games, players build up as much of a relationship with them as Shepard does, and as the players do with Shepard. It makes players care that much more about the game.
Just as Mass Effect 3 brings back a lot of old friends, it introduces enemies old and new: enemies you can really, really, really HATE. I could go on for pages and pages about how much I loathe Kai Leng and how I thought he deserved a much worse fate than what he got, but I’ll just put it this way: that bastard (I think Garrus even calls him “Lieutenant-Commander Bastard” at one point) made me angry. Plenty of games, almost all of them non-BioWare, feature enemies you don’t really care about – you point, you shoot, you keep going until you beat the boss and win. This is not the case in Mass Effect 3 at all. ME3 has enemies you want to kill: enemies you want to blast into smithereens with inferno rounds. Ok, so maybe that sounds a little sadistic, but it’s one of the things that makes the game worth playing and more than just your average, monotonous shooter game. Of course, the other reason that players are keen on killing said enemies is because if they’re not angering you, they’re scaring the ever-loving shit out of you. I very much regret playing through the Ardat-Yakshi temple in the dark, and I’m not the only person in my circle of gamer friends who shudders when a banshee scream echoes from the shadows. Husks were scary enough in the first two games, and now their various incarnations in ME3 are downright terrifying. They're the reason you run out of ammo. A lot. Just in case they try and get back up.
Tying it all together are state-of-the –art graphics, brilliant sound work and music, and fantastic voice acting. Again, I literally shudder when I hear a banshee, and the sound of the Reaper lasers on Rannoch, Tuchanka, and Earth will – with a single, low, ominous blast – chill blood and set pulses racing. The graphics and sound in tandem especially make players feel like they’re there, in the game, actually firing at hordes of Cerberus agents, geth, and Reaper spawn. So many times during the game I found myself so immersed that it was as if I’d become Shepard, experiencing and feeling everything she was. I was most affected when facing off with the Reaper on Rannoch: I genuinely felt alone, terrified, desperate, and all-out doomed, praying for the Normandy to come through. It was only after the thing fell that I stepped back and thought, “wait, WTF this is just a game.” The second time this happened was on Earth, when I/Shepard was running for the beam to the Citadel. The slow-motion, the sound that mimicked ringing in my ears, the dim echoes of battle: it all drew me in more than I thought any video game ever could, and I was there. It was all as real as the Earth outside my bedroom window. As for the voice actors, I can’t praise the cast enough. I would laud every single one of them in turn, but it would turn this review into a full-blown dissertation. Everyone works incredibly well together, and the dialogue between Shepard and the crew of the Normandy especially portrays a real sense of family and how much the characters mean to each other. I genuinely cried at the deaths of Mordin and Thane; the characters mean just as much to me.
And now we come to the endings from which have spawned such controversy and hatred from so many fans. I’m not saying I liked them – in fact, at one point, I was ready to join the screaming, cursing mob (I accidentally chose synthesis and once I saw what was happening I hit Control-Alt-Delete faster than you can say “Shepard,” sobbing like a baby the whole time). I will, however, defend these endings, because while I may not be a fan of them, they are, so to speak, “good” endings.
One of the arguments is that there are only three endings, even though more were promised. I think it’s more that while Shepard has three fates, there are multiple outcomes, as opposed to downright endings. How Anderson dies is not always the same; how the Illusive Man dies is not always the same; and the fate of Earth, the galaxy, and the mass relays are not always the same – it all comes down to choices and resources and how much work you’ve put into to making sure you have enough firepower to beat Reaper ass and enough scientists to make the Crucible really come together. So yes, while there are three defined “endings,” the fallout from the decisions you make as Shepard varies.
When it comes to which ending you choose, I’m actually glad I heard and read spoilers, because if my Shepard was lost to me forever, I’d be all-out devastated. When she took a breath, I literally double-punched the air in relieved victory. I was terrified for her. My reaction and the overall fan reaction begs the question, what is it about Mass Effect 3 that makes Shepard’s fate so unbearable? Why in this particular game are we so angry about losing him or her? In the world of video games, characters die. It happens. We get over it. If, after having spent all my teenage years playing Tomb Raider, I find that Lara Croft dies in the final installment, I’d probably just roll my eyes and go back to an earlier game. In Neverwinter Nights 2, before Mask of the Betrayer came out, I was a little irritated that my character “died,” but I understood, and I didn’t mourn. Even in Dragon Age: Origins, I didn’t mourn my elf (though I did have other characters that I was determined to keep alive or else). So why is it that, when threatened with losing my Shepard, my faithful Kate Shepard, I, for lack of a better description, freak the fuck out?
The answer for me – and many other fans, I’m sure – is thus: I put five years into Kate Shepard. Mass Effect 2 was, if I recall correctly, the first game that let you import previous saves, storylines, and choices from its predecessor, and not just saved characters. In all the Mass Effect games, despite what people say, choices matter, and they carry on throughout the trilogy. I’ve watched my Shepard make mistakes, redeem herself, suffer, persevere, and prevail, and I’ve been with her every step of the way. She and her story mean something to me, and it was only when I nearly lost her that I realized how much. The fact that so many fans are loathe to lose their Shepards to the Reaper War and care so much about how the story ends is not a bad thing. As hurtful as their hatred is, the fact that they are so passionate about it is a sign that the writers did their job and did it well. Let’s use books as a simpler example: a bad book is when the character dies and you could care less. A good book is when the character dies and you want to tear the author a new one. Yes, it’s hatred, but it just shows how brilliant the author is in making you as a reader love a fictional character so much that losing him or her provokes a powerful reaction. So, as oxymoronic as it sounds, the gamers hate because they love. They love their Shepards too much to lose them. Through all three games, the writers have laid out a brilliant storyline, introduced us to incredible characters, and dragged us through hell, the Omega 4 relay, and back, all seen through Shepard’s eyes. It is their genius that has us so devastated by Shepard’s fate. It is their genius that makes us care the way we do.
That’s not to say the game is perfect, but I have very few complaints. I wasn’t fond of the Normandy’s fate, especially since my ending squad was onboard (I’m just going to pretend that Vega and EDI were there instead and Liara’s nice and safe groundside). I wish the journal entries were more like the first two games in that they helped you keep track of what you have to do next. I didn’t have a problem with the multiplayer (in fact, I think it’s awesome), but people I know with lousy internet connection don’t like the fact that their galactic readiness depends on multiplayer missions. There’s so much more to love than hate, though. The control system is awesome, and I actually find it really fun that the weapon firing is more realistic, and you can’t just hold down the mouse button anymore. Jumping is fun, and I have never been so thankful for cover. I miss the planet scanning, and evading the Reapers is a pain, but it’s part of what makes the game realistic.
And to all the haters, there’s still hope for Shepard. In case they weren’t paying attention, the old man says to (presumably) his grandson, “all right – one more story.” Even for those who lost their Shepard to the War, there’s still one more story. Maybe the account of the Skyllian Blitz? Or perhaps the tale of what really unfolded on Akuze? And for those of us whose Shepard was saved, maybe he or she will go looking for the Normandy? There’s still so much of Shepard’s life and the lives of his or her companions to explore – still so much to uncover. For all we know, Shepard actually had a few little blue children we didn’t get to see. We have no idea what came before or what’s going to come after.
Am I still going to play the games? Damn right, I am – Shepard’s on her way to get Liara out of her Prothean bubble as we speak. Am I going to play ME3 all the way through to the end again? It depends on what’s happened in the first two games and whether or not I’m as attached to that particular Shepard as I am to Kate. Will I put Kate through her paces again? Probably – she still has to meet Kasumi and Zaeed, participate in Project Overlord, and visit the Lair of the Shadow Broker (her story ends at the love scene, though, thanks very much). I can’t get enough of the Mass Effect trilogy, and every time I play, I find something I missed the first time around. So yeah, let’s do it all again!
I have faith in my Shepard. I have hope for my Shepard. Because there’s always one more story.