How does one go about ending a ninety-hour narrative with hundreds of permutations along the way, and maintain workable canon for a triple-A franchise whose potential has just expanded into film? Not without a thousand cries of fans across the Internet, who lament the cliché and out-of-the-blue resolution, the stumble at the end of a triathlon that was building and building with increasing ferocity.

The ending was not as climactic or satisfying as it could have been, but Mass Effect 3 itself was the perfect ending to one of the industry’s finest trilogies, and one of science-fiction’s earliest moments in great, interactive art. While story-wise the ending was out of place, and theme-wise the ending was pretty nauseating, Mass Effect 3 is about the journey, and in this phase of the epic series, we say good-bye to old faces we’ve come to care about before facing down an enemy with the weight of two video-games and a fully fleshed out mythology.

 

Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy has had the good fortune of being a one-generation series, like Gears of War, and unlike Halo. One can go back and play Mass Effect on the PC or Xbox 360 and not feel behind at all. The graphics are maximized by opulent art design, the dialogue is sharp, and the story ranks high with gaming’s greatest. The RPG elements may take turns feeling shallow and overdone in places, the combat pales in comparison to contemporary third-person shooters, and the graphical artifacts and texture pop-in are so frequent as to settle into perceived normalcy, but the overall experience is one of a kind, and memorable on so many levels. For anyone interested in Mass Effect 3, there’s no question: start from the beginning.

The transition into Act II becomes a necessary step, and as most fans have it, the most necessary. Gameplay-wise, Mass Effect 2 is a moon-landing’s leap over the original’s endearing but clumsy system, augmenting the fun-to-use power and teammate abilities with better geography and cover mechanics. They nailed shooting in 2, where the composition of gunfights in a game like Gears of War is heightened by endless options, which affect not only combat but also art direction. The Gears of War games, while fun (the first is a co-op classic), have become a cliché in this Killzone/Resistance world. There’s a limited sense of creativity in what’s being shown, and what the players can actually look at. Mass Effect and its sequel vary enemy types and give us plenty of exciting ways to dispose of them, whether through ice bullets or Force-powers, and they all look cool.

It must be known though that Mass Effect at times, can be pretty ‘uncool;’ pretty lame in fact, mostly in spots of dialogue that are too histrionic or on-the-nose. The thing is, there’s so much dialogue in these games that little problems every four hours or so are rendered absolutely nil. Like Skyrim, which often features floating elephants and guys who return to talking about arrows in the knee after killing dragons with you, it’s easy, nay second nature, to overlook these shortcomings.

The biggest issue with Mass Effect 2 though was the story, which wasn’t as strong as the original’s. There was mystery and build-up and dramatic beats in Mass Effect’s storyline, where Mass Effect 2 is more ‘video-game.’ Your task is to go around and collect the roughest, toughest killers and soldiers in the galaxy to assist you in a suicide mission. And you know it’s a suicide mission because that term is used not just constantly, but consistently. That’s one way to build suspense, I guess. The problem here was that while these characters were great — Thane and Legion to me were standouts — and offered short stories in the form of side missions, the story was not predictable, let’s say, but not unpredictable like the original or Mass Effect 3.

Aside from the occasional mission thrown at you by the Illusive Man, like Horizon or the Collector base before the Omega Relay, you knew what had to be done, and did it. And aside from one or two surprise squadmates, you knew who you were picking up along the way. While Samara and Zaeed can die on their side missions, it becomes evident that they’ll all last to either die off or succeed when endgame strikes. In the original, you can actually turn Garrus down (out of racism), kill Wrex, and of course, leave Ashley or Kaiden to die. The squad was more dynamic, but that’s taken to new heights in the third installment.

In Mass Effect 3, a character is actually taken out of your squad and then returned. Some old squadmates from Mass Effect 2 return to the squad, and some only return to fight alongside you. There are two new characters, though we’re already associated with one through the second game. The only two squadmates that persist throughout the trilogy are Garrus and Tali, which leads to an interesting moment in the end, though not interesting to me, because I was romancing Garrus before the new secretary pushed herself on me.

While Mass Effect 2 was a big advancement, Mass Effect 3 feels like further refinement, which is perfectly acceptable, because Mass Effect 2 was extremely fun. The refinement however was thorough, spreading through many layers of the game and creating a better experience. Of course, this was nothing new to the franchise.

Even though Shepard carries over from game-to-game, the player must still build him/her up with skill trees and Paragon/Renegade points. There are also new systems to learn with each new game, because in the Age of the Internet, a company like Bioware can and will respond to fan criticism. Mass Effect has terrible inventory management? Mass Effect 2 has none. Mass Effect 2 has no items? Mass Effect 3 strikes a happy balance. There were even subtle changes to gradually streamline the experience, for example by Mass Effect 3 the player doesn’t have to engage an NPC in a conversation wheel if that NPC has nothing new to say.

In the original, a character would have a comment on the mission or something new to talk about after every major story mission. This could be accessed by an option that went something like “Let’s Talk,” which while sort of awkward, always yielded interesting results, and made Garrus, Wrex, Ashley, Kaiden, Tali, and Liara early favorites because it was you initiating these talks. But sometimes they wouldn’t have anything to say so the conversation would go like this:

Shepard: [A]
Garrus: Need me for something?
Shepard: … [Let’s Talk] Do you have time to talk?
Garrus: Sure.
Shepard: … [Sees No Options, Selects ‘Back’, ‘Good-bye’]: I should go.
Garrus: I’ll be here.

In Mass Effect 2, Garrus or whoever would just say “I’m in the middle of something, can we talk later?” Garrus alone would say “I’m in the middle of some calibrations,” which became not only an in-joke for Mass Effect 3, much like the elevators in Mass Effect 2, but a brief Internet meme. It grew because so many people heard it, as they’d always prompt their favorite turian for some chit-chat, and he wouldn’t have refreshed between missions. So in Mass Effect 3 characters on the Normandy enter into conversation wheels less frequently, because when selected, they talk, and Shepard responds without player interaction, without going into medium-shot mode.

The quality of voice acting during these interactions hasn’t changed, as old Mass Effect talents return, and some new names lend their voices and sometimes likenesses. The list includes voice-actress superstar Jennifer Hale, and big TV and movie names like Martin Sheen, Seth Green, Yvonne Strahovski, Tricia Helfer, Michael Hogan, Claudia Black, Freddie Prinze, Jr., and genre veterans like Keith David, Lance Henrikson, and Carrie Ann Moss. Sadly, Adam Baldwin didn’t show up, but his character was mentioned once, in an email…

They get equal time to shine in the instances where characters will talk one-on-one with player input, but in this game, lengthy conversations are typically based on plot, keeping the action moving forward, and maintaining Mass Effect 3’s brisk momentum.

For a story of this length, it’s hard to believe that Mass Effect 3 could be so fast-paced and frantic. The sense of movement is bolstered by the dreadful weight of what’s going on in the galaxy, and at the scale the weight operates on. The Reaper invasion was in the books from the start, but now we get to see the things in action, which is a one-two. Early on we get their attack on Earth, and shortly after we fight on the turian homeworld Palaven, which is what Earth could, and does, become by the end. The towering Reapers looming in the distance under the neighboring planet are dazzling and powerful sights, as tiny ships buzz around them in a laser show while Shepard wards off husks on the planet’s rocky, war-battered surface.

The franchise itself may not be the most original in terms of art style or premise, but by Mass Effect 3 it’s come to its own by being fully realized. The team has gone all the way with what they want to show and how they show it. Every planet is stunning, from the crumbling Earth to the lush salarian homeworld, from the temples of Tuchanka to the grand, barren vistas of Mars itself.

It’s something special when every ingredient in a rare formula comes together this well, where we have customizable guns that shoot all colors of lasers, walkways suspended over cavernous laboratories filled with explosions and hellfire, and the characters we’ve come to learn about and care for in the middle of all of it, throwing down powers when we say, while the invincible Commander Shepard does damage of his or her own, deejaying abilities and upgrades collected over missions that are more like scenes in a real story than objectives on a quest-list.

There’s an incredible balance of focused storytelling and player choice, a constant throughout the trilogy. While the Paragon/Renegade point system might work to counteract or outright contradict player choice, reducing conversations to means to the same goal rather than unique resolutions, the options’ mere existence was a monumental thing in the original, and a much-appreciated hallmark by Mass Effect 3. Conflict resolution is also a significant theme in the series, making conversation wheels logically connected and gameplay-wise highly immersive and satisfying.

The premise of the series is as follows: Like in 2001, there is a device, this time on Mars, that jumps our civilization ahead thousands of years, as we begin to conquer the stars with FTL travel and advanced military technology. As all of humanity is uniting as they reach across the sky, we quickly discover that there are aliens out there, including the ‘sexy’ asari, the bird-like turian, the warmonger krogan, fast-talking salarian, nomadic quarian, and ‘evil’ geth. The twist is that all of them, except for the geth I suppose, met up with each other through the same FTL technology — that of the ancient Prothean race. That’s interesting, but it means that we’re the new kids on the block. We’re the ones who have something to prove, and we don’t start well — the first thing humanity does is go to war with the turians.

Mass Effect jumps ahead of this when we pick up the controller, but all this information is gathered in the in-game codex, as well as canonical multimedia fiction, if you’re so inclined. The universe also slowly trickles in throughout the first game. Describing the Mass Effect games in a word is silly, but if I had to, I’d use “balance.” Truly the first one had a lot to juggle, like the first Transformers (2007) movie. In Michael Bay’s most powerful film, the prolific screenwriting team Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman had to keep so many things in mind: the fan base, the theoretical fan base, an international audience, kids, adults, an original storyline, canon, call-backs, and balancing the audience proxy character with what we really came to see, the titular truckbots. An enormous undertaking that maybe didn’t yield the best product (considering the source material, I’ll give it to them), but a creative undertaking nonetheless. In the case of Mass Effect, barring for a moment gameplay and genre, so much had to be invented and revolutionized and perfected — and the product was a damn good one, a game that stood out in a year of game-of-the-years, sharing lists with the likes of Halo 3, Bioshock, and Call of Duty 4, some of the most influential games ever.

As we see from Mass Effect 2, story isn’t the only thing that sets the series apart, but it is significant. It’s a rare thing to see game creators care this much about the story, which by Mass Effect 3, is undoubtedly what comes first — a further anomaly. People want to know what’s going to happen to… Joker, for Christ’s sake, never mind what the Reapers are all about and what’s going down on Earth. After two great games, players have become invested in something like they’ve never known. Games may have had good stories in the past, but here we’ve been following something, and shaping it ourselves.

The pressure was on for Mass Effect 3.

The game takes place a little while after the events of Mass Effect 2, when the Collector hive, and the Reaper technology it housed, was destroyed in a suicide mission. The suicide mission’s aftermath left Shepard grounded on Earth, with her/his ship taken away. The first human spectre, eh? Well the thing about Shepard is nobody, except for Admiral Anderson, listens to him/her. It’s sort of like when people say “there can’t possibly be aliens out there… in the endless universe,” which seems ignorant because there’s nothing that special about the Earth’s composition and distance from its system’s star. In this universe, aliens are aware of aliens, but the principle remains. Nobody believes that Shepard went to Ilos and saw things about sentient warships, because… there can’t possibly be sentient warships out there.

Anything’s possible, you ‘norant Councilmembers.

Comeuppance could have been enjoyed had it not been for the whole ‘Reaper invasion of Earth’ that undoubtedly left a few billion humans dead. Now it’s on Shepard again to unite races, mend fences, and show the galaxy that their dickishness has gone too far. An army of genocide machines from beyond space is one hell of a wake-up call to such things, but the krogan continue to cause trouble with turians and salarians, the geth and quarian just started fighting, and the asari? I suppose ‘dicks’ would be incorrect here, but you get the picture. All of these conflicts were built up over the course of the trilogy, and while it’s a little absurd, its delivery makes it easily digestible.

Shepard’s new suicide mission, to leave a devastated Earth and gather armies, bring the fight back home, is helped along by a squad filled out by friendly faces and new, but welcomed ones.

I thought one of the more interesting characters new to Mass Effect was the shuttle pilot, Cortez. Not because he was gay — my Shepard’s gay, I guess — but because of all the things you could do with that guy (though he was, I assume, a romance option for males). It was high time we got to talk ad nauseum with non-squadmates, though that never ended well for those characters in the past. RIP Pressly. Adams made it out okay; it was a surprise to see him back. I always wondered what happened to the guy who marveled at Tali and shut up forever.

It doesn’t add a new dimension to the game but enhances a preexisting one, the seeming suicide mission statement of Mass Effect 3. They realized that more conversations led to more opportunities for memorable moments of drama, and Cortez had his share. That’s the beautiful thing about a narrative that can take its time with a running time of hours and hours — we can explore. In a movie, you’d never talk to Cortez, not when there’s a birdman doing calibrations and a killer robot housing thousands of AI — right over there!

Opportunities for genuine, sometimes shocking, character moments open up, as does the path we stalk down further and further on our journey — that of discovering just what the hell Mass Effect has been about the whole time.

Does the Mass Effect trilogy embody, also like 2001, a glaring self-contradiction? It speaks to galactic (international) unity, a unity of races no matter what skin-color or creed, but it’s a human who’s speaking. Shepard is at the epicenter — and if it weren’t for humanity, the Reapers would have had their day and eaten it too.

But what’s being said then, that humanity only got to this point because of Prothean technology? There’s a great sense of history here, one that stretches back years and years — the themes of development over time and evolution are prevalent but never really addressed — and we get the idea that something about cycles and society was meant to be said.

Here’s a list of the themes in Mass Effect, before the ending of Mass Effect 3:

– Civilization
– Peace and Unity
– Heroism
– Racism
– Cycles
– People

Shepard is a true hero because he/she betrays everyone in Mass Effect 2 to do the right thing — he/she joins Cerberus. While this doesn’t go down well with Alliance brass, the Collectors are dead as fried chicken, and Shepard keeps soldiering on, despite the Council’s dedicated efforts against him/her. This is perhaps a manifestation of the power of enlightenment — Shepard isn’t great and inspirational because he/she is the player’s avatar and goes ‘ooh-rah let’s kick some Covenant ass (the Master Chief… never said that)’ but because he/she makes choices, and almost all the choices in the game relate to solving people’s problems and bringing them together.

So let’s look at Commander Shepard as an enlightened and commanding shepherd of people in an archetypical, mythological way. He/she isn’t a deep character — by fault of design — but he/she holds great significance on a higher thematic level. Stopping the Reapers will be his/her greatest measure, whether or not he/she can end interplanetary kerfuffle after generations and generations of hate. Could we one day start over, not because we were all wiped out by machine-gods, but because one person was enlightened enough to unite us?

But shouldn’t the best ending then become an alliance with the Reapers, a sort of ‘let’s just get along with everyone, while we’re at it?’ Why do the Reapers either get destroyed or mind-controlled? Because they make more sense from a figurative rather than literal standpoint; their existence is in service of this uniting of races, but they cannot take part, despite being a race themselves. They also represent, let’s say, traditional values — they’re driven by that age old belief that wiping out advanced civilizations when they’ve reached Level 10 on the Advanced Meter is good for the heart, which makes them the opposite of Shepard, and the opposite of true galactic peace.

Obviously, I mean have you seen those lasers?

So that’s all fine and acceptable, but then two huge wrenches are thrown — hucked, even. The first one wasn’t really thrown, because Mass Effect would be much different without it.

In fact, Mass Effect takes its namesake from this very piece of its universe — the whole Prothean thing. We discover a Mass Relay, which allows us to teleport ships — and gunships — to any corner of the galaxy, so long as it’s outside Dark Space and batarian territory. And whatever the Perseus Veil is. Also don’t touch the Omega 4 Relay; you’re not ready.

So we get this advanced technology and use it, use it to boost ourselves ahead and oh damn we’re already fighting the first aliens we see. They call the turian war, smartly, the First Contact War. A brilliant term. We weren’t, evidently, ready to have the First Contact Bake Sale.

We have to grow, we need Shepard to show us the way. But first he/she’s gotta scan keepers…?

I just don’t get it at this point. Everything I’ve just said seems to break down in that same sort of 2001 way. In A Space Odyssey, more explicitly in the book than in the movie, humanity rocks because we went to space! Look how far our civilization has come this is not just NASA propaganda by the near-future year 2001! But we didn’t do that much, did we? Sure, we went to Japetus, which took a whole hell of a lot of time and pages, but only because alien gods (Reapers) told us to.

The Reapers are like the alien gods or the Overlords’ overlords in Childhood’s End — what is their purpose? To play with civilizations. Until, I suppose, those civilizations don’t want to be played with anymore. But that’s… nonsense. This part of the universe doesn’t mesh nicely with that stuff about unity and heroism, because it’s all predestined… but it’s not.

What’s the point of breaking the Reapers’ cycle? What does that mean? I suppose it’s a break from those aforementioned traditional values, which keep civilizations in the caves and at each other’s throats, but that operates on a purely abstract level. No NPC has ever said those words, but they have noted that humanity was jump-started by Prothean technology, and the two are related.

And then there’s the issue of Mass Effect 3’s ending, much as I loathe to admit it. The main reason why the ending disappoints is because it takes all that stuff about uniting civilizations and shoves it. The whole time, guys, it wasn’t about aliens getting along, even though that mirrors player choice and has been the whole reason for everything so far, it was about organics versus synthetics.

I’m a bit shady on the details, but I remember that the ending felt out of nowhere on so many levels, ‘thematically’ being one of them. I suppose you could make the argument that ‘synthetics’ is just a metaphor for ignorance, but what the hell the geth, right? Legion sacrificing himself and that geth prime marching down the hill saying “we cool,” was an amazing moment, but those guys are still synths, right?

The inconsistency is the problem, not so much any sense of anti-climax, because resolutions were constant throughout the game — we say good-bye to all these characters and plotlines, and do it with panache.

That being said, there are problems outside the ending and the tangle of science-fiction ideas and themes, namely dialogue and storytelling spots. Of course, those two are that which I praise Mass Effect most on, because I like video-games, but I love science-fiction and stories. Otherwise Mass Effect would be pretty fun, but I’d just play Vanquish.

A lot of dramatic moments are deflated by on-the-nose dialogue, in instances where silence would have been more appropriate. I just referenced Legion’s sacrifice (which you may or may not have experienced), where the geth prime tumbles down the hill to inform the quarian admiral that peace will be had by all. A bittersweet moment, but damn is that geth prime’s dialogue straightforward. As you’d expect from a robot, but he pretty much repeats the situation in word-form, which is unnecessary, a dangerous thing to be in such a context.

There are a few moments like that, as well as instances of dreadful cliché, like Shepard’s verbal battle with Kai Leng amidst a fight — they’re dueling, as in Shepard takes cover and Kai Leng dances around the Illusive Man’s office, and Shepard goes “You’re good… at running!” and Kai Leng shouts, “Shut up!” as if that was actually getting to this hardened killer/displaced character from Deus Ex. It felt like an 80s action movie moment, where Kai Leng would in a second be like “I’m gonna KILL YOU NAAOOOWWW!” and charge forward.

But in terms of negativity, that’s all I have. Mass Effect 3 transcends its medium and has shown me just what storytelling — not just interactive storytelling — can do.

While Mass Effect 3 rounds out a trilogy, it’s a sign of things to come in this young but quickly growing industry. Beyond graphics or technology, in a little over a decade enemies in video-games have gone from thoughtlessly killed in Doom or Quake to mercilessly killed in Call of Duty to thought about in Halo 2 and 3 to finally sympathized with and cared about in Mass Effect 2 and 3. It’s story and characters that video-games are getting the hang of now, with titles like Uncharted and Bioshock always making headlines. They do new things, taking advantage of their long-form narratives, the player element, and the fact that stories aren’t what get games greenlit, so run free.

Mass Effect was the first.

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