(No spoilers beyond a bit of incidental dialogue and things seen in the trailers.)
So there I was, running across broken window ledges, trying to make my way to safety, while the world was ending around me. Every so often I would stop in awe and horror as the Earth I loved began to fall. Buildings crumbled. Swarms of Alliance fighter ships darted across the sky, raining gunfire upon the Reapers. Oh God, the Reapers. They were everywhere. Three years ago, it had taken an interspecies fleet to take just one of them down. And now, here they were, descending upon skyscrapers, laying our cities to waste.
I had warned them. I had warned the Council. I had warned the Alliance. No one listened. Now, it was too late. Earth was burning, and the galaxy would follow.
I snapped myself out of my daze and kept running. The Reapers’ foot soldiers were everywhere. Somehow, I pulled it together enough to carve a path through them with my pistol. I got to the shuttle. I was forced to leave as innocent civilians died below me. My heart was pounding. My eyes were watering. My stomach felt heavy.
And then the title screen came up.
BioWare had a tall order to fill with Mass Effect 3, the final chapter of their epic space drama. There are few characters in any storytelling medium that resonate with me on the same level as Commander Shepard. After years of being stuck with female game characters who were sidekicks, or eye candy, or simply not there, here was a woman with guns and armor and respect, just like every other soldier. But Shepard’s significance goes way beyond the way that her clothes fit. See, I have been sustained my whole life on a healthy diet of science fiction. While sci-fi TV and movies have some awesome, iconic female characters, they’re rarely the ones calling the shots. There are exceptions, of course (Ripley and Captain Janeway come to mind), but usually, even the most kick-ass ladies are relegated to play second fiddle (Starbuck, Aeryn Sun, Princess Leia, every woman on Star Trek who is not Captain Janeway). What Mass Effect gave me was a brave, nuanced, relatable female protagonist in a military sci-fi setting. And now, after all the time I’d spent guiding and admiring her as she grew and fought and persevered, it was time to say goodbye. That was a very bittersweet pill to swallow.
For the most part, Mass Effect 3 rewarded me in kind for my years of service. Every person I spared or sacrificed in the previous games came into play. The whole drive of the game is to amass enough war assets to take on the Reapers in the final battle (war assets affect your Effective Military Strength score, which in turn determines your choice of ending). You have to pull favors, forge alliances, and pick sides — and your actions in the previous games will determine who is inclined to listen (or, similarly, who is dead and can’t help you). This fight was my fight. My actions had impacted the entire galaxy. I had a responsibility to see it through.
Speaking of dead characters, in Mass Effect 2, there is the very real possibility that some of your squadmates won’t come back from the final battle. This has a huge impact on ME3, not just in terms of the people you run into, but in terms of who you can bring into combat with you. The solution was to bring in a few new characters to fill the gaps. I don’t want to color your opinion of the newbies before you play the game, but I will say that there was one NPC for whom Shepard’s dialogue options were so wildly out of character (or at least, my understanding of her character) that I ended up reloading a quick save and avoiding talking to that person as much as possible. So while I might have quibbles with a few minor sections of dialogue, in the end, it didn’t affect my game any. I just stuck with my dream team from the first two games — Liara and Tali, swapping in Garrus when I needed some sarcasm — and left the unfamiliar faces out of the picture. Such is the magic of a customizable story.
This brings me to the game’s rather brilliant solution to that problematic staple of the RPG, the fetch quest. You know how it goes: you’ve just finished a grand cut scene hammering home the point that the fate of the world depends on you, brave hero, so long as you act fast and don’t die. You saddle up and sally forth, but on your way out the gate, some nobody asks you if you can find that thing they’ve been looking for. The items and XP that result from fetch quests are usually worth your time, but they rarely make any sense story-wise. Nothing breaks immersion like taking a detour from saving the world to drop a letter off to some stranger’s brother. ME3 solves that problem by making every side quest and fetch quest directly affect your war assets. Finding an item for someone means that they’ll be willing to donate more troops, or help outfit a militia, or donate funds to the war hospital. It’s still the same scan-a-planet-and-find-a-thing routine, but it finally felt like it had a point.
If anybody ever asks me for an example of a game that integrates storytelling to the fullest, I will point to ME3. Seriously, the blend of gameplay and narrative is damn near seamless. I had some nitpicky complaints about the combat (why, oh why, is the spacebar the command for both leaving cover and diving into cover?) and the quest tracking (is it really that hard to make a log that updates itself after you find quest items?), but these were trifles compared to the whole package. The fight scenes were tense and action-packed to begin with (including some very welcome new enemy models that seem to have taken a few notes from Left 4 Dead), but by the final battle, I was so invested in the story that I wasn’t just worried about beating the game — I was worried that all I had done wouldn’t be enough to drive the Reapers back. Shooting monsters in the head was about more than just good aim and weapon stats. It was about saving my friends.
Shepard’s colorful, loyal comrades are really the glue that hold the whole story together, and perhaps none more so than the romance options. ME3 definitely came through for those looking to continue an old romance, but more importantly, it opened up those options to everyone. The Mass Effect series has long operated under the “it’s not gay if it’s with an alien” trope, but only for the ladies. BioWare finally listened to all the foot-tapping and throat-clearing from those who were hoping for a more equal-opportunity universe by adding same-sex romance options for everybody. I can’t speak to how those romances played out for the dudes, but I was grinning ear-to-ear when I first spoke with Shepard’s shuttle pilot, Lieutenant Cortez, who mentions that he had a husband (I stopped grinning when he told me that he had lost said husband to the Collectors; I later stumbled upon him tearfully listening to his husband’s goodbye message). Later on, in the Citadel Embassies, I stopped to listen to a background conversation going on between two NPCs. A human female soldier, on the verge of shipping out, was desperate to contact her wife’s family on the Asari homeworld. She and her wife had a daughter, you see, and she wanted to send her somewhere safe. I have never before heard same-sex families even mentioned in a game, let alone so compassionately, and the use of the word “wife” instead of the previously-used alien term “bondmate” says a lot. Small victories, perhaps, but no less deserving of kudos.
So not only was my Shepard free to love and marry whomever she pleased, but she wasn’t the odd one out for being a military hero, either. I had a few eye-rolls at combat-ready women wearing heels, but honestly, for every female NPC wearing something absurd, I saw a whole squad of gun-toting women in military-issue boots. Yes, Asari strippers can still be found in the Citadel club, but far more prominent were the soldiers, the doctors, the security officers, the scientists. This was a universe in which women of all professions and of all families were normal. That was a powerful feeling, and it is one that I have yet to encounter in any other RPG.
As for the ending, I’ll let you pass your own judgment on the way in which the curtain fell upon Commander Shepard. But I will say this: for good or bad, Mass Effect 3 was the first time that a game made me cry. I’ll be carrying this story with me for a long time.
Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.