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Review

Review: Mass Effect 3


(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.

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  • http://tmirai.deviantart.com/ Talia

    Nice to see more video game articles/reviews on TMS! I have no plans to play Mass Effect (just not my cup of tea), but the review was still an interesting read, especially in regard to the characters and presentation of women in the game.

  • SusanHey

    I’ve got to confess, the ending I wond up with (can’t say what happened) made me fucking cry. Full-blown tears, damn it!

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if there could ever be a way to do two adaptations of Mass Effect into a film, one with ManShep and one with FemShep.  It’d be logistically infeasible (read: expensive) to shoot every scene twice- I’d expect the actors would want double pay for effectively filming two movies.  and a CGI film would tank as poorly as every “live-action CGI” film has (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy)

    But it’d be fun to think about.  Green-screening the Shepard actor might work, but you’d surely lose the subtle interactions with the other actors.

    Thoughts?

  • SusanHey

    I don’t know, it is an interesting concept. The cost would be freaking astronomical though. Personally, I’d rather have a ManShep storyline with good special-effects, writing, and just a lot of effort put into it rather than have two less well-done adaptions. If said adaptions could have the same amount of effort, well, then it would most certainly be extremely intriguing. 

  • http://twitter.com/IvidiaKt Ividia Kt

    Kudos to Bioware for stepping up to the plate on this with the female characters….hopefully this will transfer to other titles (just started playing Dragon Age Origins and the steel bikini displaying all the vulnerable squishy spots when the men are armored head to toe is just a tad bit annoying).

  • Anonymous

    I’m curious which NPC she avoided. I avoid the embedded reporter character. There’s something really Jersey Shore about her. And I don’t really have an opinion about Jessica Chobot, but I hope she isn’t pursuing a career as a VA.

  • http://twitter.com/WhatKateDoes Kate Lorimer

    Only been playing for 30 mins so far and already been sobbing like an eejit FFS! lol

    Loving it already tho :)

  • http://twitter.com/Besomyka Besomyka

    Without getting to the end it’s hard to be sure, but so far the game is making me feel like every little thing I decide is going to affect something.  Act too fast here?  You save someone, but an entire homeworld is compramzed.  Be too deleberate, and one person likes you but the other will no longer help.  Want some mercs?  Cool, but what about police forces and civil defense?
    I figure, best to play it how I want, make the decisions that seem right as best as I am able and see how things turn out.  I’m not sure there’s a perfect run through, but even so, I’ll worry about that later.

  • http://twitter.com/Raptorendame Raptorendame

    I’m pretty sure I know which character she’s talking about. I saw that character, talked with him and then thoguth:” Please- WHAT?”.

    PLaying at the moment. I’m in love with this game, but I fear the end.

  • Anonymous

     I loved the game…except for the endings (yes, all of them–I tried, I really tried).  They need to get writers in there who are not just awesome at dialogue (and the Bioware writers ARE awesome at dialogue), but at, you know, story.

  • http://twitter.com/phuul Michael Krzyzek

    The interesting thing about this game is that you have different experiences if you start from scratch or from a previous character. I have not finished it so I don’t know if it effects the outcome but I can damn well tell you it affects my experience. A certain character showed up that I helped save in ME2 and I just about lost it. Talking with a friend of mine they didn’t even see it.

    There are some problems with the game. Cover system. No I don’t want to roll I want to hide! Character import, so you make me try to recreate my look if I saved everything from ME 1? 

    But the story has me. It’s a progression from the first two games. I am making choices that affect me on an emotional level. I really don’t care if it changes anything. Viscerally it is important.

    An example. In ME2 I bought fish from several vendors. I had to feed them. Of course I didn’t realize this until they died and had to buy them again. Then I figured out [spoiler]. In ME3 I ran across someone who saved my fish. Getting my fish back made me ecstatic. And this is just fish!

    So yeah I really like this game.

  • E S

    Moar game reviews! :D

  • Anonymous

    Who!?

  • Sam Z

    Oh it made me cry alright.. but for all the wrong reasons!

    The endings were just an outright disgrace. There were plenty of sacrifices in the story prior to the ending and they were fine. I could stomach them because I could see their purpose.

    HOWEVER

    Sheppard’s ending has left the majority of fans in an apoplectic rage; at least according to Metacritic and the Bioware Social Network. Alot of people do not like a personally sad ending. Some do, and that’s fine, but I think many fans wanted to have the option of a happier outcome.

  • http://www.fangirlconfessions.com Robin Burks

    Both Bioware and Legendary has already stated that the Mass Effect film will feature a male Shepard. I’ve been rather vocal about the fact that I think a female Shepard would be a better choice.

  • http://twitter.com/Riviare Kimberly

    Yes, but to be fair it’s been emphasized over and over since the very first game how high the stakes are. Sometimes people just have to accept that there isn’t always a way to end things “happily ever after” and that the writers aren’t deliberately setting out to crap on their parade if they don’t provide said ending.

    The BSN has unfortunately always been a firestorm of people who seem to expect BW to cater to their every desire, and I personally don’t go there very often for that reason alone.  No matter what BW does, it’s never good enough. If they take fan opinion into account and add things in (like Garrus and Tali’s romances in ME2) people complain. If they do things their own way, people complain. If they add more inclusivity (DA2 and ME3′s gay romantic options) people both complain that they’re even there and they also complain that it’s not enough. 

    I’m starting to think that the majority of BW fans simply do not know what they want.

  • Anonymous

    If only I had more time to play…. I love this game and I have always loved my female Shepard! If I was to wrap Ellen Ripley into Samus Aran sprinkle a little Capt. Janeway and Aeryn Sun into the mix I think I would end up with Shepard. This game is exactly what I have been waiting my long life for. Thanks Bioware, and especially all the writers that make this such a rich environment and story to fall in love with. I know I will cry when it all ends.

  • Emily Lafreniere

    Though I agree with your general statements about the nature of the bioware network, I have to disagree when it comes to complaints regarding the end of the game.

    SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

    The problems I have with the endings of the game weren’t that they failed to be sunshine and roses, the crux of the issue was having your ending be almost exclusively dependent on one primary decision with few extra variables in the 3rd game.  Bioware promoted the Mass Effect Trilogy as a series in which your actions would have consequences.  It was a promise that the endings released failed to make good on.  All of those hours put into several playthroughs were shot to hell by essentially the same three endings (yeah sixteen if you think a different variation of three cut scenes really mixes it up for you).  What we wanted and what we promised were consequences to our actions throughout the series. What we received was an out of left field god child PICK AN OPTION cop out.

    I loved this series but the ending was like a cut to the heart.

  • http://twitter.com/phuul Michael Krzyzek

    I have not finished the game yet. But there are so many little things in this game that just make me laugh or rip my heart out. I’ve had several of the latter today. But I want to talk about something that is the former.

    Conrad Verner.

    When you get to the point you can talk with him finish the conversation and then talk with him again. And again. Eventually he will start a discussion on the use of “heat sinks” in the weapons. Seriously Conrad Verner actually makes sense. That made my day.

  • http://www.facebook.com/grainne.gillespie Grainne Gillespie

    I’d rather have no Mass Effect movie than a movie with ManShpe

  • http://www.facebook.com/grainne.gillespie Grainne Gillespie

    Guess I won’t be paying to see that then

    Here’s something worrying about a Mass Effect movie, if you played ME2 without importing a save from ME1 Wrex was dead in your ME2 playthrough.
    What if they decide to kill Wrex off in the ME1 movie because of this despite 90% of ME2 players having him alive in their games?

  • http://www.facebook.com/grainne.gillespie Grainne Gillespie

    Pity Ashley now looks like a barbie

  • http://www.facebook.com/grainne.gillespie Grainne Gillespie

    Except that BW lied and said there was a chance of a happy ending, they even said there was the option of marriage and children with your LI

  • Anonymous

    It’ll be James, I’d imagine? I was kinda surprised at some of Femshep’s dialogue with him but I think it worked fine.

  • Anonymous

    SPOILERS SPOILERS OH GOD

    Your actions DO have consequences, a lot of your choices in 1 and 2 reflect on 3. If Wrex is dead, and you destroyed Maelon’s work, Mordin doesn’t die. Tali can end up throwing herself off a cliff! The way the rest of it all layered up really made it for me, the last 5 minutes were bad but ignorable in the scope of the thing.
    Personally, I just wanted Dragon Age style epilogues, I want to know what happened to my crew afterwards! 

  • Ms. Sunlight

    I took James along with me quite a lot and got to really liking him.  I also loved his banter with Cortez.  He’s worth getting to know!  So nice too, to have a male human squadmate in a BioWare game who’s not a tormented bundle of angst.

  • Ms. Sunlight

     I don’t think they lied.  In at least one ending, Shepard’s still alive.  I’m thinking expansion pack.