Here's another dispatch from the war in the Milky Way...
I figured out that, contrary to my assumptions about the importance of finding items on missions, Mass Effect 3 actually does give you a chance to pick up upgrades and plot-related objects that you might have missed. After a mission is over, when you go to the Spectre Requisition Office on the Citadel, you'll occasionally find these items for sale at the terminal. Plot items cost 1000 credits, and upgrades cost the same amount as they would in a store, generally around 4000. I think that's a very fair system, and I'm relieved to know that I don't need to panic about potentially missing stuff; I still try to find everything I can, of course, and there's no compensation if I miss a cache of credits, but I appreciate how this small change lets me be less anal about the way I'm playing. (They also try to justify the presence of these items within the game's continuity, which can occasionally be amusing. Once, when I was picking up some dog tags for a side-quest from the terminal, the description for the item said something like, "When presenting these dog tags, the spectre should act as though they retrieved the tags personally." Which, of course, is a way of making the recorded dialog still apply.)
I'm still fiddling around with the new weapons systems. I don't have a feeling yet for which is the "best" weapon in each class, and since weapons are expensive to improve while upgrades are cheap and convertible across models, I've been maximizing my upgrades and mostly just holding on to the Tier 1/2 weapons that I've found so far. In multiplayer, I'm madly in love with my upgraded Geth SMG, but there's no equivalent weapon in singleplayer (at least that I've found), so at the moment I'm rocking a Predator with high-caliber and armor-piercing upgrades. My biotic companion uses the same, along with an SMG with similar upgrades. My fighter companion uses an assault rifle and sniper rifle, but I can never remember what weapon he has equipped when I'm on my ship, which is the place where I could improve his weapons. I just finally realized last night that I could add an SMG to my loadout and still be at a 200% power recharge time, so I think I may either do that or switch to a heavier pistol. Ammunition is MUCH more prevalent in ME3 than it was in ME2, so I never need to worry about running out of ammo, even if I have a single weapon without an ammo upgrade. (At least, that's been true for my pistol so far, it might be a different story with other weapons.) So far I haven't been able to find a way to see my companions' power recharge times, which makes it a bit hard to optimize their own loadouts. I think my biotic is probably maxed for recharge, and I've tried to get my fighter in decent shape with a heavy sniper rifle and a mid-weight assault rifle.
Just in general, I've been having trouble figuring out what I should spend my money on. There are several tiers of goods: cheap stuff at 1000 credits (mostly fun inessentials, like fish for your tank); low stuff at about 3k-6k credits (weapon upgrades, some armor pieces); weapon improvements; full sets of armor (50k); and premium weapons (250k). Right now I'm hovering around 250k. I snap up all the cheap stuff that I can find, and all the damage and piercing upgrades for the weapons my squad uses, but that leaves me a ton of money... but not so much money that I can just buy everything. I'm holding off for now from spending it in case I regret my choice. That's definitely a contrast to ME2, though, which had an excellent economy (I felt like I had just enough money to buy everything I wanted by the end of the game, and up until then needed to prioritize and buy things I needed), and also quite unlike ME1, which had way more money than things to spend it on. That said, I have a ways to go before finishing the game, so maybe the situation will become clearer.
The galaxy map works a bit differently than in previous games. In ME1 and ME2, you could go pretty much anywhere from the beginning; certain missions wouldn't be unlocked until later, but you could still go to those planets and stations, just not land until you had the quest. In ME3, only about a dozen systems are available at the start of the game. When you complete major plot points, a couple of new systems will open up. I've gotten into a new rhythm now where, when a new system opens, I'll arrive; I'll scan in the first cluster once or twice, until the Reaper alert level is above the halfway point; if there are other clusters available, I'll fly to those. I'll scan and try to find resources. If the Reapers arrive, I'll keep flying in and out of the system to evade them, constantly scanning and trying to locate the remaining resources. I WON'T try to collect anything after the Reapers arrive, just find where they are. I'll then return to the first cluster and do the same thing, trying to find everything even if the Reapers are chasing me. At the end, I'll relay out of the system. I'll do this for all the new systems, then get down to doing all the side-quests I've found (most of which start from the Citadel, a couple of which come over vid-com from the Admiral). Any side-quest that involves an away team will globally re-set Reaper awareness, so I can then go back to all the systems I'd previously visited and easily acquire all the resources I had previously marked.
Oh, and from the Miser's Notes department: landing at the Citadel will always refill your fuel, for free. I was a huge cheapskate early in the game, so I would do this between scouting systems to avoid paying at fuel stations. I'm now finally at a point where I'll happily spend the 1000 credits to avoid a 30-second interlude at the Citadel.
Storywise, here are some
I am seriously loving how all the choices you've made throughout the previous games have been carried forward. Way back at the end of the first game, you have to make a choice: with the Citadel under attack, and the Council's ship under fire by the Geth, should you direct the human Alliance navy to intervene and save them, or stay out of the fight and preserve their strength? I had chosen to save the Council, in the interests of furthering galactic cooperation and security. Well, now that we're facing down the final war against the Reapers, I'm reviewing my War Assets and seeing that the Alliance hasn't fully recovered from all the ships they lost in the fight; they've lost about one-third of their strength from before. As a result, the galaxy is in a worse position to fight the Reapers. Granted, I've saved the Council, but I've been extremely disappointed in their behavior in the last two games; they didn't acknowledge the Reaper threat until it was too late, and now that Earth is under attack, they refuse to commit their own resources to help defend it. If I knew then what I know now, I might have let their ship go down, Paragon be damned.
Andrew explained what was going on with my mixed-success rescue attempt in ME2. Apparently, it IS possible to both do Legion's quest and save Chambers and Gabby and the rest of the crew. You need to get the Reaper IFF, then IMMEDIATELY do Legion's quest, and then IMMEDIATELY go through the relay. In my case, I had already done all of the other side-quests before the IFF, so the only mission I did was Legion, BUT I made the mistake of stopping at the Citadel first. I had hypothesized (correctly) that this was my last chance to spend all the credits I'd accumulated, so I went on one last spending trip. However, visiting the Citadel counts as a mission, and so picking up those last few items cost half my crew their lives. Argh. (Apparently, there's strong evidence on the disc that earlier versions of the game had Legion join your party fairly early on; they moved him back to near the end later on, which put added pressure on your race to save your compatriots.) Now that I know, I kind of want to go back and re-do the end of ME2, but I'm far enough along in ME3 now that I won't. It has certainly added a strong sense of loss and sadness to the story.
Galactic politics are pretty intense. Earth and Palaven, the Turian homeworld, are both under heavy attack by the Reapers; the Salarians and Asari have so far avoided most of the attention, but their time is coming. The Asari have perplexingly disengaged from the process, not even attending a summit meant to discuss military cooperation. I've come to like the Turians more and more throughout the series, which I think is fairly reflective of the ways that humans see them within the story. The Turians were the original bogeymen, the scary aliens that killed humans; we've passed through the rough start of the First Contact War, through a cold peace, through envy in power-sharing and representation at the Citadel, through cautious cooperation in constructing the original Normandy, to now being brothers in arms against a common foe. (There's a funny and really excellent conversation later in the game between Garrus and Joker up in the cockpit, with each telling jokes about the other species. "What's the hardest part of treating a Turian who took a rocket to the face? Figuring out which side of the face the rocket hit." "Why does the Alliance hire cripples as pilots? So their marines can beat someone in hand-to-hand drills.")
That said, while the Turians and humanity are united in recognizing the threat and willing to work together, they're also overstretched and neither side can come to the other's aid. The new Turian negotiator has a suggestion, though: bring the Krogan, the galaxy's most feared warriors, in to relieve pressure on Palaven; that will free the Turian fleet to assist Earth. Which is a fine idea, since Krogans love a fight... but, there's the little matter of the fact that the Turians created the Genophage, a genetic virus that sterilized most of the Krogan population and came close to extinguishing the species. My buddy Wrex is a progressive guy, but he's certainly not happy about the Genophage, and he isn't afraid to use the dire circumstances to improve his own negotiating position: he'll only help the Turians if they cure the Genophage.
I was actually really into this; I was a little bummed way back in ME1 when you didn't have any option to rescue Saren's own genophage cure, so I was looking forward to doing it properly. Few others share my enthusiasm, though. The genophage was created for a reason, and most people, especially the Salarian negotiator, take a hard line against it. Assuming that the galaxy can defeat the Reapers, they would then be left in a weakened position, while a resurgent Krogan empire would easily be able to conquer everything in their path. From the Salarian perspective, without the Krogan there's a chance to beat the Reapers; with the Krogan, that chance might be slightly improved, but there's no chance of surviving the Krogan after the war.
Once again, I'm amazed at all the contingency in the plot... the saga of the genophage cure was really exciting and gripping, and it's hard to imagine that other people might be playing the game with very different circumstances. What if Wrex hadn't survived Virmire? What if Moridin had perished in the suicide mission against the Collectors? What if I hadn't convinced Moridin to save his erstwhile partner's data records on his own genophage cure? Was Moridin now willing to reverse the genophage because I hounded him so relentlessly in ME2 about his complicity in the modification program?
Moridin is the first former team member (not counting non-squad people like Chambers) to have died in the game, and it was really moving. I love how true to himself he stays throughout his whole storyline. Near the end, I'd asked him what made him change his mind. His response was something like, "Never changed mind. New circumstances, new outcomes. Only I could do it. Someone else would do it wrong." He's surprisingly matter-of-fact about sacrificing his life to save another species. I got a lump in my throat when he said "Would have enjoyed classifying seashells," and of course loved his final humming of Gilbert & Sullivan.
But, yeah... contingency. I can't even imagine how that whole sequence would have played out if those people weren't around. I assume the game would have introduced a new character to play the role? Or maybe some off-screen Salarian would have synthesized the cure, and I would have delivered it myself? And who would lead the Urdnot if not Wrex? Would the female be into them? The mind boggles.
The Salarian ambassador was quite upset at me for following through with the genophage cure, but asked me to return to the Citadel to discuss matters. Once I arrived, the moment I'd kind of been expecting ever since Mass Effect 1 came to pass: Councilor Udina betrayed the Citadel. (Seriously, this was broadcast pretty heavily, in both ME1 and ME2. Once again, though, I wonder how the story would have been different if I had supported Udina over Anderson at the end of ME1.) That said, I wasn't expecting the details of what happened, although in retrospect it makes a lot of sense: Udina is secretly allied with Cerberus, who have shown their true colors now. Near the start of the game, they had launched an attack on Mars, where the Alliance and Liara were analyzing Prothean data. As the Illusive Man has always said, Cerberus's goal is the protection and elevation of mankind: in his twisted logic, this doesn't mean simply defending against the Reapers, but learning from them, acquiring their technology and knowledge, in order to create a superior human race to rule the galaxy. Udina, with his prickly humanity-first attitude, seems like a reasonable candidate for this philosophy. Still, the attack itself is quite breathtaking. It isn't the first time the Citadel has been the site of a battle, but it's the first time that it's been betrayed from within, and the fighting through the Presidium feels unusually gruesome.
There are also plenty of quiet moments along the way, and I think I like those even more than the (very cool!) epic battles. I think my favorite so far has been a conversation with Liara in my quarters. Liara is a long-lived individual, whose life has been (mostly) devoted to studying a race that disappeared 50,000 years ago, and so her mind works at a different scale than most others. She knows from history that it took the Reapers several centuries to finish wiping out the Protheans, and since she's only one hundred years old, she could easily live to see the end of civilization. She also knows that the only reason there's hope for the galaxy now is because the last Protheans ensured that knowledge of the Reapers and a possible means to fight them would last those 50,000 years after they were gone. And so, while the war is still in its early stages, she is putting together a time capsule that explains the legacy the galaxy is leaving behind for its next generation. She has finished most of it already, and wants to include a section describing you. I said that I would leave the description up to her, which led to a really sweet, touching, and technically astonishing hagiography from her about Shepard. It perfectly reflected my conception of the character, based on specific aspects of my story but also more generally her attitudes and values. She even mentioned my skill as an engineer. So, that was cool, but what's really impressive is how seamless and natural it felt. There are probably, I dunno, maybe something like six factors that would contribute to that simple little speech from her, and all of those could vary independently of one another depending on your character's background and choices. That might mean somewhere on the magnitude of 2000 different versions that scene could take! And I'm not even sure how the romance factor plays into it - would I have seen it at all if I hadn't been romancing Liara? Or would there have been a little less tenderness from her? Anyways... it's just the latest in an astonishing series of great storytelling examples from Bioware.
I am a bit surprised at how few squad members I have; I've been playing the game for a while, and only have four potential companions. There's a biotic who I always take, a tech specialist who I'd like to take but is redundant with my engineer skillset, a fighter who I dislike and leave behind, and a fighter/tech member who I would usually take, but who I'm almost positive could have been killed in the previous game (which would have left me with only three members!). I'm pretty sure that I'll be picking up at least one more member in the near future, but still, that's a pretty paltry lineup. By this point in the first game I'd picked up all 6 potential squad members, and by this point in the second game I had acquired 7 of an eventual 11 members. I hope that my field increases soon, but I'm already preparing for the possibility of the smallest group of companions yet, and wondering if I've inadvertently missed some recruitment options along the way.
This game gets more and more addictive the more I play it. Unlike SW:TOR or Civilization, there's a definite end in sight, and I'm already wondering how hard it will feel once I reach the story's conclusion. I have a really hard time leaving behind well-loved stories like Lord of the Rings or Snow Crash, and I get the feeling that I'll want to continue spending time in this universe even after the game ends.