Thursday, July 19, 2012


Here we head into the final stretch of Mass Effect 3!

Non-spoiler comments:

ME3 was by far the least-buggy game of the series. I didn't have trouble with enemies getting into unreachable areas or myself getting stuck outside the environment. In the whole game, I only encountered one game-breaking glitch that required a re-load: there's one spot in the cockpit where, after you talk with someone, you get stuck to the floor and can't move. That happened to me once, near the very end of the game, so you might want to save before heading there.

I don't think I've mentioned this in the previous post, but my experience of ME3 combat has been much faster and more exciting than in the previous two games. That's largely due to a change in the way I've been playing the game, though that change was prompted by some incentives in ME3. All of the ME games have allowed you to pause the action at any time, which lets you survey the battlefield, line up shots, trigger powers, or just take a break. In ME1 and ME2, I paused frequently during battles, and usually would pause every time I used a power. In ME3, I went through the whole game without pausing at all, except when using Medi-Gel. A good part of this is because of the training I'd received by playing ME3 multiplayer. Multiplayer lets you bring up the HUD, but it doesn't actually pause the action, so you learn real quickly not to press Left Shift during a game. Also, power recharge times seem much faster in ME3. Carrying a lightweight weapon, with fully-evolved trees, I could fire off an Incinerate blast about every other second. That would have been incredibly tedious to pause for each time. In contrast, in ME1 powers seemed to have much longer cool-down times, and each power was also on its own separate timer, so at the start of a fight I'd typically pause, unleash six powers (from myself and my companions), then proceed with the fight, stopping a couple of times a minute as powers were refreshed. I really like ME3's approach, which feels more exciting and also helps the game move along more quickly, lessening the time between the awesome plot moments that are my favorite parts of the game.


I really liked the game, including the ending.  My self-imposed media ban protected me from most spoilers, but it was impossible to avoid seeing the headlines like "Fans demand improved ending to Mass Effect 3" that have shown up on various tech publications over the last few months. I'm playing with the "Extended Cut" installed, so I can't speak to the original ending. I would describe myself as "satisfied". Keep in mind that I also liked the endings to Battlestar Galactica and Lost, two other long-running franchises with notoriously controversial conclusions, and that several of my favorite authors (Neal Stephenson and Haruki Murakami) often place very little emphasis on traditional endings in their books.

Anyways... if you're on the fence about starting the trilogy or the third game because you aren't sure if it's worth it, I'll encourage you to go for it.


I know I sound like a broken record, but I'm constantly amazed at the large and complex role that wholly contingent actors have within the ME3 story. I'd mentioned previously that I ran into Miranda on the Citadel, and after a chat, sent her off in pursuit of her sister. I'd just assumed that this would be, at most, a side-mission, and possibly just one of those simple social interactions that eventually gives you some Reputation and War Assets. Nope. It turns out that Miranda's father, who had abducted Oriana after I had gone to such lengths to thwart him in ME2, is secretly working for Cerberus. It certainly makes a good amount of sense: Cerberus is dedicated to human supremacy, and Mr. Lawson is obsessed with establishing his legacy. So, what I had thought was a twig in my storyline ended up feeding directly into the main branch: Kai Leng had gone to meet Miranda's father after our encounter on Thessia.

Mr. Lawson is based on Sanctuary, a place that has been whispered about through most of the game, but always in a vague, mysterious way. Civilians view it as a refuge from the war: the Citadel is in a sense more safe, because it's more heavily guarded, but that military presence also makes it a target. Sanctuary keeps a very low profile, and so refugees flock there in the hopes that they can avoid the attention of the Reapers.

Once you arrive, you quickly learn the truth: Sanctuary is actually a Cerberus lab. Worse, it was a lab where Mr. Lawson, working for the Illusive Man, was researching Reaper technology, using the unsuspecting human refugees as guinea pigs for their experiments. As you penetrate further into the lab, you encounter horrifying examples: screaming people being turned into Husks, a Reaper grimly encased within an observation room (along with several more on the loose), lots of recordings about the success and failure of their experiments. Practically everyone was harvested in some way: many were Indoctrinated and sent to the Illusive Man, the rest used as fodder for Mr. Lawson's experiments.

As you move through the facility, you also see recordings of Miranda's earlier progress; she is trying to shut down the complex's jamming tower so she can broadcast a warning for all civilians to stay away. Everything is in chaos: instead of fighting your way through a Cerberus army like you might have expected, you are fighting the Reapers who arrived shortly before you and decimated Cerberus. This is welcome, if puzzling, news; up until now it seemed that Cerberus and the Reapers were happy to stay away from each other while they wore down the Council systems; now, something has changed to set them at each other's throats. Miranda helps you discover the reason. Mr. Lawson's early experiments were about embedding Reaper advances into human forces, and included the ability to remotely control the actions of freshly created husks. However, the Illusive Man is now pushing it to the next level, and researching how to actually take control of existing Reaper forces. Essentially, he'll be able to claim the Reaper army for his own. That would be a huge coup, and once the Reapers found what he was up to, they moved in to destroy that knowledge.

The confrontation with Mr. Lawson was a dramatic if somewhat conventional hostage stand-off; he has wounded Miranda and is threatening to kill his own daughter Oriana. I used my Paragon sense of reason to appeal to him - "I don't care about you. I just want you to let Oriana go and help me find Kai Leng. It's better than me shooting you." He hesitated, then complied. Miranda had no such hesitation, and used a sweet biotic blast to hurl him through a window and down to his death. Ah, patricide. Anyways... as usual, I'm left wondering just how this whole mission could have played out if Miranda had died during the suicide mission in ME2. Would Oriana have fulfilled the role of guide? Would we have even seen Mr. Lawson, or would they have gotten rid of that element of the plot altogether? I feel like what I'm seeing is the "best", most complete version of the story, but it's intriguing to think of all the parallel universes out there in which things played out just a little differently.

I was happy to see that ME3 has a very explicit demarcation point between the "free roam and do what you want" portion of the game and the committed endgame. Admiral Hackett basically says, "Once we launch our attack on the Cerberus base, we won't stop until we reach Earth." In other words, wrap up those side-quests and promote your ME3 MP characters, because your war assets are about to get counted! (I ended up with around 7300 in my counter, at 100% readiness, which includes 375 from promoted MP characters, and nothing from DLC like From Ashes. I feel like that's probably close to the maximum, but still only gets described as "Chances of success are about even.") I didn't have a single other quest in my log, so I made one last pass through the Citadel to make sure that nothing new had popped open (evidently I hadn't learned my lesson from ME2 about visiting the Citadel prior to the final mission) and then took a deep breath and launched our own version of D-Day.

Like in ME1, there's a cinematic interlude right before the start of the final push, where you and your lover spend a bit of quiet down-time. For me, it was Liara both times. It was nice, and a bit tamer than I was expecting, more so than the earlier scene with Traynor. It felt natural, though, and very comfortable, which is fitting given the long connection between Shepard and Liara and the deep trust between them.

At the Cerberus base, it feels like your side has the upper hand for once. The entire Alliance fleet has shown up and is pounding the station into submission. You lead a team inside, and make your way to the center, where the catalyst should be held. There's all sorts of awesome stuff along the way: for example, early on they lock shut the bulkhead doors, so you SMASH A SPACE SHUTTLE into them to clear a path. You also walk through an enormous, cavernous power-supply center, where the space station apparently acquires its power from a Reaper heart that Cerberus recovered from the wreckage of the Collector base. (Presumably, if I had elected to save the base, that would have become the Cerberus station?)

Finally, I stepped into the Illusive Man's "office". That was a really cool feeling: it was one of the very first scenes in Mass Effect 2, was repeatedly shown in ME2 and occasionally visible in ME3, and now, for the first time ever, I was actually there in person. The Illusive Man is also there, but ironically, this time he is the hologram. We trade barbs for a while, and then he lets the bombshell drop: the Catalyst isn't a secret formula, or a hidden artifact. The Catalyst is the Citadel! Yep, the enormous, friendly space station that has been the center of action for the entire trilogy. I was not expecting that, but it does make a certain amount of sense. The galaxy assumes that the Citadel was built by the Protheans, but I'd learned from their VI at the end of ME1 that it was actually constructed by the Reapers, so it makes sense that, in a way, the Prothean's plan was to use Reaper technology and strength against their own selves.

Since the Illusive Man wasn't there in person, I settled for killing his minion instead: Kai Leng. Kai is an incredibly hate-able villain; between killing my buddy Thane and embarrassing me on Thessia, he's been the most personal opponent I've faced since Saren. (Harbinger in ME2 always seemed very remote and abstract; the Illusive Man is the nominal villain of ME3, but his charisma and remoteness made it hard for me to direct pure hate his way.) The fight with Kai was pretty hard; I rarely needed to re-play anything in this game, but it took three tries for me to defeat him. The room got pretty crowded: Kai was jumping around, and he summoned multiple Phantoms and Cerberus centurions; on my side, I had EDI and Liara, and spawned my Combat Drone, Defense Drone, and Sentry Turret. All of this was happening in an increasingly distressed room, with large craters punched up by Kai. At last I beat him down, and had some grim satisfaction at his end. (Though I did refrain from the Renegade action, I still got to see an up-close execution in the cut-scene.)

The Illusive Man has effectively betrayed the human race to the Reapers: they now know the importance of the Citadel, and so they have forcibly taken it, actually physically moving it from its standard location in Inner Council Space to the center of fiercest fighting, outside Earth. With an entire Reaper fleet surrounding it, the situation looks hopeless. But, this is the only chance that organics have. They have no chance of success in a war of attrition, so it's time to roll the dice: launch an all-out assault on the Reapers, bring in the Crucible from its secret construction space, try to free the Citadel from Reaper control and hook it in to the Crucible so we can blast them all before it's too late.

So, the last priority comes about as Priority: Earth! It felt really cool to finally head there. We had a brief visit to Luna back in ME1, but for the most part, I've been impressed by what a low profile Earth has in the game. You really get the sense that humanity has started to transcend its ties to a single planet: even the Alliance isn't headquartered on Earth, but rather on Arcturus Station, located in entirely different system (albeit one closely linked to Sol via mass relay). That said, Earth still holds a great deal of significance as the birthplace of the human race, and staging the Mass Effect series finale there packs an extra emotional whallop.

Earth also provides a better glimpse at exactly what the Reapers are up to. I'm used to confronting them militarily, but when they have finished conquering a planet as they have on Earth, they commence their harvesting operations. They indoctrinated the planet's leaders, who in turn encouraged their citizens to peacefully enter the Reaper's ships, where they are, um, ground up into mulch to create a new Reaper. Pretty macabre. Captain Anderson has been leading a guerilla fight against them since the very first mission in ME3, and we finally get to meet back up again. The resistance has had some small success by adjusting their tactics: they have abandoned the major population centers and are roaming the less-populous areas, carrying out hit-and-run strikes to try and disrupt Reaper operations. In some very vague ways, the situation reminds me of a very scary version of the Tripod Trilogy, with indoctrination replacing the metal caps, and harvesting being the ultimate goal instead of a kind of benign form of slavery.

The Citadel has been grounded in London, so I led a small team out there. For these last missions, I swapped out Ashley for Garrus; Ashley is probably technically a better fighter, but I liked Garrus so much and wanted him to be here for the end. (There's no Shepard without Vakarian!) We met up with Earth resistance fighters, who had some pretty cool British accents. I also learned that Captain Anderson was born in London. (Awkward pause.) The fighting here was pretty challenging and intense. You can't directly call in air support, so you need to work with a group of tanks and missiles to bring out the heavy firepower that will bring down Reaper guards around the Citadel. I died a few times in some especially hairy fights, with multiple Banshees teleporting around an extremely well-designed, bleakly beautiful rubble-strewn warzone. In the end, I had to fight off the enemies for long enough for EDI to bring the missile's targeting system back on-line, then sprinted through them to slam the button and launch it off.

The resistance forces have been practically annihilated by this point; I'm not sure if it's possible to save more of them if you finish your job quickly enough, but it seemed like every thirty seconds or so I'd hear another panicked report over the radio: "Charlie Company is gone!" "Bravo Team has been defeated!" Sad stuff.

Oh, yeah... I think I'm conflating several parts of the London missions here, for which I apologize. Anyways, at one point you spend a few minutes in the resistance camp, where you can walk around and say your final good-byes to everyone. This includes all of the regular suspects from the current Normandy crew, but, in a thoughtful touch, you can also connect with many of your old pals via a holographic vidcom. I loved checking in one last time with Jack, Miranda, Grunt, Samara, Jacob, and the rest of my old pals. (Even Zaeed was less annoying than usual.) Even better, I got to see Wrex in person, as he exhorted a squadron of Krogan going into battle, invoking their glory in the Rachni War. There were some particularly touching moments with EDI and Liara.

Anyways. Once you bring down the Reaper protections, you have a chance to make a run at the Citadel. A literal run. While big aliens shoot at you from the sky. Many epic explosions occurred. Liara got hit by a tumbling tank, so I called in the Normandy shuttle for a quick medical evacuation. Garrus helped Liara onto the shuttle, over her objections: she said she was fine, she wanted to keep going. We exchanged brief and (on her end) tearful declarations of love, then I turned and continued my run in. (Again: contingency! This is a scene that would only play out if I was romancing someone AND had happened to bring them along on my squad for the final approach. Too strange.)

You're super-close to the entrance, and then, WHAM - a punishing strike annihilates all the surviving members of the strike force. Fade to black. In orbit, the Alliance reacts grimly to the news of failure.

And now, the ending starts. And it is very weird.

Somehow, you have survived the blast, but just barely. For the rest of the game, you weakly and slowly limp your way forward, dragging a damaged leg behind you. You still hold a pistol, but only slowly and shakily bring it out. Your vision and hearing aren't great, which leads to an almost supernatural sensation. Realizing that the Reapers have abandoned everyone for dead, you slowly, painfully start your final advance. A lone figure crawls its way towards you, then expires face-down in the dirt. You stumble and fall to your knees. Just to be clear: this isn't a cut-scene, all of it is happening under your control, but a much diminished control than you've been experiencing through the prior part of the game.

Upon reaching the glowing light, you are... kind of sucked in, I guess, to the Citadel. Someone, somehow receives notice that you have made it inside, and Hackett reacts with relieved surprise. The combined navies renew their assault, hoping to buy you enough time to release the locks on the Citadel so its arms can be opened and it can join with the Catalyst.

Incredibly enough, you aren't the only one to make it inside: Anderson has somehow made it as well, though he's emerged in a different area. You gradually limp your way through mounds and mounds of dead human bodies. The Reapers have moved their harvesting operation here, evidently, and are trying to resume the activity you interrupted at the end of ME2. You are in the Citadel, but other than a stray Keeper who is reclaiming clothing from the bodies, nothing looks familiar. (Incidentally, I bet that players new to the Mass Effect series have no idea what to make of the Keepers. They are far less prominent now than they were in ME1; I think there's only a single Keeper you see on the Citadel prior to this, and nobody directly refers to them.)

You maintain your radio link with Anderson, who is a ways farther ahead from you. You both arrive at a large, circular, central chamber. You aren't alone: the Illusive Man has arrived as well. In a video from the Cerberus base, you had seen him tell a physician to proceed with "the procedure" on him, and now you see the results: he is transformed, visibly enmeshed with some kind of synthetic material. He looks monstrous, but one imagines that he views himself as more highly evolved.

He also wields the technology that Cerberus had discovered: Control. He had the ability to compel others to follow his will. This is demonstrated when he forces you to pull out your pistol, and shoot Anderson in the gut. Yikes.

A long, involved conversation then plays out. The Illusive Man seems to still believe that he is advancing humanity's interest, but with enough aggressive conversation options, you can stir up some serious cognitive dissonance in him. It's hard to look at the evidence and not conclude that he is, in fact, bringing about the end of humanity. By this point in the game, I had almost completely abandoned my Paragon leanings, and was aggressively pursuing Renegade options in the hopes of expediting an end to the war. The Illusive Man, disillusioned and desperate, tried to strike out at Anderson, but I interrupted him with a blast to the head. It was pretty grim.

Free at last to use the controls, we opened the arms of the Citadel, and it welcomed the entrance of the Crucible, in a not-at-all-phallic cut-scene. Anderson and I, both dying, shared a moment of satisfaction that we had done our jobs and it would soon be over. And THEN, that annoying blabbermouth Hackett started whining. "Shepard! It isn't working! Why isn't it woooooorkiiiiiiing? Wah, I'm sad because my weapon isn't killing the bad guys. You need to keep doing stuff, since you haven't done enough already!"

That's when stuff gets even weirder.

Remember that annoying little kid that you kept dreaming about? Well, he's here. Turns out that he is the actual force behind the Reapers. Furthermore, he, and not the Citadel, is the actual Catalyst that we've been looking for.

At last, we get a clear explanation of what's been happening for the last several million years, and it's pretty fascinating. Eons ago, a highly advanced civilization created a powerful AI. They foresaw that there would be endless conflict between synthetics and organics. Organics, who want to make their lives better, would inevitably invent synthetics to assist them; in order to maximize the potential of synthetics, they would eventually create synthetics capable of self-learning; these synthetics, in turn, would pursue their self-evolution and eventually eclipse their creators. The outcome would always be conflict, which the synthetics would eventually win.

This ancient civilization tasked the AI with finding a solution, and it came up with an innovative one. Over their protest, it turned them into the first Reaper. (I LOVE how subtly and matter-of-factly the AI/little-boy drops this bombshell. It's a HUGE confession, and a jarring addition to the story that you think you're hearing, but it's dropped in the middle of the flow and you never get a chance to really wrap your head around it.) It then began a process that has kept the galaxy "safe" ever since. Whenever civilizations are getting so advanced that they are at risk of creating powerful synthetics, the Reapers will arrive and harvest them. It draws a strict distinction between genocide and harvesting: each harvested civilization still lives on, its DNA embedded within a unique Reaper.

This finally explains so much of what's been vague and confusing from the beginning of the series. We've always heard that the Reapers are synthetic, but they are also organic. That's because they are built by machines, and they ARE machines, but they are built FROM living matter.

I also enjoyed this revelation because it draws a heavy underscore under an aspect of the game that I had thought was most fascinating, and had also thought was kind of a side-plot: the war between Quarian and Geth. We now learn that this isn't a singular event, but the latest manifestation of a cyclical problem. That, in turn, makes me even more elated that I was able to cut the Gordian knot and get the two of them reconciled. My actions (and theirs) directly contradict what I'm hearing from the reaper AI, and shows that there is hope for breaking the cycle.

And, in fact, that's what he says. The harvest cycle has continued through countless iterations, but the idea for the Crucible was developed several cycles ago; he thought that it had been destroyed previously, when in fact it has finally reached completion. This is the first time that the AI has seen convincing evidence that there could be another solution than the one it has imposed. The variables have changed, and so can the outcome.

He then talks you through your options. (It's pretty nifty that someone who is, basically, God is leaving this up to you. That doesn't exactly feel realistic, but it does feel earned.) You can tap the power of the Crucible to destroy the Reapers. That's what Hackett and the others have assumed it will do. Doing this will win the war, but at a huge cost: it doesn't distinguish between different types of synthetics, so it will also wipe out all of the Geth, and destroy most advanced technology, including the Mass Relays. Furthermore, since you yourself are largely synthetic (thanks to Cerberus's reconstruction), you are unlikely to survive.

Secondly, you can opt for Control. This is what the Illusive Man had planned to do, although he could never have pulled it off since he himself was already under Reaper control. You will need to sacrifice your body to do it, but your essence will then be capable of directing the Reapers to do your bidding.

Finally, he said, there was a new option: Synthesis. Since you yourself are a blend of synthetic and organic, you can tap the power of the Crucible to change life itself, erasing the barrier between organic and inorganic life. Organic races will gain the collective consciousness and vast memories of synthetics; synthetics will become capable of emotion and self-determination. He carefully emphasized that this was the best outcome.

So, I did it. Woo! Shepard died, which is sad (that was the one option that didn't explicitly say that it would lead to death, which briefly let me get my hoped up), but it seemed to be by far the best outcome for everyone. You see the war waging on Earth, looking desperate, when the green glow from the Crucible starts to change everyone. Formerly mindless, ravening Husks now cautiously appraise humans. Giant Reaper ship-creatures voluntarily lift off, abandoning their destruction. It isn't limited to Earth, either: we see Asari, Krogan, all races united with slightly-creepy-but-mostly-cool glowing green eyes.

On the Normandy, Joker frantically flies through the space between mass relays, seeking to outrun the encroaching transformation. It is hopeless, and the ship is overcome. That's for the best, though! On a bucolic, isolated planet, we see an evolved Joker - with a new gaze, but also an upright back and confident stride - step out of the Normandy. And who is there by his side? EDI! And she's smiling! And they're embracing! It's a glorious future, folks.

My personal favorite part of the ending, though, actually comes from a still image, where we see Geth and Quarian together on Rannoch. The artists at Bioware must have heard my plea, because at long last, we finally see a Quarian with her face-mask off! Granted, it's a kind of coy picture, seen from an obtuse angle, but enough to get a rough idea of her features. That made me incredibly happy.

And then, some sadness. On the Normandy, my own name gets added to the memorial wall, below that of Captain Anderson. Liara adds the plaque, and breaks down, crying, to be comforted by EDI. My decision was for the best, but that still hurts those left behind.

After the credits was a nice little tease: tiny silhouetted figures looking at an alien sky are discussing "The Shepard." There's an old man and a young boy. We hear that there are many stories of The Shepard, and we've heard just one of them. In other words, feel free to play the game again! Try being a different class, romance a different partner, be more of a Paragon or a Renegade than before! I later found out that the old man was voiced by Buzz Aldrin, which is incredibly cool, and ties in the Mass Effect saga with the wonder of our own age.

So, now that it's all done, what do I think of Mass Effect 3? It's pretty darn awesome! It's one of the most epic games that I've played, using the more proper meaning of "epic" as a long tale of a heroic figure. It's set in a rich, complex, well thought-out universe, the sort of setting where I can have a lot of fun just learning more about my surroundings and history even if I'm not progressing in the game itself. There's a vast set of characters, and they are remarkably well constructed. They're rich enough that I think players can have very different reactions to some of the people - some will view the Illusive Man as a tragic figure, while others will see him as a pure villain; some people will admire Miranda's resourcefulness while others will be irritated by her unfair advantages in life.

Bioware definitely sets the gold standard for voice acting in video games. I can't think of another game that's had close to this amount of dialog, and other than Portal, no other game has had the same quality of acting.

What does Mass Effect have to say for video games as an art form? Looking back on Mass Effect, I think that in a lot of ways it feels similar to a long-running serialized TV drama. One interesting difference between TV dramas and movies is that a TV show just has so much more time to work with, and so it can actually depict characters evolving; in a movie, characters almost always need to stay fairly consistent. TV shows also can devote more time to world-building, to mythology, and indulge in the side-paths that may not directly relate to the main plot but contribute to the impression that they depict inhabiting a fully-realized world. For all those reasons, I think Mass Effect has more in common with, say, Battlestar: Galactica than it does with Star Wars.

The crucial component of the art of the video game, of course, is that the viewer has agency. This is what separates it from all other forms of art. I'm currently reading Scott McCloud's seminal book "Understanding Comics," and one of the crucial aspects of comics that he underscores is the importance of "closure". Closure is when our mind fills in the gaps between two discrete points. So, for example, if we see one panel where a man is seated, and an adjacent panel where the man is standing, our mind automatically (and largely subconsciously) inserts the idea of the man getting up from the chair in between those two panels. Because of this, comics require more active participation from the viewer than a movie does, since the movie provides the full set of visual data; conversely, I'd argue that a comic requires less participation from the reader than a novel does, since the reader of a novel must visualize all characters on his own.

If I were to hazard a guess at the role of viewer participation in different art forms, from least to most, I think it would look something like this:
Movie/TV -> Music -> Play -> Comic -> Fine Art/Sculpture -> Novel -> Video game

The first three items all move at a constant pace that we have no control over; the latter four rely on us to progress and decide when we're finished. Music contains no immediate visual content, which gives us more freedom in determining our reaction. (Personally, I rarely visualize scenes when I listen to an album, but that does happen sometimes with groups like Sigur Ros; more often, it generates an emotional response, and the intensity of that response depends on how closely I'm paying attention to the music.) For movies and TV shows, we are slaves to the eye of the camera, and must see what the director wants us to see; for a theatrical play, we are in control of our own eyes, and we can roam across the set, directing our focus where we want. A comic puts us in charge of making progress, and relies on us to provide explanations of how each scene relates to the adjacent ones. A painting or sculpture shows us a single moment, frozen in time, and requires us to create a context for it. A novel, in contrast, covers an extremely long period of time, and can provide a great deal of textual detail, but requires us to invent the scenery.

A video game can give us the same sort of audio, visual, and textual stimulus that we receive from movies and comics, but out of all these art forms, it's the only one where the CONTENT of the art is reliant on the viewer. In primitive games, this doesn't mean very much; you can experience the story where the plumber reaches the top and defeats the gorilla, or you can experience the story where the plumber is hit by a barrel and falls to his death. In the best video games, though, this can lead to incredibly complex and richly engaging works. Sometimes, as in Portal, there is a single story to tell, and the player's actions are a simple participation that brings it along. No two players will play Portal exactly the same, but all of them will experience the same story. Mass Effect is a powerful demonstration of the broader, branching potential of video games: emergent storytelling, with powerful combinations that allow the viewer to actually create the art. No two players will play Mass Effect exactly the same, and there are thousands upon thousands of different stories to experience.

I've been over-simplifying the divisions between art forms in my statements above; you can have written works like Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories that give a similar sort of branching storytelling possibility, and there are exciting examples of modern theater and art installations that deeply involve the viewer as a participant and not a consumer. For video games, though, participation is mandatory, the key component of the form. There has already been some incredible experimentation with the implications of this, especially considering that this medium is only about forty years old. Games like Rez draw on synesthesia to engage the player along more sensory axes than we are accustomed. Some old-school adventure games like Monkey Island would play around with breaking the fourth wall and occasionally directly addressing the player. There are whole classes of games like Minecraft and Little Big Planet that make the participant an actual creator, constructing amazing things from the tools the developers provided. (That's part of why I loved the third-from-last episode of Community so hard. The idea of using the tools within a game to evolve the game is edgy and meta, but it's also what many game creators are doing right now.)

Bringing it back to Mass Effect... Mass Effect isn't truly revolutionary in its approach to storytelling in a video game, but it arguably represents the most highly evolved form of that art. It draws on the best that other mediums have to offer, most noticeably in its appropriation of cinematography from movies and blocking from theater. It draws a wide canvas like a long novel or long-running serial TV show, but what's exciting about it is that the canvas divides and goes in different directions depending on the whims of the player. It bifurcates, then splits into tributaries, some of which rejoin and others which carry on and grow larger. Bioware didn't create a story for Mass Effect, they created a multiverse, where every conceivable permutation of all your decisions can play out. It's a pretty stunning achievement.

On a more prosaic level: it's a bittersweet story. It's extremely rare (though not unprecedented) for a video game to end with the death of the hero. Many sad aspects of the game are unavoidable, even though it feels like they should be contingent: Captain Anderson and Thane will always die, no matter what, and Moridin will almost certainly die as well. There's more good than bad at the end of the game, so in that sense it's a story of success, but it's a success that feels very hard-earned.

How would I compare this to other Bioware games? In terms of scope, I think it compares very favorably to my beloved Baldur's Gate cycle. As much as I loved the characters in that game, I think the Mass Effect characters are even better formed and more thoroughly realized. One interesting and very visible difference between ME and their fantasy series (Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age) is the difference between having a well-defined character you play (Shepard) and creating your own character largely from scratch (the Bhaalspawn / Gray Warden). Shepard is fully voice-acted, where the other protagonists were silent. This does create a sense of separation; I didn't really feel like I "was" Shepard in the same way that I felt like I "was" Cirion the Bard in Baldur's Gate or Seberin the Dwarf Commoner Thief in Dragon Age. The trade-off is that Jennifer Hale is much better at expressing her character's emotions than I am at my own. I hesitate to say that one approach is better than another, but I do really like what they've done with this approach, and think ME is the best argument yet for making that sort of game.

General wrap-up:
Favorite music: There were lots of great themes in the game, many of which were subtle enough that I didn't realize they were themes until the third game. My favorite theme is probably the Normandy one. My favorite music might be the Afterlife dance music on Omega in ME2.
Favorite villain: It's a bit surprising how few pure villains are in this game: Saren for ME1, Harbinger for ME2, and the Illusive Man and Kai Leng for ME3. Of the set, I probably hated Kai the most, and thought the Illusive Man was the most interesting.
Favorite team-mate: Overall favorite for the series was Garrus; as I've noted before, he really grew on me as the series went on. For any particular game, though, it would have to be Moridin from ME2.
Least favorite team-mate: James from ME3, hands-down. I didn't hate him as much at the end as I did in the beginning, but he's the only team member (other than Zaeed) who I ever actively disliked.
Favorite recurring character: Man. Anderson is incredibly likeable. I might have to go with Aria, though... she rocks, and is one of the only mean Asari I encountered.
Favorite alien species: So hard to choose! Quarians are fascinating. Asari are alluring. I respect Turians. Volus are hilarious, as are Hanar. And then you have sentient trees. Hmmm... I guess I'll go with Asari.
Favorite move: Jumping over low cover objects. I finally figured out how to do this part-way through ME3, and now I do it whenever I can, including in multiplayer.
Favorite power: For the series, Sabotage/AI Hacking, which lets you take over an enemy robot and use it for yourself. I didn't use this in ME3, but have become a huge fan of Incinerate, which reliably does a lot of damage and can shoot around corners and over cover.
Favorite weapon: For multiplayer, Geth Plasma SMG. For singleplayer, any lightweight pistol.
Favorite class: Engineer. Ideally with a Salarian Infiltrator by your side!
Favorite planet: Virmire.
Favorite space station: Omega.
Funniest moment: Tie between Moridin's "I Am the Very Model of a Scientist Salarian" and the Salarian video-game merchant on the Citadel, both in ME2.
Most annoying mechanic: Scanning planets in ME2. Mako on ME1 was definitely more time-consuming, but less repetitive.
Favorite interrupt: Renegade interrupt on the Quarian admiral after he tries to blow up the ship with your team on it.
Best purchase: Space hamster
Favorite loyalty mission: Miranda's.
Most desired alternate romance: Traynor or Chambers.
Least important fact: Anderson was born in London.Favorite ship: Excluding the SR-2, probably the Destiny Ascension.
Cutest couple: Joker and EDI

And now, an epilogue...

I think I'll consider the "synthesis" ending as my canonical conclusion, but I was curious about the other endings, including the mythical "perfect" ending where Shepard lives. So, I went back and re-played the end. This takes a LONG time - you can't save after entering the Citadel, and the closest save is an auto-save right after you're hit by the Reaper beam outside. You don't have a very far distance to travel, but Shepard is moving incredibly slowly at that point, and there's a ton of un-skippable dialog. It was worth it, though, to see the other possible outcomes.

The second time I played, I went with all the Paragon dialog options for the Illusive Man. I was amazed to see that, at the end of this, he pulls out his gun and SHOOTS HIMSELF IN THE HEAD! Pretty amazing! It reminded me of my favorite moment from the finale of Battlestar: Galactica.

Finally, when talking with the Catalyst/AI/Ur-Reaper, I rejected all three of the options he presented me. He presses me - doing nothing is not an option. I respond that, as beings with free will, we need to win this fight on our own. His voice got demonic for a moment as he bellowed "SO BE IT!" This was a... poor decision. The Crucible powers down, and I watch sadly through the windows as the Reaper fleet destroys all the hope of the galaxy. This ending is much shorter, but has its own bittersweet charm. I see the result of that recording that Liara was making earlier, as she addresses future galactic civilizations with her own warning about the Reapers and how to prepare for them. Intriguingly, this ending has a different tag after the credits: the scene is largely the same, but instead of an elderly male figure, it's a tall female figure; it looks like she might be related to the Asari, although it's hard to tell from the small silhouette. We learn from her that, thanks to the efforts of "The Shepard," knowledge about how to fight the Reapers was passed down to later societies, and the next cycle was ready to fight them, and ultimately beat them. This is an intriguing ending on its own. Much sadder for everyone I've come to know and love, but nobly heroic in the very long run.

Well, that was an interesting ending, but hardly what I'd call "perfect," so I headed in once more. This time, when it came to the final choice, I opted for the rightward direction, which led to destroying the Reapers and all synthetic life. This is a much more Renegade-y choice, though frankly, Control feels just as Renegade to me. This ending played out somewhat like the Synthesis ending, with many similar scenes, but either subtle or large differences. The same battle is taking place on Earth, but instead of the Reapers laying down their arms, they are weakened and destroyed. A similar bolt of energy emerges from the Crucible and spreads via mass relays throughout the galaxy, but this one is red instead of green, and leaves destruction in its wake.

The Normandy still lands on the pretty, remote planet, but this time Joker limps out of the airlock. EDI isn't there for him; I've killed her through my actions, and her name will join others on the memorial wall. Instead, Liara is there to support him. Joker looks a little sad but not horribly so, and Liara's face shows a mixture of relief and wonder.

The outcome of this decision turns out to be quite a bit better than I had hoped. We learn that, yes, the relays were destroyed and we've lost a great deal, but everything we've lost can be rebuilt, and much more quickly than we had thought possible. It looks like the various species are still in contact with one another, and the coalition I had built in the run-up to the Reaper war is leading to a new framework for galactic peace. For better or worse, we are still truly human, still truly Turian and Asari and Salarian, and advancing our organic legacy directly into the future instead of co-opting Reaper technology.

I can't call this a "perfect" ending because of all that is lost. Besides EDI, the biggest casualty is the Geth. The ending doesn't dwell on this too much, but it seems kind of horrific to have wiped out a species that has long been sentient and only recently gained selfhood. Instead of that wonderful still image we saw before of Quarian and Geth side-by-side on a restoring Rannoch, we instead see a group of Quarians, still helmeted, in one of their standard environmentally protected areas. It's still an upbeat scene, but coming so soon after seeing the alternative, I keenly felt the loss.

The scene at the memorial wall plays out very subtly differently from before. The same group is there (minus EDI), and there's a sense of sadness, but not as strong as before. Liara still holds the plaque with Shepard's name, but she hesitates, and doesn't add it to the wall. Her face is... ambiguous. Does the Shadow Broker know something we don't? Cut to credits. Then the old man and the young boy, again. And, after that.... a brief image.... a body, clad in armor.... an N7 dogtag.... a sudden intake of breath! THE END!

Okay, I'll admit, I was expecting a little more from the "Shepard Lives" ending - you have to be reading a lot into that scene to think that she somehow survived that explosion. But, hey, she did it before!


I took a good number of screenshots from my ME1 game that I've been meaning to put up for a while, similar to what I did for SW:TOR. I'll try to caption and upload them soon.

Unfortunately, I got ME2 on DVD instead of Steam (mini-rant: why the heck are boxed copies of games always cheaper on Amazon than they are from digital services like Steam or Amazon Downloads? It should be the other way around!), and as a result I couldn't take any shots from that. ME3 also doesn't have a capture screenshot key (though, weirdly, the data folders on PC do include an empty folder labeled "Screenshots"), but I finally realized that FRAPS is free, so I installed that near the very end of my play-through.

Anyways: here's a link to the gallery for ME1. It contains mega-spoilers for ME1, and mini-spoilers for ME2/ME3. (Those spoilers are VERY slight, and pretty much just mention that certain characters are still alive in future games.) I started taking pictures near the end of the game, so most of the album is from the last couple of missions and the ending.

Here's the link to the ME3 gallery, which is ultra-spoilery. Like the previous album, this starts a couple of missions from the very end of the game. It's also way too big, but I guess that Google has gotten rid of the caps on their albums? Which is awesome! Anyways, there was way too much pretty stuff in there for me to trim down.

Unfortunately, my overall analysis/evaluation of the game is buried in the middle of mega-spoiler-town. For people who want to avoid being spoiled: I really liked the game; I can understand why some people are bummed out by some aspects of it, but I think Bioware did a great job at putting it together. It's not just a great story, it's one of the best arguments I've seen yet for the unique story-telling capabilities of video games. While the trilogy is over, I'm looking forward to spending more time in the Mass Effect universe, and I'm even more excited to see the next big project that Bioware tackles.

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