Back in 2012 when I fired up Mass Effect 3 for the first time, I hadn’t played Mass Effect 2 since it first came out years before. I was a few months behind the masses and already knew there were issues with the new game, though I had avoided enough media to know nothing beyond a problem with the ending that had been fixed with a new ending.
I played it through once — without importing my original ME2 save because I had “misplaced” it — and was very unhappy with being unable to continue my romance with Garrus Vakarian, the greatest video game character of all time. (Fight me.) I also assumed the extended ending would download automatically but it didn’t, so I got why people were really pissed off. What a bullshit ending EA & BioWare gave the fans who slogged through 150+ hours of all three games.
Grudgingly I downloaded the extended ending and started over from the last save point — running through the field to the beam, the slow-mo killing of husks that made my hands shake so much it took multiple times to make it to the beam — and had a slightly better experience. Seeing Shepard gasp for air at the very end lifted my spirits.
But I still wasn’t satisfied so I did a little digging and found my original ME2 save file where I had cleverly hidden it on the Xbox server from when I last had a Live account. I played through once more so “my” Shepard could save the universe with the baddest ass in the galaxy at her side — and it destroyed me emotionally. Shepard leaving Garrus behind and professing her love for him broke my heart in ways I didn’t expect.
A few months later I felt the urge to start the series over and even got a few hours in when I thought about going through all of the story again and once more facing the emotional ending and I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t put myself through that much emotional trauma again. I stopped my game where it was and left the Mass Effect trilogy behind, or so I thought.
Fast forward to 2017 and a new Mass Effect game and I was sucked right back into the universe. I played Andromeda twice through, once with a female Ryder and once with male Ryder (something I never did for Shepard) and I loved it thoroughly. It was different from the trilogy but familiar at the same time, and I yearned to pick up Shepard’s struggle once more.
Early this summer I bought the trilogy and made a new Shepard — female, of course, because Garrus. I trudged through the first game and cleared out as many of the identical modular bases as I could stand before growing bored with finishing all the side quests and completing the game.
Then I played ME2, hailed as one of the greatest modern RPGs, and was shockingly underwhelmed. Some issues had been fixed from ME1 — powers regenerated faster, movement felt better even if climbing over things was a real pain. But other changes just seemed weird — no way to refill medigel between missions; no weapon stats or upgrades, only new models that you equip hoping they’re better; very little choice when upgrading skills.
These changes annoyed me as they reduced the amount I could customize my Shepard and team, but I had Garrus and I was okay. All of us survived the suicide mission and then continued on to the finale.
In a sign from the universe, I started a new game of ME3 five years to the day I completed my last playthrough. Immediately I was thrilled with the game play. Rolling dodge? Leaping over gaps? Intuitive cover movements? Dashing that lasts longer than three seconds? It was like controlling Shepard for the first time, and it felt very similar to how ME:A plays.
I appreciated the redesigned weapon weight system — carry all the guns you want but it will affect power regeneration — as it made me think about how to play my Vanguard Shepard, a type new to me. After some testing, I found I mostly used a shotgun but I also carried an assault rifle for those times I couldn’t just rush in and blast everyone. This combo, especially when I applied the lightweight mod to the guns, netted me almost 200% power regeneration speed, meaning Charge was ready to go again in seconds.
I also recognized the special triggering system that BioWare incorporated into ME:A, even though they didn’t explain it fully in ME3 — light up an enemy with a certain skill (electricity, biotics, fire) and then hit it with an explosive skill (Concussive Shot, Charge) to create an explosion of the original type. I adored combos in ME:A so I abused it as much as possible on this playthrough of ME3. My boy Garrus would hit someone with Overload and then Shepard hits them with Charge and BOOM — instant kill on a lot of enemies, finish off the rest with Nova, and Charge is ready to go once more.
The other big thing I appreciated throughout ME3, and another reason I believe the game is superior, is the culmination of all the characters’ narratives from the whole series, from the ones who stayed true all the way through the game (namely the aliens Garrus and Tali, but Doctor Chakwas deserves a huge shout-out) and the one whose faith in Shepard faltered (Kaiden/Ashley) and the ones who had other business to finish after their adventures with Shepard (Liara, Wrex, all the characters who survived ME2).
BioWare created such great, three dimensional characters that by the end of the series, I legitimately cared about them. They had flaws and emotions and made bad choices sometimes, but they were real, believable characters. I wanted Garrus to find his family, and for Tali to see her homeworld, and for Wrex to have hundreds of krogan babies. I wanted Joker to find happiness with EDI, even if it is fleeting. I wanted to punch Kaiden in the face for his betrayal on Horizon, but I welcomed him back with open arms in ME3.
I regret never saving Ashley in ME1. She was such a xenophobe that it angered me and on both playthroughs left her to die on Virmire — the first time because I was in a relationship with Kaiden, the second time because I just didn’t like her alien-hating ways. But it seems I’ve missed another great character by writing her off so quickly, as she lets go of her racism through her own interactions with aliens within the series.
Something else I’ve spent time thinking about are the choices at the end of ME3. I’ve read some complaints over the years at the lack of choice in the ending, that the trilogy is so full of choices but then at the end you only have four and they aren’t affected by all the other choices you’ve made.
I think this is an unfair criticism because by the end you’ve already seen how your other choices have played out — saving or destroying the rachni queen; saving or killing Wrex on Virmire; saving or destroying the genophage cure; and so on. At this point in the game, all that’s left is to decide the fate of the galaxy.
Let’s look at the four choices at the end of ME3:
- Destroy the reapers.
- Take control of the reapers.
- Merge organic and synthetic life.
- Shoot the stupid Catalyst kid in the face. (Which I didn’t know was a choice until this playthrough.)
The Illusive Man and Cerberus wanted to control the reapers. We knew Cerberus was weird and twisted from ME2 but ME3 shows just how power-hungry the Illusive Man is. Choosing to control the reapers is choosing the path of the Illusive Man.
Merging organic and synthetic life is what the Catalyst believes is the ultimate solution to the problem of organics and synthetics, so again, choosing to merge the two is choosing the path of the Catalyst who turned on its organic creators.
Shooting the stupid Catalyst in the face might be therapeutic but why would anyone expect that to be a good choice?
Of the four options, only one fulfills the conditions that have been set out from the beginning of ME1 — and has been the point of every fucking ME game since! — destroy the reapers and save the galaxy. Why would anyone expect a satisfactory ending from the other choices when the terms of winning were set 150+ hours ago?
And the theory that the ending is just Shepard’s dying delusions as s/he lays dying after the last reaper beam? Sorry, the story doesn’t support that. Even if EA & BioWare hadn’t released the extended ending, you still couldn’t convince me that’s what happened. Why would a developer put so much time and effort into a game just to piss off their fans with a dream sequence? There are quite a few out there who think that’s just what EA & BioWare did, as if they intentionally want to ruin a beloved series.
So there’s my argument. If you haven’t played ME3 since it was released, I highly recommend another playthrough, preferably from the very beginning. I really enjoyed experiencing the whole story in one go, and having fresh eyes on all three games allowed me to see each game for what it is, rather than what I wanted it to be at the time.
And if someone at BioWare happens to read this, please bring back the power wheel for the next ME:A. It doesn’t feel quite like a Mass Effect game without it.
*Obviously with the extended ending. Without the extended ending, fuck EA. Or, just fuck EA anyway.