Despite what other, possibly more credible critics might tell you, video games are an art form, and the Mass Effect series developed by Bioware may be our best proof yet against these antediluvian arbiters. Games may be a nascent form, but they are still art nonetheless. If Michael Bay and Brett Ratner can be called “artists” simply because they can be associated with cinema, which we’ve all consciously or unconsciously deemed Art, then the Mass Effects, and especially Mass Effect 3, are Art, too. The issue is whether it’s Good Art or Bad Art.
If you’ve played the free demo, or have seen the omnipresent and omniradass ads, you know that Commander Shepard’s last stand starts off with Earth being invaded by a highly advanced alien race of machines known as the Reapers. There’s a very brief introduction to the Commander’s history in a distant, but not far-flung future as a hero who plays by her/his own rules. Though warnings of the Reaper threat have fallen on deaf ears in the human Alliance on Earth, as well most of the rest of the galaxy at-large, it doesn’t take long for all hell to break loose. The game proper hasn’t even begun and the Reapers have descended, decimating seemingly everything in their wake.
There’s a certain level of continuity in how Bioware crafts these opening salvos to introduce Commander Shepard, still brilliantly voiced by Jennifer Hale (or still less inspiringly by Mark Meer), as the games’ protagonist. All three immediately establish your avatar as the most badass of badass space marines, and the first missions of each — Save Eden Prime, Escape the Cerberus Base, and Flee the Attack on Earth, respectively — quickly make you a believer in Shepard’s past and abilities. Arguably, the opening of Mass Effect 3 is more intense than the first two because the threat is now utterly existential, and it is here. Now.
But Shepard doesn’t have long on Earth before she (or he) is whisked away to find the Crucible, a secret weapon that, when completed, could be organic life’s best hope in defeating their would-be synthetic overlords. In fact, Shepard won’t see humanity’s home planet again (her/his birthplace is totally up to you: either Earth, a planetary colony, or aboard a military spaceship) until Mass Effect 3’s very final mission when she (or he) functions as “the head of the spear” for whatever military might you’ve acquired during the course of the game. Between leaving and returning to Earth, Commander Shepard traverses the galaxy from one star system to the next, always trying to stay one step ahead of the Reapers, and meanwhile cutting off the heads of the rebellious human-first group Cerberus, who were your uncomfortable allies in Mass Effect 2.
Unlike the previous two entries, this one keeps you focused on a relatively narrow path for large chunks of time. The first few hours barely allow Shepard to catch her (or his) breath with no time to plan her (or his) next move. I worried that the player would lose control over the Galaxy Map, where you pick your destinations/missions at your own pace, for the entire game and completely remove the open world illusion from ME1 and ME2. Thankfully, this was merely a function of the story and not a coup by the game’s designers to remove the player from power. Mass Effect is a mystery that needs solving, so you’re given places to investigate and you choose how to proceed from there. Mass Effect 2 is Seven Samurai in Space or The Galactic Dirty Dozen, so you’re told who can help achieve your suicide mission and how to earn their trust. Mass Effect 3 is a straight forward war story, specifically one woman’s (or one man’s) attempt to unite the known civilizations of the Milky Way into a single fighting force. As such, the game is divided into set-pieces on planets both familiar and new to fans, where Commander Shepard must go through a series of obstacles in order to gain the allies she needs for a final assault against the Reapers back on Earth. It’s these set-pieces where your control over Shepard is most hindered, with a relative lack of exploration, but from a story point of view, it keeps things interesting by advancing the plot and wrapping up loose ends from games past. From a pacing perspective, each one propels the Commander at breakneck speed from mini-mission to mini-mission, often causing the player to feel as exhausted - emotionally and physically - as the Commander herself. (Or, himself.)
There are other missions between these moments that build up your army’s total capacity, and some you can take on if you aren’t ready for the overall storyline to proceed just yet. The Citadel, a space station older than humanity where the galaxy’s power is centralized, is now as much you’re home as the Normandy, Shepard’s only ride this installment. Most of the character development for your allies (old and new) take place on these two locations, and people actually move about them as time passes in the game instead of only staying in their one, character-driven location. There are even minor storylines about complete strangers that can be followed if you’re willing to pay attention, but even if you’re just passing through, you’ll hear random people talk about the war around every corner. These A.I. transitions and conversations really bring home just how hard this war is on the galaxy’s non-combatants, adding dimension to what could have been simple window dressing. You can also find missions (fetch quests, more like) that allow you to build up your War Assets and ignore Mass Effect 3’s new multiplayer component that increases your “galactic readiness,” but doesn’t factor into the endgame if that’s not your bag. As long as you pay attention to your green bar.
But it is the set pieces that tell the bulk of Mass Effect 3’s deeply affecting story of the most recent possible destruction of all advanced civilization. To a mission, there is a surprising level of satisfaction as dangling narrative threads are cut and others are woven into this new fabric. True to form, Bioware continues to craft some of the most beautiful imagery to convey Commander Shepard’s story, with a musical score that never makes its presence known but is always, always felt. Some of these bits don’t work as well as they might otherwise have, particularly with a dying assassin, but if they suffer from too much too soon that’s always better than poor execution. This makes a lot of Mass Effect 3 one long, emotional epilogue (my first playthrough was almost exactly 40 hours) for the first two games, and your save files from ME1 and ME2 depends on who shows up in ME3. Meaning, everything Shepard does is closure for everything Shepard did, so your mileage may vary with some of the outcomes for your favorite supporting cast members.
Until the needlessly ambiguous endings, I appreciated all the destinations for the characters I’d since grown to love. Joss Whedon in particular could take notes on how beloved character deaths can be shocking, emotional, and, most importantly, meaningful. While some fans of the series may be a little frustrated how things turn out, especially depending on whom they may or may not have romanced previously, I found myself choked up and a little more bleary-eyed a little more often than any other game I’ve played in the past, including Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. Okay, full disclosure: I cried more than once, and I never imagined a video game could do that.
At a point near the game’s final moments, Commander Shepard tells a longtime friend and ally that, “Without that ‘affection,’ all I have in my life is death.”
Others will pick out different lines from the game they think encompasses all its themes and layers, but this is the most meta and the most important thing she (or he) has said in the whole series. It’s the culmination of what separates Mass Effect from all the other space marine shooters with protagonists that either are silent and wear body armor from head-to-toe or are ‘roided-up jag-offs you can only root for because you are, technically, them. Bioware even includes a new character that fits more into the visual motif of the Gears of War franchise than anybody we’ve seen before in the series, and James Vega is far more well-rounded and interesting than Marcus Fenix will ever be. And he’s only in this last game! (To give credit where credit is due, that’s in no small part due to Freddie Prinze jr.’s astonishingly good performance - hey, maybe he found his true calling in life?) This series was founded on the strength of its character interactions, as well as its playability, and Mass Effect 3 is no different, though Liara was a bit busier than I’d have liked. We all have our own avatars, but we, and that includes Commander Shepard her/himself, share Liara, and Garrus and Tali and Joker and EDI, and the rest. To have the main character recognize this in her (or his) own arc, as well as in the game itself, is an unexpectedly lovely moment that ought to serve as a touchstone for storytellers in every medium.
Bioware also deserve heaps of praise for the amount of development across three games that the character of Commander Shepard sustains. From the very beginning of the first installment, the developer makes you consider the weight of each decision, from the smallest conversation to deciding the fates of billions. But it’s not until the third game that the player really begins to feel the weight of those choices pressing down on Shepard’s N7 armored shoulders. We finally get to see some of the Commander’s interior life, what she thinks about herself, how she feels about her place in the galaxy and in history. The genius of Bioware’s writers is that, how Shepard communicates and responds to this stress is put into the player’s hands just as much as her (or his) trusty machine gun, allowing you to give your Shepard moments of regret about past decisions or stern resolution in their original rectitude. Where she can downplay her own accomplishments as mere steps on the path toward defeating the bad guys. Where she can demand an answer to the age-old query, Why me?
Some players might prefer Shepard to remain mostly a cipher when not uttering a witty quip, being bizarrely flirtacious, or delivering a stirring speech, and admittedly, Mass Effect 3 isn’t the most original take on the conflicted or flawed hero trope. The occasionally stilted dialogue is always saved by the immensely talented voice cast, who continue their stellar track record of making each character - familiar friends, foes, and perfect strangers - distinct, entertaining and, if my extraterrestrial friends will allow me the word, human. Bioware certainly gives every aspect of this game a Krogan’s effort, and even if Commander Shepard’s personal journey isn’t brand new, it’s all done so well that any hiccups are forgiven. Besides, new players would probably welcome playing a fully-fleshed out character, here at the end of all things, instead of a blank canvas everyone else has had two other games to paint. Especially a character whose fate they do have the power to control, unlike Cole Phelps’ unalterable downfall in L.A. Noire.
Ultimately, the game’s story arc frequently feels more about Shepard herself than about her war (himself/his war, whatever). I’ll delve into Mass Effect 3’s controversial ending(s) in a later article, suffice to say I’m glad I picked the ending that I did for my Shepard’s “canon” finale before I played the other options. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate, you don’t get to “pick the end” so much as select the unknown contents behind Door #1, Door #2, or Door #3. You can work out the logical implications of your tantalizing final decision before you make it, but the game’s actual cut scenes for the big finish are mostly an enigma. Having the entire trilogy come down to one key choice is inspired, but, unfortunately, the ambiguity really only works for one of them. Yet it’s almost literally the same for all three. For fans who devoted 120+ hours into helping create the myth of Commander Shepard, feeling a little cheated by this is more than understandable. Still, I was mostly satisfied with the path I chose, if only because it offered the most hopeful prospects for my Shepard’s love interest. That ending, like so much of the rest of the game, didn’t feel like slapping my Shepard in the face with a Rachni pincer. The other two, however, would be incredibly frustrating for their lack of closure that before now Mass Effect 3 had otherwise handled so well. My biggest complaint is that the developers didn’t proffer any of the personal details I had been lead to believe I’d glimpse. The finale winds up being far more anticlimactic than even Bioware probably expected.
Part of the argument against Video Games as Art is the level of player interactivity that can alter gamemakers’ visions, and to that extent, it’s true that no two players, especially two players who have continued their Shepard’s storyline throughout all three games, will ever share the exact same experience. That can’t be said for books or movies or television shows where we all see the same words or images, and can merely discuss the differences in our interpretations. Hell, even this game’s difficulty settings allow you to adjust how much of the story you want to control, ranging from total to absolute zero. Really, that just means you get to pick between playing a Ridley Scott game or a Michael Bay game. Good Art of Bad Art. If you want to see what the future of storytelling holds, then Mass Effect is the future in more ways than its temporal setting. But that’s true only if you actually choose to partake in the grand tale that’s been woven over the last five years like a sort of pixelated folktale, changing with each telling and each teller.
All three games have strengths and weaknesses the others don’t, and more hardcore gamers may think none of them stack up from a gameplay standpoint to more traditional shooters or more micromanaged RPGs, but being the savior of the galaxy alongside Commander Shepard is one adventure I’ll always be glad I took. We did our best to save all life in the galaxy, and it was mostly glorious. Because of that, even with its nearly detrimental faults at the utmost end, Mass Effect 3 will always be a favorite in a series of favorites. I can’t wait to play the entire epic over again. And again.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter @RobOfWar, and his ware can be purchased here (if you’re into that sort of thing). And, yes, he only plays Mass Effect as FemShep.