There’s not much that hasn’t been said about Bioware’s historic RPG trilogy. Starting in 2007, Mass Effect introduced players to a universe just as laboriously detailed, epic and endearing as any other sci-fi/fantasy series. The culture and history of each race was lovingly crafted; the politics and conflict between them were at once fascinating and heartbreaking; and the main crux of the story was enough to propel a series of games, not just three.
The first Mass Effect tells the story of Commander Shepard and their crew as they discover an ancient, cyclical and world-ending threat: the Reapers. At the end of the game, one Reaper is enough to take on an entire fleet of mixed-race ships, and this makes the threat of an entire army of Reapers palpable. Throughout the game the Commander and their crew struggle to convince the rest of the galaxy that the threat even exists and by the time the second game finishes it’s pretty much too late.
That’s where we start Mass Effect 3. The Reapers descend onto Earth, and multiple other planets in the Milky Way and begin their brutal invasion. It’s a heart-wrenching opening with an iconic score playing in the background while we witness humanity’s home planet being decimated.
The rest of Mass Effect 3 is somewhat more divisive so let’s start with the good. While the crew here is smaller than the cast of ME 2, they’re all wildly interesting and fleshed out. Tali and Garrus return from the previous two games and are as good as ever. Garrus continues being a loyal, staunch ally while Tali’s story of generational trauma and fighting extinction comes to an emotional close. The ship’s AI, EDI, is given a physical form and joins the party. Her romance with the pilot, Joker, is great comedic relief and also brings up questions of humanity and consciousness. The centuries old Liara returns to the crew from the first Mass Effect as do either Kaiden or Ashley, depending on who you saved – Kaiden’s the obvious choice, c’mon. There are a few other additions too but the squad here aren’t as expansive or diverse as previous entries. What the crew lacks in numbers they make up for in heartfelt character moments throughout.
Then there’s the incredible combat. ME3 takes the baton from ME2 and becomes a full-on action-shooter. Your arsenal of skills that you can mix and match is more satisfying than it’s ever been. No matter who you have in your party there’s sure to be some interesting combos that you can pull off. Tighter movement and gun-play, and more enemy variety compared to ME2, makes this the best combat system in the series.
Overall, Mass Effect 3 is an emotional, fun goodbye to the series, filled with existential moments and questions of how to spend your last days at the end of the world.
But… we can’t talk about Mass Effect 3 without talking about its polarizing ending. And when I say it’s polarizing, I mean it was pretty much the most controversial thing in nerd culture at the time. Let’s try to break it down.
There had never been anything like Mass Effect in the video game world. Sure, there had been other epic trilogies, just look at Halo. But Mass Effect was a trilogy of RPGs. Your choices from the very first game trickled down throughout the rest of the story. That’s, possibly, more than 100 hours of narrative decisions that rippled through the games, affecting little lines of dialogue, character absences, romances, the fate of entire species. No series had carried over choices in the way that Mass Effect was doing.
So, with the end of the world approaching, fans anticipated that all of their decisions throughout the game would lead to a variety of endings, right? Well, not exactly. The ending of the game boiled down to three choices. And all of these choices were pretty much available to all players, regardless of past decisions. AND, all of these decisions led to the same cutscene with only minor differences. And, and, and, the final three choices kind of come out of nowhere. It’s almost a narrative thread that comes from trying to tie up the story as neatly as possible, but it just feels random.
This isn’t entirely ME3’s fault. Mass Effect 2, while incredible, was telling a very different story. Instead of focusing on how to deal with the Reapers, their motives, and the mystery of the crucible, ME2 takes a detour. An incredible detour, but still a detour. This means that Mass Effect 3’s story needs to figure out how to defeat the Reapers, figure out what their motivations are and then put it all into action… while also paying off other major plot points in the universe like the geth-quarian conflict and the krogan genophage.
There’s also probably some corporate BS happening on the side as there were only about two years separating the release of the second and third game – it wouldn’t be the first time EA rushed out a release. So, I have a lot of sympathy for Bioware in 2012.
Especially because of the toxic fan reaction. This is another thing that makes Mass Effect 3’s release historic. Nowadays it feels like every fanbase feels some kind of ownership over their franchise. Look at the reactions to the Star Wars sequels, or the Game of Thrones finale, or Halo 5, or Pokémon, or The Last of Us Part II. I’m not implying that criticism of these releases are invalid – I’m the last person that would defend Game of Thrones’ ending. But, fan criticism is steeped in fan ownership. A mentality that fans have some kind of ownership over a product, or series of products, and therefore have the right to demand change.
It’s a complicated discussion that’s steeped in capitalism and culture. For example, the Star Wars sequels are partly so controversial because they’re Disney products. They’re quippy and mass produced and were only really made to sell merchandise, not out of an instinct to tell a story.
It’s hard to tell the difference between the two and hard to know when to draw a line between artistic intent and a corporation’s greed, so I won’t pretend. What I can say is that Mass Effect 3 was one of the first instances of this on a grand scale. The controversy was so loud that Bioware patched the ending with additional cutscenes. The fanbase won. Bioware implicitly said, through the patch, that fan’s did have some ownership over this game. They blurred the lines between product and art. And as a result it’s exhausting to talk about anything anymore.