I often bore my friends and loved-ones with gratuitous praise for Mass Effect 2, but my fondness for the game stems from the fact that it was, in essence, a game about friendship. The wider game mythology – the Reapers, the Collectors, Cerberus, the whole end-of-the-universe drama – was all gripping in the way you would expect a Bioware game to be, but the heart of the game was the rag-tag bunch of misfits you picked up on the way to your suicide mission. Mass Effect 2’s emotional centre lay in the loyalty missions you could carry out for every member of your team, which explored the fascinating nuances and rich depth to every character through the welcome form of dazzling laser jamborees. You learnt about these people, and as you fought alongside them, you formed genuine attachments to them.
While in Mass Effect 2 the Normandy often felt a little cramped because of all the disparate alien races crammed into the hold like refugees, Mass Effect 3 offers you a comparatively sparse number of teammates joining you on your mission to save the universe. So if Mass Effect 2 was a galaxy-wide BFF recruitment simulator, then Mass Effect 3 is more of an intergalactic diplomacy manager, and believe me it’s a lot more fun than it sounds. What it really means is that your quest to win the support of the galaxy’s alien races in socking it to the Reapers usually takes the form of a familiar face returning to request your help in aiding their species’ war against extinction. So you get to spend a couple of missions desperately trying to ward the Reapers off long enough for the Salarians or the Turians or whoever to get their pants on and lend a couple of ships, but few of the comrades you fought and died with through two games can accompany on your mission to reclaim Earth. This is what makes the brief appearances of the many old friends all the more poignant; they have their own homeworlds to defend, their own races to save. You can help them secure the safety of their own people and lands, but even though this is the end of the world this is war, the homeland must come first.
Ah, the observation deck. The perfect place TO BROOD.
Choice is a big thing in the Mass Effect series, and Mass Effect 3 forces you to make some pretty big decisions on your way. Of course, the import of these choices depends on the actions you carried out in earlier games and, credit where credit is due, Bioware actually succeed in making the decisions you made in previous installments have genuine consequences in the final chapter. In Mass Effect 3 the fate of entire races often rests on your shoulders, but the game is always very affecting in the way it frames many of the choices you have to make as personal, emotional dramas. The choice you have to make about the Genophage on Tuchanka broke my heart, because your decision to either release the cure and guarantee the galaxy will be overrun by the newly virile Krogan or secretly sabotage the cure and sneakily earn both the support of the Krogan and the hubristic Salarians becomes a conflict between you and Mordin, an old teammate from Mass Effect 2. Mordin helped engineer the Genophage, and has an investment in curing the disease to correct what he perceives was a personal mistake. Your decision is whether to get in his way or whether to help him. The future of civilization hangs in the balance, and it comes down to two people trying to do what they think is right to save the universe.
It is this sense of scale that makes Mass Effect one of the most compelling franchises in recent memory, because these planetary-sized battles are always experienced through the perspective of people-sized relationships. The quest to save the universe is an often-invoked imperitive in space opera, but it is testament to Bioware’s strong writing and design that in Mass Effect 3 you really do get the feeling this is a battle of apocalyptic proportions: half-heard conversations about the whereabouts of evacuated loved ones, chatter between your crew about the massive casualties being taken in the war, the way the galaxy map fills up with ominous enemy ships as the end draws nigh. If you get one thing from the deafening Inception BWOM of a Reaper tearing through a city with its laser death cannon, it’s that this is the end of days.
One of Mass Effect 3’s other great achievements is that it makes you feel like a tangible part of this battle. For what usually ends up being just three dudes, yourself included, slogging through a jungle of chest-high walls, it sure does feel like you are on the frontlines of the battle for the universe. Some of the fights you take part in are truly cataclysmic: the opening level throws you face-first into a full-scale Reaper invasion of Earth, and the battle on the Asari homeworld Thessia gets very hairy very quickly. But the game is great at putting you at the forefront of these dicey fights, and part of that is due to the interesting things Bioware do with the mythology of Shepard. The way characters talk to and about Shepard throughout the game always gives the sense that he/she is viewed as a truly legendary soldier, one whose actions ripple through time. A person who could inspire others enough to take up arms and fight against the very harbingers of galactic doom, the sort of person who could actually save the universe. This is elegantly underlined in the bittersweet coda to Mass Effect 3, where the mythic element to the Shepard story is given an added dimension.
Speaking of the ending, everything written about Mass Effect 3 ever is under obligation, it seems, to discuss the damn thing, so I might as well tackle it. The irate whirlwind of discontent about the ending seems a little ludicrous: surely Mass Effect 3, the game, the thing you paid forty quid for, is the ending. If you enjoyed Mass Effect 3 as a game it follows you enjoyed the ending, doesn’t it? I understand to some extent the complaints that it suffered a little from Deus-Ex-Human-Revolution-Push-Button-Ending Syndrome, where you’re literally presented with three different buttons at the end and told: Press Button 1 for Ending 1, Press Button 2 for Ending 2, etc. I can see why people might feel a bit miffed that some of their decisions throughout the three games didn’t tangibly affect which final ending they received; I will concede that making the whole franchise revolve around causality and decision-making is undone somewhat by offering the three different conclusions to the game on a dish like canapés right at the end of the game. Fanboys would maybe feel a little less pissed-off at the ending if the choices they made throughout the trilogy locked them into a particular final outcome, so that their decisions led them irrevocably to one conclusion. The whole point should be that you can’t really choose the Blue, Red or Green ending, the earlier decisions you made should have put you down that path.
The other important “Red” choice you can make is making Shepard a redhead.
For what it’s worth, I chose the Red ending, because, even though it was positioned as some kind of “evil” option, I thought it was actually the most heroic and the most tragic. I’m convinced that all the endings are “good” endings, to be honest, because no matter which option you pick, you save the frickin’ universe; the final sacrifice necessary to guarantee the survival of the species is kind of touching. It seems like the only way the story could end. But to dissect the ending so meticulously feels like base pedantry to me, and I don’t really see how anyone could find the final, epically intense battle through Reaper-occupied London disappointing. Mass Effect 3 brought the trilogy to an explosive, emotive conclusion, and if a game came soak up thirty-five hours of my life with me enjoying every second of it, then I’d say I liked the ending.
tl;dr: It’s really, really good.