Mass Effect 3 hit shelves this week, marking the end of an acclaimed videogame trilogy that began back in fall of 2007. To say that I’ve been a fan of the series would be an understatement equivalent to suggesting that Krogans tend to be cranky. This was a game series that was the culmination of so many things I loved, it genuinely felt that BioWare had scanned my brain and created a game specifically tailored to me. And based on the series’ success, I know I wasn’t the only one.
Mass Effect let you play as Commander Shepard, an Earth Alliance solider, who would soon become the very first human Spectre, special agents granted extraordinary latitude to defend the galaxy. But while the commercials and box art all feature an unremarkable Shepard that looks like a thousand bald-headed videogame space marines before him, that didn’t have to be your Shepard. Your Shepard could be male or female, black or white or anything in between, kind to all or a ruthless bastard willing to do anything to get the job done. And because the game recorded your choices made during the adventure and carried them over to future games, your Shepard really was yours in an intensely personal way that few games before could offer.
Now Mass Effect fans such as myself are diving into the final chapter of Commander Shepard’s story, where the fate of the galaxy is at stake and all the choices we made along the way will come back to haunt us or help us. In order to celebrate the release of Mass Effect 3, I’ve decided to take a look back at my favorite moments from the series. Some are epic events that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best of Hollywood’s output. Some are moments of wonder that are burned into my brain forever. And some are small, intimate moments that reflect BioWare’s ability to truly make us care about the characters inhabiting this universe. These are the Mass Effect moments I’ll never forget. (Needless to say, spoilers abound.)
Those Left Behind
Virmire, Mass Effect
After having faced only a few really big choices during the first half of Mass Effect, little does Shepard realize just how much will be at stake when he arrives on the lush world of Virmire. The rogue Spectre Saren has set up a base there, hoping to breed the warlike Krogan to fill out his personal army, and he must be stopped. The plan is to infiltrate the base and set off a nuke at its center. Having already possibly lost one crewmember (the Krogan, Wrex), Shepard goes into battle knowing more casualties are almost certain. Many players — myself included — weren’t expecting the choice to come. With crewmates Ashley and Kaidan under fire, one guarding the nuke and one under assault on a gun tower, Shepard must chose which to rescue. Many players made the choice lightly, figuring they’d still be given an option to save both characters somehow. And then Shepard and the rescued crew member race away in the Normandy, with either Ashley or Kaidan left behind in a pillar of nuclear fire.
A Friendly Chat With Sovereign
Virmire, Mass Effect
Shortly before nuking the base, Shepard has an unexpected face to face with Sovereign, the enormous alien ship in which Saren is tooling around the galaxy. After tracking down a beacon built by the long-extinct Protheans, Shepard discovers a communication terminal with Sovereign’s image projected from it. Then the image begins to speak. Shepard soon learns that Sovereign is not just a ship, but an actual Reaper, one of an ancient and malevolent synthetic race that returns every 50,000 years to harvest all organic life. The plot revelations are heady, but it’s their delivery that really sticks with you. If you’ve got a decent sound system and subwoofer hooked up, Sovereign rattles your windows and vibrates your fillings. Sovereign’s voice positively brims with menace and disdain, and it makes the threat of the Reapers feel that much more visceral.
Speaking With Vigil
Ilos, Mass Effect
The Mass Effect games are often accused of being too talk-y, but some of the series’ most unforgettable moments have come from the game’s brilliant conversation system. The verbal sparring with Sovereign mentioned above is a great example, as is Shepard’s chat with Vigil. Shepard encounters the virtual intelligence amongst the ruins of the Prothean world of Ilos. Damaged and barely functional, Vigil delivers the crucial information it has waited 50,000 years to pass on. Shepard already knows that the Reapers obliterated the Protheans, as well as every galactic culture before them, but until this moment he doesn’t know how. Vigil reveals that the Citadel (the center of galactic government) and the Mass Relays, long thought to have been the creation of the Protheans, were actually built by the Reapers…and they’re a trap. The Mass Relays are designed to funnel young races to the Citadel, which is perfectly designed to serve as a galactic hub of government. But the Citadel is actually an enormous Mass Relay itself, one which will open to the Reapers’ hiding place in “dark space” and allow them to emerge and begin their cycle of destruction once again. Unless Shepard can stop them.
Through the Conduit
Ilos/Citadel, Mass Effect
One of the biggest mysteries of the first Mass Effect is the identity of the “Conduit” that Saren and his army of robotic Geth are seeking. Is it a weapon? Some sort of communication device? The reveal comes in the final moments of Shepard’s mission on Ilos. Having raced across the surface of the planet in pursuit of Saren, Shepard rounds a corner and sees it…the Conduit is an enormous mass relay built by the Protheans. Racing towards it in his MAKO tank, under heavy fire and with mere moments left before the Conduit closes…Shepard just barely makes it. And then BioWare’s writers demonstrate their understanding of a lesson imparted by Anton Chekhov: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” The “gun” in this case is a mysterious mass relay statue located on the Citadel, one which no one knows the purpose or origin of…until Shepard and his MAKO come hurtling out of it, right into the middle of the besieged Citadel.
This Is Our Floor
Citadel, Mass Effect
Sometimes Mass Effect doesn’t have to challenge you with life-or-death decisions or pit you against impossible foes to make your draw drop. Sometimes they can take your breath away with one brilliantly conceived concept or visual. Such is the case here, when Shepard and his squad are trapped inside an elevator on their way to their final confrontation with Saren. Shepard’s solution? Simple: he blasts the side of the elevator open and uses his magnetic books to scale the rest of the way up the tower. The first moment where Shepard steps out of the elevator and his perspective shifts waaaaay over, looking down at a miles-long drop to the “surface” of the Citadel, is wondrous and vertigo-inducing in equal measures. The firefight up the side of the tower, with the enormous shape of Sovereign looming in the distance, is one of the series’ most thrilling sequences.
Citadel, Mass Effect
The battle for the Citadel has been brutal. Hundreds of ships have been wiped out by Sovereign and the Geth fleet. Thousands of beings are dead aboard the Citadel. A flicker of hope arrives when Normandy and the rest of the human fleet emerge from the nearby mass relay and join in the attack, but even that is proving to be too little, too late. Onboard the Citadel, Shepard faces a powered-up version of Saren, resurrected and upgraded by Sovereign. The fight is tough, but in the end Saren crumples and falls. The death of its puppet shakes Sovereign — the Reaper had focused too much power into reanimating Saren to stop Shepard. Sovereign’s shields fall, and the human fleet pours everything they’ve got at the enormous ship, barraging it with missiles and beam weapons. Sovereign shudders. As the score crescendos, Shepard’s wiseass pilot, Joker, fires one final shot from aboard the Normandy…a shot that punches through one side of the Reaper and out the other. Sovereign falls.
The Death of Shepard
Normandy, Mass Effect 2
BioWare’s marketing leading up to the release of Mass Effect 2 hammered home one point, over and over: if you didn’t play your cards right, Shepard could die. They even showed footage of this turn of events, with the Normandy being blown to smithereens by unknown attackers. What they didn’t mention, however, was that this was not the end of the game, but the beginning. In one of the best opening sequences I’ve ever played, Shepard and the Normandy crew are attacked by a Collector ship and, before there’s even time to mount a defense, the crew is evacuated and the ship destroyed. No matter what you do, the sequence ends with Shepard flailing through space, his suit leaking air, with no hope of recovery. It’s Shepard’s very own Kobayashi Maru, but there’s no cheating the system this time around. Coming off the victorious ending of the first Mass Effect, it set the stage for a much darker second game, and established the enormity of the Collector threat to be faced.
Thane Makes an Entrance
Illium, Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 doesn’t have nearly as strong a narrative throughline as the first game. Instead, it is almost entirely focused on the squad you recruit to join Shepard on the game-ending “suicide mission.” These missions to recruit and earn the loyalty of Shepard’s crew contain some of the series’ best moments, both story and gameplay-wise. That’s a testament to BioWare’s skill at crafting believable, compelling characters that you truly come to care about. Sometimes, however, it’s all about making an entrance. The Drell assassin Thane did just that in his first moments in Mass Effect 2, displaying such badassery that this scene was used heavily to promote the game in the weeks leading up to release. As Shepard tries to convince an evil Asari bitch named Nassana Dantius that he’s not the one that’s been hired to kill her, Thane — the one who was — silently drops from an overhead vent, kills Nassana’s guards, and then Nassana herself. And then, gently, respectfully, he lays her atop her desk and begins to pray over her. It’s a collision of seemingly contradictory qualities that made Thane an instant fan favorite.
Tali Needs a Hug
Quarian Fleet, Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect 2 introduced one feature that really helped increase immersion in the game: the Paragon/Renegade interrupts. An icon will appear on either the left or right side of the screen, and, if you hit the corresponding trigger quickly enough, Shepard interrupts the conversation in a unique way. Over the course of the game, these allow you to do everything from easing a dying Batarian’s suffering to tossing an uncooperative guard out the window of a high-rise. By far the most memorable interrupt comes during Tali’s loyalty mission. Shepard boards a Geth-infested ship with her in search of her father. They find him…but too late. After Tali watches her father’s final holographic message to her, she begins to break down in grief, and the prompt flashes on screen. You hit the trigger…and Shepard pulls her close to comfort her. It’s a small act, but one of the series’ most emotionally satisfying moments. Many players wanted nothing more than to comfort their friend, and BioWare let you do just that. If that’s not emotional immersion, I don’t know what is.
Whatever Happened to the Protheans?
Collector Ship, Mass Effect 2
Most of Mass Effect 2‘s plot is fairly straightforward: gather a crew, upgrade your ship, and take the fight to the Collectors. The biggest mystery is why the Collectors are abducting human colonies, and you learn that they’re working for the Reapers fairly early on in the game. During a spooky mission aboard a derelict Collector ship about halfway through the game, however, you learn the shocking answer to a question many players hadn’t even thought to ask. While the Collectors’ motives were the subject of speculation, it never occurred to me to wonder about their origin as a species. I just figured they were another race the Reapers had subjugated over the centuries. And that’s true, but during the mission you learn the name of that race: the Protheans. Yes, the ancient, highly advanced race weren’t simply wiped out by the Reapers. They were twisted and adjusted into mindless automatons, just another tool in the Reapers’ arsenal. It’s a twist I didn’t see coming at all, but one that, like all the best narrative surprises, makes perfect sense in retrospect. Even more importantly, it presented a possible future for humanity that is even more horrific than extinction, and set the stakes insanely high for Mass Effect 3.