Even before you press a single button, it is clear that Mass Effect 3 is going to be very different from Mass Effect 2. Gone is the title screen’s stirring music. Gone is the grandiose idle menu cutscene full of action and danger.
In its place is one of the most sober pieces of music imaginable. No cutscenes. No bombast. No firefights. Just a sad song playing while a planet burns and what seem to be meteorites burn up entering a planet’s atmosphere.
Remember when I mentioned the major shift in music from Mass Effect to Mass Effect 2?
Well, Mass Effect 3 switched it up again.
Mass Effect had to establish a universe, set almost 200 years in the future, where humanity was the newcomer. We are galactic infants and the music needed to show some sense of wonder and possibility. Jack Wall and Sam Hulick succeeded in that regard with a score inspired by sci-fi electronics.
Mass Effect 2 was all about assembling a superteam of badasses, a sort of a sci-fi Expendables, in order to save humanity from new threats and old. You recruit a who’s who of galactic experts to defeat the bad guys. That calls for some Hans Zimmer. I’ve probably overused the word “bombast” in relation to Mass Effect 2’s music, but it’s either the most accurate term or the most accurate in my limited vocabulary of music descriptions. In any case, Wall & Hulick again delivered the score ME2 needed.
Mass Effect 3 is about the apocalypse. It is about the end of everything we know and love. It is about billions dead. Mourning. Hopelessness. The inevitable. Even if victory is achieved, the cost will be beyond comprehension. This requires a softer touch and almost oppressive tragedy. Clint Mansell takes over for Jack Wall and joins Hulick to create a score befitting the end of days, perhaps none more so than the gorgeous “Leaving Earth.”
The opening of Mass Effect 3 is probably the greatest video game “scene” I’ve ever played. You’ve spent two games holding off the inevitable Reaper invasion. As the game begins, they are finally on the way. Although a massive Alliance fleet has taken position around Earth, military brass wants to speak to Commander Shepard, their resident Reaper expert.
As Shepard confirms the Reaper invasion, the video feed from London goes black. City by city, bad news fills your screen. Finally, a shadow darkens the cityscape through the window. Your building is destroyed as Shepard scrambles to make it back to his ship.
Remember when I talked about how streamlined Mass Effect 2 was, but that I missed some of the customization from Mass Effect?
Well, Mass Effect 3 manages the best of both worlds.
Motion capture is more precise. Shepard moves with greater speed, agility, and grace. He effortlessly mantles over obstacles and dives between cover. Everything he does is smooth as silk, unless you are like me and keep diving into walls and cargo containers.
You once again determine which weapons you and your squadmates carry into battle. However, the heavier your loadout, the longer your powers take to recharge. You can also upgrade weapons and choose two mods for each gun. The whole system is simple and straight-forward while still providing balance and giving the player strategic choices.
As you escape the burning headquarters, both heaven and earth seem on fire. Reaper ground forces swarm the streets. Their ships clear the air of fighters and shuttles. An Alliance dreadnaught trades volleys with a Reaper before it is blown apart. The invader remains unscathed.
The Reapers move with power and precision. They move without mercy. Even their sounds are disconcerting. All of your body’s senses scream the same inevitable conclusion.
This is the end of humanity.
Remember when I mentioned that Mass Effect 2 managed to subvert the Action RPG trope of random side missions that distract from a time-sensitive main plot?
Well, Mass Effect 3 is flawless in that regard.
This time around, every mission matters. Even with ME2’s improvements, some of the side missions didn’t seem to make the most sense. I can understand that the Alliance might want Shepard to run some errands with his shiny new ship, but I think those missions could wait until after stopping the abduction of human colonists.
Mass Effect 3 introduces “war assets.” Massive amounts of supplies and manpower are going to be necessary to take down the Reapers, which means that every mission adds to that somehow. Every mission against Cerberus grinds down an opposing force. Every rescue mission provides more soldiers or scientists for the war effort. Everything else wins the favor or support of another species. This battle will not be won without the entire galaxy and the side missions reflect that.
Shepard finally reaches a shuttle.
As he departs, a Reaper wipes out two transports, one carrying a child Shepard had encountered earlier. “You can’t help me,” the young boy had said.
More Reapers touch down as the Normandy departs. As the Normandy enters space, the shot pans to the remains of the Alliance Navy, obliterated by the Reaper fleet. Wreckage plummets to Earth, burning up like meteorites while the planet burns below. “Leaving Earth” plays in the background.
I’m in tears.
I’m not positive that the rest of Mass Effect 3 is as perfect as its opening. A lot of people have thrown shade, some of it well-deserved, at its ending. I’ll take my own crack at it soon enough.
I will say, however, that my second playthrough of Mass Effect 3 was as satisfying a video game experience as I’ve ever had. It brings everyone back for one last hurrah (almost improbably so, although the Citadel is the galactic hub). It ties up loose ends and concludes stories. And with the Extended Cut added, it beautifully wrapped up the best damn story I’ve ever played.
What more could we ask?