Masters of Intensity
The Mass Effects are the most intense games I’ve ever played. Sure, Skyrim was probably more epic. Various Calls of Duty and Battlefields are louder or have more explosions and background action.
Mass Effect takes those more traditional elements of intensity and combines them with player investment. Mass Effect establishes a massive universe, an interesting story, and a bevy of potentially great characters. The characters take a game or two to flesh out, but overall, Mass Effect makes you give a crap about what you are doing because bad decisions have negative consequences on locations or characters you care about.
That sort of investment pays dividends in missions like Feros and the Citadel, where pitched battles and climactic cutscenes (and inspirational speeches on Virmire) come together to make the player feel like they had just saved the universe themselves.
For all my criticisms of Mass Effect 2’s occasionally misplaced bombast and bravado, that suicide mission felt like a suicide mission. Dropping into a black hole. Getting ripped apart by Oculi. Fending off hoards of collectors. Walking through a blizzard of Seekers. Frantically escaping after felling a massive human Reaper. Damn, son…
Mass Effect 3 manages to top them all. The game’s designer’s noticeably increased the challenge of every difficulty level. I found myself fighting for my life more in 3 than I did in any other game in the series.
Every step feels appropriately apocalyptic. The Reapers have harvested countless civilizations before and we are given little evidence to believe Shepard can prevent this one. On Pavalan, two Reapers crack a Turian frigate in half while the hulk of another lies beneath one of the behemoths. The Geth, the galaxy’s most advanced AI, are hacked. Shepard fails to complete an objective for like the first time in his life. So on and so forth. Hell, Earth falls within the game’s tutorial mission.
Meanwhile, earnest, mournful motifs punctuate Mass Effect 3’s score, replacing the energy of Mass Effect and the bombast of Mass Effect 2.
And of course, the game’s final mission features a battle between the Reapers and an inter-galactic armada, immediately followed by a somehow even more desperate ground offensive in London.
You basically don’t breathe for the last several hours of the series.
Masters of Subtlety
Despite all that intensity, the Mass Effect series usually manages to avoid overplaying its hand.
The Reapers’ attempt to harvest all advanced life in the galaxy is the central story of the Mass Effect series. As easy as it would have been to spend three games directly engaging Sovereign’s forces, the Reaper threat is slowly built over the course of the series. They attempt a quick victory in the first game and use proxies in the second before committing to a full-scale invasion in the third. The pacing of the series is such that we never fully understand the implications of the Reaper threat until it’s far too late. The more we know about the Reapers, the more terrifying they become.
Cerberus, the other primary antagonist of the Mass Effect series, is another great example. Cerberus is a nuisance in Mass Effect; a brutal, yet minor inconvenience to stopping Saren. They are humanized in Mass Effect 2. By working with the Illusive Man, we see that his ultimate goal is a worthwhile one, even if some of his methods may seem a bit extreme. Finally, Mass Effect 3 reveals that the Illusive Man has become indoctrinated, leading to Cerberus finally becoming the enemy they were always meant to be.
Masters of Tragedy
I’ve already talked about the change in mood and music in Mass Effect 3. It helped convey the sense that the universe was falling apart. But that doesn’t do any good if events on the screen don’t match the music. Dear god, they did.
For the sake of ease, and my own emotional balance, most of the tearjerkers below are taken and/or modified from TV Tropes’ page on that very topic. Still, I stopped writing this twice because I could feel my day slowly being ruined. If you’d like to cry for the rest of the day, you are welcome to check out the full list here.
-Thane Krios is dying from a terminal illness when Shepard meets him. But that does not lessen the impact of his last rites, where Shepard, Thane, and his son pray for Thane’s soul, only to find that they were actually praying for yours.
Thane: Kalahira, mistress of inscrutable depths, I ask forgiveness. Kalahira, whose waves wear down stone and sand-
Kolyat: Kalahira, wash the sins from this one and set him on the distant shore of the infinite spirit.
Kolyat: Kalahira, this one’s heart is pure, but beset by wickedness and contention.
Shepard: Guide this one to where the traveller never tires, the lover never leaves, the hungry never starve. Guide this one, Kalahira, and he will be a companion to you as he was to me.
-Mordin Solus, one of my favorite characters in the series, sacrifices himself to undo the Genophage he helped modify and disperse. If you listen closely while he’s singing his version of the Major General’s song, you can hear his voice cracking. Earlier, after spending Mass Effect 2 defending the Genophage, Mordin finally blurts out, “I made a mistake!” In that moment, his entire character snaps into perspective. All the logic, all the rationalization, all the denial takes on a whole new context when you realize that Mordin is overwhelmed with guilt. Later, you find one of his datapads. The last entry, in what had thus far been a hilarious recollection of Mordin’s past antics up to that point, is this song.
-Legion gives his life to provide the Geth with individuality. Tali, a lifelong enemy of the Geth, says goodbye by referencing the Geth question that initiated what amounts to the Quarian genocide of the geth, “Does this unit have a soul?”
Tali: Legion, the answer to your question… It’s yes.
Legion: I know, Tali. But thank you. Keelah se’lai.
More heart wrenching is that Legion had just recently become its own ‘person,’ meaning that the entity, and now individual, known as Legion truly died.
-I’ve already covered the Reaper invasion of Earth. It’s here.
-During the Rachni mission, you find a dead Krogan who left a message for an Asari on the Citadel. The message begins with the words “O blue rose of Illium,” making it obvious that this was the husband of an Asari you convinced to stay together with him. She is a widow because of you. If you deliver the message, the Asari, an incredibly strong woman, completely shatters.
-A Turian C-Sec officer assigned to the refugee camps has these resigned, tender, protective conversations with a young girl who is waiting for her clearly dead parents for arrive from a planet overrun by Reapers.
-Two off-duty nurses are broken down by their work. They are tired and heartbroken, but they are still volunteering for double shifts because “it’s not like they can sleep anyway.”
-A human soldier and his Asari soldier spouse are about ship out to the front lines. However, the human’s xenophobic family won’t take their child. The human pleads with an embassy clerk to send her child to Thessia to stay with the Asari mother’s family. The embassy worker goes the extra mile, finally succeeding in arranging the girl’s transport to Thessia. Of course, Thessia falls to Reaper invasion soon after.
-In the hospital, you hear the horrifying story of a PTSD-stricken Asari named Aeian who was deployed to the human colony of Tiptree. As she took her first shower in ages, their farm was attacked by one of the Aeian’s Reaperized friends. Everyone except Aeian and a teenage girl named Hillary were dead within minutes. They spent the next two days in the wilderness before sneaking back into the farmhouse to radio for help. They tried to free some humans from a barn first, only to find that they had been indoctrinated. Aeian ripped them apart with her biotics, but Hillary broke her leg. Hillary couldn’t stop whimpering as the Reapers drew near, so Aeian killed her to keep her quiet. Aeian now screams at the sight of humans. Worse still, Joker mentions that his father and sister are on Tiptree and even though he hasn’t heard from them yet, he’s hopeful because he heard the planet has been evacuated of non-combatants like his younger sister Hillary.
-Every final interaction between Shepard and a romanced teammate is brutal, but especially Tali’s. The way her voice cracks is just devastating.
Tali: “I want… more time.”
Shepard: “I know. Whatever happens…”
Tali: “I know.”
In the Extended Cut, Tali is injured and Shepard calls for a medevac. Tali, crippled, stained with blood, and on the verge of tears, doesn’t want to leave.
Shepard: I need you to make it out of here alive, Tali. Get back to Rannoch. Build yourself a home.
Tali: (clearly about to cry) I have a home.
Shepard: (turns around to leave)
Tali: (reaches out) Come back to me.
-An Elcor diplomat asks you to help evacuate civilians from the Elcor homeworld. After completing the mission, you can ask how many got away. His answer: “Not enough.” The rub is that Elcor voice inflections are too subtle for humans to understand, so they must announce their tone before every sentence. This time, he doesn’t specify his tone. He doesn’t need to.
-An Asari gunship pilot sacrifices herself to give Shepard more time to reach the temple. The pilot exhibits courage and gallows humor, all the while knowing full well she’ll never survive. Finally, “Talon-5… going down…”
-As you’re walking through the base in London you listen to an Alliance doctor talking to a civilian woman over the radio. She’s hiding with an unconscious soldier who is bleeding out. The doctor guides her through applying medi-gel, but the soldier dies anyway. Moments after, she sees Reaper forces approaching. She doesn’t want to be turned into a husk, so she kills herself with the dead soldier’s gun while the doctor listens, horrified.
Unlike other games where you are told things are dire, but never actually experience it (I’m looking at you Call of Duty: Ghosts), you are forced to reckon with the consequence of every action and every choice you make.
When you take those suspenseful missions and moments, combine them with the sort of storytelling that appeases one’s intellect, add in some serious emotional stakes, and sprinkle in a few doses of humor along the way, you get a player invested like they never have been before.
It’s not just that the Mass Effect series is the best at a few things. It’s that it’s just about the best at everything I want from a video game.