As the decade comes to a close, I make the case for why Bioware’s Mass Effect 3 deserves the moniker of Best of the Decade.
With Matt and Katy‘s excellent articles explaining their picks for the best games of the decade, it’s my turn. To my surprise, my choice came far easier than I expected. While I loved many games over the last 10 years (even expounding on my love for The Last of Us just the other month), there was one title that kept floating to the top of my mind: Mass Effect 3.
There are a number of things I look for when I go to pick up a game: gameplay (I’m more of a strategy gamer than anything that requires twitch mechanics) and genre (give me a farming sim or Uncharted-esque action/adventure any day) are definitely high on my list. The most important element for me, however, is the story. Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy manages to hit just about every box on my list, and then some.
The RPG genre was never one of my favorites when I was younger, but Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic game helped me come to appreciate the storytelling power I’d been missing out on. As such, I was eager to dive into their original IP endeavor with the first Mass Effect. I was completely blown away. From the action elements, to the exploration, and the setting, the game is a LOT to take in. The story pulls you in almost immediately, thrusting you into the heart of this science fiction world they’ve created, populated with characters you genuinely care for, and want to learn more about. Couple this with some epic set pieces and the promise of a larger story at play, and I was thoroughly hooked.
Mass Effect 2 sucked me into the overall story even further, as we journeyed across the galaxy to face a “new” threat, that ultimately turned out to be related to our previous enemies, the Reapers. While it was a lot of fun, some of the tweaks made to it felt too much in one direction, eschewing some of the deeper RPG elements from the first game, and also pushing almost all the characters/party members we developed connections to aside…
In 2010, the start of the decade, fans were treated to their first look at the final game in the trilogy during the Spike TV Game Awards (a precursor to the current Game Awards show), and it was EPIC. It promised a finale unlike any other, thrusting us deep into the heart of the war while making it personal by showing the Reapers invading Earth.
By the time Mass Effect 3 released in 2012, fans were chomping at the bit to get their hands on it and see how the story played out. It’s an experience that has stuck with me all these years later, and not one I’m soon to forget.
Bringing it Back Home
Picking up Mass Effect 3 felt a lot like putting on my favorite clothes and relaxing. Bioware did an excellent job of thrusting you back into the action and in the midst of a new story, without feeling like any time had passed at all. It felt like catching up with an old friend as it seamlessly brought you into the new story.
A lot of this has to do with the fact that Mass Effect 3 did a far better job of incorporating the old and the new. Mass Effect 2 mostly wiped the slate clean at the beginning, even relegating our original love interest to a bit cameo appearance. While the story in 2 largely continued on from before, it could have just as easily been played on its own.
It’s a criticism Bioware took to heart and the third game managed to strike an incredible balance between incorporating things from both previous games in a satisfying way. Not only does it bring back characters from the first game in a more meaningful way (my love interest was BACK!) it dealt with non-returning party members in a significant way. Thane Krios, an assassin party member from the previous game was an integral member of your team and potential love interest. He’s missing from the roster at the start of Mass Effect 3, but we find him later on in the hospital.
The disease we learned of in the last game has progressed to the point he requires daily medical care to function. The following dialog makes for some touching moments as we learn more about what’s been going on with him since leaving the team. But it doesn’t end there. Despite not being a party member, Thane still serves an integral part of the story, alerting players to Cerberus attacking the Citadel, even helping take down the assassin sent to deal with the Salarian Councillor. As we say our goodbyes at his bedside, it’s clear that he was more than a simple footnote for the sequel.
Other Mass Effect 2 squad members are treated with similar reverence (aside from those who return to your party), making it clear the story honors the decisions/story threads from the previous games in a more connective way. Hell, there comes a point where you have to have conversations with your first love interest about the one from the second game (or choose to stay with the one from the sequel).
Even beyond the story, however, Mass Effect 3 balances out the gameplay. Taking the feedback from fans, Bioware implemented some of the deeper RPG mechanics that were lacking from the second game. They managed to do this while still retaining the smooth flow of combat, even adding more options (the blade) to take enemies head-on. It allowed gamers who preferred the action heavy approach to stick with that, while giving more strategic gamers, the RPG elements to customize to their heart’s content. The balance is impressive and the word “refined” comes to mind when I think on the game even now.
This level of balance/refinement in gameplay have helped influence action-RPGs throughout the rest of the decade. The story in Mass Effect 3, however, is still what sticks with me the most. The game does an excellent job of making the Reapers feel like a tangible threat throughout the entire game.
Everyone knows the memes about RPGs, where the world is on the brink of disaster, but you decide to take a detour to help someone pick flowers. In Mass Effect 3 even the side quests feel like a significant part of the overall story and threat. There’s an ever present tension that follows, no matter what you do. A big part of this has to do with the tracking of your Military Strength throughout the game.
Your primary goal is to acquire war assets that will help give you the edge when it comes time to battle it out with the Reapers once and for all. Failing to do certain things can drop your ranking, which could impact the ending you get as well as which of your party members survives to see the ending. This was augmented by the online component (Galactic Readiness). I know not everyone was thrilled with having this multiplayer aspect connected to the story, but I loved it.
I’m not a big multiplayer gamer, mostly because story-based gaming is my main impetus for playing. As such, I appreciated how they incorporated it into the story in such a significant way. I can honestly say I probably would have never touched the multiplayer if not for this connection.
Along these same lines, the connections you build with your characters feel more potent than ever before. This pervasive sense of doom adds even more weight to your choices, as you’re keenly aware that the wrong decision could result in the death of a beloved character. While some are going to happen regardless, it made every encounter and dialog option feel weightier to me.
In an industry that’s built on franchise I always found it impressive how Mass Effect 3 managed to feel like an ending. Even back then, most of us knew the series would continue in some form (which would ultimately come to fruition with Mass Effect: Andromeda), but the game still manages to bring the feeling that we were witnessing the end of an era. Between the storytelling beats, the character interactions, and the mechanics, everything built toward the idea that things would never be the same again.
And that’s not to mention the incredible set pieces featured throughout the game (like the Reaper battle on Rannoch). The epic nature of some of these battles continue to stick in my memory, even long after I’ve seen the end credits. Hell, I was still thinking about them a few times throughout my Andromeda playthrough…
Not everyone was enamored with the ending, however, feeling the choices given at the end didn’t provide a sound enough conclusion. Personally, I disagreed and felt some of the hoopla surrounding the “controversy” was a bit over the top from fans. Yet, once again Bioware showed their willingness to listen to gamers and take feedback seriously. Of the few DLC’s released, one was an “Extended Cut” ending that offered a bit more closure to Commander Shephard’s story.
The Personal Factor
There’s a personal reason why Mass Effect 3 hold such a special place in my gaming heart. The game launched, roughly, around the same time that my (then) wife and I had separated. Don’t worry, it turned out to be for the best (she’s pretty useless and completely abandoned our son), but it was obviously a highly emotional time for me.
Playing through Mass Effect 3 helped a lot, and not just as an escape. The game’s story is one of love and loss, fighting for something bigger than yourself, and leaning on those closest to you for support. Silly as it may sound, these themes and playing through the various connections with my party members assisted me in working through my own feelings and dealing with the dramatic shift in my life.
While it’s kind of humorous now, Mass Effect 3 also helped me be a bit more assertive and realize I could stand up for myself a bit. You see, she’d pretty much taken over the house and wouldn’t let me in (a BUNCH of my nerd stuff ended up sold or missing), and that included my Xbox 360 that had the save data from Mass Effect 1 and 2 on it! I had to get it back in order to play Mass Effect 3, which means I had to actually put my foot down and go back to claim what was mine.
Again, kinda silly and funny to think on now, but it’s a moment that has stuck with me all these years later.
Mass Effect 3 still feels like a master class in how to wrap up a trilogy. Sure, there’s still some wiggle room for improvement (I don’t think any story is perfect), but it managed to be fun, engaging, and with many memorable sequences gamers are likely to be talking about in the next decade as well.