Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

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At one point in the last act of Mad Max: Fury Road there is a shot like something out of the far corner of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The land is gray and muddy, a glimpse of moisture in endless miles of desert. But this is no oasis; the air teems with crows, and the natives of this landscape are dressed in cloaks, walking on towering four-legged stilts. The film regards them for a moment, allowing us to take in the sinister beauty of what we are looking at. Whether or not the image had anything to do with the plot was not relevant to me at that moment: it was an image astonishing and completely new. I love when a movie offers me something I have never seen before. Mad Max: Fury Road offers such images like a buffet table, if that buffet table had wheels and a V8.

This is director George Miller’s fourth time in this world. Fury Road is so assured in the story it wants to tell, so relentlessly spectacular in a way that shames what we have come to accept as “spectacle” from our movies, that I wonder if the first three were simply an elaborate dress rehearsal for this one. I have long considered the ending of The Road Warrior my favorite movie chase scene. Trying to pick the best chase scene from Fury Road is fruitless; the chase in this movie begins in the first act and never lets up until the last scene. Tom Hardy is a splendid choice to take over the titular role. He has a weary charisma that always makes itself known, no matter how dark the material gets. But the real star of this film, in both plot and presence, is Charlize Theron. Her character, Imperitor Furiosa, is the film’s primary dynamic character, and the heartbeat of the film’s story. Max is an agent in her arc; he knows what he is about, but she is on the final chapter of a lifelong search for redemption. Her goal: save the five women enslaved for breeding by Immortan Joe, a hulking, pasty dictator who controls what must be the only water supply in a reasonable radius.

Immortan Joe wields control over a small empire; sickly, brainwashed young men called War Boys fight for him with the promise that he will lead them to Valhalla when they die. Children pound endlessly on drums to announce his presence, when he makes appearances for show from his lair within a towering desert cliff. In the canyon below, thousands of his subjects wait in desperation for the small amount of water he rations them, as he warns them not to get addicted to it. Miller has always excelled at building worlds on the fly, laughing off the idea of stopping for exposition. He makes full use of the screen as a canvas; the details, like the moment I mentioned in the opening here, never stop coming. Every new detail fills out another corner of this wild world he he crafted. Every detail adds to the story. At one point, Nux, a conflicted War Boy played by a splendid Nicholas Hoult, mentions his friends Barry and Harry. When asked who they are, he points to two lumps on shoulder. Believe me, knowing what we know about the world he has lived in, this ends up being far more heartbreaking than gross.

There are many little moments like that, flashes that tell us something about the people in this world. One moment that made me smile was an exhcnage between two of the women Furiosa is protecting: one of them (named The Dag) is praying furiously during a heated battle, using gestures from just about every known religion and I’m sure some that had since popped in the film’s universe. Another (named Cheedo the Fragile I was mistaken; it was, in fact, the extraordinarily named Toast the Knowing in this scene) asks, confused, who exactly she is praying too. “Whoever will listen,” Dag says.

These days it seems there is a general acceptance that lots of action must come at the expense of good characters. That, I think, underestimates how much story you can tell through action. There is a scene where Max and Furiosa come across a  woman suspended in a wooden tower, crying for help. Consider their respective reactions, and how much we can learn from the characters in just a few seconds: Max’s hesitation to help her comes from years of pragmatic survival and instinct. And the way Furiosa brushes off his concerns, it’s immediately apparent that she is not simply listening to her emotions; she clearly knows more about what is happening here than he does. This isn’t showy writing and acting, but it is good writing and acting, the sort of quickfire storytelling that a film that moves as much as this one needs. And by god does it move.

This is truly relentless action, a story told in 360 degrees. Every angle by which one might infiltrate a moving truck is explored here, including from directly above. Considering the lack of aircraft in this world, that particular method is truly ingenious. The film’s finest art direction is saved for these chase scenes, as armies of chopped and reassembled vehicles pursue Max and Furiosa’s single big-rig. At one point early in the film, the chase is underway, and we see a vehicle with a band of drummers pounding away, unexpectedly providing the film’s score. At the front of this truck was a guitarist, faceless with a ghoulish mask, held in place by bungee cords, rocking power chords as storms of dust kick up around him. That, I thought, is something I have never seen before.

The Best of Mass Effect: #1

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Where I rank my favorite Mass Effect missions. Spoilers abound.

#1. Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadow Broker

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If we were to single out superlatives- “the Most ____ mission in Mass Effect” just about any single one would apply to one of the missions I’ve already listed. Best combat? The Suicide Mission. Most thrilling story moment? Rannoch. Most references to sushi? Citadel.

But what makes Mass Effect so special is how it sustains its space opera format for more than 90 hours, long past the point such a story should be exhausted. And it does this by spinning a world replete with possibility. Our interest in the plot often takes a backseat to our curiosity in what’s going on around the edges. It’s the same appeal that has kept Star Wars fresh for nearly 40 years. It’s why Harry Potter will remain beloved for generations. The world is not simply the plotline. It’s full and robust. We never want to stop learning more about it.

Filling your story with strong characters is the best way to take advantage of a world like this. Give us an interesting character who knows this world. Let them take us on an adventure.

“Lair of the Shadow Broker”, more than any other mission in the game, puts Shepard on the periphery. You are watching someone else’s story play out. That someone is Liara T’Soni, one of the core crew from Mass Effect 1. In that game, she was fairly two-dimensional, lacking the satisfying arcs of some of the other characters. But in “Lair of the Shadow Broker” Liara was written with purpose. She is now a powerful information broker. The two years since Shepard’s initial demise have changed her considerably. She is more pragmatic now, and more capable of violence.

There is perhaps just one person who wields more influence than she: the mysterious “Shadow Broker”, an unknown entity who has been holding a friend of hers- a Drell named Feron- hostage for two years. “Lair of the Shadow Broker” takes you on Liara’s mission to rescue him.

This is a compelling enough plot for a mission, but it’s the richness of this story that sets it atop every other mission in the franchise. Nary a moment goes by that doesn’t add to the game’s greater world.

Lair of the Shadow Broker opens with something of a whodunit. Liara has asked Shepard to visit her apartment to talk about tracking down the Shadow Broker. You arrive to find her apartment empty, riddled with bullet holes, and an asari Spectre named Tela Vasir leading the investigation into the attempted assassination.

That Tela Vasir was the assassin, and that you need to team up with Liara to take her down before moving on to the Shadow Broker is not a surprise. But as always, good execution trumps all. The opening half of “Lair of the Shadow Broker” features a terrific series of fights, first through a bombed out business building, then a flying-car chase (!), and finally a showdown outside a fancy hotel. Sometimes good combat simply comes down to good use of space, and “Lair of the Shadow Broker” excels throughout, providing locations that require more thought and strategizing than simply hopping behind a crate and shooting. The fight against Tela is particularly fun; she proves to be a worthy adversary, and the game does an excellent job of conveying her combat skills by more than simply giving her impenetrable shields.

The moments after the fight with Tela, where you get your first real chance to talk with Liara, begin to set “Lair of the Shadow Broker’s” storytelling apart. If “Mass Effect 2″ falters at all, it’s that most of your conversations with your ME1 crew don’t thoroughly address the fact that Shepard has been gone and presumed dead for 2 years. There are perfunctory moments of shock, and some dismay about Shepard’s decision to work for Cerberus, but for the most part the game just continues down its road

“Lair of the Shadow Broker” gives Shepard and Liara the chance to actually catch up. Shepard gets the chance to pick her brain, to see how much she really has changed. And the dialogue isn’t always pleasant. It can be terse, even combative. We get to know Liara, and how she ticks, more in a few conversations in this game than we do in almost the entirety of ME1.

After a short bit of quiet, it’s time to go after the Shadow Broker on his turf. The Shadow Broker base is a masterpiece of art design. It’s a hulking behemoth encased within a thunderstorm. That’s a fairly accurate description of the Shadow Broker himself, who turns out to be a fearsome character, massive, toadlike except for a tricorn mouth overflowing with teeth. There is no cooler location in Mass Effect, and the final fight to take it is all the more exciting because of it.

Defeating the Shadow Broker is one of the most satisfying moments in Mass Effect. Liara is given a moment to revel in just how vast this accomplishment is, and what it means for the direction of the entire galaxy. It’s a moment both grand and intimate. Camaraderie is what Mass Effect does better than just about anything. Putting Shepard as the supporting player, helping Liara to her goal, was a terrific way to explore that side of the game.

“Lair of the Shadow Broker” is as ambitious as it is polished. It moves in grand gestures and quiet conversations. It is everything Mass Effect aspires to be. Games rarely aim this high. And those that do rarely succeed so spectacularly.

The Best of Mass Effect: #3 & #2

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Where I rank my favorite Mass Effect missions. Spoilers abound.

#3. Mass Effect 3: Priority: Rannoch

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Who do you want Shepard to be? That is driving force of the Mass Effect franchise. The choices presented are never a “win/loss” proposition. They add layers to a character whose story is unfolding in front of us. Usually, the consequences of those choices are clear; what’s at stake is simply how we desire to see the story play out. But Mass Effect is at its absolute best when there is at least some ambiguity to the consequences your choices, and when those consequences are massive for the story no matter what you choose. Never do those elements come together as beautifully as they do on the Quarian homeworld of Rannoch.

“Priority: Rannoch” is a marvelous payoff to the years of exposition building up to it. We first learn of the plight of the Quarians when we meet Tali in the first game. They were driven off of Rannoch when the AI species they developed, called the Geth, rebelled. The Geth were antagonists in ME1, and our sympathies are naturally on the Quarians’ side from the outset.

Then slowly, over the course of the next two games, we begin empathize with the Geth. In ME2, we meet one who isn’t hostile, a Geth sniper who goes by the name Legion. Shepard’s talks with Legion shed vast swaths of new light on how the Geth operate, and how they are not necessarily hostile. Then in ME3, we learn that the Geth were actually quite sympathetic, that the Quarians tried to wipe them out as soon as they gained sapience, and they fought back simply to survive. By the time we get to Rannoch, it’s impossible to see the Geth/Quarian conflict in purely binary terms, or the Geth as simple machines.

Ostensibly, Shepard goes to Rannoch to destroy a Reaper base located there. And the mission to do that is a thrilling one, culminating in one of the most absurd and entertaining moments in the games: Shepard using a laser targeting system to single-handedly take out a Reaper. Moments like this don’t exactly jibe with the idea that Reapers are a borderline-Godlike in their invincibility, but it’s still a tremendously exciting moment.

After killing the Reaper, Legion sees an opportunity to rewrite all Geth, giving them true individual autonomy and sapience. The Quarian admirals seize the period Legion spends reprogramming the Geth as a chance to destroy the Geth fleet. Once Legion finishes the reprogram, the Geth will come back online and destroy the entire Quarian flotilla, wiping their race entirely.

Ticking time bomb scenarios are hard to make plausible. This one works, because it stems from every character making spur of the moment decisions. It doesn’t feel planned and arbitrary. And all the potential payoffs carry extraordinary consequences with them. No matter your choice or the outcome, it’s a culmination of some superb world building over the course of three games. No single choice in these carries quite as much weight as the one you make on Rannoch. Never is Mass Effect more thrilling.

#2. Mass Effect 2: The Suicide Mission

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I have already written at length about how good the final mission of Mass Effect 2 is. That won’t stop me from writing about it some more.

The Suicide Mission is as exhilarating a sustained climax as I’ve ever played through in a video game. Mass Effect 2 eschewed the moral dilemmas that the first game featured. Instead, the choices you make over the games are integrated more subtly. A simple upgrade to your ship’s armor earlier in the game might end up saving someone’s life. Simply waiting too long to start the mission can cost someone their life. It adds up to a unique sense of chaos and even helplessness. Characters can be killed and there’s nothing you can do about it. That chance has passed you buy. You can’t help but get a bit weak in the knees at the scale of this undertaking.

There is a narrative freedom here that the other two games lack, almost by design. The first game had the get the gears of this vast story churning. The third game buckles somewhat under the pressure of wrapping it up. But Mass Effect 2 had a story with its mythology, world, and protagonist already well-developed, and the freedom to steer the plot in a satisfying direction without having to finish it. Bioware was free to give Mass Effect 2 the sort of epic final set piece that the first game hadn’t yet built to and that the third game couldn’t squeeze in between all the story’s threads being knotted.

I’ve mentioned before that art direction was not always a strong suit of Mass Effect 1. Mass Effect 2 was a huge overhaul in that regard, and never is it more evident than the final battle. The opening cinematic sets the tone beautifully, as the Normandy plows through many centuries of debris, from ships that made this one-way journey before. The collector base feels bigger inside than it looks on the outside, giving it the feel of an unholy cathedral.

The battles are also beautifully structured and paced. There’s the opening race, as you fight from checkpoint to checkpoint to make sure a crewmember whom you have sent crawling through a ventilation system has clear passage to their destination. There’s “The Long Walk”, a terrific set piece in which you remain under a massive biotic bubble, moving inexorably through a sea of hostiles. The use of cutscenes makes sure that the entire team feels involved, rather than waiting off-screen as character unselected for missions usually do. All the while, you are forced to make on the fly decisions that have a real effect on which characters live or die: for example, your choice of tech and biotic specialists can backfire if you don’t weight your options carefully.

“The Suicide Mission” showcases everything that makes Mass Effect great. Terrific action, quickfire interactive storytelling with hard-hitting consequences, and a sense of scale and scope that space operas often aspire to and rarely achieve. It is the best mission in the core Mass Effect games, and it’s not particularly close.

Tomorrow: The very best that Mass Effect has to offer

The Best of Mass Effect- #5 and #4

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Where I rank my favorite Mass Effect missions. Spoilers abound.

#5. Mass Effect 2: Archangel

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One of the delights of Mass Effect 2 is how it works in nostalgia from the first game so deftly. Early in the game, you are assigned a group of people specially chosen by the Illusive Man to recruit for your team. One of them is a mysterious Turian vigilante known only as Archangel. Almost right away, it seems pretty obvious who this Turian is, but getting to that reveal is still a ton of fun.

To find Archangel, you join a mission on Omega, which is like the Citadel only basted in grime. The mission is the joint effort of the three primary criminal gangs Archangel has been screwing with plan to finally take him out. This is a terrific storytelling device. For starters, it introduces us to the criminal underbelly of Omega, which the gangs- called Blood Pack, Blue Suns, and Eclipse- typically battle for control over. That they’ve joined to fight Archangel tells you all you need to know about why you want him on your team. Of course, you also know that you will soon have to join Archangel in fighting all three of these gangs, making that eventual betrayal of them that much more memorable and intense a moment.

Few firefights in the Mass Effect games are as entertaining as this one, as you make a run for the apartment where Archangel is holed up in, before making use of every space within it to fight off the hordes of attackers. Mass Effect battles are rarely this breathless. You scarcely have time to notice how rapidly the action ratchets upward, and before long you are gunning down mechs and gunships as attackers rappel through the windows.

Of course, the climax of the mission is the revelation that Archangel is actually Garrus. It’s not a surprising revelation, but it’s a deeply satisfying one. Of course, the mission ends with Garrus taking a rocket to the face, but it only leaves him scarred and more motivated to join your team. Archangel finds the perfect balance of nostalgia, exciting combat, and the sort of incredible forward momentum that RPGs all too often lack in their early stages. Mass Effect 2’s propulsive narrative never looks back from this terrific mission.

#4. Mass Effect 3: Priority: Tuchanka

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Try to describe “Priority: Tuchanka” in one word. My choice would be “unrelenting”. This level goes for every part of the jugular. Shepard heads to the Krogan homeworld to finally put an end to the Krogan genophage, and a moment so huge in the game’s mythology gets a mission to match. Not that it simply turns the volume to 11 and leaves it there. A journey through a long-forgotten underground Krogan temple provides a nice respite from the action, and a hint of possibility that the Krogan might just succeed at revitalizing their war-torn planet.

No mission packs quite so many cinematic moments into such a short amount of time. There’s the aforementioned trip through the underground Temple. There’s a speech by Urdnot Wrex (if he survives the first game) and Eve, a female Krogan who becomes a beacon of hope for the entire species, urging the clans to finally put an end to their endless warring. There’s a desperate run through an ancient religious site as reaper Brutes descend on you in droves as you attempt to summon a titanic thresher maw. Said thresher maw kills a damned Reaper.

A giant thresher maw kills a damned Reaper!

And amazingly, that’s just when it starts getting good. The true climax of the mission involves Shepard’s decision of whether or not to end the Krogan genophage. And it’s not necessarily an easy choice. If Wrex survives ME1, he takes up leading the Krogan by ME3, and his plans call for peace with the other species once the war the with Reapers is over. It’s a no brainer to end the genophage and let the Krogan have Krogan babies again.

But if he dies in the first game, his brother Wreav- a warmonger with none of Wrex’s wisdom- is the dominant clan leader. And he plans all-out war with the other species once the genophage is cured. Additionally, Eve, another voice of wisdom and a powerful figure among the Krogan, can die during the mission. A future with Wrex and Eve leading the Krogan is a vastly different one than one with Wreav alone.

If that’s not enough to chew on, there’s also the matter of Mordin Solus. The brilliant, Gilbert and Sullivan-loving scientist Salarian was beloved fan favorite from Mass Effect 2. By Mass Effect 3, he has become guilt-ridden about the genophage, and will do anything to cure it, including heading to the top of the crumbling tower that will be its delivery system, where he will certainly die. You can try to talk him out of it, ending the hope for the genophage being cured. If you are a truly evil Shepard, you can kill him to prevent the genophage from being cured. Or you can bid him a final farewell and let him carry out the mission. It’s a lot to grapple with in a short amount of time, and the sheer variety of choices and the reach of their implications is what Mass Effect provides at its very best.

Tomorrow: #3 and #2.

The Best of Mass Effect, #10-#6

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Where I rank my favorite Mass Effect missions. Spoilers abound.

10. Mass Effect 3: Priority- Earth

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What’s this? The infamous ending of Mass Effect 3 makes my top ten?

Not quite.

I don’t care much for anything involving the star ghost child. I’m talking, instead, about everything before you end up on the Citadel again.

Because honestly, until the anti-climax to end all anti-climaxes, the final mission of Mass Effect 3 hits all the emotional notes I want and need from a Bioware RPG.

I’m talking about the final farewells you have with your crew. Every time I play this game, at least one goodbye gets to me. The first time, it was Samantha Traynor’s tearful, heartbreaking soliloquy about the life she wants with Shepard when the war is over. The second time, I was moved by Liara’s farewell gift for Shepard, one-last Asari mind meld before almost certain death. Most recently, it was Garrus who got to me, waxing about meeting Shepard in heaven should they both perish in the final battle. It’s a showcase for some of the best character writing in the games, and the characters are why I return to Mass Effect again and again. And as I’ve made peace with the ending, Shepard’s final moments with the Normandy crew are what I remember most.

#9. Mass Effect 2: Stealing Memory DLC

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The best DLC are those that make the game feel even more complete. Weak DLC feel like an add on. Great DLC provide us with something new, something fresh, and make the game feel more complete.

The terrific “Stealing Memory” DLC is worth every penny of the purchase. For starters, it adds the delightful Kasumi Goto to your crew. Kasumi is a thief and a charmer at that. Her stories and observations about the rest of the crew are quite entertaining. Simply adding her to the mix is worth it. But her loyalty mission is a blast as well. It starts off as a heist at a fancy party, hosted by a notorious criminal, and ends with a thrilling firefight as Shepard and Kasumi blast their way out of a criminal’s hideout. There are a lot of fun details along the way, like the criminal’s art collection, featuring artifacts from both Earth and, uh, Thedas (see: Dragon Age: Origins; also, play Dragon Age: Origins, it’s fantastic). “Stealing Memory” is some of the purest entertainment the Mass Effect games have to offer.

#8. Mass Effect: Virmire

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Virmire is where we all learned just what Mass Effect was made of, and how far it would be willing to go. It is a terrific firefight bookended by two heartstopping moments that helped define Mass Effect’s style.

The first moment is a showdown between Shepard and the Krogan, Wrex. The mission on Virmire involves stopping a doctor who is working on a potential cure for the Krogan Genophage- a genetic mutation inflicted on the Krogan that prevents them from conceiving- and Wrex isn’t happy. He pulls a gun on Shepard. If you can’t talk him down, you will have to kill him (or otherwise let Ashley do so for you). It’s a thrilling moment, and a brutal one if you fail to calm Wrex.

After that messy piece of business, the mission begins. A long and entertaining firefight later, Shepard is once again forced into a nightmarish decision: Ashley and Kaiden are both pinned down. You can save one, and let the other die. Many people prefer one or neither of these characters, making it an easy choice. But after three playthroughs, I’m damned attached to both Ashley and Kaiden. The choice is extraordinarily difficult for me every single time. And while the “ethical dilemma with no outs” is not the most elegant form of interactive storytelling, but it’s well-placed at the climax of the best and most sustained action sequence of the first game.

Virmire is where Mass Effect became Mass Effect. It’s not my single favorite mission from the first game, but in many ways it’s the most memorable.

7. Mass Effect 2: Eye for an Eye

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Mass Effect 2 stands out for its characters. New characters, like Thane, Kasumi, Miranda, Samara and Jack, are terrific and fascinating in their own right. But it’s what the game does with the original cast that sends it to its greatest heights. I’ve already mentioned Tali’s loyalty mission. Garrus’s loyalty mission is much more spare. Earlier in the game, we find that Garrus has spent the two years in between ME1 and ME2 working as a vigilante, targeting the galaxy’s most violent criminal organizations. He once had a crew helping him, but they were wiped out when Sidonis, a member of the crew, ratted on them. Now Garrus wants to find Sidonis and kill him.

This is a two-parter: the first involves a firefight in a warehouse as you track down the person who has Sidonis’s location. It’s the second part of the mission, once Garrus has Sidonis’s location, that sets it apart.

The second part of “Eye for an Eye” is a fascinating test for the player. Do you simply let Garrus shoot Sidonis? Or do you sabotage the assassination? I’ve seen some people argue that any true friend of Garrus would always let him get his revenge. But once you talk to Sidonis, things get more complicated. He is a broken man, consumed with guilt for his betrayal. What good would killing him do? Do you truly want to end his life for Garrus’s base satisfaction? And is letting Garrus walk this path what a true friend would do?

Revenge is all too commonly accepted on its face as motive enough to kill someone. “Eye for an Eye” forces you to reckon with the consequences of a single potential revenge killing, and it is one of the best storytelling moments in the game for it.

6. Mass Effect: Ilos

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This is how you do exposition, Bioware.

My biggest issue with the ending of Mass Effect 3 is less a matter of agency than storytelling. It is a suffocating anti-climax. You have done all that has been asked of you, and suddenly you are presented with a full-sized buffet of new mythology, presented by a deeply irritating tiny space-ghost.

“Ilos” gets it right. It presents the information- in this case, the fate of the Protheans and the nature of Reaper indoctrination- as a prize. It is what you are seeking, so hearing it is gratifying, not stultifying. And everything else about the level is pretty damn great as well.

It begins with a terrific cutscene, as Joker, the ever-present and ever-wiseass pilot- pulls off a daring drop to get you and your crew into a tiny landing zone. Ilos itself is one of the finest works of art direction in the franchise. It’s peaceful, eerie, and brimming with age and character. It’s hard to make something feel ancient in a video game, but “Ilos” succeeds. The silence is broken with a series of terrific firefights, far more varied and fun than most of the combat in ME1.

The conversation with Vigil, the VI program that tells you what you need to know about the coming Reaper invasion, is a welcome break in the action. The music that plays during the scene, by Jack Wall, is some of the best in all of the games. The “Vigil” theme is sort of the unofficial theme of the entire franchise. It plays over the opening menu of ME1, and the way it plays in ME3 during conversations with the original crew is one of my favorite touches in that game.

The level’s ending- a desperate race to a closing portal that takes you to the Citadel and the game’s finale- is the most delightfully cinematic moment in ME1. It’s a terrific climax to the best mission in the game.

The Best of Mass Effect, #15-11

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Where I rank my favorite Mass Effect missions. Spoilers abound.

#15. Mass Effect: Eden Prime

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This is the mission that kicks off the entire trilogy, and it’s a damn memorable one. It jumps headlong into the meat of the game’s story, showcasing the murder at the beginning of the trail that Shepard will follow all the way to the eventual Reaper invasion two games later. A simple recon mission; exploring a human colony that is reportedly under attack; is the start of this sprawling epic.

It’s full of terrific, cinematic moments, including the Shepard’s discovery of the Prothean beacon, the introduction of Ashley Williams, and the murder of one Spectre, Nihlus by another, Saren. As you play through the trilogy, Saren is utterly dwarfed by the other antagonists the game throws at you (he is, after all, simply a pawn of the Reapers), but he more than does his job of providing a compelling reason to go on a chase around the galaxy, and his introduction is an effective one. The first mission of an RPG doesn’t have to do much, beyond providing a basic tutorial. But it’s always refreshing when they plunge into the story as well as Eden Prime does. It also gets more poignant on multiple playthroughs, as you realize just what lies ahead for Shepard, from these comparatively humble beginnings.

#14. Mass Effect 2: Dossier- The Assassin

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Thane Krios is one of the most compelling characters in the Mass Effect franchise. He is an assassin, but he bears none of the traits of a typical fictional killer. He is oddly compassionate, prone to earnest, deeply spiritual philosophizing, and Shepard’s conversations with him feature some of the best character writing in any Bioware game. But before all that, you have to recruit him, and the mission to do so is terrific. You are racing Thane to the top of an apartment tower, where his target for a contract awaits. The bulk of the mission is combat, as you fight through waves of mercenaries bent on stopping you and willing to kill anyone in their path (including a number of innocent apartment staff). It’s straightforward combat, but fun. The mission provides some fascinating hints of Thane’s character, though; he saves the lives of a number staff members who were about to be murdered by the mercenaries. And when he reaches and kills his target, his demeanor is oddly spiritual. Right away, you want to know more about this strange alien assassin. It’s a fascinating introduction to a fascinating character.

13. Mass Effect 2: Rite of Passage

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Variety was not a strong suit of the first Mass Effect. Many missions played out in more or less identical bunkers, to the point that you could plan your attack for almost any firefight without seeing the layout of the area first; you knew it was the same as first 15 iterations of it. This also staled the gameplay, as numerous locations lacked any of their own distinguishing characteristics

Mass Effect 2 addressed this problem quite nicely, and most of the missions have their own unique character, both in its level designs and ambiance. And strictly on those terms, “Rite of Passage” succeeds superbly.

The mission focuses on Grunt, a tank-bred Krogan with no past or memories of his own. Desperate to feel like a member of his species, he asks you to take him to the Krogan homeworld of Tuchanka to go through the traditional warrior’s rite of passage and join a clan.

Two things make the mission stand out. First is the atmosphere. We don’t see much of Tuchanka, but what we can see gives us an immediate understanding of the state of the Krogan. The buildings on the planet are almost all shells, bombed out and crumbling. The wildlife outside is vicious and deadly.

The second is the crash course in Krogan culture, and the return of Wrex, a fan favorite from Mass Effect 1. If Wrex survives that game, he returns to Tuchanka to attempt to unite the Krogan and put an end to their centuries of scattered civil wars. Seeing your old friends from the first game in the sequels always tugs the heartstrings, and although it would have been fun to be able to have Wrex on your team in Mass Effect 2, the reason for his absence is, at least, narratively satisfying.

Of course, the mission itself is quite fun, as you fight off wave after wave of hostile Krogan fauna, culminating in a fight for your life against a “thresher maw”, the massive subterranean worms that are a massive pain in the ass in the first game. Their more sparing appearances in the next two games are far more effective (as we will see again later in the list). It’s one of the most arcade-y mission in the series, but that’s not criticism. It makes sense that the Krogan have designed it like this: it seems like their idea of a fun time.

#12. Mass Effect 2: Treason

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Tali is on trial for treason. It’s up to Shepard to represent her in court. It’s a beautifully simple setup for mission.

Tali and Garrus are the only two side characters who are playable in all three games (“Lair of the Shadow Broker” notwithstanding). It makes sense that their personal missions are consistently some of the strongest in the games. Here, Tali is charged with treason for sending active Geth to the Quarian flotilla. The ship containing the Geth was one her father worked on. On it are both the evidence you’ll need to clear her name, and a sizeable number of hostile Geth.

This mission is, quite frankly, all about the trial at the end. Every outcome is interesting. Do you present the evidence that vindicates Tali but that destroys her father’s reputation? Do you refuse to do so, resulting in Tali’s exile but earning her thanks for sparing her father’s name?

I imagine most players go for the least logical but, by far, the most entertaining option: using the Renegade or Paragon option to basically give her judges the middle finger and shame them into acquitting her because you are Shepard and she is your friend, so she’s not guilty, damn it. I can’t say this outcome ever makes sense to me, but it is incredibly satisfying. Mass Effect’s entire story is built on the foundation of characters from around the galaxy coming together and forming bonds that will take them through hell and back. And when Shepard takes the Quarian Council to task, it’s one of the most potent demonstrations of that foundation.

#11. Mass Effect 3: Citadel DLC

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I wasn’t sure where to put Citadel DLC. At various points it was both in my top 5 and out of the list entirely. Is it too silly, or just right? Does its unrelenting desire to have fun mask its slightness? I have read complaints that “Citadel” is too fan service-y, that it undermines the momentum of the plot, and that it is just damn goofy for its own good. I have also read takes that it is the true ending of the Mass Effect trilogy, a joyful romp that many players prefer to the canonical finale.

My sympathies are much closer to the latter group. Ultimately, I just enjoy “Citadel” too damn much to ignore it. Yes it’s silly to a fault, but in a completely lighthearted way, self-aware without the snark. And while I don’t view it as the end of the game (there’s no real closure to it, and it makes most sense to play it before the final mission), I do think it serves a legitimate purpose to the overall story beyond simply providing a few hours of joviality to the otherwise very somber Mass Effect 3 experience.

The main plot, involving Shepard doing battle with a mysterious doppelganger, is wall-to-wall with goofy one-liners, with every member of the crew contributing. They don’t all hit, but then it doesn’t feel like the game is trying to knock you out with humor. Every joke contributes to the overall laid-back tone, which I think is best described as Mass Effect’s version of an X-Files comedy episode. That show, which usually danced stone-faced through stories on the edge of ridiculousness, would occasionally let its hair down and poke fun at itself for an episode. Many of those episodes rank among the show’s best- they were welcome breaks to all the darkness, reminders of how close the show always was to absolute silliness, and how impressive it was that the show rarely crossed that line.

The second half of “Citadel” is a huge (literal) party featuring almost every character in the game’s main cast. Yes, it is unabashed fan service (it culminates in a group photo around the couch). But fan service isn’t inherently bad. In this case, it’s less “give the people what they want” than Bioware recognizing how much camaraderie between the characters is such an essential aspect of these games. There’s more to storytelling than plot, after all. In that sense, it’s an absolutely essential DLC to have.

The Best of Mass Effect: Honorable mentions

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SPOILERS AHEAD

I recently finished my third playthrough of the Mass Effect series, which means it’s time for me to devote some time on this blog to my favorite game franchise.

All week long, I’m going to be counting down my 15 favorite missions from the Mass Effect games. But in compiling the list, there were a few that didn’t make the final cut that I couldn’t just ignore. Here are the honorable mentions:

Mass Effect- Noveria

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The mission on Noveria goes on perhaps a bit too long for its own good.

All right, scratch that, it’s way too long. By the time I actually reached Matriarch Benezia to fight her, I was ready to melt the entire miserable, frozen block of ice. But the showdown with Benezia is good stuff. The fight itself is challenging and forces you to use your wits, as wave after wave of Asari commandos pour in on you. After defeating her, the revelation that she has been brainwashed is a watershed moment in the game’s story, the first real encounter with the Reaper tactic of “indoctrination”: brainwashing people to aid their species’ eventual destruction. Benezia fights off her indoctrination for a moment, just enough time to tell her daughter Liara that she loves her before dying.

Did I mention that this mission can involve Liara T’Soni having to kill her own mother? For all my quibbles with how the Mass Effect writers handled Liara throughout the series (and the quibbles are many), it’s a legitimately sad moment, one that showed that these games wouldn’t hold back on any of their characters.

Mass Effect 2- Prologue: Shepard’s Death

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No event in the Mass Effect games is quite as shocking as Shepard’s death in the opening moments of Mass Effect 2. Obviously, we can assume that this is not the end of the line for Shep, but it is still a standout moment that shakes you to your bones right out of the gate. The prologue begins with a rush of nostalgia: From that initial appearance of the Normandy, to Shepard stepping into the frame and telling Kaiden/Ashley to evacuate, to forcing Joker out of the cockpit. It’s all a very cinematic way to open the game. But the moment Shepard gets spaced, we know that this game is going to take a radically different route than the first.

Mass Effect 3- Prologue: Earth

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Mass Effect 3’s opening sequence is more somber than the action-packed opening to ME2. Shepard is standing before the Alliance Council, pleading once more with higher-ups to help them with the upcoming Reaper threat. Before Shep can even begin to get frustrated with their waffling, the Reapers attack Earth. The mission itself is straightforward, working in the usual tutorial elements and some basic, easy combat. But it hits all the right emotional notes. Mass Effect 3 plays out under a Reaper-sized shadow of desperation and doom. The opening to the most somber entry into the trilogy features some of its finest music, the spare and despairing “Leaving Earth” by Clint Mansell.

The war on Earth is one of the primary emotional veins that Mass Effect 3 mines from. The prologue does a terrific job of making it personal without diluting the scope.

Mass Effect 3- Priority: The Citadel II

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A lot of major action occurs on The Citadel throughout the games. It gets invaded perhaps a bit too frequently for a contained location that is the hub of all galactic civilization. Get some better security, damn it.

Regardless, Cerberus’s attack on The Citadel in Mass Effect 3 begins a pretty straightforward, entertaining mission, and rapidly ratchets up the stakes. It introduces Kai Leng, the merciless Cerberus assassin who harangues Shepard throughout the game. It features a Mexican Standoff with Ashley/Kaiden that can end with their death in a worst case scenario, or their joining your crew for one last spin on the Normandy in a best case. It’s a narratively rich and exciting mission that misses on my top 15 list for one reason: the shambolic way it handles the death of Thane. Thane, one of the best characters in the franchise, is given a brief moment in the spotlight, attempting to fight Kai Leng before being stabbed, as Shepard inexplicably watches without helping. Later, he dies in a rather muted scene that just does not have the sort of weight his character deserves. Mass Effect 3 caught some flack for how it handled the stories of its Mass Effect 2 cast, but no character was quite so manhandled as Thane. Still, the mission as a whole is strong enough that it merits mention. Without that drawback, it’s easily a top 10 mission.

Next up, #’s 15-11

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