The Best of Mass Effect, #15-11
Where I rank my favorite Mass Effect missions. Spoilers abound.
#15. Mass Effect: Eden Prime
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
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
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
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
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.