The Best of Mass Effect, #10-#6
Where I rank my favorite Mass Effect missions. Spoilers abound.
10. Mass Effect 3: Priority- Earth
What’s this? The infamous ending of Mass Effect 3 makes my top ten?
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
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
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
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
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.