The Best of Mass Effect: #3 & #2
Where I rank my favorite Mass Effect missions. Spoilers abound.
#3. Mass Effect 3: Priority: Rannoch
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
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