The final battle has arrived for Commander Shepard, and for life both organic and synthetic across the galaxy. The Reapers have attacked Earth and their aim is to destroy all life that has reached a certain level of development in a process that cycles every 50,000 years. Shepard now has to build a war fleet and find out information in order for a weapon to be built, based on plans that have been passed down from previously annihilated species, called the Crucible. During this quest, moral decisions have to be made based on what you consider ‘life’ to actually mean.
The third of the Mass Effect games, which completes a series that began back in 2008, forms a fascinating climax to a story which builds you up as a character from first coming across the evidence of horrific mutilation and modification of humans on the planet of Eden Prime to turn them into synthetic zombies called husks, through making decisions as to whether killing 300,000 colonists is right in order to save billions in the long run, to finally having to make the ultimate decision of whether technology should be destroyed altogether and reducing human development back by over a thousand years, controlling the reaper threat and therefore stopping the immediate war but knowing that wars in the galaxy will continue for subsequent generations, or physically leaping into the unknown and forging a new future where synthetic and organic life is combined.
It’s a lot to take in when you’re lying on the couch in your dressing gown on a Saturday morning, but that is what makes the Mass Effect games so good – you get involved in the very heart of decision making that will change not only human history but the history of all of the races in the galaxy. It works so well in my opinion because it gets the balance right between action and plot. Yes, you have all sorts of guns to blast things to bits with and you have a range of biotic powers to make fights more interesting, but there’s also character development, particularly if you play them in order and move your character and the decisions you made in previous games over to the next. Relationships can be influenced and you choose who accompanies you on missions, so you end up caring for at least some of those who fight alongside you. This works better with some characters rather than others; Garrus Vakarian in particular is a great character who is a good mix of being a ‘good guy’ but also not being afraid of stepping over the line into more dubious moral territory if needs be and you know he’ll be with you to the bitter end.
I think the core question of what life is is handled really well because even though you may look at a Geth robot and think they’re no more than a walking laptop with a gun, it gets murkier when one of your crewmates is the ship’s control system in a metallic body and asks you questions about what the point of synthetic life is if there isn’t the basic need to procreate to pass on genes, or when you consider that Shepard in the second and third games is no longer pure human and has been rebuilt with synthetic additions. Humans are implanting biotic components into themselves to enhance their natural abilities and to give them a range of powers, so at what point do they stop becoming human and become a machine? This has been raised before in the Japanese anime film Ghost in the Shell where the main protagonist, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is a cyborg and the only human part of her left is her brain and brain stem with the rest made up of synthetic material. This film and its sequel bring up questions around consciousness and sentience, which I think have been used to great effect in Mass Effect because it is combined with the more basic instincts of preservation of Earth and humanity and the sheer scale and visual impact of giant squid-like mechanic monsters crashing down next to the Houses of Parliament and vaporising everything in sight.
Who know what eventually happens to Shepard – the next Mass Effect game will not feature him or her depending on how you played the character and will just be set in the same universe – but although I got attached to the character and the game made me feel that considering the choices to be made really did matter, the finale was one of the best endings to a game, and the trilogy as a while, that I’ve ever seen and I think lets you move beyond Shepard as an individual to consider the far greater idea of existence itself.