What is an RPG without the “R” and the “P?” [Mass Effect 3]

Image by Flick user mrwynd (CC BY 2.0)

Just prior to the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda in March, I chose to play through as many of the original Mass Effect games as I could. Due to limits in free time, I opted for a streamlined approach to the games in order to play each from beginning to end. I managed to make my way through Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 using the following set of rules:

  1. Play on casual to keep combat to a minimum.
  2. Choose conversation options from the right side (non-investigative) of the conversation wheel.
  3. If a high enough paragon level was attained, choose the paragon conversation options when presented.
  4. Ignore all extraneous interactions with anyone, anywhere.
  5. Ignore all sidequests.
  6. Ignore most looting opportunities.
  7. With team assembled, choose only two companions with whom to complete the game.
  8. Only upgrade Shepard and two companions.

Upon completing Mass Effect: Andromeda, I decided to pick up the “speed play” mantle with Mass Effect 3, which I recently finished. What are the results? That is this post.

Before getting into the meat of things, and because it’s been awhile, let’s run down a few things from the first two games:

  • My Shepard was a female. She was a spacer, a sole survivor, and a soldier.
  • In ME1, on Virmire, I killed Wrex and sacrificed Ashley. I also pursued a romance with Kaiden.
  • In ME2, only Garrus, Samara, Legion, and Mordin survived the suicide mission. I destroyed the Collectors’ Base. I didn’t free Grunt, and I didn’t romance anyone.

With all things imported and ready, it was time to start Mass Effect 3. [TL;DR I completed the game in about twelve hours. The overall experience wasn’t as solid as it was with the first two games. While the story was structurally sound and the game was no less intense, it felt rushed and incomplete. Without gaining additional help for the final battle with the Reapers through side missions, I was sorely under-prepared in the end.]

I briskly ran through the prologue’s “priority” missions, which established the astounding threat that the Reapers had become, reunited Shepard with Liara and Kaiden, and gave Shepard back her Spectre status. Since Mass Effect 3 is the game I’ve played the least of the trio, I had a really difficult time not venturing around to talk to people. As well, because the crux of the game is to prepare/recruit everyone in the galaxy for a fight against the Reapers, I knew that by not engaging in any side missions, I’d likely be at a disadvantage in terms of readiness once the final fight began. But rules are rules. And I’ll get out of the way now that because of them, I botched Kaiden’s romance. Avoiding side quests also meant that I mostly avoided my emails on the Normandy, one of which kicked off things between Shepard and Kaiden. I didn’t see it until it was too late. Ah, well.

The game’s first act marked the start of exploring the galaxy…of which I did not partake. (How strange it felt not going anywhere other than where the “priority” missions said!) Instead, I traveled to three spots: to the Turian home world of Palaven, which is where I found and gathered Garrus; and then to Sur’Kesh (Salarians) and Tuchanka (Krogans) for two intertwined missions. It was wonderful seeing Mordin again…and yes, he nobly died for the cause of curing the Genophage. Instead of Wrex, I teamed up with the gruff Wreave in order to save the Krogans. This choice came at the expense of Salarian support against the Reapers. During this first act, after the Palaven mission, I received my final formation of teammates: Garrus, Kaiden, Edi, Liara, and James. I could only choose two from there on out, and I picked Edi and Liara.

The game’s second act tumbled forth with priority missions. I was most intrigued about the ones concerning the Quarians/Geth, since Tali died at the end of ME2 but I had acquired Legion. I was also curious about meeting up with the class of biotics on Horizon that would have been led by Jack had she survived ME2. With the Quarian missions, the only notable different was that Tali wasn’t there. (If I recall correctly, she would have been a required teammate for these missions.) Instead, I got to pick my own two teammates (still Edi and Liara), and another Quarian, Admiral Xen, joined over the comms. I was a little surprised to find that Legion had been trapped by the Reapers, but I was glad to see him even if our time together was short. In the end, I made a tough choice — interestingly dictated by paragon conversation options — to support the Geth over the Quarians. While this meant that the Geth would join in the final battle, it ultimately destroyed the Quarians. That was heartwrenching and unexpected.

Oh, and as for that biotics class? They simply didn’t show up on Horizon. I’m not sure if I missed a trigger that allowed Shepard and them to cross paths, or if the class simply didn’t exist because Jack wasn’t around.

One other instance of note is that at early on in the second act, I did stop to look at my emails on the Normandy (that’s when I saw the important one from Kaiden…oops). I noticed that because I hadn’t completed a side mission about a bomb that had been planted on Tuchanka by the pro-human group Cerberus, it had gone off, causing massive death and destruction. As a result, support from the Krogan drastically decreased.  This reinforced that feeling I had had at the game’s start – that I’d have the short end of the stick come the endgame.

Speaking of the endgame, the completion of Horizon marked the game’s point of no return.  If the game’s prologue and first act moved quickly, and the second act slowed things down a little, the third act seemed to go by at light speed. Within an hour, I had infiltrated Cerberus’s headquarters and found myself ready to battle till the end in London. I had forgotten just how intense things were during game’s final battles; the cacophony of war was almost overwhelming. And sure enough, as things got underway, I only had the Turians, Geth, Krogan, and Asari forces at my side. I honestly don’t recall my military readiness number (Effective Military Strength, or EMS in the game), but I doubt it even reached 1000. It was certainly low enough to give me a very interesting if limited ending.

One factor in that ending was Anderson, who ended up on the Citadel in the game’s final throes. My lack of reacting to a particular renegade interrupt resulted in his immediate death, so I didn’t get his heartfelt goodbye speech. The other factor, which I believe was due to my low EMS, was that I only got one choice, instead of two or three, at the very end: to destroy the Reapers. (Being initially in disbelief over not getting at least two choices [destroy or control the Reapers], I actually reloaded the game to my last save point, and yep…one choice it was.) With only one path open, I hobbled on over and blasted the killswitch. The results made my heart sink. Not only did this single choice wipe out the Reapers, it apparently wiped out most life on Earth, at least, as I watched a wave of death envelope the planet. Additionally, no one on the Normandy survived. The ship crashed on that ubiquitous jungle planet, and no one stepped out. Not a soul. The end.

As with the first two games, the main story of Mass Effect 3 is tightly-woven and thoughtful. But unlike with the first two games, where each game’s story felt full and meaty despite the lack of side questing, Mass Effect 3 without the side quests felt strangely inadequate. It remained compelling in terms of storytelling, but my sense of the game ended up looking more like lace than tapestry, full of holes and wanting. The problems with Mass Effect 3’s ending(s) notwithstanding, my ending truly made me feel like I had brought a knife to a gun fight. And while in the first two games, I felt like Shepard remained connected to her teammates, in the final game, I felt largely disconnected from everything. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to even attribute a “G” to this particular instance of an RPG. There was no “game” about it; I was only following a road map. A road map to a dour end.

Now that the original trilogy is all said and done, I hope to someday apply my speedy schema to a playthrough of Mass Effect: Andromeda. Although, a big part of me wants to back through Mass Effect 3 a play it “right.” Funny how that need for satisfaction in a game can really take over one’s sensibilities sometime. By the way, in case anyone was wondering, speeding through the trilogy has also reinforced my personal take on which one is my favorite, and that remains the first game. Yes, it’s small, clunky, and full of the MAKO, but it’s thematically and systematically consistent. It’s short story chugs along at a good pace, and sets up the need for the events second game so perfectly. In the end, there’s no denying that Mass Effect is a strong series with a functionally brilliant and sympathetic core. It’s got a story that’s worth following, and that’s both despite and because of all the extras.


  1. This is amazing. I mean, very sad because everyone died in the end, but amazing. I actually sort of like that the game felt empty, Shepard was disconnected, and everything was pretty horrible at the end (nothing meant personally, of course!). But it’s interesting to think how far out of her way Shepard really had to go to *save* the entire galaxy, not just end the Reaper threat. And it’s also interesting to think that those are two different things. And now I’m going to go play through Mass Effect again… haha

    This has been a really fun series to follow, so thank you for sharing the journey!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cary says:

      Thanks! 🙂 I was interesting experiencing Mass Effect in this “new” way. Even though everything about them is totally familiar, this speedy method of play brought things to my attention that I had previously overlooked. (P. S. Shortly after watching the ME3 credits, I have to admit that I started up ME and created a new character! I haven’t played her yet, but I know she’ll be ready when I decide to go back to it.)

      Y’know, what stuck out to me most is that, despite the game’s endings, it’s super obvious to me now that the game was written with the intention of players building up their EMS to the fullest. Like, I feel that in the first two games, you can get away with ignoring many of the sidequests and the outcome of the games remains static but satisfying. In ME3, by not playing the sidequests (and not building up your EMS in return) it’s almost as if the player is punished for, well…being lazy, essentially. I also didn’t notice before just how insistent your assistant Traynor is about Shepard checking in on this, that, and the other. It only amplifies the notion that in ME3, the sidequests aren’t *really* sidequests — they’re kind of necessary in the end.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I like that point you make about the so-called “sidequests” being necessary in the end. I think it adds a nice color to the game, because the things Traynor tells Shepard to do are time-sensitive, as well, so it does become a balancing act of what’s most important, who do you help, how long are you willing to put off the main missions, etc. I would have liked there to be “time limits” on the main quests as well to put added pressure, but then there’d be no way to 100% the game, so I’m also a little glad they didn’t do that…

        Anyway, you’re right that this is a fight that Shepard can’t just roll into and half-a-s her way through. She really doesn’t need the entire galaxy on her side!

        I’m glad you made a new character! Hopefully you’ll have a chance to play through them again (if you wanted to) and explore a little more (again, if you wanted to! haha).

        Liked by 1 person

  2. simpleek says:

    It’s really interesting how different the story turns out when you go back and play it again. Playing the bare minimum of the game really means you get what you get if you don’t play it properly in a sense. I’m certainly interested in trying another run of all three games in a similar way you did. I want to know how I would personally feel after opting to do certain things instead of others. Although, I think it’d kill me to see my favorite characters dead or not available for whatever reason. :/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cary says:

      Yeah, I certainly felt the absence of my favorite teammates, especially Tali, in ME3. The previous game imbued everyone with such a sense of realism that when they’re gone, you feel it. (Kudos to Bioware’s amazing writers there!) As I mentioned in my response to Athena, ME3 is written is such a way that it really goads you into rallying ALL the forces. Which makes total sense — the Reapers threaten absolutely everyone, after all. Though I was quite surprised at just how severe the ending was. Guess it take more than a dozen hours to save the galaxy, haha.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. cary says:

    Reblogged this on Recollections of Play and commented:

    Earlier in the year, just prior to the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda, I aimed to tackle the original ME trilogy in a speedy manner. At the time, I only got through the first two games. Thanks to a recent lull, I was able to complete my original endeavor by finally doing a “speed-run” through ME3! How did things turn out? Click on to Virtual Bastion to find out!


  4. Erratic Movement says:

    Interesting way to play through the game. I was a big fan of the original game, and Mass Effect 2 I consider one of the top games of that generation. For some reason, I fell off and wasn’t inspired to play the third game. This was before it was released: I know there was the controversy about the ending and the backlash that followed, and after that, I didn’t have a huge desire to revisit it. Same thing in regards to Andromeda. I thought it might be a good opportunity for me to re-explore the franchise, but the near universal condemnation it received has put me off. Part of me thinks I pay too much attention to reviews and reactions, I had a lot of fun going into a game free of preconceptions when I was younger. Its a hard balance to strike. Anyway, enjoyed your take!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cary says:

      Thanks! I think that Andromeda is worth a trip through despite its debacle, but if I could do it over again, I’d have waited until the game went on sale. In hindsight, what we got probably wasn’t worth $60…or more for any “special editions.”

      It is interesting to me that ME3 took such a hit story-wise compared to ME2. It’s kind of like the Empire Strikes Back-Return of the Jedi scenario. The third movie was great, but the second one hit such a pinnacle with its story that there was no way anything after it could reach farther, no matter what. ME1 and 2 together are so tightly-knit and compelling, that it’s almost like they had no good idea on how to wrap up the story in the 3rd game. And unfortunately they didn’t fix things in Andromeda. Ah, well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Erratic Movement says:

        That makes sense. For whatever reason I didn’t feel compelled to play ME3 even before all the controversy (maybe there was another big release at the time? I can’t remember), but if I was real hyped for it, I can image having absolutely massive expectations after how much ME2 delivered.


  5. I’m going to give a possibly uninformed opinion since I only watched the original trilogy and haven’t played it as of yet (it’s on the backlog), but I’m wondering if ME3 was like so many trilogy finales in term so just being a long denouement. I’ve noticed that some will do that: have the bulk of the story in the first two and then use the last to tie up loose ends and bring closure. I felt as though the game was really pushing Shepherd towards the synthesis option, and the ending I saw was much more thorough than what I’d seen before with only showing what happened to the Normandy (EVIE and Joker), which I believe was the one that rankled everyone.. It is interesting how bare bones ME3 is without side quests, but since the bulk of that game is gathering assets and allies for the war against the Reapers it seems like it really puts the decisions much more in your (the player’s) hands after presenting the situation to you throughout two full games prior.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cary says:

      That’s very true. ME3 is really all about decision-making, much more so than the previous two games. While in ME2 you do have the option to pursue loyalties or not, they actually don’t make *that* much difference in the third game. (And I say that lightly, as it can be a touchy subject. While I honestly missed my fallen teammates, ME3 chugged along regardless.) What’s really fascinating is that Bioware planned out a ton of different ending scenarios based on your readiness, previous decisions, and the “choice.” Frankly, it almost feels as if more time and effort went into the games endgame than the story itself.

      But you’re right, there probably wasn’t much need on Bioware’s part to go heavy on story in the third game. It was all about wrapping things up as “neatly” as possible. I have to admit that in the while 3 times I’ve played this game, I’ve never gotten the synthesis option at the end. I can’t remember the parameters necessary, but I feel like you need to have a really high preparedness level, and I’ve just never gotten there.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t recall seeing the synthesis ending before when I watched my husband play, and that could be why I thought the ending was really weird. Like it felt like half an ending, but I liked synthesis in terms of the narrative. It seemed to make sense to the story they wanted to tell. I think you’re right about them focusing on the endgame and not so much the story. They just wanted to get you there to that point.

        Liked by 1 person

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