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15 Top Moments of the Mass Effect Trilogy

It’s actually already been a while since I’ve finished Mass Effect 3 (I’m pretty sure I did so between the first three days, and am now on my second playthrough to experience the missions with different combinations of characters). Deciding not to jump on the wagon of bashing the game’s ending like everyone else, however, I’ve decided instead to compile a (relatively) short list of moments of the Mass Effect trilogy that really resonated with me, tugged at my heartstrings, or made my jaw hit the floor with the force of a cookie.

Please note that these will roughly be listed in chronological order, save missions that are non-linear in nature. For example, in the first game, the missions on Feros and Noveria can be interchanged, but they’ll definitely come before Ilos. Also note that, because I’ve had a few years to digest Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, there will obviously be more moments from Mass Effect 3, as the feelings are a lot more fresh.

And, of course, anything below are spoilers.

Mass Effect

15. Arriving at the Citadel

I’m not entirely sure what did it, actually. Until then, I wasn’t very engaged with Mass Effect. Well, I felt it was good, because the game I played right before Mass Effect was Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, which had a good action-RPG system going on that was, unfortunately, held back by the technological limits of its time and a clumsy gun-melee system. So, gameplay-wise, I liked it quite a lot, but there wasn’t anything that separated it from your usual sci-fi flick: Aliens, flashy armor, weird-looking robots, ugly character designs (per usual of BioWare and most other Western studios, but my preferences for Japanese-designed bishies are hardly a secret). Considering that I had been a fan of Halo’s art design, in fact, I felt Mass Effect‘s art style was inadequate, too cartoon-y. These weren’t necessary “bad” things; they were just things that didn’t make me feel very strongly about what made this particular game “special”, worth all the hype.

Then came the Citadel.

Again, I’m not entirely sure what did it, actually. The emergence of a massive space station from the nebula? The terrific, bombastic score by Jack Wall? The giddy enthusiasm of Ashley and Kaidan looking out the window of the Normandy as they watch ships and the station pass by with as much excitement as we do? Actually, if I think about it, it’s probably the moment Citadel traffic control passes us over to an Alliance operator for docking. That detail was combined with the realization that, for once in (my limited experience with) mainstream sci-fi, Earth isn’t the center of the universe, humans weren’t special, and we were all just part of a galactic whole. It was pretty much at that moment that I realized this is going to be a very engaging and comprehensive world, and I’d better buckle up for the ride if I didn’t want to be left behind.

14. Spectre Inauguration

I’ll probably attribute this one to Jack Wall’s amazing score once more. Never mind the fact that giving a military operative a licensed to kill in front of a public galactic forum where everyone’s watching is probably a bad idea. Never mind that I’ll eventually be expected to buy my own equipment instead of the top-bleeding-edge being provided for me. Never mind that, as later installments of Mass Effect would come to show, being promoted to a Spectre ultimately didn’t actually do much, given that we were still always outnumbered, always caught by the bureaucracy, always being disbelieved. (I’m probably underestimating the power to shoot my way through the Citadel and the galaxy and not get arrested.) Nothing about that at the moment compares to the fact that, against an epic score, I’ve just been named the first human equivalent of a galactic James Bond.

Which reminds me; in English, Spectre stands for “Special Tactics and Reconnaissance”, but how does that translate into other languages, human or otherwise…?

13. Battle of the Citadel

This is the moment where everything starts going to hell. This is the transformation of what had initially been a black op into a battle of the fate of the galaxy, starting with a strike directly into the heart of galactic government itself. As Sovereign simply plows its way through the defending fleet with an air of invincibility along with its geth fleet, it’s clear that if it’s not stopped, more of the Reapers will come through, and then everything will be over. The crisscross of mass accelerator cannons and disruptor torpedoes fill space in a massive battle unfolding across the capital. And then there’s you, arriving at the Citadel, climbing up the elevator in near-zero gravity, watching as Sovereign’s massive tentacles latch onto the elevator shaft you’re standing on, colossal even in the background.

And then, later on, when things are looking bad for the fleet outside, when it seems that the defenders are going to be overwhelmed, one of your choices allows the cavalry to swoop in: An entire Alliance fleet jumps into the scene, providing the much-needed reinforcements for the Citadel fleet. It’s cheesy and it’s overused, but the sheer awesomeness that is any massive fleet battle is milked for all that it’s worth, and given you just made the call to send in the cavalry, being good never felt quite so good. These guys were heroes, and the rest of the galaxy won’t be forgetting that.

Mass Effect 2

12. The Normandy Reborn

If Mass Effect was milked on sheer awesomeness, then Mass Effect 2 devoted a lot more effort into creating emotional resonance with players. Or, at least, that’s what I felt, because I wasn’t touched very often while playing Mass Effect despite caring. Or maybe it was because everything had been spoiled for me beforehand. Well, you can’t win everything.

The first ten minutes of Mass Effect 2 pretty much starts out as a nightmare for anyone who has become invested in the Normandy (read: everyone), which most people will after spending most of the game on it, having it get you from place-to-place, and watching it deal the deathblow to Sovereign back at the climax of Mass Effect. There is a sense of pain as the Collector ship shows up and methodically, ruthlessly, and brutally tears your ship into pieces, to the point where, when you open the doors to the command deck, you find yourself drifting across silent space amongst the debris; there is a gaping gash where the ceiling of the Normandy should be.

Later in the game, Shepard reluctantly joins Cerberus in their quest to stop the Collectors, the same people that ripped apart the Normandy and killed you. Except, as the lights came on in the hangar bay and the music bombarded our speakers, it’s clear that no Mass Effect adventure with Commander Shepard will ever be complete without the presence of a stealth frigate christened Normandy.

11. Reuniting With Wrex

The cast of Mass Effect 2 was probably a study in depression. Granted, some of the previous characters in Mass Effect had been boring, but the second game seemed to run headlong into the complete opposite direction, featuring a crew of terrorists, racists, theives, criminals, mercenaries, assassins, templars, and generally a host of otherwise unpleasant people if they were not protagonists. (And I still maintain that I’m still not terrifically fond of either Miranda or Jack in Mass Effect 2.) To rub salt on the wound, your old crew seems to all have fallen apart. Tali rejoins the crew and is still in good spirits, which is, of course, great. But Garrus feels like he’s gotten older and tired and not in a good way, the Virmire Survivor (Ashley for me, in this case) wants absolutely nothing to do with you after you joined a terrorist organization, and Liara (the shy, nerdy, socially-awkward archeologist, by the way) has turned into an emotionally-traumatized and utterly ruthless information broker whose first lines in Mass Effect 2 upon meeting her is threatening to flay someone alive over the phone over payment (in her defense, in Mass Effect 3, she said she was bluffing). So the message is: No, your old crew isn’t coming back because they’re tired and broken, and those who made it back are tired and broken. You’re just going to have to stick with your band of sociopathic misfits.

Which was why I was really happy to see Wrex. Garrus felt like he aged a decade in a bad way within two years. Liara – who I romanced – seems cold and distance, her friendliness with me more of a practiced act than genuine happiness. Ashley wants nothing to do with me. So imagine my happiness when I finally catch up with another member of my old crew – the grumpy, cynical, rumbling Wrex – sitting on a throne in Tuchanka, and the first thing he does when he sees me is bump everyone out of the way and pull me into a man-hug with a boisterous laugh and a cheerful rumble of, “Shepard! My friend!”

God, I never thought I’d say this, but I missed you too, Wrex.

10. Mordin’s Regrets

One of the things that occasionally bothered me was the concept of a moral duality. The Paragon and Renegade system was – in my opinion – supposed to cast the difference in methodology between a messianic figure – he who would risk a disastrous outcome because the actions to achieve it are not in line with his moral standards – or a pragmatic soldier – who knows that certain sacrifices have to be made to ensure that not all is lost and most survive. Instead, Mass Effect gave us what’s effectively the difference between a messianic figure and an utter sociopath (because if Renegade is to be defined with “ruthlessness”, and if “ruthlessness” is to be defined as “results-orientated”, then I find it difficult to justify punching al-Jilani in the face or throwing a defenseless mercenary out a high-rise window with a harsh one-liner qualifies as “ruthless”). It’s all so clear cut; being a Paragon influences people to be good, and being a Renegade eschews actual problem-solving with pettiness, violence, and vendetta. A good example of this is Garrus’ loyalty mission: Being a Paragon means you get to convince Garrus to not assassinate a traitor in cold blood, but Renegade means you encourage Garrus to take a shot in the name of vigilantism. In fact, as if to rub salt in the wound, if you start the assassination sequence off with Renegade, the target seems surprised and alarmed that he’s being targeted, yet if you start with Paragon and ultimately end with Renegade, the target seems remorseful and resigned. An unfortunate flip-flop.

Which is why I liked Mordin’s loyalty mission. Bear in mind, I’ve always liked the eccentric and ruthless but well-meaning and amiable salarian doctor. And while he is a little weird, he seems very well-adjusted. But he turns out to has his inner demons, and they aren’t so clean cut. Through his loyalty mission, we see how he copes with the effects of the genophage that he had helped modify, resulting in social turmoil of the krogan. All signs pointed at the necessity of sterilizing the krogan race (although Mordin will specify that this isn’t a sterilization virus, but one that controls rampant krogan birth rates to more manageable population levels). It was either “genophage or genocide”, “save galaxy from krogan, save krogan from galaxy”. The big picture necessitated the genophage to prevent galactic war and even more deaths. But it’s hard to see the big picture when your view is being blocked by millions of krogan stillborns as a result of the genophage, and krogan mothers who committed suicide in the shame of being unable to conceive. The morality of “uplifting” a species to fight our wars for us is explored.

It was a discussion about the moral complexities that are sometimes a bit lacking in the franchise. And Mordin is right. He knows he’s right, he will tell Shepard so, and Shepard will have no logical counterarguments for the doctor, only emotional ones. This is clearly not one of those missions where Shepard can simply “change someone for the better”, because there isn’t a better in this case; Mordin had already chosen the best possible course of action, the only possible course of action. Yet the “best course of action” does not always come easy, as Mordin will point out when he saw the results of his work. He exchanged an inevitably massive tragedy in exchange for a relatively smaller tragedy, but it was a tragedy all the same. And he reflects on this, struggles with this, explains his inner conflict with Shepard in a soft, melancholic, thoughtful tone that contrasts with his usual cheerful eccentricity, an exploration of “ego, humility, juxtaposition, frailty of life, size of universe” with “no answers”, but “many questions”.

9. A Quarian Mother’s Final Message

Tali’s loyalty mission takes place on the Alarei, where secret experiments on geth have gone horribly wrong. The crew aboard are dead, but what really gets at me every time is one room you can enter, finding the body of a dead quarian female inside. A nearby computer has a video recording of her last twenty seconds, heartbreakingly apologizing for her actions that endangered a fleet, and – as the geth break through the door – desperately trying to leave a message for her son to “be strong for Daddy” and “Mommy loves you very much” before she’s mercilessly gunned down. It was one of those moments where I wanted to set down my keyboard for a moment and hug my own mother.

God, I really hope the quarians would at least edit the last two seconds of that video out before showing it to poor Jona.

(Note: In Mass Effect 3, a dying quarian on Rannoch asks Shepard to tell his son that he saw the homeworld. His son’s name? Jona. Poor kid is now an orphan.)

8. Legion’s Question

The sentiments I’ve expressed in #10 (Mordin’s Regrets) apply to this one as well, a lack of moral duality that has sometimes tied down this series. Upon learning from the geth Legion that the other geth robots that you’ve fought were actually heretics being controlled by the Reapers, you’re given the choice of  embarking on a mission to upload a virus to their space-based headquarters that would kill them via networking. By the time you infiltrate and land on the station, however, Legion realizes that the virus could provide a second function: To rewrite the heretic geth to accept the mainstream geth’s philosophy to be true (just to recap, the heretics being controlled by the Reapers believe that killing off other organics in the galaxy is right and shouldn’t be questioned, whereas the mainline geth – despite shunning organic life due to violent confrontations in the past – largely want to be left alone).

The party members react differently. Some of them point out that realigning the heretics with the “main geth” would make the main geth more powerful, leaving nearby civilizations to depend entirely on their word to not attack unless provoked. Others are dismissive of the geth as merely “synthetics”, “fancy security mechs”. Garrus, however, points out that the brainwashing is suspiciously similar to indoctrination, Jacob, Samara, and Thane believe that changing how a person thinks or feels would be the equivalent of killing someone and putting something new in that body, Mordin believes that change to life is preferable to no life at all, and Jack notes that she’d rather have her head blown off to die as herself than be brainwashed. There are no clear answers here, no overwhelming squad opinion, no blue Paragon text or red Renegade text choices, no ethical or moral signposts that are going to direct you to any one decision. It’s just you, your morals, and your beliefs on how one form of genocide can be more moral than another.

7. The Reapers Are Coming

This is the last ten seconds of the Mass Effect 2 ending. This is also the point in the trilogy where we finally get an idea of how many nigh indestructible Reapers there are waiting out there in dark space, how many civilizations they have harvested, and how badly this fight is going to go come Mass Effect 3. The ridiculously large amount of these Lovecraftian horrors approach us with inexorable power. Buckle up; things are only going to get worse from here.

Mass Effect 3

6. The Invasion of Earth

I’m cheating a little bit here.

This technically isn’t part of the game, not really. Rather, it’s the “Take Earth Back” extended trailer; due to what I assume are technical limitations, there was a limit to how badly the game could actually depict a Reaper invasion in the prologue of the game (not to mention that while it looks like the trailer depicts the invasion of the course of a few hours, if not a few days, the game’s prologue spends less than an hour on Earth). Due largely to pre-rendered graphics and great photomanipulation, however, I felt that this was probably the most realistic representation of a Reaper invasion I’ve seen, capturing the brilliant terror and horror and carnage that comes along with them, expressed in the form of overwhelming power. Watching a sprawling metropolis reduced to ashes with methodological thoroughness can be terrifying.

The trailer leaves no room for doubt: The Reapers are here. The end has begun.

5. Kalros Versus Reaper

I make it no secret that I’m a Dune fan. Of the three authors that I try to learn from the most, one of them is Frank Herbert, original author of the Dune series. Therefore, knowing that thresher maws – and other variants found across sci-fi – are based on Herbert’s sandworms, I’ve had a fair admiration of the very dangerous race so far, which can easily tear armored tanks apart. In fact, I think most of us began to really miss the Mako of Mass Effect when we had to fight a thresher maw with Grunt in Mass Effect 2…on foot.

So when Eve said she came up with an idea of how to deal with our local Reaper on Tuchanka after we first became aware of the existence of Kalros, the “mother of all thresher maws”, I had a fairly good idea what her plan would be, and that it’d be crazy awesome. Indeed, while we’re busy being shot at by the Old Machines that threatened to end galactic civilization as we know it, we just summoned the biggest thresher maw ever to fight it.

As we expected, it was crazy. It was awesome. And we loved every second of it.

As the meme goes, “Welcome to Tuchanka, motherf__ker.”

4. Curing the Genophage

If entry #10 (Mordin’s Regrets) haven’t clued you in, I’m a big fan of the genius salarian STG scientist. In fact, this entry is greatly related to #10; the threat of the Reapers necessitate krogan assistance once more, and Mordin, seeing that circumstances have changed, knows that whereas no genophage before would’ve resulted in galactic genocide, no cure now meant galactic genocide on an even more complete scale. This accumulates in the Tuchanka storyarc where we run into old friends – Mordin and Wrex – make new ones – Adrien and Eve – and have to deal with a tough choice when the salarian political leadership, opposed to the cure, present an ultimatum of sabotaging the cure in return for fleet and R&D support.

But provided you’ve done everything right, you’ll be rewarded with the battle between Kalros and the Reaper (as mentioned above in #5), and, immediately after, Mordin’s attempt to disperse the cure. When it becomes clear that Mordin needs to go up to the exploding control room to deliver the cure and isn’t coming back, there’s a great deal of nostalgic sadness, callbacks; if you’ve taken the time to talk to him and unlock conversations in Mass Effect 2 and 3, his lines – “would’ve liked to run tests on the seashells”, “I’m not [sorry]. Had to be me. Someone else might’ve gotten it wrong”, and the “scientist salarian” song – are heartwrenching callbacks. This is a guy who, in the name of necessity, had done things that he knew had to be done, knew were for the greater good, but also knew would weigh heavily upon his shoulders. This is a man who, despite that necessity, was troubled by confusion and guilt. He’s an old man (by salarian standards) with many regrets, but – as he goes up that elevator, as he disperses the cure that colors Tuchanka a beautiful gold, as he cheerfully sings until the very end – he knows that this is not going to be one of them. The krogan are finally cured after more than a thousand years, the scientist salarian finally has given his life a form of closure, and “wherever he is, he’s putting in a good word for us”.

3. “The Answer to Your Question Was Yes”

Like Tuchanka, the entire storyarc revolving around the quarians, the geth, and the homeworld of Rannoch was beautifully done. A centuries-long war threatens to force the genocide of at least one race, causing the quarians to fall in line with quarian war extremist Han’Gerrel, and the geth to side with the Reapers in desperation. In between is Shepard and two of her former teammates, quarian Tali and geth Legion, who had managed to strike up an unusual friendship between them between Mass Effect 2 and 3 despite being on opposing sides. The battle to liberate the geth from Reaper control on Rannoch to save the quarians ends with both sides poised to destroy each other in a moment of vulnerability. With both sides still trying to kill each other, Legion attempts to upload Reaper code to make the geth fully sapient with free will, but with the quarian fleet firing on them, it would almost certainly mean the destruction of the quarian fleet in self-defense.

It accumulates with a desperate plea to bury the hatchet. It appeals to the desire of peace on both sides, a fatigue to the war, an aversion to blind hatred. It touches upon an issue that quarians have struggled with since the geth, initially meant only to be mechanical, non-sapient servants of the quarians, began to ask a pertinent question, one that Legion asks Tali: “Does this unit have a soul?” And when the appeal to peace goes through, when the survival of both the quarians and the geth are assured, when it seems that both races can live together on the homeworld again, when Legion needs to disseminate his AI to give true intelligence to the rest of his people, Tali, after years of prejudice against AIs and knowing that this is goodbye to her most unusual friend, replies in a final acceptance of synthetics as equals with, “Legion…the answer to your question…was ‘yes’.” In contrast to his usual monotone and emotionless behavior, Legion tenderly responds, “I know, Tali. But thank you. Keelah se’lai.”

2. Garrus and Tali

Like most people who have played the Mass Effect trilogy, Garrus and Tali occupy special places in our hearts. It goes beyond the cheerful cockiness of the turian and the good-natured sass from the quarian, the two of them constantly being a source of general hilarity, awesomeness, and cuteness. It also has to do with the fact that both of them were with us for all three games. The Virmire Survivor never got past the trust issues in Mass Effect 2 until the middle of Mass Effect 3. Everyone else also came and went.

I don’t begrudge people of that. Given the direction Cerberus eventually went (or, arguably, the direction it has always gone), it isn’t unreasonable to believe that things with Cerberus could’ve gotten hairy. So I don’t blame Ashley (in my case) for being suspicious towards me. I don’t blame Wrex for being unable to join up with me; he’s got an entire planet to run and his race to save, after all. I certainly don’t blame a lot of Mass Effect 2 characters, who – unlike Garrus and Tali – didn’t have the benefit of showing up in the first game, and were occupied with their own issues in Mass Effect 3 (I mean, honestly, I couldn’t reasonably ask a terminally ill drell who was supposed to have died in three months six months ago to come with me).

Still, despite all this, whenever Garrus and Tali reasonably could, they joined up with me at first opportunity. They were always there. If you’ve romanced either Garrus or Tali, you can find them chatting next to the Normandy‘s main battery just before the trilogy’s endgame, exchanging friendly wagers, and Shepard can tell them exactly what every player is thinking at that moment: “You two have been with me longer than most. You believed in me when nobody else did. Thanks.”

And, if you romanced neither Garrus or Tali, you’re treated to a scene of them finally hooking up, making out, and being totally embarrassed when you stumble in on both of them. Makes you feel happy for them.

The two both being dextro-amino-based races totally helps.

Prepare for the imminent shipfics that are to come.

1. The Fleets Arrive

This is probably the moment in Mass Effect 3 that seriously made me numb for a few minutes.

This is, in fact, probably the moment everyone had been waiting for since Mass Effect 2 (or, for the more genre savvy, Mass Effect), an epic conclusion we saw coming the moment we knew the Reaper invasion was inevitable. This was the only possible way it could conclude. This was the only possible beginning of the end.

It took us three games of fighting, bribing, begging, trading, exchanging favors, preparing plans, struggling with decisions. It cost us Ashley or Kaidan, Pressly, everyone we lost on the suicide mission, everyone we lost to the Reaper invasion, and everyone who could go on that memorial wall in front of the elevator on the crew deck of the Normandy (and Jenkins). It involved struggling with the bureaucracy, proving time and time again that we were right. It involved befriending and falling out and befriending people. It endeared us to a grumpy krogan who would effectively be king, a young genius mechanic who would become an admiral, a robotic platform that would give his race true intelligence and sapience, a scientist who would become an information broker. It involved saving millions of lives at a time without support, doing all the right things while being vilified, and bringing an end to two of the galaxy’s most contentious conflicts. At times, it involved selling ours souls, but we got back up anyways and moved on, because it was the right thing to do. Because it was the only thing to do.

So when we didn’t forget about the Destiny Ascension, the Salarian Special Tasks Group, the turians on Palaven and Menae, the krogan on Tuchanka, the quarians of the Migrant Fleet, the geth on Rannoch, they did not forget about us. When we needed help, they answered the call.

And when the fleet finally jumps out of the Sol Relay, the Normandy first followed by a few dozen Alliance ships with the characteristic explosive flash and “whump” of a ship coming out of FTL, then by a massive sustained staccato of more “whump“s as asari, salarian, turian, quarian, and geth ships rematerialize into normal space in the hundreds to the triumphant track of “The Fleets Arrive” by Sam Hulick, when all of this confirmed to me that everything I did in the trilogy amounted to this one moment, there was undoubtedly only one coherent thought in my head:

I’ve f__king earned it.

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