Mass Effect 3 gets a bit of a raw deal. It’s judged by history almost entirely on its final half hour, as if the rest of the story, the brilliant send-offs it affords so many of its characters, and the vastly improved gameplay ceases to matter. I don’t think I need to argue for Mass Effect 3’s greatness too much though – playing the trilogy back to back, the game can speak for itself. Most of us know the ending by now and are over the disappointment, while we’re also not going into it with two years of Mass Effect 2 induced hype ramping up unrealistic expectations. Mass Effect has had the biggest graphical tune-up but its gameplay remains stuck in the past, while Mass Effect 2 is already (correctly) considered the pinnacle of the series. Mass Effect 3 came into the Legendary Edition with the worst reputation, and it has the most to gain from people playing the series one after the other in a concentrated fashion.
It’s not perfect. It still ends the same way. It still has Kai Leng and Diana Allers. It still does Thane dirty. But it will come out of the Legendary Edition better than it went in, even without the multiplayer.
This reputation rehabilitation will begin right at the start, because Mass Effect 3 has easily the best opening in the trilogy. It begins with Shepard on Earth, back in the Alliance but grounded after their dalliance with Cerberus. Then the Reapers come. Mass Effect 3 is a game about loss, but it’s also a game about losing. Shepard, humanity, and the galaxy are on the backfoot the entire game. We don’t take the fight to the Reapers, we run and run and run in a desperate bid to gain a little bit more time. Mass Effect 3’s opening is crucial in establishing these stakes.
We have fought Reapers before in the series, but never like this. The Reaper threat of 3 never lives up to the gravitas of Sovereign, but in terms of raw power, the Reapers haven’t really left a mark yet. Shepard and their crew repel Sovereign from the Citadel pretty easily in the first game, while Shepard takes the fight to the Reapers in Mass Effect 2, destroying a human Reaper in a Collector base and escaping with nary a scratch. Everyone – including Shepard – can die in Mass Effect 2, but that’s at the hands of your poor choices or the Collector numbers, rather than the Reapers themselves. The first two games show the Reapers to be evil, relentless, cold, unfeeling, and brutal, but powerful? They’re 0 for 2 going up against Shepard.
Any suspicion that Mass Effect 3 is going to play out in the same way is dispelled immediately. Upon invasion, the Reapers dominate Earth without breaking the machine equivalent of sweat. Together with Anderson, you make your way through the destruction and try to fend off the Husks – there are too many Reapers and you are too puny to even make a dent. Regardless of what happened with Sovereign and the human Reaper, Mass Effect 3 reminds you right from the start that Reapers are the strongest beings in the galaxy, and that to fight them is to die.
During your race through the city, you meet a young boy hiding in the vents. You try to lure him out to safety, but as Anderson calls your name, you’re drawn away from him, and he disappears. Later, as you leave Earth in the Normandy to beg the Council for help, you see this boy board a shuttle, only for the Reapers to destroy it with ease. In Mass Effect 3, you are going to have to do things for the greater good that will get innocent people killed. This is a game about losing.
I know he turns into the strange ghost boy at the end. That’s a bit silly. But he’s not a weird ghost boy here – he’s a real child, and the Reapers killed him just because they can.
In truth, I don’t even think it faces particularly stiff competition to be crowned as the greatest opening in the Mass Effect trilogy. Eden Prime gets a lot of praise, but the gameplay shows its age, and the great moments are bogged down by some awful ones. Saren turning on Nihilus? Very cool. Shepard getting the strange Prothean vision? Ominous, a cornerstone in establishing the unpreparedness of the galaxy for the incoming Reaper invasion. But it ain’t all great. Disabling the bombs is ridiculously anticlimactic, Ashley’s introduction is abrupt and bland, and Kaidan is there. Jenkins’ death is just comical too. He’s killed by a Geth Drone, despite these flimsy peashooters needing about seven shots to even break through your shield, all while flailing about like he’s recreating some Robin Williams stand-up. A simple dose of medigel will revive other downed teammates, but even without this workaround, why not have an actual geth shoot him in the head? Eden Prime has some decent moments, but there’s far too much wrong with it for it to take on Mass Effect 3’s introduction.
Then there’s Mass Effect 2’s opening, which is easily the most cinematic, but still below 3’s as an entity. Walking through the destroyed Normandy and staring out to the stars is very cool, but it pits the Collectors as an unstoppable foe able to wipe you out in a single blow. Moving forward, they never come close to living up to that. Then there’s the Cerberus base, where you get your first real slice of action. After starting you off with Kaidan last time, the sequel decides to go one worse and starts you off with Jacob. It also never really sells the coma angle, with this acting as a plot explanation for the tutorial rather than having any impact on Shepard’s disposition. You then meet Miranda, who kills some guy with some name you’ve also just met, because he was the betrayer. It establishes Miranda as ruthless, merciless, shoot-first-ask-questions-never kind of character, before the rest of the game depicts her as the level-headed pencil pusher against the chaos of Jack. Unlike the games on either side of it, Mass Effect 2’s opening doesn’t really weave itself into the wider story either; it’s more like a mini prologue.
Mass Effect 3 has the best opening of the series, and playing them all back to back, it isn’t even particularly close. I’m ready for Mass Effect 3 to bring its share of disappointments as I make my way through once more, but at least it manages to start off on the right foot. Maybe that will convince more people to give it a chance.
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