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Friends forever: Mass Effect 3 and the save game legacy

Friday, 9th March 2012 12:46 GMT By Alex Donaldson

Mass Effect 3 ships today, and one feature has everyone talking. Alex Donaldson looks back on BioWare’s unique triumph in keeping your Shepard alive for an entire generation.

Sometimes the consequences can be dire, adding more names to that memorial wall Garrus was staring at – and it’s impressive that the game can make you feel a pang of regret for a choice you made years ago. When we’re halfway through the next generation, and likely staring at releases of further Mass Effect titles and various copycats, it’s that which will be remembered.

There’s something touching about looking at a friend of mine staring at a memorial to others lost. It’s a list on a wall, names of people – some I knew, some I didn’t – that have been sacrificed to a common cause. It’s sad. He muses about one in particular, lost years prior, and it’s one of the few times I’ve heard regret in his voice. I feel sorry for him.

None of it is real. The friend is Garrus Vakarian, Mass Effect’s Turian rebel, and the way he expresses lament for those lost in Mass Effect tugs at the heart strings in ways that remind me that in their characters BioWare have built something truly special.

Mass Effect 3, out today, is the final chapter in the trilogy of Commander Shepard, and Garrus was undoubtedly my Shepard’s best friend. They were brothers in almost every sense from the moment they met in a medical clinic on the Citadel, Mass Effect’s centre of Galactic Society, with Shepard impressed at what a clean shot he landed on some criminal scum. Years later, he was the obvious choice to lead the second squad, second-in-command on a dangerous suicide mission.

As he contemplates those lost, he’s more than just a meathead gunsmith. His often sarcastic, dry tone, his burning sense of justice and his fear of losing more people he loved gives him depth. Were it not for the face, I’d say there was something human about him.

Brothers in arms

Here’s the thing about the Mass Effect series: in places it’s messy as hell. The animation is often hit-or-miss and it lacks the subtlety of other story-heavy games. For the last two episodes it’s stumbled in its efforts to find the right balance between third-person shooter and RPG. But thanks to the writing, little of that mattered to me.

The truth is that Mass Effect 3 is both a better shooter and a better RPG than its predecessor. It straddles the genres cleverly, offering up a complexity that’ll please RPG fans and a simplicity that means it can almost be played like a Gears of War title if you please.

The animation’s improved, but it’s still pants. It doesn’t mean much. I’d have come even if it’d been worse. What I played for was the story progression and to see how Shepard’s crew evolved.

There are a lot of impressive things about the Mass Effect series, including the sheer ambition of the first game, which laid detailed groundwork for lore and universe that would carry two sequels with few tweaks. How the team managed to fulfil their crazy-sounding promise of a massive trilogy this generation is also impressive, but the biggest triumph comes in a system conceived from the very beginning – the save game transfer.

The reason I care about Garrus, Liara and Tali more than, say, Uncharted’s Sully, Chloe and Elena is because they’ve not only followed me through thick and thin but because I feel as though I’ve shaped them over the course of several games.

I pushed Garrus to quit the Citadel Police in the first game, and in the second he nods to that as he guns down criminals as a mercenary. Liara’s gone from a naive scientist to a hardened commando-type, all a result of our adventures together.

Here, what felt like an immature opportunity to shoehorn sex into the game, now seems to mature in the final chapter. My Shepard and Liara felt like an item, talked like a couple. At one point Liara wishes she’d had a speech for a particularly big moment. What is she going to tell the grandchildren? We’ll make something up, my Shepard says.

It’s no longer space sex with a blue alien, something for Fox News to latch onto and complain about – like the rest of the game, it has matured. It makes it all the more gut-wrenching to go to war, because that bright future is in no way guaranteed.

Smoke and mirrors

A lot of it is illusion, of course – Garrus would be gunning down mercenaries with a different line of dialogue even if you’d encouraged him to keep doing things by the book or even if you’d never recruited him at all – but illusion is what makes games games.

It comes to a point where you begin to see context in lines of dialogue and pieces of animation that aren’t actually there. Liara reacts warmly to every Shepard when they meet in the third game, but I convinced myself she was warmer and more intimate with my Shepard because they’d been lovers and Shepard had been loyal.

The way BioWare’s smoke and mirrors play out is so satisfying that it doesn’t really bother me that deep down I know I’m being duped.

Mass Effect 3 goes to great lengths to improve the use of the save game data, too. Events that merely got you an email in the second game now have a greater effect in the third, and basic decisions – such as if you decided to sacrifice a chunk of the Alliance Fleet to save the Citadel Council – will now play into the war against the Reapers more directly.

Sometimes the consequences can be dire, adding more names to that memorial wall Garrus was staring at – and it’s impressive that the game can make you feel a pang of regret for a choice you made years ago.

When we’re halfway through the next generation, and likely staring at releases of further Mass Effect titles and various copycats, it’s that which will be remembered.

The legacy of this trilogy will be the way it deftly and cleverly used your save game data, not only to provide a compelling reason to come back next time, but to make you care.

There are aspects of Mass Effect 3 that are bound to leave fans disappointed, not in the least because after all this it’s very hard to account for every variable and harder still for the player to say goodbye to these characters and stories after so many years.

There’s a lot I want to talk about regarding the ending – and perhaps when you’ve all had the chance to complete it we can come back to that – but the fact that it’s hard to let go underlines what a triumph Mass Effect truly is.

For all BioWare’s shouting about an “all out galactic war,” that’s not what Mass Effect is about. It’s about the smaller stories, the relationship between your Shepard and a handful of people – admittedly vitally important people – across the galaxy.

It’s heart-wrenching to leave them behind. But the journey was sure as hell worth it.

Mass Effect 3 releases today for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.

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12 Comments

  1. Gheritt White

    WHY DID I KILL THE RACHNI QUEEN?

    I genuinely thought I was doing the universe a favour…

    #1 3 years ago
  2. freedoms_stain

    @1, I killed that bitch too thinking it was the right thing to do, then it gave me bad guy points (I was attempting to go Paragon all the way) and I was a bit wtf?

    #2 3 years ago
  3. Uncontested

    Yup I have to re-play ME2 soon.. I got a new computer and don’t have a save file on this one… some of my decisions suck this time around… including a massive let down with the geth and quarians.. def gonna have to replay this.

    #3 3 years ago
  4. Dralen

    @3 That Geth and Quarian decision was definitely a tough one for me too. It literally had me put down my controller, stand up, and stare at my screen for a minute before I made a decision.

    #4 3 years ago
  5. FakeKisser

    My Garrus died at the end of ME2. He was the only person I lost besides Ashley. Garrus was not my Shepard’s best friend, but he was a good one, and it was hard to lose him, but I didn’t reload and play for a different outcome. I felt that it was fair to have to live with my decisions made at such a crucial time. That’s one thing I love about Mass Effect – real decisions feel like they have real weight – not just something I want to reload to get the “best” option. (and that plays into the importance of the Saves)

    Reading about your experience with Garrus in ME3, I wish, yet again, that my Garrus would have lived, but I’ve had other great experiences with other characters that may not be in other people’s games.

    #5 3 years ago
  6. YoungZer0

    @3: I found a way to make it work out for both of them. :3

    #6 3 years ago
  7. FakeKisser

    I cannot for the life of me remember what decision I made for the Geth and Quarian. I likely sided with Tali, since she’s my favorite character and my romance. Is there a point in ME3 where it basically says, “This is the choice(s) you made and what happened because of that”? Or do I have to go back to my old ME2 saves and try to figure it out? It will drive me crazy if I don’t figure it out. :P

    #7 3 years ago
  8. FakeKisser

    I just loaded up my old ME2 save and checked my journal. I destroyed the Geth base. I haven’t seen the repercussions of that in ME3 yet…

    #8 3 years ago
  9. Uncontested

    @6 As I understand it you need to have a lot of things go ‘just right’ for it to work out for both of them.. unfortunately i didn’t have high enough reputation check to pass since im playing the ‘default’ ME3 right now with no ME2 save available.

    #9 3 years ago
  10. Ireland Michael

    My Tali was the only character I lost in Mass Effect 2.

    It made me sad to see her name on the memorial plaque on the Normandy in Mass Effect 3, and it also makes me wonder how things with the Quarians will work out without her.

    #10 3 years ago
  11. YoungZer0

    @10: I’d love to know about that, because Tali was actually friends with Legion at the end of my game and i hope that kind of influenced my gameplay.

    Anyway, none of this matters as the endings destroy everything you’ve every worked on.

    #11 3 years ago
  12. FakeKisser

    I was able to get peace between the Geth and Quarians. There are quite a few things that have to go “right” for it to work out. I almost messed it up once by doing one mission before another. The only other thing I would say is to stay “neutral” when possible and defend the Geth in every conversation. Just keep doing the “Paragon” choices – And keep a lot of saves, because if you don’t do everything right, you could end up killing all the Quarians to save the Geth…

    #12 3 years ago

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