'Mass Effect 3' Turns Up the Bitterness of War

I just got Mass Effect 3, and I'm a little afraid.

I've made some bad decisions in the past. Killed a few aliens that maybe I shouldn't have, bedded a few others I might yet live to regret. Let the wrong people live, let the right people die. Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and space bad-asses gotta make the rest of the galaxy wish they had been born human and pissed off. But even so, sometimes it takes a few thousand invincible monolithic robot space-squids to really hammer home a nice sense of failure.

And so the Reapers have come home to roost, and all those genocidal prophesies that the powers that be of Mass Effect's various hierarchies conveniently ignored for two games are coming true with a sickening quickness. Worlds upon worlds fall, putting up all the resistance of a cardboard city in a Godzilla movie, and nobody seems to have the faintest idea how to turn the tide, including, for the first time, you.

Mass Effect 3 is one big, long, drawn-out rearguard action, the kind of perpetual retreat that World War II games stopped doing a long time ago because the idea became just too unbelievable for audiences. Best-case scenarios play out like Stalingrad in fast-forward, with "heroes" who can stand atop their own piled dead and hurl whatever ordnance remains at an enemy that shows no sign of giving up are born overnight. Worst-case scenarios are, well, worse.

The whole thing stinks of finality, of despair. Old friends show up randomly, and we have nice little conversations about how nobody has heard from their families since the war with the Reapers started, or how they watched civilizations thousands of years in the making reduced to ash and memories over a few days, or how the races of the galaxy, despite being driven to the brink of collective extermination, can't seem to put aside their petty squabbles long enough to even consider mounting an effective defense.

And the whole thing, the entire blasted thing, rests squarely on your shoulders. You're the one who has to pull out a win. But unlike the last few wins against insurmountable odds, Mass Effect 3 is, from the start, a game that tells a story of a war already lost.

Walk down any hallway in the galaxy, and all eyes are on you, watching your every move, waiting for something, anything—a nod to a customs clerk who might be able to find room for a few more refugees, a supportive word to a family soon to be torn apart by an inevitably suicidal deployment. Moving beyond the RPGs of the past, which only let you effect change in "important" ways, Mass Effect 3 ensures that all the decisions of this war-torn galaxy are yours to make, and to live with.

You have to hand it to Bioware for even getting the thing out the door in a playable condition—not due to any bugs or glaring gameplay issues, but simply because of the fact that Mass Effect 3 has an almost indoctrinating tendency to go on about its own doom to the extent that it sometimes forgets that there should be a game in there somewhere.

I accidentally signed the death warrant for the home world of a race of peaceful, sapient jellyfish with a single press of a button, during a meaningless side quest—all because I thought a momentary command prompt meant that I was good enough to possibly win at something. But no, Mass Effect 3 doesn't have win buttons—it just allows you to occasionally pick from one of several ways to lose. Watch an accomplice die before your eyes, or be remembered as the Scourge of the Jellyfish People, if anyone is left to remember you. Your choice.

And all along the way, those bad decisions keep popping up, always singing their mantra of the tough choice now for the greater good later. Is allying with thieves, murderers, and general galactic scumbags so bad when the threat you're pointing them at is even worse? When children want to fight for their lives, do you let them?

Return of the Jedi this isn't. This is a story of the bitter consequences of misspent pasts and a desperate, often futile attempt to right a course long since charted. For that, although it doesn't mean to be, Mass Effect 3 might end up being the most genuinely frightening game this year.