This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.One of the reasons that the Mass Effect series has been one of the most-discussed franchises of the generation is because the games are many different things to many different people. They're science-fiction epics. They're cover-based shooters. They're dating sims. They're long-term serialized stories. They're slowly wandering through cities in space, engaging in long conversations. They're tough battles against overwhelming odds.
The core divide is between the self-serious saga of Shepard versus the Reapers that the franchise attempts to convey, and the entertaining – if slightly goofy – glorious mess that some perceive it to be. The final story-based expansion for the series, the recently-released 'Citadel' add-on, demonstrates how big that divide can be and then it bridges the gap. That "self-seriousness" is, in my opinion, one of the most effective criticisms of Mass Effect 3, a game that effectively worked to tie up many of the storylines from the first two games of the series, but did so via an increasingly dramatic series of violent confrontations. This often worked to create propulsive stories, particularly the fantastic sequence on Tuchanka. But it also felt more generally like there was just too much grim warfare. Of course, the game believing its own mythology to be its most important aspect led to the controversial ending that embodied the game world's internal logic of Shepard-versus-the-Reapers.
This component of Mass Effect exists in 'Citadel' as the first half of the new content. In it, Shepard is ordered to the Citadel for repairs to the Normandy as well as a bit of relaxation. Something goes wrong, there's a conspiracy against her (or his) life, and Shepard is forced to save the day again. The story is notably lighter than anything in Mass Effect 3's primary narrative, and it's somewhat detached from the overarching Reaper war. Indeed, it feels more like one of Mass Effect 2's character quests: In a way, Citadel is Commander Shepard's loyalty mission. In terms of gameplay, Citadel adds new weapons and a compelling boss encounter. The shooting section of 'Citadel' can be trifling, but it doesn't overstay its welcome.
BioWare's primary strength through its history has been its characterization. From Minsc and HK-47 to Aveline and Garrus, the characters are usually the most memorable parts of their games (though not always positively, looking at you Ashley & Carth.) There's much more to the games, to be certain, but it's the characters, their relationships, and their interactions, that stand out the most.
The main event, the part that should delight people invested in the varieties of character interactions, is a massive party that Shepard throws in her (or his!) new apartment. Shepard can invite every previous surviving party member and watch them interact. It's almost like the squad members are toys as part of a diorama. It leads to a host of entertaining interactions, such as EDI trying to convince Joker to dance, or Grunt and Wrex arguing over who's tougher.
Yet I think I actually like not being able to judge how Citadel integrates with the main game. More than most games, Mass Effect is a subjective experience, built around who Shepard is, what Shepard has decided, and who's still alive. To play Citadel, especially the party section, is to be immersed in that subjectivity. It's a scene that shouldn't stick out too much to fans of Mass Effect as a serious story. But to those of us who played for the glorious mess of watching how different characters responded to slightly different events, who found the crew of the Normandy the best part of Mass Effect, it's a love letter. Citadel demonstrates that yes, BioWare did understand what made their game special, for all kinds of different players.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.