If you missed the previous parts of this series you can catch up here.
Shepard has completed her missions on Feros, Noveria and Therum. Each time she has been one step behind Saren but that is all about to change. Her mission is about to lead her to that fated confrontation as well as the most challenging decision she has made so far.
Hold the line
At this point Shepard has another lead from the council, a Salarian intel team has been observing Saren’s secret research base on Virmire. After fighting through the Geth, Shepard reaches the Salarian camp and learns from the Salarian team leader, Captain Kirrahe, that Saren has been working on a cure for the genophage, the genetic mutation that has caused the Krogan race to become sterile. Captain Kirrahe’s plan is to infiltrate the base and detonate a nuclear bomb, destroying the facility and the cure to prevent Saren from raising an army of Krogan. Shepard’s Krogan squad member Wrex is not pleased with this idea and Kirrahe asks that you speak to him to ensure he won’t be a problem on the mission.
This presents the first choice on Virmire that has wide repercussions on the entire series. Shepard must either convince Wrex of her plan or ultimately take him down. Shepard convinced Wrex that Saren would only use the Krogan and his cure is not the one Wrex wants. At first glance this choice seems relatively simple, you either have the skill points in Charm/Intimidate to convince Wrex or you don’t. Looking at the actual possibilities paints a much more detailed picture. BioWare developed several paths this brief conversation can take, including being able to convince Wrex without using the Charm/Intimidate skill or having another squad member kill him without your orders. One common complaint about this game – and the series as a whole – is that ultimately every choice comes down to whether you have enough points to pick the “right” dialogue option. It’s refreshing to see that there are multiple paths through the encounter that don’t require Charm/Intimidate, even if the outcome still ends up with Wrex either alive or dead.
After calming Wrex down Shepard discussed the plan. The Salarians would launch a decoy attack so that Shepard could infiltrate the base and set off the bomb. One of Shepard’s teammates would accompany the Salarians to offer fire support. Knowing his men may not make it back Kirrahe delivered a stirring speech to boost morale. He reminded his men of all the trying times in Salarian history the Salarians always “hold the line.” The speech is extremely memorable and even though he has a very small part in the first game this was one of the moments I most look forward to every playthough. After that the mission commenced.
The first sequence of the mission was just getting to the base. Along the way, Shepard can assist the Salarian team by disabling Geth drones and/or communications. Eventually, this culminates in a decision to set off an alarm on the other side of the base. This would make Shepard’s task easier but increase the resistance the other team faces.
Leading up to this point Captain Kirrahe explains to Shepard that his troops aren’t prepared for a full-frontal assault like this and they will likely struggle to survive. You must weigh the importance of your mission with helping the other team. However, my character was leveled and geared enough that I had no issue with additional enemies. The tension should be from deciding whether I can handle additional enemies if I don’t raise the alarm. Instead there was no weight to the decision and no reason not to help the other team out. It’s another instance where the narrative tries to add gravity to your choices but the gameplay renders it inconsequential.
Meet the Reaper
After fighting through the base Shepard eventually finds Saren’s private lab. Inside she finds an intact Prothean beacon which fills in the missing part of the message but more important she speaks to Sovereign. The game finally reveals that Sovereign is not a Reaper ship but an actual Reaper. This conversation is one of the best moments in the entire Mass Effect series. Shepard tries to reason with and understand Sovereign but the Reaper isn’t having it. Instead Sovereign makes it clear that Shepard could never hope to understand the Reapers or why they must carry out the galactic extinction. If the Mass Effect series can be summed up as Commander Shepard’s battle against the Reapers, this is the moment where the game shifts the conflict that direction; it’s no longer just Shepard hunting Saren. There is no choice and it’s mostly an info dump about the Reapers but it is done in such a way that doesn’t feel boring. Sovereign comes off as menacing, but not necessarily evil, and Shepard has more questions than answers after their encounter.
After leaving Saren’s lab and fighting through a few more Geth, Shepard plants the bomb. At this point the game presents the final choice on Virmire. Both Ashley and Kaidan need assistance and Shepard can’t be in two places at once. If Shepard helps one the other will die. There were a lot of ways to look at roleplaying this decision but ultimately for Kylie Shepard it had to be done based on each soldier’s importance to the Alliance. Kaidan is a human biotic, which is very rare, and he outranks Ashley. Ashley is a soldier and while she is good at her job losing Kaidan is a bigger blow than losing her. It sounds robotic and dispassionate to look at two human beings as statistics but I felt that was in character for Kylie Shepard. She couldn’t make this decision if she was thinking emotionally, there would be no right answer for her and it would paralyze her and possibly lose them both. Instead she had to separate herself from the situation and make the logical decision. This meant that Shepard raced to assist Kaidan.
It was at this point that Saren reveals himself to Shepard. Shepard has a chance to speak to Saren and the revelations from Sovereign shed additional light on Saren’s plan. Saren discovered the Reapers and their plan and bargained with Sovereign to spare those who allied with him. Shepard is quick to point out that being indoctrinated by the Reapers isn’t a way to live but at this point Saren is too far gone and she has no choice but to fight. This is the first boss battle where you engage the enemy rather than fighting their proxies. While it isn’t particularly memorable there is a certain catharsis that comes from finally having a showdown with Saren after all this time.
The end is near
The battle doesn’t last long before Saren retreats and Shepard and his crew, minus Ashley, race to escape the blast radius. After barely escaping the crew meets for their debriefing although the mood is more somber. At this point, with a full understanding of the beacon, Liara is finally able to pinpoint the location of the conduit: the planet Ilos which lies beyond the Mu Relay. As Shepard and her team prepare to head to Ilos Shepard receives a message to return to the Citadel.
At this point, Shepard has reached the last leg of her journey. Virmire continues to be the standout mission from the game’s middle third; a fantastic balance of interesting characters, compelling choices and exciting set piece moments. With that behind us, Shepard is finally ready to hit what I remember as the most exciting part of the game and our adventure together will soon come to a close.