The Mass Effect games we play in the future could be so different from the ones we've been playing for the last seven years. That is one of the messages of Leviathan, the second single-player expansion to Mass Effect 3, the first since launch day.
Here is a short, well-made $10 adventure set in the middle of the events of Mass Effect 3 that may exhaust your interest in Commander Shepard even as it suggests a variety of fun possible futures for games in the Mass Effect universe.
Imagine if some day we could play a Mass Effect detective game. That is partially what Leviathan is as Shepard repeatedly returns to the lab of a deceased scientist to determine the truth behind a history-changing expedition. The player gets to search for clues and do some deductive reasoning. It's not quite L.A. Noire In Space, but imagine the possibilities...
Maybe some day we could play a Mass Effect that focuses on the discovery of beautiful new worlds. Leviathan brings players to two of the best-rendered worlds seen in the series. Mass Effect hasn't looked this good since the visually magnificent Mass Effect 2 expansion Lair of the Shadow Broker. Too bad that the tours of these new places are so brief.
Perhaps in the future we could play a Mass Effect horror game, which Leviathan almost turns into, during a creepy sequence set in the second-weirdest space-mining facility ever seen in an EA-published game.
In the span of maybe four hours Leviathan suggests all of these new turns for BioWare's grand space adventure. But Leviathan is ultimately mostly a faithful expansion of the shooter-role-playing hybrid we've played in Mass Effects 1-3. We are Commander Shepard. We have heard that there may be something out there called the Leviathan that can kill the universe-harvesting Reapers, and we will both talk to people and shoot a lot of bad guys in order to find out if this is true. We won't make any big moral decisions this time, sadly, but we will fly from star system to star system. We will scan some planets. We will eventually report in to Admiral Hackett.
What's here is good and, in isolation, this is an enjoyable adventure for Shepard. The quest is interesting. The sights are lovely, especially a brief bit set underwater. The combat is challenging, thanks to a heavy use of Mass Effect 3's tougher enemies. And the very brief experiments with escort and chase are welcome. BioWare's Mass Effect DLC batting average remains high.
Leviathan nevertheless conveys the sensation that Shepard's time is up. Her adventure had its grand finale in Mass Effect 3, which leaves this mid-mission expansion feeling like watching a very long deleted scene. There are no great secrets to be learned about Shepard. Her narrative and emotional arc was already complete. Leviathan purports to reveal new secrets about the Mass Effect universe during its anticlimactic ending (yes, the ending is weak; no, BioWare doesn't need to change it), but it's hard to shake the idea that none of this means anything. We already know what happens before, during and after Leviathan. More importantly, the heart of the Shepard trilogy—the Commander's relationships with her allies—barely beats in this expansion, which involves very little fresh dialogue between the series' core cast that doesn't involve the mission at hand. This expansion, of course, runs on a technical framework that is at its limit. New gameplay experiments can only bend the system so far; Shepard is still a a klutz who doesn't always take cover when you want her to and sometimes fails to pick something up even though you surely just pressed the A button.
Leviathan is a fun return to Commander Shepard's Mass Effect, but the overall feeling here is that, as good as it is, Shepard's Mass Effect is exhausted. Her cycle is over. This is just good filler. It's time to prepare for the future. And, for the record, I would play L.A. Noire In Space.