If you had asked me this question a few years ago, my answer would have been the Collectors. It should have been Harbinger, but I was severely disappointed there. Like, okay, I’m going to deviate from the topic a bit here because I am still upset about this. Harbinger was supposed to be like ME1‘s Sovereign but ten times more badass. We piss him off in ME2 by blowing the Collector base all to hell (or saving it, depending on how much you trust the Illusive Man), and he’s there in the finale of ME3, with his Laser of Death, but then he just … flies off. And Shepard goes to talk to the Star Child or whatever. It was just so anticlimactic.
Anyway, like I said, I probably would have chosen the Collectors as the best antagonist of the three games, but after playing the games for going on ten years now, I realized something: they present a real threat, but what exactly that threat – beyond kidnapping colonists for science experiments – is isn’t ever really explained. What were the Reapers trying to do with them? If what EDI said in ME2 is true, the entire fleet of reapers should have drastically different appearances, depending on what cycle they came from, but in ME3, they all look fairly similar. Sure, the Collectors are a major clue into what the Reapers ultimately do, but other than that, they’re little more than a plot point.
With that in mind, I’m gonna have to give this award to Cerberus, more specifically, the Illusive Man.
These assholes are there from the very beginning. They’re amoral, xenophobic, and just so damn mysterious. I wasn’t really sure what their purpose was in the first game, but I absolutely loved the side missions that I ended up going on. It was clear that they were pretty much evil – they kill Admiral Kahoku, guys! – but I figured it was just one of those organizations, like the mercenary groups that pop up every now and then, that wouldn’t necessarily tie into the story that much.
And then, boom, they’re my allies in ME2.
Well, as much an ally as the Illusive Man, their leader, can be, I guess.
I like Miranda’s statement that “he’s no saint and he’ll be the first to admit it,” because I think that’s what makes the Illusive Man so great. He’s not just blindly searching for power; it’s both a perk that he’s able to earn and a requirement to continue his “great work.” He obviously isn’t too concerned with receiving the credit, seeing as he goes by a pseudonym the entire time, and enjoys the role of behind the scenes guy way more, a la the Shadow Broker (also a really cool villain). He stays fairly neutral throughout most of the second game, more or less recognizing that his relationship with Shepard is a marriage of convenience, and even if you save the Collector base in accordance to the Illusive Man’s wishes, you don’t really get the feeling that he’s going to stay friendly for long. He’s got shit he wants to do, and whether or not you and your crew are a part of it isn’t super important to him.
Finally, in ME3, both the Illusive Man and Cerberus are pretty solid secondary antagonists to the Reapers. They represent humanity’s tendency to be its own worst enemy, ruthless and callous in the face of adversity. While Shepard and crew are trying to unite the galaxy, Cerberus is working with the devil and sacrificing the very people it’s wanting to save. And for what? Control. Predictability. Power. Honestly? Probably some of the best writing that Bioware has ever done.
And then they go make ME: Andromeda. Jesus.