SPOILER WARNING: This blog post covers my experience with and thoughts about Mass Effect 3. As such, I will be discussing important points about the game’s story and details about its hotly debated ending. If you have not yet played Mass Effect 3, or if you’ve started the game but haven’t finished it, I urge you to stop reading now and come back once you’ve finished the game and had a chance to form your own opinions.
I’ve been a huge fan of the Mass Effect franchise since I got the first game on a whim when it came out in November 2007. I figured it’d be good, since it came from the same developer that had made Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but nothing prepared me for the richness & depth of story and fun gameplay that Bioware had crafted for the first Mass Effect. It was a given, then, that I would purchase Mass Effect 2 when it came out, and I was even more blown away by the improved combat and increasingly engaging story. This was made all the more meaningful by the ability to import my saves from one game into the next, thus maintaining continuity of my own custom version of the narrative.
All of this contributed to extremely high expectations heading into Mass Effect 3‘s release two weeks ago, and I’m very proud and pleased to say that the overwhelming majority of the game didn’t simply meet my expectations–it exceeded them more than I could have imagined!
I was thrilled by combat that was even more refined & tighter than in Mass Effect 2, which itself was a huge improvement over the combat in Mass Effect (apart from the cumbersome inventory system, combat was the only part of ME1 that needed improvement). Apart from generally feeling faster-paced & more visceral, the combat in Mass Effect 3 was improved over the previous two games by smarter & more aggressive enemy AI, as well as smarter AI for squadmates (I didn’t have to specifically direct squadmates on where to take cover as often as in ME1 or ME2). The incredibly wide variety of weapons available was a plus, and actually prompted me to give a second look at some weapons I had neglected in previous games (for example, the Vindicator battle rifle, which I didn’t care for in ME2, became my assault rifle of choice in ME3).
The War Assets game mechanic was another aspect of ME3 that I really enjoyed. It was a fun, clever way to keep track of the job I was doing in building up the armada to take Earth back from the Reapers, and the process of scanning for assets in the various systems was much simpler to deal with than the tedious mineral scanning of ME2. With regards to the new-to-the-franchise cooperative multiplayer, I really enjoy how straightforward & fun to play it is, thanks to the game’s excellent combat system. Many people have complained about the fact that the multiplayer has an impact on how prepared your singleplayer armada is, but I appreciated that aspect of it; it has made me want to participate in multiplayer in a way that other games haven’t up to this point. As far as the equipment packs for multiplayer are concerned, I enjoy being able to earn money to buy better weapons & supplies, but I’m not sure how I feel about the micro-transaction option. I’m concerned that people who can’t shell out the money to quickly buy the best stuff might find themselves booted out of games on a regular basis, but hopefully they’ll be able to avoid that by saving up in-game credits playing with groups of friends.
The lionshare of Mass Effect 3‘s story has been everything I expected and far, far more. Along with minor story atmosphere details such as being debriefed by Hackett after every N7 mission and side mission (which made those missions feel much more relevant than their ME1 and ME2 counterparts), I loved how subplots both large and small were resolved in ME3. Some of my favorite story moments included:
- Coming to terms with Khalisah al-Jilani–Yeah, I know she’s the reporter everyone has loved to hate, but as a Paragon player who has always shown restraint with Khalisah, I really appreciated how using the Paragon interrupts allowed me to give her a chance to use her bully pulpit to do some real good, and that it made her a War Asset (interestingly, she provides more individual benefit than Diana Allers–who I think should have been given more to do in the game–does).
- Conrad Verner–Ah, Conrad, ya goofy knucklehead. I loved that despite his continually inept nature, Conrad was given a chance to contribute (however insignificantly) to the war effort, and even sacrifice himself to save Shepard’s life (“Did I help, Shepard?” “Yeah, Conrad…You helped.”) I did the side mission to help Jenna in ME1, however, so Conrad didn’t die in my playthrough.
- Discovering EDI’s origin–I had a feeling that the side mission to stop the rogue VI on the Moon in ME1 would have a payoff farther down the road, but I wasn’t expecting anything quite as cool as finding out that that VI eventually became the indispensable EDI, whose character development in ME3 was very enjoyable to watch unfold.
- Encountering David Archer and Jack at Grissom Academy–The ending to the Mass Effect 2 add-on Overlord was one of the most emotionally gut-wrenching moments I’ve ever seen in a story, especially since I have a relative who is autistic. For that reason, encountering David Archer at Grissom Academy–and having him vouch for you to the other tech students–was incredibly satisfying. I also had EDI with me as a squadmate on that mission, which results in a brief but very touching exchange between the two of them. I loved the story development that has none other than Jack working as an instructor–and fiercely protective den-mother–for the biotic students at Grissom Academy. The part where Jack hauls off & punches Shepard while lecturing him/her about trusting Cerberus made me laugh out loud, as did her line to one of the students about taking…something…out of her purse.
- Curing the genophage–This was one of the two biggest & most important subplot moments for me in Mass Effect 3, and it didn’t disappoint in the least. Mordin’s self-sacrifice to cure the disease which he helped perpetuate was a remarkably powerful moment, and I couldn’t help but finish singing the line “…scientist Salarian” after the explosion that killed him. The subsequent scene showing the Krogan female & Wrex express gratitude & promise that they will guide their race toward a better future was incredibly gratifying, and I hope we all get a chance to see how that future plays out in any subsequent Mass Effect games that come along.
- Ending the conflict between the Geth and the Quarians–Apart from the obvious benefit of getting “two fleets for the price of one” in the war effort against the Reapers, being able to broker peace between the Geth & Quarians was supremely satisfying, and I’ve been waiting for it ever since the revelation in ME2 that not all Geth wanted to go to war with organics. The final moment when Tali removes her helmet & freely breathes the air of her homeworld for the first time was the perfect way to cap off that sequence.
Now that I’ve covered what I loved about Mass Effect 3, it’s time for me to address the elephant in the room: the ending choices of the game, and the ways in which they are lacking. First and foremost, there is a lot that’s good about the established endings in a general sense. Shepard’s willingness to sacrifice himself/herself for the good of the galaxy, the choice of whether to destroy the Reapers, control them, or create peace & understanding with them, and losing the use of the mass relays are all good ideas, and have the potential for creating fantastic endings for the game and the trilogy. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with the way the endings were executed:
- The destruction of the mass relay network–I don’t have a problem with the idea of humanity and the other races losing the use of the mass relay network, at least for the short term; it creates a great opportunity for showing how galactic civilization could cope with this loss going forward. However, violently destroying the relays outright has a glaring problem which numerous fans have already pointed out. As was established in the Mass Effect 2 add-on Arrival, if a mass relay is completely destroyed, the resulting energy release is enough to completely destroy all life in the system where it is located. Logically then, if the entire relay network blows up simultaneously, it would eradicate life in every populated system containing a relay, thus rendering the struggle to save civilization from the Reapers completely pointless. Furthermore, even if a ship tried to outrun the destruction of a relay as Joker does with the Normandy in each of the three main endings, it would be for nothing since the ship would be destroyed at their destination when that system’s relay blows up.
- Joker & the Normandy crew fleeing Earth’s solar system–There are three major problems with this aspect of the endings. First, Joker and the Normandy crew have no apparent way of knowing what’s about to happen with the Citadel/Crucible or the mass relays, so there’s no clear reason why they would attempt to flee. Second, even if Joker & the crew did somehow know what was happening, their extreme loyalty to Shepard would demand that they make some attempt to rescue him/her from the Citadel before fleeing the system. Third, since every member of Shepard’s squad was down on Earth’s surface, it makes no sense that they would suddenly be on board the Normandy, which was still fighting in the battle overhead.
- Destruction option also killing the Geth, EDI, and other synthetics–This aspect of the “destruction” ending really bothers me, especially since I placed so much importance on showing mercy to the Geth and brokering peace between them and the Quarians. Forcing Shepard to betray an entire race that agreed to help fight the Reapers renders the earlier choice to ally with them completely moot. It also makes no sense from the perspective that the Crucible was supposed to be a weapon specifically designed & built to destroy the Reapers; how would it be able to destroy or damage synthetics that didn’t even exist during the previous extinction cycle?
- Control option showing no consequences–The lack of any depiction of consequences is a huge problem with all three of the endings, but it is particularly notable in this one. If humanity suddenly had complete control over the machine race that had been attacking galactic society, the other races would certainly have something to say about it, especially if Shepard and/or humanity chose to use the Reapers in a less-than-benevolent way.
- Synthesis option focusing on DNA rather than mind–It has already been established that the Reapers harvest the DNA of organics in order to create the organic/synthetic hybrid basis of their own “bodies.” However, it seems to me that if the Catalyst wanted to present Shepard with an option of creating lasting peace between synthetics & organics, it would focus on Shepard’s mind, personality, and resolve. Those were the aspects of Shepard that allowed him/her to stand up to the Reapers, and accomplish the feat of uniting the galaxy’s races (including the synthetic Geth, depending on player choices).
- Mechanisms for selecting the three choices–This was one of the strangest aspects of Mass Effect 3‘s ending. It makes no sense how grabbing hold of what appear to be live electrical terminals, jumping into a massive energy stream, or shooting a power conduit with a pistol has anything to do with triggering a specifically-designed mechanism for destroying or altering the Reapers. This also eliminates any potential for a realistic means of Shepard surviving any of the three courses of action, including blowing up the power conduit in the destruction option. Again, the concept of Shepard sacrificing himself/herself for the good of the galaxy makes sense from a storytelling perspective, and I kind of expected that with this game. However, if Bioware had any plans for creating DLC that carries the story past the established ending, it would have been smart to incorporate some chance of survival for Shepard into every ending (perhaps dependent on player choices or some other set of circumstances). An alternative way of depicting this choice could have been Shepard standing before some kind of control console, making a choice through the dialogue wheel, and then showing depictions of each choice’s consequences through unique cinematics.
- Lack of “no Crucible” option–Bioware missed a huge opportunity to cater to player choice by not including an option to avoid using the Crucible entirely once learning of the potential damage it could do to the mass relay network and/or friendly synthetics like the Geth and EDI. An option like this would have been dependent on having the strongest possible armada with no War Assets left uncollected, and it would have logically resulted in the heaviest losses to the fleet (if anyone survived at all), but it would have been very satisfying to any player inclined to go that route.
All of the points mentioned above depend on the idea of taking the existing ending at face value. However, some people have put forth a theory that the endings in their present form are explained by the idea that all of the events after Shepard is knocked unconscious are a depiction of Shepard fighting off an indoctrination attempt by the Reapers. In this scenario, Shepard’s choice atop the Citadel would represent whether that indoctrination attempt succeeds (choosing the control or synthesis options) or fails (choosing the destruction option, which is the only choice that results in Shepard waking up alive in a pile of rubble). For a much more detailed discussion of this theory, please consult this document (Note–I did not write this linked document): https://docs.google.com/document/d/1QT4IUepvrU1pfv_B95oQj0H84DlCTUmzQ_uQh1voTUs/mobilebasic?pli=1. In addition, YouTube user ACAYVOS has created a video that presents a very compelling argument as to why this whole sequence must be in Shepard’s mind, showing resistance to Reaper indoctrination (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ythY_GkEBck).
If the indoctrination theory is accurate, it would be a very clever storytelling idea, but that leaves the question of why Bioware ends the game at this point. Why not continue after Shepard resists Reaper indoctrination with the destruction option? Some have argued that Bioware did this deliberately, so as to make any forthcoming DLC with an altered/expanded ending more “indispensable.” Whether that’s true, or if Bioware meant for players to take the endings at face value and intended no other ending for the story, they now face a dilemma worthy of the Mass Effect games themselves.
If Bioware does nothing to change this ending, many players will be upset that they were not able to experience a clearer ending that provides closure and that better reflects player choices. If they provide a new ending with DLC that must be paid for, many players will be extremely angry that they have to pay extra to get the “true” ending for Mass Effect 3. If they provide a new/altered/expanded ending for free, either through a DLC pack or a title update patch, many have argued that it will set a dangerous precedent for fans being able to change any game ending they don’t like simply by raising a large enough stink.
Whatever Bioware’s intent was with the existing ending, and whatever they decide to do to address the matter, I hope that they and other developers take this opportunity to learn how to avoid this kind of situation in the future without compromising their artistic integrity. I also hope that fans of Mass Effect and of other game franchises realize that, while they do have every right to be displeased with a game and to express their displeasure, they should respect developers’ right to artistic expression, and express their views with respect and courtesy.