I've already talked about Mass Effect 3's gameplay, but now that it's three years later and emotions have calmed down I'm going to revisit the controversial conclusions to the Mass Effect Trilogy and finally answer the question "Is there actually anything left to say about this bloody ending that hasn't been said a thousand times before?"
And the answer is "nope".
Sorry, there just isn't. The game was so thoroughly torn apart back in 2012 that there's absolutely nothing new I can bring to the table.
Though I remember that reviewers at the time didn't really take issue with the game's ending, which is kind of bizarre considering how many of the fans did. My theory is that they were thrown off by the fact that you needed to play multiplayer to boost your War Assets for the best ending, and assumed that they must have gotten a crap outcome. Everyone else playing after release was able to check YouTube afterwards to learn that all endings are the crap outcome.
I don't usually like to call what I write for this site 'reviews' even though they can get a bit conclusiony down at the bottom, because most of the time I haven't finished the games I'm talking about and for some games that really matters. When a game's a story driven as this, that last 1% of plot can make all the difference, just ask a 'Lost' or 'Battlestar Galactica' fan.
So for once I actually am going to be finishing something. Twice over in fact; first with the original ending and then a second time with the reworked Extended Cut DLC installed. And I will have opinions to share.
*** WARNING: MAXIMUM SPOILERS ***
On the scale of customer dissatisfaction, this one reached 402 on the cupcake scale, or at least that's how many were sent to BioWare's office in protest.
|Artists impression of 402 cupcakes.|
Fans also raised $80,000 for the Child's Play charity, and they would've raised more if the directors of Child's Play hadn't asked them to stop because they didn't want to be a tool to draw attention to a cause. The cause in this case being that they wanted BioWare to make them a new ending, one that lived up to the promises made by the developers in interviews, and didn't make them want to snap the game disc and use the shards to gouge their own heart out.
This backlash then caused another backlash from people who felt that Mass Effect 3 fans were being whiny and entitled (or were just sick of hearing about the game). There was concern that if fans made BioWare 'cave in' and change the tone of their ending, then, gaming as an art form would be set back. Internet controversies are fun! And I haven't even mentioned the Indoctrination Theory yet.
Anyway, this is the game's original ending, before BioWare 'caved' and changed the tone of it:
They've been giving special attention to Earth due to Commander Shepard screwing up all their previous plans, and throughout the game the planet's getting really hammered by a massive Reaper fleet. The final act begins with them capturing the gigantic Citadel space station (home to the galaxy's ruling council and 13 million civilians) and dragging it 50,000 light years to bring it into Earth's orbit.
Meanwhile, Shepard has been going around bringing the races of the universe together so that they can construct the slightly less gigantic Crucible super weapon from ancient blueprints discovered on Mars. The Crucible has just been completed at this point and now they have all they need to defeat the Reapers once and for all! Well almost... as it turns out that the Crucible needs to plug into the Citadel to work. It's called the 'Catalyst' in the instructions so they didn't know what they were looking for at first.
We get a flashy cutscene showing our guys approaching the planet, and then it's on. It's like the end of 'Return of the Jedi' out there except with a thousand Death Stars and all I can do is pull out popcorn and enjoy the expensive CGI. It showed the quarian fleet for a bit though, plus the Destiny Ascension dreadnought that I saved in Mass Effect 1, so the cutscene has been personalised to match my choices.
The Normandy slips through the chaos and drops Shepard and her team down onto the streets of London for a combat level, before disappearing to rejoin the fight in orbit.
SOME SHOOTING LATER.
Here’s where my choices during the trilogy definitely come into play, as I get to have a final chat with each of my squad members, current and former. You see if I’d gotten them killed off already they wouldn't be around to chat!
Then I get to give a speech to my crew! Though my team just can't stand still through it and it's very distracting.
Anyway after this point only my two-man squad has any relevance to anything, the story's over for the rest of them. Not necessarily a bad thing, as Mass Effect did the same thing, but I found the way Mass Effect 2 brought the whole team into the fray and let me choose who was in charge of doing what at every stage of the operation to be more interesting.
You know what's really weird? This room is perfectly safe but the game won't let me save here. It's not letting me save anywhere in London in fact; it's being a dick.
ONE FINAL COMBAT LEVEL LATER.
I’m fighting off apparently infinite waves of Reaper troops (including 1 hit kill Banshees who like to mimic my patented Biotic Charge move to teleport around the street), all while that giant Reaper over there stomps forward and slices up the streets with his laser.
This all reminds me a little of that miserable last level in Bioshock Infinite where I had to protect a power plant from robot George Washingtons or something, but if I remember right ‘defend the missile trucks’ actually means ‘don’t get your dumb ass killed for a minute or so’, and that's infinitely preferable to me.
THE MISSILES FIRE AND THE REAPER BLOWS UP. EVERYONE IS VERY HAPPY ABOUT THIS.
Running across an open field in the heart of Reapertown, England on foot was already a pretty desperate plan, but now Harbinger the Reaper has decided to drop down and make a cameo, and he’s blasting the shit out of everything, including Shepard!
Harbinger was always ‘assuming direct control’ back in Mass Effect 2, but here he assumes that Shepard is dead and flies away. He’s not entirely wrong. Weird how he doesn’t say anything in this one though, seeing as he was the main villain in the last game and he sure loved to hear the filters on his own voice back then.
BioWare didn't include an actual end boss fight because they thought it'd be "too video gamey", which is kind of a weird thing for a video game developer to say. Though seeing as the boss fights are my absolute least favourite part of this game (so far) I can't exactly fault them for the decision.
And that's the London part of the ending chapter finished with! As far as I can tell it's virtually identical for all players, with none of the optional War Assets gathered by the player over the course of the game coming into play at all. In fact even my squad has mysteriously disappeared by this point, so I'm entirely alone.
Tomb Raider 2013 up here. It’s not like the ending of Mass Effect 1 where the invasion of the Citadel left few visible casualties, I'm seeing corridors lined with the dead.
It definitely gives the impression that everyone I talked to here during the game, all those NPCs I did sidequests for, the 13 million other people I didn't get the chance to meet, they’re all dead now. Though on the other hand most of the corpses in this hallway are dressed in that white and pink armour that Ashley always used to wear, so it's possible they're actually victims of the ground war in the streets below. Let's run with that for now, no sense in assuming the worst.
I still can't save the game by the way.
The guy’s not looking too well. In fact he looks like he was trying to fix a PC when the thing exploded in his face, searing a circuit board pattern into his skin. But this extreme body modding has paid off for him, as he now has the power to control men’s minds!
He freezes Shepard and Anderson in place with his indoctrination powers… and then forces the Commander to shoot her friend in the gut. No amount of blue dialogue options was enough to stop it.
I'm still picking my super-powered blue dialogue options here, but all the choices I get to make seem to be along the same lines: the Illusive Man can't control the Reapers if they're already controlling him. I remember using the same reasoning with ME1 antagonist Saren back in the first game, when he was going on about how the solution was to turn everyone into cyborgs.
The Illusive Man had his heart in the right place all along (kind of), but he was so far gone at this point that I don’t think it even occurred to him that he was actively sabotaging his own plans here. He wanted to control the Reapers with the Crucible, but he was determined to stop us from opening the Citadel up so that we could connect the thing!
My choices did have an influence on how this played out, but not in a particularly good way. I had to consistently pick the blue options in every conversation we had during the entire game to get him to come around at the end. Otherwise Shepard just shoots him herself. Or himself if you're playing a guy, so there's another choice you can make!
You know, I would’ve been happy if the game had ended here with Shepard sitting and staring out the window at her world as the Crucible activated. Burned, battered and bleeding out, and almost certainly about to die, but victorious, against impossible odds. There's no great mysteries still to be answered, my crew have their plans for after the war, and I've left the different races in a good place to do fine for themselves. As long as no huge galaxy-shattering catastrophe happens in the next five minutes, I think we're good here.
A FEW SECONDS LATER.
She wakes up to discover a hologram standing over here, and he looks a whole lot like the kid she's been dreaming about all through the game. My best guess is that it's an AI that's taken the appearance of someone from Shepard’s most vivid memories so that she has someone humanoid and non-threatening to interact with. It just happens to be an image pulled straight from her worst recurring nightmares (and the worst recurring levels).
It also turns out that the kid is pretty much an AI living inside the Citadel. He's the Catalyst I've been searching for, and he's also been responsible for the Reapers the whole time! In fact he claims that he controls them... which makes no sense to me seeing as the plot of Mass Effect was all about a lone Reaper trying to regain control of the Citadel so that he could summon the other Reapers. You can't control something that's already controlling you.
Anyway the mysterious child knows all the answers about everything, and yet I can’t ask him about anything. Seriously, there’s like one dialogue choice in this entire conversation and no way to ask questions. He’s basically the glowing pre-teen version of the Architect from the 'Matrix' trilogy, and no one much liked him either.
In fact I'm expected to take him at his word and accept that the Reapers are preventing the utter annihilation of all organic life, and that we're doomed either way unless I find another solution to this robot problem right now.
To be fair the relationship between synthetic life and its creators has been a theme in the series ever since the geth attack on Eden Prime at the beginning of the first game. But the moral of the trilogy up to this point has been that it's wrong to fear and demonize synthetic life! This is a universe with strict laws in place forbidding the creation of new AI, where the innocent geth turned out to be victims of their quarian creators, and where a being as selfless and friendly as EDI had to earn the respect and trust of her crew.
But nope, everything I've learned throughout the story is irrelevant. Reaper kid has a replacement truth. I'd call this a reverse deus ex machina ending, where everything looks like it's going fine until the kid appears to ruin it, though honestly it's actually pretty much a Deus Ex ending.
You’d think that the game would at least let me ask the hologram kid what exactly I’m choosing between here, seeing as the entire point of these games is to make educated decisions by learning about the situations I encounter (and then yell at people until they do what I want). But Shepard’s apparently too busy dying to care about dialogue trees any more, so I’m left to work with the short vague descriptions the child gives me (and to trust that he’s not lying his little Reaper ass off).
So these are my options, as I’m led to understand them:
A plan with no drawbacks! Except that it will lead to the death of all synthetic life in the galaxy and most technology. So that means the geth are death, the quarians are likely dead, everyone in a starship or space station is dead, EDI is dead and Commander Shepard will almost certainly die as well because of the substantial cybernetic augmentation used to resurrect her. Plus people with biotic implants won't be doing so great either.
Also it’ll blow the mass relay network up, ending the galactic civilization I spent so many hours working to unite and preserve.
A plan with considerably fewer drawbacks! Though Shepard will still die… meaning that it’ll be her ghost that’s controlling the Reapers? Or maybe she’s going to leave them a list of things she wants doing. It’s not really explained how that works.
Also the kid doesn’t mention it, but it’ll also blow the mass relay network up, ending the galactic civilization I spent so many hours working to unite and preserve.
Hang on, I just had an argument about this between Anderson and the Illusive Man two minutes ago! I could’ve skipped all this hologram crap and made a choice there, back when there were characters on screen I knew and cared about. But then that would’ve meant missing out on the last two options:
It’s a plan with zero drawbacks, except the part where it rewrites a trillion people’s DNA without their permission. It’ll also finally end the cycle of the created turning against their creators because... they'll both have DNA? There'll be less of that pesky diversity around, sowing mistrust? They’ll have wi-fi in their brains to avoid miscommunication? They'll all be mindless Reaper husks? Who the fuck knows.
This will also kill Shepard, blow up the mass relays and end the galactic civilization I spent so many hours working to unite and preserve.
But at least the mass relays survive!
I actually got enough points to unlock all the options even without completing 100% of the side quests, scanning all the systems, playing multiplayer or buying DLC, which is a pleasant surprise. I'm still a little short of earning the tiny bonus scene following the 'Destroy' ending revealing that Shepard actually survives... but there ain't no way I was ever going to pick that after all the shit I went through this time to keep the geth alive and help them make peace with the quarians.
The glowing avatar of the nefarious space Cthulhus claims that Synthesis is the only one that'll save us from robot annihilation down the road, and it's the hardest to unlock, so I’ll go with that this time.
THE SYNTHESIS ENDING.
This is the first time during the ending that I've been absolutely certain that I'm viewing the consequences of decisions I've made in the past. Specifically, my decision to throw Shepard into a beam of energy and get her face burned off.
There's a really beautiful and unnerving piano track playing here, definitely worth listening if you haven't already: YouTube link. I think this music is actually more than half the reason the ending is so haunting, as it puts you in a weird place emotionally. A ‘buy BioWare 402 cupcakes’ kind of place.
But this isn't simply a case of picking between R, G and B, as the decisions I've made throughout the game play a role in what the energy wave does. Well I say 'decisions'... I actually mean my War Assets score.
The energy wave turns the invading Reapers green, but it needn't have bothered as they've no reason to stay here anyway. Now that the humans are all cyborgs there’s no need to liquefy them and blow up their buildings with lasers, because any AIs these folks or their descendants create will be totally friendly.
Hey Reaper Kid, I've got another question for you: how does converting all the organics and synthetics that exist now prevent the synthetics they'll create later from turning on them? If the hybrids created by the green wave go on to make any new robots (which they inevitably will), they'll be purely synthetic surely. Then we're all back to square one.
The laser goes on to hit mass relay orbiting Pluto, which then also explodes. It’s been established at this point that if one of these things blows, it blows big enough to wipe out the entire solar system, but I’m sure that won’t be the case here. They're not going to kill off all the people they just showed celebrating on Earth.
Plus the Citadel is a mass relay itself (with another tiny mass relay inside of it), and we didn't see that take out the Earth when it blew.
Once the relays are gone they're gone by the way; no one knows how to build new ones.
I’m sure those ridiculously huge, impossibly fast green energy waves we're seeing here are actually more figurative than literal though, considering the insane scale of the galaxy. For one thing the explosions are two dimensional. But really, logic's out the window at this point.
Wait, why was the Normandy in FTL anyway? Did Joker run away from the fight or something? Was the last stand of the human race too intense for him? Either way, next time he sees an energy wave coming he should really think about getting the ship down onto a planet, as ships caught in the shockwave don't seem to do so well.
Hey, weren’t the combined fleets of the known universe parked right next to the Citadel when it blew? Well at least they've got escape pods and somewhere to go I guess, they're not adrift in the unimaginable emptiness between star systems like the Normandy is.
The kid never did define what becoming part synthetic and getting a 'new DNA' actually meant, but somehow I never expected it to mean that any organism hit by the wave would spontaneously and instantaneously grow a skin of conductive traces. Presumably I can flip this leaf over and see all the chips and resistors hanging off the other side, seeing as they must be connected to something.
Or maybe they've been left as a blank board ready for people to solder on their own upgrades, like a photosynthesis co-processor, or extra ram. Just make sure to ground yourself before touching anything or else a static shock could fry the whole plant.
Man, I don't actually mind impossible space magic all that much, you need to do 15 impossible things just to get down to the shops in this game, but this is way past the limits of my suspension of disbelief. It's never a great idea to break the rules of your setting and introduce utter reality shattering bullshit in the last 1% of a story.
Except for in the ending of 'Blazing Saddles' obviously.
Hey Joker’s got glowing robot eyes… and a glowing robot hat! And now EDI’s half robot too! Hang on, why does this feel like they’re being set up to be a new Adam and Eve in a tropical Eden too unlikely to have been found without divine intervention? Or a new Mitochondrial Eve at least. Either way I just hope that one of them knows about farming, because without the mass relay network a rescue ship would take decades or centuries to reach them.
You know what really sucks about this? Joker’s still limping around. Being transformed didn’t cure his brittle bones. It didn’t do a damn thing in fact, because this is the exact same ending you get with the Control choice except without blue circuit board patterns superimposed on everything. The only reason it’s any different from the Destroy ending is because choosing that blows EDI up. Probably for the best really, seeing as without those blue lines she'd inevitably decide to murder them all at some point.
My theory is that the writers were intending this to be an upbeat ending cutscene that fits with any outcome of the Citadel multi-colour laser blast. The ship was wrecked so that it can follow on from the 'Destroy' ending, which breaks technology. The crew are given a new world in case the player got a low War Assets score and left the Earth scorched and uninhabitable.
It just doesn’t fit with the good ending all that well, because seeing all the characters I've grown to care about being shipwrecked alone in the ass-end of space without even knowing that they stopped the Reapers is actually kind of a punch in the gut. Especially when I don't understand why they were even flying away in the first place!
SOON, IN THE DISTANT FUTURE.
AND THEN THAT THING YOU CHOSE HAPPENED.
BUT SOMEONE SOMEWHERE SURVIVED IT.
Man, I still don't like looking at this scene, it always creeps me out. Maybe because it brings back all the frustration and confusion I had during my first playthrough every time I see it online. More likely though it's just an unnerving kind of image. Doesn't help that the last three times I visited a forest in the game it was in a horrible nightmare.
Buzz Aldrin's has a cameo here as 'the Stargazer', passing down the legend of the Shepard. The kid asks if it all really happened, and the man confirms that yes, that was the real ending to Mass Effect 3. It’s getting late, but the kid wants to hear more, so the Stargazer agrees to tell him one more story…
I can continue to build this legend? Who'd want to continue this legend! It’s a shitty legend! I don’t even want to look at the galaxy map again, seeing as it just reminds me no one can ever go to these places again, unless they pack enough lunches for a 50 year trip.
To be honest this screen has been patched out of the game entirely now, even without the Extended Cut installed, and I what I actually saw here was a message of thanks from the BioWare team with no mention of DLC.
ORIGINAL ENDING CONCLUSION
There's basically two types of bad video game ending: there's the regular harmless kind you see everywhere, and then there's the kind you actually care about. The main difference between the two is what comes before them, and Mass Effect 3’s ending comes at you with the full force of the 90+ hours of optimistic sci-fi adventure that preceded it.
That's the equivalent of 5 seasons of television, or 3 Peter Jackson movies.
And during all that time, when players weren't depopulating science labs and prefabricated offices, they would've been exploring the universe. Sometimes by flying around the galaxy map scanning planets, but mostly by chatting to people and learning about who they are, their culture, their problems and their perspective. By ME3 the games had become more about hanging around with your crew than they were about saving the galaxy, but they'd made it clear it was a galaxy worth saving. BioWare had deliberately and expertly manipulated players into giving a shit about the characters and their universe, with the end result being that a lot of players really gave a shit about the characters and their universe!
But then the epic conclusion they'd been waiting five years for was hijacked at the last moment by a hologram kid out of nowhere, who presented a ridiculous new crisis that needed to be solved immediately, without time to explain what his three possible solutions would actually do! It didn't much matter though, as whatever the player picked, rocks fell and everyone died.
Not a huge shock that people got a bit... emotional over it.
Well okay the ending's not quite that bleak, but man it feels like it. The genius of Mass Effect 3's original ending is that it fails on so many levels simultaneously that it pissed off practically everyone. It doesn't matter what you're playing the games for, whether it's the gameplay, the story, the characters, the setting, the choices... whatever, it finds a way to get you. And this only gets worse the more a player is emotionally invested in the series.
Here's what happened in my game when I reached the ending for instance:
Genophage plotline: I allowed Mordin to sacrifice himself to cure the krogan and let them breed again because I trusted Wrex would lead his people well.
New outcome: Wrex is trapped on Earth, can't lead his people or even see his kids grow up.
Quarian plotline: I allowed Legion to sacrifice himself so that the quarian fleet could make peace and go home.
New outcome: half the quarian fleet is stuck on the other side of the galaxy. Without their food ships.
Citadel plotline: I saved the station from Cerberus and Thane heroically sacrificed himself to keep the Citadel council alive.
New outcome: everyone's dead.
Normandy crew: I got Tali a homeworld, told Vega to go for N7 training, taught EDI to become her own person, and Ashley became a Council spectre.
New outcome: everyone's stuck on a deserted jungle planet with little hope of rescue. EDI's ship is wrecked, Tali and Garrus are going to starve, and Joker's gonna run out of medication.
Reaper plotline: I brought the races of the galaxy together to fight them, ending long standing grudges.
New outcome: The races of the galaxy are trapped apart, some cut off from even their colonies (the ones they rely on for food and resources). But hey, at least the Reapers will leave them alone.
Of course it's possible that everything will work out fine after this. Maybe the geth invent a gun that turns rocks into bananas. Maybe the krogans turn out to be able to teleport themselves between star systems if they eat the bananas. But sadly only the writers get the option to abuse their authorial power and invent new bullshit; the players have to make do with speculating within the established rules.
The whole thing feels to me like BioWare were done with their universe and wanted to blow the thing up for the dramatic climax! Which is brave for sure and not something I ever saw coming, but not all that fun to experience either. Apparently it was supposed to be bittersweet, but all I tasted was the bitter part. And that made me sad.
Continue to part 4 to find my thoughts on the Extended Cut and a box to put your comments into.