The Mass Effect 3 Ending: An Analysis

[Spoilers ahoy! I discuss the ending in all its gory detail. Do not proceed past the jump if you don't wish to read those. You have been warned.]

Despite my general dislike of Mass Effect 3's ending (a sentiment seemingly shared by 90% of the internet), I will attempt to discuss it here with as fairly as I can. Really, it's not all bad. I liked some of the things it tried to do. And it certainly didn't make me flat-out angry like it did a lot of people.

I think there are two main categories of issues with the ending: those external to the game and those internal to the story. I have to really disagree with people who say that fans who disliked the ending are just being whiny or immature seeking a "happy" ending to everything or just being generally ticked that it is ending. I guess a fair number of people might feel those things, but for a lot of us fans, we quite simply feel that the ending was wrong on many levels.


Mass Effect 3: Why Finish the Fight?

[This review contains no spoilers for Mass Effect 3. Plots points of 1 and 2 are touched on lightly. If you care about spoilers for those games, consider this your warning. Also, if you want to keep your ME3 experience totally pure, you probably shouldn't read this or anyone's opinion on the game until after you've played it.]

The Mass Effect series has never gone like I expected. At the end of the first game I thought the whole Reaper threat was finished. Shepard stops Sovereign's attempt to bring the Reapers into the Galaxy. End of story. Mass Effect 2? Oh, well I'm sure that'll be some new adventure.

What? The second line of the game is "The Reapers are still out there..."? Uh, well okay. I guess we're still going with this "save the galaxy" thing. Fine. That's fine. I can accept that. Who are these Cerberus people and why is Shepard putting up with them? I can't shake them until the plot says so? Okay, I guess there do have to be limits.

Now after five years Mass Effect fans are treated to the "final" game and some of us fans were a little concerned about it going in. Now that BioWare's in bed with EA, the most evil developer in gaming, their quality has seemingly lessened of late in favor of chasing profits (see Dragon Age II). And then there's that little MMORPG game they released recently and I am against those on principle.

But this is Mass Effect, dangit! This is the only game trilogy in existence which allows you to carry your save data from game-to-game. The choices we've made in the last two games will impact the epic final battle. Even if the games from here on out suck, the Mass Effect trilogy will be complete and awesome...

Then came the reaction online. It was as if a thousand nerd voices cried out in pain and we suddenly silenced (the voices, of course, all sounded like the Comic Book Guy). I did not believe the ending to this game could be as awful as people were reporting. I stayed away from any descriptions or anything that might influence my opinion on the ending. And I lowered my expectations.

But surely the internet was just raging to rage. It does that. It is silly. People like to hate the last part in a trilogy. People were just expecting too much. Maybe they just couldn't accept an unconventional but still good ending?

This past weekend I got curious enough to play it. I wasn't intending to until after the semester was over (like a responsible student, haha.)

Now it is over. I have finished the Mass Effect trilogy. Here, in brief is what I think of the entire trilogy.

I am seemingly in the minority because this is my favourite game in the series. Most people seem to like 2 better, but not me.

Mass Effect is a much better paced story than the other games. We slowly unravel the plot until a couple of big reveals at exactly the right time throw you straight into an intense endgame scenario.

It does a fantastic job of drawing you into the universe developed for the series which is a good mashup of Star Wars meets Star Trek sci-fi (quite like the Abrams Star Trek, actually). The first game introduces many of the memorable characters who (potentially) will participate in later games. We get to influence their paths and even choose whether some live or die.

Sure, it has its design issues. The vehicle sections are less-than-ideal. The side missions are generally pretty lame. And, yeah, I dreaded taking the unskippable elevator rides. Despite this, the game holds a dear place in my heart for being one of the greatest RPGs I've ever played.

And, c'mon. It's in space. I love space.

I wasn't a big fan of Cerberus coming from right the heck outta nowhere to take center stage in the plot of 2 (they're barely a footnote in the first game). Eventually I accepted that this was just where they were going with the plot and I just had to live with it. Ditching Cerberus (prematurely) wasn't one of the choices Shepard could make.

Mass Effect 2 was a really awesomely unique experience when I first played it. Importing my character John Shepard (boring first name because he's named after this guy; incidentally my alternate character was named after this guy) along with all the choices I had made in the first game was something most gamers had never done before. While it didn't drastically alter the storyline, it did determine (in part) who lives and who dies and what sorts of interactions and relationships that my Shepard had with the galaxy around him. Characters from the first game would remember how I interacted with them. Reputations could be repaired, destroyed, or upheld. It was a very personal experience as a consequence.

That's a very good thing because I am not a big fan of the structure of Mass Effect 2. The game is primarily oriented around gathering members for an elite strike team to take part in a "suicide mission." How much of a suicide mission it turned out to be depended on your actions beforehand which did make the endgame a pretty interesting payoff. The middle of the game, however, got very repetitive, at least to me.

Go to place. Talk, talk, talk. Meet team member. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Acquire team member. Return to ship. Repeat.

Fortunately most of the team was fairly lively and engaging, but this constant repetition got pretty old (I haven't replayed the whole game for this reason - I've played the original three times). The reveals were less impressive and well-timed than in the first game, but it was a highly polished and quite good sequel that I could be happy with.

But we all knew it was just build up for the final battle.

I want to make a few things very clear upfront. This is 3/4ths a great game. No. It's 95% a great game. This series is 98% fantastic as a whole.

Continuing to be one of the most personal experiences in gaming because of the save-import feature, not to mention all the time I'd spent with the characters in the previous two titles, Mass Effect 3 did everything it should have.

Three or four times I audibly applauded something that happened onscreen because it was just that awesome. I literally laughed out loud at several of the humorous moments. And I actually teared up a few times including during the fantastic opening scene which is an action-packed and emotionally gripping intro to a game about loss, sacrifice, and, well, endings.

Sounds good, no? Mass Effect 3 was certainly doing a lot better in my eyes than the previous game. Plots points carried on since the first game are wrapped up nicely. You get to decide the fates of individual characters as well as entire races. You travel to some really impressively designed locales and fight an interesting array of new enemies. The game feels a lot less repetitive for these reasons.

But yes. I have to agree with the online nerd rage.

The ending of the game sucks. No, not the last third of the game. No, not the last few missions. The end. The very end. As in the last five minutes of the entire freaking trilogy.

I was not immediately angered, in fact, I am still not angry now. I mean, it's just a video game. It's not actually a dumb ending or a bad ending. It's just a wrong ending for this game and this series.

It's not one mistake that makes the very end of the game suck: it's a lot of them and they're are of all kinds. Design mistakes, continuity mistakes, thematic mistakes. If even one of these areas had been improved I think the backlash would be much lessened.

Without giving anything away, the main problem is this. The Mass Effect trilogy allows you to make many, many choices throughout. Big choices. Small choices. Most of them are - let's be honest - pretty superficial and cannot drastically affect the plot. You are creating your own version of the same basic story. That's cool. I dig. But for the very end of the game BioWare forces you to make too big a choice: a choice which is in no way affected by anything that's come before and which renders nearly all the choices you've ever made prior totally and completely meaningless.

No matter what choice you make you will watch essentially the same ending. BioWare promised us very diverse endings. We didn't get them. While I appreciate some of what they were trying to do (it's certainly not predictable or conventional) the ending they came up with just doesn't feel right for this series and that's not even mentioning any of its other issues which I won't get into here. My Shepard, the character I've been crafting for three games, would not have chosen any of the three options presented him.

Given the ending my advice is this: if you've already invested in playing the first two games wait until this game is cheap and buy it. It is 95% a great game. Lower your expectations for the ending and you might not mind it so much. If you've never played the series before, play the first one and pretend there aren't any others (i.e. The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean approach). If you've only played ME1: STOP RIGHT THERE. Shepard saved the galaxy. End of story. Nothing happened after that. Shame BioWare never made sequels. Those could have been pretty good.

There's a whole lot to discuss concerning the ending. It's a complicated issue. It isn't just a matter of fans wanting a happy ending. I don't care for them myself. What we wanted was actual variety to the ending. We wanted our choices to matter. We wanted it to just make some bloody sense. I will be discussing the ending more in-depth in another post where spoilers will be rampant.

Is the ending really so bad to condemn the whole series like that? Well, not really, but it did leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. Perhaps that will leave in time and I will one day revisit the series with adjusted expectations. It's happened before.

There's talk of BioWare actually re-writing the ending. I hope they don't. Of course I hope they don't make terrible spin-off games and additional sequels too. But you don't always get what you want. Sometimes you get the ending to Mass Effect 3.