Warning: Full Mass Effect 3 story spoilers are contained so stay away if you haven’t played the game and don’t want to be spoiled.
The ending to Mass Effect 3 is easily the most controversial ending to any game in 2012 (granted it’s only March) and probably one of the most polarizing endings in gaming history. Thousands of fans have gone online to express their disapproval of the endings to the main story or to show their support for BioWare’s decisions. Critics have universally praised the game with many top notch sites and publications giving the game anywhere from 9s to perfect 10s.
But this isn’t about the reaction to the endings, the fans, or the critics. This is an extension of my review of Mass Effect 3 that will allow me to explain why I couldn’t stand the end of the story while leaving my original review basically spoiler free. These are my opinions (formulated after lots of long thought and reading through arguments on both sides) and should be taken as such. Imagine that this is my review, but only for the eyes of those that have actually played the game already.
Now that we have the semantics out of the way, let’s delve into why the ending of Mass Effect 3 is one of the most disappointing, depressing, and damaging endings in video game history. From the release of Mass Effect in 2007 all the way up to the release of Mass Effect 3 a few days ago, BioWare has promised gamers a new kind of immersive experience that takes the choices they make in one game and has them affect the rest of the games in the series and the overall storyline.
In Mass Effect a lot of gamer’s choices only had inferred consequences as things like saving/killing the Rachni Queen, saving/killing the Council, or who you nominate for humanity’s council seat are all things that are supposed to pay off later in the series. These choices are referenced the second game and can have some relatively significant impact on how the other characters in the galaxy perceive you, but they don’t truly make the story any different.
In Mass Effect 3, your choice of councilor is thrown out the window as even if you picked Anderson, he will leave the Council and Udina will take over. The Rachni Queen is captured and used by the Reapers so Shepard will have to make another tough choice on whether to save the Rachni again and sacrifice the Krogan squad he/she is with or vice versa. The Council will not be any more trusting of Shepard, even if he/she saved them in the first game and stopped the Collectors in the second game.
But some of the choices have a profound impact on the story, with the Mass Effect 2 decision of whether or not to save Maelon’s genophage data being a key decision in curing the genophage and getting the Krogan on your side. This is good to see and delivers on the promises that BioWare laid forth when the series began, your decisions in one game will lead to death, victory, or something in between in the final game and that is all fantastic.
So what is the problem? Well, the problem is that the game was so strong until the final decision that basically made every other choice in all three games almost pointless. Let me explain the ending first in case you don’t quite remember or are reading this despite not having played the game. The Citadel itself is the “Catalyst” that the Crucible needs to work and to destroy the Reapers once and for all. Shepard leads an all-out assault on London to make it to a Reaper transporter to the Citadel. Once there, Shepard can open the arms and the Crucible can dock with the Citadel and take out the Reapers. Along the way, Shepard’s squad is utterly decimated by Harbinger and Shepard almost dies in the process. Shepard limps his/her way into the beam with Anderson.
Anderson gets teleported to another area of the Citadel and gets to the control panel first, but the Illusive Man is waiting and has the Reaper tech he needs to control them both. He makes Shepard shoot Anderson and then Shepard can choose to kill the Illusive Man before he has a chance to execute Anderson. Admiral Hackett then tells Shepard that the Crucible isn’t firing and it must be a problem on Shepard’s end. Shepard almost passes out but is lifted up on top of the Citadel and a holographic VI/AI/something talks to him. It takes the form of the small boy that Shepard saw killed at the beginning of the game and says that it (not the Citadel) is the “Catalyst.”
Here is where the story gets a tad confusing and very disappointing. The boy tells Shepard that he controls the Reapers and they are his “solution” to chaos in the galaxy. Apparently, the creator(s) of the Reapers believed that all organic life would create synthetic life that would eventually rise up and kill off organic life. Because of this, the Reapers harvest all the advanced civilizations before they have enough time to create synthetics advanced enough to destroy them and leave the other non-evolved species to grow. This “saves” the organics in Reaper form and lets the other species evolve until it is “their time.”
Shepard’s ability to find this out apparently proves that the system won’t work anymore and the “Catalyst” needs a new plan. He says that Shepard is the only one who can make the choice but three choices are given to end the game (only two if the Effective Military Strength isn’t high enough). The first is to “control” the Reapers and stop them from destroying Earth. The second is to destroy ALL synthetic life in the galaxy (including the Geth and EDI) to destroy the Reaper threat. The final choice is to combine Shepard’s DNA with the Crucible to merge all synthetic and organic life together, making one new mixed species of life.
Depending on military strength and the choice, Shepard will either die or be shown breathing under some rubble. But, regardless of military strength, prior choices, or anything else, the Mass Relays are all destroyed in a chain reaction. The Normandy flees the battle for Earth via a relay (for an unknown reason) and the shockwave of the Crucible crash lands the ship on an uncharted planet far from Earth. Shepard’s squad members (the ones we saw decimated by Harbinger) and Joker (plus EDI if all synthetic life wasn’t destroyed) emerge from the Normandy and look out on the new world. The credits roll and the game ends. An epilogue shows an old man and a young boy on the planet that the Normandy crash landed on saying that basically “that is the story of Commander Shepard” and that some of the details were lost in time. The boy asks when he can take to the stars and the old man simply says soon, referencing possibilities in space as if interstellar travel is still not possible.
So, if we are to take the already-established fiction of the Mass Effect universe and apply it to this ending here is what we have. With the Mass Relays destroyed, interstellar travel would be difficult even at FTL speeds, basically destroying the intergalactic community. The resulting explosion from the Mass Relays would destroy all life in the star system that the relay was in as we saw in the Arrival DLC for Mass Effect 2. With the Relay’s massive destructive force, all the fleets around Earth that Shepard amassed, Shepard, and everyone else on Earth would die, regardless of if you got the “perfect” ending where Shepard lived. Normandy’s crew would be the only people from the battle to survive and they would be stranded on a world far enough away from the remnants of civilization that it would be difficult for them to make it back.
In terms of endings, in might not be the worst in video game history, but it has to rank pretty high up there. There are numerous plot holes that could be mentioned but the real important problem with the ending is this: it undermines the entire unique selling point of the franchise that your choices matter. Did they matter? According to this ending they didn’t matter at all and everything you did was to barely save a galaxy that would probably die a slow death over time or might get back up and running but would never be the same.
But Shepard allows the races to live to see another day right? So how does it undermine choice? Think of it this way, the boy that gives these three choices is the person who controls the Reapers. Or is he? What is to say that he isn’t simply lying? We all know that the Reapers have advanced indoctrination methods and can make people believe what they want. Who knows if the boy is just the Reapers using Shepard’s fragile emotional state against him/her?
Either way, the Reaper creator or the Reapers themselves give Shepard three choices, all of which destroy galactic civilization as we know it and all of which destroy Earth and every alien fleet that Shepard amassed in the Sol system. How is this a good ending? Supposedly Shepard rids the galaxy of the Reaper’s influence but he made one of three choices that were offered by the Reapers or their creator.
The main idea of fighting the Reapers in the first place is that humanity (and by extension all races) deserve the right to choose their own destiny. The Reapers have no right to destroy galactic civilization for any reason and neither do their creators. None of these options allow you to go against the will of the Reapers and their creator’s ill-conceived logic of chaos (which is undermined by the fact that you stop the Quarian-Geth war (and the Geth actually HELP the Quarians re-populate their home world) and EDI is unshackled yet remains loyal to organics). None of these choices allow you to continue on with the galactic civilization that made the games so incredible and all of them see the characters you know and love stranded and separated from Shepard.
In the end, Shepard succumbs to the will of the Reapers/their creators and chooses one of three options that are placed before him/her, all of which are condoned by the Reapers/their creators. Shepard represents humanity’s choice to live its existence without the influence of anything else and that is what this ending kills. Why can’t Shepard make a choice that doesn’t involve simply blindly accepting this boy at his word at the end?
It undermines the entire idea of the series because regardless of any choices that you made in Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, or Mass Effect 3, Shepard will have to be pigeon-holed into three terrible choices made possible by the Reapers/their creators. Replaying the games almost seems pointless because regardless of what you do, you can’t achieve the best ending. In a game (in fact in a series) where choice is so important, shouldn’t both extremes be explored? Shouldn’t there be the option for Shepard to fail, win, or have a bittersweet victory through sacrifice? Why is there no possibility for an ending that doesn’t involve the absolute destruction of everything your choices worked towards in the whole series? Curing the genophage, helping the Quarians retake their home world and make peace with the Geth, destroying Cerberus, uniting the Krogan and Turians, and all of the other actions you take in the game seem like moot points when everyone ends up in a bad way regardless of what you do and those choices had no real effect on the ending. Three all-too-similar choices and no real distinction between the endings, even the really good ones, seem to make choices in the game a waste of time.
Another main problem that this ending has is its ambiguity. It leaves the player with a ton of questions and no real answers. What happens to the squad members marooned on the planet? If Shepard survived, is he/she ever reunited with his/her love interest? None of these are even remotely explained and if DLC is the only way to find out, that is a huge cop out on BioWare and EA’s part. The finale of the series needs to have some declining action but that doesn’t happen here.
So what is the point? Well, Mass Effect 3 is an absolutely superb game that finds a way to destroy the essence of the entire series in the final few minutes. Instead of celebrating a player’s smart choices or punishing a player’s poor choices, the game makes them count for virtually nothing. Even if a new “choice” is added if you do well in amassing a large fleet (the Synthesis choice only comes about if you have a high enough military strength) the game still forces you to bow to the will of another and that is the antithesis of choice. Choices are so important to the whole series but the biggest one at the end of the finale is the one that isn’t a true “free will” choice. It’s like if a gun is pointed at your head and you needed to choose one of three horrible deaths, is that really free will? Shouldn’t the choice to try to fight off your attacker (regardless of how futile it is) be there?
Does the game need an ending where everyone lives happily ever after? Not really (though to include the entire spectrum based on choice would be best) but it needs an ending with closure and none of the endings give that. Choice is thrown out the window, depression abounds regardless of what you did, and Shepard is forced into choices that aren’t of his/her own volition. That is why this ending is so game breaking, it isn’t just depressing, bittersweet, or marred with plot holes, it is a complete undermining of the whole series and if BioWare doesn’t fix this with DLC, the entire series could be at least partially ruined for many fans.
Is Mass Effect 3 a great game? From just about every angle, the answer is an overwhelming yes but in a fantastic turn of events the game breaking finale ends the Mass Effect series on a horrible note and is why the game lost points for me. I can’t deny the absolutely fantastic 99% of the game, but I also can’t ignore this incredibly important 1% of bad.