Mass Effect 3, and a Retrospective on Ending a Legacy

When it comes to overarching and grandiose affairs of heroism and badassery, there are few video games to turn to than the Mass Effect trilogy. Three games of action RPG deliciousness spanning a huge galaxy of space opera goodness, and all three of these games hold some of my favorite experiences in my own video game canon. The biggest thing that makes the games stand out is the intricacies of its decision making processes. Every choice, however insignificant, holds some form of power in the galaxy that you craft for yourself. A decision could be immediate and grant you instant reward, while a decision made at one end of the trilogy could come back to bite you right at the end of all things. It is this scope, this sheer scale, that keeps me coming back and replaying the games again and again.

Just over five years ago, Mass Effect 3 came out. As far as quality goes, it stands as this trilogy’s The Dark Knight Rises. Between Mass Effect 1‘s surprising success and the astounding showing that was Mass Effect 2, the send off of a five year journey gave me an overwhelming sense of saying “you’ll do”. It is a very disappointing response to a game franchise I love. Don’t get me wrong: the game is still excellent. What makes it somewhat disappointing is its fluctuating scope. In this final installment, what feels like a ramping and epic conclusion where the Reapers finally meet their maker – literally, if you have the right DLC – all suddenly falls flat. Why? Spoiler alert: it is all in the ending, but not for the reasons you may think.

Talking about what the ending of Mass Effect 3 did wrong invokes a discussion of what the ending of Mass Effect 2 did right. The second installment of the trilogy put all of its cards into a very interesting premise: prepare for a suicide mission. Gather resources, trick out your Normandy and gather all the guns you can find. Along the way, you assemble a team of up to twelve interesting and dynamic characters that end up becoming companions, and maybe even lovers. The entire ending hinged on these connections and this building of resources, because the suicide mission made it very clear: if you do not play your cards right, you and your squad will not make it back in one piece. Sure enough, it held up its end of the bargain, for in my first attempt, I lost Legion, Grunt, and the entirety of the old crew of the Normandy SR-2.

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You will need the flow chart for the best ending. Trust me.

These design choices involves a tightening of personal scope. Mass Effect 2‘s final sequence made every decision has long reaching consequences. Mass Effect 3, in its attempt to feel bigger by having you take on the equally insurmountable task of taking the fight to a Earth conquered by Reapers, feels too distant by comparison. This is not by lack of trying: every individual Priority mission, sans the final one, rival and even surpass the individual character and loyalty missions of Mass Effect 2. The idea of having your companions intertwined with the fate of their races creates serious tear jerker moments, and makes each Priority mission hit home. Will you murder Mordin to secure the Salarian cause, and doom the entire Krogan race to extinction? Will you deny a synthetic form life in exchange for their creators, whose arrogance and fear of what they created cause them their home planet in the first place? These are legitimate tests of loyalty. What will be sacrificed to defeat the Reapers? Do the ends justify the means?

Up until Priority: Earth, the series relies on putting you in situations where these critical decisions are important to constructing the universe. This makes it all the more disappointing when this final mission seems so devoid of these choices after this escalation of stakes. In a game where each Priority mission raised the stakes to greater levels, it is astonishing how hard the final mission failed, simply in how little control you have over the final encounter. During the suicide mission, every aspect was coordinated by your hand, and your actions had immediate consequences. On Earth, you simply act as another grunt on the front lines, doing the work of a common foot soldier. No control of the troops you have mustered, barely any say in the tactics you employ to reach your goal. The Admiral simply appears on your bridge, relieves you of command of your hard work, pats you on the back and sends you in as just another jarhead. It is a completely asinine break in gameplay and story synergy that sucks the life out of the final gameplay segments of the trilogy.

In Dragon Age: Origins, The Battle of Denerim is the perfect template to what Mass Effect 3‘s final mission could have been. Picture this: you man the helm of the Normandy, facing down the blockade between you and Earth. Deploy a fleet that is going to punch through and get you on the ground. Once there, deploy the troops that will allow you to set up the forward base you need to charge for the Citadel. Your actions will directly impact the forces between you and your objective. Wait, there’s a Reaper destroyer in the way? You may have to make a hard choice. Do you go in with the ground troops while the air support distracts the behemoth, or do you hit the Reaper with the same tactics that have worked throughout the game and pray it goes down? This makes the final showdown with the Illusive Man all the more gripping: after all, while you’re busy talking down the last hurdle between you and salvation, the vessels you have not deployed yet will act as the defense for the Crucible. Whatever damage this crucial piece sustains, and the preparedness of your forces, dictate your options in the final scene with the Catalyst.

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Gathering equals command, right? No? Oh okay.

You may be wondering why I focus on the gameplay of the final mission instead of its narrative ending, with the Illusive Man and the Catalyst. Simply put, I have no huge problem with how the trilogy ended in terms of narrative design, provided one downloads the Extended Cut to cover some of the plot holes. The reason why the Catalyst’s choices and ending sequences rung so hollow is because it makes all of the choices you made mean absolutely nothing in how you handled the final mission. You did not really deserve to get there, despite the insistence of the Catalyst that makes you out as the one to break the cycle. Likewise, your verbal confrontation with the Illusive Man does nothing other than tie up a loose end. The most frustrating point, however, is that each of the three outcomes that the Catalyst provides make sense in comparison to your journey to defeat the Reapers. Characteristically, Paragon and Renegade Shepards could see the pros and cons of destruction or control of the Reapers, or the obligatory golden ending of synthesis between organic and synthetic life. If only you felt like you deserved the ending of the tale, instead of being ferried there by doing what you always do: killing Reapers, pushing buttons, and doing what any other soldier could have done in your place.

The Mass Effect trilogy and its lasting impact is shaped by the player’s own experience with the world. It is very rare that the experience that any two players experience will be exactly the same. With over a thousand flags to consider between the beginning of Mass Effect 1 and entering the point of no return in Mass Effect 3, it would be reasonable to expect a massive showdown that is defined by your actions. One could argue that the scope of the franchise was potentially its own downfall, and that it was impossible to create an experience that truly encapsulates the player experience in the same way that the rest of the series did. At the end of the day, what should have been larger than life was only an illusion of scope and spectacle. It was a failure to give the player the emotional and personal control that was customary for the rest of the series, believing that simply fighting your own war should have been enough. In the end, what should have been a thrilling fight against insurmountable odds boiled down to a bland mission against the same ground forces you fought all game long, with the conclusion reduced to a number that is immediately visible before you even enter the final showdown. 

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you done beated teh repers yay have a biscut

I doubt it was the intention of Bioware to leave the players wanting at journey’s end. The confidence in their product shows in their adamant stance towards clarifying the final moments of the game, rather than change them completely. Besides, when all is said and done, I am off the opinion that the narrative of the Mass Effect trilogy could not have ended any other way regardless of who will smack me over the head with their books of lore. The dissatisfaction comes from the fact that, despite the hundreds of hours spent determining the fate of the galaxy, it all comes down to just another fight in a dark place with chest high walls. It seems wrong that, in the final moments of a game dedicated to crafting a world based on your decisions, to take it all away and simply do what you were told. With a game with such perfectly honed system of experience and consequence, it simply hurt that it did not deliver in the one time it was crucial for it to succeed.

***

Image credits go to qygjxz.com and Bioware for the banner, and Know Your Meme and GamerGuides for the images.

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One comment

  1. Great article, mate. I haven’t finished Mass Effect 3 yet, and I’m not entirely sure I want to, for the reason that I fear the lackluster ending and just “one more fight”.

    Like

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