Second Take: Mass Effect 3

By Kevin Tavore, 1 year ago
Mass Effect is a series completely unlike any other in the history of video games. It’s the story of Commander Shepard and his or her journey to save the universe from the threat of the Reapers. The first two games were met with incredible acclaim from both critics and fans alike. We saw highs and lows as foes were overcome and allies died for the cause — or for no reason at all. Mass Effect 2 suicide mission has still never been topped for combining all the choices that could occur and unflinchingly ending the lives of a huge portion of your crew if Shepard’s choices were not the right ones. With those two incredible games as its foundation, Mass Effect 3 was primed to deliver an epic conclusion that combined player choice and compelling storytelling in a way that no artistic medium ever has before.

Did it get there? Popular opinion will tell you the game, particularly its final moments, was a failure. I disagree. I firmly believe it succeeded by any reasonable metric. It’s the ending the series deserved and its legacy should be a positive one. The original trilogy should stand as a pinnacle moving forward to which future developers look for inspiration and with admiration.


The Endings

Before we get into it, let me remind you exactly what happened since it’s been almost five years. Shepard discovered the Crucible, a weapon of some sort on which species have collaborated for millenia during the cycle of life and destruction. The species of the galaxy have no idea what it will do, but it seems to be the only true chance they have, and most of Mass Effect 3 revolves around getting all the allied fleets to Earth for a final confrontation in a last ditch effort to complete the Crucible and hopefully stop the threat. Shepard fights through the Citadel and ultimately meets an AI who gives Shepard four options:
  • Destruction: Shepard can destroy all synthetic life in the galaxy. This will eliminate the Reapers as well as allies like the Geth and EDI.
  • Control: Shepard can meld into the Reaper consciousness and ultimately control them. The Reapers end their attack and are even used to help rebuild.
  • Synthesis: Shepard can fuse all organic and synthetic life. This ends the Reaper threat and makes everyone partially synthetic like magic. It’s all a bit strange.
  • Refusal: Shepard can shoot the AI. The Crucible is not fired and the Reapers win the war by destroying all the galaxy’s civilizations. Instead, we see a world far in the future where a time capsule placed by Liara is uncovered. The post-credits scene reveals the next generation of aliens used Liara’s research to finally end the Reaper threat.
The fourth option was added only in the Extended Cut.

The original ending was fraught with many inconsistencies that weren’t obvious to casual players but would grate on anyone deeply invested in the lore. We’re talking things like the garden world on which the Normandy is apparently stranded. The idea is that the crew lives out their days on this world since the ship is crashed and space travel is not an option for anyone at this point. It’s a nice idea until you realize it condemns Tali and Garrus to a quick, inevitable death by starvation as soon as the Normandy’s stores are emptied, as their food has a completely different chemical structure compared to the rest of the crew's.

Then there’s an even bigger problem — the escape cutscene for the Normandy shows the mass effect relays collapsing and exploding. It’s a neat idea until you realize that the collapse of a mass effect relay completely destroys a solar system. This means Earth is gone. Tuchanka, where you’ve just distributed the cure to the Genophage, is gone. The entire galaxy is severely crippled and space travel will remain only interplanetary for millennia. It leads you to question what the entire point of anything was.

The Extended Cut resolves many of these issues. The Normandy is repaired and leaves the alien planet while the mass effect relays are only damaged and the end cutscenes discuss how they are repaired moving forward allowing galactic trade to resume. The ending is better and it allows the player to focus on what actually matters: Shepard’s decision and the impact of it. For purposes of this article, I’m going to discuss the ending as shown in the Extended Cut unless otherwise noted. While I do appreciate that players who played through immediately (including myself) may have had a slightly different experience, I think overall the points I’ll discuss are relevant to both endings and the Extended Cut primarily resolves numerous nitpicky continuity complaints.


The Weight of Decisions

Perhaps the loudest criticism against the game’s ending is that it doesn’t fully account for all that has transpired throughout the game. Instead, the ending is rendered down to four choices with varying degrees of availability based on how many allies you recruited for the final battle. The endings are all fairly similar, with the original version having them be nearly identical except for color changes. Many felt they had been robbed of a meaningful conclusion, as if nothing they had done mattered at all. And they weren’t wrong — looking at the entire experience in all its possibilities reveals that many of your decisions simply didn’t have an effect. They were simply events that occurred until we finally reached the end.

I believe this significantly short sells the story the Mass Effect series told. The games are not a story of all the possibilities that could happen. They are a story of your Commander Shepard’s journey and the decisions that you made. When you make a choice in life, you don’t know what will happen far down the line. You just make the best choice you can with the information you have in front of you. The same applies to Mass Effect. The games are not designed around you knowing the outcome of all possible events. They’re not designed around you second guessing everything that happened. Of course you can do that, but you’ll ruin the story if you do. It’s like reading a plot synopsis of a movie before heading to the theater.

Mass Effect is about the journey. With that in mind, the story works beautifully. Shepard meets friends and learns about the Reaper threat in the first game. In the second, an alliance is forged while the rest of the galaxy sticks their heads in the sand. The third sees all these races finally come together for a climactic battle with devastating results.

All along the way you are making decisions and these decisions have effects. They matter because you care and because you can see the impact. Did you choose the wrong person to lead a team in the suicide mission? You don’t know — all you know is that someone you cared about died. Did choosing the Geth or the Quarians have a greater effect? You don’t know — you chose the right decision for the galaxy, as best you could tell at the time. Gaining the fleet of the Salarians. Saving Morinth. Curing the Genophage. Each of these choices is nothing but a number in your effective military strength rating if you’re on the outside looking in. But when you’re in the story they are something more. You know you needed the Salarian Fleet, Morinth’s aid, and the alliance with the Krogan because they were there in that final fight. If they hadn’t been you might have lost the battle. Your choices make the story you’re told. They are the only outcome you know. And because of that, they have profound impact.

Shepard and Kasumi

The End

So far I’ve only talked about decisions along the way to the ending but the principle applies to the end to an even greater degree. Throughout the entire game you’ve been told the choices were inevitable. Saren always wanted to be a part of the Reapers. Anderson’s mission in life was destruction of the Reapers down to his dying breath. The Illusive Man always thought humanity could control the Reapers in the end. The choices you’re offered were not three disconnected ideas with no rational basis or consideration for everything that happened before. Instead, each represents a character you came to know along your journey to the end.

Bioware even cleverly flipped the script at the end with the colors. Destruction was always Anderson’s goal. He was the good guy — a hero by any standard. Yet the corresponding choice was red, a color always associated with the Renegade option. Meanwhile the Illusive Man had been a villain for two games as he vied to control the Reapers yet his option is colored blue, the symbol of a Paragon. The ending was carefully crafted to place the most important decision squarely in front of the player and the right answer was not obvious. The colors told you one thing but your experience said something different. You had to make the right choice for your Shepard.

All the events in the game led up to that final decision where you made a final choice to determine the fate of the galaxy. No more were you locked into place picking the right or wrong option based on color. Instead you had to consider who your Shepard had been all along, what characters made an impact on you, and how you wanted the world to end. By removing right and wrong, Bioware validated any decision you made and ultimately ensured that the hero you had built up had an ending worthy of his or her values and decisions.

Does it matter that outside of the vacuum of your own playthrough you can see obvious cost-cutting in the scope of the cutscenes and the finale? It shouldn’t. Because although Mass Effect features a myriad of possibilities, it’s not made for you to make the optimal choices to get the best possible outcome. It’s made for you to experience Commander Shepard’s story — truly your story, and it’s the only one you have. It’s also the best story you’ll ever get.

1/20 Screenshot 1

After the Choice

With Mass Effect: Andromeda releasing so soon I hope you’ll consider this as you begin your playthrough. There’s no need to worry about what might have happened to Ryder if you did things differently. Your choices are your own and they tell the story you experienced. That’s the one with the value. It’s what Mass Effect is all about. Don’t forget that and you’ll no doubt have yet another incredible journey.
Kevin Tavore
Written by Kevin Tavore
Kevin is a lover of all types of media, especially any type of long form story. The American equivalent of Aristotle, he'll write about anything and everything and you'll usually see him as the purveyor of news, reviews and the occasional op-ed. He's happy with any game that's not point and click or puzzling, but would always rather be outdoors in nature.