Mass Effect 3 post-mortem thoughts

So yeah, I’m done with Mass Effect 3.

Well, not done. I’ve played it three times now, and am working on the fourth. So here comes spoilers beyond and beyond, if you don’t want spoilers you really shouldn’t read this.

Things I’ll say before going more into detail: no, I don’t like the endings. No, I don’t want Bioware to fix the endings to placate me, I didn’t sign a petition nor do I support it. I’m neither for or against it, I feel it’s pointless. This is the game, this is the story of the game, these are the endings. That being said, pretty much everything up to that point is amazing. I actually found Mordin’s death quite moving (although I still have no idea why Mordin has a new voice actor now) and enjoyed pretty much every cameo and return, loved the story as it unfolded, loved watching Shepard try and navigate the treacherous politics of the galaxy while seeking to unite everyone to fight the reapers. The game is at times spectacular, your choices from previous games have surprising consequences at times. I’ve played a vanguard and a solider and enjoyed both of them. I even find the inventory system fairly easy to cope with, although partially because I only carry a Revenant most places I go because to me, the Revanant is Shepard’s signature weapon.I don’t hate this game at all. I don’t think it’s terrible. I want to make that absolutely clear, because it’s easy to mistake passionate disagreement with vitriol. I don’t want to spew vitriol, and I’m not pulling for a twist ending DLC to come along and say “It was all Shepard being indoctrinated the whole time” or what have you. Frankly, I expected Shepard to die going into this installment. I won’t say I wanted him/her to die, but it’s what I expected, and I’m not at all upset when that happens (it doesn’t have to, depending on your readiness and how many forces you assembled) but ultimately, my difficulty with the endings is simply that they’re not different from one another in a meaningful way. In one ending, you blow up the Reapers, kill all synthetic life (even EDI and the Geth, even if you brokered a peace between the Geth and the Quarians) and destroy the mass relays. In another, you control the Reapers, turn yourself into a kind of VI/AI and blow up the mass relays. In a third, you force bio-synthetic fusion on all life in the galaxy whether it wants it or not.

The third option is basically galactic scale rape. Forcing all life to become a mixture of the organic and the synthetic does remove the cycle that has continued for at least 37 million years, yes (I say at least because that’s how old the Reaper corpse in Mass Effect 2 was) but it does so by stealing the free will and free choice from everyone in a game where free will and free choice are at least possibly one of the themes. In my first playthough, I told EDI she should think for herself, allowed Legion to upgrade the Geth and stood up for their right to exist and make their own decisions, and in the end two of my choices completely invalidate that line of decision and the second choice (dominate the Reapers) does the exact same thing, just to horrible alien monsters. Killing the Reapers is less horrific than enslaving them, but if I do that, I murder sentients I was fighting to save. And I’ll say it again, the supposed ‘best possible ending’ is cosmic rape. I went with dominating the Reapers as the best possible option because I’d rather be a hypocrite to the things that have repeatedly harvested all life in the galaxy once every 50,000 years for over 37 million years than to my own allies and friends. (Think about that time scale for a moment. The Reapers have harvested all spacefaring organic life at least 740 times. At least. We don’t even know when they started it.) Leaving out the idea that all of this, the whole Reaper harvesting, is supposed to prevent organics and synthetics from going to war (which, since I negotiated a Geth/Quarian alliance, I already did better than they ever have) the idea that this has been going on for millions of years is a nice touch, it gives gravitas and weight, but the choices themselves just fall flat.

I would have been fine with a situation where Shepard dies or is otherwise unable to be the protagnonist of a new game in the future, that’s fine by me. I’m okay with this being Shepard’s last ride. I don’t mind making hard decisions, and having to chose between the best of bad options. But what bothers me about the endings is both their unrelenting sameness and their unwillingness to actually do what we were promised they would do. The endings don’t take my actions in the game into account in the scope and degree we were promised. They’re not really different endings. Something as simple as being able to kill the Reapers, and myself, but not destroying EDI and the Geth (perhaps having to choose between the entire mass relay network blowing up or killing my friends and allies) would be one meaningful difference that doesn’t give one an unalloyed happy ending and allows for player choice to matter. Imagine an ending where Shepard has to choose between controlling the Reapers (which means he’ll survive) but losing Earth forever in the process while still saving the galaxy, or one where he destroys the Reapers, saves Earth, but destroys the relays and dies in the process. Not only are these both bittersweet endings, but they provide you with a real sense of your choices mattering.  Do you save your home, yourself, or the greater community you so recently forged? Shepard just got done uniting all people in the galaxy to oppose the Reapers, now make her decide what’s more important.

My biggest problem with the endings we get is not that they’re dark, or grim, or big Sci-Fi that makes you ponder. It’s that they’re three stops on a railroad line that all ultimately end up in the same station, just on different platforms. They’re unrelentingly same. You can get two of them without really playing the game much at all, and even playing every side mission and using apps and multiplayer to end up with Shepard surviving is pointless, since her/his survival means nothing. The endings make for a depressing realization that no, nothing you did really informs the game in any real way. While I support the idea that it’s the journey and not the destination, if you’ll always end up in the same place no matter what path why bother taking any of them?

Also, and I know it’s a nitpick, but I thought blowing up a mass relay released a supernova like explosive force. I even got locked up for doing exactly that in the Arrival DLC. Shouldn’t blowing up all the mass relays have made dozens of supernovas that killed just about everyone? I mean, everyone on that big fleet and everyone left on Earth should have died when the mass relay in Earth’s solar system blew up. Palaven, Thessia, Sur’Kesh, Rannoch all have mass relays in their systems. When Wrex told me that I had saved the Krogan people and my name would mean Hero to future generations of Krogan, little did he know I would be wiping out his entire culture in a few weeks when I blew up all the mass relays. Yes, I end the cycle of the Reapers, but who’s even left to inherit a galaxy without relay travel, the yahgs? No, stopping Samara from committing suicide meant nothing, because I then blew her and her daughter and most of the remaining Asari and Salarians and Turians and Drell and Hanar and Volus and absolutely anyone in a system with a mass relay the hell up. And if this time the relays exploded in a non-system destroying way, that kind of needs to be made clear up front.

I’ve played this game into the ground at this point. I love pretty much all of the romance options, especially Cortez, Tali and even Ashley who I find far more tolerable this time. Garrus is also a really fine romantic option. Kaiden’s an ass (sorry, Raphael Sbarge, I liked you in The Hidden 2 and KOTOR) and I haven’t played the others yet, but I will. I’m going to do a playthrough for pretty much every one of my ME1 and 2 characters. I really love huge swaths of this game. I don’t want to seize control of the creative process from the writers, who for the most part turned in some awesome dialog, some excellent story, and who made a game I’m really fond of. Thane smacking Kai Leng around was worth the price of admission by itself. The endings didn’t ruin the game for me, but they did prevent ME3 from being as good a game (in my opinion) as its predecessor. I still get chills doing the Suicide Mission. I enjoy the end of that game. I can’t say the same for ME3.

I honestly find myself wondering if part of the problem is that they tried to do too much with one game. ME3 has the Reaper forces invading the galaxy, and it has Shepard dealing with galactic politics and trying to raise an army to stop them, and it has the Illusive Man and his new, aggressive Reaper fifth column version of Cerberus. The Cerberus/Illusive Man plotline is interesting, and finding out that the whole idea of a force that tries to dominate and control the Reapers happened during the Prothean cycle in a very similar way was a nice twist, but it ultimately felt to me like you could have done a whole game of Shepard trying to stop Cerberus from helping (wittingly or unwittingly) the Reapers come to our galaxy. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense that the Reapers just showed up three years after the Battle of the Citadel, because that implies that Sovereign was wasting his goddamn time trying to open the Citadel’s relay bridge to Dark Space. I mean, if it only takes three years for them to get to Earth from the void between galaxies they hardly needed to spring the Citadel trap, now did they? Granted, they didn’t have the instantaneous access to the Citadel’s databases this time… but it hardly seemed to matter, now did it? The Reapers still managed to indoctrimate or convert, still managed to crush half the galaxy in weeks. Hell, it took them hundreds of years to crush the Protheans with the Citadel, and Liara didn’t even give us 100 years after having prevented the Reapers from reclaiming the Citadel this time out.

Having Cerberus hard at work opening some new means to get from Dark Space to our galaxy and Shepard fighting to stop them, only to fail, not only gives you that downer ending but it means that the stakes are super high for the actual Reaper invasion and we don’t have to spend about 30% of said invasion fighting Cerberus. Cerberus brings the Reapers in and gets to be the first to get eaten for their troubles, and then ME4 could be all Reaper war all the time. It just feels to me like the game tried so hard to deliver so much, and it came so close that the misstep at the end is heartbreaking for me. Mass Effect 3 is the best game in the series for most of the time you’re playing it, and then it steps into a small hole and breaks its ankle right before the finish line.

I don’t hate this game. I don’t think it’s bad. In many ways it’s an absolute masterwork. I don’t want Bioware to make a ‘happier’ ending or otherwise compromise its vision for the setting. But I do feel like the ending was a scorched earth affair that didn’t take any of my actions in the game into account in anything like the way I was promised, and it does rob the game’s story of heart, immediacy and punch. I don’t like it. Are they so bad that I wouldn’t recommend the game? No. But I doubt I’ll pick up any of the DLC.