Mass Effect 3 analysis: what makes this good game bad

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I’ve played through the Mass Effect series a number of times to get a feel for the different directions the story can go and it is clear to me that of the three games Mass Effect 3 is the weakest. It is also the one that has drawn the most ire from fans. So I thought it would be interesting to really dig deeply into what was done not just in the 3rd game but the series as a whole and identify what caused the final game to end up in the state that it is in. The results are long, so bear with me.


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Before I launch into this, I want to make one thing clear. Mass Effect 3 is a good game. The story is compelling and generally well executed, the gameplay is fun, the graphics are good, and the music is amazing. However, when you measure it against the other games in the series and – especially – against the potential it had… It seems distinctly lackluster.

To get a feel for what the game was like depending on player choices I did 3 playthroughs. The first was my default playthrough, with the game as it was at launch, with no DLC. I was basically following the paragon path. The save I used from Mass Effect 2 had all Shepard’s squadmates loyal and surviving (not something I managed on the first attempt, but I wanted to see as much as possible). I made it through the game without losing anyone, except for Eve, Anderson, Thane, and Legion. While the galaxy burned, everything seemed to go pretty well on my end. I cured the Genophage, got the quarians and geth to play nice, and eventually saved the day. The original ending was so bad that I had to wait until the Extended Cut came out and replay through the ending before I was willing to do another run through. I’m going to write most of this assuming that Extended Cut is installed on your gaming platform, because the issues with the original ending overshadow everything else.

For my remaining playthroughs, I added the From Ashes and Leviathan DLC to make them a little more interesting. The second run followed a renegade path, during which I intentionally made all the opposite choices to the ones I made in the original playthrough. This one was a lot rougher. When Wrex and Mordin are around, and you have Maelon’s data, your conscience takes a severe beating if you betray them. I also discovered that resolving the quarian/geth conflict requires some mystical peace dance that I didn’t do correctly, so I had Tali jump off a cliff right after Legion committed suicide. Other than that, everything was more or less the same. For my last playthrough, I used a save editor to create a Mass Effect 2 save in which all my squad and crew members died in the suicide mission. I don’t have much to say about that one, except that it was very quiet.

Anyway, with that out of the way, let’s jump into it.


Part 1: The Branching Problem

If you are running a business and making a video game, one of your first and most important steps is to establish a budget. Decide how much money you can spend on making the game before you won’t be able to re-coop your costs and justify the expense of creating it in the first place. Money translates into man-hours, giving you a finite amount of time that you can spend creating your product.

In a standard linear game, the player will experience all of (or at least, most of) the content created for it. All the time you’ve put into the production is directly visible to the player in the end. This is no longer the case if you introduce branching. In a single playthrough, the player will follow only a single branch or path leading him through the game. So, while you may have just spent 5 years making the game, the total time spent on the content that a single player sees on a single playthrough could be very well limited to a single year of work. The ratio in this example is way off, but it illustrates the point: the more branching occurring in a game, the more time you have to spend in order to produce the same level of experience that you would get without branching.

Mass Effect 1 didn’t have to worry too much about branching. Shepard could be male or female, be born in one of 3 places, have one of 3 service histories, and be one of 6 classes. Player choices created different paths through the game, but the starting point wasn’t branch-heavy. Also, since the game was planned to be a part of a larger series, the amount of branching caused by a single choice could be fairly minimal, as you didn’t have to show the long-term consequences just yet. The only branching that had to occur within the game was defined by the in-the-moment dialog choices and immediate reactions to player behavior.

Mass Effect 2 did not get as easy a start. Below you can find the primary branches from the first game. I define “primary branches” as ones that absolutely had to be addressed in future games or ones that would have a significant impact on the universe’s future. This includes any “could be dead” named characters that we saw on a regular basis. I apologize in advance if I’ve forgotten to include something. There are obviously a lot of smaller branches as well, but if they didn’t come up in a future game, it still wouldn’t feel like something big was left unresolved or unaddressed.

Squad Mates:

  • Ashley: Could be dead or a love interest
  • Garrus: Might not have been recruited
  • Kaidan: Could be dead or a love interest
  • Liara: Could be a love interest
  • Tali: None
  • Wrex: Might not have been recruited or might be dead

Other Characters:

  • Anderson: Might be a councilor
  • Udina: Might be a councilor

Choices:

  • Rachni: did Shepard let the rachni queen live?
  • The Council: did Shepard save the council?

That’s not too bad of a list. A lot of the squadmate stuff is fairly easily dealt with. You now know that either Ashley or Kaidan ended up dead, but they can still fill similar roles in the plot (as has been demonstrated), due to both of them being Alliance soldiers. Love interests mostly require some altered and/or additional dialog in certain scenes – there are only 3 of them and you know that the player had to choose a single one (or none). We don’t spend a ton of time around councilors, so the Anderson/Udina choice only needs to come up at certain points. The rachni and the Council choices are the only really big branches present from the start and require the most work to be properly addressed. The rachni – because without the queen they just shouldn’t be there, so the player should (emphasis on “should”) only interact with them in the future if they saved their leader. The Council – because it means a whole new set of councilors whenever the council gets involved in something.

Now, let’s take a look at the list that Mass Effect 3 got coming out of Mass Effect 2.

Squadmates:

  • Ashley: Could be dead or a love interest
  • Garrus: could be dead, could be a love interest, could be loyal
  • Kaidan: Could be dead or a love interest
  • Liara: Could be a love interest
  • Tali: Could be dead, could be a love interest, could be loyal, could be banished
  • Wrex: Might not have been recruited or might be dead
  • Grunt: Could be dead , could be loyal
  • Jack: Could be dead, could be loyal, could be a love interest
  • Jacob: Could be dead, could be loyal, could be a love interest
  • Kasumi: Could be dead, could be loyal, might not have been met
  • Legion: Could be sent to Cerberus, could be dead, could be loyal
  • Miranda: Could be dead, could be loyal, could be a love interest
  • Mordin: Could be dead, could be loyal
  • Morinth: Could be dead
  • Samara: Could be dead (possibly replaced my Morinth), could be loyal
  • Thane: Could be dead, could be loyal, could be a love interest
  • Zaeed: Could be dead, could be loyal, might not have been met

Other Characters:

  • Anderson: Might be a councilor
  • Udina: Might be a councilor
  • Dr Chakwas: Could be dead, could have acquired a taste for ice brandy
  • Kelly: Could be dead, could be a love interest
  • Donely & Daniels: Could be dead
  • Rupert: Could be dead
  • Maelon: Could be dead, may not have been met

Choices:

  • Rachni: did Shepard let the rachni queen live?
  • The Council: did Shepard save the council?
  • Tali’s loyalty mission: Got Tali banished, disgraced Tali’s father, never made a decision, influence prevented disgrace/banishment?
  • Geth heretics: Destroyed the heretics, rewrote the heretics, never made a decision
  • The Genophage cure: Saved Maelon’s data, destroyed Maelon’s data, never made a decision
  • The collector base: Destroyed the collector base?

As you can see, Mass Effect 2 didn’t tidy up many arcs, leaving loose ends. This list presents some truly big problems. The first one is that Mass Effect 3 is the last game in the trilogy. So, while the other two games could have just touched on the fact that a decision was made (and maybe throw in some foreshadowing as for the outcome of those decisions), this one had no choice but to confront the consequences of all of these choices, which meant a lot more work and man-hours spent.

The second big problem is the shear number of characters that may or may not be dead. Characters having different interactions with Shepard (such as being loyal or not) require some extra work, but without the “might be dead” aspect they would still at least always be there. When a character might be dead, however, everything you do that includes that character needs to also be prepared for their complete absence. And there are now a total of 22 characters with that possible state. Of those 22, 16 were squadmates at one time or another, and of those 16, 9 could be love interests (not counting Kelly)… This of course means that players will expect more than just a quick cameo from them.

Two common complaints about Mass Effect 3 is that your decisions from the previous games didn’t really matter and that too much time was spent with new faces – and not nearly enough time with the ones from previous games. There is a simple explanation for both these occurrences. Mass Effect 2′s suicide mission was an exciting and intense end to a great game, but it also meant that a huge number of characters might be dead, which made it difficult to give them a big role in the sequel. Bioware also got themselves into trouble by constantly adding to the list of major unresolved branches – without trimming any of them.

Doing justice to all the different combinations of choices and character states that the player created going into the final game would have taken so much time, that recouping the cost of making the game would have become basically impossible (and having EA involved in the process probably didn’t help either). At the same time, they didn’t really want to narrow the scope and leave these things unaddressed. The result was that pretty much all the decisions were trivialized and very few ME2 characters got adequate screen time.

A useful exercise to help oneself understand the problem is to try going through the decision making process of selecting squadmates to be included in Mass Effect 3. Squadmates are a big deal – they are the characters that the players will spend most of their time with. To ensure that the player will have squadmates that can fill the gaps in their own class abilities, you need to guarantee a tech expert, a biotic, and a weapons specialist. You are fairly limited in the number of them you can have in the game, because the ship only has so many places for them and they take a lot of time to implement (and remember: at this point resources are already stretched thin). Our guaranteed survivors at this point are Liara, Joker, EDI, Anderson, Udina, and the Illusive Man.

Liara is an obvious choice for the biotic slot. Not only is she the only previous squadmate that is guaranteed to be alive, but she is also a potential love interest for a Shepard of either gender. This, combined with the fact that she has relatively few branches left over from the previous installments, is why we saw so much of her in the game. Unfortunately, the rest of our short list doesn’t really fit in. The only one that we could be fighting beside is Anderson, and he’s a superior officer, one that would be calling the shots.

Someone could probably find an official quote on this, but the gap here makes me think that Garrus and Tali were not originally supposed to be squad members in Mass Effect 2 – and that reversing that decision resulted in some pretty heavy consequences in terms of branching. If we could guarantee their survival into the 3rd game, Tali would fall easily into the tech expert role and Garrus, while he has some tech powers, is weapons-based enough to fill the always-present weapons expert role. Instead, time had to be spent creating two new squadmates. This isn’t to say that keeping them alive at all costs would solve the problem (far from it, since you still need more squadmates and can’t include all of them… but also can’t risk the ship feeling empty because the ones you chose died while others lived) – but it’s definitely one of the biggest problems that the ever-present branching caused.


Part 2: Our Relationship with the Enemy

Mass Effect 1 and 2 did an excellent job of handling the player’s relationship with the antagonist. In ME1, right off the bat Saren and the geth interfere with the first mission we get sent on – and while the crew is understanding, the outside world blames us for the mission’s failure. Right away, we have a personal reason for wanting to take them down. Saren and the geth are there at every turn of the main plot, making other people’s lives miserable. Every time we talk to the Council about our progress – they are critical of the results.

Then, Virmire happens. Saren shows up before we can evacuate, reveals his intention to turn the galaxy over to the Reapers, picks us up by the throat and nearly kills us, as his intervention forces us to leave a squadmate to die in the blast. If the fight wasn’t personal before, it is now. Finally, standing perched atop the corpse of your fallen foe has a big emotional payoff for everything you’ve been put through to get to this point. The game ends with a nice bit of foreshadowing that leaves you in anticipation of what comes next.

Mass Effect 2 jumps right into it in a similar fashion. The first thing that happens in the game? The collectors blow up the Normandy and kill you. The first player-controlled section of the game has you working your way through the burning wreckage of your old ship… Right away, you have a reason to want revenge. Unlike ME1, though, the collectors aren’t at the center of a lot of the action in ME2. The core story missions are about them, but most of the game is about your own people. Recruiting your squad, getting to know the crew, gaining the loyalty of your squad members.

Then, all of a sudden, the collectors come after you again. Taking away everyone except for your fighting squad. If you aren’t fully prepared, you’re then stuck with the difficult choice of either launching the suicide mission now, risking losing squad members, or taking your time and finishing the preparations, risking the loss of your kidnapped crew. The final mission of the game is an intense fight to the heart of the collector base, where every mistake you make costs you the life of a squad member. While you spend less time directly hating your enemy in ME2 than you did in ME1, it hits you really hard right at the end… You get the same kind of emotional payoff when you retreat back to your ship, with Harbinger taunting you the whole way. You get out of there just in time to watch the collectors die. And just like ME1, the game ends with foreshadowing and anticipation of the sequel.

Now enters Mass Effect 3. At long last Reapers are here and we can finally get around to dealing with the guys pulling the strings behind the scenes. The game starts off in a similar fashion to the previous ones, where the enemy shows up and wrecks whatever part of the galaxy you happen to be in at the moment – which in this case is Vancouver on Earth. Unfortunately, this doesn’t carry the same weight as the confrontations in the previous games. In the first one we were left trying to prove ourselves to everyone. In the second one, the enemy destroyed our ship, scattered our friends away from us, and killed us. In this one, we get up in front of a bunch of people, say “I told you so”, then get sent off to unite the galaxy and save all their ill-prepared butts, while not given a personal drama of any sort to attach yourself to. There’s a two-in-three chance you weren’t even born on Earth, in which case they aren’t taking anything from you personally. It establishes a problem to be solved, but it doesn’t carry the same weight as the previous starting problems did.

And the lack of actual personal investment in the Reaper conflict is an ongoing theme throughout the game. Assuming you went into the game in the best state possible, just to screw up badly during its events… Here are your losses: Mordin and Wrex forced you to kill them as part of the price of getting salarian aid. Thane was killed by Kai Leng. You also killed Ashley/Kaidan when Cerberus attacked the Citadel, because they thought you’re still with Cerberus. Legion sacrificed himself as part of some kind of a nonsensical personality dissemination thing, resulting in Tali throwing herself off a cliff, because it lets the geth wipe out the quarians. Miranda was killed by either Kai Leng or her father (both Cerberus). Whichever two squad members were with you during the beam run were now killed (although it isn’t difficult to be prepared enough to prevent this – and you don’t exactly get a lot of time to feel the loss). And finally, the Illusive Man made you shoot Anderson. So that’s two casualties caused directly by our own hand. Two by our own hand but really because of Cerberus, two suicides that are unrelated to the Reaper war, two killed by a Reaper, and two that can be pinned strictly on Cerberus. It is also worth noting that most character deaths are avoidable – which can make them carry less weight.

Reapers do show up throughout the main plot, but they are mostly there as nothing more but simple obstacles to overcome. The only one that truly ever talks to us isn’t the ancient evil that Sovereign was. He just tries to make us understand why the whole Harvest thing is happening. There are a lot of people around us that are losing friends and family because of the Reapers, but as long as you go into the final mission well-prepared they never go after you personally.

Let’s back up a moment, though, and look at what happens right after the Reapers invade Earth. You go to Mars to retrieve the plans for a Prothean superweapon. Cerberus is there and they nearly get away with the data you need. Then, on the Illusive Man’s direct order, Ashley/Kaidan are nearly killed. Now, this looks like a more familiar pattern…

Who tries to interfere with your krogan-turian peace plans by setting off a bomb? Who attacks the Citadel (the one location – other than your ship – that you’ve spent the most time on throughout the series)? Who kills Thane? Who were we involved with that might result in us having to shoot one of our old friends? Who steals the Prothean VI from us on Thessia? Whose laboratories perform horrible experiments innocent people? Who kills Miranda? And, at the very end, who stands between us and victory, and makes us kill Anderson? Cerberus and the Illusive Man. Bioware pulls a bit of a fast one on us here. The party that occupies the role of the hated evil antagonist in this game isn’t the army of giant robots that descended from the sky and started destroying Earth. It’s our old boss, whose gone off the deep end into indoctrination land.

What we essentially end up with is the same scenario as ME1 – an enemy emerges that is being used by the Reapers to destroy all civilization. First it was Saren. Now it’s the Illusive Man. But this approach doesn’t work nearly as well as it did before, and for a number of reasons. Firstly, not only are we now aware of the Reapers – but they are here, they’ve arrived. In ME1 we spent most of the game hating Saren and when we learned that the true threat was a Reaper he’s been flying around in, they still both appeared to be a part of the same team, just with a different leader. In ME3 we started out with the Reapers attacking Earth. A real and direct threat was established. Cerberus feels like a separate faction and the time we spend struggling with them feels like time we’re wasting, bogged down in other conflicts while the true threat is being ignored.

Secondly, Saren’s stated goal is absolute surrender. Let’s turn ourselves over to the Reapers, and they might let us live. The Illusive Man, on the other hand, wants to control them. Use their power to further humanity’s own goals. A bit on the evil side, sure, but at least he’s still trying to stop them. Plus, our past interactions with him indicate that he’s a smart guy, solidly on the side of not wanting to be slain by the Reapers. It’s a little surprising that he managed to get himself indoctrinated – but his end goal still sounds like a reasonable one, even if a little ambitious. Saren, on the other hand, is painted as evil from the very start. And finally, if we stop Saren before he uses the conduit, we win. Game over. Even if Sovereign had lived, he would have had to retreat and come up with another plan. If we stop the Illusive Man, nothing has changed. Reapers are still destroying the galaxy and we still have no way of stopping them. Defeating the person created as our main antagonist does not give you closure.

In summary, while the previous two games did an excellent job of getting us emotionally invested in victory, Mass Effect 3 falls short in this area. It is a tough assignment to make the Reapers the face of the enemy, due to their size and power – so, another faction was chosen for the role of the primary antagonist. They were acting on behalf of the Reapers, but the link between them wasn’t direct enough for our hatred to transmit through.


Part 3: The Ending

The original ending was truly terrible, so I’m only going to go over it briefly. There were 3 very big areas where it was lacking. Firstly, what happened to your squadmates after that beam hit you? My first instincts suggested they were dead, but then one of them was shown in the ending scene. So how did they get back onto the Normandy? Secondly, the Catalyst being that little ghost kid – instead of the Citadel – came out of nowhere. Very little explanation was given as to what the Reapers were, where they came from, and what were the consequences of the decision I was about to make. Finally, after I made a choice, all I saw was a colored explosion and the Normandy crashing on a planet. What happened afterwards? What were the consequences of my choice? If you’re going to ask the players to sacrifice themselves, you should at least show them what their life bought. These are the things that generated the most backlash after the game came out. Fortunately, Extended Cut filled these holes. From now on, when I talk about the ending, you can assume that I’m talking about the Extended Cut version.

A lot of people wanted to see Shepard live through this. I did too. However, I went into ME3 expecting that, in the end, I would have to make the ultimate sacrifice. Why? Because it would be the most powerful way to end the series. We have spent 3 games wandering our way through the galaxy, forming attachments to places and people. By the time we reach that finish line, we care about what happens to those we’ve met and the places we’ve been. Asking the player to make the ultimate sacrifice to save everything is both emotionally powerful and it creates closure. It’s not a happy ending, but it is a good ending – and, if done right, it can be an amazing ending.

However, this is also the most difficult kind of an ending to pull off well. Unlike books and movies, in games you don’t have total control over the player’s character and his or hers motivations. To use an ending like this in a game like this, the player has to want victory and care about the consequences of failure. If they are placed in a situation like this and they don’t want to make a choice, but know they have to… Then what could have been a good ending becomes a bad one. ME3 didn’t completely fail here, but it didn’t succeed at the level that was necessary to turn this moment into a good experience. There are two things that held it back.

The first one – and biggest one – is the situation laid out in Part 2. The Reapers exist as a kind of background threat, while Cerberus and the Illusive Man take center stage in attracting our hatred. The climax of the game is connected to killing our previous employer and opening the Citadel’s arms. Then we go into epilogue mode. Some last words from TIM. A final chat with Anderson – if he’s still alive. Then, the camera slowly backs away as we’re sitting down, looking at a view of Earth… Waiting for the Crucible to fire and end it all. This would have been a great moment for the superweapon to kill all the bad machines, for the Normandy to pick us up and then some celebrating and final words to finish things off. But then… The Crucible isn’t firing.

Next thing we know, we’re talking to a ghost child, who explains that things aren’t really as they seemed to be and that we have to sacrifice ourselves to end the Reaper threat. We were almost at the happily ever after and, all of a sudden, it gets yanked away. The experience is a bit jarring. After all, we already vanquished the enemy that’s been hounding us throughout the game. The Reapers are there, but – again – we haven’t been given a reason to hate them on a personal level.

The second thing is that the plot reveal brought in by the Catalyst doesn’t necessarily match up with our own experiences and lore knowledge. According to the ghost boy, it is inevitable that synthetic life will wipe out all organic life. His solution to the problem? Have a race of really big machines wipe out all advanced organic civilizations every 50,000 years. Why? So that organics don’t have enough time to make synthetics that would wipe them out.

But our only markers for synthetic life at the time are the geth and EDI. The geth represent an isolationist position, one that we learn Legion, as all they want is to keep to themselves. It’s the quarians trying to wipe them out – not the other way round… In fact, we know that the geth spared the quarians during the first war with them. Apart from allying with Saren in the first game (which, again, isn’t really an argument in favor of the Catalyst’s theory since the whole thing is Sovereign’s idea, of his making), everything the geth do is in self-defense. Plus, you can arrive at the ending with the geth wiped out, or in peace with the quarians. And the whole EDI/Joker thing? Doesn’t exactly support the Catalyst’s way of thinking either.

In fact, the only opinion voiced throughout the series that agrees with the Catalyst’s vision comes from Javik – and since that’s in a piece of DLC, many players will not have seen it. Ending a game with a big reveal like this requires you to foreshadow the hell out of it throughout the entire series. That way, when the players looks back at what’s been happening, what is being said, they can agree with it. As things are, it’s just confusing.


Part 4: Missed Potential

This isn’t a big issue – but still one worth mentioning. Looking at the game from the outside, there was a huge potential for it to become a very dark story of a desperate struggle against overwhelming odds. Up until now, a great job was done in establishing the Reapers as an ancient, uncaring evil, capable of turning even strong-willed individuals against their friends. And it just so happens we’ve spent two full games making friends. Everything done in the previous two games builds you up for a war with the Reapers. And then, when it finally happens, you spend most of your time convincing everyone to get along and fighting Cerberus. If you were looking forward to making a stand against the Reapers, you might be a little disappointed.


Conclusion

In spite of all its flaws, Mass Effect 3 is a good game. Its biggest problem is that it is a part of the same series as Mass Effect 1 and 2, in comparison with which it falls short. One of the reasons for this is that the previous two games branched the story way too much. There were so many possible scenarios resulting from your previous decisions, that the amount of work required to do them justice was much larger than the amount of work that could have been done. As a result, none of the branched plot points were handled very well. Adding to that is the fact that the Illusive Man and Cerberus are used to fill the same role Saren and the geth had in the first game – which doesn’t work as well with the immediate threat of the Reapers, actively destroying civilization throughout the course of the game. Finally, the players are ill-prepared for the ending thrust upon them. A false climax happens before the actual ending, after which a batch of illogical information is thrown at us, just before we’re asked to sacrifice ourselves without the appropriate emotional preparation beforehand.


I originally posted this on the Bioware Social Network Forums (here) during July of 2012. It has gone through proof reading and editing before reprint – edited by An Individual and Kuzco.

21 Comments

Crul Lovetroy

2013-08-20 10:00:53

Crul Lovetroy

That was definitely worth the read! A very observing analysis of why the third game – not only the ending itself – had its flaws (not so much which flaws, but that’s what makes it interesting! ). I demand you all to read it if you’re interested in some thoughts that might be new to you :)

Bernhard Mayer

2013-08-20 12:32:55

Bernhard Mayer

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s an entertaining and informative read. I wouldn’t mind if you’d go even more into detail about the branching.
Anyway, you conclusion rings true.

An Individual

2013-08-20 14:16:20

An Individual

I’m glad you guys enjoyed it. I’ve got to thank Koobs for doing some serious editing here. It really helped to break up the “wall of text” feel that the original document had.

I N

2013-08-20 15:15:28

Barrier

Enjoyed the read.
There was one ridiculous aspect of ME3 that you didn’t mention: doing side-missions and wasting time in general does not result in reapers gaining more ground. However, if you focus on only stopping the reapers (as you hypothetically should), all the side plots get demolished. The Citadel DLC is the prime example of this silliness.

    An Individual

    2013-08-20 16:17:07

    An Individual

    While true, I’m not really willing to dock it points for that. In addition to time issues like that being a fairly common feature of games in this genre I’d have to go after ME1 significantly more for it. There are a lot of small timing details that could be mixed up depending on what order you do things in and no matter how much time you spend goofing around you always arrive on Ilos just as Saren is walking through that door.

    Nayr

    2013-09-07 12:24:27

    Nayr

    The flaw in that argument is easy to see. Sorry.

    You’re assuming that anything /could/ slow the Reapers down. And it’s also stated that all of Mass Effect 3 takes place in the timeframe of a couple of months.

    It took centuries for the Reapers to wipe out the Protheans, as stated by Vigil in ME1 and reminded by Javik in ME3. The reason why there are no consequences to wasting time is because ME3 is a very small timeframe anyway, and it doesn’t make any difference because the galaxy-wide fleets aren’t focusing on fighting the Reapers anyway, they’re focusing on evacuating colonies and building the crucible. Anything else is minor.

    Also the galaxy is a big fucking place and Reaper numbers may outnumber the total ships in the galaxy, but there are more worlds in the Milky Way than there are ships as well. And the Reapers have to go over every last damn one with a fine-toothed comb to make sure they don’t leave behind anything that reveals their existence to the next cycle(Which they luckily failed at, but they still put in the effort)

    Throughout the game you endlessly hear how bad things are throughout the galaxy, and on earth. You see it yourself on Palaven’s moon and on Thessia, and Earth itself both times you’re there. Do you honestly think it’ll get any worse if you take time to muster everything in preparation for your counterattack? Or that the entire galaxy is going to stop fighting and let the Reapers move with impunity while Shepard takes some shore leave like every other soldier does at some point(people ignore the fact that you see soldiers on shore leave in ME3. They need rest and relaxation just like in any war. And Shepard is a soldier just like them, with the same right and entitlement)?

Rafael Piñero

2013-08-20 17:20:53

I think the ending has two real problems not really touched in this otherwise interesting article:

1. The Ending is nonsensical. It has very little connection to or derails the story’s internal logic. I think it stems from two impulses, the need to reconcile the nature of the Reapers in ME1 and 2 (in 1 the are inscrutable, in 2 they need us to reproduce, a very basic and easily understood biological function) plus the need to “surprise” the player with a twist ending.

2. The whole thing was unnecessary. You can cut out most if not all of it (see Happy Ending Mod) and you end up with a better product. You can still have Shepard live/die depending on the EMS score (have Reaper forces come after him or a Reaper fire on the Crucible or something), but after Anderson’s death it should all have been about pressing the button and seeing what happened next.

I have other problems with the game, such as the whole London run or Cerberus coup attempt (why would they try to take over the Citadel mid game and not at the end of it, it is almost as if the Illusive Man new it was the Catalyst). And to top it of the EMS system was broken, not only by the need (insistence from EA) to shoehorn a multiplayer mode (Project $10) in an otherwise excellent single-player experience but it has no bearing (except some slight changes) in the actual story. The EMS should had linked directly to what happens when (and even if) Shepard activates the Crucible, from nothing (the thing just didn’t work) to a “Golden Ending” where the Reapers are obliterated and everyone (almost everyone) lives.

Alas….

Gaston

2013-08-20 21:49:28

Gaston

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Never thought too much about the cascading effects of the branching, but your conclusion makes complete sense. Your reflections on the confusion induced by the fight against Cerberus are also refreshing.
My reaction to the Extended Cut ending is that it still sucks big time as it does not address the mind numbing ideas that are thrown in our face as an ‘au revoir’ to the game. First and foremost is the poorly thought out idea of a fundamental conflict between synthetic and organic life (which, as you point out, is in contradiction with what we experience throughout the game). Last but not least are the nonsensical choices that are proposed to Shepard: ‘control’ does not even address the synthetic/organic question that is supposedly at the origin of the whole idea of the harvest, and ‘synthesis’ is a magical solution thrown at us (it really is magic: shazam!) as if the hard core science fiction story that is ME up to that point is suddenly being turned into fantasy (does ‘synthesis’ also make unicorns and real dragons appear?).
Despite my ranting, I do share your conclusion: ME3 fell short of being a great game, but it still is a good one.

Rufus_R

2013-08-20 23:24:29

For the PC player, the modding community offered up a different ending. One in which Shepard survives. I would say this is still quite a contentious issue amongst fans, For most players I think Shepard was always going to leave the series by offering the biggest sacrifice. I do think however this new ending provided something different and a more powerful ending than previously offered.

In a nutshell, the Mass Effect story arc isn’t Shepard’s at all, it’s actually Anderson’s.

I think Bioware missed a trick with this. Throughout the series Shepard is built out of Anderson’s mistakes. Never becoming a spectre, never meeting his potential, growing old and being taken down by bureaucracy, regretting his choice to never follow up his clear love of that female Doctor (You must excuse me, I have forgotten her name). In short, Anderson has become irrelevant, a once great man now toiling away at internal politics. Whether you gave him the Council position or not, it is pretty clear he is rather unhappy in later life.

It all changes in Mass Effect 3, when the war breaks out he is relevant again. As the fighting begins you see the Anderson of old begin to shine through and you can see the greatness that was there in the past. In a way, there can be only one outcome of this. *This* is his last great battle. For Anderson, there was no going back.

Shepard has always been the protagonist of the series, but I think the point that things started to go awry was when they decided to make him do everything. You simply cannot take character development from everyone else and place it into the protagonist. Why does every single decision have to be left at your door? Cure the genophage? Shepard did it. Defeat the collectors? Shepard did it. Put a stop to the Reapers? Shepard did it. By doing this, it loses the sight of the smaller characters.

By having Anderson offer the sacrifice, not Shepard, it punches at exactly the right point the game should have aimed for. That you didn’t do this alone, and that everyone played their part. Shepard may have done the most in terms of survival, but without the Mordin’s and the Anderson’s, you would have been wiped out by now.

I would argue the final scene of Anderson’s plaque being put on the wall of the Normandy by Shepard gives the series so much weight. Everything has come full circle, Anderson was able to complete his heroes journey and attain a level of closure that saw him elevated to a status beyond what anyone expected, Shepard, bruised and beaten, able to finally put down his weapon and the insinuation that many more adventures are to come.

Think Return Of The Jedi and you’re not far off. That was the way Mass Effect surely should have aimed to end.

Anyway, people should try the mod. It makes the damn game playable again!

    An Individual

    2013-08-21 01:45:50

    An Individual

    I did watch a video of the MEHEM at one point. I’m not a big fan but it definitly improves the narrative. I hadn’t though about how having Anderson die and Shepard live changes the character dynamics though. That’s a very interesting point.

Greenvale SR2

2013-08-21 19:18:42

Greenvale SR2

Great article An Individual! In total agreement with the vast majority of your points. I agree that Mass Effect 2 created a large number potentials and variables for the concluding game to deal with. It was a challenge that Bioware created for themselves and should have met head on, they chose not to. Personally, I find fault with the people making ME3 not the fact that ME2 was ambitious.

Evasion and handwaving rather than dealing with unpleasant issues has been an aspect of Bioware’s production throughout the series. If something was criticized because it was implemented poorly; driving, exploration sections and planet scanning for examples. Rather than attempting to improve upon them Bioware chose to remove them entirely, the easier path. It took until ME3 for this attitude to affect story so egregiously.

For me, the issues with the third game are perfectly encapsulated in the tag line: “Take Earth Back”. As a fan from day 1 I was left perplexed by this sentiment. The Reapers are attacking the whole galaxy, yet for unknown reasons, taking earth back is of utmost importance. Not ‘Break the Cycle’, ‘Destroy the Reapers’, ‘Stand United’ or any other more appropriate catchphrase for the situation. This isn’t a war, this isn’t a fight, this is the apocalypse. The end of days. Armageddon. A Galactic Extinction Level Event. It has happened for more than a billion years with a total body count greater than we could possibly fathom. The stakes are this high and I am supposed to be entirely focussed on taking back one planet. That, as you rightly noted, 2/3 of the Shepards have no connection to. Palaven is ablaze, Tuchanka is under attack, Thessia is in ruins, Karshaan fell in the first few minutes and the batarian species has pretty much gone extinct. Yet in spite of all of this I am supposed to be incensed that a reaper might step on Big Ben or attack a corn field with a girl in it? To fans of the series the concept is laughable.

However it wasn’t a hook for us. It was a hook for new people. It was to appeal to the lowest common denominator motivation of ‘Oh noes they has attacked my planet I should stop them!’. The drive to appeal to a new audience, to get new players, to provide an ‘action mode’, to replace holstering your guns with a quick save, to hide the Codex with all its filthy words and nerd stuff and provide the control scheme in its place damned this game as a fitting conclusion to the series.

As the advertising told us, the end of a trilogy is of course “The Perfect Place to Start”. It is a sentiment with as much sense in it as the magic powered, colour coded, war crime trifecta machine run by a Deus Ex Machina and powered by a MacGuffin ending that we all sat glassy eyed through. Everyone knows that you start watching the Lord of the Rings from the second disc of the Director’s Cut of Return of the King right?

Noelemahc

2013-08-22 07:51:48

Nice write-up, but there’s a lot MORE details out there you missed.

ME1 not-branches Liara’s insanity. Depending on the order you do the planets in, certain things change in the narrative, and while some of them are redonkulous (f.e. Feros’s distress signal is sent during your initial visit to the Citadel, but no matter when you do it, you arrive in the nick of time), there is one that is awesome: Liara. The later you do Therum, the less informed Shepard is about Reapers and Protheans, the more scared (s)he and his crew become during post-mission debriefings, and the more insane Liara is when you do save her. She’s pretty brain-addled if you do Therum after Virmire, and Shepard and Co are pissed and aggravated and rather distressed about them running out of leads and Saren having the upper hand in EVERYTHING.
It’s a wonderful development… that gets dropped the moment Liara steps on board, as aside from locking yourself out from romancing her, everything becomes as if she was there from the start.

A similar lockout happens if you didn’t recruit Garrus in ME1 – in ME2 it alters a few dialogue lines with him, but in ME3 he acts as if he was with you from day one.

You also overlooked Project Overlord: while similar to the “handed Legion over to Cerberus” option, it’s an entirely separate thing, that coulda woulda shoulda impacted the everything more.

A lot of plotlines from ME1 are turned into newspiece notices in ME2 and outright dropped in ME3, the biggest of them being Terra Firma, Major Kyle and his followers and the Biotic Rights Movement, despite ALL of them being sort of important to the potential war effort of youmanity. Yet, Aresh gets a heroic, if off-screen, death if you let him live.

The big letdown, of course, was the non-reflection of the Collector Base choice. What was the difference, again, aside from a few dialogue variations and slightly more war assets, which are a stupid stopgap to try and explain why Shepard has to do mundane crap him/her/itself?

My opinion isn’t that there was no time to make the game the way it could have respected the choices. That is the wrong way to say it. There was no way to make the game the way it would have respected the choices in the time that EA and/or BioWare promised they’d spend on it. It should have taken the same 4 or so years it took to make ME1, or at least significantly more than the less-than-2-years spent on ME2. Alas, that was not to be. That, IMHO, is the main reason a good game turned bad.

Well that, and the constant re-retcons didn’t help. Reapers are established in one way in ME1, then retconned in ME2, then retconned in ME3, then retconned in EC, then retconned in Leviathan…

    An Individual

    2013-08-22 13:22:28

    An Individual

    There’s always tons of little details to be discussed about why this or that thing was a bad idea but I was trying to focus on the bigger picture narrative decisions that brought us to this point.

An Individual

2013-08-23 01:09:59

An Individual

Oops. Just realized I calculated the original post date of the article wrong. It was originally posted in September instead of July. Apparently all that calculus I learned is useless in the face of basic date calculations.

Mike Doyle

2013-08-25 00:12:47

Mike Doyle

beating a dead horse much? its been over a year. we get it. if anyone is reading this article they agree that the ending of the third game bit the big one. move on already. jeez

    An Individual

    2013-08-25 06:02:12

    An Individual

    Well, this is a site currently centered around a web comic that is rewriting the ME3 ending. And in my defense the original article was written almost a year ago and I consider one of it’s greatest achievements containing the words “Mass Effect 3 is a good game” and being posted on BSN without getting pelted with feces by the war zone that was the community at the time.

Nayr

2013-09-07 13:03:01

Nayr

Finally took the time to read this. Better late than never.

First off, I’d like to point out the fact that you have to do your best in ME1 and ME2 for the playthrough of ME3 to turn out any good is a clear indication that choices /do/ matter.

As for the Reapers’ motives. Their logic doesn’t have to make sense to us, it just has to make sense to them. Like Saren said about Sovereign, the Reapers think like machines, and machines think with cold logic, not emotions that are a result of organic brain chemistry. They don’t care that they’re overly-extreme solution to what was their creators’ arbitrary problem is inconvenient to us because they have no reason to. The Intelligence behind them was given a problem, resources to study it, and told to find a solution. And due to their oversights, they didn’t take precautions to ensure the Intelligence/Catalyst itself didn’t go rogue on them(A typical cautionary tale not to play god or assume everything will be safe. It’s Skynet all over again).

That said, the Leviathan stated that the Intelligence studied organic/synthetic conflict extensively before it found its solution. Using an army of drones(Who I believe became the Keepers for reasons I wont specify) it gathered information, and later used to attack its creators while their backs were turned.

Another point is that we have no reason to assume that the synthetics of past cycles behaved at all like the Geth or EDI do in our cycle. We’re told over and over in the games and by Bioware that our cycle is an anomaly, not the norm.

In fact, Javik tells a horror story about synthetics in his cycle. A race called the Zha created AI that were to enhance their own intelligence. And the result was the AI dominating them and molding their offspring to a slave race to wage war with Organics, the Zha’til.

There is also a small side quest in ME1 that starts with a rigged Quasar machine and ends with you encountering an unshackled AI in a computer behind Delan’s shop. This AI perceived organics to be its enemy and wanted to take out as many as it could if it didn’t get its way, which was to make contact with the Geth and establish a partnership against organics. So not all AI in the current cycle were innocent.

The biggest complaint against the Reapers’ motives is the player racially profiling all artificial intelligence as sweet and innocent based on the True Geth and EDI, and ignoring that the Geth Heretics chose to side with the Reapers, and that EDI was originally a rogue VI that tried to kill us on the moon in ME1.

Also the elephant in the room, the ending. The choices’ themes are geared to cater to diverse player options. You can destroy the Reapers and be on the safe-side, albeit there’s a consequence and a risk to it(like many other choices in ME), you can agree with the Illusive Man(finally) and take Control of the Reapers: which actually branches based on your inner morality: a paragon is an eternal guardian who only ensures peace and stability, while a renegade rules the galaxy with an iron fist. And outright refusal, which results in a Reaper victory(which was added because people asked for it, I was on the BSN during the ending mess, I saw the demands with my own eyes).

And there’s synthesis, which deserves paragraphs all its own. I’ve seen mixed opinions on it. A lot of people dislike the option, some like the idea, and the rest hate that it’s even an option. Which is unfair, because if we were going to hate an option for existing, arguably we should half of Mass Effect because the game’s been good at letting you solve problems in diverse ways, from being a saint to being an outright dick.

Morrigan in Dragon Age: Origins made a comment to Alistair that I’d like to quote for this arguement: “It may not be a good choice, but it’s a choice nevertheless.” Which is true. We don’t /have/ to choose the option(and we can’t anyway) to walk away and let the Blight be someone else’s problem, but arguably it’s there, and it’s just something the player character isn’t willing to consider. And the same holds true for synthesis, it’s an option for those willing to consider it.

And I’ll take a moment to explain some things about synthesis. The first is that this isn’t the first we’ve ever heard of it. The idea goes all the way back to Saren in Mass Effect 1 after he let Sovereign put more implants inside him. I quote: “The relationship is symbiotic, organic and machine intertwined, a union of flesh and steel, the strengths of both, the weaknesses of neither! I am a vision of the future Shepard, the evolution of all organic life!” So it just turns out Saren understood the Reapers’ ultimate goal all along and Sovereign only turned on him when Shepard made him doubt the solution.

Second is the moral behind synthesis. That diversity is the source of all conflict. We fear what we don’t understand, that fear turns to hate, and hate turns to war. A fact proven by thousands of years of human history. We always hate and try to destroy what we hate or don’t understand, to this very present day. The only difference is what we’re hating at the moment. Synthesis makes Organics and synthetics the same as each other, which by that logic, would make there no reason for the sides to fight. EDI also touched on this after Rannoch by saying that the Quarians error was not making the Geth more like them. Whether you agree with it or not is up to you, but the Reaper’s logic in this regard is based on solving one of humanity’s real character flaws.

That said, I’m with my little counter-argument and any follow up by the author can be made in Koobs’ IRC room.

Nayr

2013-09-07 13:13:47

Nayr

Also I forgot to add this little bit. About the idea that the Reapers are a background threat.

The way the Reapers are presented in ME3 is the same as the Darkspawn in Dragon Age: Origins. Cerberus and the Illusive Man are the equivalent to Teyrn Loghain, who served to hinder your efforts because he believed he had a better way.

And how much of Dragon Age Origins was actually fighting the blight? A very small portion, near the end and limited to a few side missions and one questline. The rest was solving everyone else’s problems to build alliances, the same exact formula as Mass Effect 3. Everybody chose the ME3-equivalent of the Blight to let everything go to hell and force the player character(Shepard) to pick up the pieces. And after that’s done, the final mission/quest is finally taking the fight to the Reapers/Darkspawn and stopping them before they destroy the galaxy/thedas.

    Gaston

    2013-09-24 15:37:24

    Gaston

    You’ve got some guts, coming here with a message which amounts to: “No really, if you connect the right dots, everything is hunky dory in ME3, including the ending – What are you complaining about?!”
    I won’t waste the readers’ time with a cumbersome point by point debunking of your specific brand of sophistry (sophism: a clever but fallacious argument). Suffice here to consider your very first point (“First off, I’d like to point out the fact that you have to do your best in ME1 and ME2 for the playthrough of ME3 to turn out any good is a clear indication that choices /do/ matter.”) which misrepresents most grievances against the way the choices were handled in ME3′s end, then quickly dismisses them by a clever turn of phrase that doesn’t mean much. I’m exaggerating a bit for the fun of it, but you might have said to same effect that the mere fact of deciding to turn on your console to play the game means that choices /do/ matter…
    The rest of your two pieces are mostly variants thereof: dubious reasoning and/or justifications based on equally dubious references to not-necessarily-related elements in other parts of the game, trying to find meanings where there may simply be none.
    I’m endlessly fascinated by the lengths some people can go to twist things around in order to rationalize a bad situation. ME3, as pointed out in the editorial above, in the comments before yours and in so many other forums, has several flaws which are not limited to the ending. Instead of looking at the flaws for what they are, it’s clear to me that you’re trying your best to twist the story and the ideas it contains so that they seemingly make sense… Sorry, but it just doesn’t work.

Jonathan Hibberd

2013-10-07 08:41:52

Jonathan Hibberd

The problem I have with ME3 is it’s a complete betrayal, on so many levels.

First, let’s start with the major meta-betrayal. All of the promises that were made to the fans about what it would and would not be. From the infamous “ABC ending” quote, to the “there’s no way we would do [exactly what we did]” quote, to everything any of the developers ever said about what the game would be, right up to the week before the release, when they were still telling us things that, by that point, they knew was completely untrue. And then the reaction when we called them on it – blame us for not “getting it”. That one really stings because it isn’t just about the game, it’s about basic human respect, which they clearly lack for their fans. But, moving on to things that directly have to do with the game.

The second betrayal is to what the game really is. Mass Effect 1 was a great story driven game. ME2 introduced more combat elements, but still managed to keep a good (if somewhat broken at times) story. The scale of the story was brought down from ME1 – you lost a lot of the exploration, and some of the side quests. But it still worked because it allowed the story to have more focus on the personal element. ME3 sacrificed a complex story in favor of combat. Yes, some of that sacrifice was likely due to the complexity of the branching stories, and trying to pare them down to something more manageable. However, a lot of it was having to devote resources to creating a brand new combat engine, and an entire multiplayer component. It turned the franchise from an RPG to a shooter, and the story suffered for it.

The sad thing is, it didn’t have to be this way. Video games are a media, the same as books or movies or TV. Yet we don’t think of people as “TVers” or “bookers”, so why do we have this category and preconception of what a “gamer” is? Think of where game technology will be in the next 200 years or so, and what do you get? Star Trek’s holodecks. We saw a lot of episodes taking place on the holodeck – Picard’s Dixon Hill stories, Data as Holmes, Janeway interacting with da Vinci, Odo getting lessons in humanity from Vic Fontaine, Barcley living out his Mary Sue fantasies. You know what we never saw? Combat. Even when the Voyager crew was in a recreation of Nazi Germany, we didn’t see them running around shooting stuff, except for a very little. It was all story. So why, when EA and BioWare tried to figure out how to attract more gamers, did they automatically go to the already-saturated shooter market? What they should have done was think how they can get more customers, not more gamers. Think of this as a media just like any other, and figure out how to appeal to people who don’t play games, but like good stories. They should have kept the combat engine from ME2, but tweaked it to provide a “story mode only” option that removes combat and allows players to play through the story without any of the traditional video game aspects. My mom loves great stories. She is constantly reading or watching tv or movies. She hates video games though. But if it were marketed to her as a great sci-fi interactive story, where you control the decisions of the main character, she would probably be interested, as would a lot of people I know. That’s what they should have done – focused on providing a rich, in depth story, not a cheap shoot-em-up.

And finally, there is the betrayal of the story itself. First is the betrayal of the theme. The theme all along has been strength through diversity, about working together to overcome any obstacle. In ME1, we were told that we couldn’t beat Saren, and then that we couldn’t beat Sovereign. We did it, by working together. In ME2, we were told we couldn’t go through the Omega 4 relay, that it would be a suicide mission. But if you get your team working together, you can beat them easily. In ME3, we’re told we can’t beat the Reapers. So we gather together everyone in the galaxy, get them all working together, and then… we can’t beat the Reapers. Instead, we have to have Starbrat turn them off for us.

Then you have the betrayal of our choices. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, you’re still stuck with the same three options. If you cut out the last 200 hours of gameplay across all three games, and just show the final scene with starbrat, you lose absolutely nothing. You have all the information you need right in that one scene, and none of your previous choices come in to play in how it plays out at all.

Next you have the betrayal of our experiences. Despite what we know about the Geth and EDI, we’re told that our destruction is inevitable, and that some day they will turn on us unless the Reapers save us. Which is bull. We’ve proven his statement false. So, either he is lying to us, or he is wrong. Which leads us to the next betrayal.

Which is where Shepard betrays him/herself, and the entire galaxy. You see, either the catalyst is lying about the synthetics being a problem, in which case you commit suicide on the word of a known liar. Or, the starbrat is wrong, in which case you commit suicide for no good reason, instead of trying to prove him wrong. Either way, you commit suicide, and you do so because the leader of your enemy – an enemy that routinely uses lies in the form of indoctrination to get people to do what the Reapers want them to – asks you nicely. Lesson zero in how to be a galaxy-saving badass: do NOT kill yourself just because the bad guy asked you to. Seriously, did N7 training not cover this basic lesson, or was Shepard asleep in class that day?

Then It betrays everything we know about the way the ME universe works. How does electrocuting yourself allow you to take control of the combined civilizations of billions of years? How does a beam of energy kill synthetic life while leaving computers and other non-sentient technology alone? That’s one smart energy beam. And finally, ME does not have matter to energy technology, so how does synthesis rewrite and/or produce synthetic and organic DNA? What is synthetic DNA anyway?

And finally, it betrays the very flow of a good story itself. There are certain things you do and don”t do in a story, particularly the end, in order to make a smoother, more naturally flowing story. ME3 broke those rules.

You don’t introduce new characters at the end of your story. Characters need time to develop properly. Unless there’s a definite sequel that you are setting up, this is a major no-no.

You don’t introduce new themes or concepts at the end of your story. Like characters, you need time to fully explore these, time you just don’t have at the end of a story.

You especially don’t introduce new characters, concepts, or themes just to resolve the main conflict of your story. In ancient Greece, they called it “deus ex machina” – God out of the machine. In our day, we’d call it an ass-pull. Basically it is a white flag of surrender that shows the audience that the author has managed to write themselves into a corner and is too incompetent to write themselves out of it. And here, we literally have a god-like figure walking out of a machine. If there’s any clearer message that the writers were completely clueless and pulled this ending out of their collective asses, I can’t think of one.

Basically, a good ending should flow from the rest of the story before it. It should stay on course, and bring the story in for an easy, smooth landing. Sure, you can toss in twists and turns, but you need to foreshadow it in advance. The Sixth Sense was a great example of this, where you look back and see that you really hadn’t veered completely off course, you have just been following a slightly different path than you were expecting the whole time, but you can see where you actually were looking back.

ME3 was bad. Not just subjectively bad from a fan point of view, but it was objectively poorly written and breaks many of the guidelines of writing good literature, for no reason, and with no payoff. You can say you like it, but you can’t say it was well written. I like plenty of things that I know are badly written, but I like it anyway. This definitely wasn’t one of those times.

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