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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.