The first murmurs I heard of ME3 having a disappointing ending was that, apparently, Sheperd perished. Having never expected a sugary-sweet ending to the series, this didn’t bother me all that much and I quickly dismissed these gripes.
However, alarm bells really should’ve been ringing when I consistently heard people mention the “ending”. Singular. ME2 raised the bar significantly over the first game (which had a paltry two endings, albeit each carried a sense of weight) and gave players a massive variety of potential outcomes, all of which depended entirely on your actions and priorities throughout the game. ME3 regresses quite a bit by having three endings that, aside from cosmetics, have no distinctive differences. Yes, their precise descriptions vary, but really they all result in the same thing and it’s not the demise of Sheperd that makes it quite so disappointing. The final encounter leading up to your A-B-C ending makes little in the way of sense.
The Star Child that appears before you claims to have created the Reapers for the express purpose of perpetuating “the cycle”, something that in the past we’ve been told is more complex than we could possibly know and is also a necessity. Turns out the cycle is “Organics will always make Synthetics, who then rise up and destroy them. By wiping out the civilisations we prevent this from happening”, as the Star Child informs us without one drop of irony or realisation. This, as I mentioned in part 1, is ME3 trying a rather hamfisted attempt to impose a theme upon the series that’s never been truly central to the proceedings.
It’s true that Mass Effect has made repeated visits to the Quarian-Geth conflict and the first game depicted the geth as your usual unfeeling robot usurpers. However, the final act showed that the geth were in fact being manipulated the entire time, while ME2 went on to subvert this long-perpetuated trope by portraying the geth akin to confused, frightened children behind closed doors. This conflict was also never the focal point of the games, merely another element of the galactic situation, and really contributed towards the much more prominent themes of Mass Effect, namely “overcoming adversity” and “choice”. To come back at the very, very end of the final instalment and declare that evil robots were always the point of this space opera just doesn’t add up. Even more so if your Sheperd has managed to broker peace with the geth and convince Joker and EDI to hook up - proof that clankers can co-exist peacefully with us squishies if given fair circumstances.
After this we’re told that, since Sheperd now stands before this enigmatic child, the cycle can no longer work for some reason. The Reapers and Sheperd stand on the brink of victory and death respectively, but apparently the Star Child’s also the wizard of fucking Oz and the charade has to end. The offer of three (and only three) alternate solutions to the Reapers murdering trillions of people just begs the question: why did the Star Child never employ these measures to begin with? Why bother with the Reapers at all if he can influence things on a galactic scale? A comment is made that the Reapers “preserve” destroyed civilisations in their own way, yet you never get to highlight the fucking insanity of this statement. He also makes a flippant remark that he “can’t”, but never elaborates and Sheperd never presses the issue.
I feel like I’m on crazy pills.
Especially since, ultimately, your decision results in the destruction of the Mass Relays, removing the backbone of galactic infrastructure and travel from the equation. That’s a devastating blow and I’m honestly a little shocked that Bioware didn’t think through the full implications of this; without the relays there’s no galactic playing field. No way for modern civilisation to sustain itself. It leaves millions stranded and the bulk of the galactic fleet stuck hovering over Earth, where they’re all probably going to starve to death or get eaten by krogan. And if this was always going to be the eventual consequence of stopping the Reaper menace, then all the fighting and struggle really was for naught - all your efforts basically gave everyone about three more years of life. You might as well have rolled over and surrendered to Sovereign for all the good resisting did.
I’m fine with bittersweet endings, a sense of victory tinged with loss can be quite sublime, but this is just downright morbid. There’s no silver lining here.
Then there’s the closest thing we have to an epilogue, which depicts the Normandy attempting to flee the encroaching blastwave. Upon seeing this I was struck with confusion. The logistics don’t add up: the nearest mass relay is beyond Pluto and it would take Joker a while to reach it…which implies that he fled the battle over Earth before it was concluded. He’s a deserter. Especially since the blastwave came from the exploding Citadel, which itself was hovering directly over Earth, and had he been present for the battle he’d have never been able to flee in time. The Normandy then crashes on a random jungle planet and this (given the uplifting score and the content expressions) is treated as something positive, despite being a pretty awful situation; they’re stranded, there’s potentially hostile fauna or weather, they’ve little means of repairs and no way of knowing if they can even digest any food source they might scrounge up. Why is this supposed to be nice? I just don’t get it.
Another misstep is the Galactic Readiness bar, which winds up being basically pointless. While it’s a practical tool for showing your progress to an ideal state, it’s ultimately a hollow lie that has the barest of impacts on the ending: your sole punishment for not reaching at least the halfway marker of the bar is the demolition of Big Ben. That’s literally it. It’s really rather insulting, when you think about it.
I suppose it’ll make Mass Effect 3 rather easy to speedrun. No sense fretting about recruiting the volus bombing fleets or settling your score with the batarians when it’s all going to contribute precisely dick to the outcome. While you could argue it can all be enjoyed for its own sake (and indeed this does have a ring of truth to it) the point is that the game outright manipulates you into believing that these efforts are paramount to your survival. The same applies to any tertiary sidequests one might pick up whilst on the Citadel (“Oh, we lost an important banner here.”, “One of our generals went missing”, “An artifact was stolen” etc) in order to boost the moral of the refugees. S’all pointless since everyone aboard the Citadel fucking dies when the Reapers make off with it. You gave them a confidence boost mere days before they were brutally maimed. Huzzah.
Some greater context: whilst gearing up for ME3, a friend and I decreed that Sheperd should slowly lose his composure over the course of the game, culminating in him snapping at a crucial moment and dooming the galaxy. Whatever it would entail: murdering a squadmate, becoming a deranged gestalt entity, smashing Earth. Whatever. We just wanted to see. Ultimately we were denied even the option to indulge in this throwaway act of sadism (even if it was only for a laugh) simply because the game refused to offer anything of the sort. The basic Paragon-Renegade system of choice wasn’t even avaliable. Granted, neither of us really wanted to burn galactic civilisation to cinders, but the point was that if we did want to then we should be able to; this philosophy was kind of the backbone of the Mass Effect's entire choice system. It's something that's been present from the very beginning, yet here it is bafflingly absent. Why?
Discussion of the ending among friends lead me to suggest an idea that, in hindsight, I’m honestly surprised wasn’t taken as the obvious route by the developers: your choices throughout the game changes the resultant effect of the Crucible doomsday weapon. Seems like the logical step to me, since it allows for almost endless variety, creativity and could foster some neat discussions:
"In my ending the Crucible weaponised Earth’s sun, causing a chain reaction that murdered all the reapers. So, victory was attained, but I lost Earth. You?"
"My Crucible made the Reapers feel overwhelming guilt about their actions and they exiled themselves. What about you?"
"Oh, my Crucible invoked God. Created him. It. Whatever. He smote everyone."
See? It would also encourage replay value, if only to see what might occur depending on who or what you recruit. If you’ve got a massive MacGuffin (or two, I guess) you might as well toy around with what it can do a little. Even just having the missing catalyst component be a person opens up dozens of potential aventues: the teammate you choose to sacrifice results in a different Crucible effect. Same applies if you sacrifice your own Sheperd. Their history and mindset summons a different ending, be it good or bad. Sure as hell makes more sense than the A-B-C buffet we were given…
In the scramble to condemn or dissect the ending, few have taken time to comment on ME3 being rather…lean. The first Mass Effect indulged in things such as the Mako exploration missions and Simon-Says style lock system for random drops. The lock system was subsequently refined for the sequel, whilst the Mako was removed in favour of resource management. This system was paramount to your success in ME2; manage your search probes, your minerals, even your fuel and choose upgrades at your discretion. Each decision actually had an impact on how the climax could play out, thus making it ultimately worth your while in the long run as well as in the immediate.
In contrast to both of these approaches, ME3 has nothing at all. There is no Mako equivalent (such as the more responsive Hammerheard seen in the Overlord DLC) and planetwide searches have little to no difficulty or consequence. There’s also a distinct lack of hub worlds to explore. The Citadel arguably counts, but it’s more something you come back to out of necessity than the curiosity that lead one to explore Omega, the Zakera Ward, Illium and Tuchanka.
Granted, the shootan works just great and is quite a refined system, it’s just disappointing that it’s all on its lonesome when once it was bolstered and supported by other features that made the setting feel much more alive. Some would argue that the game has been “streamlined”, but I’d honestly call it “diluted”. It’s weird how almost no one has commented on this in their reviews. Sure, ME3 isn’t a bad game to play, but I’d say it really comes in third of three in some respects.
Anyway, let’s end this nonsense. How do I feel about the ending? Well, certainly not enraged. More disappointed. I won’t be losing sleep over it, but I’m genuinely flummoxed at how a great trilogy was brought crashing down in a mere ten minutes. The implications surrounding not only this decision, but how the games industry responds to the outcry, could have potentially massive reprecussions for the future of the medium.
All right, that’s quite enough of that. Time to go for a run and prove I’m still a human being.