It may have succeeded in bagging a slew of awards this year but there’s no ignoring the fact that Mass Effect 3 also took home first prize for 2012′s most controversial video game release. Just to clarify, this isn’t to say that Mass Effect 3 is necessarily a bad game; mechanically, it’s easily the tightest and best-looking chapter in the critically-acclaimed trilogy. However as the final instalment came to a close it was evident that, somewhere down the line, BioWare -the so-called “masters” of storytelling and pioneers of the RPG genre- had dropped the ball where it mattered most. In short, the Mass Effect trilogy was endowed with a conclusion less than fitting for a series that has built its empire around excessive player freedom and unmatched character development.
Leading into Mass Effect 3, there was no doubt that the staff at BioWare had their work cut out for them. Meticulously, they would have to cater to every decision players had made in the two previous games, from fairly insignificant dialogue choices to full-blown set-pieces which could even determine the survival of certain characters. The way in which BioWare tailored the experience to each individual player gave the impression that, when the credits began to roll, we’d all be left with drastically different endings. However, in actuality, no matter how you spent your 60-90 hours with Commander Shepard in his struggle against the Reapers, each and every player would be presented with the same three monolithic, and ultimately unsatisfactory, conclusions.
From a purist’s perspective, this is perhaps the most egregious treason BioWare could have committed; over the course of five years players had carved their own narrative from the creative fibre BioWare had provided only to have it account for nothing in those few final minutes. However, for others, the endings themselves and how they alter the Mass Effect universe forever are just as insulting to the fans.
After holding your own against the Reapers in the heart of London, Shepard is struck down by one of the hulking machines only to be beamed up to The Citadel. Here, he learns that the galactic capital held the key to defeating the Reapers all along though not before he sees off Captain Anderson and The Illusive Man in one final showdown. Shepard only learns the truth when confronted with the hologram of a child, the same child haunting his dreams since departing from Earth at the very beginning of the game. In a prolonged and somewhat meaningless exchange, the AI projection explains “the cycle” to Shepard before presenting him with three options colour-coded blue, green, and red. Control, synthesis, and destruction.
If players opt for the first choice, Shepard sacrifices himself, becoming an omnipotent AI with power over the remaining Reaper forces. Choosing to destroy the Reapers also results in death, not just for Shepard and his ancient enemy, but every synthetic in the galaxy including the Geth and even Shepard’s companion, EDI. Even more obtuse is the green path, synthesis. Also requiring a sacrifice this option sees Shepard swan dive into a reactor, effectively combining the DNA of every synthetic and organic life-form in the galaxy to create one unified species.
The descriptions above are bare-boned though each ending share two similar traits. Blue, green, or red, no matter which path you tread, it will result in the destruction of all the Mass Relays, effectively barring long-distance space travel and setting galactic civilisation back some thousands, if not millions, of years. On top of that the SSV Normandy, still carrying Shepard’s crew, is brought down over an uncharted tropical planet, their fate seemingly unknown.
In summary, it was a crushing albeit fairly hollow conclusion to one of this generation’s most masterfully put together trilogies. In the space of thirty minutes BioWare had managed to undo almost a decade’s worth of hard graft, leaving a sizeable portion of its fanbase alienated and apathetical toward anything flying under the Mass Effect banner.
BioWare had slipped up, monumentally so, though something even more unprecedented was to follow. The subsequent, unremitting clamour of discontent fans forced the studio into announcing Mass Effect 3′s “Extended Cut”, a remedial content drop that would “expand” upon the game’s inconclusive ending. We’ve seen even some of the world’s best and most innovative studios having to issue post-launch patches to amend errors and faults but to turn back the clock in an attempt to iron out story-related ailments is something completely unheard of. Despite BioWare’s effort to appease fans, the Extended Cut did little to fix -or even mask over- the plot holes and overall absurdity fans had taken issue with in the first place. What’s worse, from a fan’s perspective, is that BioWare has blown its second chance to set the record straight. That’s unless they are seriously considering a direct sequel to Mass Effect 3 which would no doubt conjure up a bombardment of questions surrounding the series’ canon and continuity.
Though it’s easy to focus entirely on the game’s ending, Mass Effect 3 definitely flagged in other areas, story-wise. Firstly there was the game’s confusing time-scale and false sense of urgency, the opening scenes depicting a Reaper invasion of Earth. From what players had read and heard of the sentient ancient race it sounded as if they would obliterate the planet in mere hours. However, in some bizarre paradox, Shepard -dispatched on his final mission to destroy the Reapers- still found plenty of time to run tedious errands, resolve petty spats, and even employ his trademark dance moves clubbing in Purgatory.
A lot worse was the way in which a number of Mass Effect’s characters were left short-changed in the concluding part of BioWare’s trilogy. Although they had their fifteen minutes of fame, many of Shepard’s former companions including Jack, Grunt, Thane, and Jacob were relegated to minor roles as players approached the endgame. Thane, the series’ imperfect assassin was robbed of the warrior’s death many had expected, instead succumbing to Kerpal’s Syndrome leading to a less than fitting exit for the character.
Even a number of the game’s possible love interests came up short in Mass Effect 3. Despite having a mission dedicated to her own personal strife, Miranda – the poster-girl of Mass Effect 2, had little to offer the over-arching narrative even in her last words to Shepard which, somewhat jokingly, were transmitted over a botched together hologram message.
Mass Effect 3 is still a stellar example of what video games are capable of doing though, for some reason, BioWare wasn’t able to fulfil its promise. Whether it was behind-the-scenes conflict at the studio, pressure from EA, or the absence of series architect, Drew Karpyshyn, we’ll never know. However, BioWare isn’t ready to close the book on Mass Effect just yet; with another project in the works, we’ll soon find out if the somewhat disgraced developer will return the franchise to its former glory or leave a galaxy burning in the flames of uncertainty.