Finishing Mass Effect 3
I first began playing Mass Effect in 2008. It took me until 2021 to finish the trilogy. For various reasons. With the recent announcement of the Legendary Edition of Mass Effect, I’ve decided to share my thoughts on that one game everyone said had the most disappointing ending of all time. (it doesn’t, but I’ve got my own observations and gripes about that to come) This is coming after doing a Twitter thread documenting my experience playing the game, some of the things I wrote about there I won’t repeat here as they are more moment-to-moment focused. Other things will be worked into the discussion. Note: This isn’t a short one. I’ve spent thirteen years to see the end of this trilogy spoiler free. I’m not gonna sum up my thoughts in ten minutes.
The Things I Just Don’t Like
Everyone has biases, everyone has preferences. I’m no different. Instead of not really talking about them much to leave some room for doubt between what I’m genuinely trying to approach with a critical lens versus what I just don’t like, I am going to talk about my biases head-on here in the hopes that we can focus on the things that I personally want to debate as to whether they’re enjoyable or worth my (and maybe your) time in Mass Effect 3. I hope it helps diminish problems.
An aesthetic lost
I have a personal fondness for Mass Effect 1 and its aesthetics and mechanics that are absolutely rose tinted glasses to an extent. There were too many mods to filter through in an awful cluttered inventory. The gameplay had weirdly challenging sections, and mostly because of bad cover-based systems and awful punishments for getting hit by some biotic attacks even once. And yet, I loved the way this game felt to play. Biotic combat never really felt better in Mass Effect 2 and 3 to me. The costumes and designs in ME1 took on a stronger tone of serialized science fiction TV in all its colorful and cheap-looking glory. Later Mass Effect games made armor, weapons, and everything harsher, more metal, more mechanized, more beefy. And while there’s no denying Mass Effect 2 offered the writing, presentation, and characters with the strongest depth, I’m still a sucker for the promise of what Mass Effect 1 held if it were to be replicated in its sequels.
2. Shooty McBangBang
It seems clear that BioWare really wanted to take the direction they took with Mass Effect in its sequels, gameplay wise. But it’s very clear Mass Effect 3 fused the best of what 1 and 2 offered in terms of its combat gameplay to create a nice fusion of the RPG leveling systems and weapon mods (more on that later). And yet I ultimately still have a bias against a game that stripped so much of its gameplay elements in its sequels compared to the depth of options and control you get in the first game. If there’s ever a section of Mass Effect 3 that’s underwhelming, it’s in its exploration, followed not far by its combat. Considering action gameplay was a main selling point, I’m considering this point a bit more of a bias. Ultimately the game was just never a big challenge for me, I never ran out of ammo, I never found myself needing to think tactically about my teammate’s positions or powers. It’s terribly boilerplate, but Mass Effect 2 was no different for me with this and its clear these games were going for mass appeal.
3. EA & Cost of Play
Electronic Arts has a longstanding history of awful relationships with its developers and really not having a grip on how to maintain expectations for its intellectual properties (RIP Visceral Games and Dead Space). Recent news over the past couple years would lead us to understand a lot of the awful things that have happened to games made by BioWare are at the feet of other poor decisions made by key leaders at the company. Jason Schreier has a fantastic piece at Kotaku about Anthem and what went wrong that breaks down these problems to a great degree. BioWare definitely has its problems separate from EA too. That being said, it’s clear Mass Effect 3 was one of the most egregious victims of the “Day One DLC” debacle and so much wonderful content in this game was and remains walled off. A lot of this DLC still has be paid at full price, which I too paid for bit by bit. It’s ludicrous. And on this fact alone I hold a bit of an angry bias towards Mass Effect 3 I can’t eliminate. I certainly kept putting off this game at points because I wanted to make sure I had saved up money and bought each DLC. With the remaster that’s releasing soon to include every DLC besides one nobody liked, I can at least recommend you just go buy that if you still haven’t played the games, but maybe hold on to make sure it’s not a bug ridden disaster? That tends to happen a lot with video games these days.
But Let’s Really Talk About the Game(play)
There’s a lot in the gameplay I’d like to praise Mass Effect 3 for. For some, it might be the only Mass Effect game they play. It’s a game very focused on its tighter narrative of saving Earth and the galaxy from the Reapers. I’m not sure why you’d want to enter the-three-part space opera at its final chapter, but then again I (and millions of others) started Witcher games at The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Having played through the previous two Mass Effect games, three times each, over the better part of a decade, I had garnered a large appreciation for the decision changes made by BioWare across the years spent making those games. While Mass Effect 1 lives closest to the idea of an RPG shooter hybrid, Mass Effect 2 saw the studio taking major shifts towards the idea of these games primarily working as a sort of “combat and conversations” mixture, with space powers in the mix. Mass Effect 2 proved the concept wasn’t just good, but something that BioWare could carry forward and hone further. And they did so in the arenas that people were bound to care about most (specifically combat gameplay).
One of my favorite things about Mass Effect 3’s gameplay is in how it draws upon the lessons learned by dramatically cutting down on complexities when making Mass Effect 2, and using that knowledge to retroactively re-work elements into Mass Effect 3. The ability tree is one such example: Mass Effect 1’s leveling system had a ludicrous amount of abilities that didn’t have enough of an impact on gameplay in the end. Meanwhile, Mass Effect 2’s levels offered some depth with the ability to learn a skill from another party member. But each ability’s level pathing was just a straight line of upgrades with your choice of a strong modifier at the end. Meanwhile, Mass Effect 3 combined these ideas of depth and refinement and gave each ability a level pathway that you could swap in and out of for each step across the tree. Your choices were permanent, but you weren’t restricted to one path or the other for each level. This is, the way I see it, a nice progression of the changes made in Mass Effect 2 to try and have more than the bare requirements. The choice of one path over another (such as an increase to how long cryo shots freeze a target vs. how quickly they’ll freeze the target) may not have the strongest impact on gameplay, but it’s done in the spirit of how RPG games have always included a degree of playstyle preference for its players.
The same can be said for Mass Effect 3’s many weapons. I personally don’t like how the game is introducing a new weapon for nearly every single story mission you’re playing, even as you get close to the very end. It seems like a holdover from the multiplayer component of the game that’s no longer really present. But wheras Mass Effect 2 didn’t really focus on weapon upgrades at all, Mass Effect 3 has a wealth of weapon upgrades and customizations you can purchase to emphasize one element of a weapon over others. The variety of weapons also does promote different playstyles. I had no idea I’d love a weapon in Mass Effect with the type of “shoots as fast as you can click” semi-automatic performance until the game put the M-96 Mattock in my hands and I never put it down after that moment. I do think the upgrades suffer the same problem as the weapons, which is to say: There’s just too many, with barely an impact. And while I never tried to piece it together, there doesn’t seen to be too much logic in the limitations of one upgrade type preventing another. Obviously having a scope in one upgrade slot means you can’t use another scope in the other slot, but it just felt like Mass Effect 3 purely went for a quantity of items in both weapons and upgrades without really offering a true depth that could’ve been achieved if they refined these choices so that your upgrades really altered the performance of each weapon in a significant way. It may feel like a stark comparison, but Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game that shows you can have mod systems for your weapons with a lot of options while also creating a depth of gameplay that’s compelling. With Mass Effect 3 you slap on whatever advantage you prefer and deal with whatever disadvantage that will make you take a few more shots than usual.
Ultimately what I think holds Mass Effect 3’s combat back is a general lack of challenge as well as the enemy variety. For the difficulty I may need to address it in future runs by trying Hardcore or Insanity. Wheras the enemy variety is sorta weaved into the storyline, and so, much like weapons and the upgrades, there’s a handful that don’t seem to matter and there’s a handful that impress. The Asari Reapers, aka “Banshees”, are perhaps the best the game offers in terms of a generalized creepiness, a challenge, and a fight changer. They’ll stalk and teleport close to the player, and require a considerable amount of damage to eliminate. Their capacity to kill the player if they do a grab attack, as well as their large area of effect particle blasts means the moment a Banshee enters a playing field with a bundle of other enemies, the game plan for players has suddenly changed, and will continue to change rapidly for every moment the Banshee lives. You’ll be forced to dart away if they get too close, while still trying to make significant dents in its health pool. A Banshee thrown into a situation with several enemies and a heavy suppressor creates for pure chaos. Brutes, meanwhile, are supposed to illicit the same sort of “oh crap” response out of players, and yet all you’ll feel compelled to do is focus everyone’s fire on the charging hulk and deal with everything else afterwards. You can, and at times will, literally stonewall a Brute in its path. In most cases, they’ll fall before they’re too close. There’s some other good highlights in the game here. The indoctrinated Rachni makes for some fantastic heavy suppression, and while most human enemies are a snore, the return of the Geth in a chunk of the story reminded me of exactly how great it was to fight the Geth in Mass Effect 1. The real problem is the game smartly ties the increase of these forces to the increasing hold the Reapers have on the galaxy. It’s a nice story bit, but it holds back so much of the fighting for so long. Banshees don’t show up until a little past half way through the game. The Rachni enemies show up a quarter of the way into the game. And the Geth don’t show up till the last quarter of the game or so.
Overall Mass Effect 3’s combat gameplay is as snappy and fun as ever. And while there’s real problems that have been brought up with how that appears to have impacted the RPG storytelling in this game, I personally found those a result of BioWare trying to broaden Mass Effect 3’s appeal to offset its budget. I don’t really buy into the argument these days with those decisions ruining the story. It’s clear a lot of development went into refining and expanding the combat in this game, and there is a literal “I’m here for the combat and don’t want to interact with the story” mode, but complaints about how this may have impacted the story are looking for reasons to place blame on concepts of the AAA market and broad appeal, and those criticisms are using Mass Effect 3 as a supporting argument. We’ll get to the story, but people who are here for Shepard and Company are still having a good time. It’s understandable why people may demonstrate this frustration at Mass Effect 3’s increase in combat emphasis. It’s very clear the pendulum for focused design choices in Mass Effect 3 swung more towards combat gameplay over RPG and story gameplay. But personally I find this to be a little humorous considering Mass Effect 1 and 2 both showcased how engaging a video game story can be with more refined interface designs that allow for interaction with a cinematic story that was unfolding in front of your eyes. It was very clear from the get-go in Mass Effect 2 that not a lot needed to be altered to keep the Mass Effect story compelling, just add in more conversations on the ship, give players the ability to suddenly perform paragon and renegade actions, trim the fat, improve the presentation, and keep up the storytelling and character writing. Not a lot needed to be improved on here. But there was an appeal available to be tapped into by altering the combat gameplay from Mass Effect 1 into what you see the beginnings of in Mass Effect 2. It’s just a shame we never really see the fruition of its potential realized in Mass Effect 3.
Exploration and Sidequests — The Weakest Link
We’re going to get into the ending and the plot of this game, because it’s something of monumental importance to the way we talk about and respond to video games. But of course I’m saving that nugget for last. What I find personally interesting is that if we as people weren’t so involved in storylines, the most frustrating and bafflingly bad part of Mass Effect 3 would undoubtedly be its quest structuring and “sidequesting”. The ending of Mass Effect 3 was apparently so bad that droves of players petitioned for the ending to be remade and BioWare did tweak said ending. But that’s something players who were lucky enough to get to the ending had the privilege of complaining about. Personally, I tried beating Mass Effect 3 three separate times, and it wasn’t until this third attempt that I finally managed it. My previous two runs stopped short, normally around the same point each time. The problem wasn’t a bug, a personal mistake, or an angering personal opinion about a story choice. It was, in fact, a layered group of designs that resulted in my inability to proceed with the story in a way that didn’t feel cumbersome or confusing as get out. We’ll start with the most egregious of the bunch: The Journal.
The journal is the menu in the game where your quests are stored for users to pull up and manage. In Mass Effect 1 and 2, there was a clear distinction between what’s qualifying as a main quest (see: something that progresses the story) and a side quest (see: something that doesn’t). How? Well, in the picture below, you’ll see. There’s two sub-menus in the journal for Mass Effect 1 and 2 so you can ensure that you know which missions are going to push the story forward and which ones won’t.
To be relatively fair to Mass Effect 3’s journal: If you’re paying attention to the story you’ll know that Thessia, Rannoch, and Tuchunka are all major plot points in the story and any quest that begins “Priority: (insert location here)” are main quest missions. It’s not impossible to know what to do next if you’re looking to go straight for the finish line. This may not seem like too big a deal to most players. And I will admit there’s a slight bias here at play in the fact that I like to do as many side quests as possible before progressing main quests (DLC excluded for reasons). But I don’t think I’m the only person like that. Completing main quests in this game and others will sometimes lock current side quests from ever being completed. New side quests in this game are slowly opened up as you finish large chunks of the main quest. So, for anyone who likes to be thorough, such as myself, it’s best to do all the side quests you can when they become available before addressing the new main quest. All this to say: Players like me will be slightly wary of not touching a side quest since they know a main quest may make it unplayable.
However, there’s a glaring problem with some of these side quests in the fact that some galaxy systems will not become available to you until you make progress with main missions. This isn’t good. It’s really not good. It’s the core the questing system’s problems from which all other designs fail. The assumption for quests in video games is that the moment a quest hits your journal or quest log is that you can do that quest now. And if you can’t, normally there’s some sort of indicator or text specifying: You’ll have to wait for an opportunity to do this later. You need to level up more. Maybe a character will open up to you more later. Something. But you get no such thing in Mass Effect 3. Some side quests will simply point you to a star system that you just cannot find on the map yet, it’s progress locked without telling you. And that’s a big enough oversight already because there’s so many side quests that you just kinda randomly pick up by overhearing conversations on the Citadel, the game’s secondary hub next to the Normandy. So you’ll have all these quests sitting in your journal that you barely know the background on and you get some vague description of a star system you need to go to, and you’ll try to complete all those side quests because you don’t want to miss out on one and accidentally skip over it by doing a story mission.
My solution to this on my first attempt at Mass Effect 3 was to write stuff down. On paper. I was already resorting to the Mass Effect 3 wiki to look up which quests can’t be done yet, and just marking them down on paper so I can remember on my next play session: You can’t do that one yet, do it later. And, in my opinion, if a video game isn’t a puzzler and you’re resorting to pulling out a pen and paper to jot down notes so you can remember what things you can’t do in the game yet, you’re failing on some really fundamental stuff.
But then there’s the fact that the journal system is lacking other important details. This is a part I covered a couple times on my Twitter blogging of the game: The journal won’t accurately tell you where you need to go to accomplish side quests. Sometimes it’ll tell you what planet you need to go to, but it won’t say what star system, or what star cluster in those star systems you need to visit to find said planets. Sometimes it’s the opposite: It’ll tell you what cluster to go to, but not the planet or the cluster’s housing star system. It’s, once again, baffling as get out. You can already see how these two critiques I’ve lodged compound upon each other. For starters: There’s entire star systems you’re not even sure you can reach yet. And then the journal entries that are supposed to guide you to the correct place to do a side quest won’t really tell you where to go in a way that you can navigate. I sincerely don’t think I ever would’ve finished Mass Effect 3 if I first hadn’t relied on the wiki to tell me “Just don’t bother looking for that side quest’s location yet, because it’s not available to you”. I also don’t think I’d ever beat the game if I hadn’t found a mod that adds better entries into the journal to say exactly where you need to go for these side quests.
It should be noted: Despite BioWare saying they’re making a lot of improvements to the remaster of Mass Effect 1, I haven’t seen anyone talk about fixing Mass Effect 3’s journal in the remaster, at all. And the possibility that I won’t be able to have that fix at the ready for a second and third playthrough is making me wary of the remaster all together. Especially if I can’t import my saves or the mod doesn’t work with it.
For some people, this is going to be fine. Either they didn’t care about those side quests as much or they’re just better at finding stuff than I am? I dunno. This element of the game always seemed under-discussed in critical conversation when, from my standpoint, it’s a foundational basic aspect of the game. Having these two systems working against the player so much that I resorted to just putting into my Windows notepad what sidequests have which main quest pre-requisuites before I can even touch them is enough to have stopped me twice. This was a regular problem.
These two problems have the added effect of the game being from an older time in interface trends. The journal and the galaxy map are two separate menus, separated by two fade-ins and a couple button pushes. While main quests and certain side quests will be highlighted on the galaxy map, most side quests you just have to know where you’re going. And so there’s this stupid shuffle I did countless times of walking right up to the galaxy map, choosing it, and then realizing I don’t know where I’m going yet because I haven’t updated my lovely notepad off screen, so I leave the map, go into the pause menu, jump through each quest in my journal and use the wiki to sort out if I can do it yet, cross-match that with my journal entries (thankfully modded to tell me where the heck I’m going), and then I jot all that down in my journal and return to the galaxy map so I can begin doing sidequests. Exploring and saving the galaxy in Mass Effect 1 (and even in 2) felt so much more painless. It’s a space action RPG where seemingly most things have been charted except for the stuff you have to find. And the previous games didn’t need a magical sub-interface on the map to show you your quests like modern games do with ease. Why is this a problem in Mass Effect 3, but not 1 or 2? The problem here comes from the way you explore space. And that takes me to the new version of the freaking scanning crap.
Each Mass Effect game tried to gamify the concept of exploration in a different way. Each one had strong and weak points. But one of them (ME3) managed to trip and fall into the game’s other flaws, creating a miasma of sidequesting barf. Mass Effect 1 had the ever-popular Mako, a land vehicle with a deadly cannon on top that controlled similarly to that of Dark Souls 1 ragdolls. I have a fondness for the hilarity of the Mako, but I also have a fondness for Mass Effect 1’s method of “exploration”. The galaxy was already mapped. You’d zoom in on a star system, then a cluster, and then a planet that you were supposed to do a side quest on. And then you’d choose to “Land” on said side quest planet, and the Mako would be dropped on a large square chunk of land where the player would explore the surface of said planet for items on a map that may advance your quest, or it just might be loot. It’s not too much “exploring” so much as it’s trying to find out which “X” on the map is the right one, but it added an atmosphere of vastness in its planet variety as well as the first time you’ll stumble upon a Thresher Maw in game (if it didn’t kill you instantly because Mass Effect 1 had its bugs). You’d even depart the Mako and walk the surface of these planets to go into interiors. All in all, it made the galaxy sure feel big and alien, despite being very “rinse and repeat” and same-y after a while. It certainly ate up a large chunk of the game’s 40 hour runtime, but you were at least actively doing the exploring, the excavating, the journeying. The Mako was a mess, but it still managed to deliver something special for us back in 2007, an idea of exploring space in a way that we only recently made a new reality with other games like No Man’s Sky and Elite: Dangerous.
Meanwhile, Mass Effect 2 mostly did away with all of that and instead had the players scan planets for resource spikes and then deploying drones to those planets to take the resources. You’d sometimes find side quests this way when a transmission was playing from a planet and you’d use your probes to find that transmission. Mass Effect 2’s planet scanning has been meme-ified at this point as horrendously boring. It’s so slow that the game even offers you an upgrade so you can scan faster and not have to replenish your probes as often (in ME3 they did away with the replenishing of probes all together). I’ve heard some people make a case for the planet scanning being a relaxing moment in the gameplay as you listened to Mass Effect’s wonderful soundtrack. It is wonderful. But you don’t feel the sensation of “exploring” unless you read all the planet biographies as you went along. It’s not really a feast for the eyes or mind in most cases. Ultimately I still lean on the side of it being a mistake.
So what does Mass Effect 3 do different? It doubles down. Planet scanning for resources isn’t really a thing, but planet scanning for war assets is most definitely a thing here, just wearing new pants. War assets are scattered groups of civilizations or militaries that got cut off because of the Reaper invasion or other “things ”people can’t get their hands on. A good 25% of the missions you’ll get while walking around the Citadel are simple fetch quests for war assets: We need an experimental military tool to save this soldier’s leg. There’s a squad of Asari Commandos trapped somewhere in this system but we don’t know where. That sort of stuff. So, you’ll pilot the Normandy into the rough star system where you’re supposed to find this resource and one of two things will happen: Your modded journal will tell you what planet to find this item/group/asset on and you’ll do a planet scan, find the transmission spike, send a probe down, and that’s that, you can go turn in your quest. OR you have to fly your ship around said star system, find a space in a star system to take a guess and use a “ping” button that sends out an echo of some sort, reaching out to anyone or anything that might respond. This here, is where everything snaps for me.
You don’t know where these things you’re trying to find are in that star system. But if you scan in a solar system under Reaper invasion too many times, they’ll find the Normandy, try to chase you down, and you’ll need to dart your way out of the solar system and come back and scan again later after you’ve completed a story quest. I think without this design, I might’ve been able to recover Mass Effect 3 in my head. Yeah, it sucks having to check if side quests have any prerequisite missions I haven’t done via a wiki, but that’s pretty straightforward. Yeah the journal sucks, but I modded that out. But this system scan crap means you ultimately have to, in the end, just guess where the thing you’re trying to find is. Your modded journal might tell you you’re in the right star cluster, but nine times out of ten, you still have to fly around and hope you’re scanning in a new place compared to the last time you were searching here. I cannot think of any way this system passed playtests with players like me in mind, players who want to finish every side quest. I’m not that person who wants to do every achievement or find every ship model or buy every weapon, but I want to at least do every mission. And if it weren’t for wikis, mods, and personal note keeping, I would’ve given up on Mass Effect 3 long before I got to Rannoch.
I can’t fathom how players did this before the Better Journal mod, before guides and wikis gave you the location of every discoverable war asset in a system tied to side quests, before other wikis tell you which missions are pre-reqs for other missions. For me, this is Mass Effect 3’s greatest “offense”. Because as time has gone on, I’ve found that the biggest thing that makes people stop playing a video game is often the tiniest of inconveniences that are core to everything the player has to do. I went on and on in my Twitter thread about how the side quests lacked an engaging focus, how the way Shepard finds them is boring, how the amassing of resources and fuel usage is absolutely pointless, but that’s all needless padding. Nitpick stuff. Oftentimes people don’t finish video games because the camera sucks, the controls don’t stick right, or because they can’t sort out how to do something the game is asking them to do. And that’s a crying shame because there’s so many games people would otherwise play if it weren’t for problems like this one. Mass Effect deserves better here.
Now let’s get that one big thing over with you’ve all been waiting for. Spoilers ahead if you’re like me.
The Ending is “Fine”
No really, it is. If you’re still holding some angry upset grudge at some person you’ve never met over the ending of Mass Effect 3 being the “most disappointing ending in video game history”, I’m sorry, but it’s fine for me. I watched the vanilla ending without the Extended Cut, and yeah, that’s bad. It clearly wasn’t complete at all there. BioWare got rushed bad, we all know it. And BioWare also changed the ending heavily after the game’s script got leaked, which means it’s hard to know what the ending would’ve looked like and if we would’ve liked it better. But I do think there’s a couple layers to the conversation of Mass Effect 3’s ending worth discussing. Spoilers ahead again, and I’m going to be operating on the wavelength that you already know the Mass Effect 3 story here, otherwise there’d be too much crap to cover.
One of those layers to the ending I do agree as being poorly thought out is a logical fallacy in place that doesn’t really get addressed. And it’s the foundational reason the Catalyst tells us the Reapers are presently needed: The Organic/Synthetic conflict. The Catalyst tells us that there is always an inevitable conflict that breaks out and is destined to wreak permanent havoc to the galaxy in the wake of synthetic life (see: Geth, AIs, etc.). And it is true that the conflict between organics and synthetics is present and a reoccurring theme in the games here. However, the Reapers are themselves synthetics, dolling out the will of the Leviathan’s species to preserve all the information about a civilization or species before it gets wiped out and the galaxy is essentially “reset”. This creates a bit of a conflict in the minds of players, since the Reapers are synthetics programmed to carry out a conflict against all life (synthetic and organic) to prevent a conflict in the first place. But more importantly, in Mass Effect 3, you have the opportunity to (and can even accomplish) mending the broken relationship with this cycle’s version of that synthetic vs. organic conflict: The Geth vs. the Quarians. In reality the Geth fight any organics, but the the Quarians, an organic life, first attacked the Geth, an existing synthetic life, and the Geth retaliated and turned into a militaristic defense mode against any organic that might threaten its life out of existential fear. But my Commander Shepard managed to heal that conflict and use Legion to help mend the brokenness between the Quarians and the Geth. The Geth even begin to help the Quarians rebuild their home planet of Ranoch. Symbiosis is achieved here. And yet, the Catalyst tells us the conflict is inevitable. It can’t call off the Reapers because….???? The game never gives us the chance to illuminate how we’ve amassed both organics and synthetics together to fight the Reapers, that this conflict doesn’t exist at the end of all things, which is an argument a greater RPG like a true Fallout or Disco Elysium would allow us to present if we uncovered that truth. But we’re not allowed to bring this point up. Maybe the Catalyst would’ve said they still predict a problem on the horizon, or maybe my efforts factored into the synthesis ending, I’m not completely sure because the game never really addresses it. In this sense, I’ll mark this element of the ending as problematic. Mainly because I think it’s a problem that would’ve had a different answer if the ending didn’t get re-written in the first place.
But then there’s the “my choices didn’t matter” crowd. And, I can’t really hold a flame against Mass Effect 3 when this argument comes up. Mainly because I don’t know what you’re looking for in video games when you want your “choices to matter”. Video games that offer the insane levels of branching endings and results akin to The Walking Dead or Detroit: Become Human still don’t necessarily make your choices matter in the sense that you’re Neo doing a flex and watching the universe change. We can see in Detroit: Become Human (dumb game as it is) that the branching pathways can lead to many different results, but plenty of moments in that game are also there to show you powerlessness even in the face of making choices. Sure, there’s some prescribed endings, but no video game has an ending that wasn’t already written into it. I really do feel like the “my choices didn’t matter” crowd won’t be satisfied any time they argue this about any game until they just don’t get an ending and instead get to type a couple script pages as a last “level” and then watch the credits roll. I don’t want to linger on this one either because 1) again, I don’t know what the people making said claim want, 2) I have talked to ridiculous lengths about how choice can be made important in video games twice in my second and third write-ups on Pathologic 2, and 3) I don’t want to draw away the love and attention HeavyEyed gave Mass Effect 3’s ending in his own unique take on why it should’ve only had one ending.
And that leaves me with the third layer of complaints: The phrase “disappointing”. For me, when I think of the phrase “disappointing” with Mass Effect 3, I think of what made me feel kinda unenthused at my ending as I listened to EDI talk about the future of all living beings and how they had been radically changed. EDI made her case about how Shepard’s sacrifice meant she could go on and live. And it’s only now striking me how strange it is that Joker leaving the Normandy in the other ending doesn’t mention or include just how awfully broke and sad Joker must’ve been if people chose the ending in which all synthetics are destroyed. (this just goes to further prove HeavyEyed’s point honestly) EDI’s moment saying that because of Shepard, EDI is alive struck home emotional as I realize EDI and Joker’s future was being shown in a sense. We see that EDI’s consciousness got to survive and would continue to grow, which is a constant talking point across Mass Effect 3 as EDI not only gets her own body in this game, her own backstory, but also becomes fully unshackled and capable of recognizing her personality and own existence as an AI.
The reason Mass Effect 3 may feel like the most disappointing ending to fans is because outside seeing your crew alive, that’s all there really is. It’s an ending that shows the galaxy surviving under whatever terms you picked (or maybe it dies) and that’s it. You don’t truly see what becomes of your compatriots despite spending an entire game, an entire trilogy working on their futures. You spent so much time watching Garrus go from a Turian frustrated with the confines of the law to becoming one very much outside the law, to one struggling under the weight of his civilization coming to terms with its longterm wars waged against an entire other species all to try and mend wounds and save the galaxy. On the other side of the coin you watched a mercenary with no hope for familial or “racial” future rebuild his nation’s clans under a banner of self-unity before proudly rekindling that hope by working together with others, and then going on to try and save the galaxy with the Turians. You’ll spend countless hours in Mass Effect 3 asking your team what they’re going to do when this is all over.
And then you don’t get to see it.
Shepard sacrificing themselves for those individuals you care about to get those endings you talked about separately and together is hard, sure. But it’s even harder for players to not really be shown what lies on the other side. No conversation, no slide cards suggesting it, no slowdown on the matter.
In one of the flawed gems of all role-playing games, Knights of the Old Republic II, our wise guide at the end of the game is mortally wounded and sees the future in the force. They then offer the player the chance to learn what becomes of all of your party in the future. You won’t see those endings, but you’ll know through the force and through a small dialog about it. Fallout games have done this since their beginnings. But all Mass Effect gave us, at most, was a group of individuals standing on the crew deck of the Normandy, placing your name on a wall, and you know that you saved the galaxy on terms you chose.
But everybody expected to save the galaxy in Mass Effect 3, that’s not an ending that brings closure or catharsis for all the loss incurred along the way. The roughest part in Mass Effect 3’s ending that live-Tweeting the game hit home for me was the very thing that I kept praising the game for along the way: Its characters. So much of the ending is dedicated to showing you the large scale of your decisions that the game seemingly forgets why players signed up for the ride by the time this game came around: Its characters. The world of Mass Effect 1 was appealing and exciting. But its characters are what made us stay for more in each installment along the way.
Not knowing if Tali and Garrus settle down in Ranoch together, not knowing how Samara lives out the rest of her days, not knowing what Wrex names his son or daughter, or what becomes of Grunt once war is over: This is what makes Mass Effect 3’s ending feel so bad, so hollow, or disappointing. Because it’s the thing the players wanted most. I’m a little confused by how many people were making the choice argument or the technical arguments of its world and lore. Sure, those things weren’t good. But if world logic had been the forefront of Mass Effect’s quality the entire way, people wouldn’t complain about the changes to the codex in its sequels. And if a good choice system was what people loved most in Mass Effect 1 and 2, I weep for the RPGs that have proven otherwise and been ignored this whole time. I know we’re talking about a different ending, removed from the context of how the multiplayer and war assets all factored into unlocking the “best” ending (don’t forget that Day One DLC nonsense), removed from the context of the Final Cut DLC (which didn’t add that much if we’re being honest). But for me, Mass Effect 3’s ending feels like a let down because it doesn’t follow through on the magnificence of the trilogy’s strongest character: Characters. It wraps up nicely in about five minutes when it should be giving us a full extra fifteen minutes to unwind, unpack, and say goodbye.
It mostly just ends.