Mass Effect III – Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

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Mass Effect III – Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Seldom has a game infuriated me so as Mass Effect 3, and it’s not even because the majority of the game is bad. If anything, the remarkable quality of the rest of the game is just the salt in the wound.

Mass Effect 3 is around twenty-five to thirty hours of positively inspired gameplay, evocative storytelling, sparkling characterization and meaningful payoff for story developments and choices spanning years. Things get dark, and choices painful, but there’s still hope. There’s even a very clear moment when the game could have ended Shepard’s story on a melancholy, but satisfying note. You did good, Commander. Roll epilogue.

Then the last five minutes override the whole thing. You might think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. I have felt repulsed by many games before, but I have never been this angry, this disappointed, to see one fail.

The last thing you see in Mass Effect 3’s storyline, after what amounts to a kick between the legs, is an exhortation by BioWare to look forward to downloadable content to continue the adventure of Commander Shepard. Heaven help me, against all my scruples I would pay for it if it’d fix that ending.

But it’s impossible to understand Mass Effect 3’s Critical Mission Failure (ha!) without first going into how much talent is on display.

Mass Effect 3, for those of you who’ve never played any other title in the series, is a space opera set in a galactic civilization under threat by the “Reapers,” ancient, super-advanced living starships who return every 50,000 years and destroy all space-faring life. The latest title begins with our protagonist Commander Shepard essentially under house arrest, freed at last when the Reapers attack and prove his or her doomsday warnings for two games now correct. Earth is devastated, and Shepard is forced to flee into space to drum up support for an armada to retake Earth and construct a secret weapon that (it’s hoped) will allow them to fight the Reapers without being utterly outmatched.

But no matter how much the game has revamped itself to appeal to new players, Mass Effect 3 really only has emotional power if you’ve been following the series. (The opening is one of the few hamfisted moments in the game, aside from the aforementioned ending.) Far from being a flaw, the game is much stronger for it – trying to come in at this point is like starting Return of the Jedi having never seen Star Wars, and it’s better that it sticks to its guns than excessively spoon-feed newcomers.

The game design is strong and clever; Mass Effect 3 finally blends RPG and action-shooter mechanics enough to make everyone happy, including new melee and dodge mechanics that once and for all remove the game from mere point-and-shoot. Party members are likable – including newcomer Vega, who’s remarkably well-portrayed compared to the blander humans of the first Mass Effect – and powers and weapons vary greatly in meaningful ways. The revamped engine actually makes the brand-new multiplayer a very enjoyable exercise, blending standard Horde mode scenarios with the distinctive powers and special abilities of the Mass Effect universe.

Production values are (largely) higher than ever, with a fantastic soundtrack, excellent graphics, and a cleverly-refined blend of the earlier titles’ inventory and character-building mechanics. Voice work is consistently superb. Mass Effect 3 is a brooding, often tragic war story, and the horrors of war are conveyed in countless overheard NPC conversations and little vignettes, many of which would make for interesting side stories all on their own. There are some rather obnoxious bugs and glitches, but most of them aren’t much more than short annoyances.

Last, but definitely not least, so much of the game comes off as a love letter to a universe years in the making. Seemingly every choice and plot development from previous titles is referenced or pays off (admittedly, sometimes off-screen). Long-running plot arcs – the ethics of a seemingly necessary sterility plague, the war between the nomadic quarians and their geth creations – are brought to fruition, usually on a very satisfying note. One scene in particular, I’m not ashamed to say, brought tears to my eyes. This is as vividly painted a setting as has ever existed in gaming.

But there’s only so much dancing around the issue I’m willing to do. Nearly 99% of Mass Effect 3 is a superb game, quite possibly Game of the Year material. Even the missteps are largely forgivable. It is precisely the evolutionary drive western RPGs should embrace.

However, that remaining one percent, culminating in an out-of-the-blue reveal during literally the last five to ten minutes of the game, is so ill-thought-out, so inconclusive, so almost genuinely insulting coming after a game experience that radiates love for its universe and its narrative, that it doesn’t just damage this title but the entire franchise. It ripples backwards in the series and hurts replayability for the previous two games, a rare feat indeed.

A cohesive trilogy spanning years is destroyed by five ill-conceived minutes. It’s as if the scenario writers and the writer weren’t just two separate groups with separate ideas of what Mass Effect meant, but that they actively set out to negate each others’ work. (If only it were this simple! Released dev documents do not inspire confidence.)

I cannot overstate the shadow of this ending. To those who’ve started with Mass Effect 3 it might be merely vague and frustrating – to fans who’ve stuck through all three games, it is manipulative, scornful, and creatively bankrupt. It is contradictory to everything the Mass Effect series has said – a sudden deus ex machina in reverse, an arbitrary choice of damnations offered by a malevolent and untrustworthy figure parroting deeply flawed arguments who makes their first appearance in the last five minutes of the game, followed by one of three all but identical versions of a vague, unsatisfying and plothole-ridden cutscene that guts characterization and neither shows nor tells.

At best, the ending merely contradicts the themes of the game and (if you were paying attention to the in-universe lore) ends in an inferred holocaust and breakdown of galactic society, to say nothing of the complete lack of closure for the fates of characters or civilization as a whole. Interpreting it at its worst, it renders literally everything the player – or Shepard – ever did completely pointless…coming after a touching and poignant discussion between Shepard and a dying character as they sit waiting for the end that validates Shepard’s heroism and choices. When the player has to invent ways to have the ending be less than crushing, it’s not clever – it’s maddening.

Unsurprisingly, the explosive fan reaction has been almost overwhelmingly outraged, and BioWare’s frantic attempts to put out the fire haven’t helped one iota – every new tidbit revealing how thoroughly this debacle was embraced on the dev team seems to inspire more outcry.

Accusations are already flying from professional game reviewers – many of which have a history of validating questionable developer choices – that this outburst of fury is merely a form of entitlement, a demand for a classic “happy ending” where everyone lives. Even if we don’t question the inherent assumption that a tragic ending is more poignant and appropriate for a series that so far has been genuinely optimistic, they are deeply mistaken.

It is not merely that the ending is unhappy; an ending can be satisfying, conclusive, and yet tragic. (Dragon Age 2’s ending was undeniably a tragedy, and yet satisfyingly followed from the overarching themes of the narrative.) The crux of complaints is that the ending is nonsensical and rigged; a betrayal not only of the narrative themes but of player expectations and agency. The villain doesn’t just win – they hold court with views the narrative has proven are objectively wrong, and dictate the terms of that victory to a captive and outraged player whose reaction is precisely the same while Shepard meekly succumbs to unconvincing rhetoric and the power of authorial fiat.

And you know what? I’m with the protesters, and that is incredibly sad. I kept faith in BioWare throughout Mass Effect 3’s development cycle. I deliberately avoided spoilers, followed trailers and previews, and had every reason to believe, based on prior work, that the writers could pull this one off. More than that, I played through Mass Effect 3 at a breakneck pace, forgoing sleep, totally committed to the story being told.

And at the last minute, I realized I should have turned the game off sooner when the game itself told me I’d been wasting my time. It’s a special level of disappointment to have a masterpiece shredded at the last minute.

Even if a “revised ending” DLC comes out – and there is precedent for this, which keeps hope alive – the damage that’s been done to BioWare’s reputation may be irreparable.