After three months, Mass Effect 3 actually has an adequate ending.
Those of you who’ve actually kept up with my articles may recall that my reaction to the original ending was less than pleased. And technically, my acceptance of the Extended Cut (perhaps we should call it the Completed Cut?) is conditional. But as many reservations as I continue to hold, I can at last consider my Shepard’s journey satisfactorily over.
It’s not easy to talk about how BioWare’s Extended Cut changes things without spoilers, and the game’s three months old and is the subject of one of the largest controversies in gaming history, so consider yourself warned.
First, the Extended Cut is both a retcon and a clarification. Was it enough of a retcon for your tastes? That’ll depend on your reading of things.
Additions prior to the final scene are relatively minimal – while charging towards the beam leading into the Citadel Shepard now sees his or her companions badly injured by an explosion and calls in an evacuation, explaining how they got onto the Normandy and providing one final scene with Shepard’s love interest of choice, but it’s a very short addition. (It also opens a couple plot holes, but the scene’s worth it just for a sense of closure.)
Most importantly, we’ve still got to deal with the Catalyst (not-so-affectionately nicknamed “Tiny Space Hitler” in certain quarters), and he still gives us the same three fundamental choices: destroy the Reapers (at the cost of friendly synthetic life), ascend to control the Reapers, or turn the galaxy into techno-organic hybrids. (There is a fourth option, rather cheekily added, to reject the entire choice and damn this cycle to give future cycles a chance, which has already been interpreted as a thinly-veiled attack on those who disliked the ending decision.)
But the dreadful implications of that choice have been considerably revised. The implied holocaust of all life in the galaxy some players saw, for instance, is no longer present. The Mass Relays are no longer permanently destroyed in any of the endings, presumably because BioWare realized that this would essentially destroy the setting. We explicitly see friends, love interests, and allied fleets escape the aftermath to rebuild their worlds.
By far the best change has been a significant tonal shift in the ending. In the original ending, the Catalyst was implied to be the voice of authorial fiat, dictating the rules of the universe to an ignorant and captive audience. The new dialogue, including several opportunities to question the Catalyst, makes it far clearer that it is not intended to be a sympathetic figure – it’s the guiding imperative of the Reapers, an ancient, terribly-flawed AI created to solve an ancient imaginary synthetic-organic conflict that its own actions do nothing but perpetuate. While you still cannot argue with this broken tool, it is much more apparent that you, not it, are the victor of the struggle, and that the agency lies with Shepard and not their antagonist.
The real addition to the game is an ending monologue by an appropriate character discussing the final choice and its implications, accompanied by slides intended to show us the bright futures awaiting the survivors. And each ending does its damnedest to come off as optimistic and validating – in fact, it almost feels like either an apology or beating you over the head with it, depending, again, upon your opinion of BioWare’s intentions. It might not be all the closure one could wish for from a decade-long saga, but it’s at least as much closure as your typical big-budget blockbuster.
But all these details are tangential to the big question: does the Extended Cut work? And the answer is a big “maybe.”
Mostly, it’ll depend upon just how the original endings were unpalatable. For those for whom the endings were a thematic betrayal and who found the entire Crucible plotline lacking, the Extended Cut will not be enough. You’re still facing the same decision, and you still can’t Paragon or Renegade your way out of things. The resolution they wanted was always beyond the scope of the Extended Cut, although personally I would be as enthusiastic as anyone else for an improved option granted by future DLC.
But within the scope of the original endings, the Extended Cut is a tremendous improvement. Your character’s moral standing and actions are more directly accounted for within the new epilogues, and the ending cutscene no longer feels so token and incomplete. Where before the dominant emotion a player might feel would be confusion (shortly transitioning to rage), the new endings provide a strong sense of emotional closure and remind the player that their actions fundamentally mattered. No longer is the Catalyst the star of the show. Most importantly, the new Extended Cut sets a fertile ground for future stories, rather than nuking the setting and salting the earth.
Personally, I find the new Extended Cut…satisfactory. It removes the worst implications due to omission from the original ending, and replaces them with a genuinely hopeful, bittersweet atmosphere. While the ending is still somewhat flawed as a decades-long series’ finale, and is notably lacking (so far; I have a strong suspicion later DLC may affect things) in a triumphant Refusal option so desired by much of the fanbase, it certainly provides far more closure and emotional satisfaction than the incomplete original cut.
I can enjoy Mass Effect without the specter (ha!) of the original endings hanging over me.
Ball’s back in BioWare’s court. Let’s see what they can do with it.