Rated Mature; Reviewed on PS3 and PC
[Story spoilers will be sprinkled liberally throughout this discussion.]
As we’ve explored, the Mass Effect trilogy provided an engaging experience within a complex framework of racial and social tensions against an amazingly deep historical context. Exceptional gameplay and characters kept players moving through the story and excited for each installment. While there were flaws that marred the experience most were ironed out by the third game making them easily forgiven and forgotten.
Until the ending came along and punched you in the face, slapped your ass and left you naked and cold in the woods.
I purposefully avoided all comments and reviews about the game until I had played it. The Internet did not make this easy. It was impossible not to know that something was up: there wasn’t a site, blog or discussion forum that wasn’t rife with shock and disgust. After playing for myself I understood. While there have been some apologists the general consensus is a feeling of pure betrayal.
Your Decisions, Ultimately, Mean Nothing…
Mass Effect presented a galaxy full of enormous problems being solved (for better or worse). The Genophage could be cured, the Geth and Quarians could find peace and the Rachni race could be restored. You worked diligently over the course of three games and invested potentially hundreds of hours of your life. You met the challenges with the moral surety of a paragon or the fierce single-mindedness of a renegade. None of it mattered.
No matter what you did the galaxy you strove to protect is essentially destroyed. The Mass Relay self-destructs making all your decisions moot. Nothing you’ve done really matters in the end. Cured or not the Krogan now lack any capability to travel to other star systems and overpopulate them. The Quarian fleet is left tens-of-thousands of light-years away from their newly liberated home planet. The Rachni, along with every single other race, are again locked into their corner of the galaxy.
The massive fleets that were focused on Earth and in motion across the galaxy are stranded. From other statements made throughout the game many of these fleets will be left to starve to death far from any sources of genetically compatible foodstuffs. While there may still be some potential cross-galaxy communication (via quantum entanglement-based point-to-point communications) these will last only as long as the hardware functions.
The ending, we now know, was set in stone – with incredibly minor variations – from the start. While the game does make it clear, via a sappy vignette set far in the future, that life goes on it also make it abundantly clear that what you actually fought for – a cohesive galactic civilization – is ultimately unsalvagable. It’s impossible to describe how utterly and completely disappointing this was.
Playing the game again, making exactly the opposite decisions, offers exactly no chance of a different outcome. Compare this, for a moment, to one of my favorite morality-based games from last year: Infamous 2 [my review]. In that game you also face moral choices that are roughly equivalent to those in Mass Effect. However unlike Mass Effect the last hour or two of the game (and significant portions before) are radically different dependent on your choices. Your actions have direct, recognizable consequences. It was glorious – and completely absent from Mass Effect.
…Which was Fine, as Nothing Made Any Sense
Even more frustrating was the simple fact that the ending simply made no sense. Sacrificing yourself for a worthy cause can make a for a wonderful, memorable experience. Doing the same for a muddled, confusing mess is infuriating. Closely examining pretty much any part of the end sequence causes your brain to scream “whaaaaaa?” and run.
There are small questions like “How did the illusive man get to the Citadel?” or “How does Anderson get so far ahead?” or “Why (and how) did your companions get back to the Normandy?” but these are small questions – and small questions can be easily forgiven. The problem is the big questions.
We see Jeff and the Normandy running for their lives from the energy wave that’s destroying the mass relays. How did they ever get in front of it when they were heavily engaged in the battle over Earth? This sequence has to assume that Jeff and EDI abandoned the battle for some reason and fled. When they later crash on an unknown planet our elation at their survival is tempered by our total confusion as to what the hell just happened.
All possible endings feature the complete destruction of the Mass Relay Network. We’d been told (and seen in DLC for the second game) that destroying a relay results in essentially an artificial super-nova ensuring the complete destruction of the host system. We might assume that the end-game destruction is somehow less cataclysmic than that except that we’re granted a galaxy-wide view of the explosions which, to be seen from that perspective, must have obliterated the host systems (and many others nearby). Meaning, for those still following the thread, that Earth is a shattered cinder.
Of course all that pales in comparison to the core explanation given. The vicious cycle of extermination we’re fighting against is to prevent the possibility of advanced races creating synthetic children that could exterminate them. You might remember that the Geth and the Quarians were playing out this exact scenario… until they patched things up and decided to be buddies again. Yes, the reason that everybody and their children (and their pets) are dying is to prevent the possibility that something you just prevented never occurs. In simpler terms: to prevent synthetics from accidentally killing you a helpful super genius has helpfully created some synthetics to kill you.
(Also, to be clear, people aren’t just dying – they’re dying horribly. Giant mechanical insects are alternately burning them alive, turning them into monsterous zombies or distilling them down to DNA paste. Yet the ending makes the argument that these are the actions of an ultimately benevolent intelligence that hasn’t found a better way to do this for nearly a billion years.)
There’s just so much wrong with that although I could spend many, many words nitpicking various aspects of it, I won’t. It’s stupid and it’s insulting. Examining only the most egregious sin we might question why a trilogy that’s spent so much effort teaching us about acceptance and the ability to forgive even the most heinous of acts committed against entire races would end by forcing us to suffer hugely from exactly the same kind of close-minded reactionism on a monstrously increased scale.
Assuming that you’re one of the handful of people who haven’t played Mass Effect the final question is “should you?” Despite my many small and one very large protestation I feel very confident in saying “Yes”. Of course you should play this game! The vast bulk of the experience is so good that even when the series drops its pants and pisses on us at the end it doesn’t really ruin it. In fact the ending is so poorly executed and feels so out-of-place that it finds almost no traction with the player. Your mind will simply rebel at the thought of it. In a real sense you walk away from the game not annoyed not because the ending was insulting but because they’ve kept the real ending from you.