I just beat Mass Effect 3, and I’m a little pissed.
Mass Effect 3 had the potential to cement the series’ place in whatever constitutes a gaming hall of fame, and all it had to do was stay the course. They almost did it, too. Early reviews and feedback from players alike cited an experience that met expectations, if it didn’t surpass them, leading the gaming community to believe they had another gem on their hands.
Nobody ever really talks about the gameplay experience of a Bioware game as a thing to be lauded on its own. Aside from being kind of clunky, the average Bioware game in and of itself isn’t too good or too bad. It’s just kind of there, a delivery method for something far more entertaining. A Bioware game is a French fry that you endure to get the ketchup of a Bioware story.
“Story” as a singular term here is misleading. Here’s this guy, his name is Commander Shepard. He lives on a neat spaceship, and he’s vaguely awesome in one of several ways that the player chooses. He’s on a mission to save the galaxy, but how he does that—and indeed whether or not he succeeds at the steps he takes to get there, if he even takes them—is, again, up to the player. He has friends, maybe. Or maybe they hate him but they still help him. Or maybe most of them die along the way. Your choice.
Point is, there’s a ton of leeway here to personalize what being Commander Shepard, Space Bad-ass, means to you. Mass Effect 2 did this ridiculously well, particularly during the endgame. Players were provided with multiple endings that ran the gamut from a thrilling display of heroism to a shocking example of ineptitude, and were such masterworks that players took to using their whole gameplay experience to custom-build the ending of their choice, turning Mass Effect 2’s conclusion into a game within a game.
Mass Effect 3, on the other hand, tries to shoehorn a wide continuum of possible storylines into a single decision too immense and senseless to have any meaning, as well as an ending with a couple of palette-swapped special effects.
At first glance, Mass Effect 3 looks like it’s cribbing from the Deus Ex school of denouements, in which the hero, confronted gradually over time by the scope of the various shadowy powers behind the scenes, either joins with said powers, burns them to the ground, or transcends his own limitations in an attempt to solve the world’s problems through the age-old method of evolution. Nothing wrong with that, right?
But that’s not the idea that Bioware has built up for the last two games (and even part of the third). Even in his most worthless incarnation, Shepard spends the entirety of the series being built into some version of the ideal hero. Though he may not prevail in the trials that the galaxy throws at him, he nonetheless claims ownership of them, his defeats defining him as much as his victories. By Mass Effect 3, he might as well be the very essence of determination carved into stone, an immovable object placed squarely in front of an unstoppable force.
And then, at the peak of his story, the defining moment of Shepard’s Shepard-ness, his efforts prove useless, not because his enemies are too powerful, but because Space Jesus comes out from behind an unseen curtain and makes him play Let’s Make a Deal, with a slightly altered version of the same galaxy-rending cut scene going to the “winner.” It’s such a jarring change in the narrative that it sends players spiraling right out of the story at a time when it’s most critical for them to be engrossed in it.
Mass Effect isn’t about one choice, it’s about hundreds of them, all interacting with one another and together becoming an avalanche of a story that gives players no choice but to become swept up in it. Mass Effect 3 remembers this for most of the game, and most of the game is great. But right there at the very, very end, a bleeding, broken Shepard finds himself at the mercy of the one thing even he can’t overcome: bad writing.
What we’re given here is a case of big being confused for important. After three games and countless stories, Bioware finally wrote themselves into a corner. Once they realized it, they decided to Michael Bay their way out of it and hope nobody noticed. The world of Mass Effect grew, multiplied, became enriched, and finally outsmarted its own creators, who did what every disgruntled Dungeon Master before them has done once they figured out they were no longer in charge of the story. Rocks fall, everyone dies, now get out of my house.