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Was Mass Effect 3 Really That Bad?

If you keep yourself even mildly informed of video game news, you have probably heard the controversy surrounding Mass Effect 3. Developed by BioWare, it is the third game in a series which began back in 2007 and has developed a very dedicated fanbase. The latest release was met with a lot of anticipation, but fans cried foul when they got to the game’s ending because, to put it kindly, it fell short of expectations. However, the internet has a way of blowing things out of proportion, often by using exaggeration to a fault. I began to wonder if, in a sense, people were missing the forest for the trees and had focused solely on the ending without giving the rest of the game a fair consideration. Join me as I take a look at the entirety of Mass Effect 3 and see whether it deserves the tarnished reputation it has garnered.

I am admittedly a little late to the Mass Effect 3 party, but that is because of the controversy revolving around the day one DLC pack, From Ashes. I have already voiced my opinion on day one DLC, or its even more evil cousin “on the disc DLC.” I hate it with a passion. When a call was made to boycott the game because of it, despite being a huge fan of the series, I decided to do it. I eventually purchased it on sale for half price, denying BioWare and EA the full retail price I would have otherwise paid. But the DLC controversy is not the subject of this article, so it will not be a focus of discussion.

Since I began playing so long after it was released, I knew full well the game’s ending was incredibly controversial. It was impossible for me to play through without thinking of how events could turn sour and disappoint me. It was a strange feeling for me because I had a lot of fun playing the game. As I previously said, I am a big fan of the series. I played the first two games as both Paragon and Renegade, or good and evil respectively, because I loved seeing how making different decisions in one game would carry over into the other.

That is really what the Mass Effect series is about after all: choice. The fighting is just average when compared to other shooters. There is a decent amount of variation in weapons, but nothing groundbreaking. Combat is mostly made up of cover-based shooting, which is often less engaging than shooters with other play styles. Squadmates offer a little variation in styles and abilities, but I find their AI to be more of a hassle to work around than an asset. Without the story and decision-making, the series would not have become as popular as it has.

So did Mass Effect 3 abandon its roots? For the vast majority of the game, no, it did not. I genuinely had a good time playing the game until the very end. All the things I liked from the previous games were still there. Paragon and Renegade choices were different in meaningful ways. The consequences of decisions from past games were very real. Combat was tweaked a little for the better but still familiar at its core. The dialogue was delivered well by the cast of voice actors and actresses.

Most of all, the little things were there. Messages were received from characters seen in small side missions during the previous games telling you what they have been up to. There is a person dubbed “refund guy” by fans who can be seen in all three games arguing with a merchant and trying to get a refund for a recent purchase. There is a funny exchange between the ship’s pilot, Joker, and a crew member named Garrus where they exchange jokes with one another.

There were many conversations in the game like that, but that one is my favorite.

When importing a character from a previous Mass Effect save, the following decisions will have the most noticeable impact during Mass Effect 3. I have added which game the decision is made in brackets.

  • Whether you saved or killed the Rachni Queen [Mass Effect 1]
  • Whether you saved Ashley Williams or Kaidan Alenko on Virmire [Mass Effect 1]
  • Whether you sacrificed the human fleet to save the Council or let the Council die [Mass Effect 1]
  • Whether you have saved Maelon’s data on the genophage or destroyed it [Mass Effect 2]
  • Whether you killed Wrex or let him live on Virmire [Mass Effect 1]
  • Whether you chose to rewrite the Geth heretics or destroy them [Mass Effect 2]
  • Which squadmates survived the suicide mission [Mass Effect 2]
  • Previous romance relationships [Mass Effect 1 and 2]

But that is really just scratching the surface. There are countless smaller cameo appearances which take place during the game based on decisions made in previous games. For example, Dr. Karin Chakwas can make a return to your ship in Mass Effect 3 if she survived the events of Mass Effect 2. Dr. Chloe Michel will remark kindly to Shepard’s help during Mass Effect 1 when she takes care of either Ashley Williams or Kaiden Alenko in the Citadel hospital. If Shiala was spared during Mass Effect 1, she will send Shepard a message informing him that she and the other colonists were able to fight off the Reapers on Feros. These cameo appearances have no real impact on the game other than to provide the player with the sense that his or her actions have far reaching consequences.

The other part of what makes the Mass Effect series enjoyable is the difference in outcomes. In most games, there is only one possible way the story progresses. Think of games like Halo, Gears of War, or Assassin’s Creed. No matter what, there is only one story to tell. Of the games which give a choice, there are usually just two possibilities. Think of games like Skyrim or Fable. There are certainly choices to be made, but there is typically a good or bad choice and nothing more.

The choices in the Mass Effect series are not all so black and white. The consequences of the decisions you make are not readily apparent. In Mass Effect 1, Shepard is given the option of destroying the last known Rachni queen or allowing her to live and rebuild her species. Up until that point the Rachni race were thought to be extinct, and for good reason. The Rachni were a race of highly intelligent and resilient insect creatures. Able to survive in the harshest environments and very aggressive, the war they started lasted 300 years. When Shepard finds the last surviving Rachni queen, he learns that the Rachni are not aggressive by nature and were driven to war in the past due to Reaper influence. Seeking only to live in peace, the queen pleads to Shepard to allow her to live.

I recall struggling with this decision in Mass Effect 1. On the one hand, the Rachni proved to be a serious threat to the galaxy in the past, but if the Reapers truly caused the aggressive behavior they might be willing to fight against them for revenge in the future. Of course, the possibility existed that the Reapers would be able to influence them once more in the future and the Rachni would become their asset. But then how could my Paragon Shepard be responsible for the extinction of an entire species?

In Mass Effect 3, we finally learn how that decision plays out. If the player chose to save the Rachni queen in Mass Effect 1, she will become captured by the Reapers and forced to supply them with an army of indoctrinated Rachni warriors. Shepard will have the option to once again free the queen, this time from Reaper constraints, or kill her. Allowing her to live will give the player Rachni workers which are sent to work on the Crucible project.

Furthermore, if Shepard chooses to allow her to live, it will be at the expense of a squad of Krogen warriors. Consider that for a moment. The Krogen spent 300 years trying to kill every last Rachni in the galaxy, and now a squad of Krogen will be asked to sacrifice themselves so that the queen can live. I love how these events come full circle. Grunt, a Krogen encountered in Mass Effect 2, could be part of the squad and will either live or die depending on whether his loyalty mission was completed in the previous game. Choosing to kill the Rachni queen will result in no Rachni workers being sent to the Crucible project but the squad of Krogen survive and are able to contribute to the war effort.

Now, if the Rachni queen is killed in Mass Effect 1, the Reapers will construct an artificial Breeder to produce Rachni warriors. The difference between the true Rachni queen and the artificial Breeder is that if the Breeder is allowed to live, the workers she supplies to help on the Crucible project will eventually turn hostile and result in heavy losses to the war effort.

I created a flow chart to demonstrate the possibilities. Difference choices have been given different colors. Click on the image to open the full size.

There are eight total scenarios that can play out from the choice you make, and those choices stem all the way back to Mass Effect 1. And this is just one example of how BioWare wove past decisions together. Things like this exist throughout the game. These are the varied outcomes I was expecting when I began playing Mass Effect 3. I was happy to see BioWare did not disappoint on that front.

So, if the combat was on par, the decisions and choices met, and sometimes exceeded, expectations, and the only controversial part was the ending, was Mass Effect 3 really that bad? Unfortunately, it was. Despite being a very enjoyable game until the end, the ending was so poorly done that it was bad enough to overshadow the rest of the game.

Fully explaining why is difficult without going into the Mass Effect story in-depth. The short version is that all of the actions and decisions made in previous Mass Effect games, and even in Mass Effect 3 itself, had almost no impact on the conclusion of the story. At the very end of the game, your character is literally staring at three paths. Choosing the left, middle, or right path is the only thing that determines the outcome of the game and the universe. The worst part is that the choices are not much different from each other and they seem illogical. The whole thing felt rushed and did not fit in with the flow of the story. The ending brings up more questions than it answers, and it leaves players feeling…incomplete. Regardless of your choice, the Reaper threat is terminated, the Mass Effect relays are all destroyed, and Joker is seen crash-landing the Normandy onto an unidentified non-Earth planet.

But perhaps that was the point.

The screen above is presented to players after they beat the game. For a game with such controversial DLC, that screen does not help BioWare’s image. There is a theory floating around the internet that the wool was pulled over players’ eyes at the end of Mass Effect 3. That the ending was not what it seemed and, if true, would lead to an incredible opportunity to release additional DLC.

The theory has been dubbed “The Indoctrination Theory” and I have to admit that it seems…compelling. Anyone interested in knowing what the theory entails should watch the following videos:

Here is the very short version. At the end of Mass Effect 3 events take place in the mind of the main character Shepard instead of in the real world as it appears on its surface. Everything is an illusion and there is evidence to support this theory from subtle events throughout the game. If true, it would mean that nearly everyone was fooled when they played the game through the first time.

Let me first say that if The Indoctrination Theory is true, and BioWare planned this from the beginning, it would be one of the greatest and worst endings to a game I have ever seen. It would be great because I cannot remember a game that played with the mind of players in such a way and really brought them into the game universe. However, it would be one of the worst endings because it would mean that BioWare essentially shipped an unfinished product. The ending was false and every indication points to planned DLC finishing the story.

On April 5, 2012, BioWare announced it would be releasing DLC called Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut.

“Through additional cinematic sequences and epilogue scenes, the Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut will give fans seeking further clarity to the ending of Mass Effect 3 deeper insights into how their personal journey concludes. Coming this summer, the Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut will be available for download on the Xbox 360® videogame and entertainment system, PlayStation®3 computer entertainment system and PC for no extra charge*.”

It seems that fans will know soon enough how the game really ended. In truth, it really does not matter whether The Indoctrination Theory is valid or not. Mass Effect 3’s ending is still terrible and ruins the experience of the game. If the theory is not true, the “real” ending is filled with plot holes, inconsistencies, and a sense of incompletion. If it is true, BioWare is trying to milk fans of the series for more money by saying “Want to know what really happens? Give us $10 and find out!” There is no winning here.

“But wait,” you may say, “BioWare is releasing the DLC for free. That’s a pretty cool thing of them to do!” No, it is not. First, let me point out the asterisk at the end of the quote from the press release. That offer expire April 14, 2014.What does that mean? In all likelihood, after April 14, 2014, the DLC BioWare is releasing will no longer be free and future purchasers of the game will need to pay additional money to know the true ending. Second, let me reiterate how incredibly wrong it would have been for BioWare to charge people for DLC that showed the real ending of the game. Call me a cynic but I believe this was how their plan was supposed to work: (1) Mass Effect 3 is released with the controversial ending; (2) Indoctrination Theory does not develop mainstream attention and players believe the ending is true for its face value; (3) BioWare makes a “big reveal” that the ending is not what it seems and offers a DLC pack to experience what really happened. That is pure speculation on my part, but I believe the only reason BioWare is releasing this DLC for free (for under 2 years anyway) is because of all the negative attention the ending to Mass Effect 3 received.

It saddens me to come to this conclusion with Mass Effect 3 because I would love to see more games put that much effort into telling a story. With the success of the franchise, and the possibility for legitimate DLC and future games, it baffles my mind as to why BioWare and/or EA would risk it all by nickel and diming its consumers. Fans deserved better than what they were given in Mass Effect 3.

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