The 'Mass Effect 3' ending: a suicide mission for the writers

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This article does not contain spoilers, but does discuss elements of ME3's narrative. As for the comments: read at your own risk.

Measured by any conventional metric, Mass Effect 3 can already be considered a resounding success. Bioware's latest blockbuster game launched earlier this month to great critical acclaim and immediately rocketed to the top of the sales charts on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. Everyone wants in on the epic interstellar adventure.

And yet, the ever-mercurial measure of user feedback hasn't matched the lauding reviews, the superb sales numbers, or, most importantly, the previous level of gamer satisfaction. Most, if not all, of the ire engendered by ME3 relates to the game's ending. Players have found it unfulfilling and have taken to social networks, public campaigns, and even the FTC to remonstrate with Bioware. Demands have been made for alternate endings to be provided as downloadable content. The game, many feel, needs to be fixed.

THE EASY WAY OUT WOULD HAVE BEEN TO RECREATE ME2 WITH A FRESH SET OF ENEMIES TO INCINERATE

From its very outset back in 2007, Mass Effect has been about making choices and living with their consequences. Unlike most role-playing, action, or adventure games before it, Mass Effect allowed you to make decisions that truly impacted on how the game and plot would develop. Of course, those choices would branch out in some areas only to coalesce back into the central narrative in the end, but the important thing was the feeling that you were in control of your fate. That sensation was only expanded in Mass Effect 2, which put some meat on the skeletal idea presented in the first game by making its entire final act an assessment of your actions throughout the game. If you'd been meticulous in your preparation, good things happened, and if you hadn't, dark outcomes awaited.

Seen in that context, the finale to Mass Effect 3 can indeed feel underwhelming.

But then, I would argue, any ending would feel anticlimactic set against a backdrop of abundant choice. An ending isn't a choice, it's the end of choice. Additionally, I'd hardly be spoiling things for anyone if I point out that you do an awful lot of killing throughout the trilogy — maybe a sense of deflation and ennui is quite appropriate, even if not entirely intended by the game's creators?

Bioware's easy way out would have been to recreate the Mass Effect 2 ending, only altering the characters, setting, and the reason for expending thermal clips. That might well have happened — as the storyline similarities between Mass Effect and Dragon Age show that the company isn't shy about reusing its own thematic material — but Mac Walters and co chose to be more ambitious.

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Mass Effect 3 isn't a game building up to an ending, it's a game composed of endings. The many intertwined storylines and relationships you've built up through the first two games do indeed reach satisfying, emotionally impactful denouements, but they do it in the course of, rather than at the closing, of ME3. That's an unusual approach that some might argue has backfired on Bioware. Personally, although I enjoyed Mass Effect 2 more, I'm glad to see the makers of one of the most commercially successful gaming series trying something new in Mass Effect 3. It might not be quite the intergalactic success we'd all hoped for, but then daring adventures don't always have to end happily to have been worth the trip.