by KitaSaturnyne, last updated 10 Aug 2013 18:05
One night, I had a dream. In this dream, I had been bound to the floor by shackles on each of my limbs. Two men were holding me down, as if to further ensure that I would never escape. There was nowhere for me to go, and it was clear that struggling for freedom was futile.
It quickly occurred to me that this was not the first time I'd had this dream. Indeed, I had experienced it before, albeit the imagery was slightly different. The common thread was that I was being restrained in some way, held down by some kind of force that refused to articulate itself to me. In this latest dream however, the presence of people meant that I could finally inquire as to the reason behind my crude incarceration. One of the men simply told me, "because the things you haven't said are holding you back."
From that revelation, it was easy for me to realize that the things I hadn't been saying were in regards to Mass Effect 3. Since the release of the Extended Cut one year ago today (June 26, 2012), I've been analyzing the story in my mind, which has led to the discovery of more and more things about it that just simply bother me about the quality of the game's storytelling. I found myself wanting to articulate and explore these things, but I just didn't want to go there. I just wanted to sweep it all under a rug in my mind and forget about it. Then, I began having these dreams, over and over again, each one telling me the same thing: I am a prisoner of the things I haven't said. Therefore, whether you like this work or hate it, the point is that it needed to get out.
It is through this that I will cast off my shackles, once and for all.
Mass Effect 3 ended up being one of the biggest messes in video games. It divided a once united fanbase into mutually exclusive factions, many of whom were dissatisfied with how the endings ejected the themes and, quite frankly, the entire story and conflict of the trilogy that preceeded them. They were dissatisified with how the final scene attempted to solve a conflict that wasn't really there to begin with, and how it felt like a piece of a completely different story altogether.
What I've found though, is that Mass Effect 3 is like a bad sweater: You start tugging at one thread, and the rest falls apart very, very easily. In a strange way, the ending was really only the beginning of a multitude of problems that the game's story presents. One little tug on that thread alerted me to the fact that the game reeks of a "well that's cool, we'll put that in here" mindset, where explosions and action-centric setpieces were prioritized over the engaging plot and interesting characters of the previous two games. Most of the moments where characters "shine" would have been cool ways to showcase some kind of development or meaningful completion of their story arc, but the developers are winking and nudging so hard in these moments that it's distracting, which robs these scenes of any real meaning.
In the interest of fairness, I'll give the development team at BioWare the benefit of the doubt and believe that they had the best of intentions, but where they truly failed completely and utterly was in the execution. The story feels rushed and not well thought out, as if all the things people wanted were shoehorned into the game without any thought whatsoever as to how these different components affected the story. It's almost like the entire Mass Effect 3 experience was tailored to please as many people as possible, but it ends up looking like the development team went out of their way to implement these elements in the worst ways, and at the worst moments, they could think of.
Now, before you say that Mass Effect 3 is a video game and therefore, the story should be given a lot of leeway when it comes to any kind of analysis (because well, storytelling is still quite immature in the medium of video games), I offer the following rebuttal: The Mass Effect franchise was marketed as a series of games where the focus was on an expansive and thorough plot set in a detailed, complex universe. Indeed, players are even invited to help guide and direct this plot, allowing the very audience themselves to change the nature of the protagonist, as well as the very progression of the story, according to the player's choices and whims. Further, BioWare has gone on record as defending the artistic vision of the people who came together to bring us Mass Effect 3, so it's clear that telling the story is equally as important to them as it is to me.
If you're planning to read this whole thing, be warned: You're going to be here awhile. You may want to get a drink or something.
So. Here we go.
2. The Plot Doesn't Make Any Damn Sense
Gigantic, important portions of the story don't make any sense, which is to say nearly all of it. I mean, how hard is it to tell a story about people being wiped out by giant ancient space machines from beyond the sun?
Let's start from the beginning.
NOTE: This synopsis/ analysis assumes the following: That the Extended Cut DLC has been installed; that you, the person reading this article, have played and completed at least one of the other Mass Effect games; and that the From The Ashes, Leviathan, Omega and Citadel DLCs have not been installed. Also, for the sake of simplicity, I will use male pronouns to refer to Commander Shepard.
Mr. Action Sits On His Ass
So to start, Shepard's been working his ass off to stop the Reapers by… doing nothing for six months. Half a year. Remember, back in Mass Effect, how the Normandy was on lockdown, and Shepard couldn't be bothered to sit on his ass for half a day? Well, not this time. Shepard's now apparently decided that the best way to deal with impending galactic extinction is to sit this one out. I guess this makes sense, especially since he was so pro-active about stopping the Reapers in the last two games, though. The man's earned a vacation.
With galaxy-wide death on the horizon, the excuses for this extended period of inaction don't hold much water. If Shepard went through the events of The Arrival DLC from the second game, everyone's mad at him for blowing up a Batarian star system. If not, it's glossed over and forgotten until it's said that the Alliance blew up the same star system, which only this one guy mentions in the history of ever.
Shepard meets up with Admiral Anderson, who tells Shepard that he hasn't been tried and executed because he knows so much about the Reapers, even though no one else even believes that the Reapers exist. Shepard goes to meet with some bureaucrats. Then, because too much story has happened in the last three minutes, things start exploding.
So anyway, just moments after players are allowed to reconnect with their Shepard avatar - unless they bought the PC version, where Shepard's face couldn't be imported for about a month - they're whisked onto a bullet train that rockets them right to the climax of the story. Hold on. So, there was just a scene where the player has met the main character, and now the Reapers are already here?! What the hell happened to the important part of the story, also known as the middle? What happened to the part where people, you know, do stuff? The part where things happen and characters grow and learn more about themselves on the way to overcoming new adversity?
In any case, just so we can have an action sequence, which would thus keep the attention of the teenagers in the audience, the Reapers land on Earth and begin to shoot and kill things, instead of doing anything that makes sense. You may be asking why doesn't this make sense. I mean, aren't the Reapers here to kill everybody? Well, the answer to this particular question won't be answered until the near end of the game, so be sure to keep it in the back of your mind. Don't worry, I'll get there.
Anyway, Anderson gets on his radio and tells somebody to pick him and Shepard up at "the landing zone". What landing zone?
This whole scene harkens back to that old adage: "too much, too soon." In starting off the story with the Reaper invasion, the whole game basically begins at the climax, when the Reaper invasion of Earth should really be happening more towards the second half, or even later parts of the story. Instead, in the name of drama and explosions, the end of the story is at the beginning. It makes me think of Human Centipede.
Anyway, Shepard runs by some explosions until he meets his true love - a young boy in an air vent. But, before Shepard can ask for the little boy's phone number, a noise distracts him, and when he looks back, his new boycrush is gone.
Once Shepard and Anderson get to the landing zone, which consists of a broken support structure sticking out of the ground, the Normandy descends, and Shepard runs aboard. No Reapers shoot at the Normandy while it's hovering in mid-air for like, five minutes (even though two evacuation shuttles were decimated close by), and Anderson tells Shepard to go to the Citadel to get help from as many of the galactic races as he can.
After Normandy lifts off, and within moments of what could be considered a very informal reinstatement into service, an important communication from Admiral Hackett is routed to Shepard, despite the fact that even Shepard hasn't been told that he's in command of the Normandy. Everyone just kind of assumes that Shepard's in charge once he sets foot on the ship. Hackett tells Shepard to stop by an Alliance outpost on Mars to investigate a lead on a device that may be able to stop the Reapers.
The major problem is that Shepard wasn't already doing this before the game began. He was just kind of sitting around, waiting for Earth to be hit by the Reaper invasion.
Why does tossing Shepard his dog tags mean that he's immediately in command of the Normandy? Also, why did Anderson have Shepard's dog tags in his pocket anyway? Maybe he was planning to make a move before Shepard met and lost his new love.
Someone Pulls The Crucible Out Of Their Ass
Yep, this is a thing.
The Normandy gets to Mars from Earth so fast that Shepard doesn't even have time to meet with any of his crew. After James, who is not Normandy's shuttle pilot, lands Shepard on the surface of Mars, they meet up with Liara, run afoul of Cerberus1 and touch base with Shepard's old frat brother, The Illusive Man. Turns out that Illusive Man thinks it's possible to control gigantic, ancient, incomprehensible space machines composed of technology far beyond anything the galaxy has ever known. Shepard then fights a robo-woman after she roughs up Kaidan or Ashley, and returns to the Normandy with the plans for the anti-Reaper thing.
I wonder if those two Cerberus troops in the vent knew how close they were to killing The Shadow Broker.
Also, speaking of keeping teenagers' attention, the chests of the women in this game are almost unanimously gigantic. Liara's gone from a B-cup to a DDD, and I'm probably being modest. It's like Soul Calibur IV2 up in here.
So, the plans for the Crucible were found in the Prothean archives located on Mars. This is a problem because it was the discovery of these same archives that jumped human technology ahead two hundred years. This would make these archives very important to humanity, which in turn means that they'd probably search for every last bit of information they could get their hands on. They probably would have had specialists scouring hard drives for any and everything that might be hidden. I mean, come on, the first game begins thirty-five whole years after humans made this discovery. In all that time, no one found the plans related to the Crucible until just before the very day the Reapers land on Earth?
And for that matter, how was there no information about the Reapers in the Martian archives, and yet stuff on a device that could supposedly defeat them? I guess it was the will of the Force that no one figured out that the Reapers were real until they hit Earth or something.
See, this is a problem known as "plot convenience", where an event occurs simply because without it, the plot would have nowhere to go. This kind of problem tends to arise when a writer ends up writing their main character into a tough spot, with no idea how to solve it. Instead of changing anything, they just take the lazy way out and come up with some lucky coincidence or happening that can keep the plot going. In the case of Mass Effect 3, the writers have already established that the Reapers are huge and nearly invincible. That's a pretty tough corner to write yourself into. I mean, how is the hero supposed to defeat them? Instead of going back and trying to write things a different way, the writers just invented a magic cure-all in the name of keeping the story going, sort of like that kid on the playground who keeps changing the rules of the game so he can always win.
This isn't even the only instance where plot convenience occurs. All sorts of plot contrivances and ideas are shoehorned into the game, without any regard as to how they affect the overall story. The purpose of most the scenes in the game is to be big, loud and explodey, but it's obvious that little thought is given to how each idea contributes or detracts from the story overall. We've seen ample evidence of this already, and I've only described two major events so far.
My point is that having the characters find the anti-Reaper weapon is fine in itself, but finding it on the same day that the Reapers invade Earth is too much.
I guess the best answer is that the Reapers left the installation there on purpose, so humans would find it and so an Asari would discover the weapon that would kill them because they didn't bother to check or erase any of the data on the installation's computers. Nonsense and run-on sentences are fun.
Oh, here's something to think about: The technology of the galaxy is based on Reaper technology, which has been strategically set up so that the races of the galaxy develop the way the Reapers intended. This means that the technological information that humans found in the Prothean archives on Mars is based on Reaper technology. But see, there's a catch here. Humans only joined the galactic community because the Reapers missed destroying a Prothean installation 50 000 years ago, and humans happened to find it. It was all blind luck.
So, what if humans hadn't discovered the archive on Mars? Would humanity just not have been part of the galactic community in 2183, the year the first Mass Effect game takes place? Would the Reapers have just left humanity alive in that case, or would Earth have been invaded too, despite the fact that humans wouldn't have been part of the galactic community?
Shepard and Liara return to the Normandy and talk to Admiral Hackett. Liara concludes that the blueprint found on Mars is for a weapon capable of "unquantifiable levels of destruction," despite having no idea how the device works, or what exactly it's supposed to do. Shepard then stops off at the Citadel to ask the Council for help with the Reaper invasion, but the Council doesn't want to do anything that makes sense. For example, when Shepard says that everyone should band together and use their accumulated forces to defeat the Reapers, the Asari and Salarian councillors agree that it's a better idea to split up and try to fend for themselves. Afterwards though, the Turian councillor agrees with Shepard and sends him off to the Turian homeworld. I guess he just felt like he couldn't say anything earlier because the other councillors were watching. Peer pressure is a terrible thing, folks.
At this point, the bulk of the plot involves Shepard visiting the homeworlds of different species in order to convince everyone to unite against the Reapers.
Credit where credit is due: I like the way that the game promotes unity because it touches on a strong theme that's been woven throughout each of the Mass Effect games. People with differences and prejudices are often being united by Commander Shepard. In all three games, Shepard has single-handedly managed to take groups of people who hate each other (or have no real reason to like each other), and gotten them to work together towards a single cause or goal. The expansion of this idea into a galaxy-wide mission really plays up this aspect of Shepard's personality, and speaks to his ability as a charismatic leader. It's not entirely realistic, but that's probably why the story concentrates on getting Shepard to talk to the leaders of each race, rather than having him preach togetherness unto the burning, indoctrinated masses.
Before Shepard sets off to unite the galaxy though, he has a spooky dream about his new boycrush. What follows is a slow-motion running sequence that isn't fun to play, though it does serve as a bit of insight into the way Shepard is being affected by the events of the trilogy, and by the new war with the Reapers. Shepard then wakes up and meets Specialist Samantha Traynor because he hasn't yet had the chance to meet anyone on board the Normandy, and their conversation confuses me.
Why did Shepard, who wanted to do whatever he could to stop the Reapers, turn over his ship to the Alliance for a retrofit? Why not zoom around the galaxy as space James Bond, doing whatever he could to warn everybody about the impending invasion? Why just turn it over to the Alliance and sit on his ass for half a year? For that matter, why did Anderson intended to use the Normandy for himself? What the hell was Shepard going to do without the Normandy, kill the Reapers with a watergun?
Why won't this game start making sense?!
I'm Not Turian The Homeworld
Shepard stops off at a military moon base instead of the Turian homeworld proper, where the Reapers are shooting the Turians down in space like so much cannon fodder. Of course, Shepard's not there to help the Turians or check up on his buddy-ol-pal Garrus, but to get a Turian Primarch to stop commanding his officers and travel around on Shepard's nifty-keen space ship. Sounds like a great plan. Anyway, little of interest happens here, though Shepard meets Garrus again, and the plot does advance a bit, so that's good.
One thing I did really like was Victus' moment, where he realized he was the new Primarch. His sudden contemplation, coupled with the shots of Palaven burning in the background behind him, made for a really great character moment. It's frustrating though, because it's one of those things that leaves just a little hint of brilliance in what's been a pretty big mess so far. Still, it's a great moment.
The Primarch agrees to lend Turian support to Shepard's cause, but only on the condition that the Krogan - a nearly extinct race that's unable to reproduce - join in and play a rousing game of 'Meat Shield', to take some of the heat off Palaven. Something tells me that the Primarch had no intention of helping Shepard at all, having given him such an impossible task. But, never being one to shy away from an impossible task, Shepard sends out word that he wants to hold a war summit.
After a weird and pointless argument with the Asari Councillor, where she's saying the Asari won't be joining the war summit and Shepard is talking about how everyone needs the Krogan, EDI gets her sexbot body. Giant boobs are metal now. Yaaaaaaay.
Mind you, it's only moments after obtaining her new body that EDI shows her first signs of character growth. Within moments of obtaining arms and legs, EDI just straight up asks Shepard if he believes his crew members should be able to disobey orders on moral grounds. It's a moment that shows that EDI is more than just a computer program, that she is capable of learning and growing in many of the same ways as the humans aboard the Normandy. She shows that, while she is an artificial construct, she is more than simply a cold machine, which becomes one of the major themes of the story.
Shepard picks up a Salarian Dalatrass and a Krogan clan leader for his war summit, then puts them in the same room as the Turian Primarch, Victus. For those who are a bit behind on their history, the Krogan hate the Salarians and Turians for unleashing the genophage on them, a kind of disease that makes it so only one in a thousand Krogan births will result in a living child.
The Krogan leader, Urdnot Wrex3, decides to blackmail the entire galaxy, stating that his people will not help anyone until the genophage is cured. This is because, as you know, the Krogan don't like fighting unless it's for a really good reason. Wrex knows that a cure is being researched at a top secret Salarian installation, because of an inside contact that he has for some reason.
Not So Secret Secrets
Responding to an ultimatum as anyone else would, Shepard does exactly what Wrex wants and goes to visit the Salarian homeworld of Sur'Kesh4. Once there, Shepard doesn't witness how the Salarians are affected by the war since the Reapers haven't yet reached Sur'Kesh, and he certainly doesn't enlist the help of the Salarians. Instead, he's just there to get Wrex a girlfriend and head back out for more space adventures. No attempting to build any sort of understanding between the Krogan and Salarians, no watching characters grow. Shepard's just there to get Wrex laid so the Krogran will join the alliance against the Reapers. What's also interesting to note is that a human is being allowed to tour the base of the most secret Salarian infiltration unit ever, the STG.
Dammit, game! What did I just tell you about making sense!
Anyway, Shepard is ushered into a lab where he meets up with Mordin5 and Eve, the only female Krogan known to be immune to the genophage6. Shepard runs afoul of Cerberus, because Cerberus apparently has need of a female Krogan who's being used as a guinea pig on the Salarian homeworld. Maybe there's a bug on the Normandy? Nobody knows, because it's never brought up once in the entirety of the game. Anyway, after safely getting Eve The Living Plot Convenience past some 'splosions and to the Normandy, Shepard and company zoom off towards their next destination, taking Eve and Mordin with them. Sur'Kesh sure was pretty, though. All 30 000 square feet of it.
My only question is: During the attack by Cerberus, why does Mordin suspect a Reaper infiltrator?
Good Storytelling Is Optional
Back on the Normandy, no one wonders why or how Cerberus found the secret STG base, though Eve apparently figures into Illusive Man's plan to control the Reapers somehow. It's all just a big mystery. Anyway, the representatives of Shepard's war summit all want to talk to him in private in order to send him on dangerous missions that could get him killed for their own benefit.
Victus asks Shepard to save his son, who crashed on Tuchanka. Wrex asks Shepard to go look for a scouting party that went missing beyond the Rachni mass relay. Meanwhile, Specialist Traynor points out Cerberus presence on Tuchanka. The Salarian Dalatrass doesn't ask for anything, so there's no excuse to go see more of Sur'Kesh.
The end result of these missions? Well, going after the Primarch's son and disarming a gigantic bomb on Tuchanka actually causes some story stuff that otherwise wouldn't be there, although it really should be mandatory. In completing these tasks, Shepard is able to get people focused on killing the Reapers instead of each other. Otherwise, all these missions show is that Cerberus really wants to explode Tuchanka for some reason7. Because these missions are optional, they end up being a wasted opportunity. Instead of putting the representatives into circumstances that helps foster an understanding between them, Shepard just goes out and solves some problems for them. If he feels like it.
In contrast, investigating the missing scouts leads to a mission that negates the impact of the decision to spare or kill the Rachni Queen back in the first Mass Effect. This mission also appears to serve the purpose of giving Grunt an incredibly annoying "catch phrase". Beyond those points though, this mission doesn't change the flow of the story. It's even pointless from a gameplay perspective, because it doesn't introduce any new mechanics. It's just more shooting and explosions.
So Much Drama, So Little Meaning
Mordin has completed the genophage cure and plans to use a Salarian drama device known as the Shroud to distribute it, so Shepard returns to Tuchanka once again. It bears noting that Tuchanka is the most visited planet in the Mass Effect franchise. In fact, the audience has seen more of Tuchanka than Earth at this point, and Earth is the planet the audience is supposed to care about the most in this game. And now, there's even more of Tuchanka to see! Huzzah!
Before setting off on the ground mission, Shepard gets a call from the Salarian Dalatrass, who shows her true colors. She tells Shepard that the Shroud has been sabotaged since forever, so as to prevent the distribution of a cure for the genophage. Then, completely unlike the Krogan she so despises, she attempts to blackmail Shepard. She tells him that unless he lies about the sabotage, she won't send her best Salarian scientists and battleships to aid in preventing galactic destruction.
This leaves me with a few questions. For how long was the Shroud distributing the genophage before the Salarians sabotaged it so a cure couldn't be distributed? (This is important because it's made clear that the mechanism used to distribute the cure is the same as that which was used to distribute the genophage. Sabotaging this mechanism means that the genophage could no longer be spread across the planet.) Why did they assume that a cure could only be distributed via the same means as that used to spread the genophage? Did they only have the one contingency in case a cure becomes a reality? I mean, what if the cure was a pill, or an injection or something?
So Shepard lands and shoots up a bunch of Reaper husks. After that, a large crowd of Krogan appears out of nowhere, just as Mordin exits the landing shuttle. Of course, because drama, the first thing the Krogan try to do after they see Mordin is try to kill him; the one Salarian who's there to fix the genophage. Apparently, they were told that a cure was ready, but someone neglected to mention that a Salarian created it and would oversee its distribution. Eve then makes a speech about the Krogan sticking together to the magical crowd. Shepard backs up Eve's words, which is enough for all of the Krogan to want to march into battle. Because, as you know, the Krogan always need a really good reason to resort to violence.
En route to the Shroud, a collapsed road puts an end to Shepard's ground assault, but luckily he winds up in some ruins that foreshadow the next bit of the game: Kalros. Kalros is the mother of all thresher maws, the biggest, meanest Tremor the galaxy has ever known. Because there's only one useable route that Shepard can use to approach the tower (not really), he activates some giant metal hammers that summon Kalros to defeat the Reaper that's inexplicably guarding the Shroud8. Kalros jumps out of her Pokéball, and uses Tackle. After a large scale, super-effective and cool battle, Kalros finally drags the Reaper kicking and screaming into the depths.
Apparently, the Shroud took pretty grievous damage during the tussle between Kalros and the Reaper, so it's all firey and explodey when Shepard arrives inside. Then, because more drama, Mordin dies, having righted his wrong by distributing the cure for the genophage for about 35 seconds before the Shroud explodes. Afterwards, the Krogan decide that they're in.
Just a couple of notes:
Kalros, while a cool and well-executed idea, ends up being like the Mars Archives, in that she's totally a plot convenience. Without Kalros, the plot would be stopped dead in its tracks because Shepard and friends would have no way to get past the Reaper, short of, y'know, trying a different route. This mission in particular doubles up on the convenience with the addition of a cure for the genophage. After a few dozen centuries of being beyond anybody's ability to cure, suddenly Mordin knows exactly how to fix things so the genophage is a thing of the past. And of course, the cure is discovered just when Shepard needs it.
One technical thing here is that it's not really made clear in the visuals how the Shroud was damaged. Sure, we see Kalros get slammed against it during the fight with the Reaper, but there's no visual indication that any damage was caused until Mordin arrives in the control room, so that could have been made a little more clear. Maybe show some of the building crumbling, a few sparks flying, that kind of thing. Instead, there's this spectacular fight between Kalros and a Reaper, then the Shroud is burning down and about to explode afterwards.
There's a way to make it so Mordin (or Wiks) survives the whole thing, while fooling the Krogan into thinking the genophage has been cured. Mordin survives, becomes a war asset and works on the Crucible. The Krogan then lend their support, totally unaware that the genophage has not been cured. In other words, the game rewards the player for being an evil, deceitful prick. Does this mean that players were being encouraged to dupe the Krogan from the beginning?
Incidentally, if you went through the mission with Wiks instead of Mordin, he completes his character arc by emailing Shepard, saying that he wants to become a farmer and live in peace. At a time like this. Hey Wiks, get off your ass and put your expertise towards building this super weapon that we need to get done like, yesterday!
Back to the story.
With all said and done on Tuchanka, the Turians, Krogan and Salarians all finally begin thinking with the heads on their shoulders, and decide to honor their commitments. That night, Shepard has another dream about his boycrush.
While the recurrence of such a dream is something that is quite common, in terms of a story mechanic, it falls flat this time. Having the dream occur once is enough to show the audience that Shepard is struggling with survivor's guilt. It shows that the Shepard character is now saddled with the guilt and anguish that come with experiencing such a great amount of loss. However, showing it a second time doesn't work quite as well because it's not adding anything new to the story. In terms of the both the game and the story, the dream only needed to happen once, since at this point, it's only giving the audience information they already have. All they need to know is that the dream is happening again.
Twirling Mustaches All Over The Citadel
After getting a call from the Salarian councillor (not to be confused with the Dalatrass), Shepard goes back to the Citadel, where Cerberus is attacking because Citadel defense is run by an organization of complete idiots. Somehow, despite the density of the various Citadel defense fleets, Cerberus has managed to coordinate a full invasion, complete with fully armored assault forces on the center of galactic government. The best part is that no one outside of the Citadel ever found out about it. No distress calls, no escapees getting the word out, nothing. Sounds like Sovereign should have worked more closely with The Illusive Man instead of Megatron.
So, it turns out that being a politician allowed Udina to assist Cerberus in executing the attack, having apparently been able to move large forces through Citadel defense without having to bat an eyelash. The Salarian councillor gets attacked by some random Asian ninja dude who runs away like a little robot bitch because drama9, and Kaidan or Ashley either join the Normandy or end up dead by Shepard's hand. In the case of the latter, it just sort of happens and that's it.
Having retreated, the Asian robo-dude talks to Illusive Man, and the dialogue makes it seem like the whole attack was an attempt to assassinate the non-human members of the council. What did The Illusive Man have to gain by eliminating non-human council members? Wouldn't the council just be replaced by their successors? Also, why would Illusive Man suddenly just come out into the open and attack the Citadel, knowing full well that he'd be thrust into the spotlight?
The obvious answer is that the game needed something to happen so that there could be another action sequence. But even the first Mass Effect wasn't this clumsy about it. Not that there's much time to consider the matter, since the audience is still on a bullet train towards the finish line10.
In a conference call with Anderson and Hackett, Shepard learns that the Asian dude's name is Kai Leng, a fact that doesn't come up naturally in the conversation. Everyone's worried that when the Crucible fires, it's going to kill everybody, and not just the Reapers. Admiral Hackett then says,
We think the Catalyst is the key to determining how to focus its energy. How to direct its energy at the Reapers alone.
Mind you, he just says that without any prior mention of a what a 'Catalyst' is, or what it might be. Shepard's then told to go talk to the Quarians, who have started a war of their own11 to get their home planet back, which leads to a point that bugs the hell out of me.
The Quarians Are So Damned Stupid
I need to make a bit of a lengthy pit stop here. Normally, I'd save this subject for its a section of its own, but because this ties so closely into what's going on in Mass Effect 3 I'll be getting into it now. The trilogy, the third game in particular, almost seems to go out of its way to show us just how mind-bendingly stupid the Quarians are. Let's do a little Quarian-Geth history review, so I can show you what I mean.
Three hundred years prior to the games, the Quarians mass-produced virtual intelligences (VI's) that they called 'Geth'. The Geth were software programs that could be uploaded into mechanical bodies that were meant to do menial labor. Also, they were equipped to handle dangerous tasks that the Quarians otherwise couldn't perform themselves. Over time, the Quarians continued to tinker with the Geth's intelligence software, always pushing the boundaries between virtual and artificial intelligence.
The way I interpret it, programs capable of artificial intelligence are able to evaluate situations and make decisions for themselves, with the ability to learn from and adapt to the consequences of those decisions, just like sentient beings. Virtual intelligence programs are able to interact with other beings on a verbal level, but lack the capacity to make value judgements or decisions of their own. Also, they cannot expand their knowledge beyond the subject matter with which they've been programmed. Virtual intelligence programs are, basically, little more than glorified talking GUIs.
Anyway, the Geth operate under a unique architecture in that they can only perform more complex functions if they are directly networked with other Geth programs. In other words, a Geth is stupid when it's alone, and smart when it's working directly alongside many other Geth. The Quarians continued to upgrade and evolve Geth programming, which eventually led to a moment where a Geth asked a pretty deep question: "Why am I here? What is my purpose?"
This question alarmed the Quarians, since it meant that the Geth were crossing the threshold from virtual intelligence to artificial intelligence, and becoming capable of self realization. Since creating artificial intelligence was, and still is, illegal according to galactic law, the Quarians did the logical thing and tried to shut the Geth down12. The Geth refused however, and instead of doing the right thing and owning up to their mistakes, the Quarians decided to completely destroy a race of machines coming to grips with a burgeoning consciousness.
What followed was an event the Geth came to call "The Morning War". The Geth fought back out of self-defense and a sense of self preservation, albeit without any sort of grudge against the Quarian people. In fact, the Geth openly welcomed Quarian sympathizers, and worked hard to defend them. These sympathizers weren't met with the same mercy by their fellow Quarians, however. Many of them were killed alongside the Geth, or in some cases, shielded the Geth from incoming fire. Somehow, the Geth were able to outlast their creators in a protracted war of attrition, forcing the Quarians to leave their homeworld and live as nomads in space.
In contrast, the way Tali tells Shepard about the Geth is as follows: The Quarians created the Geth and kept pushing the boundaries between artifical and virtual intelligence. When the Geth began to cross that boundary, the Quarians didn't want to end up enslaving a newly sentient race of machines, so they tried to shut the Geth down. The Geth revolted, which led to the events of the Morning War. The resulting war of attrition exhausted Quarian resources, and they had to leave their planet to ensure the survival of their race.
Tali's explanation makes it apparent that after having retreated from Rannoch, the Quarians passed down the story of the Morning War in such a way as to paint themselves as victims of the whole affair. Even Tali's generation doesn't know the truth of the war, thinking that it was the big, scary Geth that had run the poor, innocent Quarians off of their homeworld.
Don't you just LOVE the Quarians? Aren't they just so cool?
Of course, it could also just be an oversight on the part of the writers. After all, they seemed to have trouble deciding on the goal of the Reapers between the beginning and end of Mass Effect 3, so it could be that they didn't consider that "Geth Uprising" had a different connotation to it than say, "Quarians Attempting To Destroy The Geth Wholesale".
But wait, there's more!
In Mass Effect 2, the Quarian Admiralty Board, the very pinnacle of Quarian stupidity, put Tali on trial, charging her with treason for sending live Geth to the Quarian fleet. It became apparent however, that the trial was simply being used to promote the idea that the Quarians should go to war against the Geth to get their home planet back.
However, if a player completes Mass Effect 2, then loads the save file that's created after the credits have rolled, they can talk to Legion and experience a new conversation that only changes the context of everything people have ever thought about the Geth.
For those who can't sit and stare for 110 seconds, here's the gist: The Geth consider themselves to be fragments of a larger consciousness, but their current hardware doesn't allow for all of those fragments to exist together as a whole. So, they've built a large computer out in space orbiting Rannoch, that will serve as the means to allow all Geth programs to live together in a glorious cesspool of unification.
It's interesting to note that Shepard apparently didn't bother to pass this incredibly important information on to Tali or the Quarian Admiralty, even though it could have averted an entire war. I mean, it could only have gotten the Quarians back on their home planet a lot sooner, and with a lot less bloodshed. And by 'a lot less', I mean 'none at all'.
A quick summary, just to make sure we're all up to speed: The Quarians created the Geth to do manual labor for them, and kept pushing the limits of their virtual intelligence. This led to the Geth developing artificial intelligence. The Quarians reacted by first trying to shut the Geth down, but when that didn't work, they tried to destroy the Geth. The Geth fought back out of self-defense13, and even teamed up with Quarians who sympathized with them. The rest of the Quarians continued to destroy Geth and sympathizers alike, but were unable to hold out long enough to claim victory, forcing them to retreat from their homeworld. The surviving Quarians became nomads in space, and apparently covered up the truth of what happened, since not even the Quarians of Tali's generation seem to know the truth of the Morning War.
After three centuries, the Quarians have decided to take back their homeworld by going to war all over again. The Geth, free of any ill will towards the Quarians or organic life in general, came to the conclusion that they didn't want to be alone and stupid, so they decided to build a massive space computer to store every Geth program in existence in one place. Since uploading to said space computer would require the Geth to vacate Rannoch, the Quarians would essentially be going to war for a planet that's going to be completely devoid of any Geth within the next few years.
I'll say that again, because it's just that important a point: The Quarians wanted to go to war against the Geth for a planet that would soon be devoid of all Geth presence anyway.
So basically, the war for Rannoch could only conceptually serve the following purposes:
- To get as many Quarian ships destroyed as possible
- Put as many Quarian people - military and civilian - in danger as possible
- To sabotage their goal of getting their home planet back.
Okay, back to Mass Effect 3.
By the time Shepard and company reunite with the Quarians14, they've already gone to war against the Geth, as evidenced by the destruction of the Geth's big space hard drive. This means that instead of putting two and two together, and realizing that the Geth are leaving Rannoch en masse, the Quarians have decided to 'asplode the hard drive because it would take a lot of Geth programs with it. In addition, ships populated by civilians are also being used in the fighting.
Oh, sense. I miss you so.
Assigned with taking down a long-range Reaper signal transmitter, Shepard and friends battle through a Geth Dreadnought that has lots of room for humanoids to walk around, despite the fact that the Geth are software and have no use for such spaces on their ships. (For those who've forgotten, the term "Geth" refers to intelligent programs. The physical bodies fought throughout mission sequences are "mobile platforms", which are controlled by the Geth programs, but are not the Geth proper.)
The Geth platform known as Legion is clumsily shoehorned into the game as the linchpin of this development, being used as a transmission booster aboard the dreadnought. So the Reapers, who are capable of emitting some kind of energy field that causes indoctrination, wouldn't have been able to broadcast a signal that controls all Geth without sticking a Geth mobile platform into the transmitter? It's understandable that the player needs to meet up with Legion at some point in order to close out the conflict between the Quarians and the Geth, but was this really the only way for this reunion to occur? And for that matter, how does hooking Legion up to a gigantic transmitter make it more effective than either using any other mobile platform, or just making the dreadnought itself a giant transmitter?
Part of the answer to the last question lies in whether or not the player got Legion to this point. If Legion was not activated, or did not survive the suicide mission in Mass Effect 2, its role will be filled in by a Geth VI constructed in Legion's likeness. I'm sure this makes it so that it's really important for people to keep Legion alive during the second game. You know, since Legion is in the third game regardless15. So really, it doesn't need to be Legion, but for whatever reason, a Geth mobile platform has to be hooked up in order for the transmission array to work. Sort of how like our cell phone towers don't work unless you jam a little kid into the circuits.
Turns out that destroying the Geth hard drive has forced the remaining Geth into a corner, leaving them desperate to survive. A Reaper happened along at some point and made them an offer they couldn't refuse: They either fight for their survival with a massive loss in overall Geth intelligence, or they allow the Reapers to control them via a transmission signal. Standing at the precipice of extinction has motivated the Geth to side with the Reapers, which increases their capacity for thought and complex reasoning, but has left them subjugated.
So anyway, Shepard unhooks Legion from the transmitter, which fully kills the transmission16. As a gesture of good faith, Legion disables the dreadnought's drive core, and everyone gets ready to leave. On the way to the exit, the Quarian fleet out in space decide that it's okay to murder Shepard and his friends - the people who have lots of experience in dealing with the Geth and the Reapers - and start shooting up the dreadnought. Shepard and company manage to escape just in time, after not once attempting to bring the dreadnought's protective shields back online.
Have I mentioned just how brilliant the Quarians are?
Legion boards the Normandy with Shepard, and the Quarian admirals are quite displeased. Shepard learns that an entire Reaper is being used as a backup, short-range transmission source17, but Legion doesn't yet know where it is.
So, wait. The long-range transmission source is out in space, near all the Geth ships, but the short-range transmission source is based down on the planet? A Geth ship can transmit a signal farther than a Reaper? Why not just use the more mobile and sturdy Reaper as the transmitter, instead of the giant, very destructable Geth dreadnought?
Anyway, our plucky hero is given a couple of side missions: Save a Quarian admiral who's crash landed on Rannoch, or go disable some Geth fighter squadrons in order to minimize casualties to civilian ships that are being used for fighting.
Shepard goes to save the admiral who's crashed on Rannoch, which makes little to no impact on the story.
When embarking upon the mission to disable the Geth fighter squadrons, Shepard finds himself sifting through many of the Geth's earliest recorded memories, where he learns the truth of the Morning War as I've described above.
After some hard work, Legion finally pinpoints the location of the gigantic Reaper-bot acting as a short-range transmission antenna, which can apparently work just as effectively as the spaceborne long-range transmitter. After all, the dialogue basically says that once the short-range transmitter is online, the Geth will be able to regroup.
Anyway, Legion mentions that the Reaper virus, which I thought was a control signal, has modified the code of Geth programs to be more complex - the Geth have gained the ability to think in ways that are strongly indicative of conscious thought. The Geth have found this to be important enough to them that they would fight and die for it. Just like EDI, the Geth are showing that they are more than the sum of their parts, becoming closer and closer to acheiving true consciousness. Sure, it was a shortcut provided to them by a Reaper (a short cut Legion derided back in Mass Effect 2), but it's something, isn't it? For some reason, I feel like the Geth should be glowing green pretty soon.
Shepard and friends land on Rannoch yet again18, where Legion tells him that its program still contains remnants of Reaper code. On the ground, Shepard's squad runs afoul of some Geth under the control of the Reaper nearby19. After some intense fire fights, there's a gameplay sequence where Shepard is driving away in a jeep while being able to fire a cannon at the Reaper in the background. It's just the jeep racing up a windy road while the Reaper looks on menacingly, and the sequence ends the same way whether Shepard fires or not. And the point is?
In order to free the Geth from subjugation, and thus save the Quarian fleet from destruction, Shepard goes toe-to-toe with a Reaper. Well, sort of. He paints the Reaper as a target so the Normandy and Quarian fleets can make orbital strikes, but it's like going to-to-toe with it. It's all very action-packed, with lasers and more 'splosions, until the Reaper is finally defeated. In its death throes, the Reaper lets slip that some kind of cycle must continue, lest all be lost. Shepard is then left to deal with wrapping up the conflict between the Quarians and the Geth, once and for all.
Legion has decided that it can use the Reaper code it contains in order to help the Geth achieve true sentience. The Quarians, in true rampantly idiotic fashion, still want to destroy the Geth. There are a number of choices at this point that affect the all-important war asset count:
- Shepard sides with the Quarians. Legion and the rest of the Geth are summarily destroyed.
- Shepard sides with Legion and the Geth. Legion dies, having disseminated its Reaper-augmented code amongst the rest of the Geth, who then use their newly-acquired sentience to wipe out the Quarians.
- Shepard passes a reputation check. Legion dies, having disseminated the Reaper code to the rest of the Geth, and the beginnings of a peace between the Quarians and newly sentient Geth is achieved.
These are all pretty self-explanatory. The third however, relates quite closely to one of the endings, so it's worth mentioning.
After managing to achieve peace between the Geth and Quarians, both parties immediately address the Quarians' desire to reclaim their home planet. The Geth basically say that they've been looking after Rannoch since the Quarians have been gone, with all intents of welcoming their creators home with open arms. Not only that, but the newly brokered peace inspires the Geth to propose uploading their programs into the Quarians' protective suits, so as to help acclimate their immune systems to Rannoch's environments more quickly.
It's almost like a kind of synthesis is taking place at this moment. Like technology and flesh are merging into a single being, a single consciousness. The Geth and Quarians are standing at the beginning of a long road, and are taking their first shaky steps together. Through this, they will come to symbolize an ascension into hybridization between organic and synthetic lifeforms.
As I mentioned earlier, having a Geth VI take Legion's place during this series of missions really robs the significance of his role in the second game. No matter what happens to Legion, it just ends up being replaced by an equivalent, which makes fighting to keep it alive - and thus developing an emotional attachment to the character - pointless. The result of that is that it cheapens the idea behind Legion sacrificing itself as it disseminates the Reaper code into the consensus. It just dies for the sake of drama, rather than for any meaningful reason.
I mean, really. It couldn't just write up a patch and distribute on the Geth internet or something?
Also, since Shepard has taken part in the destruction of two Reapers20 at this point, I wonder if he ever got an offer to do Shepard The Reaper Slayer.
Anyway, after going through all that and never once taking the time to call the Quarians out on their bullshit, Shepard returns to the Citadel yet again as Tali finally joins the squad, like, two thirds of the way through the game. Apparently, the Asari Councillor hasn't yet changed her mind about joining up with everyone, but sends Shepard to her Reaper-ravaged homeworld to check out some information pertaining to the war: While construction of the Crucible is progressing well, it's missing something called 'The Catalyst', and there might be some information about it in a temple on the Asari homeworld, Thessia.
Nothing To See On Thessia
Much like the visit to Palaven's moon and Sur'Kesh, the visit to Thessia is really quick and linear, with little to see. In fact, the buildings pretty much look like Sur'Kesh architecture.
Shepard lands and shoots some stuff, watches a bunch of Asari die21, and goes to a temple where he meets a Prothean VI named Vendetta. Vendetta doesn't tell Shepard anything about what a 'Catalyst' is, but notes that there's a theory regarding the Reapers, that they're servants of a recurring cycle of galactic extinction, rather than the masters. So, who is the mastermind? No one knows. Vendetta also tells Shepard that the Crucible was not of Prothean design, but rather a blueprint passed down through many galactic cycles.
Just as Vendetta is offering to help with the whole Crucible-Catalyst thing, Kai Leng attacks Shepard, kicks his ass, and runs away again, Prothean VI in hand. Unlike everywhere else, Illusive Man's motivation is explained here - Vendetta's mention of the Reapers being servants makes Illusive Man think that they can be controlled by humans who have no idea who the master of the Reapers is, where it might be, or how to get in contact with it.
Back aboard the Normandy, Shepard sulks for a while, then finds out that Cerberus has something big happening on Horizon so the plot can keep going.
Convenience On The Horizon
Shepard arrives at the Cerberus installation on Horizon and begins shooting a bunch of people and things. It turns out that Illusive Man is picking up where the Collectors left off, kidnapping people and using them in experiments to find out whether or not the Reapers can be controlled22. On the way, Shepard finds some recordings left behind by his old friend Miranda Lawson. Kai Leng is apparently also on Horizon, but Shepard never runs into him, as he's really only mentioned to motivate the player to find Miranda as quickly as possible.
At the end of the line is a big Lawson family reunion between Miranda, Oriana, and their father Henry. Some drama goes down, and Shepard gets info that leads him directly to the very heart of Cerberus operations: Cronos Station. Apparently, Cerberus shares information between research cells now. You know, like they said they didn't in the opening scenes of the previous game.
This plot has more convenience than a 7-11.
KABOOM! You Sunk My Interest In This Story
On the Normandy, Shepard's told that there are fleets in place, ready to attack Cronos Station. He's warned however, that attacking will get the Reaper's attention, because the Reapers apparently care whether or not Cerberus headquarters is attacked.
I was under the impression that the Reapers attacked Horizon because they didn't want Cerberus studying indoctrination and all that. Yet, it's assumed that attacking Chronos Station will alert the Reapers, who will apparently come running to protect the main headquarters of Cerberus. Stupid conjecture.
Shepard storms Cronos Station, and shoots even more people and things. He reunites with Vendetta, who finally tells him what the Catalyst is - The Citadel. However, The Illusive Man has already gone to the Citadel and told the Reapers about the whole Crucible/ Catalyst thing. As a result, the Reapers closed up the Citadel and moved it to Earth, so they could keep watch over it, which Vendetta knew because… well, just because.
Were the Reapers just not even considering touching the Citadel before being told this? Was it that unimportant to them?
With this narrative bullet train coming up to its last stop, Kai Leng appears and starts punching holes in the floor. Following the standard rule of threes23, Shepard wins the fight! While he's accessing Illusive Man's computers for some reason, Kai Leng makes one last attempt on Shepard's life. Unfortunately, Leng fails and Shepard leaves as the station explodes.
It must be pointed out that a really great character opportunity was missed here, which was only touched on during a couple of lines of throwaway dialogue - Shepard's struggle with identity. Was Shepard truly himself after the Lazarus Project? Was he a very detailed AI? Some kind of clone? Is the real Shepard's body locked away somewhere in Cronos Station? What would all of these things mean to the Shepard the players have been controlling since the opening sequence of Mass Effect 2? What would it mean to us?
And, why not cover this kind of conflict in the second game, where it was more pertinent, instead of bringing it up and then glossing over it, one game later?
At any rate, this potentially engaging character development is basically handled as follows: "I… I just don't know if I'm really me or not. Oh well, moving on."
Back to the Normandy, for the last time. Shepard talks to Anderson about how their plan is even more desperate since the Reapers know all about the Catalyst. All that's left is to go back to Earth and use the Crucible.
On the way though, Shepard dreams about his boycrush again because it's dramatic.
There's William Hartnell, David Tennant, And Even Tommy Laird!
Anderson tells Shepard that the only way to enter the Citadel is through a transport beam located in London. In fact, said transporter is called "The Conduit", surely a wink-wink, nudge-nudge to players of the first game.
Anyway, it's now or never as the forces marshalled by Shepard are deployed in a big, dramatic battle over Earth. As the combined forces of the galaxy march to their deaths amidst bright, colorful explosions, Shepard lands in London, which has apparently experienced a massive boom in red phone booths. Seriously, it's like a Dr. Who cemetary or something.
Shepard lands on Earth, does some fighting, takes a Reaper down with a nuclear rocket launcher (by himself) then makes his way to a forward operations base, where he talks to all his friends one last time before the final push to the Conduit.
It's worth noting that EDI continues her growth as a character, where she expresses doubt and fear. In talking with Shepard though, she begins to show bravery and determination. She continues to grow as a living, thinking being, becoming more and more like her flesh and blood comrades. She's becoming a fully realized personality, all on her own24.
Shepard begins making his way to the Conduit, alongside some soldiers. Just like with the Shroud, a Reaper is guarding the Conduit to prevent entry, so it must be destroyed. Since no airborne ships have any kind of manual aiming, Shepard and friends have to shoot the Reaper down with a couple of ground-based missiles, which are thankfully marked by an entire legion of red phone booths.
Out in space, the Crucible arrives in the solar system, where it makes a beeline towards the Citadel. Meanwhile, a bunch of Reapers stop defending it at all costs and descend to the Earth's surface to stop Shepard or whatever.
Harbinger Does Something Stupid
As Shepard runs towards the Conduit, Harbinger lands and starts shooting at everyone, with none of the other Reapers who stopped defending the Citadel to back him up. I guess the task of one of the franchise's only named Reapers is to act as backup bouncer for the Citadel. Anyway, because things have been making a little too much sense for the past while, Harbinger steps up and gets things back on track.
With Harbinger bombarding Shepard with giant lasers for harvesting purposes, our hero decides it'd be a great idea to call in the Normandy to fly his squad out. To help facilitate this, Harbinger politely stops firing for like, five minutes so Shepard's friends can escape. There's even a 'fuck you' camera angle, where Harbinger stares at the Normandy for like, five seconds before it flies back out into space.
What is it with the Reapers not firing at the Normandy? It should be renamed Tension Killer. And of course, there's also the question of whether or not the Normandy should be in space shooting at Reapers, instead of swooping down over London to pick up Shepard's buddies. Even if Shepard were to call for an evac, it wouldn't be Normandy to swoop down and pick them up, they'd most likely be picked up by a small shuttle that could zip onto the battlefield, then zip right back out.
But, again: it would make too much sense.
With the Normandy having left, Harbinger's allowed to start shooting again, and manages to hit Shepard, right in his player-created face. Somehow managing to survive, Shepard struggles to his feet and stumbles very, veeeeeeeery slowly into the Conduit, winding up on the Citadel.
The Citadel apparently has the setup needed to process people into new Reaper goo, but isn't actually doing that. Shepard continues drunkenly stumbling towards the best part of the game so far - the final showdown with The Illusive Man. In a glorious war of words, Anderson ends up shot, but Shepard manages to best The Illusive Man, either convincing him he's indoctrinated, or by killing him outright.
One major question still hasn't been answered: If Illusive Man's goal was to control the Reapers, how did Eve figure into that plan? If it was to sabotage Shepard's alliance between the Turians, Salarians and Krogan, how would getting rid of Eve have helped his cause? Even with Eve dead, Mordin would still be able to use her corpse to help synthesize the genophage cure, so it would just be a waste of The Illusive Man's time.
Anyway, with Illusive Man dead, the Citadel arms open and Shepard and Anderson have a touching moment, where protegé and mentor connect as regular people one last time. Shepard then gets a call from Admiral Hackett and tries to respond via a conveniently placed command console, but collapses from injury. The Crucible is then hooked up to the Citadel - that the Reapers were apparently defending at all costs - in the middle of a massive space war, with no problems or damage taken. Then, for no good reason whatsoever, Shepard floats up a magical space elevator from nowhere and finds himself talking to a hologram that's taken the shape of the his boycrush from the beginning of the game. This hologram is an ancient artificial intelligence, the very thing Shepard has been searching for since Thessia - the Catalyst.
This is the part of the game where the story of the Mass Effect franchise ends, and a completely different, non-related story with a totally separate conflict begins.
The Catalyst Is Just Wrong
Almost everything the Catalyst asserts in its scene is wrong, or frustratingly vague and unqualified. Now, picking apart every little thing it says is a pedantic, overly-aggressive waste of time, which is why I'm going to do it now. Let's start from the top of the scene:
Shepard appears in a nifty little vista that is open to outer space, but apparently has an atmosphere for some reason. As people fight and die in the vaccuum around him, Shepard faces the mastermind behind the cycles of galactic extinction, the one who has engineered the deaths of billions upon billions, and sits down to have a chat with him.
Shepard starts things off by asking if the Catalyst knows how to stop the Reapers. The Catalyst responds that it might, since it controls the Reapers, and states that the Reapers are its "solution" to chaos. The Catalyst immediately steps out of bounds when it says,
The created will always rebel against the creators.
There's a technicality here: In past galactic cycles, artificial intelligence, referred to by the Catalyst as "synthetics", have apparently risen up against their creators, "organics", and eradicated them. What makes this point invalid however, is that it doesn't apply to the current cycle. The main example of this idea is the Geth. The Reaper on Rannoch points to the war between the Quarians and the Geth as validation for the Reapers' methods. The thing is, that neither the Morning War, nor the war portrayed in Mass Effect 3 were instigated by the Geth. The Geth did not rise up against their creators in either case, they were attacked and fought back in self-defense. In that light, the Reapers aren't saving us from synthetic monsters, they're committing genocide and being self-righteous about it.
Full-on artificial intelligence is extremely rare in the Mass Effect universe, if you leave out the Geth you fight in the gameplay sequences. In fact, throughout the story, Shepard only really encounters three cases of true artificial intelligence: the interface on the Citadel, EDI, and Legion.
The program on the Citadel was an AI made by an AI. It wanted to get itself installed aboard a starship so it could join the Geth, apparently unaware of the embargos placed upon the use of artifical intelligence throughout the galaxy. And yeah, it was pretty hostile when confronted, but it only got all explodey because it got caught red-handed.
EDI grows up based on the influences of Commander Shepard, Joker and the Normandy crew. She learns fear, determination, friendship, and even falls in love, so the only uprising she's taking part in is of Joker's manual steering column. Seriously though, she does rebel against Cerberus, but she doesn't destroy anything, she just quits her job and goes to work for the Alliance.
Storywise, Legion acts as the representative of all Geth to both Commander Shepard and to the audience. Player interaction with Legion shows that the Geth didn't rise up against the Quarians at all, nor were they ever planning to. In fact, when Shepard is able to convince both sides to stop shooting and start talking, the Quarians and Geth immediately start making inroads towards rebuilding and resettling Rannoch together.
It can be said though, that if Shepard sides with the Geth, who then destroy the Quarians, that the Catalyst is technically correct. The thing is, it must be pointed out that the Quarians shot first, which forced the Geth to fight back. So really, the Catalyst can be right, but only in a very specific circumstance, and even then, not really.
This also leads to a pretty major oversight in terms of the story. The Geth are the 'created' of this cycle, which the Catalyst apparently means to save all organic life from. Isn't it strange that, on two occasions, the Reapers swooped in to take control of the Geth and use them for their own purposes? Doesn't it also invalidate the Catalyst's point, since the Reapers took control of the both the 'heretics' from the first game and the Geth in Mass Effect 3? Further, if they could do that, why was the whole "synthetics vs. organics" thing ever a problem in the first place? The Reapers could just control the killer robots and make them not killer robots anymore.
From here, Shepard can ask some questions in what has to be the most involved conversation in the entire game so far.
When Shepard asks the Catalyst what it is, the Catalyst responds that it is a construct that was designed to bring peace between organics and synthetics. It was created to put an end to conflict between synthetic and organic life, and oversee relations between them. Having failed time and again, the Catalyst decided that a new solution was required: the Reapers.
When asked where the Reapers come from, the Catalyst says,
My creators gave them form. I gave them function. They in turn, give me purpose.
The purpose that the Reapers give the Catalyst is completely unexplained. Isn't it the Catalyst that gives the Reapers purpose? I mean, these galactic extinction cycles have been carried out at the Catalyst's behest. If there's anything that gives the Catalyst purpose, it's organic life, since it's been their repeated mistake that has made any kind of solution at all necessary.
Anyway, Shepard asks what became of the Catalyst's creators, and it explains that they became the first Reaper. Thus, the implication is that the Reapers are constructed in the shape of the beings that created the Catalyst. Shepard then asks how the Reapers solve anything. The Catalyst says,
Organics create synthetics to improve their own existence, but those improvements have limits. To exceed those limits, synthetics must be allowed to evolve. They must, by definition, surpass their creators. The result is conflict, destruction, chaos. It is inevitable.
I'm probably being overly picky here, but I really need the Catalyst to qualify this statement, specifically in the context of the current galactic cycle. This particular response ends up being a rather sweeping generalization, especially when you think about how the Geth don't embody this philosophy at all. It might be true that in past cycles, synthetics have risen up against their organic creators, but the Geth didn't. As I've said numerous times already, the Geth fought for their own survival, to ensure a future for their race. Also, the Catalyst never mentions why the synthetics of the past decided to destroy their creators. Apparently, it just kind of happens because that's the way it goes.
The other thing to consider is that this conflict - organics vs. synthetics - was solved way back during the missions on Rannoch. Of course, due to player agency, it can be solved in a variety of different ways, but the fact remains that, no matter what happens, the whole "synthetics rising up to kill organics" conflict is put to rest long before this moment. And as I've said before, there was no uprising of synthetics to eliminate organics, it was all just fabricated by the galaxy's rampant idiots25.
Next, the Catalyst tells Shepard that the Reapers are simply doing what they were created to do: Harvest the advanced races of the galaxy in order to turn them into new Reapers, which will thus restore balance and put an end to chaos. In that way, these races are preserved forever, and their memories kept intact, albeit in Reaper form.
Wait, WHAT?! The Reapers are here to HARVEST us? They're trying to save and preserve all our memories, to keep us from being destroyed and lost to the mists of time? What about landing on Earth and shooting everything that moves26? What about using husks to murder Rachni and Asari? Why were so many people being turned into husks in the first place? What about the millions upon millions killed over Palaven? What about all the ships shot down, and/ or crushed in the battle in space above Earth, you know, the skirmish going on all around Shepard and the Catalyst in this very scene?! In short, WHY ARE THEY SIMPLY SHOOTING AND KILLING US?!
Anyway, the Catalyst's logic is that by killing everyone and melting them into goo, it can preserve all those dead people by forming them into new Reapers. Each individual Reaper then contains all the memories and wisdom of the race that went into forming it, and are then made to murder others in an endless cycle of bloodshed and extinction in the name of some twisted kind of philanthropy.
So really, the Reapers are here to save us. By landing on our planets and shooting shit up with giant lasers. It's here that it becomes blatantly clear that the writers either had no idea what they wanted the Reapers' goals to be, or there was some difference of opinion and everyone was allowed to have it their way all at once. It's like some of them wanted the Reapers to harvest, while others wanted them to be massive killbots, and both parties got their way, without any concern for the effects on the telling of the story.
So, you can either get killed by the rebelling synthetic life you created27, or you can come to the Reapers for help. Where, y'know, you'll get killed by giant synthetics.
When asked what it knows about the Crucible, the Catalyst tells Shepard that the Crucible is pretty much a giant power supply that becomes capable of releasing tremendous amounts of energy throughout the galaxy when hooked up to the Citadel. This is in pretty stark contrast to the beginning, when Liara stated that the Crucible itself was a weapon, capable of "unquantifiable levels of destruction," and mind you, this was before anyone knew to hook it up to the Citadel. In order for Liara to make that kind of assessment, the Crucible data had to make it pretty clear that it was a WMD. Otherwise, Liara might have said something more sensical, like how the Crucible is a device that will stop the Reapers somehow, but she's not quite sure how it works. This is technically not a fault on the part of the Catalyst, but rather the writing team, who have probably realized that this mess has fallen completely apart and can no longer be held together by any known means.
Anyway, the Catalyst goes on to congratulate organics in a way, stating that it had thought the concept of the Crucible eradicated. Naturally, the continued existence of the project means that organics are "more resourceful than we realized."
Shepard tells the Catalyst that, in doing what it's doing, it's taking away the future of organic life; without a future, there is no hope. It responds,
You have hope. More than you think. The fact that you are standing here, the first organic ever, proves it.
Okay, so wait up a second. Shepard is the first organic to ever meet the Catalyst, but the many races designing the Crucible managed to conceive of a "catalyst" needed to fire it, and made that catalyst the Citadel? This has got to be the culmination of the game's penchant for plot convenience, not to mention the biggest coincidence in narrative history. The Catalyst's existence wasn't even revealed in the current galactic cycle until the Crucible was put in place and Shepard got to the neat space vista. I mean, they just hooked the Crucible up to the Citadal, which is the Catalyst, and Shepard ended up talking to someone completely different, who's also called the Catalyst.
Also, how does Shepard meeting face-to-face with the Catalyst mean that organic life has more hope than they realize? What does that even mean? It's like the Catalyst is talking about two completely different things in the same sentence.
My brain hurts.
The very next thing the Catalyst says is,
But, it also proves that my solution won't work anymore.
In what way? It's really annoying how this Catalyst explains things without actually explaining them. In this case, it's introduced a concept and not provided any reasoning for it, just as it did with the hope thing. How does Shepard talking to the Catalyst mean that the Reaper solution won't work anymore? In what way does this interaction throw a monkey wrench into the Catalyst's plans? If anything, it just means that a hairless monkey calling itself "Shepard" got to talk to the Catalyst one time, and that's it.
Shepard asks the Catalyst why it's helping him. "You have altered the variables," the Catalyst says. It then explains,
The Crucible changed me, created new… possibilities. But I can't make them happen. If there is to be a new solution, you must act.
So, the Catalyst starts explaining to Shepard what these new possibilities are, which embody the final choice Shepard will ever make in the entire Mass Effect franchise.
The first new possibility is as follows: By shooting a big red tube, Shepard can destroy the Reapers. This is commonly referred to as the Destroy ending. The idea is that the Reapers will all be dead, a few lightbulbs might be broken, and all synthetic lifeforms will be completely, irrecovably destroyed.
There's actually one aspect of this that makes sense to me: If the races of past galactic cycles had fallen under attack by the synthetic life they created, chances are they wouldn't bother to include a patch that spares synthetic life from the Red Wave Of Destruction. Since the people of the current cycle are basically building the Crucible with no idea what it will do, it wouldn't make sense for a scientist to suddenly build that into the final design.
The second new possibility allows Shepard to grab two big, blue space boobs to gain control of the Reapers. Naturally, this is usually called the Control ending. According to the Catalyst, The Illusive Man was right in that the Reapers could be controlled. However, The Illusive Man was so heavily indoctrinated, that it apparently wouldn't have worked. Shepard, who's had quite a lot of contact with Reapers and pieces of them, is fine though. Where The Illusive Man was wrong in trying to control ancient space killbots that want us all dead so they can save us from death, Shepard can go right on ahead and step up to the plate.
If Shepard got all the resources he could to build the Crucible, a third new possibility will emerge: Shepard can leap into a big green column of energy, which will cause an explosion that will initiate an event known as "synthesis". This is aptly referred to as the Synthesis ending. The Catalyst explains that by stepping into the green beam, Shepard will cause a galaxy-wide chain reaction that will combine all synthetic and organic life into a new type of DNA.
The option, "How?" is added to the dialogue wheel at this point, but much to the frustration of many players, Shepard doesn't ask how synthetic and organic life can be combined into a completely new type of DNA. Instead, he asks the much less compelling question of how his energy will be added to the Crucible's. I guess I just have my priorities mixed up.
However, the Catalyst does explain that organics, who seek perfection through integration of technology, will be able to achieve that perfection by well, being immediately integrated technology. In turn, synthetics will finally be able to fully think and feel like organics, and thus understand them. Shepard argues that he can't be the one to make such a monumental decision. The Catalyst's rebuttal is,
Why not? Synthetics are already part of you. Can you imagine your life without them?
So… Shepard's qualified to change the DNA of every living thing in the galaxy on the grounds that his body contains some mechanical prosthetics? Does that mean that anyone with an artificial leg is qualified to make this kind of decision on their own? I mean, they do have a synthetic leg and all. Oh well, why make sense? It would only be inconsistent with the rest of the scene.
Alternatively, Shepard has the option to refuse any of the above three choices. This is commonly referred to as the Refuse ending.
So, it's time for everybody's favorite part.
The Revolting Endings
The endings of this game are revolting on a couple of levels. They are thematically revolting28 because they diametrically oppose the themes presented in the games. They are morally revolting because they each require a pretty twisted line of thought in order to be acceptable by any means. Finally, they are narratively revolting, because they don't even address the central conflict depicted in the stories that preceeded them.
Also, in their original, non-Extended Cut form, the endings failed on a technical level. They were indeed really short (This was the end of a TRILOGY, guys), and the point where they end the telling of the story is at the worst possible moment: the Mass Relays have been destroyed, the Normandy is a flaming wreck, having crashed on a planet, and depending on your ending, many people are dead, or genetically violated. Cut to black.
How could you possibly assume the worst, people?! I mean, really!
Yes, you do have the option of taking your game disc out of your console and breaking it, but that's not what I mean. Of course, those of you with the PC version will have to uninstall the game first, but it'll always be listed on your Origin account, so you'll never truly be rid of it. It'll always be there. Haunting you. Until you die in a ditch somewhere just outside Hartford, Connecticut.
What I mean is the ending in the game, where players have the option to destroy the Reapers, albeit at the cost of all synthetic life in the galaxy for some reason. Like the other endings, Destroy varies depending on how many war assets Shepard collected while being hurriedly ushered to this point.
If Shepard didn't collect much in the way of war assets during the game, the Crucible will destroy damn near everything. Hackett's crappy dialogue is a lot more bleak, but it doesn't matter since Shepard is dead and doesn't have to answer for any of the damage or death he caused.
If Shepard collected a lot of war assets, people survive and the lights are knocked out for a little while, but all synthetic lifeforms still irrevocably die for some reason. Also, there's no indication whatsoever that they can be repaired, or otherwise recovered. Hackett's crappy dialogue is a lot more hopeful, where he gets to say, "but we will rebuild" about eleven thousand times. Shepard survives, but doesn't have to answer to anyone for having sacrificed all synthetic life in the galaxy for the sake of his fellow fleshbags. Yay meat!
Here's where the ending clashes with the themes of the game: Mass Effect 3 spends a lot of time making a case for the validity of synthetic life. People on the Normandy argue about whether artificial intelligence is as valid a form of life as organic intelligence, and Shepard even gets to weigh in on the matter repeatedly. EDI's very own character arc alone, which I made sure to emphasize during this synopsis, is the very epitome of this idea. She becomes more than the sum of her parts, in that she learns to love, discovers fear, and even feels a bit lonely, which leads her to contemplate her place in the world. Additionally, the Geth show the desire to protect their own existence, ensure the survival of their future, and even fight to evolve beyond being a mere collection of programs made to labor for the Quarians. They're even allowed to build their own equivalent of organic consciousness, which shows how they're much more than just machines built to do someone's will.
The value of synthetic life as equal to organic life ends up being one of the big themes of the game, and the Destroy ending flies in the face of that by allowing Shepard to sacrifice these valid, synthetic life forms for his own convenience. Suddenly, EDI, Legion, and an entire race of allied sentient machines are offered up as sacrifices without so much as a thank you. Then, the ending takes it a step further by telling the audience that it'll all be okay, because organics are still alive and can get the lights back on before it becomes a problem for anyone.
Way to go, hero!
Upon choosing to control the Reapers, Shepard's body is dissolved, and he becomes the new Catalyst, his consciousness becoming part of a big Citadel computer or something.
Like the Destroy ending, if Shepard hasn't collected much in the way of war assets, everything is pretty much destroyed. Ouch.
There's one piece of credit I will give this ending: The fact that it's different depending on whether your Shepard was Paragon or Renegade. I thought that it was a nice touch, and went a long way towards impressing me. Why did none of the other endings have this element to them? It would have gone a long way towards showing players that their choices mattered, and would have made the slide shows icing on the cake.
If Shepard is more on the Paragon side of the spectrum, he decides that he loves his friends more than anything, and would do anything to protect them. As such, the Reapers are made to be the guardians of the galaxy, always watching and waiting, keeping all life in the galaxy safe.
The Renegade version differs only slightly, in that Shepard vows to outright destroy any and all who threaten his friends. Your protagonist can now murder with impunity. Enjoy!
One other thing I like about this ending is that it touches on the theme of friendship, which is definitely one of the strongest threads that plays out in the Mass Effect series. Shepard's friends are important to him, and he's willing to use whatever means are necessary to protect their happiness. There's still a major problem with this, which I'll get into shortly, but at least the intention is there, right?
Well, it doesn't seem to matter anyway, since whichever version of the ending you get, your Shepard had to act like a huge hypocrite to get there. Not five minutes ago, Shepard fought against The Illusive Man's idea to control the Reapers, and even convinced him of his own indoctrination. One scene later, Shepard went on to do the exact thing he fought against. Way to stick with your convictions, hero.
It's also not entirely clear just how faithful a reproduction of Shepard's consciousness has been made into the new Catalyst program. It's implied however, that it has to be fairly accurate in order for Shepard's personality and values to factor into any decisions he makes as the new Catalyst. Even if you just consider it from a story perspective, Shepard's speeches during the two different end sequences show how completely Shepard's mind has already become part of the machine. If it's a faithful reproduction of his personality and mind, won't he need social interaction with humans in order to you know, keep his sanity? Studies have been done that show the effects of long-term isolation on the brain, with other equally important studies showing just how vital social interaction is to the formation and function of the human brain during childhood. In that light, wouldn't it be dangerous to lock someone's mind in a computer for all eternity, with no one to talk to but a race of ancient space machines, if they even really talk? In a video game context, if you look at some of the unused audio files in Portal 2, you'll see how well it worked for Cave Johnson.
It might not be the case with Shepard, but it's something to think about. I mean, how good could the Reapers be at conversation anyway? They've shown a remarkable lack of social skills in the series thus far.
I guess it's just cool because Shepard gets to be his own version of Darth Vader. Now, take a deep breath and scream.
The 'Synthesis' ending starts out with those three words that everyone hates to hear. You know, those words that are so over-used that all meaning has left them:
I love you.
No, I'm kidding. The real phrase is,
I. Am. Alive.
That's EDI narrating. So, wait. She wasn't alive before, when she said she felt alive?
EDI explains to us that synthetics have now somehow achieved full consciousness, while organics are able to integrate themselves with technology… and that's pretty much it. Not that the ending, original or Extended Cut, shows how this massive and fundamental genetic change affects anyone in the least. No indication of how life progresses any differently for organic nor synthetic. Just a bunch of saccharine, ham-fisted dialogue about how Shepard gave everyone a huge gift in allowing synthetics to feel and think like organics, and allowing organics the possibility of getting their iPod pregnant. Fleshbags and robots are best friends now! Yay!
Also, now that everybody's the same, with space tattoos and green eyes29, the Reapers have stopped killing everybody and started to help rebuild the galaxy. Following is an era of freeze-dried galactic peace30 that the audience only gets to see a little bit. And it's all possible because everyone is the same, and meets some kind of criteria. I think I heard one of the Reapers say its name was Adolf.
Now, I'm sure that explaining any kind of science behind the concept of Synthesis would take a million years. In fact, the concept is left so vague, I'm convinced that even the writers don't know what it entails. However, given that organic and synthetic lifeforms have basically become hybrids of each other due to a release of energy, it's easy to understand why people write this concept off as "space magic", isn't it?
According to the Mass Effect Wiki,
The Catalyst came upon the idea of merging organic and synthetic life as a possible solution and attempted to do so numerous times in the past, but it always resulted in failure. It blames organics for the failure, stating they were not "ready" and that the process cannot be forced.
Isn't that exactly what's happening in this case? Synthesis is being forced on the entire galaxy, whether or not they're 'ready', right? And yet, the Catalyst says that the people of this particular cycle are ready, for whatever reason. In what way are the people of this cycle more ready or able to go through the process of synthesis than people of previous cycles?
This also negates the purpose of passing the reputation check back on Rannoch, where the concept of synthesis was forming in a more natural way anyway.
See, getting the Quarians and Geth to understand each other leads to the two working together to get the Quarians settled back on Rannoch as soon as possible. This involves a lot of things, not the least of which is the idea that Geth would upload themselves into Quarian suits as a means to help the Quarians adapt their compromised immune systems to their homeworld more quickly. In this way, synthesis was already occurring. This moment of truce between the Quarians and Geth represented the first step towards something bigger, a mutual understanding between organics and synthetics that could lead to them becoming one life together. People would then be free to choose whether or not they wanted to go through with this 'synthesis', and either way, everyone would be able to live their life in the way that's right for them.
I picture it like this: the Quarians and the Geth are standing at the edge of a precipice, where the magic of fusion and understanding between synthetic and organic life lays at the bottom. Arm in arm, both parties are getting ready to step off, into a wonderful era of discovery and growth, where both sides could potentially become much more than they have ever been capable of.
Then, along comes this jerk called Commander Shepard31. Instead of allowing for the poetry and beauty of self-discovery, Shepard just forces Synthesis on everyone, without so much as a chance to vote. Everybody gets all green and synthesisy, without being able to discover what it is, or what it means to them, or whether or not they even just want to go through with it. Also, in doing this, Shepard negates any need to have brokered a peace between the Geth and Quarians, since whoever's left will become hybridized regardless. Why are these points so important? DNA.
All living things are pretty dedicated to passing their DNA on to offspring, in order to ensure its survival. DNA is a very important part of how organisms have evolved, and is a very powerful symbol of uniqueness. These genetic blueprints are the reason why life exists, why such varied organisms struggle to survive day to day, and why humans can enrich their lives by bringing children into the world.
The idea of Synthesis is that Shepard will be used as an ingredient in a giant green energy beam, which will then be emitted from the Crucible and change everyone on the genetic level, without their consent. That very DNA, which all living things have struggled to defend and preserve, is suddenly and irrevocably changed. You don't get a say in whether or not your genes are altered, and you can't go back. You're this way now, whether you like it or not, so suck it up, princess. I can change your genetic blueprints if I damn well feel like it.
So, people are being forcibly altered on an extremely important and fundamental level, and the people of the galaxy are supposed to be glad for it? They're supposed to be happy that their genetic blueprints have been rewritten for them by some guy they haven't even met? Who was this guy, who altered my genetic structure without asking me? Wasn't one of the themes of this game the inherent beauty found in difference and uniqueness between the galactic species? If so, that theme was definitely not found in this ending.
How wonderful. How poetic. How revolting.
I guess it doesn't matter, since Shepard dissolves and dies, so he doesn't have to answer to any of this. Oh well, at least this death takes.
Instead of carefully deconstructing the Catalyst's faulty logic and calling it out on its bullshit as I have, Shepard just tells the Catalyst that he won't go along with the whole atrocity thing. The Catalyst simply turns out the lights, takes its ball and goes home. Shepard then stands there, impotent, as war rages all around him. Apparently, Shepard being there didn't mean that the Catalyst's solution had to change after all.
Many years later, a beacon built by Liara is broadcasting a message.
If you're hearing this… then there is still hope. Hope that you can avoid the same mistakes that we made. We fought the Reapers, but we failed to stop them. We did everything we could. We built the Crucible, but it didn't work. We fought as a united galaxy, but it wasn't enough. I only hope that the information in this capsule is enought to help you before it's too late. My name is Dr. Liara T'Soni. Herein lies the recounting of our war with the Reapers.
What's this? You didn't want to do it the Catalyst's way and do one of the three things that flies in the face of the themes and tone set forth by the games that came before this moment? You didn't want to make these choices on the basis that the choices available to you are the Catalyst's solutions and not yours? You wanted to take a moral stand against these three atrocities that the Catalyst - and by extension, Casey Hudson and Mac Walters - had set upon you? You say you wanted to fight that war with your Shepard's internal morality and character intact and consistent?
Well then gentle player, up yours.
That's right. This ending is just a huge middle finger to the players. If you don't do things their way, you lose. Plain and simple. Now, I'll give the Mass Effect team the benefit of the doubt and say that they probably didn't intend it that way, but that's how it comes off. I'll agree that the addition of this ending was a nice touch. I'll definitely agree that the rushed nature of this ending32 probably had something to do with resources and time. But, I won't agree that it should have been executed in this fashion. In fact, it probably would have been better to not include it at all.
Supposedly, the implication is that someone in a later galactic cycle used the Crucible in Shepard's stead, which defeated the Reapers and ushered in a false peace like those that were clumsily injected into the of the game by the other endings. The result of this though, is that it totally invalidates Shepard's moral stand against the Catalyst and those three horrendous choices. Your values, your character and your morals don't matter here, audience.
Now, play the game the Hudson/ Walters way. By the way, Synthesis is the right answer.
Having considered the above, I'm convinced that these endings aren't just thematically revolting, but are thematically destructive. They don't simply ignore the themes of sentience, friendship, unity and hope, they contradict them and declare them invalid, despite having created such compelling cases for these things. Destroy allows Shepard to offer up newly sentient beings as sacrifices to save his fellow organics, and is alone while he makes his decision. In this way, how is the player to hope for a brighter future, having just seen their Shepard in a context that destroys the very themes laid out in the trilogy that preceeded this scene?
So, after these wonderful atrocities, the game closes out with a scene that embodies the word 'most' in two ways: Nonsensical and pointless.
Pointless USS Stargazer Scene
There's no point to the Stargazer scene.
"But," you may say, "Buzz Aldrin does a voice in it!"
To that I say, "so what?"
If Buzz Aldrin is the point of this scene, the purpose of the entire trilogy is Ali Hillis.
In this scene, two shadows tell the audience that a story just happened and that's it. Thanks. Personally, I wasn't aware that a story had been occurring for the hundred or so hours I'd spent playing the trilogy, so I'm glad it's cleared up.
You'll notice I didn't mention the Refuse version of the stargazer scene. The reason is that, while it stars an Asari instead of Buzz Aldrin, the same (lack of) information is given, with the same clumsy, badly-delivered dialogue.
Also, since not using the Crucible resulted in the Reapers winning, aren't all Asari supposed to be dead?
In the original version of the game, what popped up after the credits was a window telling the players to buy DLC when it comes out. To BioWare's credit, the Extended Cut fixes this by congratulating the player for completing the game, then thanks the audience for participating in the Mass Effect story.
You might recall that I said earlier that we had entered the part of the game where the Mass Effect story ends, and a completely different story begins. That's because, as soon as Shepard meets with the Catalyst, the core conflict completely changes. See, the game started off telling players to solve the conflict of the Reaper invasion - save the galaxy from extinction at the hands of the Reapers. As soon as Shepard meets the Catalyst though, all matters concerning the Reapers are brushed aside, and the conflict changes into solving the problem of synthetics coming to wipe out their organic creators. Within that one scene, a very important core element of the story, the freaking conflict, is completely ejected in favor of a brand new story that has nothing to do with what's going on at that point in the game. It's like the game started out as Mass Effect 3, and ended as The Terminator.
So finally, after all that, I've listed my problems with the plot. But, it doesn't end here! There's still all sorts of extra content!
3. The All-Knowing Reapers Have No Idea What They're Doing
I've mentioned this before, but I'm going to go into it in more detail now.
The goal of the Reapers is to gather up and harvest the all the dominant species of the galaxy, and turn them into goo that will be used to construct a new Reaper. In doing this, the Reapers are apparently preserving all life, just in Reaper form. So, as far as the Reapers are concerned, they're here to save us from being obliterated completely, by melting us down into giant space ships33. So, despite all the self-important diatribes and death threats, the Reapers are here to save us because they love us with all their hearts and want us to live forever.
The Reapers' strategy leaves much to be desired. They don't surround the galaxy and invade from multiple entry points34, instead opting to all trickle in at the same point, in a single file line. Then, instead of say, doing stuff that would allow them to accomplish their goal of harvesting everybody, they just land on planets and start shooting people.
It's readily apparent that the writers didn't know, or couldn't decide on what the goal of the Reapers was going to be. During the first two games, the Reapers just wanted to kill people, having said as much on multiple occasions. As of the third game though, their goal constantly switches between harvesting people and just outright killing them, depending on whatever the scene needs. At the beginning, they're just killing people. Then on Rannoch, that one dying Reaper says that the harvest must continue. Then, they kill people more. Then finally, at the end, the Catalyst says that the Reapers were there the whole time to harvest everybody, so as to preserve their memories and prevent their extinction. So, in the name of harvesting and preserving life in the galaxy, what do the Reapers do?
- Land on Earth and other planets, and start blowing up buildings.
- Shoot down evacuation shuttles, including Shepard's boycrush.
- Destroy factories that may or may not be producing munitions and weapons. A binocular factory in particular takes a hard hit.
- Block major supply lines for military forces and civilian populations.
- Engage in head-to-head fleet battles in space above Earth.
- Shoot giant lasers at Commander Shepard's face.
- Raze cities, and their surrounding planets to the ground.
If the goal of the Reapers was to harvest us, it might be more effective if they were to:
- Come in peace, even if it's fake.
- Talk to world leaders and galactic politicians about impending technological doom.
- Work with the people of the galaxy for a period of years to earn their trust, while silently indoctrinating them.
- HARVEST THEM.
And yes, I know that Sovereign blew any chance of peaceful relations out of the water, but would it be a problem for the Reapers to declare Sovereign a rogue element that doesn't represent Reaper interests? Alternately, Sovereign could have begun relations between the Reapers and the galactic community, which would have left everybody unprepared for the incoming harvest invasion. "But Shepard, the Reapers are helping us!"
I suppose however, that these would result in a very non-'splodey shooter game. Oh wait, there's a solution for that! It's…
- Give the Reapers the sole purpose of KILLING EVERYBODY.
This ends up serving two functions. First, it makes everything the Reapers do in the game make sense. Secondly, it doesn't turn the Reapers into giant space wusses. It allows them to keep their menace and mystery, while still giving us a preservation angle to the story: Even if a conventional war against the Reapers was hopeless, Shepard and company could still set plans into motion to preserve their memories and cultures in some way, right? I mean, the Protheans sort of did it on Ilos.
But, because the game needs explosions and lasers, the Reapers just land on the various homeworlds throughout the galaxy and start shooting stuff.
And this doesn't even touch on Mass Effect 2, where the ever-benevolent Reapers were trying to save all organic life by kidnapping humans against their will and melting them down into Reaper semen.
The Reapers Go To War Without Their Commander
How many times have armies gone to war without someone to command them?
Now, it's very probable that the Reapers are conducting their business as they have for billions of years, and so they can carry things out without their creator, the Catalyst, being present to watch over everything. But you'd think that with a procedure as important as the harvesting of all sentient life in the galaxy, someone would at least wake him up to let him know that things are underway or something. Instead, the Catalyst just sleeps in the background, waiting until the Crucible is hooked up to the Citadel.
Was the Catalyst awake all along, and just watching from the shadows? In that case, why did he ditch Sovereign and you know, not turn on the Citadel relay when it was time for the harvesting to begin35?
You'll notice that, in all this, I didn't mention the Citadel itself. In the past, it's been said that if the Reapers are at war, then destroying the Citadel - the center of galactic government - would go far in crippling the efforts of the galactic species to coordinate a counter-attack. And while that's true, I would argue that, in the context of this particular game, the Reapers aren't interested in fighting a war. They're trying to harvest all the galactic life they can (whenever the plot needs them to, that is), so they can preserve the knowledge and experience of as many people as possible. Sure, they're doing it by shooting and killing everyone, but you know. Whatevs.
It could also be argued that the Reapers might benefit from being in control of the Citadel, but for what purpose? The story has only established that it's a giant mass relay for the Reapers, a quick way into the galaxy from dark space. By the time Mass Effect 3 starts, the entire Reaper force has already arrived, which would make seizing the Citadel pretty redundant.
Not that it matters, since……
The Reapers Are Total Wusses
Back in the first two Mass Effect games, the Reapers were pretty damn cool. The interactions the player has with Soveriegn and Harbinger go a long way towards characterizing the Reapers as these unfathomable, ancient and badass machines that want to kill us simply because it gives them something to do. They were given a great deal of menace and mystery, which made them really damn cool to the audience.
Until Mass Effect 3.
The Reapers were suddenly desperate to save all organic life from a threat that wasn't even present. And of course, they do this by becoming the very threat they're trying to save organics from. Meanwhile, the Geth - presumably the artificial life the Reapers want to save everybody from - are all, "we love organics! Let's live together in peace!"
Oh please, Reapers! Save me from the… friendly… robots, that love me. Aaaaah.
The analogy isn't very accurate, but it reminds me of those twisted, psychotic people who stab their ex-lovers repeatedly, tears in their eyes, while shouting about how they truly love the victim.
In any case, the Reapers really need to stop helping so much.
4. Ticking Clock Element At The Beginning Of The Story
While I'm sure that many effectively told stories have introduced a ticking clock element right out of the gate, Mass Effect 3 is not an example where it worked to the story's advantage. For one, starting things off with the Reaper invasion means that the clock starts ticking with very little time left. This is something that most audiences of the game have picked up on, which is especially evident with the reception of the Citadel DLC.
A story like the one in a Mass Effect game is too complex to have a race against time right at the beginning. I mean, the developers seemed to want to depict the war against the Reapers on every front. They did this by having us visit all the homeworlds, depicting it to us in those random conversations between non-player characters that trigger when we walk past, and even showing how the refugees on the Citadel are affected by the conflict. In order for the story in the game to flow naturally, there needs to be a lot more time on the clock in order for the players to feel comfortable enough to explore these concepts.
In its current form, the story ends up being predicated on ideas that are polar opposites. The writers basically made this story into an exploration on the effects that the horrors of war can have on people, while simultaneously building an atmosphere of tension because time is running out. It just sends mixed messages to the audience, and if they don't know whether to relax and go with the flow of the story or feel tense that the clock is ticking down, it'll confuse them and take them out of the experience.
A better idea might have been to just increase the amount of time on the ticking clock, so that the Reapers aren't invading and killing everyone at the top of the story. This would require changing the story so the Reapers don't invade right away, but it would allow for players to more comfortably explore the universe one more time before things go to hell, and it also gives newcomers a chance to become acquainted with the fiction and characters of Mass Effect. And hey, no need to worry, since a Reaper invasion is going to happen anyway.
"What's that, refugee on the Citadel? You say you came from Thessia? Damn, I was there just a couple of hours ago36, trying to convince people that the Reapers were coming, and fighting off husks and Cerberus folks! I saw the beautiful skies, the majestic architecture, and the rolling hills! To think they're now crawling with Reapers. It must be terrible!"
With more time on the clock, the game could become a race to save all the worlds, and not just Earth. Shepard could be trying to unite the galaxy against the impending Reaper invasion, travelling around to the different homeworlds, all the while solving people's problems and fighting off indoctrinated Batarian attackers. Then, maybe late in the second act, the Reapers could arrive in the galaxy and start getting closer and closer to Earth, one homeworld at a time. Shepard could help with evacuation of the homeworlds in different ways while Normandy holds off Reapers in orbit. It could continue in a steady, game-like rhythm until the big showdown in the Sol system37, where it's truly the galaxy's last stand. Just when it all seems hopeless, the races of the galaxy unite and fight against the Reapers for the last time in recognition of Shepard's efforts and good deeds.
This is just off the top of my head, so it would need some refinement, but you get the idea. Compare it to what we got, which was a rocket straight to the climax, which hurried us to the end credits as fast as it possibly could.
5. If You Name It, They Will Care
It's readily apparent that the writers think we'll automatically care about about a planet if they call it "Earth". We don't get to see how the Earth of the twenty-second century looks, or how society has changed. We don't even get to see people just trying to make their way in the crazy, mixed-up world of the future. In short, we don't see why the Earth of the game is worth defending. Granted, there are some pretty vistas and people, but we just don't get any reason why this world should be precious to us, other than the fact that it's called "Earth".
You see, the thing here is that the audience generally knows that there's a seperation between fiction and reality. With that in mind, you can't just call something "Earth" and expect the audience to care. The players will always know in the back of their mind that the Earth in a story isn't the same one that they're living on, and they'll make that separation every time. The audience needs to know why they should care about this fictional Earth, since saving it is the focus of the entire goddam story.
On the topic, it's nonsensical to me that Earth is the only planet that anyone sees to be worth saving or caring about: Shepard drags a high-ranking Turian general off the front lines as Palaven burns, Sur'Kesh is untouched for some reason, save for some Cerberus thugs, and no one's evacuating a single soul off of Thessia. Then, because the so-called "plot" would be dead in the water otherwise, the Reapers drag the Citadel to Earth instead of say, sending it off into the middle of galactic nowhere, where no one can get to it.
6. To Sleep, Perchance to Dream… Of Shit
Excepting the first instance, the nightmares that plague Shepard ruin the pacing of the game, and only serve to repeat information the audience already knows. Gameplay-wise, the dream sequences are boring and unrewarding. Storywise, as I said, they're only useful to us once. The dreams basically tell us that the war is taking a toll on Shepard, and that having experienced the loss of so many of his friends has left him suffering with survivor's guilt. While that is a compelling dimension to the character, none of the dream sequences advance this particular plot element, nor do they resolve the issue in the character.
A long while ago, I did an analysis of Shepard's nightmares that has since been lost to the mists of time. What I didn't get into during the analysis was that half way through doing composing it, I suddenly realized that the whole endeavor was pointless. The dreams themselves are really just the story's ham-fisted way of telling us about how Shepard is suffering with survivor's guilt. What would have been more helpful would have been to have multiple ways of showing Shepard's guilt, such as having it manifest through his interactions with his crew, or even show how it interferes with his job of uniting the races of the galaxy. Instead, the audience is simply shown the same sequence of Shepard's burning boycrush over and over.
Do I have a solution to offer? Of course I do! It's simple, really: Give the dreams to James. Not only does it fit into his character history, it makes him even more human on an emotional level, and can give Shepard and even the player a reason to want to relate to James more throughout the game. It also makes it so that having these dreams doesn't do anything like say, impose any characteristics onto the player's sacred Shepard character that the player might not want to be there.
It can only help things.
7. Harbinger Doesn't Do Anything
Harbinger was probably one of the coolest things about Mass Effect 2. He picked up Sovereign's mantle of being the big evil dude, and ran with it. He was menacing, could possess the Collectors at will, and didn't show any frustration at being set back, even when the Collector base was destroyed.
In Mass Effect 3 though, he's just kind of there, in the background. He shoots at Shepard a bit at the end, but seems completely incapable of shooting down the Normandy, when it hovers right by the Citadelevator38 for like, five straight minutes. I've already mentioned the five second "fuck you" shot.
And then of course, there's the fact that there's no final showdown with Harbinger either. He just sort of fades into the background, like his role in Mass Effect 2 wasn't supposed to amount to anything. Poor Harbinger ends up being a pretty unimportant character.
Speaking of unimportant characters……
8. Kai Leng Barely Has One Dimension
Thank you to drayfish for reminding me of this otherwise forgettable "character". And yes, the word 'character' is in quotes because, unless you've read the various novels39, you'll have no idea who he is, what his motivations are40, or why you should even care about his existence.
During gameplay segments, he's little more than an annoyance who won't shut the hell up, whereas in cut scenes, he gets a lot of lucky breaks that allow him to best Shepard without using any real skill or ability. And then, he dies in a cut scene in the Cerberus base, which has a pointless Renegade option.
What exactly is Kai Leng's ultimate goal? Why? What is his beef with Shepard? For that matter, what is Kai Leng's role within Cerberus? Why does he get to meet The Illusive Man in person so often? Just how important is he to Cerberus' plans? How did he get to join Cerberus in the first place?
I haven't read the novels or comics, so all I can do is assume that these things are explained, but what matters here is what's portrayed in the Mass Effect 3 video game. If these things are explained in the books, they needed to be recapped in the game somehow. After all, the writers were so gung-ho about making the Reapers sympathetic, why not the little Asian robo-dude too?
9. BioWare Hijacks Your Shepard
Before being allowed to play the first Mass Effect, players are encouraged to create their own character from scratch. After choosing one of three available personal histories, constructing their protagonist's face, and then choosing their military expertise, the player is then thrust into the universe of Mass Effect. Once there, they are encouraged to build their Shepard's personality through a very unique and highly popular mechanic: The Dialogue Wheel. Mechanically, it's little more than a checklist of choices presented in a unique way, but in terms of the story and audience of the game, it means a lot more than that.
The dialogue wheel not only represents, but actually is the player's chance to craft their Shepard beyond the quickie little menu choices that are presented when a new game is started. It's the interface that players use to build their Shepard, where they can craft his morals, values, and even his relationships. If the Shepard whose face you constructed approaches aliens with acceptance, values the feelings and words of his crew, and does the things he does in the name of doing the right thing, then it's you who made that Shepard possible. The same applies if you created a Shepard who shuns non-humans, who shoots first and asks questions later, and whose crew is afraid to step out of line for fear of reprisal. That Shepard too was constructed by you.
Where before, Shepard was a cipher for the player's personality, in Mass Effect 3 he has been given an additional character trait, whether you want it or not: He's weary and filled with regret, lost in a quagmire of survivor's guilt. It's really nice that these things were forced onto my Commander Shepard, especially when it ultimately didn't go anywhere. It wasn't resolved, and didn't play enough of a part in the overall story to be important. It was just kind of there. In any case, Mass Effect 3 starts out by subtly taking your Shepard away from you. To quote Red Letter Media's Plinkett reviews,
You may not have noticed it, but your brain did.
So, for most of the game, BioWare sticks with the added survivor's guilt, constantly reminding the player's subconscious that soon, this character will no longer be their Shepard. Shepard's personality is no longer up to the player to mold. Now, it's also supposed to be whatever else BioWare wants it to be, whether the player agrees or not. The synthesis will happen.
Once Shepard, AKA you, goes up the magic elevator, the takeover is complete. Gone is the defiant space rogue who sought to understand the mysteries surrounding him. Gone is the person who rose against the odds and fought back against injustice because it was the right thing to do. Gone is the Shepard that you created, that the games made you build from the ground up, from his past, to his present, to even molding his personality. In place of the noble and strong Shepard you built is a soulless, resigned shell who, upon meeting the reason that all this Reaper shit is happening, simply takes on the attitude of, "okay, boss. Whatever you say."
Instead of doing the things he's known for, like carefully explaining to the Catalyst that its methods are wrong, Shepard is distilled into a nearly zombified slave that can only tell the little space boy yes or no.
At this point, Shepard no longer belongs to the player. No personality or biography that the player has injected into their Shepard matters anymore. Shepard doesn't call on past experience to exemplify any point he could argue, and he certainly doesn't call out to the friends who have supported him throughout three whole games now. He doesn't even point out how synthetics are helping him to defeat the Reapers at that very moment. Where's the Shepard that players have been creating and building for themselves for three whole games now? Well, he's certainly not at the end of Mass Effect 3.
It's become apparent to me that when it comes to player characters, video games have a unique aspect to them that other story mediums do not: the main character doesn't need to be incredibly deep and developed. I think this is because the player is able to project several key elements of their own personality onto the character, which ends up making said character easy to relate to. Thus, the less developed a player character is, the easier it is for the player to relate to that character through projection of their own morals and values. In that way, the character ends up being developed by the player rather than the writer, and the game becomes more interactive in a very, very subtle but rewarding way. For instance, do you love Half-Life's Gordon Freeman? Well, what do you know about him as a person, besides the fact that he fights aliens and carries a crowbar? Almost nothing. But you love ol' Gordo anyway, because you're able to fill the blanks in his character yourself via your own actions and personality.
So as you can see, the building of characters in this way isn't even restricted to mechanics like the dialogue wheel.
10. Emotional But Meaningless Scenes and Music
Emotional scenes are a good thing in storytelling. However, a good scene is emotional because of the meaning involved in it. A character feels a certain way, and the audience knows why, having experienced the scenes that led said character to this point. Scenes can be highly emotional when used as a vehicle to show an audience how a character has grown up and become more than who they were at the beginning of the story. In Mass Effect 3, none of these elements are at play during the scenes that are considered to be the most emotional.
The surviving characters barely react on an emotional level at all. Sure, Shepard is saddened when someone dies, and he has a moment or two where the player can choose how he responds to these situations, but in most cases, the death is just sort of glossed over and forgotten. Characters like Garrus and Tali lend a quick "there, there" moment, and then everyone's off again for more space adventures.
What ends up happening is that the scenes feel emotionally manipulative in a bad way, and end up not having any real meaning because they don't enrich the story. Scenes like Mordin's death end up feeling like the scene is only there to give people's favorite characters a big, dramatic sendoff, rather than closing out character arcs in a meaningful way.
These scenes don't affect character growth either. They don't change the direction of the plot, and they don't serve as motivation for Shepard to succeed. They're just there to be dramatic and sad, then make Shepard dream about his boycrush again. This ends up making the storytellers look like they're just trying to push people's buttons for their own entertainment, rather than telling a compelling, dramatic tale about lives being torn apart by the horrors of war.
Instead of getting a scene where we see a fully realized character complete their arc and grow in a way that's satisfying and contributes to the story, we get lots of explosions, accompanied by music that's so obviously constructed to make the audience feel a heightened sense of sadness or loss that it's insulting. The part that makes this worse is that it doesn't rely at all on the storytelling or characters. It's all in the architecture of the scene, like a computer program constructed these moments specifically to illicit a specific response from the audience.
One thing about Mass Effect 3's penchant for killing off the Mass Effect 2 cast is that someone starting the series with this game would have no real idea who the Dirty Dozen are, or why any of these people are important to Shepard. The game does very little in the way of recapping the past relationship between Shepard and Mordin, which in turn makes Mordin relatively unimportant to someone starting the trilogy with Mass Effect 3. A newcomer to the franchise might end up seeing Mordin's death scene as something where he sacrifices himself for no real reason, other than to have a dramatic moment, which is exactly what happened. Then that sad music starts, and it plays every single time one of the characters shuffles off their mortal coil. Every damn time.
All in all, it comes off like we as the audience were supposed to get so worked up and so hysterical, that we'd only remember the strongly evoked feelings we had while playing, rather than remembering the terrible execution of nearly everything in the game.
The worst part is that it's working. I'm ashamed to say that it even worked on me. But one day, when people have gotten over that initial burst of emotion, many of them are going to look back on Mass Effect 3 and realize just how shallow and insincere these scenes really were.
11. Almost No Hubs
Hubs are important in Mass Effect games. The first game has the following hubs:
- The Normandy SR-1
- Citadel - Presidium and Wards (Doesn't sound like much, but there's quite a lot to see and do.)
- Noveria (Sure, it's just a shop, but there are people to talk to and all that.)
- Pinnacle Station (Only if you get the DLC of course, but it's still a viable hub), and the villa Shepard wins for being really good at killing the holographic bad guys there.
Mass Effect 2 has:
- The Normandy SR-2
- Omega (Comprised of the nightclub, residential area, many back alleys, and a police station41)
- The secret base of the goddam Shadow Broker
Mass Effect 3 has an astounding number of hubs:
- The Normandy SR-2, Alliance Edition
- The Citadel (A docking bays, a hospital and the marketplace)
- Shepard's little apartment that he gets in the Citadel DLC
Is anyone else feeling rushed towards the finish line?
Hubs like these are important to help flesh out the universe and fiction of the games. In Mass Effect 3, they would end up showing players the community of the games in a non-battle context, which helps to expand the scope and feeling of the experience. Hubs could then be used as a tool to add some emotional impact to the game's depiction of the horrors of war - showing how different people from different worlds are affected by the horrific fighting. Tuchanka is a prime example of this idea.
In Mass Effect 2, players finally get to see the Krogan on their home planet, which is a barren wasteland. There, players witness the Krogan living with pride in themselves, and pride in the world that they've called their home for many thousands of years. This deepens the world of the game by showing the audience the Krogan as a people, their customs and values, how they live day to day, and how they're great survivalists for eeking out an existence on such a decimated world.
Cramming many different kinds of people onto the Citadel can serve this same purpose to an extent, but it's limited in that regard because the audience has already seen how people live on a space ship.
12. Shepard Is Sovereign's George Lucas
George Lucas usually gets all the credit for the creation of Star Wars, from A to Z. In truth, Lucas was responsible for the creative spark that got things going, but he didn't write the first three films, and had little to do with actually directing them. In fact, he's admitted many times over that he was never much of a writer or director. But still, people tend to think of the films as George Lucas' Star Wars.
In that very same fashion, Shepard gets all the credit for killing Sovereign, when in fact, he had very little to do with it at all. Sure, destroying Saren caused some sort of feedback thing that allowed the Alliance fleets to cap Sovereign once and for all, but Shepard really only helped things along, he didn't destroy Sovereign himself.
13. The Mass Effect 2 Crew Sits This One Out
One thing you may have noticed while reading the plot section of this article is that, except for Mordin, and maybe Miranda a couple of times, I don't mention the cast from Mass Effect 2 even once.
Fans love all the characters in the Mass Effect universe, and it's probably fair to say that the 'Dirty Dozen' from the second game gets most of that love, and rightly so. They're diverse, compelling, complex, and you get to spend a lot of time getting to know them as people, which really helps heighten the tension by the time you get to the Suicide MissionTM. Players really ended up wanting to see them succeed as they struggled with their emotions and themselves, trying to find their place in a crazy, messed up galaxy.
In Mass Effect 3 though, they don't do much. If you had played only the third game, you'd probably be wondering who this Jack chick is, and why she's having so much trouble adjusting to being an Alliance officer. You'd be wondering who Miranda is and why she's at all important, or writing Jacob off as a pacifist soldier who knocked up some scientist chick on an ice planet. And how many newcomers would care much about what happens to Grunt?
The entire Mass Effect 2 cast sits this one out, so players can't interact with them, and newcomers can't get to know them even a little bit, which further works to sabotage any meaning behind Mordin's death scene. There's very little in the way of allowing veterans of the series to touch base with their old comrades. Maybe it could have been another neat little way to show how player's choices affected the progression of this game, but unless Shepard gets them killed, each character from the second game always winds up in the same place in the third.
Finally, to add a little more insult to this injury, the entire Mass Effect 2 cast is only encountered in optional side missions. Hope you weren't too in love with Miranda's boobs.
But, you know, whatever. Just hurry up and get to the finish line, player! We've got endings that violate the themes of the story to show you! But, make sure you stop to do non-war related things while you hurry to save the galaxy!
The single player DLC expansions for this game end up serving as nothing more than distractions from the main plot. I won't get into them too much here, since this article is already six miles long, but I thought I should at least mention them.
Leviathan ended up being somewhat relevant to the plot, but not even remotely necessary. The basic summary is that Shepard and company go on a scavenger hunt, until they find a few members of the race that created the Catalyst - The Leviathans. Of course, this was a wink-wink, nudge-nudge to all the fans who wanted something to come of the 'Leviathan of Dis', introduced offhand in a planet entry in the first Mass Effect. So, this DLC teaches the audience where the Catalyst and Reapers come from, even though nobody wanted to know these things. The end result of this adventure is some war assets that plan to eventually control everyone in the universe, and an extra dialogue option with the Catalyst, where it tells you what the Leviathans were. A more indepth look at the DLC and its impact on the story can be read here.
Omega, was even more fan-servicey, which also came with the optional feature of not even really changing anything storywise. Sure, players got to see Omega again, and a female Turian was shoehorned in to please whoever wanted to see a Turian girl, but that still doesn't cover for the fact that there's nothing of substance in this DLC. It doesn't deepen or expand the story of Mass Effect 3, and the extra EMS resources end up being pointless anyway, since people can still get any version of the endings without playing any of the DLC expansions. Also, Omega doesn't become a new hub to explore, and Aria continues wasting her time in that nightclub on the Citadel.
Citadel is even worse42. It's all just one big distraction, with no relevance to the Reaper war whatsoever. I see how it's meant to be a final gift from the Mass Effect team, offered to give players some time with the characters they've grown to love without the horrors of extinction to cloud everything over.
Something I'd like to address though, is the timing of the whole thing. The galaxy is burning all around them, and Shepard and company are on shore leave. Shore leave. In the middle of all the homeworlds dying and being plagued by guilt-induced nightmares, Shepard's stopping off at his pad with his friends in order to throw a party. Seriously, it's like he just can't sit around on his ass enough in this game. Further, the whole matter of the genophage, the biological weapon that was almost single-handedly responsible for the extinction of the Krogan, is treated as a potential slip-up by some team of dumbasses.
"Sorry I almost caused your extinction, entire species! My bad!"
Also, the audience is supposed to be intrigued by "Conspiracy To Kill Shepard #9,768,942".
These little stops on the side of the road of the main plot end up sending those mixed messages I mentioned earlier. Are we supposed to feel tense and hurried since the entire galaxy is under attack by invincible space machines, or are we supposed to feel like we have room to breathe and relax? The game itself sends us the former message, while the DLC consistently sends us the latter. The result of these mixed messages is that it ends up being too much of a rollercoaster ride, where the audience wants to get out as soon as possible because they're nauseated and can't take it anymore.
15. Visiting Homeworlds is Boring
Compared to the first two games, Mass Effect 3 really left me wanting for some planetary exploration. Being told that I'm going to be visiting the homeworlds of the major galactic races really had me excited to finally see how each of these worlds reflects the true heart of each species. Homeworlds are a chance to tell the audience about the Turians, Asari and so forth in ways that are much more effective and intimate than just printing them into a codex.
My main problem with visiting the homeworlds of each race in this game isn't that they lack action or drama, but the superficial reasons for the visits in the first place. It's like Shepard is only visiting them because the developers of the game knew this would be their last chance to show the audience the homeworlds of their favorite characters. As a result, they just shoehorned in some dumb reason to go visit43. It also doesn't help that Shepard - and by extension, the audience - doesn't get to see much of each homeworld. It's sort of like the game is a galactic cocktease.
The few environments that are present are at most times crowded with people who don't do much of anything. They're just, as this video points out, filler. People are as much decorations as furniture and knick knacks.
As I've mentioned before, it would have made the game much more compelling to have Shepard personally visit the different homeworlds, trying to convince everyone to get ready for a Reaper invasion. With the Reapers not yet having arrived, the game could give players enough time to explore the homeworlds of their favorite characters, and learn why it's important to defend them. The exception would be Rannoch of course, but Shepard could be afforded some time to visit more of the Migrant Fleet as compensation.
Part of the purpose would be to show players just why the galaxy of this game is worth saving. Part of it is to get Shepard to reconnect with squadmates more towards the beginning of the game. Remember how Tali joins the squad like, two thirds of the way through the plot? Mostly though, the purpose would be to get players out exploring an entire galaxy, rather than simply visiting a few small tourist attractions who seem to want the player to leave as soon as possible anyway.
16. SOMEBODY TALK TO ME!!!
Mass Effect 3 lacks much in the way of interaction with the galaxy's inhabitants.
Remember back in the first Mass Effect, when you could talk with: the couple having a baby; the leader of the smuggling ring; shop owners; delegates in the embassies; PTSD-addled former comrades; explodey AIs; an Admiral looking for his lost soldiers; a guy missing his brother's cargo ship; the Consort; the head cheese on Noveria; the big Turian cheese on Noveria; the colonists on Feros; the Thorian; two (TWO!) Prothean VIs; Saren; Benezia; the Rachni Queen; Admiral Anderson; Udina, and almost the entire cast and crew of the Normandy?
Of course there were many conversations in the first game that Shepard couldn't take part in, but those moments were meant to be incidental, something tailored specifically to expand the universe a little.
Then, of course, there's Mass Effect 3. Virtually all interactions are passive, with the player simply being a fly on the wall. Instead of addressing people directly, Shepard simply listens in as an eavesdropper, or a very… unique… voyeur.
17. Only Hints Of A Universe
Mass Effect 3 spends so much time rushing the players towards the goal that it doesn't take any time at all to allow for exploration of the universe in a meaningful way. Strangely enough, I'm not talking about visiting the homeworlds this time.
The game makes all sorts of references to events and characters from the novels, comics and the previous two games, which hints at a much larger universe than what is portrayed in Mass Effect 3. Sure, it's got the many codices available on the pause menu, but as they say, "reading about Italy in a classroom is nothing like actually standing on a street in Rome."
18. Cerberus Are Everywhere
Holy shit, you guys. No matter where Shepard goes, whether it's to a communications array on a planet, or to get a female Krogan off of the Salarian homeworld, Cerberus is there. Not only are they there, they want everything for some reason.
Back in the first game, they were a below-the-radar rogue group who conducted unethical experiments, often on innocent people. In the second, their fiction was expanded and expounded upon, where the audience learned how Cerberus works, even including the hierarchy and division of labor.
Cut to the third game, where Cerberus is a Massive Organization Of EvilTM, eager to get their paws into everything they can. They abduct people from Alliance colonies, they attack secret Salarian installations, they raid temples on the Asari homeworld, and they freaking attack the Citadel. Then, because they haven't done enough yet, Illusive Man teams up with the Reapers.
Speaking of the Reapers, remember when the trilogy used to be about fighting them?
19. Things That I Did Like
Now, this wouldn't be much of an anal44ysis, or whatever it is, if I didn't list at least some of the things that I actually enjoyed about this game. I promise this will be over soon.
A lot of the dialogue in the game is engaging, and serves its purpose well. When it's meant to provoke thought, it does so effectively. When it's meant to be funny, it's hilarious. Whether it's Joker and EDI's awkward and budding relationship, or Jack struggling to adapt to a system with rules and conventions, the dialogue of the characters is always interesting and entertaining. Even the emails that Shepard recieves on the Normandy are interesting to read. Dialogue has really always been one of those things that BioWare has been consistently been good at.
Some Of The Original Cast Returns
The characters that Mass Effect veterans have come to know and love make a brilliant return to this game. Sure, the traits that made them famous have been wratcheted up to 11 in order to please the audience45, but they're there just the same. Their interactions between Shepard and each other are great, showing yet another of BioWare's strengths.
I wasn't particularly drawn to James, though. I felt that he was pretty boring and not very sympathetic, and actually kind of unnecessary to the story overall. Even during the mission where he was mandatory, he didn't contribute much, other than to stand up for Shepard when the Virmire Survivor was badmouthing him. In the end, he just gets sent back to the shuttle after the opening fire fight to make room for Liara to join Shepard's party. It just felt to me like he was shoved into the game in order to round out the mission roster. It might be argued that the game needed a 'newcomer' character that the audience could follow, so that both could learn about the world of Mass Effect together, but the thing is that, in a story, that job is usually reserved for someone else - the protagonist.
I just have to ask though, what's with giving Grunt that annoying "heeeh heeeh heeeh" catchphrase?
The way the cutscenes are composed are great. They're wonderfully cinematic, and very moving visually. Even just the camera movements feel natural, and very realistic. Space battle scenes manage to be much more engaging than the overly busy machinations of the Star Wars prequels by toning down the amount of information in each frame. Limiting the information the audience has to take in during a particular shot makes sure that they don't get overwhelmed and tune out. The developers of Mass Effect 3 really found a good balance between showing the massive scale of their scenes, without showing scores and scores of ships fighting and exploding in each frame.
Say what you like, but for a collection of polygons, textures and shaders, Ashley got pretty uh, fetching, in this one.
While the game is pretty much like any other third-person shooter, the sequences really made me feel like an action hero, and were fun to play. The controls were nice and responsive, though the cover system could have used a little work. I found it easy to get caught on things and duck behind them while the enemy is pursuing me - from the same side I'm taking cover on.
The Citadel Wasn't Coruscant
Back to Star Wars for a second. In the first and third films, some world or group of people is supposedly crumbling under the pressure of the film's main conflict. Naboo's lush, expansive world with power reactors was suffering under the Trade Federation's blockade in Phantom Menace, and in Revenge of the Sith, the Republic on Coruscant is apparently crumbling under the pressures of the war being waged by General Grievous. Yet, in neither film do we see any evidence of anyone suffering, or any political powers crumbling at all.
In contrast, the people of the galaxy in Mass Effect 3 are all clearly being affected by the war against the Reapers. Refugees are taking shelter wherever they can find space, one Asari soldier in the hospital is suffering from some pretty severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the hospital itself is short on rooms and supplies for all the patients they have to deal with. There's a clear picture being painted here, where war is taking a toll on everybody, military, government and civilian alike. It's clear depiction like this that helps to paint a deeper picture of the universe of the game, such as it is in Mass Effect 3.
The Final Battle With The Illusive Man
I absolutely love how the final showdown with The Illusive Man is a war of words. After all, Shepard's done so much shooting that engaging in a battle of wits with the ultimate narcissist makes for a really great change of pace. I'd even venture to say that it's one of those rare moments in the game where players are allowed to have their Shepard back, even if it's only for one scene. Plus, it just feels satisfying to knock the self-righteous bastard down a few pegs. My only complaint would be that it technically wasn't a true battle of wits because Illusive Man was so heavily indoctrinated at that point.
And of course, there's that touching scene with Anderson afterwards. In the context of the entire trilogy, that was a scene that had a great deal of meaning - Anderson is spending his last moments with Shepard, the person he had total faith in. Where once they were master and pupil, commander and commanded, at that particular moment, they were spending their last moments together as two regular people. No ranks, no orders, no bureaucracy. Just two guys, sitting back and looking at the stars, reflecting on all the things that brought them to that point. If you're coming in at the third game, it's probably not as meaningful, but it might be a touching moment just the same.
My ultimate thought on Mass Effect 3 is that it's just like Star Trek V: It was put together with the best of intentions, but the execution was terribly lacking. It's obvious to me that the whole Mass Effect 3 team wanted to create a fun, action-filled game with all sorts of winks and nods to the fans, which is admirable. But, they consistently did so without thinking of how these moments impact the telling of the story, or how they could use these moments to enrich the story overall. As a result, the most important moments of game end up being robbed of any actual meaning.
What everyone ended up with is a game where the plot is a big mess that makes very little sense, the main character's personality is taken away from the players, and the endings completely disregard the themes that the trilogy worked so hard to make a case for.
As a result of these mistakes, Mass Effect 3 ends up being a jumbled mess of nonsensical fanservice that hurries players to the finish line as quickly as possible, while trying to hide its flaws and lack of substance with meaningless death scenes and lots of explosions. It's apparent that the game is quite emotionally manipulative, as the people who defend this game often do so with such emotionally charged sentiment that they overlook the major flaws inherent in the plot itself, which is the major focus of the franchise.
Did I expect perfection? No, absolutely not. The first two games are very far from perfect, and I didn't want perfection from this game. I've never wanted nor expected perfection from anybody or anything. But what I did want was a compelling narrative that wrapped up the story of Commander Shepard in a satisfying and meaningful way, and I didn't get that. Instead, what I got was Michael Bay-esque summer action movie schlock that probably should have embarrassed its creators more than it did.
The first Mass Effect started as a sci-fi space opera that really focused on characters, and the way they lived and interacted within an expansive and rich universe. It allowed players much in the way of exploration and interaction, which served to enrich the overall experience. The second game retained a lot of these elements of character drama and exploration while refining the gameplay and atmosphere of the Mass Effect fiction. The third game however, was a schizophrenic ride from beginning to end, where it wasn't clear who the antagonist was supposed to be or what that antagonist's goal was, or if the game was trying to be a commentary on the horrors of war, or an over-the-top 80's style action movie experience.
Further, as the Citadel DLC expansion shows, the Mass Effect 3 development team (some would argue Hudson/ Walters in particular) comes off like overly eager barflies who are bad at oral sex. All sorts of things ideas and moments were thrown into the game to please as many fans as they could, but they didn't do it in a way that would have enhanced experience of the game in any way. It all just ended up being a big mess that people could only relate to if they didn't think about any part of the narrative structure, which, as I've said about six thousand times by now, was one of the main focuses of the franchise. It quickly becomes clear that the DLC expansions were created based on what fans wanted, not on what the game needed to be good.
Now of course, I do have to find something to be thankful for when it comes to having had to withstand this mess. I'm thankful that it showed me a lot about what to do and what not to do when it comes to storytelling. I'm glad that it introduced me to a community of wonderful, supportive people46. And just to be a smartass, I'm glad that it ended.
When I began this writing, I really wanted to say something smarmy like, "I hope you guys realize that I had to sit through an entire playthrough of this garbage for you." But while going through that playthrough, I realized that I had begun to feel something more akin to nostalgia. Back in the first game, as I've mentioned, I was invited into a new galaxy to mold and shape a story according to my choices. Commander Daniel Shepard was mine, and I was given the chance to drive the narrative of a video game. The only other game that has allowed me that privilege is Telltale's The Walking Dead, and as a gamer, it's a very empowering mechanic. With these in mind, seeing Mass Effect 3 one more time felt more like taking one last look at the old girl before waving goodbye and riding off into the sunset. I will not return to Mass Effect after this, nor do I expect I will ever feel a need to. I won't go back to Garrus, Tali, Liara, Miranda, Wrex, Jacob or Mordin. Now that I've finally let all this out, I will happily let it all go and never look back. Mass Effect will no longer be a shadow in my periphery, nor will it be a taboo subject that causes old wounds to reopen. It will instead be a time for me that is long past, a nostalgic memory floating through the ether of my mind.
For me, the shackles have been cast off. I am free.
I have taken my world back.