Critical Hit: Was Mass Effect 3’s Ending Really That Bad?

By Ian Soltes 14.07.2018 1

The ending is easily one of the most crucial parts of any game. It isn't just the final screen; it's the culmination of hours, if not days or weeks, of hard and dedicated work. Every choice, every action, every victory and defeat - love and loss - all leading to one final moment. Mass Effect 3 screwed it up royally. An ending so bad that fans revolted, boycotted the game, and were one step short of tarring and feathering the Bioware writing staff to drag them through the streets. Now, with the advantage of several years, a DLC 'fix,' and the torches cooled down, it's time to ask the big question: Was it really that bad?

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The Mass Effect series was an overnight sensation. Created by the acclaimed Bioware company, it was basically the gaming answer to Star Trek. A legitimate space-opera filled to the brim with interesting races, cultures, and worlds. One of the great things about this game was that, almost literally littered throughout, there were a series of choices that could be made, which would hold repercussions over the other games in the series. Certain decisions would affect how the later games played out. How a player opted to resolve a situation involving a grieving widow and her unborn child, for example, would be brought up in the later releases. The second in the franchise followed through on this. Being more of a space Western than an opera, it was filled to the brim with choices that could be made, as well as the consequences of some of the choices from the prior entries popping up. Considered the best in the franchise by far, people were waiting with baited breath for the third outing, which promised a conclusion to everything.

Then it came out. Coming off as more of a Space Marine adventure, the third release promised to be epic. Massive battles were unfolding across the galaxy with entire planets, with the future of entire species hanging in the balance. While there were some issues, things looked brilliant and hopeful… until the end. That's when Mass Effect 3 pulled a stunt previously thought impossible and managed to retroactively ruin the prior two games with an ending that was so terrible pretty much every fan despised it with plenty refusing to buy it just because of those final few moments. How could a game possibly fail so badly?

As mentioned previously, the prior entries had been littered with choices; each one promising to have its own conclusion at some point down the line. While it seems unlikely that people legitimately expected every possible choice to hold some sort of consequence and related ending, many of the major choices were, effectively, neutralised. Who did Shepard romance? It didn't matter as far as the ending was concerned. No settling down with Liara to have bouncing blue children, or rebuilding the Quarians with Tali, or spending a romantic life with the galaxy's most eligible and desirable male, Wrex. Every choice and consequence devolved down to one of three similar endings with the game pushing a clear 'correct' one. The consequences weren't determined by all the choices made by the player up to that point but, rather, by a number that the game kept artificially low for those who did not play the multiplayer portion.

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Someone who had never played the series before could get the ideal ending just from playing the multiplayer, while someone who sat down and took the time to root out every decision could, potentially, be locked out of said ending. With every choice rendered largely meaningless, prior work and the weight these decisions had held were, basically, wiped out. Damage control went into effect immediately with a 'new' ending being released soon after. It fixed some of the problems but people who had hoped to fight it out to the final blow, as opposed to picking a coded ending, were still sorely disappointed. It was better but it wasn't enough. The damage had been done and was absolute; all because of a final ten minutes. Was it really that bad, though?

It's easy to forget that, long ago, games had fairly pathetic endings. A game on the NES couldn't manage much more than a few screens and a 'congratulations,' often spelled incorrectly, to reward the player for beating the final boss. Even the story-heavy (for the time) RPGs couldn't handle too much for an ending. With the release of the SNES, things improved, but even then 'good' endings tended to be more sparse than not. Most modern titles have endings that are fairly short, as well, with the credits often clocking in longer than the ending itself. This isn't to excuse Mass Effect 3's ending but, rather, to provide a bit of perspective.

There was no way this could have possibly ended or been handled in a way that could have been satisfying. The sheer volume of choices made throughout before meant that the majority of the third romp would have had to have been devoted to resolving choices. The resource cost would have been enormous. However, okay, gamers don't need to see the consequences of, say, telling a mooching panhandler to seek help. That doesn't excuse the big choices; and no, it doesn't. What makes it worse is that the 'real' story was leaked and made it clear that an entirely different writing team was on-board.

In the original draft, the Mass Effect (the mechanic not the game) had a rather nasty side effect when used too often, namely making stars go 'boom.' This was even brought up in the second game during one mission involving a star dying far sooner than it should have been. The only problem was that there was no other way to travel across the galaxy except via the Mass Effect. The Reapers were looking for a solution to this problem and were nearing in on one but, in the meantime, they had a bunch of organic races rising up constantly and hastening the destruction of the stars with their careless use of the Mass Effect. Hence the cycles of culling; letting a civilisation rise up and, when they became too much of a threat, destroying them and letting it start over while the Reapers focused on their solution. Was this better or worse? Well, it would have depended on the writing talent, but it is certainly different than what was given and shows that there was a massive disconnect between the writing staff of the two games and, possibly, corporate meddling.

However, the ending could still have been saved if the team had made things come together. Bringing every race, every resource, every man, woman, child, and pyjak into the battle to fight to the bitter end, with the knowledge that literally everything was on the line. Instead, it became a choice of three options. No true massive battle, decisions about what races live or die effectively sidelined or handled earlier on, and no hope for those who chose to reject the three. There wasn't even a boss battle and much of the conclusion came about through a McGuffin; possibly more-so than Shepard's attempts to unite the races of the galaxy.

There is no way to deny that it was bad; but was it as bad as people made it out to be? Well… No.

The thing is that it's so easy to get wrapped up in the moment and to follow a herd mentality - to cry out in outrage because others are doing so. That's not to say that there weren't massive amounts of legitimate complaints, but that some people took these complaints and transformed them into things far greater than they should have been or could have been on their own. There is no denying just how bad the ending is but, ultimately, that's all it is: a bad ending. A ten-minute or so section at the end of a game trilogy that could easily span over 120 hours and that was otherwise grade A material, or at least grade B. No judgement on those who decided to boycott the game or those who adored its ending and all is going to be passed because that ruins the whole point of this article. That the ending was doomed to fail from the start and so much of the hate came from those swept up in an outrage mentality that they let it consume them.

Ultimately, even if Mass Effect 3 had a bad ending, even if it's the worst ending of all time, that's all it is. It could be argued that there are games with far more disappointing/insulting endings out there (such as Ghosts and Goblins) but, hey, that's a debate and that this ending can even be brought up in that category shows how bad it is… but that's all it is; a disappointing ending - a firework finale that fizzled instead of lighting up the sky.

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Was the ending bad?  Yes, very bad.

It was not just that the game was bad, it was a very unique premise where your guy presisted between games, and major choices were supposed to matter.  The entire 3rd game was mostly a wreck, it would have been so much cooler if the final battles actually mattered based on who was alive, what races you saved and so on.  I have seen bad endings, but this was a wreck on a very interesting (and up till then good) game.

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