Mass Effect 3 review - A bittersweet goodbye
Tue, May 15, 2012 at 10:33 PM
Brendan T. Smith in Reviews, Video Games, ashley, bioware, ea, ending, liara, mass effect 3, review, tali

Note: No specific story beats are spoiled in this review, but it centers heavily around the general tone and nature of the ending. If such things are a concern, turn away now.

I stared blankly at the screen. The names scrolled slowly past, each one mocking my stunned visage in the darkness. My mind reached for words, silent when it knew it should be racing. I felt the controller slip slowly out of my hand.


Music rang lifelessly in my ears, little more than a distant murmur. Soon all was silent. I sat still for a few minutes more, waiting for it all to make sense. 

“This is it, isn’t it?” Liara had said only hours ago. 

The beautiful blue-skinned alien had stared sadly into my Sheperd’s eyes, her tone a mixture of lingering disbelief and the burden of dawning acceptance. The words bubbled to the surface of my disquietingly calm mind, an apt metaphor for my own feelings. 

Even now I still can’t quite grasp the truth. I feel there is a piece missing, as if some part of the experience simply escaped my memory and flew away. The last thing I had been led to believe I would feel at the end of this journey was incomplete. I can’t help but feel a little deceived.

Should one harbor ill will toward a creator for seizing the opportunity to make a mark? Shall we hold against him his attempt to create something memorable, something unique, something that stands out from the crowd and makes a permanent place for itself in people’s minds instead of joining the endless parade of forgettable cliches and predictability? 

The ultimate answer to this question as a consumer of a story must lie in how well the subversive elements strike a chord with us as individuals. After all, artistic statements and bold stabs at the unexpected are meaningless if the end result falls flat in our own eyes. The nature of such a judgement is necessarily, and annoyingly, subjective.

What I eventually realized was that it wasn’t so much the nature of Mass Effect 3’s end that I was left contemplating when all was said and done, but the way in which it was told, and that may represent its most painful failing of all. The title “Mass Effect” brings to mind many things. I think of Liara, who developed from an exotic curiosity into a beloved companion. I think of Ashley and her metamorphosis from bland xenophobic soldier chick into genuinely likable character. I think of Tali and her alluring mix of mystery, intelligence, and inner beauty despite the lack of a recognizable face. 

Mass Effect 3’s conclusion brings to mind many other things. Questions left hanging. Emotional strings left untugged. Potential unfulfilled. The lingering worry that it may have all been for nothing. The fear that the closure I’ve sought for so many years will forever remain elusive. 

Worse yet is the reason for this painful discontent: Mass Effect 3’s ending is poorly written. Poorly written. Those two words emerge from my fingertips with the powerful sting of an insult that leaves a room silent with dumbstruck awe. How could a series with some of the most finely crafted wordsmithing the medium has ever seen bungle its finale with tangled webs of unnecessary exposition, throwing to the wind the characters, choices, and stories that made the universe such a compelling one to inhabit in the first place?

For a series so finely crafted and an ending so full of bittersweet potential, leaving the player hanging with thoughts of such mechanical mundanities as hokey circular mysteries and gobs of impersonal lore is nothing short of an astounding atrocity, and an alarmingly uncharacteristic one at that. Mass Effect’s lore is worthy of interest, but what truly makes it resonate are its characters. The stories, arcs, and emotion inside this alien universe are what truly kept millions of players invested to a degree perhaps never before seen in a video game. To see the game stray so far from that pedigree in the final 15 minutes was shocking. To see it drown its heart and soul in meaningless exposition and pointless revelations was crushing. By attempting to hastily cram a heretofore unseen philosophical quandary down our throats in the final ten minutes of the last part of the trilogy, Bioware succeeded only in violently ripping our attention away from what was really important. To end a series full of nuanced decisions and lasting repercussions with the laughably cliche Hallway of Choices and a thirty second cutscene virtually identical between endings feels like nothing short of an outright betrayal, something I can scarcely fathom the creators of what I once referred to as the pinnacle of writing in this medium would allow to happen.

The conclusion worked against not only everything I had come to love about the series, but the spellbinding way in which Mass Effect 3 itself had, to that point, brought two games’ worth of choices into one stunningly personalized conclusion. No storyline went unresolved, no character undeveloped or ignored. Sacrifices were made, battles were won and lost, and secrets were revealed. Until those damnable final moments, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. It was nothing short of the single most satisfying story experience I’ve ever gotten from a game.

And then…

How do you wash such a sour taste out of your mouth? 

I dearly long for the opportunity to say goodbye to Mass Effect with a tear streaming down my cheek and a smile on my face, thoughts of painful goodbyes and drunk quarians racing through my mind. It is not to be. There’s no going back. Perhaps the greatest tragedy inherent to any form of storytelling is that you can only experience a tale for the first time once. You may chase the elusive high by reliving the familiar again and again, but it will only ever be that powerful once. 

No amount of post-game downloadable surgery will ever be able to heal the scar of not being able to properly say goodbye to my beloved crew of aliens and Alliance. I’ll always remember the emptiness in the pit of my stomach when those final credits rolled.

Perhaps it seems unfair to spend a thousand words reviewing a game and center almost all of them around the final 15 minutes, but such bullet points as improved combat, sloppy character animation, or disappointing side missions feel utterly trivial next to what is truly important. Whatever underpaid, outsourced team they brought in to handle the ending, the rest of the game represents the best writing I’ve ever experienced in this medium, bar none. Genuine character arcs, a phenomenon almost entirely unknown to this industry’s primitive attempts at true storytelling, are almost as common as the cannon fodder enemies. A roller coaster of emotions is in store worthy of the finest other mediums have to offer. Mass Effect 3 is a masterpiece of interactive fiction - at least until it falls on its face when it matters most.

Yes, Liara. This is it. I only wish it could have turned out differently. 

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