I think so many things about the Mass Effect series, far too many to corral into a focused thought. I know because I’ve tried to write this review several times already and I have nothing to show for it except thirty paragraphs of ramblings.
My brain lies to me sometimes. Because I’d loved Mass Effect, and because Mass Effect 2 changed several of the things I’d loved about the first game, I convinced myself that the sequel wasn’t quite as good. It had been a year and a half since I’d touched either game, so after I finished Mass Effect 3 I decided to go back to the very beginning and do a marathon playthrough with a fresh character. Not only would it be a plot refresher, but it’d let me undo all of the dumb mistakes I made in games one and two that I ended up having to pay for in game three.
So ME3 deserves credit for that, at the very least. When you play ME1 and ME2 back-to-back, it’s clear which is the better game. Yes, I like ME1’s skills tree better; yes, I like being able to customize weapons and earn tiny amounts of XP for every little thing I do. But there’s no way I can go back to ME1’s unwieldy combat or awkward pacing. I’d like to apologize to ME2 for being so mean to it.
I was expecting not to like Mass Effect 3. As it turns out, ME3 contains several of the most emotionally poignant moments I’ve had playing video games. It has the hard task of incorporating decisions you’ve made in previous games — and making the player feel that those decisions were significant — while maintaining an economy of story and a clarity of plot. It’s done that amazingly well. Until ME3 I don’t think I’d ever played a game that added replay value to its prequel. Have you?
My favorite parts of ME3 happen hours before the game’s notorious and infuriating ending. Yes, the ending is bad. Even when you’re expecting it to be bad it manages to underwhelm. It’s bad in almost all the ways a sci-fi ending can be bad. It’s thematically disjoint, arbitrary, and derivative. It offers a false choice. It violates continuity. It violates canon. And it’s so maddeningly ambiguous that it doesn’t feel much like an ending to anything.
The upcoming free DLC promises to provide more context to each ending. But at best it’ll address only some of this. I seriously doubt this whole thing can be un-fucked.
Here’s the thing: I never cared much about this whole galaxy-wide threat. For me, the Reapers were a glorified MacGuffin, an excuse for me to ride around on a ship and meet cool alien races and shoot robots with sniper rifles. A Mass Effect game is at its best during side missions, when you can pretend you’re dealing with a Star Trek–style episodic threat and forget about that thing that’s trying to destroy the universe.
That’s why the ending, awful as it is, doesn’t ruin this game for me. I’ve played it for at least forty hours now and only three of those hours have been unenjoyable. Does the underwhelming finale of Seinfeld ruin the entire series, or even just the final season? What about The Sopranos? On Metacritic, Mass Effect 3 has a score of 93/100 according to critics, but only 50/100 according to Metacritic users. I understand their frustrations, but I’m on the critics’ side here.
But the ME3 ending disappoints me in a deeper way. I would play at least six more games just like ME3. I had been looking forward to playing those games someday. I had thought that Bioware was looking for their own rich universe for sci-fi storytelling. The ending of ME3 — no matter which one you pick — seems to salt the earth, as if they wanted to rule out any future stories that would take place after the events of the game. They could do prequels, but there’s only a thirty-year window between humans’ first contact with other races and the events of ME3.
Aside from a spin-off game or two, I doubt Bioware is interested in telling more Mass Effect stories. And that’s profoundly disappointing. I’m most of the way through my second ME3 playthrough, but I’m playing it more and more slowly. I’m in no hurry to get to an ending that reminds me, clearly and bluntly, that it’s all over.