(AKA the reason I haven’t been reading another book on the list)
The Godfather trilogy. The Lord of The Rings. Star Wars. Harry Potter. Lost. The Sopranos. Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Depending on who you ask all of these franchises have one thing in common: they all managed to one degree or another to botch their finales. In fact it seems to be the rule rather than the exception that any long running series will fail to wrap up in a satisfying way.
In terms of popularity, hype and fan investment Bioware’s Mass Effect series is probably the Big Trilogy of this generation of consoles, the Star Wars or Lord of The Rings of the PS3 and Xbox 360. As someone who enjoyed the previous two games a great deal but never became a die-hard super fan I went into this climactic installment knowing that it had a lot to live up to and that its failure to do so was not just likely, but almost expected. Imagine my surprise then that Mass Effect 3 manages to get almost everything right.
When it comes to a franchise or trilogy a common problem with the finale is a failure to wrap up all of the plot threads that the story has established. Sometimes the creators run out of time or money (Evangelion), sometimes the author over-extends herself (Harry Potter) and other times the writers were just making it all up as they went along (Lost). Mass Effect 3 succumbs to none of these problems. Every major plot thread that’s been built up over the last two games- every ancient grudge, every conflict, every plan and plot and character arc- is completely and decisively resolved by the game’s end. Smartly Bioware decided not to fall into the trap of trying to tie everything up in one explosive uber-climax at the end, a strategy that’s pretty much guaranteed to at least partly fail (again, see Harry Potter), but instead has you spending the bulk of the game resolving each plot thread one by one under the guise of uniting the disparate races of the galaxy into a single military force.
Mass Effect’s world is not terribly original or creative. It’s pretty standard space opera stuff, with the usual mix of suspiciously humanoid aliens who all share one monolithic culture and world-view for some reason. It is unusually well executed space opera though, such that you could put members of any faction or species together into any scenario and know how they would react. The effect of this is that the choices presented to you in Mass Effect 3 can get quite complex in a “If I do this to help species X then species Y won’t like it but maybe I shouldn’t help species X at all because 1000 years from now they might do that thing they did before and wreck everything” sort of way. Most games present you with a world hours before you’re expected to care about saving it, but in Mass Effect’s case this feels like a universe that existed long before you came along and that will continue to exist long after you finish playing, shaped and influenced by the decisions you make.
Greater thematic and story complexity is evident throughout most of ME3’s dialogue choices as well as the major story decisions. Whereas before the games used a fairly simplistic morality system with paragon and renegade choices usually standing in for “nice guy” and “asshole”, Mass Effect 3 goes for a more ambiguous logic vs emotion duality, such that many of the paragon dialogue options now feel naive and overly optimistic. When I had my Shepard make a stirring speech near the end of the game about the power of friendship being stronger than any weapon and defeating any enemy it sounded ludicrously idiotic even to me, and I half expected to see my squad-mates rolling their eyes. The game makes it very clear right from the start that playing nice isn’t going to defeat the reapers, and there were times when I knew the compassionate, humane choices I was making made no sense.
What about the ending ending, though? The final, ultimate climax to the 60+ hours I had spent shaping my story in this expansive sci-fi world? I’ll admit that I went into the final battle feeling more than a little nervous, as the previous two Mass Effect games left me distinctly underwhelmed when their credits rolled. The first game ends with a fairly rote boss battle while the actual big bad gets taken out in a cut-scene that’s way cooler than anything you get to do in-game, while the second game has a kick-ass finale but doesn’t really give a sense that the player has achieved anything afterwards.
Happily, Mass Effect 3 doesn’t disappoint in this regard. In its final moments the game takes on a mythical, almost religious scale as your actions determine the fate of every living being in the galaxy. I’ve always liked endings that leave the world of the story changed in some way as opposed to ones where the heroes defeat the bad guys and go back home to get married and have 2.5 children, and to their credit Bioware wasn’t afraid to buck the status quo at the game’s climax. A nice heart-string tugging musical score also helps.
It would be fair to say that overall Mass Effect 3’s ending is a satisfying and worthy conclusion, but there are some fairly significant flaws. The motivation of the reapers- a long-running mystery throughout the trilogy- ends up hinging on a thematic element of the game that hasn’t really been prominent enough up to this point to justify its sudden elevation to a central role in the story, and the ending sequence is a little bit choppy in terms of continuity. These are however minor flaws and are easy to overlook unless you’re a whiny nit-picking moron.
More problematic is the fact that getting the non-depressing endings are apparently dependent on playing the co-op multiplayer, something the game doesn’t do a very good job of explaining. You don’t need to play much of it and the multiplayer is a surprisingly fun little time-sink, but it still feels like an unfair move to essentially block players who aren’t interested in it from getting the best endings.
Unfortunately Mass Effect 3 suffers from some other problems not related to the end of the game, flaws that ensure that this entry isn’t quite as absorbing and exhilarating as its predecessor. The first and most glaring is how ME3 handles (or doesn’t handle) player choices from past games.
At the end of the second game the player makes a choice of what to do with the enemy base- destroy it or give it to the shady organization you’ve been working for. This is presented as a big deal, and I was looking forward to seeing how my in-hindsight-idiotic decision to hand the base over to Cerberus would come back to bite me in the ass.
Turns out it didn’t. The game made some token acknowledgement of my choice, but it had zero impact on the story. A lot of the major choices made in the first and second game were likewise inconsequential.
Given that this sort of branching storyline is the Mass Effect trilogy’s main selling point this probably sounds like a deal breaker, but it really wasn’t. In terms of the characters I had met, romanced and lost this still very much felt like my unique story. The trilogy’s inter-game continuity is already so strong that I can’t really blame Bioware for not fully delivering on their promises, even if I’m somewhat dissappointed that they didn’t.
In all likelihood the one site visitor I’m getting every 48 hours according to my stats (hi!) has already played Mass Effect 3 and made up his/her mind about it. I guess the best endorsement I can give to the game is that beating it prompted me to write this review regardless.