Mass Effect Legendary Edition is finally out, after months of teasing. I’m not sure what there are more of: new players experiencing the trilogy for the first time or returning veterans eager to save the galaxy all over again. But I suspect both groups will find themselves baffled by the same thing that caused an uproar among fans of the original trilogy: the ending of Mass Effect 3.
BioWare had confirmed it would not change the ending of ME3 for Legendary Edition — no more than it did when it released the Extended Cut DLC. So there’s no “fixing” the ending of Mass Effect 3. But the problem with the ending ironically starts long before the end of the game, and by the time we got those three red-blue-green lights, it was all just a wrap-up.
So what happened to make the ending of Mass Effect 3 such a disappointment? And what could have salvaged it?
Spoiling the Ending of Mass Effect 3
I’m going to assume everyone who’s even passingly familiar with Mass Effect has some idea of how the infamous ending goes, but here’s a quick primer: Commander Shepard tries to activate the Crucible, the Prothean-designed superweapon that’ll wipe out the Reapers. When they do, a mysterious voice called the Catalyst tells them they have the option of how to deal with the Reapers: destroy them outright, control them by becoming a literal deus ex machina, or synthesize mechanical and organic lifeforms so that everyone will be a single race.
Each of these endings has a different colored light associated with it: Respectively, they’re the Red ending, the Blue ending, and the Green ending. And that’s it — those are your endings. Well, there is a fourth option, in which Shepard refuses to pick, but even that ending isn’t that different from the other choices.
After Shepard made that choice, there was originally just a generic cutscene that showed the Normany on a verdant planet, with a few of your crew members silently contemplating the scenery. The Extended Cut would add more scenes after this, showing what happened to each person Shepard encountered along the way and the aftereffects of each choice.
So What Was Wrong with That?
The Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut ending additions made for a good salve, but it didn’t address the cause of the wound: After a trilogy’s worth of difficult choices and player control of the galactic situation, the fate of trillions came down to a simple ABC choice — the same choice for everyone, every time, the same handful of outcomes. RPGs are supposed to be sprawling tapestries of potential scenarios, and while Mass Effect reads a bit simplistic for the genre, it still felt like a cruel subversion of accepted genre conventions.
To give you some idea of what could have been, look at the preceding game, Mass Effect 2. That game offered numerous endings depending on how you played the game and how much time you invested in its characters. They were not all radically different from each other — rather, they made up a spectrum called “How many characters will die?” with the two extremes at each end of said spectrum being “You save everyone,” or “Everyone, including Shepard, dies.” Your choices in the story and gameplay loop would determine where your ending fell on that spectrum.
In Mass Effect 3, not only do none of your choices affect the content of the ending, but the outcomes are not radically different from each other. With few exceptions, the Extended Cut shows the galaxy sorting itself out in the wake of Shepard’s choice. There are some who don’t fare so well in the aftermath, but there’s generally hope and Shepard eventually becomes a lauded figure of myth.
There were developmental reasons for this ending to be so baffling and unsatisfying — there was apparently a final boss battle with the Illusive Man that was cut at the final hour, pivotal character Javik was axed and turned into a DLC extra, and the story was rearranged in order to make the game’s projected release date. So the ending we got, especially the original red/blue/green light show, was a very curtailed version of the developer’s original vision.
The Legend Continues
The problems with Mass Effect 3 go beyond surface-level adjustments. It would be interesting to one day see a version of the game that would restore the original intended storyline — or, even more radically, attempt to adapt the ending that original writer Drew Karpyshyn had envisioned for the series. Perhaps the next Mass Effect project, confirmed to be in development, could adapt the latter.
A new generation of gamers is currently experiencing the trilogy’s engrossing story and ending in Mass Effect Legendary Edition. It’ll be interesting to see how they take the ending and whether it’s exonerated by the passage of time. Maybe the ending will be improved when removed from the hype and heightened expectations of the original release.