Mass Effect 3 spoilers follow.
The Extended Cut DLC for Mass Effect 3 fixes everything or fixes nothing depending on what issues you might have had with the original endings. If you wanted Commander Shepard to emerge victorious and unscathed that’s still not the case, and if you preferred the ambiguity of the original endings you’re probably not very happy right now. If all you wanted was to see the gaping plot holes filled in, BioWare handed you a good package. They managed to make the endings smoother and more complete without unduly changing the core ideas that defined them.
Regardless of what anyone thought about the endings in terms of story, there were certain errors that weren’t about subjective assessments of story but how the story was told. The original endings were like a paragraph that had missing sentences, yet we were all supposed to understand what had been omitted. How did the Normandy crash-land on a world outside the solar system if it had been fighting the Reapers with the rest of the fleet in orbit around Earth when the mass relays blew up? How did squad mates that had gone with Shepard to fight on the ground in London wind up on board the Normandy such that they walked out of the ship after it crashed?
There were obvious problems with the lore. In the Arrival DLC for Mass Effect 3, BioWare established that destroying a mass relay creates a detonation large enough to destroy an entire star system. So when the Catalyst tells Commander Shepard that all the mass relays will be destroyed as a result of whatever choice she makes at the end, it was reasonable for fans to ask whether Earth was destroyed as well. Mass relays were also the only means of intra-galactic transportation so it actually was kind of astute for some fans to suppose that everyone in the fleets around Earth would starve to death, as they couldn’t really go anywhere else and the Earth was a charred cinder.
There were missing transitions and scenes were omitted and that led to confusion and questions that the authors never intended to generate. In an audio interview on the BioWare website, Mass Effect Project Director Casey Hudson openly admits as much:
In some cases, people feared the worst, that, you know, no matter what decisions you make the entire galaxy is destroyed. Everyone starves to death. Which of course wasn’t our intention. It wasn’t the way we saw it, and it wasn’t the intended message about how the Mass Effect universe would end.
I believe him. The Extended Cut is partially an admission that BioWare screwed up, but they did right by us. They filled in the blanks. All the endings work much better as a result. BioWare deserves credit for stepping up and making those changes.
Even more important than these structural fixes is the extended exchange between Commander Shepard and the Catalyst. This scene was far too abrupt in the original ending. We had no idea who the Catalyst was other than a character so important that it was effectively dictating the end of the trilogy. The Extended Cut dialogue between Shepard and the Catalyst provides just the right amount of explanation without pandering to the audience and completely changes the pace of the scene to make it blend into the rest of the game more smoothly. There’s even an exchange that addresses what for some people was the problem with the endings.
Everything the Catalyst did, the sole reason for the Reapers’ existence, is predicated on addressing the inevitable conflict between synthetic and organic life. It was possible for Mass Effect 3 players to not only make peace between the Geth and the Quarians, but also to rally both species to fight the Reapers. This stark, obvious contradiction of what was presented as the central premise of the entire trilogy is what ruined the ending for a lot of people. In the original ending, the Catalyst presents this as an absolute, and Commander Shepard doesn’t even hand-wave at the Geth/Quarian peace if the player made that choice. But the Extended Cut tells us that the Catalyst might be nothing more than a rogue artificial intelligence, not some wise being making statements of truth.
Catalyst: The Reapers are a synthetic representation of my creators.
Shepard: Then what happened to your creators?
Catalyst: They became the first true Reaper. They did not approve, but it was the only solution.
Yeah, I’m pretty damned sure they did not approve while the artificial intelligence they created to serve as a mediator for conflicts between synthetics and organics rendered them down into paste to make them into the first Reaper. Viewed through the lens of this disclosure, the Catalyst doesn’t sound like it’s correct anymore. It sounds like the Catalyst made a decision that might have sounded correct to an AI, but which misses all the nuance of life and choice and potentiality.
The Catalyst might be wrong. Conflict might not be inevitable. It’s much easier to understand a rogue artificial intelligence slaughtering the races of the galaxy every 50,000 years in a misguided attempt to address a perceived problem than to swallow a proposition that is clearly contradicted in some of our Mass Effect 3 playthroughs.
The endings themselves vary in the level of improvement. The most obvious criticism of the Synthesis ending was why the Catalyst didn’t force a synthesis between organic and synthetic life a long time ago. In the Extended Cut, Commander Shepard asks the Catalyst this question. The Catalyst replies that organic life previously wasn’t ready for synthesis, and that synthesis couldn’t be forced. The Catalyst follows this up with the pronouncement that organics are ready this time, thereby dismissing the idea that synthesis effectively does get forced upon everyone in the galaxy should Shepard make that choice.
This sort of convenient coincidence, that after eons of extinction cycles organic life should just happen to be ready for a synthesis now that we happen to be playing Commander Shepard deserves a roll of the eyes. BioWare at least tried to address the criticism, but the new Refusal ending is what should have stood in place of the Synthesis ending from the beginning. The Refusal ending, in which Shepard refuses to either sacrifice herself to control the Reapers, force a synthesis upon the galaxy, or potentially destroy Edi and the Geth to also destroy the Reapers sounds like what a neutral Shepard would choose. And the Refusal ending is downright chilling. I’m not going to spoil it for you. If there’s one ending you should absolutely go back and try, that’s the one.
The main criticism of the Control ending, that no one knew what the hell it actually meant for Commander Shepard to take control of the Reapers, has been completely addressed. It’s certainly a Paragon ending now. Shepard sacrifices herself in order to turn the Catalyst’s Reaper system into a preserving force in the galaxy rather than a destructive one. It may be a sickly-sweet ending for some, but it does reflect a Paragon’s virtue.
The Destroy ending was relatively solid to begin with and now might be the best ending of them all. If there’s ever a need for a canonical ending to the trilogy in order to give future games in the post-Reaper Mass Effect universe a communal starting point, the Destroy ending ought to be the canonical ending. It holds more potential for further adventure than any other choice as the Destroy ending doesn’t leave the galaxy in perpetual utopia.
My only concern about the Extended Cut is the still images depicting what happens to all of Shepard’s squadmates. I understand that some fans were upset at not having enough closure with all of those supporting characters, but I think the memorial scene on the Normandy fulfilled that purpose adequately. The questions about how the Normandy got where it was at the end of the game, the abrupt introduction of the Catalyst, the lack of clarity on what the final choices meant, those were all things that absolutely needed addressing due to how plainly the author’s intended meanings were being lost.
Not showing individual epilogues on the other hand wasn’t an error. It was a choice. The endings didn’t fail to function properly on a structural level on account of the characters not having individual epilogues. Adding those stills feels like BioWare surrendering a little artistic vision and pandering to the audience. That’s the Pandora’s Box opened by post-release narrative changes. The last thing we need is a George Lucas of videogames inspiring debates about whether Commander Shepard shot first or not.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. You can read some of his other musings on his blog punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.