Saturday, 7 July 2012

Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut DLC - Game Review

It’s pretty hard to avoid spoilers while reviewing an extended cut of the ending of a major game, so if you haven’t had a chance to play the Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut DLC yet, be warned that spoilers are going to abound. Bookmark this page and come back when you’ve experienced the new ending ;-)

Mass Effect 3 had one of the most controversial endings ever, certainly in video gaming history. Many (the majority of?) fans disliked it, and the backlash was so strong even Forbes covered it. Reactions ranged from well thought out criticism, to the absurd (but funny), and even some pretty excessive hate.

Some games sites called the fans ‘whiney’ and ‘entitled.’ It’s easy to see why – Mass Effect created a story that didn’t end how the fans wanted it to, they complained, and the developers were forced to change it. Except that they weren’t forced; they made a very good business decision to do so. And they didn’t change the ending; they simply added more to it – an extended cut. Rather like the extended cut of many films. And the fans aren’t any more whiney or entitled than any consumer criticising a product they didn’t enjoy. Everyone complained about The Last Airbender (film, not series), and I’ve never seen them accused of being whiney. Many hated the ending of Lost, or Battlestar Galactica. Are they entitled? Or are they actually entitled to their opinions?

Other people have criticised Bioware for ‘giving in’ to their fans in this way. What an absurd idea. They are responding to feedback and criticism and trying to improve their game accordingly. This is actually very gracious behaviour (‘artistic integrity’ aside). I feel a little sorry for them, as I believe the ending is a result of trying to give fans what they thought fans wanted... difficult choices, bittersweet, the chance to be an arbiter and a hero without being a superhero, etc. I don’t think they got it right, and the end did really irritate me, but some of the hate they’ve been receiving from both sides of the argument is unfair.

I don’t hate Bioware. I don’t like the ending, and I intend to go into some detail criticising it. But I do like other Bioware games, and when taken as a whole, Mass Effect is probably still my favourite series. To me they’re like an author with a few really good books, some good ones, and a couple of real clunkers (Dragon Age 2 being the other). I can’t hate them for it, and I don’t think I should. And as for ‘setting a bad precedent’ by incorporating fan feedback into an edited ending? Sorry, Bioware is by no means the first. People have been doing this for years.

Right, end of soapbox. So what is the DLC like, and does it help? Has it made the ending more enjoyable, fixed some of the issues and plotholes, mended some of the broken promises, or improved the general story? Well... I’m afraid the answer is both yes and no.

(Last warning! SPOILERS from here on) 

Let's Get the Bad Over With First

1) We are shown how the squadmates who are running to the beam with you managed to be safe and sound on the Normandy at the end. Basically, the Normandy comes and gets them, mid beam-run. Yep, lands on the ground, with Harbinger watching, as streams of people and makos pelt past on their way to the beam. It looks and feels silly. Especially as the Normandy flies peacefully away while Harbinger does nothing *facepalm*. It also spoils the mood of the mad dash to the beam a bit. I know people wanted this particular plot hole answered, but they could have done it a little differently. Maybe a scene after Shepard reaches the beam, since they inserted a Hackett scene here anyway? I realise they were going for an emotional thing here – Shepard’s ‘one last goodbye’ – but unfortunately ‘silly’ almost always trumps ‘emotional’.

2) New scene #2: Hackett informs everyone that Shepard made it to the beam after all, and that he/she is now on the Citadel. There’s also a bizarre shot of Shepard being bounced out of the beam with an odd little noise (which made me laugh – probably not the desired effect). Both of these squash Indoctrination Theory pretty flat, so much so that they seem designed to disprove it. Shepard is most definitely on the Citadel. Not in his/her head I’m afraid. Sorry I.D. theorists, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Whether you’ve had your hopeful little I.D. heart crushed or not, these scenes are daft.

3) There is some extra conversation with the Catalyst, but it’s all pretty meaningless. It provides clarification and explanation for bits that didn’t need clarification and explanation. And here’s the biggest problem with the Extended Cut DLC. It shows a complete failure to understand what most players disliked about the conversation with the Catalyst. It’s not the wacky logic of the Catalyst’s questions, or even the space magic (still not adequately explained, by the way, but this doesn’t actually bother me. I quite like space magic); it’s the character. Character is everything. You simply cannot have characters behaving out of, well, character. This is a pretty horrible error in any kind of story, but it is especially tragic in an RPG. In this, the player is Shepard. We are supposed to be able to control Shepard’s reactions to a certain extent, so we quickly build up a firm sense of who he/she is. And funnily enough, everyone’s Shepard is roughly the same in this respect: determination and the will to fight back. Whether you play renegade or paragon, Shepard does not suffer fools. Shepard will either tell them what’s what, reject their faulty logic, or at the very least argue with them. And it’s this that players wanted. Even if it ultimately didn’t change anything, just being able to argue with the Catalyst would have helped us to feel like Shepard is still Shepard. If I can argue with the Catalyst (and oh, I can), then Shepard certainly can and will. The writers should have anticipated this. And by not letting Shepard be Shepard, they have not added anything meaningful to this conversation with the Catalyst. This is very disappointing.

4) I still hate the Synthesis ending. Dodgy morality aside, there’s something about it that feels... off. The added scenes do nothing to help it; if anything they make it worse. We now see a husk ‘waking up’ and... what? It’s a thinking person again? This is a little weird, because Synthesis is supposed to combine organic and synthetic, which is already the case with husks so why has it changed at all? Does Synthesis also magically give everything the intelligence of a sophisticated computer? I mean, plants and bugs and space hamsters too? Does everything now have the thinking capacity of a Reaper? Or, wait... it would have the thinking capacity of Shepard, since it’s Shepard’s DNA and consciousness that has been dispersed. So, everything, including daisies and space hamsters and husks, is now a kind of organic/synthetic Shepard/Reaper clone? And this is... good? *bangs head against wall*

One of the really irritating things about the added DLC content is that it represents Synthesis as the perfect ending, even more so than before. The music is lifting and inspirational, and Edi’s voice-over leaves no doubt as to which is the ‘best’ ending. Now, no doubt those weirdos optimists who chose the Synthesis ending will like this, so I guess it still counts as a good addition. I won’t be picking this ending for my Shepard, so it’s all good. Still, just knowing that it exists gets on my wick. And just one more teeny little observation. People who criticise the disgruntled fans tend to accuse them of not being able to handle the bittersweet ending, and of wanting sunshine and lollipops. The irony of this is that it tends to be the pro-enders who choose Synthesis – and this is also the preferred option of Bioware themselves – but it is Synthesis that actually offers the sunshine and lollipops ending. Seriously, in this ending there is absolute peace, no more conflict, joy and happiness, everyone gets to live (yes, except Shepard), and Shepard gets to be a hero. The people who criticised the ending are the ones more likely to pick Destroy, or even Reject, the former being the true bittersweet ending and the latter being a pretty grim ending. People who complain about the ending do not necessarily want a happy ending. They simply want one that makes sense, one that feels true to the character they have grown to love, and that results in a good story. If all they wanted was a happy ending, they would pick Synthesis and be done with it. It is actually the happy enders that liked the game. Just felt that needed pointing out.

Now For the Good

1) The EMS appears to have been fixed. This was something that should never have been a problem in the first place. Players were promised that they could experience all endings in the game without having to play multiplayer, and this was just not true. This made some fans very angry, but at least it has now been set right. Just to be clear, in case anyone reading this is confused, you can now experience all endings without having to play multiplayer, as long as you complete all the side missions within the game (including fetch quests).

2) There is now a hidden 4th option at the end. This is the reject option. If you really really dislike what the Catalyst is offering you, you can choose to refuse any of its options, or simply shoot it instead. This will pretty quickly lead to an end game in which you lose completely and this cycle is lost to the Reapers. This might seem like a bad choice (or a blatant 'There! Are you happy now?!?' message from Bioware), but it’s actually a very interesting option and I’m glad Bioware added it. If you don’t meta-game, Shepard has no reason to trust the Catalyst and might just decide that it is lying completely. He/she would then most likely reject it. There are some players who will want to pick this, even if they know it leads to the Reapers winning, because it means the Reapers will at least not win on their own terms. This is the option for those playing either the very realistic Shepard (who probably wouldn’t trust the Catalyst), or the morally unbending Shepard (death, rather than become as bad as our enemy).

And it does make sense, even if it seems like a slap in the face. Shepard tried to fight, but too much energy and resources went into the Crucible. Too much was lost protecting it. The fight might be long and protracted, but in the end this cycle still loses. It is wiped out, and the next cycle has a chance to succeed with the information from Liara’s time capsule (which they actually do, it seems).

This ending is also very satisfying in terms of story. There has been a theme running through the games about cycles, history repeating itself, and a kind of grim fatalism. As Liara begins her time-capsule, we can suddenly see that perhaps this is what the whole thing has been about. This isn’t the story of how Shepard beats the Reapers, but of how Shepard tried, of what the Reapers are capable of, and how the next cycle must use this information to make their own efforts to stop them. I think in this context I would have preferred an even bleaker ending for this option. No stargazer scene; no knowledge of whether any cycle actually managed to defeat the Reapers. All in all, I do really like this ‘reject’ option, but I think it’s a shame Bioware did not put more cutscenes and effort into it, as seeing the last stand of various races could have been very moving.

3) The Control ending is also 100% more awesome after the addition of the Extended Cut scenes. Whereas Destroy and Synthesis remain pretty much the same, with some added scenes and voice-over to flesh them out a bit, Control takes on a whole new tone. In this option, the voiceover is given by Shepard-but-not-Shepard. Shepard is dead, and in her/his place is a kind of god-like entity, the new Catalyst, who holds Shepard’s memories but is not quite the same person. The voiceover is eerily arrogant, and the background music is tense and sinister. The suggestion is that the new Shepard-Catalyst may become corrupted by power, or that in becoming a Reaper A.I., he/she will not keep organic interests at heart for long. I love this. I think I’m a sucker for a sinister or eerie ending even more than for a bittersweet ending. I know some players prefer to go for the ‘best game’ ending in which they feel like they have won, but I always prefer what I feel makes the best story ending, particularly in a Bioware game. Before the Extended Cut DLC I felt none of the options made a good story ending; they were all too awkward, vague and plot-holey. Out of them all I felt best with Destroy, but now I think Control and Reject have taken over as the most powerful endings.

4) There is now an explanation of why Joker and the other crewmates leave; it’s because everyone leaves. The entire fleet, ordered away by Hackett. Pretty simple, and pretty much what I was expecting, but it does clear that up.

5) Now the mass relays do not seem to blow up. This is a bit of a retcon, but it’s a good one, and something everyone asked for, so kudos to Bioware for actually understanding why this is important. The mass relays are still intact, meaning galactic civilisation isn’t doomed, which would have nullified every single side-quest you did throughout the entire three games. This allows more of a feeling of victory, aided by some additional scenes of people escaping, people being happy, people not dying, etc. For those who wanted to feel more like a hero, this will help. In my opinion it also helps with the bittersweet feeling, since it was leaning rather heavily towards bitter before. Seriously – every single species trapped in our solar system with a ruined Earth and limited food sources? I have to assume it can only end with the Krogan eating everyone. So these additional scenes are welcome.

6) Now the Normandy is not stranded on the jungle world, as we had been forced to assume from the previous ending. In fact, the ship flies off pretty quickly, rendering this whole scene a bit pointless. I can’t believe they didn’t originally have the whole lame Adam and Eve thing in mind, but they’ve fixed it now, so whatever. It’s definitely better this way.

7) There is a mourning scene for Shepard now, which shows your crew does care after all. Aww. This is actually quite a nice touch. If you get the Shepard lives ending, it will come after this scene, and your love interest will seem hesitant to put the plaque up, as if sensing you’re still out there somewhere. This hints at a reunion later. I liked this, although some people who wanted to actually see the reunion will still be disappointed. I prefer it this way, so this is really just a matter of opinion. 


So, the extended cut does make the ending better, and it does fill in some of the plot holes, albeit a bit clumsily at points. Most importantly, it adds scenes that flesh out and in some cases re-work the endings, allowing more satisfying story endings. And for those who want to ‘win,’ I guess you still have to choose Synthesis. However, the DLC does not fix some of the key issues that really made the ending jarring and disappointing, such as Shepard’s odd passivity with the Catalyst. It’s changed things enough that the different options now feel like different options instead of different colours, and I think they are now open to some really interesting debate about where they might lead. For me, I’m now able to find an ending that I’m happy with, but I’ll still always remember the game for what it could have been. 

View the new Destroy ending here.
View the new Control ending here.
View the new Synthesis ending here.
View the new Refuse ending here. (This also includes some of the pointless questions Shepard can now ask the Catalyst)

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