Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut: The Review: This Time It’s Personal(er)
So, after 120 hours of gameplay and three months of speculation, we finally have a real ending to BioWare's epic Mass Effect video game series. Or, more accurately, we have three real endings and one more that is unmistakably losing the game. In my original review, I said the Green Ending (Synthesis) was the only satisfying conclusion at the time, which was mainly due to it being the only one that actually withstood all that ambiguity. Later, in my discussion of the controversial ending(s), I backtracked and stated that the Red Ending (Destruction) could be the only true climax as it meant successfully completing the mission Commander Shepard began way back in the first Mass Effect. Both times, several readers commented that, for them, the Blue Ending (Control) was the only one that made sense for them or their avatar.
I think that much discombobulated thinking, where, really, all the endings could either be right or wrong with no sense of any difference made, pretty much sums up why the initial ending(s) for Mass Effect 3 instigated mostly shrugs, arched eyebrows, or vitriol spewing and relatively few cheers. There were just too many questions, too many loose threads left dangling, and not nearly enough closure for an entertainment that so many people were legitimately affected by over the years. Judging by the responses from BioWare after the negative feedback started pouring in -- despite all their analytics about what players want -- even more people than they realized. So for die hard fans of the series, the Extended Cut is absolutely necessary. For anyone new to the series with the third game and wanted more than overly enigmatic epilogues with discreet alterations, it's worth checking out. After all, it's free. The sad part is that the Extended Cut itself shouldn't exist. Everything that can take place in those extra 1.8+ gigabytes should have been in the final game at release.
The additional material does provide context to where there was only mystery before by explicating the impact of your decisions throughout all three games, as focused through the energy beams of your Commander Shepard's final solution. Yes, nearly all of your choices or actions are referenced in some fashion, though usually through still shots of familiar characters in the aftermath rather than animated cut scenes. Jennifer Hale, Mark Meer, Lance Henriksen, Tricia Helfer, and Ali Hillis as Liara all return to provide narration detailing the significance of the Commander's variable choices, but perhaps it was too late in the game, or too costly, to get the rest of the cast back for what would amount to less-than-a-minute cameos for each. The glimpses of the series' supporting cast are little more than brief check-ins to assure the player of their fates, and across my seven different ending scenarios, played out through two Commanders Shepard, the differences between your choices are microscopic in scale compared to the fate of the galaxy.
Assuming your favorite character is still alive, most everyone gets a happy-ish ending. The moments themselves don't amount to much dramatically, and they belie the extremely rushed and unprepared nature of the Extended Cut, but that's because most of the drama had been settled before the last stand on Earth. That isn't to say anything looks bad, because like everything else in Mass Effect 3 it's beautiful. It's also obviously a short cut due to lack of time. There is, however, one completely new ending possibility -- the aforementioned seventh -- that totally and irrevocably alters the conclusion of ME3 and the series, and in its own way is quite brilliant. But first there's the six (or, really, three) endings players got in the game's original iteration that now make much more sense than they did before.
Don't be mistaken. Those original endings haven't changed, so if you were unimpressed before there's a better than decent chance you won't be impressed now. But as I said in my reivew, I found the possibilities tantalizing, even if I thought only one ending could be the "real" or "correct" one. After getting a far clearer idea on how those possibilities could play out, they still offer tantalizing prospects. Except I'm now thoroughly convinced that all of the three choices were right, depending on you and your Shepard's point of view. None of the endings are wrong because Shepard is special, she/he is a savior, and so as the Commander says earlier in the game: Every decision they make is the right one. (At least, in terms of "beating" the game.) This also means that both of your earlier enemies, Saren and the Illusive Man, were also right. The difference lies in the fact that Shepard, either as Paragon, Renegade, or a mixture of the two, is the hero. If that sounds a little like BioWare turned the Commander into a Mary Sue, well, it was true in the first two games and it didn't bother fans or critics then. The only difference now is, Commander Shepard isn't necessarily around to be scolded by anyone when it's all said and done.
The point is: Whether you like them or not, the endings work. Maybe having everything come down to one last choice isn't as grand as a final, seemingly impossible fight against a Reaper like Harbinger. Maybe the Indoctrination Theory or the scrapped original ending about Dark Energy would have been equally interesting. But the Green, Blue, and Red endings do amount to more than simple different-colored explosions, though that is, admittedly, still the easiest way to denote them without getting too spoilerific. I'd love to see three forthcoming DLCs that expand upon the new natures of the galaxy, with a Green Game that continues after organics and synthetics merge, a Blue Game that follows the rebuilding efforts with the Reapers under control, and a Red Game that posits a future without Artificial Intelligence but the possibility that Commander Shepard may yet live (regardless of whether you engaged the multiplayer or not). Those DLCs aren't needed for a sufficient end, but I'm curious to see what BioWare will do next.
Even if you're happy with the ending you chose, I'd recommend watching them all play out just to force yourself to ponder all the questions they raise. I don't think there's a right or wrong, but I could always be mistaken. I'm not convinced the newest ending is necessarily "wrong" or "bad," either, but it does answer one burning fan question: What if I don't think my Commander Shepard would listen to the Catalyst and would find another way to stop the harvesting Cycle?
Short answer: You lose.
Much longer answer: Commander Shepard has no other options, because the ground assault team on Earth was practically decimated and the fleet in space is every last ship in the galaxy, and even every species in the galaxy can't win a straight up battle against the Reapers. The whole plan was to use the Crucible to defeat the Reapers, and the Catalyst does indeed give you that option, it just comes at a cost that might be too high for you and your Shepard to pay. In that case, there are two more options available that don't come at the cost of lives, but at the cost of admitting your enemies may not have been seeking the wrong ends, even if they pursued the wrong means. If that is still too much to bear, then, yes, your Shepard now has a new path, which is to lose the game and let the Reapers win to harvest the galaxy again in another 50,000 years. Because, seriously, what else can the Commander possibly do at this point? Still, making that choice, as abrupt as it seems, isn't necessarily unsatisfying. This ending's epilogue has a nice little cameo by Liara in the form of a V.I. not unlike the one Shepard encountered on Ilos in the first game. So all hope is not lost, assuming the savior of the next cycle isn't as stubborn as you and your Shepard were. Like I said, fairly brilliant.
But as much of a kick as I got out of that much deserved slap in the face to all the most obnoxious fans out there, and as intriguing and edifying as most of the expanded conclusion is if you're willing to meet the gamemakers on their terms, the Extended Cut is basically underwhelming. As an "extended cut" it was always going to be. Because nothing here should have been excised the fist time around. Quite a bit of the new material is elegant in how it answers the seemingly inexplicable moments witnessed earlier, like how the Normandy was randomly jumping through a Mass Relay instead of participating in the battle, but it's that elegance that also proves how much better the game might have been received had they been there all along. The story really is much better with the necessary holes filled in, and there is more hope for the series and BioWare now than there was in March. For far too many gamers, however, it could justifiably be too little too late.
Rob Payne also writes the indie comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here (if you're into that sort of thing). He still thinks the weakest link in all of Mass Effect is Dude-Bro Shepard.