There might be some spoilers in this but I am not sure if anyone out there that is interested in the why of Mass Effect 3 doesn’t already know about its shortcomings. This is a game that has become rather infamous for having an ending that single handedly negates everything you’ve done for three games. But that didn’t bother me, I ended up playing it after I knew about the ending and this meant that my hopes couldn’t be dashed once they had reached a fever pitch.
But I’m here to discuss why this shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Mass Effect telegraphed what it was going to do nearly the moment it began. Mass Effect (herein usually called ME) suffers from the Superman effect. I’m not sure if that’s a real thing and I’m not going to Google to confirm but we are about to establish it as a real thing. The Superman effect comes around each time DC wants to do a story involving Superman. He can’t be hurt by conventional weapons, he can move faster than any hero in the entire DC cannon (even the Flash, the fuck?), and some forms of him can punch new universes into existence.
There is nothing more American than punching new universe. But I digress, because of this they have to make newer and bigger bad guys to fight him. But each time they do they make him more powerful to beat those big guys. In the end you end up with something as retarded as Imperiex. How dumb is Imperiex you might ask? Well lets just take a snapshot of his superpower.
Full Stop. This mofo can create big bangs. That’s beyond stupid. While I agree the Anti-Monitor already kinda capped out the stupid meter, this guy takes it to the next level. He could end the entire universe by exploding a new one into it. Everyone would be dead except for Superman, somehow. But I digress, this is the ultimate conclusion of the Superman effect. You create a villain so extreme that the only way to defeat them is through some kind of incredible MacGuffin.
So lets look at Mass Effect 1 through 3 (a very brief overview) and explain why people should have seen this ending coming a mile away. It all begins with Mass Effect 1. This, to me, is an excellent game with a good story. That is until you reach Mass Effect 3 and realize that the entire plot is basically taken from Virus. But at least for Mass Effect 1 you have this incredible villain that appears to be on the level of, say, Shiva from X-Men. It’s a robot with incredibly strong shields, an incredibly strong weapon, and a rather impressive size. But the majority of ME1 we don’t realize that this is even the villain. We are busy fighting Saren (named after the Gas, you’ll find that most names in ME are pretty simple plays on words, no complaints). Saren is a good villain that makes you hate him, he’s also a mortal one. You have a villain that can be defeated.
You go through ME1 only to find out in a (rather big) twist that it isn’t Saren that is the actual villain at all! It’s the Ship, Sovereign. This single Reaper takes the entire collected force of the Alliance Fleet to stop him. But, he is defeated, you realize that while not invincible the Reaper Sovereign is already at the apex of anything the characters could handle. But the game throws a curveball your way. “There are thousands of these things out in deep space.”
Oh. So this thing that can singlehandedly nearly take on the entire force of our most powerful space navy has an army thousands strong? I suppose that means we can just pack up because there’s nothing we can realistically do in the next couple of games that’ll close that gap. This would be like 1990’s humans battling with Mass Effect Protheans. Utterly ridiculous. But the game keeps it rather obscure and we lead into ME2.
ME2 has us battling with the “collectors”. A mysterious race of aliens that appear to be collecting sentient creatures (mostly humans) for, presumably, the Reapers. Once again the enemy is powerful but ultimately mortal. Our weapons hurt them, they die, and it looks like we can actually take them on a scale of Shepard and company Vs. Them. Not the entire Galactic Army, just Shepard and a half Dozen buddies he found in a bar.
So far, so good. We’ve had two games where the enemy is reasonably defeated and this means that at any point in the battle there is tension. Who will win? Will I lose a friend in this battle? Can I manage to finish this battle without losing a friend? You actually have some investment in the story because you know that either side of the scale could be tipped. It’s engaging and because of this it has weight. You want a villain that can be hurt for the same reason you want a hero that can be hurt. Sure Batman will never really die in the comics.
That’s all that a reader needs.
But following the credits of ME2 we see the scope of the Reaper threat. Countless Reapers floating in space. An army of incalculable size, each so strong that it could likely singlehandedly annihilate a planet if it was patient enough. Their very presence warps the minds of sentients to their will. These mofos could, in theory, win a war without ever firing their ultra death beam of ouchies.
ME3 begins with us watching the Reapers move from light years away, to Saturn, to the Moon, to Earth, in a matter of minutes [if that].
These things move at incredible speed, literally without warning, and are in numbers that cannot be comprehended. Each with world sundering power. You watch as they descend upon Earth (and other home worlds) and begin culling in the millions in a matter of hours.
The most powerful weapons known to the modern aliens cannot even breach their shields 99% of the time. Their laser cannon can cut through 100% of known shields that non-reapers have. They can fire it infinitely many times, they don’t need to breath, they can presumably see in any spectrum, and they are eternal.
This is somehow even more ridiculous than Necrons from Warhammer 40K. Somehow people saw this enemy and became intrigued, wondering to themselves, how will Shepard beat this? How everyone didn’t immediately assume a MacGuffin is beyond me. The scope of weapon necessary to bridge the divide between Reapers and the races of the Milky Way was so great that there was literally no other options.
What’s worse with Mass Effect 3 is that most of the most important information is locked away in DLC. The game itself technically costs around 90 dollars if you consider original retail price and the price of the incredibly necessary DLC. Leviathan alone tells you why the reapers look like they do, why they do what they do, and who made them. Sorry…come again? The last DLC of Mass Effect 2 turns Shepard from a Galactic Hero into a man who committed genocide. There is no mention of this event in the beginning of ME3. So you go from a Hero at the end of ME2 to wondering why you were court marshaled.
Regardless, once you find out that this game is just Virus: The Game, you set out to defeat the reapers. The game actually gives a ton of missions and content to build an army to defeat the reapers. But, really, there were no hints that any of it would actually matter.
The writer(s) of ME flew too close to the sun and they suffered for it. They created a villain that was utterly insurmountable which meant that they had only one possible ending, unless we were to consider them adding one where you just all die and that’s the end. This, for me, is disappointing because they have a rather wonderful collection of races and locations that they had to work with. If the Reapers had just been a single juggernaut with a lot of baby ships that are actually beatable it might have lead to the battles having some weight to them.
But when every battle is a bunch of humans against Saiyans, its just not interesting. No matter how much Master Roshi works out he’ll never be taking down Vegeta. So any combat between those two holds little mystery. Without that mystery you lack any of the features of a story that compel people. At best it achieves something as a parody, but otherwise it fails on merit.
I don’t hate the Mass Effect series, but it is unfortunate that they fell to a very common writing mistake. This same thing happened in the Matrix between films 1 and 2 (this is why they made up an excuse for why Neo was suddenly not digital god anymore in Matrix 2, they realized the movie would be 5 minutes long if he retained his powers from the end of the first film). I’ve done it a lot myself. It’s why I always rewrite the villains arc after the first pass because invariably I make them Maijin Buu when I intended for them to be Commander Red.