Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut: A Cut Below

So a while ago I posted my review of Mass Effect 3, and my conclusions were fairly positive. The game had its flaws, but on the whole presented an enjoyable experience. I played the game a second time a few weeks later and enjoyed it yet again. All the same issues were still there, but so were the awesome moments: those few scenes that really get to you. Meanwhile, the internet was still in full angry mob mode over the ending. Forums exploded, declarations of game trade-ins and threats of brand abandonment were made and some of them were almost certainly followed through. I never participated. You can search through all the forums and you won’t find me adding my voice to the clamor. It wasn’t because I liked the endings, it was just because I didn’t think I had anything to contribute, nor did I need to. The endings sucked, and that was that. Game over, damage done, see you later. And while I didn’t grab a pitchfork and march on Edmonton with the rest of the internet, rest assured that I was still thinking about the way the Mass Effect franchise concluded. In looking back on my initial review, I think I fell into the same trap that most major review sites did: I wrote my conclusions too quickly.

Everyone loves to get their review out the door first, to generate more traffic by being first on the scene, the first that people flock to for news, and hold that podium of “most timely review” for a few minutes before the next site puts their review online. I’m not in competition with those sites, I don’t get advance review copies, and I have school and a job that I need to worry about: I won’t be the guy that gets the first review up because I’m just some guy writing his thoughts down on this rarely-visited blog and that’s all I ever really intended. Yet the pressure to be relevant nonetheless compels me to get my thoughts written down while the subject in question is still in the public consciousness. If I were to write a review of Bioshock tomorrow, then it would seem weird and out of place because nobody’s been talking about Bioshock for a while now. Sure I could do a retrospective “was it really that good?” kind of thing, but that’s another matter. Me addressing an old game like it’s fresh onto the market makes about as much sense as Roger Ebert reviewing Short Circuit today in 2012.

Man, how great was Short Circuit, right?

The point I’m trying to make is that in the rush for timely content, we forsake the lens of hindsight and reflection. The first time you watch Return of the Jedi, it’s awesome. The showdown with the Emperor, Luke finally becoming a Jedi Knight, and the destruction of the second Death Star and the Galactic Empire are all great moments. But then once you watch it a few more times… well, okay, all of that’s still awesome, but now you’re paying more attention than you were during the spectacle of the first time.

Suddenly you start to notice things: Ewoks are actually kinda lame and a cheap marketing ploy that don’t fit especially well within the story. How did Han Solo and his ground party survive an explosion that took out that shield generator from only a few dozen feet away? What happens to Endor now that we detonated a moon-sized construct in close orbit around its atmosphere? The more scrutiny we subject it to, the less things make sense. Return of the Jedisurvives intact because its flaws aren’t large or immediate enough to completely shatter our suspension of disbelief: the problems can be overlooked and we get to keep our conclusion to Star Wars and its affirmation of friendship, teamwork, and good over evil.
Seriously though, screw these guys

Over the past few months, lots of personal analysis, and more debate and discussion than anyone has the stomach for, Mass Effect 3 has been subjected to the post-spectacle scrutiny and it has not come out the other side intact. The problems were too immense, the plot holes and leaps of logic too insurmountable, and the illusion of coherency is shattered. The worst part is that it’s a self-perpetuating cycle: once you find one serious flaw in the narrative you start to question everything else. You find more plot holes and more inconsistencies and the veneer of believability that coats the game is slowly stripped away leaving us with the haphazard framework put together by a disjointed team of replacement contractors who lost the original blueprints.

And so, with the world looking at that ugly substructure and thinking “hey, y’know, maybe this thing ain’t so safe to live in” we arrive here: the Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut. Enough of a stink was raised by the community that the developers went back and tried to clear up some of the mess that was left behind. Despite what some would have you think, this is hardly something new: Fallout 3 had its ending altered via DLC (and that wasn’t even free) and the Blade Runner Director’s Cut goes a long way towards fixing the movie by removing that awkward voice over narration that treats its audience like a bunch of brain dead kids that need to be beaten over the head with the point every 15 minutes. Other games and other mediums have done this kind of thing before, and this is Mass Effect’s attempt to do so as well.
Be forewarned, from this point on there be spoilers.

The Extended Cut isn’t your traditional DLC content: it’s not a map pack, a weapon pack, or an expansion module. Virtually no new gameplay is added whatsoever, and that which is added only shows up within the last bit of the game. Your overall experience (per playthrough) is gonna clock in at maybe ten minutes of extra content, tops. These ten minutes are comprised mostly of cinematic cutscenes or a few lines of extra dialogue. The Extended Cut attempts to plug the plot holes and tie up the loose ends that were left over after the credits had rolled and the game had ended.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t really succeed.
The first substantial bit of content comes during the mad dash to the beam leading up to the Citadel from Earth. Originally, Shepard, his squad, Anderson, and the accompanying ground forces charge toward the beam as the Reaper Harbinger bombards them with laser blasts. The scene is tense and hectic as armored vehicles and soldiers explode and die around you, gunships provide a suicidal cover screen for you, and the otherworldly echoes of the Reaper in front of you drown out all other sound. I actually liked this scene originally as it was incredibly intense and really embodied that sense of incredibly slim hope that the game was trying to convey: no gunplay, no speeches, just run your ass off and stay alive, because the galaxy depends on you.
Pretty sure the trench run was less deadly
Sadly, the Extended Cut actually destroys the tension of the moment. There was a fair amount of griping (and rightly so) about how the squadmates you had with you at the time of this scene survived and got onto the Normandy by the end. I spent the last half hour of the game firmly believing that Ashley and Garrus, the two most important people in my Shepard’s life had died there on Earth. Then when they were shown to still be alive and safe onboard the Normandy I was just confused. The Extended Cut adds a cutscene here in which your squadmates are heavily wounded by an exploding Mako, and Shepard calls in the Normandy to come evacuate them.
First of all, this makes no sense. In the final, desperate rush to save the galaxy, Mass Effect’s Last Charge of the Light Brigade, Shepard decides to halt the assault for a good two minutes so he can evacuate two soldiers? If we don’t stop the Reapers now then they’re dead anyway and it doesn’t make tactical sense to waste resources trying to rescue them. Like I said, Ash and Garrus are some of my favorite characters, but even I wouldn’t risk the entire galaxy just for them.
Secondly, how the hell did anyone survive the extraction? In the middle of this banzai charge towards the beam, Shepard and Co. just decide to stop for a few minutes and load up a few folks onto the Normandy. Meanwhile Harbinger just kinda looks on impotently. You remember Harbinger, right? That guy who was built up all through Mass Effect 2 to be the principle antagonist of the series but then didn’t even get so much as a single line of dialogue in the series’ conclusion? The guy who showed an intense personal interest in Commander Shepard specifically and believes him to be the biggest threat facing the Reapers? If that’s the case, then explain to me how, when Shepard and his frigate-sized ship are parked completely still and in the open in front of him he doesn’t even bother to take so much as a potshot in their direction. Hell, when the Normandy takes off, it even has a miniature staring contest with him, and he still doesn’t bother to swat it out of the sky. Then Shepard just starts running again and finally gets blasted in the same place he did in the original game. Admittedly, this break in the action gives you one last chance to say goodbye to your love interest and it’s a nice enough moment, but it’s overshadowed by the ridiculousness of the situation it occurs in.
Now is not the time for exposition. Now is the time for running
So once again Shepard somehow magically shrugs off wounds incurred from suffering a direct hit at the hands of a Reaper’s main canon and meanders his way past our old pal Marauder Shields and into the beam-thing. Anderson is still somehow magically onboard the Citadel as well, and is still somehow magically in front of you despite claiming to have followed you up. (There’s some talk here of the Citadel “changing” itself like Sigil from Planescape but it’s all a pretty shallow attempt to try and justify how Anderson gets ahead of you.) You still have your debate session with the Illusive Man who’s somehow magically onboard the Citadel as well and can somehow magically control the motor functions of you and Anderson, forcing you to shoot and ultimately kill one of your oldest friends. You ice the Illusive Man in return and then the stupid once again really takes off.
Sadly, the Catalyst, an ancient AI in the guise of a young child is still intact within the narrative, and he still puts forth his twisted, circular logic about how the Reapers are necessary. He actually comes off as even more overtly evil this time around because there’s an added line of dialogue about how the species harvested for the original Reaper were… less than thrilled about being melted down into an eldritch abomination. Go figure, right? There are a few more dialogue options that you can take with him, elaborating on the origins and purpose of the Catalyst, the Reapers, and the Crucible. It doesn’t do much, but it’s a bit more information that was lacking before.
He’s like the Hitler of storytelling
And ultimately the biggest problem – the three terrible ending options – are still in place. The Catalyst Star-Child words them a little less awkwardly than he did before but the choices are still the same: destroy the Reapers (oh, and all synthetic life as well), control the Reapers (which has destroyed everyone who attempted such a thing and was the goal of the series’ antagonists), or merge organic and synthetic life in synthesis, (which is a bit of an iffy moral issue since you’re basically enforcing a kind of odd eugenics on all life everywhere).
This was always my problem with the endings before, as it was with a lot of other people: these options are the exact opposite of the themes that the Mass Effect series had previously been about. In effect, your options are all about exerting your own will over the entire galaxy, and (in my opinion) are all morally repugnant. This flies in the face of the galaxy-unifying, team-building, mediating Shepard that we’ve seen throughout the rest of the series. The reasoning behind these choices is elaborated on a bit further here and is much less vague than before, but no matter how much you explain a break from narrative coherence, it will still be a break in narrative coherence. It is because of this that Mass Effect 3 failed (and still does fail) not just as an ending to the series, but as a storytelling venture. One does not completely abandon the themes of a work in the last five minutes and introduce new themes, new characters, and new goals to replace them.
Even this was more thematically appropriate.
Congratulations, ME3. Congratulations. 
There is one small upside, however: you can refuse the Catalyst’s options. You can tell him that his logic is flawed, that he’s an abomination, and that the galaxy isn’t going to deal with his bullshit. Shepard even does a pretty good job with his speech here, and tells the Catalyst in no uncertain terms that a free galaxy united to fight this threat together, and that the options he presents would compromise them and everything they’ve worked for. Shepard, and the galaxy, would rather die on their feet than survive on their knees.
Needless to say, this is the option I took. I always hated having to compromise my ideals to get such a lackluster conclusion. So I paused the game, cranked up “We’re not Gonna Take it” by Twisted Sister and told the Star Brat to suck it.
Too bad it resulted in the death of myself and everyone else in the entire galaxy.
Yeah, it turns out if you don’t accept one of the three original endings then your forces are destroyed, and the galaxy gets reaped. This felt more like a failure state than an ending and I got the impression that the writers were trying to punish those of us that thought their original story was garbage. We were thrown a bone, but that bone was coated in laxatives and if we’d just eaten the dog food they set out for us earlier we’d be happier. All of this really brings into the light the question of “what was the point of everything I’ve done up to this point?” You spent three games trying (and eventually succeeding) to unite the galaxy, you spent the entirety of the third game gathering fleets and other war assets and when you tell the Catalyst that you intend to fight it out on your own terms… all those ships and soldiers and allies mean nothing. Congrats, everything you’ve ever done in your fight against the Reapers is a colossal waste of time and if you want to live you have to deal with this hologram kid.
As your friends and allies (and seeing as how I have the Spacer background, probably my own mother) are destroyed around you the screen fades to black and then we get a brief cutscene of a hologram of Liara, explaining that our cycle was unable to defeat the Reapers, but that we’ve left behind as much information as we could gather in order to help the next cycle. Then the credits roll. The only consolation is that the post-credits scene suggests that the information we left behind did actually help: that the next cycle was able to defeat the Reapers and end the threat. How they did it or why they’re apparently more capable than everyone else isn’t elaborated on, but hey, I guess we helped. This is probably as close as I’ll ever get to an ending I can live with. Sure, everyone had to die, but at least somebody ended up winning and they didn’t have to resort to genocide, forced eugenics, or the exertion of one man’s will over all others. At least I hope not. Oh crap, what if they used the Catalyst’s options anyway? I bet this is how God felt. 
Then the Catalyst said “Choose my endings and the galaxy
will not surely die, for the writers know that when you pick
one your integrity will be compromised, making no
distinction between good and evil.”
– Bioware 3:5 (New Galactic Version)

That’s just the “screw you” ending, however. I also booted up a late save and played through the “destroy” ending just to see what happens, as it’s probably the least objectionable of the original endings in my mind. That’s obviously open to debate and in any case it’s not an event in my personal canon now that I can take a fourth option, but I still thought I’d check out what had changed in some of the default choices.
In the original ending, the game didn’t really conclude so much as it just stopped. To give an impression of how most of us felt, here’s a tweet I posted immediately after having finished the game. The sudden cut-to-black ending that was preceded only by nonsense left most of us confused and unfulfilled. It is generally a bad idea to end your character-driven science fiction epic on such a vague note that leaves so many stories unresolved and with terrible implications hanging over them. (For an example of how to properly end your sci-fi series, please direct your attention here.)
And so the Extended Cut tries to patch things up by including a proper epilogue. When you complete the game now, you’ll get a voiceover narration from Admiral Hackett, which details some of what happens after your time as Commander Shepard is over. This narration is accompanied by a mix of rendered cutscenes and a kind of still image montage, which seems out of place in an otherwise highly cinematic series. This epilogue tells you what became of the various allied species after the Reapers were defeated, painting a hopeful image of their future (at least in my playthrough: some might have less happy endings depending on your choices but I can’t vouch for that personally). It also tries to solve the big question of “what happens to the galaxy now that the relays are destroyed? Wouldn’t everyone around earth starve to death since the planet can’t sustain that many individuals? And hey, wouldn’t the entire galaxy be destroyed after blowing up that many relays anyway? What the hell is going on here?”
This is not logical, Captain
The answer to all of these questions is basically “no, none of that bad stuff happens, no worries”. The problem is that there isn’t really any reason behind them saying that and we’re still left with a ton of lore contradictions. The Mass Effect franchise has previously made a number of things pretty clear, such as destroying a relay destroys the system it’s in, and that the current races don’t have the technical knowledge necessary to build their own relay technology. The “clarification” of these endings just kind of ignores those pesky facts and reassures us that everything will be okay… well, just because. The relays are now “heavily damaged” instead of destroyed, which is kind of a hasty retcon, and then we’re shown the rebuilding of said relays, even though we wouldn’t know how to do so, and wouldn’t be able to reach them in time to save anyone stranded in unsustainable systems devastated by Reaper attack.
Then there’s the mystery of the fleeing Normandy and its implied Lost-style fate. Apparently the fleets were ordered to flee the Sol system by Admiral Hackett once the Crucible fired up. Okay, sure, I can buy that. But that still doesn’t explain why the Crucible blast apparently knocked the Normandy out of the sky and onto an unknown planet. Were other ships damaged? Where were they? What planet is this, anyway? The Normandy didn’t use the relay network so how could they reach an apparently habitable planet to crash-land on when traveling only via FTL? And then it turns out the Normandy wasn’t actually stranded after all. She just kinda flies up and away at the end of the epilogue so… how long did it take them to fix that? Was the ship even extensively damaged in the first place? And if not, then why did everybody stare at the landscape like they were freaking Robinson Crusoe surveying their new home? Were they on that planet for long? Were Garrus and Tali able to get food on that planet? And wait, weren’t Garrus and Ashley beat the hell up by that Reaper attack a few minutes ago? When did they recover to apparently perfect health? What the hell is going on here?
In any event, as the galaxy decides to repair itself with technology they don’t have and the Normandy takes a vacation on a mystery planet, everyone mourns the death of Commander Shepard. Whatever option you choose, you still die. Unless of course you raised your EMS rating above 5000. Then some faceless figure in N7 armor takes a labored breath in the rubble of… something. Because having more ships in your fleet helps you survive explosions. Yeah, that makes sense. Heck, that might not even be Commander Shepard since we can’t see the figure’s face, and supposing it is he’s still about a hundred different kinds of messed up and I didn’t see any rescue crews handy so he’s alive… but possibly just dying more slowly than he could have otherwise.
I think I actually would have preferred if they removed this scene. It feels like a bad sequel hook, like the monkey grabbing the cursed gold at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean. And I think we all remember how the Pirates sequels turned out. There’s no reason for this scene to be there as all it does is provide more ambiguity that we didn’t want or need. All we know now is that everybody could potentially have to suffer the shock of thinking Shepard died when he really didn’t again. Ash freaked the hell out when I did that last time, do I really want to do it again? If this is gonna be a pattern in our relationship then maybe it’s best to just let the poor woman move on to someone who dies a little less often. Like a DC Comics character.
You ever notice that you never see
Clark and Shepard in the same room?
All in all, the Extended Cut is a hollow offering from Bioware, purporting to offer the additional content and fixes that the audience wanted but never bothering to patch up the real problems. The entire thing has the same basic effectiveness of slapping duct tape on a gunshot wound. Something like that works if you need to hold out long enough to get to a hospital, but it just doesn’t cut it when it’s the attempted procedure by a licensed surgeon, especially when the surgeon was the one who shot you in the first place, let the wound fester for three months, and is really quite upset that you didn’t like the bullet that he made especially for you.
And so here we are at the end. Maybe I’ve been too harsh in this analysis, very probably as a continuation of the “scrutinize every potential plot hole” fallout that I was subjected to after coming to the realization that too many things made too little sense. But I can’t say I’m disappointed because quite frankly this is exactly what I expected. I was never a “retake the ending” person because I knew that whatever alternative we got would be swamped in hastily-written retcons and condescension. I was never an Indoctrination Theory believer because it had nearly as many holes in it as the regular ending. I never had much hope for this DLC in particular because I’d heard all the PR lines and I’d seen that the writers either could not or chose not to see and acknowledge the fatal flaws within their own narrative. Some part of me would love to get to talk one-on-one with Casey Hudson or Mac Walters, just to see how they real feel about all this; no PR talk, no face-saving tactics, just honest conversation. But that’ll never happen and to be frank, I don’t really care that much anymore.

Except replace “fish” with “Krogan”

Yes, this series has been one of my favorites for years now. Few other works of fiction can pull me so deeply into their world and make me care so much. I will always be a Mass Effect fan, even if my brand loyalty to Bioware isn’t what it once was. But it’s done. I never petitioned for a new ending before and I won’t now because (and hold on to your hats here) bad fiction happens. It’s out there and more is being made all the time. It hurts when it has to impact something we love, but that’s just the way it is. Sure, we’ll keep giving Bioware crap about their supposed “artistic integrity”, but in the same way that we give Lucas crap for dreaming up Midichlorians. As much as we hate seeing something awesome devolve into something stupid, we can’t let it wreck it. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull didn’t ruin Raiders. Voyager didn’t ruin The Original Series. Even Attack of the Clones didn’t ruin Empire. Crappy art sucks and we shouldn’t let it go without criticism, but it can never totally destroy good art, and now that Bioware is getting so much flak it just further opens up the niche for new storytellers to step in and create new worlds and new fiction for us to love. The next Black Isle could be just a few years away.

Yes, the endings damage the narrative of Mass Effect on the whole and yes they throw a sour note into what is otherwise a pretty competent orchestra, but Mass Effect still has plenty of moments of greatness. Talking with Wrex on the Normandy. Helping Kirrahe hold the line. Debating science and ethics with Mordin. Helping Tali clear her name. Curing the Genophage. Learning about the origins and meaning of a whole new kind of life. Even playing through the ending just to see this Extended Cut offering I got a lump in my throat again when I talked to Garrus for the last time there on Earth. “I’ll always have your back” are the last words you say to the character that’s been your best friend for three games. And even if my ending means all life in the galaxy has to die before the Reapers can be defeated, then I’ll always have one comfort: Shepard and Vakarian, storming heaven. I guess there are worse ways to go. 
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