Mass Effect 3: Pros and Cons of the Ending

In a previous spoiler-free post, I described my frustration with fan efforts to cajole BioWare into changing the ending of Mass Effect 3.  This here is a spoiler-heavy breakdown of what I thought worked well and what I thought could’ve been better.  It is not–in any way, shape, or form–a call for any sort of retcon or storyline patch.  It’s simply a mature discussion of the ending’s pros and cons.  You know, the sort we’ve been having about every other game since the medium first burst onto the scene.

For what it’s worth, I’m considering the hour or so of gameplay prior to the ignition of the Crucible part of the ending.  It’s just as much a part of the series’s conclusion as the cinematics following the final decision.


  • The drama.  Holy shit, the drama.  In order to reach the beam that will bring you to the Reaper-secured Citadel, Shepard’s squad and allies have to fight their way through a London battlefield swarming with hostiles.  It’s a situation where you often have to choose between fight or flight; if you try to kill everything, you ain’t gonna make it.  Deciding when you’ve cleared enough of a path to reach your next goal feels like a make-or-break choice.
  • Unlike a lot of games that just tell you you’re an underdog on a mission with very little chance of success, Mass Effect 3’s end sequence actually feels like something you might not be able to do.  I died six or seven times defending the rocket truck before I somehow managed to make it through.  It’s tough, but it’s not unfair: it’s the culmination of every fight you’ve had prior, and you have to use every bit of what you learned about taking down the various Reaper forms to get through it.
  • In general I’m not a fan of the series’s third-person over-the-shoulder view, but holy shit does it work well during the final charge for the Citadel beam as Reaper fire rains down all around you and vaporizes the rest of the rush.
  • Beaten and broken and barely able to move, Shepard’s got to fight his way through one last small wave of husks before reaching the beam, and he’s got to do it with nothing more than a pistol and a terrible limp.  Kudos to the developers for doing this scene well–and by doing it well, I mean keeping it short and simple and not asking the player to do too much with a character that’s been left with all the agility of Jabba the Hutt.
  • The scene in the Citadel control room with Captain Anderson and the Illusive Man is particularly compelling.  The Illusive Man remains one of the most compelling villains in all of gamedom, and his slow decent into Reaper-induced madness is a fitting end.  A lot of developers would’ve used this as an opportunity to turn him into some alternate-form super boss.  Thank you, Bioware, for not taking that ridiculous tack.
  • The choices offered to Shepard by the Catalyst make sense within the scope of the story.  Shepard can destroy all sentient technology in the galaxy, take control of the Reapers, or fuse organic and synthetic life so there’s no further need for conflict.  Use of the Illusive Man and Captain Anderson to present the first two choices is a great way to tie this decision into the overall story.  Regardless of the choice, Shepard dies and the Mass Effect relays are destroyed.  That’s how you end an epic story, bitches.
  • I really liked the shot of the Normandy racing to outrun the energy Shepard released from the Crucible.  The Normandy’s been on the run for most of the series; this shot just fits.
  • The ending was very sci-fi.  Think 2001, or Moon, or even District 9.  Questions have been answered, but even more have been asked.  Good science fiction makes you think.
  • The final cinema tics aren’t a fan service circle jerk.  The stories of Shepard’s crew have all been resolved, and Shepard had a chance to say good bye to each and every one of them before the final push to the Citadel.  There’s no reason to rehash that.
  • Lost in a lot of the discussion of the ending is the compelling new setting it creates regardless of the player’s final choice.  Shepard has brought the combined forces of every race in the galaxy to earth to fight the Reapers; now, with the Mass Effect relays destroyed, all of those aliens are basically stranded.  They can’t get home in their lifetimes.  The only habitable planet within spitting distance is a war-torn mess.  How do they react?  What do they think about Shepard’s choice?  Does the peace Shepard forged between them last?  The Mass Effect universe has been essentially shrunk to the size of a pin.  And that’s damn interesting.


  • In missions prior to the final push to earth, it’s revealed that the Illusive Man can control Reapers over a short distance.  He then travels to the Citadel to do just that.  This doesn’t come into play at all and seems to have been forgotten.  If the Illusive Man had been wrong, or if the Reapers foiled his attempts, we need to hear it.
  • Upon regaining control of Shepard after the Reapers decimated the Alliance’s charge to the Citadel beam, the first thing I did was look around for my two squad mates.  There were bodies everywhere, but there was no sign of Garrus and Liara.  What became of them?  Did they escape, or were they also killed by the Reapers?  Leaving their corpses nearby for the player to find would’ve been a powerful experience–one that would’ve changed the relatively simple act of squad selection forever.
  • According to online sources, the only effect Shepard’s final choice has on the ending cinematic is to change the color of the energy released by the Crucible.  Regardless of your choice, the Reapers leave the field of battle and the Normandy tries to outrun the energy only to crash land on an unnamed planet.  Shouldn’t the Reapers react a lot differently depending on whether they’re being controlled, destroyed, or turned partly organic?
  • The Catalyst is just another deus ex machina of the type infesting modern storytelling.  For as good as most writers have become at creating impossible situations for their heroes to face, they’ve become just as bad at delivering a means for those heroes to win.  There’s no explanation of what the Catalyst really is or why it believes that organic and synthetic life can never get along.  Worse, depending on how you played, Shepard may have all ready proven that organics and synthetics can coexist when he reunited the quarians and the geth.
  • Shepard is offered the final choice because the Catalyst’s current solution, unleashing the Reapers to destroy all organics, doesn’t work anymore.  Seems to me it would’ve worked one more time if it had just killed Shepard.
  • After the credits, we’re treated to an extremely cheesy scene featuring a grandfather explaining the size and diversity of the universe to his grandson, who then asks for another story about “the Shepard.”  This was just stupid and unnecessary.

Is the ending of Mass Effect 3 perfect?  Certainly not, but it’s a compelling and fitting end to the trilogy and to Shepard’s story.  And even if you don’t like the ending, letting it ruin your enjoyment of the previous hundred hours of gameplay is just stupid.

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  • Paul

    I thought the old man at the end was the Illusive Man as an elderly dude. Sounded just like him. At least I thought they were hinting at that. 

  • YachtCaptainColby

     Interestingly, the old man at the end was voice by Buzz Aldrin.  In my playthrough I killed the Illusive Man, so I didn’t see that possible connection.

  • Mckelvey48

    The last bit was stupid but i think it was an effort to give closure to the game, and for me, it did a little…

  • Guest

    The funny thing is if you ordered the collectors edition they threw in an art book. In that book is a concept for an alternate-form super boss illusive man.