So I downloaded and played the Extended Cut for Mass Effect 3. Given my disappointment in the “original” ending, I wasn’t prepared to be thrilled by its extension. Nor was I. What I was not, however, was saddened, horrified, or made even more depressed by it.
I would take it as an improvement. I would not say that it “fixed” the problems with the original ending. In fact, it helped to clarify one of the more prominent disappointments I had with it. If you don’t want it spoiled, stop reading now.
The extension added in a logical explanation for how the heck my teammates got away from me and back on the Normandy (good!). It put in a final goodbye to the romance interest (also good!). It told me what happened to my squad and all the thousands of aliens that had joined the battle for earth… albeit a bit quickly and rushed (positive neutral).
It did not fix the big, gaping, logical flaws in the ending with the Catalyst. In fact, it made them more pronounced. Although you can now shoot the Catalyst (and I’m sure there were many players out there who wanted to), it makes you lose because the Reapers destroy everything. Nevertheless, there’s a little bit of catharsis there. However, the idea that what boils down to an AI is playing god by “deciding” that there is a cycle of life and death and it alone is responsible for arbitrating that cycle is just… not enough. While the core idea behind the Catalyst is really quite compelling, its execution as a petty godling taking the form of a dead child Shepard failed to save is… weak at best. When Shepard asks it (extended ending) about its creators and why it thought it had the right to destroy them, it says Shepard would not understand.
There is nothing I loathe more in fiction than a character who says, “Oh, I’m not going to tell you because you won’t understand.” What that says to me is that the author doesn’t actually know or is incapable of adequately explaining themselves… and doesn’t want to bother trying. Bad storytelling.
I also hate the now obvious implication that I’m supposed to embrace this thing that wants to annihilate all sentient life and meld my DNA with it… because it says so? I think not. And this visceral hate-filled reaction is really why I think Bioware did improve the ending. Because I’m feeling something against a figure in their game that my Shepard would feel. It caused me to weigh the consequences (the loss of some allies) against the fact that I was being told by this lordling-AI that it and I should bond, and I realized that I abhor what it stands for so much that I’m willing to destroy other AIs so that I can kill this one and all it represents. That’s good. I didn’t get that in the original.
Now, I’m not entirely sure that’s the reaction Bioware wanted to get out of me, but I’m willing to take it. Sure, the ending was cobbled-together out of artistic stills instead of game-engine footage, and I’m a little peeved by the fact that it looks and feels hackneyed. But at least my reaction went from “What the hell was that crap?” to something more fundamental. I cared about my choice. I wasn’t happy about it, but I cared enough to want to make it.