Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut DLC: did it go far enough?

WARNING: SPOILERS.This discusses the various ending of Mass Effect 3. 

Mass Effect 3 certainly courted its share of controversy, even before it was even released. Day one DLC, a backlash against YouTube videos showing Shepard’s potential romances with men, women and aliens and the Metacritic user score was hammered just hours after release. Not a great start.

It wasn’t until people came to the end of the game that the fan backlash gained its full ferocity though. Community forums set ablaze with with widespread caps-locked dissatisfaction at the ending. Especially when executive producer Casey Hudson had spent the last few months emphasising the sense of finality, and a gripping end to the saga.

Some felt that Shepard shouldn’t have taken any crap from the god-child. Until now, he’d fought the war on his terms – where was the renegade option to pistol-whip the little punk? Others took ire with the fact that there was nothing we could do to save Shep – unless you count ‘gathering every possible war asset to watch him take a breath in the final cut-scene.’

Many were frustrated by plot holes that emerged right at the end: why does Joker flee from the fight in the Normandy, for example? And if all the mass relays are destroyed, isn’t everyone basically boned anyway? Wouldn’t the resulting explosions have wiped everything out? Wouldn’t everyone who survived be left stranded and eventually starve to death on a the nearest massively over-populated planet?

Then there was the mood-shattering final ‘stay tuned for DLC!’ message, which seemed to undermine the cataclysmic events which preceded it. So, that wasn’t the end then?

By far the greatest frustration among fans though, was that ultimately your final decision amounted to little more than different coloured explosions. Each ending was essentially the same FMV in a different hue – the conclusion plays out largely the same no matter what Shepard chose aboard the Citadel. Again, Casey Hudson seemed to promise so much more in his pre-release interviews: “Wildly different conclusions,” finality and clarity in all elements of the plot.

Fans got pro-active about it. They began a Kickstarter project called Retake Mass Effect: Child’s Play which raised over $80,000 for sick children and put heavy pressure on BioWare to change the ending and deliver to fans what they believed had been promised and not yet fulfilled.

And now it’s arrived in the form of the free Extended Cut DLC. A direct response from BioWare to its fans, and a first for the industry. (You can watch all the new Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut endings here.) It’s exactly as the name suggests, an extended version of each ending cut-scene with a few fairly major plot ammendments and a whole new ‘refusal’ decision option when talking to the pre-pubescant overlord.

But does it really address and fix the original dissatisfaction? Well, the biggest change to every ending is that the mass relays remain intact. No galaxy-wide explosions, no stranded fleet. It’s certainly a more logical ending, and leaves the gamer feeling like Shep’s sacrifice was worth something.

Joker’s retreat is explained in greater detail too: we hear Admiral Hackett informing everyone on the Normandy that the Crucible’s armed, and ordering Joker to disengage and head to the rendez-vous point. Joker’s reluctant to leave Shep behind, but Garrus urges him to follow the order. A subtle change, but it’s a lot clearer than the original ending, a lot more in-canon, and it offers the kind of attention to detail that fans were after in the first place.

When the Normandy crash-lands in some tropical paradise, we see Joker and various crew members emerge right away. Later you also see survivors gather at a memorial – it appears these scenes reflect the fates of who lived and died. Although it doesn’t look like the plot hole of people somehow going from being  your party to being aboard the Normandy has been fixed but it seems to

Then we get an epilogue which shows how Shepard’s decision shaped the galaxy. This one comes down to personal taste really: yes, they’re much more positive outcomes, but crucially they offer a little insight into how each character’s life pans out. A little, though: we don’t see all the blue-sky plans Shep made with Aiden, Liara, Tali or Garrus come to fruition, because he’s very much gone.

Finally, there’s the option to refuse the Reaper-maker’s ultimatum entirely. Those who played Shepard as a renegade will feel this rings true to their character, those of a paragon persuasion might feel that Shep’s simply too proud to bow down and make one of the calls which would ultimately save organic life.

But for the most part, the cut-scenes are identical. You still get the different coloured explosions, the same scenes of the Reapers suddenly disengaging from the streets of London. The endings still aren’t “wildly different,” and still don’t differ depending on your choices throughout the series. That said, you could make a good argument that ME3 in its entirity does a pretty good job of this. it’s certainly not a linear playthrough. Perhaps binary at times, but not linear.

Early reactions aren’t great: a recent poll run by CVG determined that 44% of players still aren’t happy with the ending. Some stated that they were happy to have closure, others still didn’t feel that the endings were fitting with the trilogy’s tone. Even Casey Hudson himself stated that the DLC “Won’t satisfy everyone.”

On Twitter, your reactions were likewise very mixed:

“I think it is a disgrace that they compromised their artistic rights as the creator. Lost has a shit ending, they didn’t change that” said Ants Ambridge. Perry Sands seemed happy though: “It definitely explained it better! My initial reaction to the original ending was WTF and is that it Conversely, Philip Cummings “never had a problem in the first place.”

On Facebook, Chris Connell said “don’t know if I want to tbf, nothing really wrong with the original ending imo. Some sad bugger just wanted to cause disruption and got more people on his side to do this, no real need.” Paul Evans felt differently: “Checked out the destroy ending on YouTube, its significantly better (not that that was hard to pull off). Still not fantastic, but I’m satisfied with it as a fair ending. Still seen far better fan-fic endings though, for me this will always end as head-canon. Not the official-canon.”

Even in the eye of the storm that is the BioWare community forum, reactions are wide-ranging: “Thanks Bioware….some sense of closure was all we ever wanted :)” noted one user, while another voiced their dissatisfaction: “Wow, you guys are pleased by anything. No one hates the OOCness of characters like Garrus and Joker? No one feels the Reject ending was a big FU to fans?”

The debate will continue until BioWare’s next controversial nugget of DLC or new title, but you get a sense that the team has given the fans exactly what they wanted to the point of pandering. Within their limited post-release budget and schedule, at least.

The other aspect of this whole tale is that it’s set a precedent in the industry. Developers now know the full extent of the gamer’s power, and gamers have seen what strength in numbers can achieve. What does this mean for studios striving to maintain an artistic vision from the start of a project until release day?

Extended Cut’s widespread reception over time will answer that. It’s unlikely that this will be a one-off, and just as implausible that every game will operate like an R.L Stine ‘choose your ending’ Goosebumps book, but that middle-ground is going to be an interesting place. What if the first half of Military Zombie Shooter With Crossbows is incredible, but the second half feels rushed? Should Team Zombie be petitioned into re-making the latter half, or left to their next project?

Here’s my two cents – spend a while googling all the Half Life 3 fan suggestions you can find, then imagine what that collection of ideas would actually be like to play if those gamers banded together and petitioned Valve to produce it. A vehement fanbase’s input can be as much a force for pandering compromise and watered-down ideas as it can be for good – the Extended Cut DLC feels to me like more of the former.

In an age of Kickstarter projects like Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Adventure, fan input is looking to become more crucial than ever: the fans fund it, they own it. Will they every be completely satisfied with it, or will their list of amendments stretch out past the horizon?

Personally, I feel that ME3′s ending is likely a result of a clashing of heads between EA’s DLC plans and BioWare’s original vision. It feels like neither side really backed down, but neither side really won either. And I’m worried. I worry that if developers take on fan feedback too much, an increasing amount of game content will feel just like ME3′s ending: lacking attention to detail and lacking the follow-through of the developer’s original blueprints.

On the flipside, if publishers and developers have post-release content in mind too much before a game’s out of the door, we as gamers will still be subjected to off-target results, and games will carry an increasing whiff of commercial imperative rather than creative vision.