As I posted a couple of days ago, I decided to take a break from Mass Effect 3 and go back to something that I hadn’t played in quite a while: Fallout 3. FO3 was released by Bethesda Softworks back in October-ish 2008 (memory could be playing tricks on me, but somewhere around that time). The main quest line involved a rather heroic effort to take care of the problem of irradiated water in the DC Wasteland. Since it’s a 3-year-old game, I don’t have a problem spoiling the ending. If playing as a good guy on the released version game, you die at the end.
This set me to thinking about Shepard and the Mass Effect 3 ending and I had to seriously ask myself whether it was Shepard dying that was giving me such heartburn at the end. After some fairly serious soul-searching, I concluded that it was not. In every game of FO3 that I played (and my playing time was easily pushing 1000 hours by the time the “Broken Steel” DLC was released), I never sent another character into the control room to finish the job that I started. Yep, I died – tragically, heroically and frequently and didn’t have a major problem with it.
Just to check that my recollection was accurate, I popped over to Metacritic to glance through the a chunk of the 1300 or so player reviews of the game (it averages 7.8 – professional reviewers averaged 9.1). The comments are very telling. There are only a few gripes about the ending of the game. Granted, I ignored favorable reviews and could easily have overlooked comments like mine on ME3 (“great game, ending sucks”), but even among the unfavorable reviews, there were very few comments about the ending. A big chunk of them were along the lines of “I can’t believe that this game gets so many 10/10 ratings, so I’m giving it a 0”. Another batch took issue with the treatment of the Fallout universe in comparison to FO1 and FO2. And there were the usual complaints about the UI, scripting, inability to complete quests, graphic monotony, and the like. But surprisingly, even though the PC probably dies at the end, not too many gripes about it.
On the Bethesda forums, the complaints were of a similar nature. Although I recall (and this is admittedly faulty memory talking) some very vocal disappointment with the PC dying, the main thrust of the complaints were that [A] if the PC avoided dying, you got painted as the bad guy in the final analysis and [B] if you avoided dying, you could not play beyond the end of the main quest. This was rectified by the “Broken Steel” DLC (3rd DLC and released 6 or 8 months after the initial game release), which basically said “just kidding; you didn’t really die” and let you continue playing after completing the main quest.
So where did Mass Effect 3 drop the ball where Fallout 3 did not? I think it all comes back to the story and the ending of that story. In Fallout 3, your choices in the game have consequences. You generally do not find out about those consequences until the final credits roll, but the final slide-show with Ron Perlman’s voice-over pretty much tells you what happens with each and every major character and companion you dealt with (Fallout: New Vegas did pretty much the same thing – I can’t speak to FO1 and FO2 since I haven’t played them) and how your choices affected them. Mass Effect 3 does not do this. You get to talk to each of your companions one last time before the final push to the Citadel and you’ve got a good idea of what they hope will happen, but nothing after you “push the button”.
Second, in Fallout 3’s ending, there were no major surprises. While it was possible to play an ultra-good guy and send someone else into the control room, or to play an ultra-bad guy and take the hit yourself, your final decision affected only your character. Compare that to ME3 (or even the Deus Ex games) where you decide for everyone. Great, if you’re one of those “king of the universe” kind of characters. Not so hot if you’re one of the “consensus and cooperation” types.
Third, in Fallout 3, all of your choices were known before you ever got to the end. Aside from Eden’s genocidal option, no one showed up at the end to add new information to the mix. No one popped in at the last minute to tell you that everything you thought you knew was wrong. So even if you chose to sacrifice yourself, all of the cards were on the table before you ever got to that decision. This is not the case with Mass Effect 3.
The short version of a summation would have to be that Fallout 3 did everything a story should have done. In playing through it again, there are plenty of spots where stuff doesn’t come off nearly as good today as it did 3 years ago. It’s even to the point where I installed a couple of mods for different radio stations simply because Three Dog was getting on my nerves. But taken as a whole, the story worked pretty well from start to finish; a bit cheesy in places, but it worked. I wish I could say the same for ME3. Perhaps I will be able to say that at some point in the future, perhaps not. But I can definitely say that in the here-and-now it doesn’t work.