So you shoot the baby Reaper in the face until it falls down and goes boom. Once it’s gone, you can access the Collector power core or whatever, and you can either set it to explode, or set it to irradiate all life and leave the technology intact. The Illusive Man wants you to leave the installation so his scientists can study it. But Paragon Shepard objects because…
This place is an abomination?
This is some messed-up superstitious thinking. He seems to be suggesting that learning about our enemy is inherently evil. Your companions also take this position, too. Even #1 Cerberus apologist Miranda suddenly does an abrupt heel-face turn saying, “I’m not so sure. Seeing it first hand… Using anything from this base seems like a betrayal.” And not because of indoctrination, but because of some completely un-articulated principles.
The last game ended with us beginning a quest for knowledge. That idea was wiped away to fight the Collectors. And now at the very end of the game we finally return to the question of “How do we stop the Reapers from killing us all?” except the narrative frames the acquisition of knowledge as an inherently evil and irresponsible thing. As a fan of sci-fi, I find this idea to be repugnant. The first game gave us a quest for knowledge and the second one is going to follow up with caveman science fiction?
Shepard says, “It liquefied people. Turned them into something horrible. We have to destroy the base.”
Even if you don’t want to look at the device that liquefies people to turn them into a giant robot, it’s entirely possible there are other things around the base that are of use. New zap gunsMaybe the Reapers have invented a gun that doesn’t need ammo!? Better armor? I’ll bet those Reapers have some pretty sweet shield technology. It’s already been established that EDI can magically read their databanks. Is there intelligence worth having? Do we have any ongoing security leaks? Any indoctrinated people in high-ranking positions we should know about? Any other hidden bases out there? Is there a map of what’s behind all those closed relays we’ve been afraid to open? No? We’re going to just blow the whole thing up because knowledge is icky?
Remember that EDI herself is Reaper tech, and she’s invaluable. But for some reason the Reaper tech in this particular location shouldn’t be studied.
Now, you can argue that Cerberus will just come in here and get themselves stupidly killed by doing science the Cerberus Way. And I would agree. But that’s not how the game frames this discussion. If you could make Shepard say, “I’m blowing up this base because I don’t want Cerberus getting their hands on it!” then that might line up with how some players see the issue. (Which means they see Cerberus as a more immediate threat than the Reapers, which just shows how badly this game bungled its premise of obliging you to work with Cerberus to stop the Reapers.) But the reasoning given in dialog has nothing to do with this. Instead you’re blowing it up because atrocities occurred here and it would be somehow wrong to look around and learn from that.
The common defense of this line of thinking is that it’s wrong to use research obtained through unethical means. This usually leads into a side-argument about the ethics of using (say) Nazi medial research. While I understand this attempt to bring an interesting philosophical discussion to this videogame, I want to point out that this comparison doesn’t work and isn’t appropriate here. Shepard doesn’t actually articulate a moral or philosophical stand. Moreover, if he wanted to take that stand then he should have done so at the start of the game by refusing to work with Cerberus, who basically have “Unethical Research” in their mission statement.
Furthermore, this is a completely different situation. This base isn’t the work of humans, and they weren’t doing research. These are amoral aliens who vastly outclass us in terms of technological power, and who are planning on killing everyone. If you’re going to argue that it’s immoral to study this place because of the atrocities perpetrated here, then then that leads to the conclusion that any attempt to study the Reapers is inherently immoral, because the Reapers are one giant atrocity. Mass, repeated genocide is what they do. All of their technology is dedicated to this singular evil cause.
“We can’t study the Mass Effect relays, because they were used to genocide thousands of species.”
“We can’t study Reaper weapons, because they’re designed to genocide civilizations.”
“We can’t study Reaper coffeemakers, because those helped keep the Reapers awake and energized during their centuries-long reaping process.”
Maybe you could make this a springboard for some gritty philosophical Socratic Questioning about the nature of evil and the presumed necessity of using the methodology of evil to defeat evil. But the game can’t go there because Shepard doesn’t actually take a coherent stance or position for us to judge. He says things that sound moral-ish, but you can’t explore his thinking. The writer is just throwing random genre tropes together and expecting that coherency will magically emerge from the resulting soup of clichés.
In any case, this ending choice undercuts the thinking of the entire game. If we’re willing to work with Cerberus to save a few colonies, then certainly we should be willing to work with them to get what we need to save the whole galaxy. This is supposed to the big important choice of the entire game, and it’s stupid, nonsensical, it undercuts the rest of the story, and runs directly counter to the themes of the genre and the first game in particular.
I’m not saying it’s dumb to blow up the Collector base, or that keeping the base is the only smart move. Now that the choice is in the game, by all means: Blow that sucker up. By this point the player is likely meta-gaming the decision by trying to intuit what they think the writer was trying to say about what BioWare was planning to do in the third game. You could justify almost any course of action here, based on which parts of the text you’ve allowed into your own personal head-canon. Depending on what you assume about Cerberus or indoctrination, blowing up the base might make total sense.
No, I’m saying this choice itself is completely inappropriate for this story, this game, and even this genre. It’s wrong in the same way that Shadow of Mordor was fundamentally at odds with the themes of Lord of the Rings.
And why is this a choice between “give technology to Cerberus” and “blow up technology”? Isn’t it supposedly really hard to get in here? Is the author suggesting that Cerberus has the force of arms to take this station away from Shepard if Shepard doesn’t want to share? This forms a hilarious rock-paper-scissors: The Collectors are stronger than Cerberus, who are stronger than Shepard, who is stronger than the Collectors.
Remember that we’re trying to prove the Reapers exist. (Again.) The presence of this base just might rouse the galaxy to action.
Like I’ve been saying all along: The Mass Effect series didn’t suddenly go wrong at the very end. You can see the same mistakes of the Mass Effect 3 ending repeated here: You get an incoherent choice that arises by arbitrarily limiting player options. It mimics the conventions of big end-game moral choices without actually saying anything (or allowing the player to say anything) about morality or the values of the people involved. It’s abrupt, awkward, and forced, and is more concerned with making sure the game ends with an explosion than making sure it ends coherently. The only difference is that at the end of Mass Effect 2, there was still the hope that the final game might somehow untangle all these problems and make it all work.
On top of it all, Miranda’s turn feels completely unearned. She’s been willing to make excuses for everything Cerberus has done. And now she’s willing to betray the organization because she draws the line at studying the technology of the machine gods who are trying to kill us? What is her morality even based on?
This might be a nice payoff if she’d spent the entire game gradually becoming more disillusioned with her employer and questioning her loyalty. That would actually make a fantastic character arc. But she’s never budged. Even when confronted with the horror of the research station where Cerberus tortured children to make a better biotic, she was adamant that those guys were only a rogue cell and that Cerberus had nothing to apologize for. She never had a crisis of faith moment. She’s never confided to Shepard that she’s having doubts. And then we get to this choice and all of a sudden she goes full paragonAs Kirk Lazarus says, “Never go full paragon.” when the fate of the galaxy is on the line.
And then to rub salt in the wound, in Mass Effect 3 it turns out this decision doesn’t matter anyway. Even if you blow up the base, Cerberus still gets their hands on the baby Reaper and the Reaper tech. So even if you can push through this mess with your sense of immersion intact, it will turn out you did it all for nothing. They could have just rolled the credits as soon as you killed the Reaper, because this whole scene didn’t matter.
Best Three out of Five!
The writer isn’t done neutering the Reapers quite yet. Shepard blows up the collector base and we cut to an internal view so we can hear Harbinger talking to… himself, I guess?
Harbinger releases control of the head Collector as it scurries around its exploding base. As the base crumbles and burns we hear Harbinger say, “We will find another way.” This suggests that, much like the writers, the Reapers have no plan. This machine god can’t do more than pout and say basically, “This isn’t over! I’ll figure something out!” I suppose we should be grateful he’s just talking to himself and not shouting all of this at Shepard.
Then we cut to the abyss of dark space. A million Reapers wake from slumber. And now we’re right back where we started at the end of Mass Effect 1: The Reapers might be coming, we don’t know when they will strike, we don’t know how they’ll reach us, and we don’t know how to stop them. We have a team that might be all dead and a base that might have been blown up.
People sayAnd to be fair, I’ve said it myself. that Mass Effect 2 “doesn’t go anywhere”. But the reality is actually worse than that. The plot doesn’t just stand still, it goes backwards. It doesn’t just fail to set things up for part 3, it dismantles the things that drove the story in part 1.
The first game left us with:
- A ship. (The Normandy-1)
- A crew (The original squad.)
- Leadership. (The Council, and to a lesser extent The Alliance, if the writer found that angle useful.)
- A mandate. (Go and learn about the Reapers and the previous cycles so we can save our civilization and perhaps break the cycle forever.)
At the close of Mass Effect 2:
- A ship. (The Normandy-2. I guess. If Cerberus doesn’t have a way to repossess it.)
- A crew? Maybe? Although they could be mostly dead.
- Leadership? Who? You may or may not explicitly quit Cerberus at the end. Are we going to go back to the Council? The Alliance? Nobody believes in the Reapers now, and even the events of this ending don’t seem to change that.
- What’s our mandate? Shepard makes a big speech to TIM about finding some way to beat the Reapers without using their technology, but it’s not at all clear what he plans to do. He wasn’t looking for answers at the start of this game. Is he going to start now? Does he even have a plan?
The audience has no idea what either party is planning, or how immediate the threat is. Both sides need to “find a way” to achieve their goals. Nobody in this world knows what they’re doing. The Council and Alliance aren’t doing anything. Shepard doesn’t know what he’s going to do next. The Reapers are trying to “find another way”. And Cerberus is either our only hope or cartoonishly evil, depending on which scenes of the game you choose to believe. The story is now directionless. Not only did the Mass Effect 2 writer fail to give themselves anything to work with in Mass Effect 3, they also destroyed the groundwork established by Mass Effect 1.
This isn’t just a plot that goes “nowhere”. In Mass Effect 1, Shepard said he was going to walk to Mordor. Then in Mass Effect 2 he sawed his own legs off and ate his map. Then just before the closing credits he announces he still needs to get to Mordor.
I wish Mass Effect 2 was a plot that went nowhere. That would have been a dramatic improvement.
 Maybe the Reapers have invented a gun that doesn’t need ammo!
 As Kirk Lazarus says, “Never go full paragon.”
 And to be fair, I’ve said it myself.
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