Well, I’ve mentioned off and on for years now that I’d do this, so...let’s do this.
Mass Effect 3 is, overall, an awesome RPG. The majority of its story events are either thrilling or extremely moving, its characters are, as always with Mass Effect, almost all great, the protagonist is kickass, the themes and messages are good and worth thinking about, the voice acting’s top-notch...if only it didn’t have what is arguably the worst ending in all RPG history, this game would be among the greatest games in the genre. Sadly, Mass Effect 3’s ending is so intellectually and emotionally toxic that I’m starting to shake with rage as I write this just because I’m remembering it oh my Viridi what the FUCK Bioware WHAT THE FFFFFFUUUUUUUUUU--
Still, even if we set aside the ending, which is so horrible that internet-dwellers still frequently rationalize any tragedy and disappointment they come across as “still a better ending than Mass Effect 3,” ME3 is not a perfect product. Truly excellent, yes, but it has its flaws. It continues its predecessors’ inability to make Ashley a likable or compelling character. There’s really not enough done on the front of love interests. Liara still frequently sounds like her somniloquent voice actress was recorded from the other side of the glass...in an aquarium. And Diana Allers. Dear God, Diana Allers. And you could romance her. For the first time in human history (sadly not the last, thanks a bunch, E. L. James), the phrase “still a better love story than Twilight” could not be said.
One of these flaws is, quite frankly, just the whole basis of Mass Effect 3’s plot. No, not the Reapers’ attack on galactic civilization. That part’s fine, and (arguably) what the whole series has been building up to. No, the problem with Mass Effect 3’s plot, that which weakens it as an overall structure, is the Crucible.
By itself, the logic of the Crucible is...iffy at best, and that doesn’t count all the idiotic bullshit it brings about in the game’s finale. You basically just have to take it on faith that somehow multiple completely unconnected cultures of aliens all managed to successively and successfully work on building a weapon during the cyclical armageddon of each one’s civilization, which they managed to keep hidden every single time from an enemy that can mass-brainwash individuals into becoming traitors and telling that enemy everything they know. Secrecy in the face of mass Reaper Indoctrination! Over and over again!
You just have to take it on faith that this super weapon was kept hidden for each following cycle to work on in conditions good enough that this unimaginably advanced technology could last for tens of thousands of years as it waited to be discovered, placed somewhere that the Reapers would not detect it, but where it would be found by its intended recipient society. You just have to take it on faith that the theories and concepts behind this inexplicable super technology that can beat the Reapers, which is so inscrutable to the current civilization cycle that it’s outright stated by the higher-ups within the game that they don’t actually know what the damn thing is going to do once it’s turned on, was somehow understood and worked out by these multiple separate totally different civilizations working on the problem one after the other. You just have to take it on faith that the blueprints just happened to be mostly complete by the time the Protheans (the civilization cycle before our own) had to hide it, that its plans just happened to be discovered now, right when it is needed, that they just happened to be comprehensible in their amalgamation of the technology of multiple alien civilizations set thousands of years and countless light years apart,* and, let’s not forget, that there just happens to be a convenient magical Reaper instant-kill button to begin with.
...You know, there are times when I know that something’s ridiculous, but it never really strikes me just how ridiculous it really is until I write it out in these rants. This is as nonsensical as any given Xenosaga 3 plot point. It’s a different, but completely equal kind of absurdity.
Anyway! The logistical problems of the Crucible aside, and again not counting anything involving the game’s ending because that’s just its own galaxy of putrescence, what really makes this thing a problem is that it weakens the overall plot of Mass Effect 3 and the game’s ultimate goal focus. It basically makes it into the weakest possible version of the cliched RPG formula of uncovering the secrets of the ancients in order to save the world.
I mean, think about it. How is the Crucible’s plans, utility, and existence any different from some generic fantasy RPG’s magical sword or other artifact that happens to be the sole key to defeating the game’s villain, and is housed in some ancient ruins created by some generic advanced ancient society that’s probably just outright called “The Ancients?” If the majority of a game’s plot focus is “gather the resources needed to fully construct and use the Crucible,” is that really any different from having a game where the majority of a game’s plot focus is “gather the resources needed to fully empower the Sword of Mana?” Whether it’s a mystical sword or a super advanced off switch, you’re still making the nigh-entirety of your game about running around to fix up some convenient magical plot device** that just happens to have been left to the game’s heroes to save the universe with, rather than come up with their own means to do so.
That’s not to say that making your game’s goals revolve around collecting magical crystals or unlocking seals on a magical sword can’t be done reasonably well. It can, and it usually is. Unfortunately, the Crucible represents the worst possible scenario in terms of this kind of plot. Because, you see, the Crucible is not the means by which the characters of the game are allowed the chance to fight back, it’s the entirety of their hopes. Everything is pinned on the idea that this lazy, magical plot device will just solve all the problems in a single go!
You take, say, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, by contrast. The ultimate plot goal of that game is similar--you seek out each of the ancient 4 giants of Termina to save the land from the moon crashing down onto it. Alright, so, seeking out the means to make an ancient, convenient and lazy plot device (the giants) save the day; seems like the Crucible so far. But the giants’ contribution is not the end-all, be-all of everything! Once they have halted the moon’s descent, it’s still up to Link to face off against Majora’s Mask by himself--the ultimate victory of good over evil, the triumph of the story, must still be won by the actual hero of the story, by his own hand, utilizing his own skills and resources. But the Crucible, it’s just the end of the conflict, the sweeping magical plot device that solves all problems once it’s up and running. Sure, Shepard must, in the ending, face off against The Illusive Man and personally get the Crucible started, so you could say that’s like Link handling Majora’s Mask himself...but ultimately, Shepard’s final contribution is still just to ensure that this lazy inexplicable kill switch gets flipped on. It’s just one last moment of empowering a poor plot device to do everything in the hero’s place. In the end, you feel that Link has accomplished something incredible by his own merits. But even if ME3 had had a good ending that actually made any goddamn sense at all, it’d still be a case of Shepard and all of galactic civilization relying on some piece of technology left to them by someone else to do everything for them, instead of having a story where they were all forced to come together and overcome their obstacles by their own merits.
Gee, galactic civilization relying on some piece of technology left to them by someone else rather than advance by their own efforts...that sure does sound familiar. Oh, right, that’s the trap that the Reapers laid for them to begin with! Advancement before a society has earned it and thus proven ready for it is a huge theme of the Mass Effect series, seen in both the way the Reapers entrap each civilization cycle, and the history and current state of the Krogan species. So the Crucible plot device isn’t just the worst version of a cliche, it’s also in direct contrast to major ideals of the Mass Effect series itself!
Now, to be fair, you might point out that Mass Effect 1 could be seen as weak in the same way. After all, the majority of Mass Effect 1’s plot is spent tracking down Saren, and in that pursuit, Shepard comes across various pieces of the ancient puzzle of the Reaper extinction cycle that have been left behind, which come together at the game’s finale with a plot-convenient portal to the final confrontation, which is what all these pieces of the past have been leading up to. Fair point--but it works for ME1. See, with Mass Effect 1, the uncovering of the ancient secrets, first of all, builds the lore of the series. As the first game, a major part of ME1 is to create the present and past of its universe, and incorporating these ancient puzzle pieces into the plot does just that. More importantly, though, with Mass Effect 1, these bits of the ancient past culminating at the end is not the be-all, end-all that the Crucible is. Shepard doesn’t seek to unravel the ancient mystery of the Reapers because he thinks that will somehow save the day all on its own--he does it in the hopes that it will give him the information he needs to do so HIMSELF. The idea is not putting all the pieces of the past together will stop Saren by itself, just that it will enable Shepard and company to do so; the heroes of the game actually are still expecting to have to overcome their foe themselves. And that’s how it works out--the portal that serves as a backdoor to the final confrontation doesn’t solve everything. Finding it and using it simply evens the odds so that Shepard is provided the opportunity to defeat Saren and save the day himself. Our hero is still our hero, and the good guys’ victory is still their own. Finally, though Shepard comes across the pieces of the past at each part of the story that eventually come together into the backdoor portal thingy, he’s not specifically searching for them at every step. Most of the locations Shepard finds these ancient clues at he has visited for more immediate, doing-stuff-himself reasons, following leads on Saren’s followers and activities. Shepard’s not just pursuing the past to defeat Saren. He’s pursuing ALL the leads available to him, SOME of which include digging up the galaxy’s ancient secrets. So in my eyes, Mass Effect 1 effectively uses this concept, where Mass Effect 3 ineptly leans on it.
So there you go. The Crucible is the worst example of an overused story cliche that takes the destiny of the game’s characters out of their own hands and invests all responsibility and hope instead in a magical plot device that just fell out of the damn sky. Even if all of that had not led up to one of the most sickeningly awful endings of all time, and had instead just led to a logical, decent, artistically consistent ending instead, it would still be a major weakness in Mass Effect 3’s plot. The Crucible is something that was born from carelessness or ineptitude (or both). The game-minus-the-ending is still great in spite of this, but it could have been better still without the writers’ reliance upon this half-assed storytelling crutch.
* To be fair, this is actually the least questionable part. Mathematics, upon which, ultimately, essentially all science and technology is built, is in all conceivable ways a universal language. In addition, it’s an established and extremely vital fact of the Mass Effect series that the Mass Relays and Citadel ensure that the technology of each cycle’s civilizations, once those societies have reached the point of interstellar travel, advances in a predictable way. So the Crucible blueprints would still have to mostly be written in the universal language of mathematics, which our cycle can understand, and be working with an understanding of technologies and scientific concepts only somewhat deviated from the current cycle society’s. While no mean feat, understanding the Crucible’s plans now that they’re nearly complete and (presumably) all the theoretical aspects have been determined by the Protheans or some older civilization would be much less unlikely than all the other stuff I’ve mentioned. But still a little iffy, all the same.
** I’m sorry, the Crucible isn’t magic, it’s advanced technology beyond the game’s ability to actually describe. Because there’s such a big difference between a plot device that you lazily claim is too advanced to be understood, and a plot device that you lazily claim is magic so it doesn’t need explaining.
That difference being that in the latter case, you’re at least being honest about it.