Saga of the Jasonite

The continuing adventures of that eternal man of mystery…


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My much-delayed review of the first Mass Effect game

Back to the beginning...

Back to the beginning…

For those who have not read my previous multi-part review of ME2 and ME3, or my even-earlier comparative review of ME2 and ME3, sufficeth to say I absolutely love the Mass Effect universe. I came into the game a little late though, I never owned a 360 and my previous PC was not up to the task of running much of anything. I did (and still do) own a PS3 and they got hosed with the first Mass Effect so I never got to play it. Honestly I didn’t care to either, I wasn’t a big fan of first or third-person shooter types, I was expecting a more traditional RPG from Bioware, akin to their Knights of the Old Republic or Baldur’s Gate series, so the first game I ever played in the series was ME2–and I fell in love. ME3 followed, and finally at the end of 2012 Edge of Reality developed ME1 for the PS3 and I downloaded it, eager to sink my teeth into the only chapter of the Mass Effect universe I hadn’t played. I played through it twice, once as a paragon male and the second as a renegade female, and I’ve done literally every side quest and visited every planet in the game. Now I feel prepared to give my impressions on playing the game that started it all.

gameplayGameplay. This will be the largest section. Honestly, it’s hard to go backwards. While the second and third ME games were excellent and comparable, the first game has significant differences, and I have to admit my review will be influenced by that. The gameplay is similar in that it’s third-person, but the movement was pretty sluggish for me, and the combat seemed antiquated. The interface isn’t that sleek, using any biotics takes a while to launch which at first led me to attempting to use the same power multiple times before I realized what was going on. The directional controls can be used to direct your squad mates to specific areas, and I found it counter-intuitive compared to what I was used to. Even if I hadn’t played ME2 or 3 I think it would still be tough to learn. I’m used to hitting left to command one squadmate and right to command the other, and here the former makes them rally around you and the latter to attack your target. You can launch mines at enemies by sliding them along the floor at them; it wasn’t exactly easy to judge the distance and half the time I’d slide it right past them and detonate it harmlessly past the enemies I was aiming for, or I would hit the detonate button before or after the “magic window” and it wouldn’t go off at all.

The very worst part of ME1–by far–was decrypting items, which essentially is the equivalent of opening locked chests. ME2 has mini-games for bypassing or hacking terminals and they never really bothered me, however over half the boxes/crates in the first game have some kind of decryption on them that opens up a mini-game, and the mini-game is a nightmare. I’ve since learned that the PC has a different mini-game than the Xbox or PS3 versions of this game, so perhaps that version was better, but in my version there is a Simon-Says type of game where buttons would highlight and the player has to hit them in the order highlighted to open up or access the whatever-it-is. I’m going to give more detail here because this is by far the single most frustrating, maddening thing in the game. You have to input the pattern so fast that you will fail about half the time, and you only get one shot to get it right. Let me be clear, it’s not that you are shown a pattern and have to repeat it, it’s that you are shown one button at a time and have about 1/10 of a second to input it before the second button is highlighted. Easy decrypts means correctly pressing three buttons in a row, medium decrypt is five and hard decrypts are seven. IT got to the point I would actually would get nervous every time I came to any crate in the game, would save the game, and would have to reload about 70% of the time. Frequently I would have to reload multiple times. This is the primary reason why after beating the game on paragon I waited almost nine months before playing it again, it’s a horrible experience. There is an option for using omni-gel (which will automatically unlock a crate) but it’s a finite resource for the first half the game as to get some you have to break down any equipment you have or find. So the choice is either automatically unlocking a crate (saving yourself frustration) or selling what you have for desperately-needed credits. Don’t think you can have an easier time by setting the game on Easy either, it makes no difference. I have to admit I’ve fantasized about writing this very paragraph since last year, that’s how big an impact it had on me, especially during my first playthrough.

The beast

The beast! Click for a larger picture

I’d be remiss in analyzing gameplay without discussing the Mako. The Mako is an all-terrain vehicle that is used to explore every planet you land on, and is an integral part of the game in general. It’s been the source of significant disagreement, as some people love it and others flat-out hate it. I have to admit, on my first playthrough I did not like it at all due to the handling and trying to negotiate the crazy terrain of planet after planet. On my second playthrough though I didn’t mind it as much–I knew what I was getting into, and it would occasionally be fun to drive my Mako off the side of a huge cliff and actively try to turn it upside down (it won’t). Of course my second time through I didn’t feel the need to be as thorough, so I wasn’t spending as much time in it.

The other thing that cannot be omitted is elevators, and everyone who’s played ME1 knows exactly what I mean. The designers must have needed a way to give the game enough time to load between areas because there are elevators everywhere in this game, they take a long time and you cannot get away from them. To their credit the writers tried to entertain us a little by having party members banter with each other, or hearing news reports which occasionally lead to side quests, but really it gets old after a while. There are elevators of some sort in ME2 and 3 (they’re actually cool-looking load screens), but I think what makes it worse in the first game is the player just has to sit there and watch the characters ride the elevator. You ever watch someone ride an elevator several dozen times?

This is an RPG though, and it’s the most RPG-like of all the Mass Effect games. Experience points gain you levels, and how you level up your particular Commander Shepard is very customizable, which I liked. There are a host of talents you can develop based on your class, and even specialization classes you can take as well! Acquiring a specialization class in-game really makes no sense for the story itself, you just do a particular mission and then to your surprise you are granted one. Still, it’s cool as you gain additional abilities, just as you do when you become the first human Spectre, which is also very cool. In the second and third games being a Spectre is practically an afterthought, but here it’s special.

While some of the assignments (side missions) are cool, many more you just grind through: “Go find 7 Prothean Data Discs, scattered around the galaxy,” “go find 13 Turian insignias scattered throughout the galaxy,” “go find 10 League of One medallions scattered throughout the galaxy.” The rewards for doing those particular assignments are pathetic. Doing other ones are sometimes very enjoyable, but the design of the structures you tend to enter are repetitive. One thing that does really come up short is the design of many of the planetary buildings entered on your missions or assignments. I’m not kidding, you enter dozens of them if you do most of the side quests, and the designers just reused two or three layouts again and again. There are some areas that are tunnels and others where you are on a starship, but these are laid out very similarly as well. This stung because of the incredibly varied environments and structures in ME2, so I have to admit that was a letdown. Mass Effect is lonelier than it’s sequels, you’ll spend a lot of time driving over barren planets to find one tiny building, or a small cluster of buildings all by themselves. It’s pretty realistic, as you are often visiting distant outposts. This still occurs in ME2 and 3, but visiting those kinds of worlds are a vast improvement in the sequels.

Pretty, click for a more detailed shot

Pretty! Click for a more detailed shot

Graphics. The graphics are dated compared to the later entries, but still I think they look pretty darn good. The Citadel looks great and so do the character models. In fact for its time this game was downright beautiful, and some environments, particularly those of Virmire and Ilos, still look impressive. One loading screen shows the Normandy cruising through space blue-shifting and red-shifting, and it’s absolutely gorgeous–even more gorgeous than the comparable load screen in ME2. The Citadel itself was one of my favorite areas on ME2 and 3, so it was exciting to see new parts of it, such as the Krogan statue or the tower where the council meets, however for the most part things look somewhat empty, as if you’re in a house that’s very sparsely furnished. You navigate the galaxy using a gorgeous galaxy map on board your ship, and this was so successfully implemented that it continues essentially unchanged throughout the series. A tiny nitpick is that all the locations in the galaxy are on the “east” side, the other side is empty, which I thought was weird. Nobody said “hey let’s put some locations here too?”  Having said that the textures on most surfaces (especially the characters) were terrific and cutting edge for their time, I don’t have a lot to complain about here.

Story. The story is great! I won’t go over the story in detail, but I suppose a short summary wouldn’t hurt. Mass Effect takes place in 2183, space travel in the galaxy is made possible by Mass Relays that slingshot ships from relay to relay. The protagonist, Commander Shepard, is a human who is sent to recover a beacon built by the Protheans, an ancient, dead race believed to have constructed the mass relays. While there he encounters Saren, a rogue Spectre agent who activates the beacon before leaving. Shepard sees a monstrous ship of unknown design in the sky, and gets sent visions of war and death by the beacon. Upon returning to the Citadel, he is unable to convince the Council (a conglomerate body of alien governments) of Saren’s treason, or the existence of an unknown alien race.

The primary villain, Saren, is working with the big baddies of the galaxy, the Reapers, and he commands the Geth, a race of artificial life forms who view the Reapers as gods. Indeed Mass Effect 1 is largely fought against the Geth.

You chase after Saren from planet to planet, not quite sure what he’s after, and when you finally do find his base you have to sacrifice one of your squad mates and possibly kill another in the process. The side quests introduce quite a bit of flavor to the Mass Effect universe, not the least of which is Cerberus, which becomes a major part of ME2 and 3. You get to make some pretty epic decisions, and can even affect the balance of power in the galaxy at the end. There are themes of racism and bigotry against alien races, not to mention other aliens’ feelings about humans, but the overarching theme here is man-vs-machine. It’s not my favorite story of all the ME games but Saren is a great villain and not a cookie cutter one either–you never quite sympathize with him, but by the end you can understand why he made the decisions he did, they just turned out to be the wrong ones.

ME1 sets the trend here by having you fight an enemy while the Reapers remain in the background. It’s not until ME3 that the primary enemy are the actual Reapers, which to me is good pacing. The lone Reaper, Sovereign, is a god-like figure and your first encounter with him on Virmire is downright awesome and sets up the action in the following two games well. One oft-mentioned problem though is that many players either complained or just plain quit on the Citadel in the beginning. You are made a Spectre–which is awesome–but then you have a large amount of things to do on the huge, confusing Citadel before going and doing anything and it was a big turn off. This was a legitimate criticism, and honestly I just used the Wiki to get through it.

Urdnot Wrex giving a Salarian the finger...

Urdnot Wrex giving a Salarian the finger…

Characters. Character development is a strength of the Mass Effect series, and this is a great start. Your background plays the biggest role here, as there are specific subquests based on it. I love those kinds of touches! You are already an N7, indicating the highest level of proficiency in the special forces, and you get to become the first Human Spectre, a kind of super-agent for the Citadel and a big chunk of the galaxy, and you are essentially above the law. Your companions are all pretty interesting, and my favorite is Wrex. That dude is cool, full of attitude, and within 30 seconds you know exactly what kind of a guy he is. I also got to see his transformation as he went from a gun-for-hire to a future leader of his people, which was wonderful. 

Garrus is surprisingly bland in comparison with the truly excellent character he becomes in subsequent games, and you are in more of a position to shape his attitudes. Joker is also kind of bland too, in that he really didn’t do much, and only had an occasional comment throughout the game–still, his recognizable personality is there, if a bit nascent. Liara is such a kid, at least she came across that way to me, having been exposed to her only in her later appearances where she’s extremely competent–here she is a wide-eyed, bookish nerd which I actually found endearing. Tali seems pretty much the same here as ME2 & 3, and I’m realizing she didn’t change a lot throughout the series. Kaidan and Ashley are both pretty interesting but neither was particularly compelling for me. 

Saren is great, but honestly I wish I’d seen more of him; you only interact with him about three times in the whole game which is something of a shame, especially in comparison with the Illusive Man later on in ME2. Matriarch Benezia, who it turns out is Liara’s mom, is almost an afterthought–she doesn’t do much for me. It’s a shame because there could have been a lot more there, but you know almost nothing about her until you finally fight her.

I have to say a word about Navigator Pressly. He’s essentially #2 on the Normandy, and the guy is the most useless character in the entire game. He’s there on the bridge the whole time and you literally can have two conversations with him, total. He has no personality and serves no purpose, he comes across as an idea the writers had for a character but then decided not to use. It actually bugs me that he’s in the game. Engineer Adams also doesn’t really have anything to do or say. I suppose he was written in because there’s always a Chief Engineer on Star Trek, but it’s not until ME2 that engineers become interesting.
Overall Impression and Recommendations. I have mixed feelings. There was some nostalgia in going back and watching the universe develop and take shape, and ME1 does a great job of this. I also loved seeing characters that I knew and learning how they got started and introduced. Another big reason I wanted to play it was obviously to get a more complete picture of the Mass Effect universe, and I feel I’ve gotten that now: when a character mentions Noveria, Feros, Virmire or Ilos I know exactly what they are referring to, they were blank pages to me previously. Another perk to playing through ME1 is that you can get additional characters (Conrad Verner!) and plot decisions come through an import into ME2 and even ME3 and that’s a big selling point for me, and is ultimately what led me to make a second journey through ME1. This game is very much open, and the second game follows suit which is nice.

Having said that, would I recommend this game to someone who was in my situation and had played the latter two games but never played the first one? I honestly don’t know if I would. In spite of what I did get out of it, for the casual player there are too many cons: using the Mako, the combat, the Citadel issues, the elevators, the somewhat boring side missions and of course the ubiquitous decryption issues. Overall it’s a very well-done game and the themes, characters and plot are excellent, but it’s not one I will be returning to anytime soon.


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Mass Effect Revisited: Part Three

Badasses to the bone

Badasses to the bone

Alright, my favorite part of this review will cover the story line and character development in ME2 and ME3. The story in both games is excellent. Mass Effect 2’s main plot deals with a technologically advanced race called the Collectors. They are working for the Reapers and are abducting humans (and humans only) from various colonies around the galaxy, and it’s your job to find out why and put a stop to them. The focus of the game is putting together a team to confront them, and it’s a “Dirty Dozen” style approach for those that are familiar with the movie. You’re not just recruiting convicts like the movie, but there are a couple of criminals in there. There is a ton of focus on character development throughout the game, and it’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game in general.

That's gotta hurt

That’s gotta hurt, click for larger shot

ME2 begins in one of the most dramatic ways possible:  you die. You freakin’ die, el muerto! The Normandy gets attacked and destroyed by a mysterious ship and you are killed in the intro to the game! It’s fantastic, I loved it. As far as I know it’s unprecedented in gaming history, taking the main character from a previous game and killing them off like that. So how are you supposed to play the game? Cerberus, a humanity-first extremist faction that you actually fought against in the first game brings you back to life. In the PS3 version you are given an interactive comic book-style primer on what happened in ME1, which is great because you get to make decisions that will affect ME2 and ME3 as well as learn about the mass effect universe. It’s pretty crucial if this is where you start playing Mass Effect, because the second game doesn’t make it too friendly for those unfamiliar with the first. The entire intro itself is unskippable, which does suck on repeated playthroughs. There are returning characters like Garrus and Tali, and lots of new ones and each one is distinct and a joy to get to know.

Garrus may be the most likable companion in the Mass Effect games. He’s a Turian and his wise-cracks and sardonic sense of humor are pitch-perfect and in battle he’s just a rock, he’s like your strong right arm that never lets you down. Tali is a Quarian and is smart, sweet, young and several players’ choice as their love interest as the plot goes on. There are 10 (actually 11) new characters if you download the DLC and they’re all a lot of fun: Miranda Lawson, a genetically altered genius/model ice queen who doesn’t particularly like you, works for Cerberus, oh and headed up the project to bring you back to life; Jacob, also a Cerberus operative who’s a soldier like you, and didn’t want to have to deal with the bureaucracy of the Human Alliance; Mordin the bookish-but-also-special-op Salarian doctor/geneticist, who harbors a deep secret; Grunt, a genetically engineered “perfect” Krogan who was grown in a tank, has no idea who he really is and is mad about it; Jack, probably the most powerful human biotic in the galaxy who also happens to be a convict in a super-max prison that has one of the most painful pasts imaginable, and blames Cerberus for it; Samara, an Asari Justicar–basically a space paladin with an edge–who you find out has been hunting her mass-murdering daughter for hundreds of years; Thane Krios, a Drell who is the most skilled assassin in the galaxy, a seemingly emotionless killing machine except he has a fatal disease and wants to reconcile with his son; Kasumi, the best thief there is who wants your assistance on a heist that turns into more than it appears; Zaeed, the most feared bounty hunter/mercenary around, he’s in it only for the money and maybe a chance at revenge; Legion, one of the freakin’ Geth, the artificial life-forms you fought and killed by the hundreds in the first game. There’s even a hidden character that you can only get by killing off one of your companions in the process! Jacob felt a little generic, as did Grunt (only compared to Wrex), but I still like them both. I don’t think there’s an outright weak character in there.

Reapers 1, Earth 0

Reapers 1, Earth 0. Click for a closer look

I didn’t think it was really possible for ME3’s intro to be as good as 2, but I was wrong. ME3 begins with the Reaper invasion, and in the intro Earth itself falls. You’ve been out of action for two years following events at the end of ME2 (particularly if you played the DLC Arrival, more on that later) and there’s a real shift in the emotional tone and pace of the game: death has arrived. It was pretty jarring for me to see these skyscraper-high ships just land in the middle of a city and start tearing crap up, which was probably what they intended. ME3 is all about the Reaper War, and it feels like it. Throughout the game you feel as if everything’s hitting the fan, it’s crunch time, and you’d better come through. This tension is maintained particularly on the main-story missions, and it’s something you have to experience to understand. You feel insignificant and the war gets increasingly desperate. To make matters worse you’re fighting Cerberus as well. Good people die in ways that tug at your heart strings; there are a couple of instances on Thessia that particularly got to me. Along with this is the psychological toll that mounts due to all the things Shepard has been through, manifested by a couple of dream sequences and comments of concern from various characters. I didn’t care for it during my first playthrough, but now I have a better appreciation for them; it humanizes him a bit more. After all his burdens are great:  he is the shepherd, the entire galaxy his flock.

There are less companions in ME3 than in 2, and three new ones. James is a new character, he’s your basic space marine. He is overall the least-developed and most generic character in the game; he never seems to rise to the point of actually being memorable. The designers said he was meant to represent someone new to the Mass Effect universe for whatever that’s worth. Javik, however, is very memorable. He’s an honest-to-God Prothean, and is a really well-developed character. He comes across as having values from 50,000 years ago, he does really well as a man out of time and is one of my favorites for ME3. You gain EDI as a squad mate and she is a welcome addition, her commentary and development as a life form is a pleasure to experience, as is her potential romance with Joker. Ashley or Kaidan return as a full-fledged squad mate for the first time since the first game, depending on your choices back then, and I like them. Ashley is a full-on soldier whereas Kaidan is more of a biotic. Whoever it is doesn’t really trust you because of your history with Cerberus, and this will come into play on a Citadel mission later on, where you may have to kill them. Tali and Garrus both return as does Liara, who (unless you had some DLC in ME2) hasn’t been a squad mate since the first game.

This is the background for one of your missions, click for a better view

This is the actual background for one of your missions, click for a better view

The plots for both games are excellent, and the character development is also first-class. I give ME3 the edge in plot, and ME2 the edge in characters. I really enjoyed 2’s plot, playing catch-up with the mysterious Collectors, working for a really shady organization and especially dealing with their leader, The Illusive Man. Martin Sheen provides his voice and is terrific. Each of the ME2 character intros is memorable, and some (like Jack’s) are simply outstanding. I found myself being intimidated by Zaeed at certain points, and he’s just a DLC squad mate! It was a blast, but 3 really delivers on the culmination on the build-up of the impending war in a big way–except for the ending. I’ll come to that later. With very few exceptions ME3’s missions are in the context of “there’s a war on” and acquiring war assets, which will ultimately determine how well the war goes. The atmosphere is incredibly immersive. The inter-squad banter in these games are great, and simply taking them along with you on missions lets you learn a lot about who these folks are and how they feel about each other. You can also check in with your squad mates on the ship after every mission, and they’ll say something different and often revealing when you do. Each of the characters from ME2 makes an appearance in ME3, and you really do care about them, at least I did. And they don’t all live this time, either.

The detail in these games is stunning. I’m not sure how to best articulate this, but the BioWare team seems to have a way of making something about every single mission potentially interesting, and building on the mythology of the universe as a whole at the same time. Here’s a quote from a GameSpot review:  “deep reds and glowing indigos saturate certain scenes, making them richer and more sinister; eerie fog limits your vision in one side mission, while rain pours down upon you in another. Subtle, moody lighting gives certain interactions great impact.” There is a plaque on your ship in ME3 that lists the names of those who have died, and the names are specific to who has actually died during ME2 and ME3, for example. Characters that you’ve interacted with in previous games will return to reward or haunt you later on. The visuals, the sounds, and the depth to the large number of minor characters like Kelly Chambers, Dr. Chakwas, Diana Allers, Steve Cortez, Samantha Traynor, Aria T’Loak, Admirals Anderson and Hackett, and of course Joker make them seem as if they aren’t minor at all. For example there are two very minor characters, engineers Donnelly and Daniels. There isn’t much they do in 2 or 3, but by the end of 3 I cared about them enough to want to get them together. That’s the level of writing that permeates the mass effect games.

The missions themselves boast incredible variety. Some of them are pure combat, some of them have no combat at all. Some are pretty extensive, others take five minutes. One or two of them require you to do them solo. Some take place in space on an abandoned space station or ship, others on a jungle, ice, garden or desert planet, some in the middle of a city, some on the tops of skyscrapers, some underwater and some in a virtual world! I have to give a slight edge here to ME2 in terms of variety. ME3 has a lot of variety too, but to be fair I’m not sure how possible it would be for a game to have more diversity than 2 did. ME2 has you acquire missions in a fairly standard way, but you can also acquire them solely through exploration, and they can be chained which is great. In ME3 you can acquire missions just by overhearing conversations! There are also opportunities to do missions that are time dependent, wait too long and they’re gone, sometimes with disastrous results. One of my favorite ME2 side missions ever (don’t ask me why) is a small one where you go to this desert planet to fix a radiation shield that’s malfunctioned and endangering a research station. You can only find this mission via exploration, it lasts maybe five or ten minutes, there’s no combat at all–you’re just fixing the shield. Maybe I just like the idea of going about doing good, finding time to help in the midst of galactic upheaval.

The Citadel, a thing of beauty

The Citadel, a thing of beauty

There were lots of downloadable content, or DLC, for both ME2 and 3. The nice thing about ME2 is that some of them were free if you had the PS3 version, such as Kasumi, Overlord and Lair of the Shadow Broker. I think the only DLC I actually paid for was Arrival. I thought for sure the Cerberus Network bundle was free too, but a friend said she had to pay for it, so I’m not sure there. There were others that gave you additional weapons or alternate costumes, but I didn’t care so much about that. The DLC in ME2 was great:  you get an extra vehicle,  extra companions, and some really interesting adventures. Lair of the Shadow Broker was my favorite and lets you have Liara as a squad mate again. There’s a great sense of camaraderie in that one, and some of the backdrops are stunning. Overlord was my least favorite, recycling one of the most unenjoyable parts from the first game, but even it had some great creepy moments. Arrival is a pretty perfect bridge from ME2 to ME3. The DLC for ME3 was also high quality, but I had a problem with one of them. The first one, From Ashes, is where you can acquire Javik. The problem is it was released right after the game itself. This was a transparent attempt to get us to pay $10 for a character that was meant to be included in the game in the first place. Zaeed and Kasumi from ME2 were optional characters clearly; Javik, though, was well-integrated into the game, there was a lot to do with him and there’s even a main-story mission where he is a big influence. I have a problem with EA/BioWare trying to make an extra buck like that. So did others. That link also has info regarding the ending controversy, and states flat out how Javik was already on the game disc, and in fact if you own the PC version there’s a way to access him without even buying the DLC. Other ME3 DLC included Leviathan, Omega and Citadel. In my opinion they are all worth having. Leviathan was very good, Omega was nice because I was wanting more with Aria, and the Citadel has some nice nostalgia and is funnier than hell. You pay for all of them except the Extended Cut DLC which was free and by way of apology following the outrage about ME3’s ending, which I’ll come to right now.

The end mission of ME2 I thought was fantastic. You learn more about the Collectors as the game progresses, and their ties with the Reapers, but the prospect of going through the Omega 4 Relay becomes increasingly anxiety-provoking. It’s referred to as a suicide mission for several reasons, and by the time you actually go through it you have genuine trepidation and excitement as to what’s on the other side. The whole area over there is exciting and tense, and it’s easy as pie to have multiple party members die. In fact you get a trophy/achievement just for getting everyone through it alive. You might make it out with only two other squad mates, or you can beat the game and still die!

ME3’s ending is unfortunate. Everything leading up to it is great, the saying goodbye’s, the intense combat, the feeling of being in a war zone at ground zero. The ending–which takes place on the Citadel–does evoke feelings of great import; the right tone is struck, and it leaves you with two (or three) choices in how to end things. The problem is I don’t really agree with any of them, at least not the way they’re presented. Once you make your decision you were treated to the briefest possible ending that tells you exactly nothing, it was terrible. In fact it was such a big deal it was featured in a second article in Forbes magazine when BioWare finally released an “extended cut” that put a lot more stuff into the ending, hoping to please fans (careful, there are spoilers in that article). It’s controversial, and yeah endings are the hardest thing to write, but the dropping of the ball here was a blow. I also had a problem with the war assets aspect of ME3, in that you used to be required to play multiplayer to max them out and get the “best” endings. As I mentioned I don’t play multiplayer so this was a slap in the face to me, though thanks to the combination of DLC now you do not have to. But you still have to buy the DLC.

Overall, I don’t know if I’ve ever played a finer crafted couple of games than Mass Effect 2 and 3. Both are outstanding, and among the finest in modern gaming. If I have to pick one to ultimately like better, contrary to my initial article, I’ll say the following:  ME2 feels like a great video game, ME3 feels like a great movie in which you are the star. It just becomes as seamless as anything I’ve ever played, and it’s a movie that lasts from 30-60 hours with great writing throughout (well, almost). Those of you who have read my Star Trek reviews know I can have pretty high standards, so great reviews don’t come along that often. However, I can wholeheartedly recommend these games to anyone with a pulse. These are not going to be the end of the games either:  according to BioWare’s announcement they are developing a new game set during or before Shepard’s time, and Legendary Pictures is currently developing a movie as well. With luck, 30 years from now we’ll still be talking about this great universe called Mass Effect.

Updated 5/30/13

     Part Two


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Mass Effect Revisited: Part Two

Mass-Effect-N7-Wallpaper-1200x800Wow, I didn’t expect that first post about Mass Effect to go on that long. In fact my original intention was just a short blog entry talking about me loving the universe and the games, and somehow that did the trick at overcoming my writer’s block. It’s fun when I learn a bit more about the writing process!

As I said last time I never played the first game, it wasn’t available on the PS3 until just the end of last year. I don’t actually recall the circumstances around buying ME2. I think that I really liked the idea of playing the first one–at least the brief snippets I got to play on my friend’s Xbox–and when I found out 2 was coming out for all the platforms I snatched it up. I already loved Bioware due to their great catalog of games, including the Baldur’s Gate series (which I loved), the Neverwinter Nights series (which was pretty good) and because they made Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, one of the best games I’ve ever played and a candidate for having the best plot twist in a game, ever. They also made the Dragon Age series, though I wasn’t as enamored of it. Okay, on to the ME2 and ME3 review!

Gameplay. I’d hardly played any cover-based combat games so the whole game was a learning experience in staying alive! Actually I was initially interested in the game because it was originally billed as an action RPG, so I figured it would be similar to BioWare’s other games. Once I got used to it though, the game play was excellent. It was enjoyable, and pretty intuitive once I learned it and a lot of fun. As enjoyable as ME2’s combat system was, ME3’s is refined and even better. You move faster, there’s even more of a sense of gameplayimmediacy and responsiveness and there are a couple of advancements, such as being able to jump gaps, run or “storm” indefinitely, and the cover system has been improved–all are nice additions. In ME2 your choices for weapons are dependent on your class, but in ME3 you can use all of them, it’s up to you what you carry but you have to worry about encumbrance. I liked the increased versatility. The space exploration element of the game has changed. In ME2 you went from system to system and explored planets, which was rewarding in its own right. Sometimes you would find an adventure there that you can’t get from anywhere other than pure exploration, and I loved that! That is not the case in ME3, but story-wise in ME3 you’ve got bigger things to worry about. Still, I miss it. Also, ME2 did have a system where you would launch probes to mine planets for resources which you used to purchase upgrades. In the words of one BioWare employee, nobody liked it so they did away with it for the third game, you just buy things with credits. I personally didn’t hate the mining aspects but it wasn’t fun either. ME3 retains launching probes at planets, but the purpose is different and it’s much simpler, which I’m fine with. In fact it was pretty fun. There are some major multiplayer changes as well, but as I’m not into multiplayer I won’t be talking about that. Sorry. The edge in gameplay is clearly in ME3’s favor. This is how it should work, each game improving on the last.

The morality system is one of my favorite parts of the Mass Effect series, and BioWare’s been using it since KotOR. You can be a noble hero or a total douche that is callous toward your friends and ruthless toward your enemies. Both are a lot of fun! Your appearance can change, you can deepen your friendships or alienate your allies, etc, I love it. This is an area where ME2 did it better. There are certain dialogue options that open up only if you are ‘paragon’ or ‘renegade’ enough to pull them off.  ME2’s system means that if your score isn’t high enough you don’t get the reward of those options, so there was a focus on either being good or bad, as doing a middle of the road approach meant you would not be able to take advantage. This is key in a couple of places if you wanted to gain/retain your companions’ loyalty, for example. In ME3 this was displaced to a large extent by reputation. Reputation is a generic meter that fills up as you progress through the game and is supposed to be the deciding factor in those situations; however there is no circumstance I’ve encountered where you couldn’t just say whatever you wanted anyway. There is no Paragon meter at all, only a Renegade one, and it appears to have no influence on dialogue. I remember being at the end of the game, my Renegade bar was barely even visible and I could have chosen their dialogue option if I wanted to. ME2 had the better system, and seemed more realistic. You shouldn’t be good at doing specialized renegade things if you’d been paragon for your entire career, and vice versa, though in ME2 you could build up both to a degree if you wanted.

The menu screen in ME3 is a step down, I think. ME2 had a good system that divided up your journal, the codex, your squad, the save/load, etc, and it worked beautifully. ME3 combines the codex and journal, and the journal (which contains your missions) doesn’t have nested sub-components and doesn’t update that much. Also there’s a section for the manual in the menu–who the hell looks at the manual? The character leveling is probably a bit better in ME3, but neither of them is as RPG-like as the first game by all accounts. You can evolve your powers into some really cool variants, and they seem thoughtfully developed for a great variety of play styles. ME2’s was good too, but there was simply a binary choice at the last stage for what a particular power or tech ability would do; ME3’s gives you two choices three different times, allowing more customization here. ME2 and ME3 are broken up into different missions or assignments that you perform. In ME2 these are pretty discrete in that you only gain experience at the end of the mission, which ends up being the only times you increase in level, etc. In ME3 you get experience and level up during the mission which seems to me to be more seamless; it’s certainly more convenient to get a boost when you’d need it the most.

A word on importing. Take my advice and do NOT just start playing ME3; start with ME2 or the first game. One of the major themes of this series is that your choices earlier have consequences later. If you just start ME3 most of your previous choices will be assumed to be the worst ones. Also this game will not have nearly the same impact on you. What you do in earlier games can have a significant impact when the war hits in the third game, and for the PS3 version you get an interactive comic as part of the intro to ME2 that allows you to make choices even during the first game. Most importantly you’ll miss out on playing ME2, which is a fantastic experience. Take the time, it’s fun and really worth it.

Mass Effect 3 ScreenshotThe music is really great in both games. I don’t know if I could tell you which one is better, in both cases they enhance the mood of whatever environment or situation you are in but they are never intrusive. That’s exactly how it should be. The sound itself is immersive, and really pays if you have a surround sound system. I do! I could hear voices change place as I turned around, going from speaker to speaker, and the sub-woofer was pretty glorious at some points. I suppose that’s standard in modern games, but I still like it. My only problem is that in ME3 you will be chased by Reapers in various star systems as you navigate around in your ship, the Normandy. That initial sub-woofer sound when they enter the system does start to grate after a while, and I even found myself muting. That’s the only complaint. Graphically they both look beautiful; gorgeous in fact. ME2 is just art, and the graphics in ME3 are even better and more detailed, really pushing the limits of what the consoles can do. As an example, here is what one of the characters looks like in ME2, and here is what she looks like in ME3. Both look good, but there is a difference. If you own the PS3 version as I do, ME2 looks even better than the Xbox version. This is because it was released a year later, so BioWare programmed it to run on ME3’s engine! It’s gorgeous, this is one of the reasons I’m glad I bought a nice HDTV, virtually every texture is perfect.

A brief note about the voice acting. Overall the voice acting is superb. Virtually all dialogue is voice-acted, and even a huge chunk of the Codex entries are narrated as well! The actors are creative and typically pitch-perfect, creating memorable characters. Shepard is either voiced by Mark Meer or Jennifer Hale depending on which gender you pick, and there are some differences there. In ME2 Jennifer Hale just gives a better performance, hands down. She was even nominated for a voice acting award for it, and it’s easy to see why. She voiced the character of Bastila back in KotOR and BioWare hung on to her thank goodness. In ME3 however, Mark does just as good a job and they really are both great.

In writing this I realized that when I actually started writing about the plot and characters of ME2 and 3 it would take so long that folks might not even want to read it as part of one long post, so I’m breaking it up into more manageable chunks. My thoughts on the overall plot, characterization and final thoughts will be in part three, the conclusion!

Updated 5/3/13

      Part One                                                                                                                           Part Three


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Mass Effect Revisited: Part One

Welcome

Welcome…

I have a lot to say about Mass Effect. I love it. I love it a lot. However, in trying to write something down about it–the rich universe,  the memorable characters, the great story–I kept running into writer’s block. I’d start and inevitably at some point not too far in, it would start to feel wrong. I’d stop and not know why, or feel a strong urge not to write. My initial goal was to update my original blog post about Mass Effect 2 and 3, as I’ve revised my opinion. Whenever I would start though, again it seemed as if the task was too big, as though I had too much to say. Things would balloon up in my mind so quickly that it seemed futile to start, so I’ve decided for right now just to write whatever comes to mind.

I think I overall like ME3 more than ME2. This is a significant shift for me, and a very personal one. I feel self-conscious even talking about it in these terms, because after all it’s just a video game, right? When you think about that though, think about how folks today are still talking about Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, etc., discussing it, dissecting it, arguing about it, and this is long after we’ve read or seen the story. That’s how I feel about Mass Effect, it’s as if it inhabits me when I think about it.

I never played the first one (EDIT:  I have since played the first game, read the review here). I’ve never been a fan of first-person (or third-person) shooters so that completely turned me off, and it wasn’t until ME2 that I overcame that, and thank goodness I did. Because of that I’ve been able to mingle with aliens, learn about the future history of humanity, and give everything I have to save the galaxy. It might sound silly when I say it like that, but when you play the game you really come to identify with Shepard, the main character. In some ways you’re kind of a perfect person in that you never get bones broken, get depressed, or traumatized like anyone who’s going through what he is would go through. In fact he’d be dead, there’s no way he would live. I’m saying “he” here even though you control the gender of Shepard because it’s easier than using gender neutral pronouns all the time. What’s wild though, is that I don’t typically think about the invincibility of the main character of a game, I just accept it and play him like everyone else. It’s a measure of the writing that I start thinking about the toll all this stuff must take on him. In fact it’s referenced in the odd conversation here and there in ME2, but it’s not until ME3 that you see the writers put in references for how shouldering such a burden and seeing the things he’s seen would start to affect you, and it’s just a sliver of the excellent writing in the franchise.

What makes space travel possible

The relays:  making space travel possible

The universe is great. It has some things in common with Babylon 5, where humanity are relative newcomers to the galactic community, and we’re not even close to the most powerful things out there. The Citadel itself somewhat recalls Babylon 5 though there are differences. It’s a gigantic space station–close to 28 miles long–and is a relic from a bygone age and no one quite knows for sure who built it. The title of the game, Mass Effect, has reference to the science fiction around which the entire future is based. Mass Effect fields allow faster-than-light (FTL) travel, where enormous space relays (also built by creatures from long ago) essentially sling-shot you to different relays scattered throughout the galaxy. It’s a really nice concept which has to do with increasing and decreasing mass, but if you don’t care don’t worry about it. It’s just an entire scientific field they made up for the game! There is usually some concept for allowing galactic space travel in science fiction, but this one is just memorable, I love it.

Biotics are another feature of the game. They are basically super-powers, or a different take on the Force if you like. Just as in different Star Wars games, you get different abilities based on the class of character you choose, and depending on that they are either a large or a small part of your character. These are more science-based though, with a new element called Element Zero that catalyzes both the large mass effect fields that the relays use and the smaller ones that people can use. They’re weaponized allowing you to push, pull, create defensive barriers, tear down defensive barriers, inflict pain, burn things, etc. There are also specialized powers endemic to each character which are pretty cool.

An omnitool

An omni-tool

It’s not all about biotics though, there are tech powers as well. In the era of this game almost everyone has an omni-tool, which is kind of the ultimate evolution of the personal computer. They are holographic and wrap around your forearm, and are more than just computers:  they are multipurpose diagnostic and manufacturing tools, folks use them for everything. Some in-game uses include use as a flashlight, a scanner, to repair, dispense medi-gel (reviving other characters), programming and hacking, as a camera, video/audio communication, a melee weapon and most excitingly, using tech powers! Some characters don’t use biotics, but rather tech-based abilities. You can apply an effect to the bullets you shoot as well as most anything else you can imagine, including duplicating many of the effects of biotics. They’re similar, but different and cool. Each of these elements–mass effect fields, biotics, tech powers, element zero–are all tied together in a way that is coherent and exceptionally well thought-out. There is a codex with different entries that can be read during the game that enriches everything, and unlike most other games I’ve played some of it is actually interesting!

The aliens themselves are a big piece of the charm of this universe, so I’ll go on for a bit. They are varied, have great depth, are well thought-out and are very different from each other. Click on any of the links in this paragraph to get a picture of what they look like. The Asari are the oldest folks around, the most respected and probably the most powerful. They live to be 1,000 years old, they are all female, and most are pretty powerful biotics. They can reproduce with any species, but their offspring are always Asari. They were the first to discover the Citadel, yadda yadda. The Salarians are a little amphibious-looking, and are great scientists and great spies also. They’re really smart, mature very fast and die young–they only live to be about 40. They discovered the Citadel just a couple of decades after the Asari and are one of the founding races of the Council. The Turians are militaristic and disciplined, but they live in a meritocracy, so it’s as if the military were actually done right! They have the largest number of dreadnoughts in the galaxy, but they are also famous aliensfor their dedication to public service in general. The Krogans are the tanks, baby! They are seven feet tall and in full armor weigh about a ton. They have a war-like culture where clan is everything, don’t get in their way. They were uplifted (taken from a 20th-century state of development and given advanced tech to join the galactic community)  by the Salarians to fight off a galactic enemy. The only problem is the Krogan started expanding after they won the war, and since one female can breed over 1000 young, and each lives to be 1000 years old, that was a problem. They were just about unstoppable until the Turians unleashed the Salarian-developed Genophage which essentially made the Krogan all but sterile. They’re a proud but largely broken race when Mass Effect begins. The Quarians are a race without a home. They were the first to develop true artificial intelligence, the Geth, and (surprise) their creations turned on them, driving them off of their home planet and into a migrant fleet of ships moving nomad-like throughout the galaxy for the past 300 years. Over centuries of living in a sterile ship environment their immune systems are so weak that they have to live in environment suits full-time. Nobody knows what they look like anymore. This is just the barest of sketches of only the major races of Mass Effect. I haven’t even mentioned the other races, such as the Drell, Hanar, Batarians, Elcor, Volus, Vorcha, the Collectors and of course, the all-powerful Reapers. Each of them are distinct, cool, fully fleshed out, and you interact with all of them. It doesn’t hurt that you can romance several of them too.

The thing is, these aliens aren’t stereotypes, though a couple may seem that way at first. You won’t be able to equate them with aliens from the Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon 5 or other universes, though there are bound to be a couple of similarities. The Quarians have some elements of their situation in common with humans in the Battlestar Galactica universe, a race displaced from their home-world by a synthetic life form, but that’s where the similarities end. It’s similar with the Krogan and the Klingons from Star Trek–superficial similarities, but very distinctive differences. The Citadel itself may have some similarities to Babylon 5, but it has far more differences. The concept of “uplifting” was first coined by David Brin the sci-fi author in an excellent series of novels. The thing that Mass Effect seems to do is take from some sources, cultivate and adapt them, then seamlessly blend them to add to a unique universe that is much more than the sum of its parts. The aliens alone are far more developed than any in Star Wars, for example. The technology for FTL travel is just as realistic as warp travel in Star Trek or “jumping” in BSG.  There is great variability in creating Shepard, the character you will play, too. Want to play a soldier? You got it. Want someone with cool tech powers? You’ve got them. Want to play someone with Force powers? Done. Want to play some combination of each of those? Got that too. More than just picking the gender, class and face of Shepard, the real creation is based on choices you make. You can save the galaxy, but in a way that is as a noble hero who tries to preserve as much life as he can, or as a ruthless war monger that will sacrifice anyone to win. How enthralling is the Mass Effect universe? Heck, there’s even an article outlining why ME is better than Star Wars.

Part one turned out to be a discussion of the Mass Effect universe itself, and why I think it’s a great setting/backdrop for the story. But the real reason anyone cares about this is because of the story and the characters. I’ll go into that, as well as specifics about ME2 and ME3 in parts two and three.

Part Two


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Just finished Mass Effect 3

So I just finished playing Mass Effect 3 recently. Loved it and the whole series so much that now I have to write about my experience playing the games. The Mass Effect universe over the three games was so rich I wanted to live there–it was that good. Up there with Star Wars or Star Trek. I didn’t play the first game as it was never on the PS3, but I have played the other two. I love this series so much that I’m inflicting the following massive post on both of the folks that will end up reading it, lol.

Great gameplay: this was a pleasure because I love RPG’s and don’t often like action games; this played like an RPG and like an action game, but I didn’t even mind the latter aspect of it which is saying quite a lot. Terrific storyline: it’s a plot-driven story and this series had story to spare. It was so rich it kept me hooked from beginning to end. There were also lots of side-missions that you could do, but they almost never felt repetitive or boring. On the contrary they were mostly original and creative, which is really tough to do. Heck there were places you could go if you wanted to go exploring for no reason other than to do it! Fleshing out the universe was done so fully you could go on and write a series of sci-fi novels based on it. I loved the aliens, loved the tech, loved the locations. The characters were so three-dimensional and realistic that whether you liked each of them or not you understood where they were coming from and cared about them (except James Vega, he seemed like something of an afterthought). The series had just about everything.

 

Now to compare ME2 and ME3. So in any trilogy there will be strong entries and weaker ones. For example, Empire Strikes Back was clearly the strongest of the original Star Wars trilogy even though all three were good. Having never played the first game I can’t comment, but let’s just say it’s the weakest of the three based on what I’ve read about it. On to the comparison!

First, ME2 was a longer experience. That’s not always a good thing, but in the case of these games it definitely is, because I really didn’t want the games to end I was having such a great time. ME2 took between 50-60 hours, whereas three took between 30-40 hours. The depth and quality of the characters were pretty close for both games, but to me the fact that 2 didn’t have any weak characters and 3 did have one tips the scales there. Even the downloadable characters for 2 are both fun and enjoyable.

In terms of pure gaming immersion both games are pretty close, but I have to say at the end of 2 you literally felt like you weren’t sure you were going to survive, and the first time you set foot in a Collector ship it was downright nerve-wracking. There wasn’t quite something like that in 3, though you feel more of a sense all of your choices mattering: the war has begun and you’re trying to gather forces that will directly affect the outcome of the war. Both games had equally creative and interesting missions and side missions, I really enjoyed them.

ME3 had the edge when it came to picking your team–this might seem strange given that you had more choices in 2, but really all that made me feel was like they were wasted because I kept picking the same team members again and again. I remember actually feeling guilty occasionally and picking someone else so they wouldn’t always be hanging out back in the ship.

Graphically 3 also has a slight edge, though they both look gorgeous. In terms of DLC (downloadable content for you savages reading this) ME2 wins this by a mile, but it’s a somewhat unfair comparison as 3 hasn’t been out that long. Still, 3 is going to have to work hard to equal content like Lair of the Shadow Broker. ME3 has a slight edge in gameplay, due to the interface being refined over the course of the first two games. The intro to both games were equally excellent. You think it’d be tough to beat your character actually dying in the beginning of 2, but then when you start playing 3 you witness Earth itself being the first to fall to the Reapers. Just fantastic. Both rewarded having played the previous game first, by being able to import your character and making references to events in prior games.

 

The ending. Yes, this needs a new paragraph because ultimately it was the most discriminating factor. The ending is where ME3 should have blown 2 completely out of the water, bringing everything together and seeing the results of the choices you’ve made throughout the trilogy. Given the uniformly high level of writing throughout both games I frankly expected excellence. The fact that I have to say ME2’s ending is better is only because the ending of 3 is so utterly bad and disappointing.

How bad was it? It’s as if you have Arthur C Clarke or JRR Tolkien writing a series and then he dies before finishing, so you get someone like me in at the last minute to try and tie everything together. Imagine that train wreck, and then imagine what I decided to do was make the ending about 60 seconds long and make it so vague nobody could understand it. That’s how bad it was. How bad was it?? There are already two articles in Forbes Magazine talking about Bioware’s business practices regarding ME3. How bad was it??? There is an online petition and donation (which at this writing, a week after the game came out, has already raised over $35,000) in order to help convince them to release an alternate ending. It’s a shame.

Those of you who know how I am with video games at ALL know that when I play a game I usually play until I beat it. This is one of the few games I would not encourage someone to play until they win. I think that says it all. Again, it’s unfortunate because the desire for those who have played any of the previous games to beat ME3 is going to be overwhelming, and we all deserved better. *sigh* Okay, off the soapbox.

 

To end on a happy note, overall they are both utterly excellent games. ME2 is one of the finest games I’ve ever played. Ever. ME3 is right up there with it, but overall ME2 takes it. I hate to get down on Bioware, particularly since they are now owned by EA and I’m not sure how much they had their fingers in the pot. They’ve made some great games, like Knights of the Old Republic and Baldur’s Gate. Still, I seriously doubt EA was dictating how Bioware should end the game, so I’ve got to have Bioware shoulder the praise and the blame for doing such a terrific job overall, only to stumble at the finish line. Don’t let this get you down about playing them if you are thinking about it. Play them! They’re amazing games. Just don’t play them for the ‘big ending.’