Commentary – Mass Effect: Looking Back, Looking Forward

In just a few weeks we’ll be seeing the third and (theoretically) final installment in Bioware’s Mass Effect series. A recently released demo gives a brief look at the story that I poked at sparingly to try to get the right balance of getting a taste and avoiding spoilers. It’ll be interesting to see how it holds up to people’s hopes and expectations.

We’re probably well past the statue of limitations, but just in case, spoilers ahoy.

The first Mass Effect (2007) was a game with a lot of big ideas and enough budget to make a decent number of them happen. The goal was to give the player an entire galaxy to explore and lots of interesting opportunities to roleplay in it. In traditional Bioware form the player joins a powerful secret society and gathers eclectic allies to bring two at a time to confront a nebulous threat of tremendous scope and possibly get hooked up with a party member. It’s the same story they always tell, but they tell it well (usually).

There’s no denying that they didn’t quite hit all the bases they wanted to. For a Bioware game it seemed kind of small at times; there were only a handful of ‘towns’ and large non-copy-pasted adventure areas. There’s a lot of side missions but an exhausting majority of them involve driving around craggy landscapes to go into near-identical buildings and shoot near-identical mercenaries.

At the same time, a lot of love went into this game. Even though you can only land on one square mile of one planet in each star system, every single planet in the game was given a neat bit of tasty flavor text. Those who enjoy crunchy sci-fi technobabble to chew on found their codex continually filling with new snacks. The moral choice system suffers at times from being forced to fit all the decisions onto a binary good/evil axis but a handful of the decisions made me put down the controller and think for a minute. The various alien worlds could have more detail, but what they do have is impressive.

There was this one time I was driving all over some craggy landscape or another, for the most part as generic as the last. Sometimes they’re blue, sometimes they’re white, sometimes there’s green dust motes around. Just for the heck of it I looked up as I crested a hill and saw a great red boiling sun hovering low in the sky. Just sat there watching it for a bit because it looked neat. I’m not 100% certain but it looked like this wasn’t just some animated image. It looked like someone had taken the time to make a realistic physics object of the swirling boiling burning gas clouds. The game is full of stuff like that, shadows cast by the game they wanted to make.

I got pretty well absorbed into Mass Effect 2 (2010), possibly due in part to three feet of snow dropping on my house every few days when I got it. Inbetween waiting for my xbox to cool off and tunneling my way out to my driveway I found a game like an oreo with really terrible stale cookies around an incredibly delicious creamy filling.

Instead of a band of heroes, this time around I filled my squad with an interesting bunch of mercenaries and socipaths. Dangerous people, but hopefully I could make them more dangerous to my enemies than to myself. The various recruitments and the side missions to secure their loyalty were my favorite part of the game, each one seasoned with interesting choices, diverse environments, and good quality Bioware storytelling. In particular the character of Jack (Courtenay Taylor) has some of the best writing and voice acting I’ve seen in a game.

While I disagree with how they got Shepard away from his old crew and ship and such I think the end result, as far as giving the story somewhere new to go with old crewmates, was pretty good.  Just think of a friend you used to see every day who moved away and then you didn’t see him at all for years.  In two years someone can come back a completely different person.  In Garrus’ case there was a stretch during his loyalty mission where I thought he might actually shoot me.

The best part of Mass Effect 2 unfortunately also serves to highlight some of its worst parts. Many good stories are told about Shepard’s crew, but on the whole everything more happens around him than to him. In part 1 he learned about the Reaper threat and stepped up to do something about it, growing from a military squad commander into the role of a heroic leader by the end of the game. In part 2 he’s in the same place at the beginning as at the end; the Reapers are still coming, the council still doesn’t want to help, and there’s still no concrete defense to be mounted.

A majority of the game’s problems can be summed up in one word: Cerberus (and if one were to add a second word, the Collectors). The weakest parts of the game are easily the beginning and ending where everything has to be contorted to shoehorn these plot elements into place. It doesn’t make sense to force the player to join an organization that in ME1 was only slight less effective than Cobra Commander, especially with the Shadow Broker already established. Same goes for some of your former crew to sign on with terrorists on the vague justification that Cerberus is composed of numerous cells and some of them aren’t so bad. Nor is it necessary to vaporise Shepard and then resurrect him with soft science magic all in the first five minutes of the game when there’s about a dozen easy ways for someone to disappear for two years in the far reaches of space.

And then there’s the ultimate goal of the Collectors; turning humans into goo to build a giant robot shaped like a human to ride inside a space squid robot makes the Matrix human battery system seem downright reasonable by contrast. The big final decision of whether to blow up the giant enemy facility choc full of extremely valuable technical data on Reaper/Collector defenses or to hand it over to the terrorists is similarly goofy.

Hypothetically, here’s how I would have run Mass Effect 2. Shepard being out of contact for awhile is still useful to the plot because it gives his former crew time to go their separate ways. While out on patrol the Normandy is ambushed by a Reaper scout ship. They barely escape but Shepard goes overboard in the fighting, presumed dead. In truth he’s recovered by agents of the Shadow Broker who manage to hold him for two years before he successfully breaks out. Jacob and Miranda are SB agents who defect (or do they?) to help Shepard escape (or to monitor him). On his way out he finds that the Broker has been busy; two years has been plenty of time to make a trail of faked evidence painting Shepard as a rogue Spectre working for the Broker. This could facilitate the setup of Shepard reluctantly using the Broker’s intel to gather a team with the end goal of either breaking free or signing on with him full time. Trade the Collectors for new and exciting robots to blow up and replace the weird illogical ‘human reaper’ with some kind of intact superweapon to study or an advanced AI to capture. Ideally something that provides a decent boss fight and also makes some kind of progress towards the eventual third act Reaper showdown. It ain’t perfect and it’s basically a find/replace trading ‘Cerberus’ to ‘Shadow Broker and ‘Collectors’ to ‘Reapers’, but I for one would rather shoot more killer space robots than annoying bug monsters.

Now, you may look at all that above and think I hated this game, and there’s plenty wrong with it, but there’s plenty right too. The sloppily handled framing device is thankfully a very small part of the experience, a majority of which I spent doing stuff I liked rather a lot. It’s a little more of an action game with rpg elements than a full rpg, but the combat engine took some big strides from one game to the next. There’s also some tougher decisions to make, especially during the loyalty missions when you don’t know for certain if your actions will jeopardize the primary mission. The final mission (right up until the finale, anyway) was also an interesting series of tactical decisions that simultaneously solved the usual rpg plothole of ‘why doesn’t my entire team fight the last boss together’.

And that brings us to part 3 coming early this March and to be honest I could kinda go either way on it. Like a lot of folks I’m likely to pick it up pretty early on simply because of the momentum of playing the first two acts and I want to see the finale. Got a fair bit of worries though.

1) Bioware telling that one story over and over again gets even more obvious when they tell it back to back with the same character. Hopefully they’ll stretch out a bit the third time around.

2) I was disappointed with how Shepard’s importance changed from ‘because he knows about the Reapers’ in ME1 to ‘because he can singlehandedly beat up the entire invading alien army’ in ME2. The premise of ME3, that Shepard is a public icon who can diplomatically (or intimidatingly) rally the galaxy to work together, is something I can get behind. The demo, however, seems to be going the ‘badass super soldier’ route in which the galaxy’s only hope is Shepard punching all the bad guys in the throat. So, we’ll see how that goes.

3) It could be quite a challenge to get a cohesive story together for the finale of a series founded on having the player make meaningful decisions and still make the dialogue all work. My Shepard isn’t your Shepard isn’t his Shepard isn’t her Shepard. I have a feeling some folks are gonna find their avatars acting out of character to try to appeal to everyone.

4) I really hope a solution to the Reaper problem comes up more complex than ‘shoot them a lot’. After establishing early on that a single Reaper can nearly decimate the main battle fleet at the Citadel, it seems like when a few hundred or thousand show up something other than a direct suicide charge is required.

5) I dunno about the rest of you but I’m looking forward to having ME3 be another season of the best tv show that never existed, Wrex & Garry: Buddy Cops.

Image credit to anniezard, who draws neat stuff about Mass Effect and other cool things.


Commentary – Fate of the World: Tipping Point

Everyone’s got a list of musts. A book you must read, a movie must see, a game you must play, etc. Fate of the World: Tipping Point by Red Redemption is, I believe, one such game. It manages the rare achievement of being fun, challenging, and educational all at once.

The stage is set in 2020. The world is facing increasing dangers from economic, environmental, and political instability. You’re the newly-appointed president of the recently-formed Global Environment Organization, charged with selecting policies and projects to turn things around and improve the fate of the world. Saving the planet is a pretty tough job; your power isn’t infinite, nor is your will absolute. If you don’t keep member nations happy they’ll resign from the GEO and take their funding with them.

The game begins with what I found to be a humbling view of Earth from space. Not a faction map or a spreadsheet, just our lonely blue globe floating in the void. Scattered lights of civilization grow and glow across the continents. You might see a few trouble spots. There’ll be more later. A lot more.

It’s all about making the tough decisions. Can you afford to divert resources from stabalizing the political climate in the Middle East to keep America and Europe happy so they’ll keep sending you the funding you need to get anything done? How long can you put off China’s air pollution while you try to build India’s infrastructure for the future? Do you patch the water shortages in southern Africa with a quick fix or employ a long term solution that will let millions die now to save billions later?

The number of people who live and die based on your decisions is just one of the many useful metrics at your fingertips. The smart efficient interface means all the information you need to make your decisions is usually just a click or two away, along with an internal wiki to define the game’s terms. I find I usually don’t win a given scenario on the first go, but at the same time I also feel like I’m learning more on every turn and looking forward to employing new strategies next time around. It’s tense and difficult, but rewardingly so.

Speaking of learning, the various potential futures and deadly disasters are based on real scientific research. Red Redemption has worked with Oxford Universety, OxFam, tcktcktck, Taking IT Global, and Finance South East to chart what sort of world we might find ourselves in with continued inaction (or ill-informed action). It is a sobering thought to consider that everything going on in this game is something that is happening or could happen to the world within my lifetime, and a lot of it ain’t pretty.  I’ve said in the past that what keeps me disinterested in many modern ‘realistic’ games is when they make a half-hearted attempt at maturity and just end up dramatizing situations that should be receiving far more reasoned discussion.  It’s the other way around here; FotW never lets you forget the gravity of your decisions nor the cost of failure, and hopefully gets you thinking about the real people who really do have to make these decisions and live in the consequences thereof.

I’m impressed that they managed to do this without turning it into a propaganda game. Nothing you do comes without cost. Many ecologically advantageous strategies bring new problems like lowered food or engery production. Advanced technology could save countless lives when properly applied, but desperate folks given access too soon may ignore the dangers and just make matters worse. And it won’t matter how much energy and how little emissions a country has from 4th generation fast-breeder nuclear reactors if they use the same tech to build missiles and nuke the world all to hell.

Fate of the World is an important game. Not just because I enjoy playing it, but because I feel that I’m gaining something by having played it. The scenarios that play out in the game mirror real events that the world will have to contend with in the very near future. I’d like to see FotW get more interested in these issues by letting folks tackle them in a fictional setting. Plus for the next few hours the game can be had for a song as part of an Indie Royale bundle, so get on it while you can. The world is waiting.

Commentary – Solar 2

I’ve decided to make a bit of a shift in the way I do game reviews around here.  5×5 made for an interesting writing exercise, but as far as trying to editorialize on games and provide useful criticism it was at times like trying to pack for a trip in a bag with a multitude of very small pockets.  There’s so much to say about some games that cramming stuff into a small pocket has words falling out all over the place.  Then there’s some games that there’s so little to say about them that I’d have difficulty really using all the pockets.  One such game is Solar 2.

Solar 2 places you begin in the role of a humble asteroid floating through the endless void of space.  The art design is simple and sufficient to the task, and the music is suitably unobtrusive, gradually shifting to fit the mood.  In the end…  well, there really isn’t an ending.  The overall goal?  Whatever you want it to be.  There’s a handful of side missions and little achievement-like bonus objectives to chase, but to me the soul of the game is in the adventure of that tiny insignificant asteroid.

Everything in Solar 2 has its own gravity relative to its mass, and this simple mechanic gives the game life.  As that asteroid you barely have any gravity at all, but by slamming yourself into other asteroids you can add their mass to your own.  Keep at it long enough and you can gain enough mass to become a new planet.  Now we’re getting somewhere.

Now the little asteroids orbit you.  They can make a fine little halo around you if you let them stay, or you can consume them to increase your mass and thus your power.  On a large enough world life may begin to evolve.  Little green men will dart about in your vicinity and blow stuff up for you, and maybe even protect you with a force field.  This is quite handy because soon roving space nomads will try to destroy the little green men living on you, and if you’re not quick about it you’ll soon find yourself a dead world host to naught but ash.

But if you are vigilant, increasing your mass and protecting your world, you’ll grow greater and greater still.  You may feel a twinge of sadness as you realize the inevitable.  If you keep adding mass to your planet you’ll reach the next stage, but the life there will be consumed.  But who could get this far and not want to go further?

An asteroid belt or two later and your world is engulfed in flames, collapsing super condensed matter bringing atomic fusion and giving birth to a shining star.  Simple asteroids now tumble towards your growing gravity well.  Planets, you’ll find, can now orbit your mighty sun.  And these planets can find their own orbiting asteroids and, if you nurture them well, life.

If you’re lucky you’ll have some time to build up before the nomads return.  If not, a single lucky gunship may swoop in and loose two deadly missiles into your system.  If you’re quick you can just barely outrun them, and there’s nothing quite like the frantic feel of trying to throw your body between those planet-cracking warheads and the vulnerable populi of your worlds.  Sometimes you’re not fast enough and your people die, and your only recourse is retribution.  It must be quite a sight for the survivors to see invading aliens consumed by the sun like a vengeful god.

Perhaps you may gather more worlds under you benevolence, tiny green swarms of life forms swirling about your system.  Maybe you’ll continue to feed your worlds until they become stars as well, from binary to trinary and beyond.  Maybe you’ll just continue to consume until you become a black hole, eater of worlds.  Or maybe you’ll just tear ass across the endless void of space to see how far you can go.

That’s my story.  What’s yours?