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Endless Loop of Nonplaying

The final Season Pass DLC – Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep – has been out for Borderlands 2 for a while now. I have not even finished Sir Hammerlock’s Big Game Hunt yet, having gotten bored with what the BL2 gameplay devolves into in Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode difficulty (I started playing Sir Hammerlock after the UVHM was released).

Actually, that is not entirely true. What happened is I’m stuck in an endless loop of nonplaying.

See, one of the big changes in UVHM difficulty is that you pretty much have to own some form of gun that features Slag damage (a Slagged enemy received extra non-Slag damage). Since Slag wasn’t required in the prior difficulty, I never really bothered to pick a gun with it up. And since I never saw a point in farming the final boss back when True Vault Hunter Mode difficulty and level 50 was the highest you could go, my normal level 50 weaponry is pretty weak. This was one of the contributing factors to my boredom with the Hammerlock DLC insofar as the enemies took forever to kill on UVHM and yet none of the weapons I was receiving were technically any more powerful. Lack of character progression = lack of interest.

And yet… where is the off-ramp to this endless loop? Completing the Hammerlock DLC isn’t required to start up the next one, but I’m not likely to start it in UVHM difficulty due to the weapon issue. But I’m already level 51, one past the prior cap, from my progress in Hammerlock. So not only will my Dragon Keep adventure start at a reduced difficulty, I also won’t receive any actual gun upgrades throughout it. But I can’t play UVHM without better guns. Which I can’t get without farming the last boss in story mode, or perhaps farming another of the other DLCs. But I don’t want to farm content that I have technically seen multiple times already, and certainly not to acquire guns that will likely be better than what I’ll see in the DLC I need to have them for.

This is, like, a Catch .2206.

Technically, I have shit-ton of Golden Keys from nearly six months of not using any; these will open a chest with high-grade, level-appropriate weapons of a random nature. Also technically, I could use a Save Game editor and just give myself appropriate weapons. In fact, I was considering the Editor because I’m tired of Zer0’s gameplay but don’t want to have to beat the game twice, again, just to get back to where I already am. But I kinda feel like using the Editor would remove any meaning to loot drops much as the AH did in Diablo 3.

So what typically happens is that I’ll be in the mood for some FPS game, think about Borderlands 2, try and navigate the thought process behind what I need to do to play it, and then… go play something else. Because, Christ, I just wanted to shoot things, not map out the plot of Primer.

My Mod/DLC Dilemma

I started playing Torchlight 2 a few weeks ago, and I am having some issues. Now, I did not like the original game all that much, but picking up the sequel for $5 during one of those crazy Steam sales seemed safe enough. And so far, I am not experiencing the same acute symptoms of frustration as in the first game. Except… now I kinda am.

My biggest gripe with the original game was that the loot system was broken. Specifically, there was no real sense of gear progression in a hack-n-slash Diablo-clone genre that is based entirely on gear progression – I used the same “legendary” level 3 necklace all the way into the endgame, never finding an upgrade. While I have not ran into this problem as much in Torchlight 2, the contours of the issue remain in place. For example, I ran into this gearing decision the other day:

We're back to getting Best-in-Slot at level 7, I guess.

We’re back to getting Best-in-Slot at level 3, I guess.

Maybe “higher level = better” is too simplistic a progression design, but… is it really?

The more pressing concern in Torchlight 2 though, is how a lot of things that should be rewarding are really not. Each main area map has a Locked Golden Chest which contains, as you might imagine, a lot of loot. The key to this chest can drop randomly from any mob on that particular map, or from a specific fairy mob 100% of the time.

Compelling design, right? It would be, if these chests dropped something more than vendor trash.

Random loot is random, but after spending more time than strictly necessary opening these chests up and walking away with nothing of any value, I am finding myself souring on game in general. Indeed, even the extra-large treasure chests at the end of boss encounters reveals greys and greens more often than not. Why should I be fighting bosses when smashing pottery is clearly the more profitable activity?

Par for the course.

Par for the course.

In Torchlight 2’s case though, there is a “solution”: mods. In fact, the #1 highest-rated mod in the Steam Workshop is one that tweaks Golden Chests (and boss chests) to always drop a Unique item. That’s not as broken as it sounds – items are still random, scaled to your level, and sometimes class-specifc – and does a lot to fix what I otherwise consider a problem. There are mods for all sorts of things, in fact, including Skill tweaks, doubling the amount of gold drops, Respec potions (base game only allows reshuffling of last 3 Skills), improving game textures, increasing view distance, and even additional whole classes. Indeed, one of the big selling points of Torchlight 2 was its modability in comparison to Diablo 3.

Thing is, I don’t like using mods on my initial play-through of a game. Hell, I usually don’t even like loading in DLC that affects the core game, even when I’m playing the Game of the Year version that bundles it all together.

My situation is a bit unique (and self-inflicted) insofar as I fancy myself a game reviewer. But even before this website, I preferred going in vanilla and raw. Not all my friends had the extra spending money for the expansions and whatnot, so telling them Diablo 2 was better with Lords of Chaos installed really just means “the base game is deficient.” Well, perhaps not deficient in D2’s case, but you understand my meaning.

Good game design is supposed to be good out of the box. If developers are stumbling around for the first several months from release, that stumbling needs to remain part of the overall narrative. I failed to mention in my Fallout: New Vegas review that the game was literally unplayable for the first two weeks without downloading a crack that fixed the DirectX issues; it’s an important detail to know for when the next Fallout game is released, lest it too require Day 0 patching from players to fix what the devs rushed to production.

I suppose some of this harkens back to that debate over whether MMOs (etc) are toys vs games. There is no wrong way to play with a toy, no real rules to govern your interaction with them. In this sense, mods are sort of like adding salt to your meal – some chefs might see that as an insult, but perhaps your individual taste skews more salty than the others sharing the meal. Ergo, developers letting mods fix any subjective “problem” only makes sense. Keep the vanilla pure, and let players add the chocolate and sprinkles as they wish.

Personally though, I am much more interested in the game portion of things, or more specifically: experiences. Show me the genius of your rulesets, the compelling nature of your narratives, the excellence of your craft. Anyone can imagine a stick into a lightsaber, just as anyone can turn a crappy game good with tweaks. I am interested in what you can do, Mr(s) Game Man Person, not mod developer XYZ. I want to be excited that you are releasing another game, not that the modding community has another opportunity to fix a deficient product. And besides, only one of those two parties is getting paid. Hint: it’s not the person/people improving the game.

It may not be entirely rational, but there it is. Odds are that I will keep trucking along in vanilla Torchlight 2 so that I can give an accurate report on its (so far) many failings. It is worth noting that while you can import your vanilla save into the “game + mods” version of the game, you cannot thereafter go back – neither your character nor your gear will appear under the default game any more. While that probably has little meaning beyond the people interested in Steam achievements, it sort of highlights how even the developers believe a segregation between the two ought to exist.

In which case, I shall play their game and complain about it, rather than fix things myself.

Mass Effect 3’s Ending DLC Coming Tomorrow

I do not want to sound ungrateful or anything (at least until I see the expository scenes for myself), but… err, Bioware? Telling us on Friday that the ME3 Extended Cut DLC will be out on Tuesday comes across as somewhat guilty. You know, when you were a kid and tried to sneak in the one bad thing you just did into a stream of all the other random things in the hopes that Mom wouldn’t notice.

“AND THEN I PLAYED WITH BOBBY IN THE BACKYARD, AND THEN WE WENT TO THE CREEK, AND I CAUGHT A FROG BUT IT HOPPED AWAY, and I broke Mr. Wilson’s window, AND WE RODE BIKES TO THE PARK BUT IT WAS GETTING DARK SO WE CAME BACK, AND WE PLAYED POGS AND I TOTALLY WON THREE TIMES.”

I haven’t been giving the ending DLC much thought beyond casually musing how, at this point, Bioware could probably get away with not releasing anything¹. It has been more than three months, after all, which is the equivalent of 10 years in the modern news cycle. Mass Effect really isn’t A Thing to me anymore, especially after I sort of capped out of interest in the multiplayer.

Listening to this (low-budget) PR interview though…

Have you ever started dating an ex again? You remember how much fun you had together, how much everything just clicked. And then you also remember how (badly) things ended last time, getting a little steamed all over again with events long since past. The video basically evokes that, to me.

Anyway, the scab is coming off tomorrow, or whenever it is I am able to sit down and make out with ME3 again. Maybe never. Realistically, as soon as humanly possible.

¹ I don’t actually believe they could get away without addressing the ending. Not because fans “deserve” a better one, but rather because I have no doubt Bioware would like to sell some actual story DLC. I imagine that the market for story DLC to a 3+ month old RPG is likely limited to the very people most pissed off by the ending.

The Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut

It is official:

What can fans expect from the Extended Cut DLC?

  • For fans who want more closure in Mass Effect 3, the DLC will offer extended scenes that provide additional context and deeper insight to the conclusion of Commander Shepard’s journey.

Are there going to be more/different endings or ending DLCs in the future?

  • No. BioWare strongly believes in the team’s artistic vision for the end of this arc of the Mass Effect franchise. The extended cut DLC will expand on the existing endings, but no further ending DLC is planned.

What is BioWare adding to the ending with the Extended Cut DLC?

  • BioWare will expanding on the ending to Mass Effect 3 by creating additional cinematics and epilogue scenes to the existing ending sequences. The goal of these new scenes is to provide additional clarity and closure to Mass Effect 3.

It is coming out this summer, and it’s free. Mission Accomplished.

Also of note is that there is some free multiplayer DLC that should be launching on Tuesday. I have officially spent more hours playing ME3 multiplayer than ME3 single-player, so this is of interest to me. It is pretty clever of EA/Bioware though, in that undoubtedly all of the new content (other than maps) will likely be need to be unlocked via the random packs purchased via in-game credits… or Bioware Points. All of the goodwill of free DLC, along with all the subsidization of microtransactions.

Regarding the nature of the Extended Cut, Kotaku dug a little deeper, and provided some more details. Namely, that A) Bioware is shifting its DLC plans to make sure this comes out first, B) it will include cinematic sequences (!) and epilogue scenes, C) Command Shepard isn’t (likely) to have any new/revised lines of dialog, D) “‘should be able to grab a save file before the endgame and experience the new content from there.’ (Keep a pre-endgame savefile, folks!)” E) Indoctrination theory is probably kaput.

Some general endgame details.

 

Regarding the latter, it was Liveblogged that they said:

“The indoctrination theory illustrates again how, um, committed the fanbase is…” don’t want to comment either way. Don’t want to be prescriprive — fans interpret their own way, plus DLC coming. “We want the content to speak for itself, and we’ll let it do so”

That does not particularly sound like a response from people who intentionally wanted it all to be a dream. Ironically, since Bioware will essentially be designing the epilogue based on fan feedback/questions, it is entirely possible that they may fit in Indoctrination-y wiggle room. I hope not, but we’ll see.

This exchange was also interesting, for different reasons:

[...] His question – when citadel is moved, what happens to everyone on it?

Answer: One of the things in the citadel codex is that anyplace -inside- the citadel has emergency seals, and some exterior areas have emergency seals that can keep atmosphere in. Even if the Citadel is destroyed (which it may or may not be in ending), “is not like the entire things blow up.” People on (in) the arms may well still be alive. No reason to assume 100% casualties

Err… okay. Not exactly sure how it makes a lot of sense for the Reapers to be in control of the Citadel for X length of time and not handle all the armed civilians (my Shepard encouraged the formation of a militia), but perhaps that goes a ways towards this making sense. Incidentally, I actually have a serious problem with the breath scene being “canon,” but I suppose we will have to see how things pan out this summer.

P.S. This comparison between Mass Effect and Lord of the Rings highlights why all this was necessary to begin with. You know, if my writing about it constantly for the last three weeks wasn’t enough.

Review: Mass Effect 3

Game: Mass Effect 3 + Multiplayer + DLC
Recommended price: $40
Metacritic Score: 89
Completion Time: ~32 hours
Buy If You Like: Mass Effect; story-driven, cover-based sci-fi shooter RPGs.

By far, Mass Effect 3 (hereafter ME3) is the hardest review I have ever tried to write.

Cue the Stages of Grief

There are three entirely different prisms through which this game can be judged. The first is as the 5-year culmination of arguably the most important sci-fi videogame story of our time. The second is as a comparison between the individual components of the trilogy, as in how it stacks up compared to the first two titles. The third is as an independent game, divorced from the accumulated emotional detritus and hype of the series.

The distinctions are important precisely because no matter how grating certain features or design decisions are in isolation, I have found myself literally incapable of escaping the rose hue of the first prism. This is not to say I did not notice the deficiencies, but rather they seemed to matter less in the final analysis. Your mileage may vary.

For example, things feel off from the very start. The Reaper invasion – the nightmare scenario that formed the impetus to action in the first two games – has finally arrived. Earth is under attack. And… I feel nothing. Outside of a Lunar sidequest in Mass Effect 1, this is the first time Earth has ever actually appeared in the series in any real way. My Paragon Commander Shepard has never been fighting for Earth, or even humans specifically, but for the right of all sentient life in the galaxy to exist. Indeed, humanity has almost represented a background bumbling bureaucratic force, a one-dimensional foil to Shepard’s actions throughout the trilogy that lacks the novelty of the alien scenarios.

It does not help that throughout the Earth invasion, throughout your leaping from burning building to burning building, throughout the panning of cameras to the monstrous Reaper capital ships landing among the skyscrapers… there is nothing but an eerie, empty silence. Where is the stirring music? I spent the first twenty minutes of Mass Effect 3 wondering if my game had glitched, perhaps setting the music volume slider at 0%. There are plenty of amazing songs in the rest of the game – the absolutely haunting “Leaving Earth” comes to mind, or the stirring “The Fleets Arrive” – so the lack has to be some inexplicable design choice.

Certainly, it won’t be the last such inexplicable choice.

Wrex: the Krogan Sun Tzu

Once Commander Shepard is back aboard the Normandy though, the game once again feels like Mass Effect. And it really was not until ME3 that I could point out what that even meant. The brilliance of the series, in my mind, is the notion that one ship and one crew can make a difference, in a relatively believable manner – the sort of “right place, right time” effect. At no point did I feel like Shepard was a god amongst men, even as I was performing miracles and uniting species after centuries of war. Flying around the galaxy in a desperate attempt to cobble together a coalition for a final stand against the Reapers… yes, this is Mass Effect.

One thing that deserves special attention is the combat system. Simply put, it’s rather brilliant. For the most part, combat in ME3 is the same as ME2 aside from some subtle, key differences. The first is the inclusion of Carrying Capacity, which I will admit to having a strong negative reaction to at first. Shepard and crew can carry all five types of weapons if they wish, but the lower the percentage of Carrying Capacity utilized, the greater rate at which Biotic/Tech abilities recharge. In other words, if Shepard takes an assault rifle, shotgun, and sniper rifle into battle, he/she may get a -150% modifier on cooldown times. Alternatively, if Shepard only takes a sniper rifle and pistol, he/she may have a +50% modifier. Given the radically increased power of Biotic/Tech abilities this time around, choosing a loadout actually becomes a choice, especially since some guns are balanced around their weight.

On a related note, the gunplay in the missions themselves has never felt more fun and exciting. You will still spend 80% of the game crouching behind chest-high walls, but the obstructions are less obviously arbitrary, and the environment/graphics look amazing. More importantly, the enemies are radically more varied, have a deeply cunning AI that will flank you or flush you out of cover with grenades, and otherwise keep you in the moment and on your toes.

Damn, Garrus. Way to shoot me down.

Any review of ME3 would be remiss to not mention what has become, if not the most, at least one of the most controversial endings in gaming history. Without getting into spoilers, the thing to understand about why it is as big a deal as it has been in the gaming media comes down to this: catharsis. Simply put, there was not any. And with as much passion as the franchise has generated, I do not find it surprising in the least that so many people have taken the pent-up energy to the forums and blogs (as I myself have done). As of the time of this writing, Bioware has taken the rather extraordinary step (if you think about it) to begin development of a free, epilogue DLC to be released this summer. If said epilogue is able to honor the choices players have made in this franchise, if it is capable of giving me the catharsis I hunger for months after the fact, then Mass Effect could very well unseat the sacred cows of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 7, and perhaps even Xenogears in my Top 3 games of all time.

As it stands, there is really no question that you should play Mass Effect 3 if you have at all enjoyed the first two titles in any capacity. Objectively, I think Mass Effect 2 as an independent experience (insofar as that is possible) edges out Mass Effect 3, but… well. To quote Fight Club: “You know how they say you only hurt the ones you love? Well, it works both ways.” Without a doubt, Mass Effect 3 has wounded me in ways no other game has ever done, and that in itself is a remarkable triumph.

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us… We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
–Franz Kafka

Multiplayer

The multiplayer that comes with Mass Effect 3 deserves its own special section, because in many ways it is almost a second, complete game. Indeed, its development started originally as a first-person shooter spinoff before it was enfolded into ME3 proper.

You're going to need a LOT of Medigel for that one, buddy.

In effect, multiplayer is a stand-alone, four-person co-op survival mode. Although winning multiplayer matches increases the Galactic Readiness Rating in the single-player game (essentially allowing you to skip sidequests and still achieve your goals), there is otherwise zero overlap. You pick one of the six classes, one of the five races, a weapon loadout, a difficulty level, and then head into one of the six maps to face one of the three enemy factions. Each map has 11 waves, three of which will consist of special objectives that will be a King-of-the-Hill, activating four beacons, or assassinating four specific enemies amongst the others. Successfully completed maps will take around ~30 minutes, you will gain XP for the class you chose (with a level cap of 20), and Credits.

The replay factor, aside from the entertaining gunplay, comes from the unlocking of packs. Starting out, you have access only to the five most basic weapons and human versions of the six classes. As you earn Credits, you can purchase different levels of packs – Recruit, Veteran, and Spectre – which unlocks new weapons, weapon mods, races, character customization options, and one-use items or buffs to give you an edge. Obviously this can lead to frustration at times, especially if you opt to buy packs via Bioware Points (i.e. microtransactions) instead of Credits, but it does give you an incentive to try and make weapons or classes you would not typically pick, work.

The sort of bottom line is this: if you had fun with Mass Effect’s combat system, you will have a ton of fun with the multiplayer. I have already spent more time playing multiplayer than I have playing Mass Effect 3 itself. And at the time of this writing, there is a free multiplayer DLC (Mass Effect 3: Resurgence Pack) coming to introduce two new maps, new race combinations (including Geth and Batarian), and new weapons. Given that packs can be purchased with real money via Bioware Points, it is entirely possible all future multiplayer DLC may be free.

DLC: From Ashes ($9.99)

From Ashes is the poster-child for everything evil about Day 1 DLC: it is hideously overpriced, lacking in content, and has fundamentally shifted my perspective about the nature of the Mass Effect plot. What you are purchasing is one throwaway stand-alone mission, a Prothean squad-mate (Javik), a new weapon (a particle rifle with regenerating ammo), and a bunch of new dialog between Javik and the other party members (especially with Liara).

The problem is that without the DLC, the Protheans were always this unknown, almost magical race who fell to the Reapers in the last cycle and whose artifacts you spend a lot of time collecting. Interacting with Javik, however, reveals the Protheans as a belligerent, almost xenophobic race that would have enslaved or destroyed the races we have come to love in the Mass Effect franchise. In other words, by the end of the game I honestly felt that the Reapers did us a big favor by wiping out the Protheans.

So while From Ashes is not in any way essential to the plot of Mass Effect 3, I personally believe that its absence radically limits the scope of the narrative. In other words, I consider it both required and overpriced. Then again, honestly, you could probably just read the Mass Effect Wiki and watch the Youtube videos for the same effect, saving yourself $10.

[ME3] What I Want to See from Bioware

Yeah, yeah, I thought I was ready to move on too.

The two things that have really been getting my goat, though, are the Ending Apologists and the Art is Inviolate camps. In truth, they are two sides of the same coin, neither of which seem capable of acknowledging the possibility of ME3’s ending(s) being half-assed. So, I feel compelled to offer counter-rebuttals to their rebuttals, in the form of massive spoilers after the following unbearably cute picture I have bastardized for my purposes.

So, stop reading and start finishing Mass Effect 3, dammit.

Spoilers below this line!

Before I get started in earnest, whenever I use the term “plot hole,” I am referring to the definition provided via Wikipedia:

A plot hole, or plothole, is a gap or inconsistency in a storyline that goes against the flow of logic established by the story’s plot, or constitutes a blatant omission of relevant information regarding the plot. These include such things as unlikely behavior or actions of characters, illogical or impossible events, events happening for no apparent reason, or statements/events that contradict earlier events in the storyline.

The Normandy Scene

What. The. Fuck.

Exhibit A.

More than anything else in the game, the Normandy sequence at the end almost completely and totally ruined the game for me. There is no logical, thematic, or even artistic reasoning for what occurred.

Okay, let me back up. There are two things that this sequence accomplishes:

  1. Establishes Implies that there is no escape from the Red/Blue/Green explosion. As in, no corner of the galaxy is safe, there won’t be pockets of Reapers hanging out, etc.
  2. It looks cool.

The thing that I want to note though, is that up until this point – beginning from when Shepard stands up post-laser – I had it in my mind that I was going to have to replay the final mission again. Why? Because I had taken EDI and Liara with me, my two favorite characters, and I presumed they were dead. They had to be… otherwise, where were they?

So imagine my surprise when I see this:

Exhibit B.

The Normandy sequence is the very definition of plot hole. Why was Joker flying away? How did he know to fly away? How did crew that was with you at the beam suddenly appear on the Normandy?

There have been various (tortured) “explanations” I have seen. For example:

Q: How did Normandy end up caught up in the Mass Relay explosion with the people who were on earth?
A: There are clearly some parts of the ending scene that the player doesn’t see. There’s two segments where Shepard blacks out between first running for the beam and his final choice. There’s also a clearly defined scene skip between him rising on the platform and ending up where he meets the ghost child thing. These skips give room for an arbitrarily long period of time for Normandy to escape. Given that Normandy made it that far it seems that this is a reasonable series of events:
1. Somehow off camera(Shepard doesn’t see this happen) the two squadmates you choose get separated during the run for the beam.
2. Everyone gets blasted by the Reaper on the way to the beam.
3. The radio calls go out saying Shepard, along with the rest of the Hammer team is dead, that nobody made it to the Citadel
4. The Alliance fleet calls for a retreat, intending to regroup somewhere else.
5. Normandy picks up the crew still on Earth, then flies out to the Mass Relay, takes it
6. The Crucible, along with the slower ships in the fleet see the Citadel arms open and figure(correctly), that this means Shepard actually survived and opened it.
7. The Crucible docks.

First of all, the necessity of any explanation is proof of a plot hole – who sees the Normandy sequence and goes “yeah, I expected that to happen”? Nobody. Secondly, it has never been established that Shepard is the only person who can open the arms of the Citadel. What that means is that even if the crew “gets separated” or assumes that Shepard is dead, they still should have continued their own individual attempts to make it to the teleport beam.

But, fine, let us assume that the other two crew members were knocked out, and woke up only after Shepard got up and teleported. Why did they not make their way towards the beam then? If the Normandy was capable of making a safe landing to pick up the crew members, whether said crew members were conscious at that point or no, the Normandy could have dropped off additional troops at the beam. Indeed, if the Normandy picked up the crew before Shepard woke up, we would expect them to drop off more troops at the beam (if not search for Shepard’s body). The only excuse explanation I can see for why none of this occurs is an assumption that Shepard woke up first and the beam turned off after Shepard took it (but not before Anderson “followed”).

For now, let us assume that the Normandy had sufficient time and opportunity to pick up the crew members on Earth between the time Shepard opens the Citadel arms and when the Crucible is fired. The fact that the Citadel arms opened and the direct communication with Admiral Hackett proves that the Alliance knew Shepard was both alive and on-board; this disabuses the notion that the Normandy was fleeing to regroup, or for any rational reason. If anything, I would assume that Joker and crew would be waiting around to pick Shepard up, having the only ship capable of doing so.

“If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.”
– Albert Einstein

Incidentally, unlike many others, I am not actually assuming that the Normandy was taking a Mass Relay in that final sequence. It seems to me that the visuals would have looked the same if the Normandy had engaged its normal FTL drives – the explosion only looks like a “beam” because of the Doppler effect of FTL travel. In other words, I can imagine that the sequence itself would have occurred if Joker was trying to avoid either the initial energy explosion from the Citadel, or the secondary explosion from the Mass Relay.

That does not explain why Joker was trying to avoid it, nor whether the damage the Normandy took was because of engine stress or whether all spaceships took similar damage off-screen (e.g. possibly wiping out the space fleet).

What I want to see from Bioware:

  • Best Case: an explanation of how the crew (EDI and Liara, in my case) got back on-board the Normandy, what the Normandy was doing while I was on the Citadel, if they knew/suspected Shepard was alive or dead, and why they were running away.
  • Worst Case: ensure that the crew with you on the final mission don’t show up in the final scene.

To be honest, it wouldn’t make more sense to see the other crew members, given that everyone was on Earth and fighting to the death. However, it is that much more plausible to see others exiting the Normandy rather than the very people at your side.

Kill the Indoctrination Theory

First off, I want to make it clear that I find the Indoctrination Theory extremely convincing. Indeed, it “solves” a lot of the problems I have with the end of the game, and makes a certain amount of lore sense.

At the same time, it also proves the Bioware writers are terrible.

I get it now! Shepard was Master Chief all along!

That notion might not be immediately obvious, but it can be summed up by this quote by Shamus, in the Mass Effect Ending Deconstruction article:

And no, I’m not a believer in the “indoctrination theory“. I think that would be better than the ending we got, but I don’t think it it was ever intended by the writers. This theory involves an incredible level of subtle symbolism, which goes against just how ham-fisted the rest of the story is. To wit: If these writers thought Shepard was indoctrinated in the last stage of the game, we would know it.

Milady also has a recent article on the same subject, entitled The Intentional Fallacy:

[...] To me, the theory is disproved due to a fault in consistency. The unreliable-narrator hermeneutics is not supported by the work’s tone and structure. Mass Effect had until then never attempted any plot exposition that was not direct (like showing videos of the Cerberus scientists at various locations degenerating because of indoctrination, instead of silencing the facts and allow for the player to draw her conclusions based on the environment; that simply had never been done), and surely Mass Effect had not had any dream-like sequences, any instance of unreality, ambiguity. Shepard’s dreams are merely dreams, by what we gather from our previous experience of the game.

In other words, if Bioware intentionally had Indoctrination in mind (har har), they would have wrote it into the story more. I understand that that sounds like a backhanded dismissal of the very evidence brought up in support of the Indoctrination Theory, but I get where Milady and Shamus et tal are coming from. Remember the TV show Lost? Do you honestly believe the writers set out to make a sickeningly cliche religious allegory starting in Season 1? Of course not. In fact, it was pretty clear they were making shit up as they went along until the end of Season 3, when they announced that there would only be six seasons total.

There is also the fact that Indoctrination negates the last half hour of the game. In other words, Commander Shepard starts breathing in the rubble, gets up, and… what? Heads back towards the beam, gets teleported, and still has to open the Citadel so the Crucible (still orbiting Earth) can dock? Or do you suppose that while Shepard was “dreaming” the ending, the Catalyst actually opened the Citadel arms and fired the Crucible with Shepard’s remote orders? I don’t see why he would.

And then you start seeing conspiracies everywhere.

Personally, Indoctrination actually makes the ending worse for me. When I was presented all three choices, I actually chose Synthesis. While many Indoctrination supporters list that as being “what the Reapers were after all along,” that is not really the case. The Reapers were trying to preserve the existence of organic life in the face of an inevitably synthetic-only future – synthesis allows both organic and synthetics to coexist, by removing the difference between them. There is no creator to rebel against.

Even if we assume that Reapers are examples of said synthesis… so what? If everyone is able to keep their own form, as implied both with the ending and the very existence of Shepard (has he/she not already been synthesized?), what is the problem? The Reaper method was bad because you were killed, liquified, and otherwise extinguished as an individual. If you were capable of retaining individuality and agency… what are the downsides?

Oh, right. The downside is that Bioware put in that goddamn “breath scene” only in the Destroy ending, making it a choice between beating the Reapers and living, or doing the right thing (IMO) and dying.

What I want to see from Bioware:

  • Best case: Settle the Indoctrination debate once and for all. If Indoctrination is real, include a true final battle scene, potentially followed by the same sort of choices.
  • Worst case: Remove the breath scene.

Pave Over the Other Plot Holes

This is really kind of a catch-all category.

What happened to the people aboard the Citadel when it was captured by the Reapers? How did the Reapers gain control of the Citadel? If the Reapers were capable of capturing the Citadel, why didn’t they do it earlier? I mean, Christ, if the entire Reaper modus operandi was to warp to the Citadel to decapitate the galactic leadership… err, why did they change their plans this time around? Just because they couldn’t warp right there doesn’t mean the galaxy is that much less screwed when the Reaper armada shows up manually. Hell, Reapers show up at Earth, Shepard heads to the Citadel to get help, and then finds that the Reapers are already there. Game over.

Of course, this rabbit hole is probably bottomless.

After all, if the Catalyst is in the Citadel the entire time, why does he need the Keepers to do anything? Why not just turn the Citadel radio dial to WRPR 106.1, Reaper FM? How is it possible that the plans for the Crucible have escaped Reaper attention across countless millennia? How is it that countless different species even knew what they were making? As Shamus later states:

Case in point: The crucible is the ultimate weapon, derived from Prothean ruins, yet it was never mentioned or hinted at in any of the previous games. None of the beacons talked about it. Vigil didn’t bring it up, and I’m willing to bet the Prothean squadmate (a DLC character) doesn’t mention it either. This is because it wasn’t planned at the outset. It’s a late-story asspull done by writers who never had a plan.

It is one thing to leave story hooks for future titles; it is quite another to leave plot holes so big you could fly a whole new trilogy through them.

What I want to see from Bioware:

  • Best case: Shore up these plot holes via Codex entries, FAQs, or at least acknowledge they exist.
  • Worst case: leave everything vague and unsettled.

Conclusion

I do want to make one thing abundantly clear: I still love the Mass Effect series overall.

I just think it should be acknowledged that “artistic integrity” does not mean that the ending was not half-assed, or shouldn’t be changed based on (fan) feedback. If it was Bioware’s story when they wrote it, it will still be Bioware’s story when they rewrite it, regardless of the reasoning behind the revision.

Is there something you would like to see in the DLC? Would you prefer Indoctrination Theory debunked, proven, or left ambiguous? Would you even be interested in DLC set before the final battle, e.g. taking back Omega, etc?

Bioware “Addressing” Mass Effect 3’s Ending(s) via DLC

Dr. Ray Muzyka, co-founder of BioWare, has a blog post up regarding Mass Effect 3’s ending and resulting controversy. The money-shot (literally), is this paragraph:

Building on their research, Exec Producer Casey Hudson and the team are hard at work on a number of game content initiatives that will help answer the questions, providing more clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey. You’ll hear more on this in April.  We’re working hard to maintain the right balance between the artistic integrity of the original story while addressing the fan feedback we’ve received.  This is in addition to our existing plan to continue providing new Mass Effect content and new full games, so rest assured that your journey in the Mass Effect universe can, and will, continue.

My first, immediate reaction? Summed up by this picture I saw on the Kotaku forums:

Burn Level: Legendary

Between the wording of that paragraph and the extent to which he stresses that the team was “surprised” at the “passionate reaction of Bioware’s most loyal fans,” this news does not exactly inspire confidence. Implicitly, it sort of disproves Indoctrination Theory, yeah? And even more depressingly, it implies that the team of writers who had crafted this brilliant narrative up to that point felt like the Normandy bit at the end made a single goddamn piece of sense.

I think I need to make a post dedicated to narrative/artistic integrity at some point, if for no other reason than to try and hammer out my own feelings on the subject. I felt post-ending DLC worked well in Fallout 3 (regardless of whether it was based on fan reaction or not), but at what point does this become indistinguishable from game companies selling us the final chapter to incomplete products? If Bioware changes the ending, is that them “caving to pressure?” Is a revised ending still the inviolate artistic expression it was before? And what if the new ending is actually good? Will you be able to, as a player, re-immerse yourself without the nagging feeling of patronization?

While I do some soul gerrymandering on the subject, don’t miss Kotaku’s “Why I’m Glad Bioware Might Change Mass Effect 3’s Ending for the Fans” article, or Forbes’ awesome “Mass Effect 3 And The Pernicious Myth Of Gamer ‘Entitlement’” take-down (thanks to Liore for pointing it out). They sum up my general feelings on the subject, although… well, suffice it to say, I’m the kinda guy that got annoyed that the Oracle was played by a different actress in Matrix 3 (and how they handled the transition) even though the first actress died IRL.

Moving Past Mass Effect

First, I apologize in advance for another “blank” entry.

As someone who typically plays games that are old and on Steam sales, I can appreciate the frustration of people who are waiting on ME3 and yet are inundated by spoiler-laden posts on their Readers/blogrolls. In fact, I do not even like friends telling me they liked or disliked an ending to anything – my mind immediately starts analyzing the kinds of things my friend likes/dislikes (“Hmm, he wasn’t a fan of FF7’s ending…”), and extrapolates possible ending scenarios from there.

If you are such a person, or don’t want ME3 spoilers generally, last chance to bail.

Yeah, we kinda do.

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us… We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
–Franz Kafka

Since finishing Mass Effect 3 Monday night, I have been in turmoil. Post-game depression is fairly typical for me, and endings like this one are a sort of double-whammy.

Rohan described the break as being “pre-beam” and “post-beam,” but it actually started earlier for me. The invasion of Earth itself was curiously… off. What should have been a momentous emotional occasion was, well, not. Where was the stirring music? Fires and Reapers and silence. For a while, I was actually worried that there was a bug preventing any music from playing.

Once back aboard the Normandy, things started feeling right again. This was Mass Effect, this was what it was about. In fact, it was not until ME3 specifically that I even felt I knew what the series was about. Interstellar war was one thing, but what I cared about was landing in a situation, and being the right man at the right time. Shepard was not setting out to dictate galactic policy, Shepard was not some god-figure who arbitrates which species lives and which dies. He (or she) simply happened to find himself in that position, at that turning point in history, and does the best that he can.

It is in that context that I felt the post-beam sequence was fine, for what it was.

Through the prism of the ending, I felt that Shepard the character got the closure he needed in the hours leading up to the end. The romance section put it in sharp relief: I was so worried about getting “locked-in” too soon that I accidentally past the point of no return without anyone at all. When I reloaded and made my choice, the stark difference between my feelings of the game – based simply upon those two scenes, one alone and the other with Liara (sorry, Tali) – drove home the fact that I love this series, no matter what happened.

Ever read The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan? As of today, the series is one book away from completion, and I have become so invested in the final outcome that I can barely stand it. But… what kind of ending should there be? The one I want, or the one I deserve? What if the ending is simply terrible, like how I felt ME3’s was at the time I was experiencing it?

With Wheel of Time, that answer is largely moot. There was one point in Winter’s Heart (book 9), one perfect moment, when everything in the narrative came together for me; a great character catharsis, independent of any kind of grand action event. I remember sighing, and a tension I did not even know existed, releasing. No matter what happens in Book 13, no matter what the Wheel weaves, they can never take that moment away or cheapen it.

I am coming to understand the same with Mass Effect.

Bioware cannot take away the feeling of immense depth with Mordin, when the Salarian stereotype fell away to reveal a reservoir of guilt for necessary evils; a doctor moved to inflict harm, faced with impossible choices. Bioware cannot take away my own feeling of guilt when I heard Kaiden’s “Belay that order!” command repeated in the forest dream sequence; a sacrifice I readily accepted at the time to save a woman I had feelings toward and ultimately passed over. Bioware cannot take away EDI and Joker and all the other hilariously poignant moments in the entire series, but ME2 in particular. Bioware cannot take away the bromance with Garrus, or the absolute struggle I had in choosing whether to intentionally miss that shot or not.

Here, here.

So, if you struggled as I have, or struggle still, I have a recommendation. Listen to To Build a Home by The Cinematic Orchestra. Listen to it again. Then read this Kotaku article. Then remember every time you felt this way before – maybe Cowboy Bebop, maybe End of Evangelion, maybe Saving Private Ryan – and try to remember the last time you have felt so wounded by a video game. Have wanted something different so bad you could taste it.

And then… try to let go. If you are anything like me, I am having an exceedingly difficult time wanting to.

Good game, Bioware. Good game.

P.S. Epilogue: For what it’s worth, I still believe Bioware should have handled the ending better (and I am aware of the “secret ending”). The tone and recycled outcomes were one thing, but the incongruent Normandy bit was quite another. At first, I railed against the notion that Bioware was planning on going the “if you want the true ending, it’ll be $9.99 DLC” route, and the implicit dream/indoctrination sequence that implies. But the precedent already exists: Bethesda did just that in the Fallout 3 “Broken Steel” DLC.

The difference being, of course, that Fallout 3 was immensely cathartic in wrapping things up at the end, straight out of the box.