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Interesting Choices

Tobold put up a rather cringe-inducing critique of Mass Effect 3 the other day, prefaced by the Sid Meier quote of “good games are a series of interesting choices.” From there, Tobold argued that ME3 was not a good game, because the story choices being presented did not lead to gameplay changes. Indeed, he goes so far as to say in the comments:

My point is that this is supposed to be a GAME, and not just some interactive story. Choices that only affect the story, but change nothing in gameplay shouldn’t be in a game. Otherwise I might as well wait for “Mass Effect – The Movie”, and not bother playing at all.

First, that argument is so absurdly cliche that I started questioning whether he was simply trolling us at that point.

Secondly, in point of fact, you could not simply wait for Mass Effect: the Movie because any such film could not encompass the varied plot choices you can make over the course of the game. Characters can die in Mass Effect 1 & 2 and thus not show up in Mass Effect 3, cutting out entire swaths of character arcs. Who makes it through the Suicide Mission? Would the film feature a male Shepard or FemShep? Would the choices be primarily Paragon or Renegade? Which races get the shaft? Would the conclusion be the Red, Blue, or Green Cupcake?

The green one. Always the green one.

The green one. Always the green one.

Third, I believe Tobold’s stance is exceedingly pernicious to the maturation of gaming as a medium. It simply boggles my mind that a self-professed lover of D&D would twist “interactive story” into a pejorative; are non-interactive stories supposed to be preferable?

Individual agency has a way of submerging players into a narrative in a way that traditional storytelling does not. Just look at the mind-bending (at the time) twist in the original Bioshock and the narrative arc in Far Cry 2. Even if you were not particularly impressed with the depth of these narratives, those story mechanisms simply cannot be replicated in book or movie form. Reducing games to their mere mechanical components would be an incredible tragedy of potential.

What the exchange highlighted to me though, was how squishy the venerable Sid Meier quote actually is.¹ To me, the choice between curing the Krogan genophage or deciding not to was interesting. In fact, I spent ten minutes or so agonizing over it when the dialog wheel was presented. Was it fair of us to cripple an entire species because we feared their hardiness and breeding speed? At first, I was worried about that hypothetical. Once the Reapers were gone, who is to say that the Krogans don’t simply out-breed and out-muscle the rest of us out of the universe? Then I thought: wait a minute, is this not the same sort of argument used against inter-racial marriages in the past, and even concerns about Islam today?

In contrast, Tobold simply picked whatever gave him the most War Assets.

This was meaningful to me, god damn you.

This was meaningful to me, god damn you.

I do agree that a good game is full of interesting choices. But what should be obvious to anyone spending more than a minute thinking about it, is that what is interesting to one person can be boring/irrelevant/pointless to someone else. “Interesting” is not an objective term; Sid Meier may as well quipped “Good games are full of fun” for all the sage wisdom it contains.

¹ The full quote is actually: “According to Sid Meier, a [good] game is a series of interesting choices. In an interesting choice, no single option is clearly better than the other options, the options are not equally attractive, and the player must be able to make an informed choice.” (Rollings & Morris 2000, p. 38.) This does not meaningfully change my objections, as whether an option is “clearly better” and/or “equally attractive” is necessarily subjective. For example, I almost always prefer passive abilities to active ones, to the point that most of the WoW talent tree levels have only a single rational (to me) option.

SimCity and Meta-Criticism

After a long period of reflection, I had originally decided to not join in on all the schadenfreude surrounding the SimCity debacle beyond my post two weeks ago. Not out of any moral sensibilities – heavens no! – but simply out of a lack of fucks given. That, and I certainly couldn’t keep up with the torrent of other blogger updates on the developing story, when it seemed some new embarrassment was revealed daily. Kotaku even had a SimCity Disaster Watch graphic created to handle all the articles.

At one point though, I was almost tempted to purchase SimCity myself out of a longing for gonzo journalism combined with the thought of a free EA game. Then I simply browsed EA’s catalog, realizing that unless they gave away Dead Space 3 (they did, dammit), I either had all the games or the value’s promotion was $20 max.

I do, however, want to commit to internet posterity my intense loathing regarding articles like this one from Time.com. These middle-road Apologist articles and their asinine, straw man arguments infuriate me to heights even EA cannot hope to surmount. Consider the following:

EA was never, ever obliged to make SimCity a single-player game, nor do these accusations (accurate or no) from modders that the existing code is just a few steps away from being a single-player game hold much water when it comes to EA’s obligations. So what if the game could have been a single-player game.

First, who said a single goddamned thing about obligation?

Look, I can follow the twisted derailment of thought that conjures forth the implied “obligation.” Someone stating that SimCity should have had a single-player mode is assuming a sort of game design high ground, harkening towards a moral edifice that does not strictly exist. Because the game should have been a certain way, Maxis/EA has an obligation to Comment out Line #22 in the code design a single-player mode. That’s where the implied obligation comes from, right?

If so, we live in a terribly nonsensical world, one immune to criticism or judgment of any kind. Did McDonald’s give you cold french fries? Too bad, because they aren’t obligated to give you hot ones. No complaining! Did you tell the waiter you wanted a medium-rare steak and they gave you well-done? The chef isn’t obligated to bend to your whims, knave! He or she is an artiste! Movie previews aren’t obligated to represent the actual feature film, and if you don’t like it, go back in time and don’t buy a ticket!

Of course, the author clearly is being pedantic here. The point most people are bringing up is that SimCity, both conceptually and literally, doesn’t need to be always-online. There is no requirement for it to be so, despite the rather flagrant falsehoods claimed by the development team and embarrassingly contradicted by the modding community and a Maxis insider. Maxis/EA has no obligation to accede to reason, of course, but they certainly invite the valid criticism that accompany such quests for profit at consumer expense.

Which segues nicely into this nonsense:

You can ask, you can even petition, but I’d like to think we’re not at the point where we’re now telling painters, musicians, writers and artists of whatever stripe — game designers included — what they have to do.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t shake your fist indignantly and shout “but games are art!” then hold game designers to a different standard.

This is truly an despicable appeal to diversion. “Stop complaining about game design direction, or else games won’t be art anymore!” First of all, there is nothing sacrosanct about art. Authors have editors. Directors have focus groups. Fundamentally, all art is an exchange, and every artist considers his or her audience when making a piece for presentation (even if they imagine it is an audience of just themselves). And this is besides the fact that these game companies are businesses selling a product for profit. Games can be artistic products, but these companies are selling them to consumers, not putting (selling?) them in museums.

The pernicious worm at the core of this abhorrent article is the same one I have seen in similar, depressingly frequent articles: an implicit admonition of criticism itself. “Stop complaining,” these authors say, “you are lucky the artists deign to create anything for you filthy plebs.” No, I deny your thinly-veiled nihilism. Gamers have a right to reject anti-consumerist design. Gamers have the right to call out poor gameplay. The gamers who made the SimCity franchise successful in the first place have a right to protest design they feel is taking said franchise in the wrong direction. Is EA/Maxis or any game maker obligated to do anything? Of course not. Does that make levied criticism illegitimate? Hell no.

You are always entitled to your own opinion, and people can judge for themselves whether it an opinion worthy of consideration. And it is my opinion that Time’s article of meta-criticism – and all articles in the same vein – are specious nonsense, and nihilistic besides. Nothing is beyond reproach, else it demonstrates a perfection impossible to manifest in a universe of subjective minds.

I can only hope that the next EA CEO coming in can spare the 5 minutes of his or her time to understand why the company continues topping the worst company in the world charts. A quick memo to Maxis authorizing an offline mode would pull the teeth out of this endless negative PR; a gaming policy of not monetizing every single pixel with endless online passes could even get gamers to forgive Origin (or maybe just running some goddamn sales).

Bam, done. You’re welcome, EA.

P.S. While writing this article, a friend of mine pops up on Steam chat saying that the Mass Effect 3 servers were down, meaning he couldn’t play the single-player DLC he legitimately purchased through Origin weeks ago. This is the world we live in, folks.

So, About Those Extended Endings

Three months to the day ago, I decided to write a post called What I Want to See from Bioware, vis-a-vis the proposed Extend Cut of Mass Effect 3.

And now I have seen those endings. All four of them.

That is your warning, kiddos. Spoilers dead ahead.

In that prior post, there were a number of things I was looking for from Bioware, in Best Case/Worst Case scenarios. The biggest one was the Normandy scene at the end, which made no goddamn sense whatsoever – it essentially ruined the endings for me all by itself. What I wanted to see in the Extended Cut was:

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.

Mission accomplished. In a big way.

Yes. Yes he did.

In the interests of being somewhat objective, the “answer” they gave to where your crew members were at was… a bit hard to swallow. With Harbinger easily knocking out tanks and fighters left and right, it seemed quite out of character for him to let the Normandy land, for people to be evacuated, for there to be time enough for one last tearful goodbye, and then an escape back into orbit. If the Normandy was capable of landing, why not just drop off a bunch of people at the beam itself?

I am willing to entertain the notion that Harbinger would not care about Normandy picking people back up, as long as they were not being moved closer to the beam, although that seems a bit weak.

Outside of that gripe? Smashing success on the other points. I laughed out loud when Hackett said what he did in the screenshot above; partly from the unexpected bluntness, and partly from the beginnings of a catharsis I had been missing for the last three months.

The next section of that prior post was about Indoctrination:

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.

As far as I am concerned, the Indoctrination theory is kaput. It was actually kaput months ago, but the mini-epilogues following each ending serves as final nails. In the scheme of things, Indoctrination was a better ending than what we were originally given, but these new ones supersede the old in a good way.

The breath scene is unfortunately still in the game, but since March I have come to understand that the Destroy ending is actually truly Renegade. Ironically, all those Indoctrination videos had led me to believe that Control was bad and Destroy good, (i.e. the real ending), when that really was not the case. It is true that “nuking the site from orbit is the only way to be sure,” so to speak, but condemning all synthetics to death, including EDI, when other options are available is undeniably Renegade. Control may not seem like the way the Reaper threat should be handled, but a Paragon Shepard would take that chance. The consensus says: these units do have souls.

The final section was general plot holes:

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.

Many of the points I raised regarding the Citadel were answered by the expanded Catalyst dialog, if a bit weakly. Not the biggest one, though. Why the Reapers did not simply reassert control of the Citadel immediately upon emerging from dark space is probably one of those “Why didn’t the Eagles just fly Frodo to Mount Doom?” questions for the ages.

The Endings Themselves

Talk about night and day compared to the previous ones, eh?

Should have shipped like this.

The amusing thing to me, is how my very first extended ending was the new one.

Unintentionally.

After slogging through the Cerberus base and the London battle and the unskippable post-beam dialog, the very first thing I did when I regained control over Shepard was shoot the Catalyst in the face. His Harbinger-esque “So be it” response took me aback, as did the unexpectedly poignant “Failure” ending. I remembered that time-capsule scene with Liara, and was even touched by the knowledge that though we had failed, the cycle was eventually broken by the next generation of intelligent species. Whom, while still looking suspiciously like asari, nevertheless had the gumption to actually take Reaper threat goddamn seriously. “Was that so hard?” I asked the monitor afterwards.

I played through all three of the other main ones, and was immensely satisfied. It is still Synthesis – aka the Green Cupcake – all the way for me, but I felt that Bioware did an excellent job at handling the Control ending as well. They all felt a bit… Deus Ex. In a good way. I have no idea how they will rationalize additional post-ME3 games in the Mass Effect universe, at least without holding Destroy up as canon, but I suppose we will all jump off that bridge when we come to it.

Months ago, a friend asked me as to whether I would purchase any future ME3 DLC. At the time, I replied “It will depend on how Bioware handles the Extended Cut.” Although I am extraordinarily happier with the series now than I was back in March, I am not sure that I want to revisit Shepard and crew again. Say what you will about the writing or “cheap emotional tricks” or whatever else, but this series truly has affected me in ways few games (or books, or movies) have.

I forgive you, Joker.

I am thankful for the experience, of course. I just know that the longer I stay in Manse de la Shepard, the less likely I am to enjoy all the other experiences out there. It is hard enough handling regular post-game depression, without also having to question why I am not a better man in real life.

I am only half-way joking.

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.

Quick & Dirty Guide to ME3 Multiplayer

There are a couple of things going on.

First, I removed the Currently page and turned it into a sidebar item instead. Time will tell if I actually update it with any more regularity than I did with the original page, but I’ll jump off that bridge when I come to it. In the meantime, it is accurate.

Second, I have a new menu page entitled Design. The only item in there currently is my Quick & Dirty Guide to Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer. I thought about posting it in its entirety here, but the idea is that the guide itself is going to be a permanent resource that can and will be updated occasionally. Indeed, when I started writing it in the weeks after ME3’s release, the goal was to send it off to GameFAQs as there were no similar resources at the time. Unfortunately, someone beat me to the punch, so who knows whether it will be accepted there now. The goal for the guide itself is to be something I wish I had available when I first started playing the game. If that interests you, check it out.

In any event, the Design page will eventually be home to other projects I have been working on that I want to be able to upload in a semi-permanent location. Most will be game-related, but some may not be. Unlike these blog posts, I will not be vouching for their peerless quality and relevancy to your daily lives.

Finally, I am going on vacation for a week, starting tomorrow. It is unfortunate that I shall miss the launch day of Diablo 3 in the process, but I will try and trooper on from the condo’s 2nd-floor beachfront balcony. I may schedule some posts ahead of time for you to read, or you may have to waste away the hours of my absence by forlornly browsing the archives. Either way, it shall be full steam ahead starting back on the 21st.

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.

Bioware Cupcakes

Best ending line in a gaming news article goes to Kotaku.

The short version of events leading up to that article is that, similar to the (shut down) Child’s Play charity drive, a group of gamers decided to “protest” Mass Effect 3’s ending by sending Bioware 400 cupcakes… each one identical, aside from red, blue, or green frosting. The cupcakes arrived, and then this happened (emphasis mine):

Writing on the company’s forums, Chris Priestley says that while “we appreciate creative and thoughtful” acts of feedback, “we decided ultimately the reason that they were sent was not done in the context of celebrating the work or accomplishment of the Mass Effect 3 team.”

As a result, instead of eating them all up, BioWare donated all 400 cupcakes to a local youth shelter. Where, presumably, after picking their colours and finishing their last bite, the kids were left wondering whether their choice had really been that important, and if somebody could please come in an explain what the hell just happened.

I’m sure that, one day, I won’t find these stories so goddamn hilarious. Today is not that day.

In other news, I have added a new section to the site called “Currently,” as in Currently Playing/Reading/Watching. I do not expect it to become relevant to the blog proper, but if you enjoy occasionally seeing what other bloggers are up to (as I do), there you go.

WoW Should Lose Millions of Subscriptions More Often

Ever have that moment in your academic career, usually right after midterms, when you sort of wake up and realize “Oh, yeah, this might actually be important enough to take seriously”? I am getting the distinct impression Blizzard is going through that right now, as evidenced by their refreshingly direct Dev Blogs lately. The most recent was about the new direction they are taking the Mists of Pandaria loot system. One section reads:

Here is a model I’ve seen some people say they want:

  •     The boss dies.
  •     I get the exact item or items I want.
  •     I never have to come back and kill this boss again.
  •     I politely ask Blizzard when there will be new content for me to run.

I added that, somewhat tongue in cheek, to point out that the intent of the new system is not to make killing bosses or getting loot more efficient, or to let you choose buffet-style which items you get. We like random loot being random, as long as it isn’t so frustratingly random that you stop enjoying the experience. The intent of the new loot system is really to relieve social pressure on a group of random and anonymous strangers. We think it is reasonable for groups of friends, such as the typical raiding guild, to have a discussion about how to divvy up loot. That discussion is a tried and true RPG tradition going back to D&D or earlier. We don’t think that is a reasonable expectation for Raid Finder, though.

This is such a frank representation of the very essence of MMO gameplay (e.g. random loot creates content), that it honestly shocked me to see it written so casually. The explicit admission of the (warped) social dynamics of LFR is similarly amazing. It is one thing to see these issues examined in blogs and on forums; it is entirely another for a developer, in an age of David Reid-esque bullshit, to treat the audience like adults.

It feels like when the carnie game operator lets you in on the trick.

Another sample section:

Bonus Roll

We have one other new system that will use part of the personal loot model. This is what we’re calling the bonus roll.

Once upon a time, raiders had to invest a lot of time and effort every week preparing for a raid. This felt kind of cool in the abstract because it built anticipation, rewarded players who prepared for raid night, and otherwise just added a little more ceremony to the act of entering the dragon’s lair to seek glory and treasure. The reality is that you spent your time killing mobs to farm flask materials or gathering Whipper Root Tubers. The reality didn’t match the fantasy and we eventually greatly minimized the need to farm consumables altogether. Of course, that led to another problem, as raiders would log on for raid nights, finish, and then have nothing to do the rest of the week. The bonus roll is intended to give those players something to do that is hopefully more enjoyable than grinding elementals or Blasted Lands boars. We want to see players out in the world doing stuff, and we want that stuff to be a little more interesting (if not downright fun) than farming mats.

This is one of those things that, intellectually, shouldn’t be true. But it is.

I am (still) playing Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer and loving it. Is it fun in of itself? I… guess so? Would it still be fun if I had 100% of the guns unlocked, max ranks, infinite consumables, etc? I can tell you right now with a completely straight face: no, it would cease being fun. I derive pleasure from both the act of playing, and the feeling of increase that comes from progression (the accumulation of credits to unlock random weapons, in this case). The only sort of rationalization I can give you to explain this phenomenon is that I can both have fun and experience progression in any number of other games, which puts “just fun” games at a disadvantage.

Game designers undoubtedly realized this years ago, which is why you see “RPG elements” in damn near everything these days.

Back to the Dev Blog (emphasis added):

Area of Effect Looting

Yes, we are doing area looting. After killing a group of enemies, you may have a bunch of corpses lying around (perhaps because you went all Bladestorm on a bunch of hozen).  If you loot one of the corpses, the loot window will include items from all of the nearby corpses for which you have loot rights. Some recent games have incorporated a similar feature, and it’s one of those things that players just want in their MMO these days. It’s already in and it works fine.

Does this sound like the Blizzard of WotLK, or TBC or Cataclysm for that matter?

I am not entirely sold on the concept of Valor Points being turned into gear upgrade fuel, for exactly the reason Ghostcrawler mentions: “There will be a bit of a game in trying to decide when to upgrade your gear versus hoping for a new piece to drop from a raid boss [...].”

Other than that? I am very impressed by what I have seen thus far. Female Pandaren are in a much better place than female Worgen ever were, the MMO-Champ emote videos really highlights how far animations have came since I started playing in TBC, no major feature has been Dance Studio’d yet, and Blizzard overall seems to be operating at a level of humility and industry not hitherto seen. I mean, hell, Blizzard has already started work on the sixth expansion, i.e. the expansion after the expansion after Mists.

Seems to me that WoW should lose a few million subscriptions more often.

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.