Blog Archives

Doing Bioware Some Favors

I was really perplexed about Bioware’s recent marketing flops concerning SWTOR, just like approximately ten thousand other bloggers. At least, I was perplexed until I hit up their job postings page and realized they are looking for a Marketing Analyst. Glancing at the requirements only confirms my suspicions:

  • Analyzes performance of strategic marketing campaigns to acquire new consumers and cross-promote games to retain and maximally monetize players against established benchmarks and or forecast objectives
  • Analyzes consumer behavior and response to media investment and creative messages
  • Using data-driven insights, recommends actions to improve campaign performance.
  • Collaborates with other areas of marketing, (including brand marketing, marketing management, acquisition and retail teams, online & social media marketing, CRM) as well as product development and product management teams to validate campaign content and ensure programs are effectively reaching customers
  • Candidate should have a good knowledge of general marketing paradigms and standard campaign management and measurement strategies along with video game industry experience

Yep. Bioware clearly doesn’t have anyone over there with those qualifications.

But you know what? I am a self-starter team player. So, Bioware, I am going to give you some marketing advice for free – just have the intern print off two copies of this post and send the other one to HR as my application, and we’ll call it even. Deal? Alright.

1) Words matter.

I would have thought this was an easy lesson to learn from the Mass Effect team – considering that even the Better Business Bureau acknowledged the ME3 endings constituted false advertising – but perhaps the teams are too compartmentalized. In any event, the basic idea here is that it matters what you say and how you say it. Let’s look at what you put out in your promotion:

As a thanks for being one of our most valued players, all active subscriber accounts with a Level 50 character as of April 12, 2012, 12:00 PM CDT, 5:00 PM GMT, will receive 30 days of game time** at no charge in appreciation for your support and loyalty.

Yes, I am sure someone thought they were so terribly clever in that meeting for including the qualifier “one of,” as that allows you to claim that non-level 50s can also be included in the category of “most valued players.” Unfortunately, it also matters how you say things. And in this case, the implication is that even if a sub-50 player is included in the most valued category, you nevertheless are not “appreciating” their support and loyalty in the same way. In fact, the whole framework of the promotion is dumb, since levels have nothing at all to do with loyalty; if you wanted to reward loyalty, give a free month to the people who subscribed continuously for the last 3-4 months.

But I understand, there are probably specific metrics out there showing that specifically the players at the level cap need an incentive to stick around a little longer. In which case you may as well make the free month as broad as possible considering the promotion will imply that you’ve fucked up your MMO either way; having compelling endgame content is damn near the entire point of themepark MMOs, as that is where you will inevitably end up spending most of your time. Unless you unsub right after hitting the cap… oh, wait.

Bottom line: a turd can hold only so much polish. Don’t evoke loyalty and “most valued players” when in reality you are offering compensation for bored level 50s.

2) Play up the retraction.

Or as Cave Johnson would say, “When life gives you lemons, have your engineers invent combustible lemons and burn life’s house down.”

Dr. Greg Zeschuk came out and mentioned that the free month of game time will be extended to non-level 50s. That is a good step, of course, probably necessary even. But what the retraction doesn’t do is connect all the dots laying out there. I’m not talking about the dots concerning the health of the game (or potential lack thereof). I’m talking about how players have until April 22nd to earn their one month of free game time by hitting level 50 or some combination of high-level alts.

Right now, you can buy SWTOR for $39.99 from Origin, which of course comes with a free month. But if you manage to hit the level cap within the seven days between this post going live and the promotion ending, you will get a second month for free. If that wasn’t an intentional marketing move, it should have been. I’m damn near tempted to try it myself.

3) Fill that Marketing Analyst position ASAP

You don’t actually need someone fancy. You just need a somewhat normal person, or someone capable of passing for normal, who is both willing and allowed to tell you something is a bad idea. Had I been in the meeting that spawned this promotion, my hand would have been the first one up after the presentation, even if I had a level 50.

Hindsight is 20/20, but come on. This sort of thing shouldn’t have passed the smell test.

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


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.

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.

What Could Mass Effect Online Look Like?

[Spoiler-Free Zone!]

In the last three days I have spent probably around 8-10 hours playing ME3’s multiplayer. My conclusion? Bioware might be onto something.

At its core, the ME3 multiplayer consists of ~11 rounds of 4-player co-op, Horde-style survival across six maps taken from the single-player game itself. Every third wave is what I’d call a “cash round,” in which you get a specific objective: King of the Hill, Kill 4 specific mobs, or Activate 4 Nodes. Completing those cash rounds successfully earns you credits whereas all the other rounds awards XP. During the final extraction wave, you have to be in the evac area by the end of the mission timer in order to get the highest point score bonus (e.g. XP).

The first thing I would say is this: the multiplayer is fun. It probably goes without saying, but if you enjoy the combat in any of the three Mass Effect games, you will enjoy it here too. You shoot from cover, you gain XP, level up, decide which weapons/mods to outfit your character with and so on.

Other bloggers have mentioned the similarities between the gear situation and Magic: the Gathering… and it’s true. There are three tiers of gear packs – 5k, 20k, and 60k credits – and each pack has 5 random “cards” that represent either one-use consumables (Medi-gel, extra ammo, missile launcher), new weapons (or upgrades to already found weapons), weapon mods, new races for a class, or class XP (which raises the baseline level of new characters of that class). The mid-line Veteran Pack comes with 1 Uncommon item or better, while the Spectre Pack has a guaranteed Rare “or better” (whatever that means).

I am not a huge fan of companies putting literal gambling in even their F2P offerings, mainly based on my Magic Online experience. I played the physical form of M:tG for nearly a decade already, but after a particularly bad night of Magic Online wherein I realized I paid $60+ on a series of Booster Drafts, I deleted the game off my hard-drive and went and bought WoW the next day.¹

That got me thinking though… how different is that really from random loot in MMOs? Could, in fact, Bioware turn Mass Effect into an MMO without much effort at all?

Most of the set pieces are already in place.


Check, check, and check.

Originally, I found the ME2 pivot towards Biotic/Tech power spam (6 second cooldown Biotic Charge, what?) to be disconcerting. I suppose it doesn’t make any less sense than Omni-Tools materializing out of thin air or the titular mass effect, erm, effect in general. By the time I was halfway through ME3, the dynamism of power use was a core part of the entertaining gameplay.

You could even go so far as to imagine the Trinity system existing within the game realm, without too much of a stretch. Unlike Star Wars, it seems intuitively viable to heal people with Tech (Medi-Gel) or even Biotics, or perhaps simply refreshing their shielding with either. Or we could (perhaps preferably) see them go the purported Guild Wars 2 route and have shared role responsibilities – anyone can rez any downed member in the ME3 multiplayer, for example.


Mass Effect has them all in spades.

There are six races in multiplayer already, all with their own sort of racial-esque abilities, motivations, politics; we can imagine Batarians, Geth, Vorcha, or even Protheans being added to that count. I am not a fan of two-faction systems, so I would be overjoyed to see a situation wherein there are no “red vs blue” factions period, but rather players fighting for specific (mercenary?) movements of their choice. Did you choose Krogan and your friend choose Geth? No problem!

Indeed, without spoiling anything, the time period following the events of ME3 would be perfect, perfect for this kind of integrated gameplay. As Mass Effect players, we are already used to mission-based activities spread throughout the galaxy, taking orders from quest-givers, and so on and so forth. Expansions could come in the form of dormant² Relays or new star systems being discovered without breaking any suspension of disbelief.

As far as enemies go, while the main three – Geth, Cerberus, Reapers – have been… explored to various degrees, again, the time period following ME3 will undoubtedly be a fairly chaotic place. And remember, we got along perfectly fine in ME1 without having the geth be the only bad guys. There is no reason why pockets of resistance couldn’t spring up, pirates, mercenary groups, terrorist cells, or even the Salarian STG (or Spectres!) could decide they need to achieve X or Y goal, in opposition to your orders.

Shepard made galactic peace possible. It is up to us to maintain it.©


Whether Bioware makes itemization deeper or keeps it fairly level, the fact is that it already exists. Shepard can wear 6-7 different helmets with different stats, independent of what kind of leg armor he/she has. “Tier sets” exist. There are dozens of different guns, upgrades, and weapon mods. It has been established that new item technologies can be researched and produced, all in the same universe in which “Fabrication Rights Management (FRM)” technology can keep certain items unique (e.g. effectively soulbound).

Now, I have a hard time imagining that chasing +5 Flaming Shotgun M-23 Katana V upgrades would sustain any sort of ME:O endgame the same way fantasy MMOs can get away with it. But sort of assumes there is necessarily an endgame gear grind at all. Which leads me to…

MMO Structure/Themepark vs Sandbox

I am going to suggest Synthesis here.

Is it possible to have a sandbox in the themepark? I have no idea. But as I was glancing at the Galaxy At War map, I could not help but notice how the southern portions were labeled as Earth Systems Alliance Space, Inner Council Space, Outer Council Space. Meanwhile the northern portions were the Attican Traverse and the Terminus Systems. So… perhaps Terminus = nul-sec? Hell, we can already imagine fighting over bases, planets, and star systems in the Mass Effect universe right? Meanwhile, the people who want missions from High Command can get them while following a proto-typical MMO/ME storyline.

It does occur to me that, in many ways, SWTOR has already laid claim to this particular niche. Voice acting, the dialog wheel, everyone having their own spaceship, and so on. But I believe, in retrospect, that Mass Effect Online would have been a much better fit; with SWTOR, too many mechanics were shoehorned into the MMO mold. The odds of Bioware eating up their own market-share with such a thematically similar product is basically zero, of course.

Something is going to happen with the franchise, though, and I can’t wait to see what that is.

P.S. Apparently Massively beat me to the punch by a day.

P.P.S. Then there is this.

¹ My entire opposition to MMOs up to that point had been “I refuse to keep paying for a game I already bought.” That $60 lasted me about 3 hours in Magic Online, but would have been four months in WoW.

² Shh… it could happen.

Review: Mass Effect 2

Game: Mass Effect 2
Recommended price: $25
Metacritic Score: 94
Completion Time: ~36 hours
Buy If You Like: Mass Effect, or cover-based 3rd person action-RPG shooters

It was with no small amount of trepidation that I booted up Mass Effect 2 (hereafter ME2) for the first time a few weeks ago. Having been so late to the Mass Effect party generally, the ongoing internet narratives surrounding ME2’s quality and “worthiness” as a sequel had already congealed into a crusty shell of opinion. I heard claims about “dumbing down,” that Bioware was losing its way and letting the RPG bits drift, abandoned in the dark places between stars. What would I find, coming from the original which so thoroughly and completely sucked me into a new universe?

What I found in ME2 was highly enjoyable, more… streamlined game.

Commander Shephard being a badass

Commander Badass reporting for duty.

A lot of my issues with the original Mass Effect came down to Bioware trying to shoehorn in RPG bits where they did not really fit. There were talents and upgrades and items without the underlying structure of, say, inventory management or character stat screens. In ME2, all of that has basically been removed. You can still find or purchase new weapons, but each weapon is not necessarily better than the ones you already have – it is more akin to alternate weapons in normal FPS games. There still is not a coherent stat screen, but the talent/power-choosing process has been truncated down to the point where it is not necessary.

While that is an improvement over the last game, I was left with the nagging feeling that it doesn’t really make sense to have levels and XP at all anymore; since you inevitably level up after each mission, why not just give players the talent points? Similarly, I was also left with the impression that there really was not much difference between Biotic and Tech-based powers. I could not tell you offhand what the mechanical difference between Tech and Biotic was in the original Mass Effect, but it seemed pretty clear that Biotics was supposed to be special and rare. Now it seems like more than half my crew was Biotic along with most of the organic enemies.

Although the nuts and bolts being streamlined could be viewed as good or bad depending on tastes, the combat itself feels much, much better in ME2. Taking cover feels a lot more fluid, firefights are longer and include more enemies, and with the radically shortened cooldown on Powers, you can do some pretty outrageously dynamic things. There may have been a lined crossed somewhere along the way – perhaps when I was warp-charging through cover every 6 seconds to punch heavily-armored bosses in the face – but I will take dynamic, exciting combat over rote realism any day. After all, how believable is it to have ample chest-high obstructions in every other room to begin with?

Best party member since Minsc.

My favorite aspect of the original Mass Effect was the integration of non-verbal dialog into the narrative, and the general narrative itself. In ME2, that is kicked up a notch^². Characters smile, nod, gesture, facepalm, wink, and otherwise emote in subtle, natural ways. Indeed, these little actions end up becoming part of the dialog, creating nuance and meaning that words themselves could not convey. Some scenes are punctuated with Quick Time Event-esque moves, such as interrupting a bad guy speech by just shooting him, or stopping someone from doing something they will later regret. While QTEs are normally cheap, annoying gimmicks to force players to pay attention, the ones in ME2 felt a natural part of the narrative… including when you went ahead and let a teammate squeeze off a round in the criminal’s kneecap. I have not played a proper RPG since starting up this Mass Effect experiment, and I am still nervous about whether I could ever go back to static character portraits, scrolling text, or (well-done) narrative QTEs again.

One other thing about the dialog that deserves special mention: this is one of the most goddamn hilarious games I have ever played. Sometimes ME2 crosses the line into absurdity – the cigar-smoking Elcor shopkeeper, anyone? – but most of it evoked more literal LOL moments than eyerolls. That is not to say there is not any drama or serious things going down. Rather, it is precisely these moments of sardonic levity that drive home stakes. You end up liking these characters, wanting to hear what quip they will bust out next, and then are suddenly confronted with the very real possibility they will die based on your actions.

What really ended up surprising me was when what originally appeared to be a simple “alien + personality quirk” party member, suddenly unfolded into a paper crane of origami complexity. I am specifically talking about Mordin, whom I felt practically stole the show aboard the Normandy. The transition between him being a “stereotypical” Salarian with a humorous ADHD staccato manner of speaking, to a weary doctor haunted by the ethical ghosts of his past is nothing short of brilliant. In fact, it is not even really a transition of his character, but a transition of your perception of his character; he didn’t become deeper, you merely discovered the depths. While the other characters are perhaps less complex in comparison, that is practically true of most characters in any RPG that I can recall.

Dialog and characterization aside, I am sympathetic to claims that ME2 streamlined the plot a bit too much. I wasn’t a huge fan of driving the Mako on every random planet, but when that option is replaced with a (decently fun) scanning minigame and combined with exploration mechanics that discourage exploration (we have fuel now?), it ends up making the universe seem a bit too small. Plus, I am not a huge fan of the Restart at Level One trope to begin with, or really how it was presented here. Instead of an epic, unified journey, ME2 really felt like 2-3 missions with about a dozen sidequests between you and the third. I want to stress though, again, this is a weakness with the story structure, rather than the story itself. Each of those episodic sidequests were worth experiencing on their own, but I do recognize how little effect they seemed to have on the overall plot.

"You know, somehow, 'I told you so' just doesn't quite say it."

Is Mass Effect 2 as groundbreaking as the original? Of course not. The first game had the task of creating an entire universe filled with races and peoples, and had to go about getting you to care about learning more about them. In that respect it succeeded admirably. It is difficult to add something to an already completed picture though, and so I got the impression that Mass Effect 2 was concerning itself with making you care about Shepard. Not in the sense that Shepard is the most interesting man/woman in the galaxy, but rather in the sense that you genuinely care about the choices you will soon be forced to make in the coming war. Mass Effect was about world-building, and Mass Effect 2 about filling that world with individuals. As Mordin says:

No. Aware survival unlikely. Actually contacted him for personal connection.

Hard to imagine galaxy. Too many people. Faceless. Statistics. Easy to depersonalize. Good when doing unpleasant work.

For this fight, want personal connection. Can’t anthropomorphize galaxy. But can think of favorite nephew. Fighting for him.

Does Mass Effect 2 emulate the mechanics of RPGs as well as the first game? No. Did Mass Effect 2 capture the soul of RPGs, the essence of what makes them worth experiencing?


I May Be Ruined

I am about ~15 hours into Mass Effect 2.

Everything is going swimmingly, although I am beginning to suspect (all) other games have been ruined for me in two very specific ways.

First, I am not sure I can go back to text boxes in RPGs anymore. It is not just about BioWare’s penchant for fully-voiced stories, it is about the equally gripping body language. Everyone has heard about the whole “93% of communication is nonverbal,” right? We are now at a point in game design when at least one company is capable of delivering on that 93% and I do not know if I can go back.

It isn’t just about the smiles, the winks, the nods, or the scare quotes by characters with only three fingers either. It is about the more subtle touches that keep my eyeballs glued to the story exposition. For example:

Asari Facepalm

I should have shot him in the foot when I had the chance.

The asari bartender in the background facepalms when Conrad speaks the part about his wife buying the ticket. I actually had some difficulty taking that screenshot because the time between the background facepalm and the camera switching back to Shepard is less than a second – I had to redo that part of the conversation twice to get the shot.

Think about that for a moment. Someone actually went through the trouble of programming a facepalm into a (presumably) throwaway, non-required dialog option, with less than a second of screentime. Understated is an… er, understatement.

Going back to strict text and using my imagination to fill in the blanks? I am not quite sure it will feel the same knowing that the blanks are literal blanks; unless the developers clearly make up for it in other areas of the game, I suspect I will recognize the gaps as deficiencies rather than “imagination opportunities.”

The second way I have been ruined actually came via The Witcher, and is very clearly manifesting itself in Mass Effect 2. Specifically, I now believe I can and should be able to romance anyone and everyone, simultaneously.

Romance All the Things

Romance All the Things!

I first noticed this tendency when I was flirting with the ship psychiatrist – whom should really know better – and became nervous that things might get out of hand before the entire playing field became available, so to speak. This was not a problem in The Witcher; in fact, you typically only had a single opportunity for “romance” at any given time, so it was a series of all or nothing encounters.

To be honest, this probably has more to do with my methodical nature in gaming than anything else. The baseline assumption I operate on is that I will only ever play a game once – I am looking to maximize my fun, not fill time, and 2nd playthroughs almost always lose out to the dozens of other games available. Ironically, this leads to counter-intuitive game behavior wherein I suck the very marrow out of a game’s bones, completing every sidequest and bonus mission long after such things have ceased being fun and/or make sense to do. Exploring every planet in every system cluster in Mass Effect 1, running Miscellaneous quests in Skyrim as a level 54 character with 100k+ gold, and so on.

As you might suspect, mutually exclusive romance options present a certain difficulty to me.

I do have a residual desire to play ME1&2 again as FemShep, which I would have done originally if not for the availability of romance options at all (that’s another post). The ideal romance scenario would be the “Deus Ex ending” one, wherein you could save right before the critical choice and I could reload to see each outcome. I am getting the impression that this is not how things will shake out.

Youtube exists, but it is just not the same.

Review: Mass Effect

Game: Mass Effect
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 89
Completion Time: ~32 hours
Buy If You Like: 3rd-person pseudo-RPG shooters

Subtitles: On.

It is somewhat difficult trying to review a franchise-launching game like Mass Effect years after its initial release. Should it be compared to the standards of games of today, or of its time? Is it even realistic to believe the experience can be compartmentalized away from the knowledge $200 million MMOs are using its primary narrative mechanics 4 years later?

As I watched the ending credits this past weekend, it became clear in my mind that the concerns were largely moot. I loved this experience, I loved the narrative, I loved the setting where the writers were taking me. And I loved these things despite the weakness of the actual game bits of the game.

The combat system in Mass Effect is a cover-based 3rd-person shooter meets half-assed RPG elements. The shooting elements were decent on their own, even if the majority of the fights seemed to oscillate between completely trivial to instant death (at least towards the beginning). Your squad members are mostly competent in straight-up fights, although controlling them was sufficiently awkward that I was glad it mostly seemed irrelevant to the outcome.


The “RPG elements” of the game though? I have mentioned this before, but there is really no point in having gear with stats – or talents that grant stats – if there is no way to actually look at your stats. Talent A gives me 3% more Hardening, but Talent B decreases the cooldown on my Throw ability by 5%. And yet I have no idea what my Hardening percent currently is (or, honestly, what it even does) or what my cooldown on Throw is currently sitting at. The first talent point in the weapon skills appears to boost damage and accuracy by crazy amounts (~10% vs 1-2% increments), but it is difficult to feel clever about making good choices when you never actually get to see numbers go up.

After the first area is cleared, the game map opens up most of the galaxy and gives you free reign to plow through dozens of side quests in a fairly non-linear fashion. The problem here is that it is all the same… literally. Each system has a landing planet where you are dropped off in a vehicle, drive around collecting junk, and cap off the experience in one of the two possible building layouts that are otherwise copy-pasted across the universe. Sure, the box maze is slightly different, but there are only so many times one can endure entrance corridor, large room, T-tunnel, two side rooms (or big room, small side room, stairs, small side room) before the very thought of landing on a planet becomes nauseating.

But then I asked myself why I was doing all these side quests to begin with. And the answer was that I loved it here. I didn’t want the game to end. I wanted to stick around in a game setting that people took the time to actually try and make intelligible. How is faster than light travel possible? Element Zero reduces mass, i.e. the Mass Effect. Why don’t we care about ammo? “Bullets” are just shavings off a brick of nondescript metal, accelerated at high speeds. Why can people take a bunch of bullets to the face? Kinetic shielding.

Mass Effect is Sci-Fi, but it doesn’t feel like the hand-waved or mystical Sci-Fi of settings with hyperspace or The Warp. Element Zero is fantastical, sure, but its interactions within the realms of physics largely makes sense. In other words, Mass Effect has more in common with Dune than Star Wars. And that is amazingly refreshing.

See you soon, space cowboy.

What is more than merely refreshing is the inclusion (and highlighting) of non-verbal dialog in an RPG. All dialog is fully voiced, which goes a long way in bringing otherwise disposable NPCs to life. But when they start winking at you, touching your character, raising an eyebrow… you realize how far the genre has come since Kefka’s 16-bit laugh of madness. Mass Effect might not break a lot of ground plot-wise, but it does break ground in the sense of being drawn into caring about the plot in ways most other RPGs can not achieve.

Overall, I was very, very impressed with my ~32 hours spent in this new universe, and eagerly look forward to spending some more in Mass Effect 2. And if they shore up some of the rough edges in the combat system, all the better.