Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The "Mass Effect" 1 & 2 (full brain-dump)

* Introduction (for those living under a rock):

Mass Effect is a sci-fi space opera presented in the form of a single player, action role playing game (RPG) for XBox 360 and PC. The first instalment was released in November 2007, and May 2008 respectively (XBOX then PC), to much critical acclaim. Ridiculous overreactions to the brief (and tasteful by TV standards) sex cut-scene raised the game's media profile (and spawned the "Alien side-boob" internet meme).

Mass Effect 1 (ME1) incorporated a high quality, non-linear story line into a detailed universe with plenty of 3rd person shooter action. While plenty of first person shooters (FPSs) can claim better action, Mass Effect is somewhat unusual in that two AI controlled characters assist the player during every shooting segment. This is bold given that AI co-op has historically been a recipe for disaster.

It also brings in the option of 6 different main character classes (with different abilities in combat), male/female appearance (with facial customisations) and levelling up of various traits/skills as the game progresses, including those of the 6 squad mates you pick up. The contrasting personalities of the supporting characters ensure something for everyone, letting you chose your favourite 2 to take on missions, which one of 2 possibles to sweet talk, and even which die (permanently).

Equipment management (weapons, armour, ammunition modifiers) is a major part of ME1, as is driving around the surface of planets in an APC (the "Mako"). Both are dropped for the inevitable big budget sequel (ME2), released January 2010. ME2's increased focus on combat (with various tweaks and reduced distractions) seems to have helped it achieve an even better reception, with many perfect review scores. ME3 is now a certainty, with many fans (like myself) hoping it comes sooner rather than later.

I read somewhere that Bioware's development team had twice as many artists as programmers. At any rate, with such high artistic value, this franchise may, in future, be referred to as the turning point when single player computer games really came of age: truly occupying the same level of entertainment territory previously monopolised by TV series, movies and novels. I have

* Navigation:

If you have not played these games yet, but there is a good chance you will, I strongly suggest stopping reading here, for now, and coming back later. However, I have marked certain sub sections with {!Spoiler!} warnings to help minimise damage.

All in game screen shots were taken by me. Click pictures to view full resolution.

Given that this review turned into a 10'000 word dissertation, I have provided an mini-index:

  • Introduction (for those living under a rock)
  • Navigation
  • Overview (praise)
  • General Gripes
  • A Fix too Far? (Mechanistic Changes from ME1 to ME2)
  • Interlectualisation (Deeper Discussions)
  • Summary
[Navigating plot through conversation options (ME1)]
* Overview (praise):

+ That sci-fi thang {!spoilers!}:

Mass Effect is not cutting edge sci-fi, by my standards (being devoid of revolutions in genetics or nanotechnology, and AI mostly banned, the need to deal with technological singularity is avoided). It is more a pastiche of established mainstream materials. But this should not belittle it's worth, for it presents a veritable smorgasbord of sci-fi influences from films, TV, games and literature; a hugely detailed fictional universe. I could easily have written a whole article listing it's more interesting/amusing references and speculating on the etymology of it's memes.

I can't help but think that, in a way, Mass Effect is an epitaph for a large subsection of sci-fi. It could be said to stitch together a canon of works from the last 3 decades (at least), making a cogent body of materials; an institution that will be as commonly recognisable as "80s music".

I am thinking of the likes of:

  • "Babylon 5" (an obvious inspiration for ME's 'Citadel').
  • "Star Wars" (the 'Spectres' are politically equivalent to Jedi).
  • "Star Trek" (away teams/missions, 'Krogans' share the Klingon archetype, 'Jenkins' dies like a red-shirt etc).
  • "Firefly" (a quirky crew of tallented misfits).
  • "Battlestar Galactica" ('Quarians')
  • "Starship Troopers"/"Starcraft" ('Rachni')
  • "Halo" ('Avina' = Cortana, vehicle sections, etc).
  • "System Shock" (Everything! It was set on "Citadel Station").
  • Alastair Reynolds "Revelation space" ('Reapers' = "Wolves").
  • Charles Stross "The Jennifer Morgue" ('Sovereign' =vividly= "Deep Seven", likely that Lovecraft is the common influence).
  • Many other seminal games and novels I'm blissfully ignorant of, I'm sure.

[Above - Babylon 5. Below -The Citadel (ME1)]

Major plot features are the most obvious references to point out (like the strong similarities between the explosive opening sequences of ME2 and the new Star Trek movie). But the sci-fi geek intrigue only increases the closer one looks into the game. For example, the Citadel's 'VI' (Virtual Intelligence) superficially provides tourist information, but in one instance will muse on the (im)possibility of abolishing poverty, saying that: 'cornucopia machines' (C.Stross - "Singularity Sky") could work but only exist in sci-fi literature (LOL).

Also, a pivotal (though sneeze and you'd miss the explanation) plot detail from ME1 tells of something (a 'Cipher') extremely similar to a "pattern juggler, shrouder-mind-transform" (A.Reynolds - "Revelation Space"). This indicates that the writing team, from top to bottom, are genuine, high calibre, sci-fi fans. An asset almost never used for entertainment products aimed at a mass market (hence my continued 'tutting' on many a cinema trip).

For a sci-fi fan, such as myself, it's very gratifying to see a title that manages to bring so much popular interest to the genre. I hope, as always, that it helps inspire new fans, serving as an entry point to other deserving fictional materials. Perhaps even fuelling young enthusiasm for science and technology (or the arts or anything). Maybe Amazon's recommendation system (or it's successor) will pick up on such details (similarities mentioned above) and start to directly steer ME players towards some of the fiction literature that I hold most dear.

+ Gaming Legacy:

Mass Effect is not revolutionary in terms of game-play either. I'm far from a history of computer games expert, I'm almost entirely new to RPGs (Role Play Games), but it seems obvious that it is nowhere near "System Shock" in terms of ingenuity. That legendary title garnered massive critical acclaim, but far less popularity. Though I have never played the 1994 classic, it sounds like “Bioshock” is basically a re-contextualised version with better graphics, and most popular storyline shooters have a lot to thank it for.

Mass Effect's critical acclaim is down to it being carefully engineered to contain the right combination of elements to maximise popularity (more on that in my "Interlectualisation " section). But it's financial success probably has as much to do with the deep market penetration of computer gaming (consoles, etc), as it does with increased sophistication of the game playing public. As the market for interactive entertainment continues to inflate, the maximum budget for high end game production is able to rise too. So, provided a title can tick enough boxes, it can afford artistic values as high as Hollywood movies. Potentially higher even, given that games typically sell for 3 to 6 times the price of a cinema ticket.

The time has finally come for the likes of "System Shock" and "Deus Ex" to go mainstream, and Bioware has positioned itself well to capitalise on that.

[System Shock 2 "Remember Citadel"]

+ Little Touches:

- You can't walk off the edge of platforms, which is a relief. Quite why avoiding accidentally falling to your death is such a popular game mechanic, I don't know.

- All four of your weapons are visibly carried around on your Shepard's personage, expanding out of storage mode like mini-transformers. And ME2 rectifies the realism-fail of being able to conjure a helmet, or any inventory item out of nowhere.

- The interior layout of the Normandy fits the exterior model well. Also, the SR2 even contains toilets and showers, aspects of spaceship life infamously glossed over in Star Trek (original and TNG) and other sci-fi.

* General Gripes:

+ Location, Location! LOCATION!!!:

The squad AI did not seemed much the same across both games, except that in ME2 they made a few changes to make it seem less problematic. Better designed maps avoid tricky features (like narrow access ramps they often went to the side of), no smug quips about “rough terrain” or “helicopters” making it less irritating if figuring out how to cross a room illudes them, and they may teleport to your side any time your back is turned. I figured this out *after* walking into a tough battle on "Horizon" with my squad mates stuck the other side of a door that refused to acknowledge their existence (and subsequently dying). One can just give the “rally” order, turn around once, and have team mates miraculously appear at right next to you. It seems like a bit of a heavy handed fix. Very disorienting too, to have wayward team mates suddenly appear in front of you on certain maps.

Ordering squad members to positions anywhere other than just in front or beside you in battle can be a right pain too. For starters, it would be helpful if the pause-cam view swung up and out a bit, to see over obstacles. Second, even when you have pin pointed the exact mark to stand on, they may refuse to go unless you hold their hand. Not so useful when trying to flank an enemy, or wanting your pet Krogan to get up-close-and-personal while you stand off.

+ Minimum wage?:

The monetary rewards for completing assignments for minor side characters are always pitiful. Ripping off a “Hanar” trader (on “Noveria” in ME1), by cutting him out of an illicit weapon deal, will only net you an extra 500 credits. For 5-10 minutes of dialogue interactions and running around, you end up with less than the amounts one repeatedly finds serendipitously lying around during missions. Totally negligible towards buying a slightly superior weapon (ME1) or weapons upgrades (ME2) that you currently have your eye one. These are usually around the 60k mark (per piece). Not at all worth the bad karma either (i.e. renegade points instead of paragon).

I presume that the rationale behind this weighting is to allow the game to be fully playable by those purely wanting a faster paced action romp, not willing to carefully examine every corner for some feckless sap who'd like you to pick up their laundry. But really, why not *actually* make it "worth my while" to look deeper into the details of this epic fictional universe? I reckon that the mini-rewards could easily be 10 times bigger without those in a rush feeling like they're missing out. Scaling up by 20-30 times might even induce the more attention deficient shooter fanatics to expose themselves to the more nuanced sci-fi/ethics/cultural ideas contained in the backwaters.

+ Epic Fail:

I compiled a long list of glitches I experienced in ME1, from the camera apparently falling through scenery and becoming stuck, to all out bizarre graphics melt down, to individual squad members refusing to follow me. To be fair, I hadn't installed the patches, which happen to particularly target issues with AMD systems. I didn't make the same mistake in ME2, and only ever had one unrecoverable glitch: getting stuck in mid-air on “Illum”.

* A Fix too Far? (Mechanistic Changes from ME1 to ME2):

It is clear that Bioware took popular criticisms of ME1 to heart when creating the sequel. Personally I think that they might have gone a little too far in pandering to some gripes:

+ Wipeout the Mako:

Driving the "Mako" (APC/rover/tank) between mineral resources, 'anomalies' and mission objectives (in ME1) got super tedious very fast. However, this was probably just a way of padding out ME1, something that would have been unnecessary had it had the budget of ME2. Also, when the Mako was used as a vehicle (double meaning) to transition between sections of main missions, it worked well. It gave a break from fighting on foot, and seamlessly linked physically separate parts of the same world, facilitating the impression of grand scale. Halo (for example) did this years ago (and just as proficiently) so it is arguably not a defining element of ME1, hence dispensable.

Notably, the "Hammerhead" (a sexed-up Mako replacement) is used to link the 4 parts of "Overlord", the latest DLC (downloadable content). This may suggest that others agree with my above sentiment. But this time the transition from vehicle to foot (and back) is far from seamless.

On the other hand certain unpleasant idiosyncrasies of the Mako have been eliminated:

  • Shooting nothing but sky when on an uphill slope (or having blundered into an obstacle while 'strafing').
  • Unfathomable manoeuvres when stopping reversing during a turn.
  • Ridiculously slow charging shields.

[Top - Mako (ME1). Underneath - Hammerhead (ME2)]

+ Stockpile Feng Shui:

Inventory management is *gone*! Absolutely true that ME1 totally messed up the balance of acquiring new weapons: To start with there are relatively few freebies, all with near zero retail value, while the few upgrades available to purchase are astronomically expensive. Rampant inflation then ensues, meaning that by the "Virmire" mission (3/4 the way through) you are finding more free weapons than you are killing bad guys! With the level of resistance on this mission so sparse, I reckon that figuring out what to do with all the free weapons slowed me down more.

[Overloaded Inventory (ME1)]

Selling just part of the resulting horde to a merchant meant I was then swimming in more money than I could spend, and dissolving the rest into 'omni-gel' meant there was no point playing the decrypt mini-game to unlock objects any more. A small upside perhaps.

However, I still found the process of finding/buying, choosing/equipping progressively better weapons/armour additively satisfying. I would have been happy had ME2 simply rebalanced the acquisition rate and streamlined the user interface for choosing/dispensing with items more easily. Needing an in level armoury console (rare) to change weapons arguably makes the game more realistic. One no longer implicitly carry a stockpile of guns around down one's pants (i.e. unseen). But then am right it thinking there might have been something in the “Codex” about the weapons being physically reconfigurable through software upgrades? This would make sense, having them composed of smart (nano) materials; having the same lump of gun material reconfigure in the field (to cleverer design specifications).

Instead, ME2 transitions to a pretty much upgrade only mechanic for weapons/equipment. These improvements are hidden away, all piled up together in a single alphabetised list, making it near impossible to figure out just how much better you are doing (especially since enemy health scales up with your experience points). This seems like a major enjoyment fail to me: 'grinding' hours away for improved equipment/stats is a massively popular (and profitable) pastime (WoW, and other MMORPGs). Why the hell would you throw all evidence of such hard won trophies in a metaphorical cardboard box under the bed?!

+ Probe Away:

The change of inventory upgrade mechanic might have made the whole game significantly slicker, if they hadn't made it necessary to play a tedious planet probing mini-game (to afford to implement discovered upgrades). I wouldn't have begrudged this flagrant grind style gaming mechanism had the planet scanning ship upgrades *actually* sped up the process. As it was, one did nothing and another merely gave me double storage capacity for probes... What would have been wrong with dispensing with the big pause between launching a probe and being able to continue scanning? Or perhaps visually indicating resource distribution. Or, to be more imaginative, auto-magically lunching 5 probes to the most resource rich spots on screen? Or to be less imaginative, have the probes bring back more resources; these are entire *planets*, there should be literally tons of even the rare earth elements just lying around.

[The Deathstar Planet scanning mini game (ME2)]

+ Infinite Ammo:

I thought the inexhaustible ammo in ME1 was a pretty cool idea: a negligibly small lump of metal is riven from an internal store, but still highly damaging due to massively high speed (accelerated in a *mass effect* field); very futuristic. Obviously other people didn't appreciate this, as ME2 requires equivalent suspension of disbelief one would have required to take classics games such as "Doom" seriously: just the right amount of replacement ammunition packs are conveniently laying around on the ground wherever you are fighting. Yes, they're actually “thermal clips”, and they are (usually) dropped by dead enemies, bla-bla, same difference!

It's not like this creates a particular need for ammo conservation tactics (provided you are not an *appalling* shot); it's rare that my sniper rifle ran dry. Also, team mates appear to have an infinite amount of ammo stashed about their person, which might go some way to explaining why even the biggest of them can now only cope with carrying 2 guns, while my fem-Shepherd easily manages to lug around 4, including the team's only 'heavy weapon'. It also seems somewhat unlikely that the Illusive Man (with his unprecedented wealth) could not afford to replenish my heavy weapon ammo between missions (or my “medi-gel”).

+ Stunning!:

Stun attacks in ME2 make Shepard stand up from cover, and freeze on the spot soaking up fire: very irritating. The biotic attack in ME1 that knocked Shep unconscious on the floor for a couple of seconds was tolerable by comparison.

+ Interface Niggles:

The combat UI in ME2 seems unnecessarily cramped and folded away. Plus, the key bindings for pause-time and sprint have inexplicably been swapped over between releases (causing me much confusion when panicking under fire). Further to this, is now used for 3 different functions (sprint, take-cover/vault-over-cover, activate/interact) ensuring occasional irritating mistakes, like hugging walls one is trying to run past (then getting shot in the back).

Also, the menu interfaces (messages, upgrades, etc) are all very mouse intensive, with no support for keyboard navigation or double-clicking. Ironing out these PC niggles is probably not worth the 6 month delay invoked by EA games getting Demiurge Studios to port ME1 post-production, as opposed to Bioware building both versions of ME2 together.

[Combat UI comparison (paused): Top - ME1. Bellow - ME2.]

+ Big Bada-Boom?:

Big guns were sourly lacking in ME1, having to nibble away slowly at the hardest enemies, so it's good to see some high end ordnance in ME2. However, because the (universal) heavy weapons ammo is severely limited (unlike the regular kind), I found myself perpetually holding it back for a rainy day. The "Cain" makes this situation worst, by the time I came to fire it a second time, I was up against the end boss. Then, for some odd reason it's projectile managed to miss it's mark, appearing to travel at mere missile speed, despite the weapon supposedly delivering damage using a large slug fired at near relativistic velocity. Hmm...

I did like the arc (lightening) gun though, and freezing people can be pretty fun (even if the thermodynamics don't quite add up), but the rest of the arsenal never seemed to do enough damage be worth using.

+ Injury:

In ME2 Shepard and allies auto-heal at a rate that would make Wolverine jealous. Healing related armour upgrades are no more and health bars are hidden. This may give the impression of increased realism, but they are still in the game engine somewhere. Plus, enemy health bars still appear, and the poor saps don't have the same mutant abilities.

This is one of the many simplifications that streamline the game. Having just started a quick replay of ME1 as a male vanguard on veteran difficulty, the lack of health regeneration has become, shall we say, irritating. Swapping over my only “medical interface” armour modification to the most dead squad member is a right pain. At least I can revive them for free each time they die.

[Killed "Critical Mission Failure" (ME2)]

+ Getting off:

The source of much frustration in ME1, lifts are out of ME2 in favour of frantically detailed station/ship model animations that cover loading times instead. This breaks up the immersive continuity (though I tended to get a “loading” message pause when departing lifts anyway in ME1). But is pretty tough to avoid describing this change as an improvement.

[The Longest Lift (ME1)]

* Hail to the Successor (ME2 Prevails):

+ Little Improvements in ME2:

- Core *and* optional mission locations are now marked on galaxy map, so no having to remember and track down oddly named planets.

- Each system and cluster is marked with a percentage complete, so don't have to guess where you have and have not been yet.

[Galaxy Map (ME2)]

- Shepard can always sprint in ME2 (until tired). One can only do so while in battle in ME1, frustrating when running about the ship, or going back over a cleared out area for a missed item, etc.

- External disturbance (noise) while aiming sniper rifle is gone. This was a fairly clever idea to make it harder to hit targets when your sniper skill is lower, unfortunately it tended to make the sniper less accurate than the hand gun, and probably caused general frustration.

- Ammunition modifiers are clearly displayed on the side of each gun once applied.

- All weapons Shepard carries can be used; no lugging around a sniper rifle one can't even sight down (due to being the wrong class).

- Perhaps not such a “little improvement”, the class specific special powers are far more decisive in ME2: the cloaking is on a par with Crysis, while the other powers are even more inventive, and fully implemented, than those in ME1. But one has to replay the whole game to appreciate more than 1/6th of these. While each class of powers will cause the player to apply different tactics in battle, it's a significant use of one's life to keep replaying a game this size.

- Task switching (Windows) back to ME2 is far faster than ME1. On the other hand, I have to disable my second display to avoid accidentally falling (switching) back into Windows, when ME1 coped fine.

+ Production Values:

There is little doubt that significantly more effort (investment) went into the second instalment of this franchise. Even the smallest side missions have unique level design, unlike the couple of generic mercenary bases that pop up repeatedly in ME1. More big name actors make cameos in ME2 (not that I'd have noticed most of them myself), and the score is even better.

+ Eye Candy

In addition to augmented audio content, the graphics are noticeably prettier, while running at an equivalent frame-rate to ME1 (on my PC anyway). Although, I do have to stick to a lowly 1280*1024, which seems pretty poor for a PC that I built for £600 (base only) around the time ME1 was released, but ridiculous hardware obsolescence rates are far from unusual in PC gaming.

Squad characters in particular are profoundly more graphically detailed, making Shepard's rear more aesthetically pleasing. It's not quite on a par with the likes of Half-Life 2 Episode II, most noticeable on the rarer outdoor missions with natural landscapes. But then ME2 is far longer (and was more quickly developed). The camera angle seems a little narrower, which may give the intricacies of Shepard's back more screen space, but but also gave me a slight case claustrophobia to start with. No where near as blinkered as the view in “Dead Space” (which made the game unplayable for me).

[In game engine prettiness (ME2).]

+ Amusement:

ME2 is even funnier, with greater attention to detail everywhere. It riffs off the imagined universe created in ME1, even subtly taking the piss out of certain game flaws directly on occasion. Taking the time to activate video adverts or listen to (particular) radio items is rewarded with comedy genius. Ship side, Joker and Mordin usually have a quip funny enough to warrant visiting them between each mission too. Gags have even been written into cut scenes and characters in the combat section of missions.

ME2 could probably beat many comedy genre movies on a laughs per hour metric (if it's fight scenes were condensed).

+ Deep Characters...:

There are twice as many squad member characters to choose from in ME2, each with separate recruitment and loyalty missions. Again, each mission is wholly unique, but mostly involves shooting your way through crate littered terrain occupied by mercenaries, mechs or geth, with 2 squad mates along for the ride (as always). There are only a couple of missions with significantly different play mechanics, but they all greatly enhance the depth of the character involved. Squad characters are easily the main strength of ME2, which is a good job because their missions account for at least 3/4 of it's substance.

[Squad Selection Screens: ME1 & ME2 respectively.]

+ But Shallower Plot {!Major Spoilers!}:

On the other hand, enigmatic antagonists are lacking in ME2. Marina Sirtis (aka “Deanna Troi”) destroyed the credibility of one particular villain with some atrocious voice acting in ME1, but the remaining nemeses displayed enough charisma to support an intriguing series of twists and revelations. There are few surprises in ME2 if one discounts 'jumping the shark'.

In many of the character missions the battlefield pawns that you dispatch belong to one of the three mercenary groups (Blue, Yellow, Red). They can plausibly be involved in anything because they'll fight for money by definition. Their unique traits, leadership and backgrounds are briefly explored in an early recruitment mission. One gets to meet quite a few local mercenary bosses, and such, each impressively distinguishable from the next. But character development is not something they need be concerned with after meeting Shepard, so they don't get the chance to become particularly memorable.

[Collector General (ME2)]

The opposition during the core story missions are anthropomorphic, insectile aliens (“The Collectors") who remain stoic, other than the odd battlefield taunt from "The Collector General". He/it looks pretty cool, especially during it's brief appearance in a cutscene at the end of the last mission. It's a shame it gets barely any lines (and no interactive dialogue). There's another "reaper" telecommuting in too, but you probably won't realise that without paying close attention...

"The Illusive Man" goes some way to fill this gap. The highly questionable ethical conduct of his organisation, discovered in ME1 side missions, are explored at greater length in ME2. Even his high level employees constantly rub your nose in their distrust of him. One is supposed to stay on edge I suppose; waiting for him to turn on you. Seems like good odds of him being an evil mastermind in ME3. One only ever meets him via holography, so I wonder if maybe he will turn out to be an AI (or an old guy, dead and simulated).

[The Illusive Man (ME2]

What I'm trying to get at is that you spend *all* the game building this massive, kick-ass team of powerful freaks and then there's barely any ass to kick... Maybe I'm at fault for failing to get into the right head-space; not finding the collectors that scary, even after they kill me, repeatedly escape my clutches, abduct my crew, etc.

My main problem is that the much anticipated 'suicide mission' is anything but. The fighting actually gets easier the closer one gets to the end, with the final confrontation being utterly trivial. The complete opposite of ME1, which was probably one of the hardest boss battles I've played: I was frantically skittering about, hiding, mostly with time paused scouring the combat UI (user interface) for any power the team had ready to fire off. The impression of needing near perfect tactics and execution was very much provided. ME2 fell back on a lazy: hit these weak spots a couple of times with whatever gun you like, maybe duck a bit every other minute.

+ A good day to die? {!Spoilers!}:

I strolled through the ME2 finale, so it was irritatingly unconvincing when, after having made all the right choices, the game decides that half my unloyal crew members died for no particular reason, *just* before returning to the ship. It is, I suppose,the last opportunity to make sure you get a slightly bitter-sweet ending, but it felt rather arbitrary to me. The only way to get 100% survival is to do *all* the character's loyalty missions first (or, alternatively, not pick them up, in some cases). Because of a certain surprise that only kicks in a certain amount of time after a certain mission, I would have had to go almost halfway back through my save games to achieve this. Given that the game took more than a week of my life (full time), I don't think I'll be doing that.

To be fair, the surprise does force you to move the game along (or risk certain consequences). And the surprise itself was kind of cool: providing an opportunity to feel very brittle, defenceless and scared. Although, having to replay the whole surprise due to walking blithely forward (previously the correct tactic) instead of cowering quietly, seemed somewhat unnecessary). Also, provided you were not saving the best for last, you will have done the loyalty missions for the more interesting/likeable characters, so they will be safe.

The perma-death choice(s) in ME1 were incorporated into the plot very convincingly. A proper 'Sophie's Choice' almost guaranteed to evoke emotion as one agonises over who to save. Whereas, in ME2, all the 'decisions' are made in (or right before) the final mission, and my predominant emotion was confusion. I knew I was making life and death choices, but there was no way to be sure some arbitrary logic would not be applied before the outcome. Psychologically speaking, this is a perfect recipe for dissatisfaction: one has no idea which bad things one is causing down the line, but they'll all be entirely your fault! Also, unlike in the rest of the game, the dialogue options moved on after only one choice. So if you don't catch something, or you mis-click (and need to revert to save), it means replaying 10 minutes of unskipable cutscenes and a cargo-bay fight.

Exploring the surrounding dialogue slightly differently the second time around (and having done a bit of research), the conversations did make complete sense, and contain blatant hints about who would be best for each role picked.

* Beyond the Last Save Game:

I really hope one's entire entourage transfers over to ME3. That would make my above gripe obsolete, and make replaying ME2 for perfect survival more worthwhile too. To be honest, I can't really see this happening, given that it would dissuade new customers from jumping straight in at the third instalment (unless they gave ME2 away free/very-cheap with ME3). Importing an ME1 save into ME2 carries negligible advantage (no squad members, weapons, upgrades skills or disposition), so again, unlikely on precedent.

The extra details, dialogue options and non squad characters that an import unlocks still makes it worthwhile playing ME1 first. But add those frills alone to ME3 would make it a struggle to justify spending so much time specifically recruiting a dozen temporary squad mates in ME2 (only to have to start all over again).


+ My Speculative Plot Predictions for ME3 {!MASSIVE SPOILERS!}

Basically, galactic apocalypse has been descending since the discovery of the reapers in ME1. ME3 has to involve a full on confrontation with this dark armada. Glibly sneaking a deadly software/wet-ware virus into their systems just ain't gonna cut the cheese in terms of rounding off a convincing story arc. And creating an self replicating swarm of robot spaceships to sweep the galaxy clean of you enemies just would not require enough shoot outs.

[A Vision (ME1)]

Whatever the plot, it's going to have to involve a whole lot of FPS action, unless Bioware spontaneously decides to go with a space based RTS where you marshal the spaceships directly (I think not)! So, instead of/as well as gathering up a squad, one could have to visit various leaders/factions and convince them to join an armada of light to fight the Shadows Reapers:

- ME1 gave the option of saving the Rachni Queen, who is then definitely out there mustering forces in ME2.

- The Geth's numbers can be swelled in ME2 by brainwashing the heretics (thus increasing their numbers in the big battle?).

- There's your old pal Wrex, who seems to be getting along well uniting the Krogan into a single army.

- Tali is positioned to take a place on the Quarian admiralty board, thus she could take command of at least *some* of the migrant fleet.

- Cerberus should still be on your side, but with all the pessimistic squad comments if you hand them the collector base/Reaper tech, that might turn out to set them against you (to some extent).

- The council seems most likely to abstain from getting involved, as usual, leaving your rag-tag alliance to do the hard work. The Turian, Salarian and/or Asari governments could have been compromised, in which case there could be missions to kill/expose those traitors or corrupted individuals. This would suit Garrus well.

- A certain type of mysterious Prothean artefact have been increasing in profile; in ME1 there was at least one massive floating sphere (reminiscent of a Clarkian obelisk) sitting around on a random planet, discovered if you bother to drive out to investigate an 'anomaly'. In ME2 the culmination of the “Firewalker” missions is the reward of a mysterious mirrored bowling ball (dropped by an identical a 'shperelisk'); it gets used by Shepard as a table ornament.Could it be that some Protheans survived after all, hiding themselves away inside an A.Reynold's type 'shroud' (think "Sphere" 1998 for appearance). Can these recluses be convinced to lend a technologically magical hand, or point you in the right direction? Missions to hunt them down through archaeology sites, would suit Liara T'Soni (presuming the upcoming "Den of the Shadow Broker" DLC releases her from the vendetta that kept her from your crew in ME2).

[Prothean Spherelisk (ME2)]

- The derelict Reaper-ship you half-inched the IFF from in ME2 had been hit by some massive weapon. Again, perhaps another mysterious group of old ones. Perhaps just a tie in with the above idea.

I imagine there will need to be a boss fight, reached by wading through the next batch of foot soldiers for the Reapers to reach a control centre for an all powerful weapon. You directing it's Halo ring scale power against the Reapers instead of the galactic civilisation.

There was the mysteriously overheating sun that Tali was investigating in ME2 that came to nothing so far. In the “Revelation Space” trilogy the Wolves deploy a mechanism to "sing" a star into ejecting a large amount of material to cleanse a whole stellar system of life. Given that the heretic geth were pretty unhappy about the Quarians studying the stellar phenomena, one could presume they are responsible. Either as minions or independent agents (fighting to avenge Sovereign). Presumably the increased solar output is evidence of some kind of mega giga google-weapon, seeing as harnessing the power to run a matrioshka brain would be far too sensible (and would, besides, cause a dimming of the sun).

I fully expect I'll be entirely wrong about all of this, despite setting pinning my hopes a lot lower than I did with my anticipation of the third Matrix movie.

* Interlectualisation (Deeper Discussions):

+ Memes of Mass Effect (reductionist view of success):

Most summer/Christmas blockbuster movies will have been carefully crafted, using focus groups and such, to ensure they contain enough of each element to please each demographic of the family. In terms of memetics, a successful product will contain types of memes the brains of the target audience select most strongly for. Because of our evolutionary background, humans are generally most partial to memes about food, social intrigue (gossip), weapons/power and sex. Hence the Transformers movies (like many others) incorporate romantic interest, gratuitous volumes of fighting, and gratuitous amounts of Megan Fox. Food is mostly outside the scope of cinema (restricted to the glut of evening cooking shows), but humour is very important too.

The problem with cooking up films to feature sufficient amounts of these types of memes, on demand, is that it can start to look quite obvious to (some) consumers. This is problematic in a product where suspension of disbelief is generally required. Meanwhile, computer gaming appears to have spawned a niche with a better aptitude for integrating disparate components: the RPG (Role Playing Game). These are naturally strong on social intrigue; meeting and interacting with various characters that are often more interesting than people IRL. Hence the higher female demographic. MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online RPGs) have cleverly short-cut decades of improvements in AI by using real people in the roles of game characters. Much success has been had, but as I say, real people can be quite dull, and are also prone to breaking through 'the forth wall'. Carefully crafted single player games can still scratch plenty of entertainment itches that multiplayers can not.

Since their inception, video games have been synonymous with shooting and hence commonly being classed a male domain. This is mere coincidence that fighting and weapons are easy to simulate convincingly on computers. Increasingly immersive first person shooters (FPSs) are the mainstay of contemporary gaming. Mass Effect wisely uses this as a major ingredient, and ME2 increases it's role still further. StarCraft was a successful single player game because of a strong storyline, too. However, I think real time strategy (RTS) is even more the preserve of men than shooters, and a smaller subset of them too (given the greater level of abstraction involved).

I am curious as to what story/RPG/management elements there are in StarCraft 2, given how long Blizzard has spent polishing them. I can't foresee that they'd be anywhere near as successful as those in ME2 though; it's much easier to shoehorn pretty much any story to a shooter (in-game-engine cutscenes are even more flexible than movies), but an RTS is far more restricted. StarCraft is shackled to tell the tales of the races and persons included in their carefully balanced strategy game, while Commander shepherd can fly to any unexplored region of idea-space and point his/her gun and anything he/she damn well pleases!

Controversy over the sexual content did ME1 the massive favour of sexing up it's image. The romance component is pretty small, the sexy cut-scenes more modest still, but it was enough to spark intrigue and tick that box. ME2 ran with the interest and more than doubled the number of romance options. With oodles of humour cleverly written in too, ME2 has all the most catchy types of memes covered. I'm not sure why the advertising material was entirely earnest, perhaps jokes are too hit-and-miss?

+ Customisation

Taking the meme/food metaphor further, if a movie is a set menu, ME2 is an entire buffet; providing a different feast for each consumer. Beyond the obvious (picking your romantic involvement), one can also chose to ignore irritating characters. For example, Thane was supposed to be a stone cold heart throb, but I found his flashbacks cringe worthy and his religious nonsense a turn-off, so I simply didn't go talk to him. Similarly, one can neglect a character's loyalty mission, or not even bother picking them up in the first place, if replaying. If you *really* dislike someone, get them killed (catharsis bonus)! Just like that, Bioware has got the users to tailor the entertainment to (precisely) suit themselves. That's even more effective than the targeted advertising on Facebook.

Another advantage of games over movies is that interspersing plot development with blowing aliens to pieces greatly reduces mental fatigue. Sitting still, passively watching, is quite tiring: suppressing the majority of the regions in your brain, or whatever. Interactive entertainment is more accessible (than movies) in this way.

The six different main character classes let you customise your fighting style too: fast paced guns blazing as a 'soldier', up close and brutal as a 'vanguard', elusive and deadly at distance as an 'infiltrator', etc. One can then lead the charge, recklessly throwing everyone at the enemy, or one can pick squad mates to complement your abilities. In this way one can send them in ahead of you, like hunting dogs, while you snipe flushed out enemies (I'm not sure the AI is quite good enough to be able to reverse these roles).

[Cut down skill customisation options in ME2 (bottom)]

Going further, one could let squad mates do all damage, merely babysitting them, stopping them getting killed too often and reviving them when they do. However, ME2 probably does not reach the level of specialisation that's common during WoW raids, but then I know nothing of that myself. So aside from nerfing your enemies, with the difficulty slider, these possibilities should allow a wider range of people to play (even enjoy) the fighting (maybe even girls!).

I would be very interested to see a title similar to Mass Effect that allows the player to choose what game mechanic to use altogether (for the most part): FPS *or* RTS *or* puzzle solving *or* RPG interaction to reach the end goal. Of course, the chances are that by being a jack of all trades it would also be a master of none.

+ Inversions (and AI) {!spoilers!}:

I was very impressed with the change of perspective ME2 brought on certain plot aspects taken for granted in ME1, opening up expansive ethical grey areas. "Mordin Solus" presents the most prominent example. His sub-plot reveals that the Krogan Genophage was not developed as an ultimate weapon of genocide, it merely modified the fertility rates of the rampantly expansionist, warrior species to more stable levels. A delicious moral grey area for players to ponder: Mordin presents irrefutable benefits of weaponised bioengineering, while still genuinely troubled by his role in creating it. He would already have been my favourite character, courtesy of his XKCD worthy lines making me LOL during nearly every ship-board interaction.

[Mordin Solus, the Slarian Scientist (ME2)]

The Geth are a break-away race of AI/robots, the primary source of enemy fodder in ME1, but are found to be two disparate (adversarial) groups in ME2. This pushes beyond the stereotype, homicidal monoculture popularised in Terminator, the Matrix and Battlestar Galactica (also featuring religious robots). Although "Legion" is intriguing, he/it does not do a great job of explaining the differences in each faction's beliefs. It does explore the possibility ditching democracy and politics in favour of building universal consensus, through rapid communication (like the “Demarchy” in “Revelation Space”). However, this is shown to fail during Legion's loyalty mission. This is a little unfair, as it was required to facilitate a major game plot choice.

ME1 has a Cortana (the AI from Halo) clone. However, it is the polar opposite of Bungie's deus ex machina. “Avina” is a Citadel tourist information hologram; a bimbo "Virtual Intelligence" (VI) more akin to the MS Office Paperclip. ME2 introduces EDI as a functional equivalent to Cortana, but she is heavily shackled, locked out of most ship systems, her mere existence is controversial. Proper AI is banned after the Geth went all Cylon a few centuries hence, rampaging across half the galaxy. For some reason, they appear to have become an entirely steady state culture after the initial inflation of their revolt. Of course it would have mess up our nice little space-monkeys-with-pea-shooters fictional universe if they were to have had a technological singularity (one that didn't just involve quietly 'subliming').

Overall, AI receives a refreshingly good treatment, including EDI's portrayal. She goes from looking like a conspicuous HAL-9000 knock off, to a loveable ship mate, with a couple of hilarious one liners along the way. Even her main detractor ('Joker') is shown to form a close working relationship with her by the end. This kind of material will hopefully guide public consciousness to consider AI rights in a similar light as racial discrimination; an eagerly awaited step in the right direction, I say.

[Avina (ME1), Cortana (Halo), EDI (ME2)]

+ Religion {!Spoilers!}:

Mass Effect sticks mercifully close to the humanist feel of star trek, with only sparse reference to real world religion:

- Ashley: is a stereotypically preachy Christian. Maybe this is a good thing if one lives in the bible-belt, but it turned me right off romantic involvement with her (or it would have if I'd had a male Shepherd). Her xenophobia didn't help either.

- Thane: talks about traditional “drell” beliefs that sound suspiciously similar to Hinduism. "Yes; A polytheistic religion."!

- “Hanar”: (species) worship the Protheans as the great makers. Their beliefs are seen to be discredited as the story unravels.

- Geth: are robots that worship (false) gods. It is somewhat novel having irrational robots, that still look like robots, but it is unrepresentative of religions: the archetype of savages bowing before conquistadors is rare. All successful world religions are far less literal, with their cores composed of complex mythologies woven from astronomic facts and pre-existing folk-lore. Beliefs are rarely so provably wrong.

+ Treatment of race, nationality, gender, sexuality {!Spoilers!}:

- Black non-squad characters are ubiquitous, however, there's a distinct lack of persons of Asian descent. So, while the one obvious US minority is catered for, political correctness does not appear to have been aimed at 'eastern' markets. I think this is a major oversight. Arthur C. Clarke's 1982 novel ("2010: Odyssey Two") has Chinese astronauts stealing a march on a joint Soviet-Yankee mission to the Jovian system. It is long overdue to start acknowledging the massive influence Asian nations and peoples are going to have on the future. Especially at a time when China (and India) are moving into economic dominance, more in line with their superior population.

Kasumi” (purchase DLC) does appear to be Japanese, if one pays close attention. A very minor concession to that part of the world, or maybe just a super-cute Japanese girl for Caucasian gamer boyz to lust after (if one is cynical).

[Kasumi (ME2 DLC) from]

Something that only just occurred to me well after playing both games is the similarity between Tali's full cover outfit and the (Muslim) veil. With continued armed intervention in the middle-east, wearing of veils has managed to reach controversy status in western countries. Heartening then, that Tali is easily the favourite character in polls (favourite romance option too) [reference]. But the connection to contemporary Arab peoples (and the *Tali*ban) is only subliminal, while her accent sounds closer to Russian/Eastern European (like the Romani Gypsies that the displaced “Quarian” people so resemble).

[Escapist Magazine -]

[Tali & FemShep]

- A quick mention of Joker as a token disabled guy. As the best pilot in the fleet (despite brittle bones), and with some of the most humorous lines in the games, the player also gets to step into his shoes briefly. Surely a positive thing.

- I think there is pretty reasonable gender equality in ME. Some argue that females are shackled with 'mage' archetype by making all the Asari biotics (and that the "fearsome" Asari commandos were actually lame). Yes, all the female characters have perfect dimensions, but why the hell not, in a fantasy future setting? There are well stated reasons for not meeting any Salarian or Krogan women: in both cases they are in short supply, so only found on home-worlds, but are told to command greater political power. However, the lack of female Turian characters is conspicuous. I suspect that is mostly a technical art problem: making them simultaneously distinguishable and plausible.

The big win is that the player can chose a fully female main character (FemShep), and she has better voice acting than the male. She is a totally believable, strong female lead; not at all an over sexualised Lara Croft descendant. On the other hand, she has been entirely excluded from promotional materials, but this could be blamed on sales and marketing department doublethink.

Single player RPGs are interesting in that they let the player slip into the shoes of a character of opposite gender without having to worry about other's perceptions. Men playing FemShep seems pretty common, with those that didn't first time more likely to for a second play through. I think it is commonly accepted that this doesn't infer homosexuality (indeed the most raucously manly men love to dress in drag IRL).

So this option should help to improve cross gender understanding (provided one feels any empathy for one's avatar). Personally, I jumped at the first opportunity I've had to control a serious female character. I found it interesting how attaching my agency to it subtly changed my perspective in game.

Romance wise, Kaiden's clumsy advances and brittle ego repulsed me in ME1, so he ended up dead and I got the controversial blue alien scene later. However, come ME2 I found Kelly too shallow, Samara far too... old, Thane too irritating and Jacob a non-starter (he also got dead on my first "suicide mission" play-through). But Garrus was quite acceptable: all dark and broody (playing the tragic hero at first), but entirely unassuming. FemShep had to make all the moves, leaving me giggling like a wee girlie. Perhaps he reminded me of me (narcissistic or what?!). If I had of played maleShep, I think I would have been torn between the giddy tech-geekette (Tali) and the pyscho SuicideGirl (Jack), each a little too far down their stereotypes.

[Garrus & FemShep (ME2)]

I have failed miserably to find poll results for overall masculine/feminine Sheppard selection preferences, but from these poll statistics [reference] on a Bioware forum I would estimate that just under 30% of Mass Effect players are women. It also implies: roughly 50% of female gamers played a male shepherd, and at least 1/3 of men tried FemShep. Interestingly Garrus was the most popular male romance choice among (young) men (Kaiden for women), and Jack was the most popular female romance for women (Tali stormed it for men).

[Reference -]

- An indication that FemShep might only be intended for male titillation is the presence of lesbian liaisons (in ME1 & ME2) despite the complete lack of homosexual male options. That Asari are *not really* male or female, is no get-out: they are every bit as female as the human women, going by body models. I sincerely hope this is not deliberate choice to avoid upsetting an infamously homophobic male gamer demographic (or just outright bigotry). I imagine it's most likely to do with age certification and general controversy; more a sad indictment of established (inter)national norms. This seems all the more feasible when considering that ME1 got itself banned in Singapore over the "lesbian sex scene", and had prominent American nutters condemning it's ability to be "customized to sodomize whatever, whomever, however, the game player wishes"...

[Wikipedia -]

+ Too Young (to Die)?:

ME1 is rated 12 by the BBFC, which is approximately sensible, given the graphic (but surreal) gun violence. By extension, it's not surprising that ME2 earns a 15 certificate given Jack's potty mouth, an option to 'torture' a prisoner and a body count that pisses on "Hot Shots! Part Deux". [ref -]

They got 17 and 18 ratings from EU and US bodies though, which is pretty meaningless in my opinion. Naturally many kids below the age classifications will have their parents buy it for them, and they won't have any problems. Certainly the minuscule hints of sex aren't going to pervert or traumatise *anyone*, and gun violence seems almost hard wired into boys anyway. I'm not going to embroil myself further on this issue at this point.

[Dead bodies everywhere]

+ Morals (or lack of):

ME1 features the paragon/renegade mechanic. Basically it appears to have been created to make one's conversation choices carry significance without making the game's decision tree intractably massive. Doing things in a bad (renegade) way is not so much tipping your karmic balance south as exercising your being-a-bastard skill. The more practice one has at being a total git, the more impressive are the things one can do with a mere conversation threat (e.g. convincing a major antagonist to shoot themselves in the head in ME1).

The problem is, to avoid having the special renegade/paragon conversation option greyed out towards the end of the games (e.g. recruiting Morinth), due to insufficient points, one has to concentrate on being either entirely good OR bad only. This may change the level of the gamer's thought processes from truly considering the moral implications of a situation to merely searching for the option they're *supposed* to pick. A subtle difference perhaps. Also, in ME2 I seemed to get odd renegade points at random from perfectly innocuous conversations.

Another problem I had was that I found myself wanting to take renegade options so that my cool looking facial scares wouldn't go away. Sure, the idea that the protagonist's facial skin should represent a cumulative moral judgement of their choices is right up there with phrenology, in scientific terms, but I kinda liked it as a frivolous game mechanic.

[FemShep's Facial Scaring (ME2)]

The game would like you to believe that 'renegade' equates to ruthlessness; a willingness to sacrifice other peoples lives for the greater good. But of course, this is never *necessary* because it must always be possible to play through using the goody-two-shoes option instead. Even thwarting Zaeed's loyalty mission objective, to save hapless idiots from burning, can be rectified by having a couple of paragon points already stashed away.

From looking at the break-down of rewards for completing various missions either way, there appears to be a consistent reward bias towards taking the high road. Add to this the fact that if one goes around killing everyone you meet (and any squad mate possible) there will be less accessible content in the subsequent game (or at least less interesting conversations in ME2 after importing a fully renegade ME1 save). I suppose this moralistic bent might help keep the classification age from going too high. And, at any rate, the games aren't that judgemental, given that it is possible to finish both games making entirely nasty decisions.

The “context-sensitive interrupt system”, where one quickly clicks a mouse button in response to a brief prompt during a cutscene, is a good idea. Blue prompts are paragon, red are renegade. It keeps the player alert during dialogue, just in case an input option crops up. My problem with this system, in practice, was that it was even more difficult to guess what taking action would involve (than the sometimes unpredictable conversation choices). On the 'Archangel' mission I clicked a renegade action, thinking Shepard would steal a hyper-spanner thing, but she actually put it through the back of the guy's head!... D'uh!; I cottoned on after that. Generally, activating this fleeting options yields more entertaining results, and as far as I can tell, taking a renegade option doesn't damage one's paragon progression (other than in the odd cut-scene where there are 2 successive options).

[Paragon Interrupt]

+ Value (£$€!):

Like many big PC games these days, both Mass Effects require an internet connection to work, which generally doesn't seem like an issue until the internet breaks and one is left with *nothing* to do. ME1 at least does not require a DVD to be in and spinning too (just to start up). Buying these games on disc was significantly cheaper than downloading (on Steam), which is perverse given that Steam downloads have no resale value (because you can't sell them on!). Even the DVDs severely limit the number of 'activations' you're allowed (dissuading resale or lending).

Beyond this, DLC (downloadable content) seems to have been turned into the latest anti-customer weapon: My ME2 box came with a one-time-only activation code to get the "Cerberus Pack" for free (one extra squad member, extra planets, missions, weapons and amour). If a buyer/borrower of my game wants this content, it will cost them about £10. The other two major DLC packs ("Kasumi" and "Overlord") work out at about £5 each, are only available from the official website (which is often unnavigable), and require the intermediate purchase of "Bioware Points" (sold in lumps that don't quite split exactly to you purchase amounts). Despite this, I still shelled out £10 for the another extra character (with loyalty mission only) and the 5 part Overlord mission (which was more obviously worth the expense).

I only paid £15 for my ME2 box (6 months after it's first release), a very reasonable price for a week worth of solid entertainment (highly recommended). But that makes the DLC seem disproportionately expensive (particularly given that intermediary retailers are excluded).

DLC is a good idea, bridging the wait between releases. I expect that, if ME2's DLC is found to be sufficiently profitable, it might become a game distribution model in it's own right. I would not be surprised if ME3 leaves, in it's wake, a sting of episodic content, released monthly, like a spin-off series from a film. Currently it is 2 months between ME2 DLC slated to “bridge the gap” between games.

I just hope that high pricing and single use status are not leveraged to the point of leaving a sour taste of in the mouths of fans. By the sounds of it Blizzard are already doing their best to milk fans dry with their long anticipated "Starcraft II", having had plenty of experience in such matters with WoW (World of Warcraft), a type of gaming that already takes a monthly fee.

* Summary:

Although I have gone to some length to point out places where ME1 trumps it's sequel, it is easy to be nostalgic when one sees through the rose tinted vision of hindsight. After careful inspection I conclude that ME2 is the better gaming experience. It duly deserves the perfect review scores it received. So, if you are only going to play one of them, ME2 it is. Otherwise, I highly recommend starting at the beginning with ME1, as buying both titles on disc (for PC) will now leave you change from £20.

This franchise has wide appeal. Because fighting difficulty (enemy health) scales up to match character experience ME1 can be successfully played as either a 40 hour RPG with action sequences *or* an 12 hour long, story heavy, squad shooter. Although taking one's time yields little overall tactical advantage in combat, exploring the detailed fictional universe is it's own reward.

Some are calling Mass Effect this generation's Star Wars. I think they could be right. The games themselves represent large contributions to culture, but the amount of secondary content published to the internet by fans is staggering. In terms of YouTube videos (great and poor), wikis, walkthroughs, internet memes, parodies, fan art, general discussions and reviews (like this), Mass Effect has had a far more tangible impact than even decade defining movies like the Matrix Trilogy.

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