Category Archives: mass effect

The most complicated and difficult that has ever occurred

I picked up Mass Effect: Legendary Edition when it turned up in the Humble Monthly bundle, and I’ve been happily pottering through the trilogy for the last couple of months. The overhaul of the first game made it eminently playable for something 15 years old, though it still has a few rough edges; the combat is a little clunky, a lot of side missions occur in strangely similar rooms, and driving around planets in the Mako hasn’t magically transformed into a wildly exciting experience.

There are mods aplenty for the Legendary Edition and in hindsight I wish I’d installed some for the first game, particularly the ability to continuously run rather than getting puffed out after jogging for 30 seconds (come on, Shepard, you need to hit the gym a bit more) and skipping the decryption minigame (interesting a few times, pretty tedious towards the end). I thought I’d just stick with the main story and whip through things to remind myself of how it all started, but some inner compulsion (noble work ethic or masochistic streak of self-loathing?) drove me to every last planet in the galaxy; I might’ve missed out on a few grams of beryllium here and there but cleared up almost everything that showed up in the mission journal. I remembered a few of the main story beats (unlike Mass Effect: Andromeda, which I more or less forgot even existed, let alone anything of the plot or characters) but fair swathes had faded from my memory. I had a vague recollection of a slow start, and was slightly surprised by how quickly the main party assembled; a few key planets and one existential threat to the galaxy later, it was off to the second game.

The improvement in combat in Mass Effect 2 was particularly noticeable following immediately on, everything flows a little more smoothly. I remembered a little more of the story as well, what with the story essentially being “recruit a whole bunch of people and sort out their problems before finally tackling the galaxy-threatening menace”. There were chunks of content completely new to me, though, with the Legendary Edition including all DLC. The first game only had one pack that was included in the original PC version anyway, the second had a fair few more and I’d only played the free stuff included at launch (back in those heady days when I actually bought games as they were released rather than finally getting round to them a few years later). It was nice to catch up again with Liara properly in the Lair of the Shadow Broker, but I didn’t feel like I’d missed out on too much back in the day without the DLC. The hover-tank felt particularly extraneous; granted it was better than the Mako but that’s such a low bar to clear that hovering was hardly necessary. I also installed mods to skip the decryption mini-game and planet-scanning (having done it all manually the first time around I had no desire to stare at spectrograph readings again), and most importantly to allow female Shepard to get to know Jack much better.

On to the third game, and combat is polished that little bit more to the point that it could carry the multiplayer mode. That’s not in the Legendary Edition, a bit of a shame in some ways but there’s hardly a shortage of alternative multiplayer looter-shooters, and the maps pop up as missions in the single player game. They probably gave me the strongest flashbacks – I’d played through the story once but roamed each multiplayer map for tens, if not hundreds, of rounds of horde-type skirmishing and I’d recall a certain favourite console that offered good lines of sight on one map, a route to an extraction point via convenient ladder on another.

Again there’s plenty of DLC that I didn’t have first time around, so far I’ve played through Omega, which was a nicely self-contained story. I have slightly bogged down in the middle of the game, though, I’m not feeling terribly driven to push on through. Something I rather miss is the ability to take a completely different class out for a spin; in multiplayer you could flip between a melee-heavy biotic and sneaky sniper as the mood took you, in single player (barring a fair amount of faff with respeccing and/or mods) I settle into much more of a groove, which does get a bit samey after a while. I also wonder if the ending has something to do with it. First time around I was aware of the General Miffedness of a bunch of folk but managed to avoid specifics, so with expectations suitably lowered I didn’t find the ending that bad. Not particularly good, but not garment-rendingly awful. This time, knowing what’s coming, a lot of the schlepping around the galaxy to gather resources feels a bit pointless, but having ticked off all the side missions in the first two games I’m not going to stop now.

I’m mixing it up with my previously outlined regulars, and was almost tempted to add another to the mix when the Epic Store gave away a bunch of loot for Shop Titans. I installed it to see what was what, and it was fun enough to craft things to sell to level up to craft better things to sell for more to level up further to craft even better things to sell for even more to level up to… well, you get the idea. When you get to level 15 it may suddenly unlock a new mode that deconstructs the very nature of reality but I rather suspect not. It was fun enough but I haven’t really got time for any more virtual admin, and the “over $100!” value of the giveaway was hardly encouraging – a few chests and random virtual currencies would cost that much? Getting on for twice the full price of Mass Effect? Madness.

Crunchy Mass Corn Effect

I finished off Mass Effect: Andromeda the other day, and it’s… fine. I put around 100 hours into it, both single and multiplayer, so it’s not a bad game (or I’m a terrible masochist), but it’s not amazing. Using a new Crunchy Maize Corn Stick Based Review System, I’d liken it to a giant bag of Salt & Vinegar Chipsticks: you open the bag, thinking you’ll have a few Chipsticks then seal it back up again, and they’re pretty nice, so you have a few more, and you don’t really notice that you’re about two thirds of the way through the bag, and then there’s no point leaving a few so you keep going, and without really intending to you’ve finished the bag and your fingers are clad in a crunchy maize gauntlet and you need to drink a couple of pints of water to clear the salt & vinegar coating from your tongue. Compelling enough to keep you going, but you don’t sit back at the end and think “well that was a great dining experience, I’ll do that again tomorrow”.

In general it’s very Mass Effect-y. Talk to a bunch of people, shoot a bunch of aliens, talk to a bunch of people, shoot a bunch of aliens, flirt with squadmates, shoot a bunch of aliens, y’know, Mass Effect-y. It’s more explicitly Open World than the previous games with planets to roam full of assorted odds and sods; the majority of missions are fairly bland busywork of the “go to X waypoints” variety, a bit of a single-player MMO, especially when coupled with resource gathering for crafting, but the driving and combat work well enough for it to be generally enjoyable rather than too much of a chore. I liked the flexible skill system that allowed you to combine combat, tech and biotic powers, though I did get into a bit of a rut of sticking with the same powers once I found a combination that worked.

The overarching story was all right but I couldn’t shake the feeling I’d seen most of it before one way or another, and the central strand was a bit weak (the usual game problem of balancing an imperative to follow a main story with almost unlimited opportunities to arse around picking up drink ingredients for a nightclub). I didn’t find any squadmates intensely irritating, but none of them especially clicked either. I inadvertently ended up locked into a romance after always picking flirtatious options when talking to anyone (and in the game, ah); I thought there was a warning if you were going to commit yourself to one person (like in real life when a message flashes across the screen), maybe I missed it. In the final mission of the game (extremely minor spoiler warning) you get help from people you helped out along the way, but a combination of my increasingly failing memory and fairly inconsequential side quests meant I couldn’t even remember who some of them were. “Ryder, you saved my life, I can never repay you but I’m here to help you out!” “Oh that’s awfully nice, thanks. Um. Who are you, again? Are you sure we’ve met?”

Overall, then, not a disaster of intergalactic proportions, but not an all-time classic. If you were peckish and poking around the kitchen cupboard then a giant bag of Salt & Vinegar Chipsticks would do in a pinch, but you wouldn’t order them in a restaurant. Unless it was some hipster Crunchy Maize Corn Stick restaurant.

He steps on stage and draws the sword of rhetoric

With Bioware releasing the “Extended Cut” DLC, I’ve popped back to the single player campaign of Mass Effect 3 to see the new versions of the endings. Haven’t got terribly far yet, being distracted by The Secret World, but I thought I’d go back to a save game at the temple at Thessia to get a decent run up to the finish, and try and remember what was going on.

(This post is spoilery, in case you still haven’t played ME3 and are thinking you might want to at some point.)

I’d mercifully forgotten about perhaps my least favourite element of ME3. Never mind the ending(s), never mind schlepping around scanning the galaxy for random tat and playing “dodge the reaper”, what really wound me up was Kai “Sodding” Leng. A Cerberus assassin, he turns up and evades your clutches at the Citadel earlier in the game, stabbing one of your chums in the process, then just as you discover the secret of Thessia he crashes the party and spoils your day in a scripted encounter that you have no control over. That’s a little irritating in itself, but such is life in most games with cutscenes; you get captured, a key villain escapes your clutches, you just can’t save somebody, you pick a jacket that *really* doesn’t go with those trousers. Something happens in the story, regardless of what you do as a player. If Our Hero suffers setbacks along the way, it makes the eventual triumph sweeter, fine. Trouble is, so far as I can make out, Kai Leng is A Dude With A Sword. While battling horrors beyond imagination that are wiping out all life across the entire galaxy, you, Commander Shepard, Commander “Wipes Out A Couple Of Geth Fleets Before Breakfast” Shepard, Commander “Punched Out A Reaper” Shepard *and* your two elite highly trained companions are unable to stop one dude. Who doesn’t even have a gun. From a spot of Googling he seems to be in a couple of the tie-in novels, but from the perspective of the game he turns up with little fanfare. No massive build-up of what an awesome foe he is, not a returning nemesis from the first or second game, just A Dude With A Sword. Sure he’s above average when it comes to stabbing people with said sword, there’s a good chance he was voted “Most Likely To Stab Lots Of People With A Sword” in high school, but before that encounter you’ve been taking out gigantic truck-sized Brutes, twisted, mutated Banshees, big stompy Cerberus mechs with rocket launchers. If they wanted A Dude With A Sword (Oh All Right And A Few Psionic Powers) to be one of the toughest opponents in the game, he really needed a bit more build up. Or a much bigger sword.

I say “one of the toughest opponents”, he manages that by cheating; knock down his shields and he calls in backup in the form of a flyer that shines a bright light at you, proving Shepard really should’ve gone to Specsavers for free reactive lenses. Leng’s shields regenerate, and you get to do it all over again a couple more times; a fairly standard boss fight mechanic, but a little unusual in ME3. There’s a sort-of similar previous encounter when you’re using a target designator on a Reaper, but that’s a planet-destroying nightmare from space, not A Dude With A Sword. As boss fights go it’s not quite as jarring as the widely reviled encounters in Deus Ex: Human Revolutions, but it’s a bit of a faff. Though if you’re packing a massive sniper rifle and heavily geared for devastating headshots, three bullets interspersed with heavy sighs are enough to see him off.

Leng turns up once more, when you finally get to kill him off (or do you? Ahhh!) (Yes, you do.) (Or maybe you don’t?) (Except you really do.) (Don’t you?) I thought there might be some revelation; while Cerberus were monkeying around at the start of ME2 they used your DNA in a super-clone project (“Shepard… I am… your brother!” “NOOOOOOOOOO!”) Nope. Just a dude. With a sword.

So. Farewell then
Kai Leng.
You were a
Dude. With a sword.
Keith’s mum did not have
A sword, but apart from that
Would have been about
As plausible as a

E. J. Shepard, 17½.

The pattern of the prodigal is: rebellion, ruin, repentance, reconciliation, restoration

Mass Effect 3 got a new multiplayer DLC pack yesterday, ‘Rebellion’, including two maps, three weapons and six new characters, much like April’s ‘Resurgence’ pack. I haven’t posted about ME3 since finishing the story in March, but I’ve been playing the multiplayer since then, hopping in for a quick 20 minute dash now and again, shouting “DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA!” a lot. You don’t *need* to shout “DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA!”, the guns in the game make actual sounds and everything, but I find it helps. Pro tip, though: don’t hold down the push-to-talk button while shouting “DAKKA DAKKA DAKKA”, for some reason other players find it less helpful.

I played through most of the Mass Effect series as an Infiltrator, heavy on the sniper rifles, and started out similarly in multiplayer, but it’s a rather different prospect when waves of mobs are charging around the place, you don’t tend to have so much time to line up your shots (though Infiltrators seem to be the class of choice for the hardest difficulty levels, when tooled up with a Black Widow). I switched to Adepts, Sentinels and Engineers for a while, focused more on biotic- or tech-powers, but after unlocking a Krogan Soldier discovered the Joy of Melee. Running towards a bunch of Cannibals full-pelt, unleashing the heavy melee charge/headbutt/swipe and laughing (both in and out of game) is great fun, though since superseded by the Batarian from the Resurgence DLC pack who couples short-range high-damage Ballistic Blades with a magnificent SUPERPUNCH as a lethal one-two combo. It’s been most illuminating, trying out different races and classes and their play styles.

I doubt ongoing multiplayer numbers are going to be challenging Team Fortress 2 or Warcall of Halofare Dutyfield, but 1,800 years of time played in the first few weeks isn’t to be sniffed at. It’s testament to the combat mechanics of Mass Effect 3 that they stand up well enough on their own to make a decent game, comparable perhaps to something like Final Fantasy Tactics or Fallout Tactics that took CRPG systems into a more combat-focused direction, or Wing Commander Academy (if anyone’s misty-eyed for the halcyon days of gaming past when publishers were benevolent charities, before the evils of “Day Zero DLC” and the like sullied the whole business with squalid money, bear in mind Wing Commander Academy was pretty much the Wing Commander 2 engine with no plot or missions, shoved in its own box as a standalone game).

If EA/Bioware are such bastards, you have to wonder as well why the two multiplayer DLC packs so far have been free. Fear of more bad publicity after the ME3 ending business? Seems unlikely, passage of time and the promise of “clarification” seems to have calmed things down, Retake ME3 on Twitter has been quiet since April, the Facebook page looks like it’s mostly just internal bickering now. Generosity of spirit? Would be nice, but also seems a touch unlikely. They make the money from players spending to unlock new equipment? Seems plausible; I enjoy the multiplayer well enough, but not to the point of shelling out real money on a couple of maps, whereas the prospect of some new characters and weapons is bound to be enough to get a few impatient people splashing out the Bioware points on equipment packs. The gambling aspect of the equipment packs still makes me a little uneasy, but if free DLC packs are part of the equation that sweetens the pill slightly.

I once told a friend that nothing really ends, no-one can prove it

(BBBC Spoiler Warning: this post finally gets around to talking about the end of Mass Effect 3 but in broadly non-spoilery terms.)

Back at the start of the month I quoted David Mitchell on expectations, and to grab another piece from the same column:

“Our level of expectation is crucial to our enjoyment of food, wine, holidays, plays, films and TV shows. We flatter ourselves that we’re objective but our judgments are clouded by our hopes, by whether something was better or worse than we’d anticipated.”

Some people were particularly miffed about the end of Mass Effect 3 due to anticipation stoked by pre-release quotes from Bioware, but for me it was quite the reverse. The rumblings of discontent started with leaks, the storm broke with the US release, so even before the game was available in the UK the “Retake Mass Effect” initiative had kicked off and it was impossible to avoid the fact that a lot of people were Really Jolly Cross. Expectations duly set, as I started the final mission I was waiting for the game to format my hard drive while the screen flashed “HAW HAW THE REAPERS HAVE DELETED ALL YOUR DATA PUNY HUMAN”, or to cause the PC to eject the game disc with crushing force into my crotch. All through the mission I was anticipating some devastating blow; as we lined up for a final push, I was thinking “hmm, about to go ‘over the top’, a hint of Blackadder Goes Forth?”, and as everyone was cut down and the screen briefly faded to black I thought for a moment they really might have done it. Now that would’ve been brave.

The actual ending, though, was… all right. I’ve read a lot of cogent pieces articulating numerous problems with the ending(s), and some equally cogent counterarguments around certain aspects, a more nuanced and worthwhile debate than a blanket demand for a “better” ending when everyone has a slightly different idea of what “better” would mean. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone come out and praise it as the perfect conclusion to the series, it’s undoubtedly flawed, but it didn’t spoil the whole game for me, possibly in part because I was expecting it to be terrible thanks to the campaigns. Overall, though, Mass Effect 3 was a fantastic three-coarse meal, even if the dessert wasn’t quite up to scratch. Or if taking each course of the meal as a separate instalment of the series, most of the dessert was excellent (the high point of the meal, in fact), but the custard was a bit lumpy. OK, tell you what, if each of the three Mass Effect games is a separate three course meal, with Story, Combat and Progression represented by a different course, and Bioware are the chef, EA the waiter and the internet is the restaurant, then the mariachi band going around the tables (representing the 1981 NatWest Trophy winning Derbyshire cricket team) are playing the wrong song.

That analogy got away from me slightly, so I’ll borrow some words from author-type-person Joe Abercrombie instead:

“[The ending] was confusing, maguffin heavy, not really set up in this game let alone the earlier ones. As is so often the case, the villain’s plot, so mysterious and thrilling when unknown, seemed rather silly and baffling when explained. Plus heavy exposition from a glowing child is really, really never a good idea. On the other hand, I was so impressed with the sheer scale, bombast, and technical achievement of the action leading up to it I didn’t care.”

Evolution of a Shepard.

I didn’t read many reviews of Mass Effect 3, didn’t need to, I knew I was going to buy it. What I haven’t seen much of –other than in passing comments– is how incredible the graphics are in this game; I mean, it’s more than a modest jump in improvement, it’s as though they shoved the graphics engine through a Mass Effect relay. That sort of jump.

As evidence, here are screen captures of my Shepard from the three episodes of the game. I remember watching some of the cutscene sequences in Mass Effect 3 and being profoundly impressed by the high fidelity and detail of the signal being sent to my retinas, but comparing these screenshots really slams home the magnitude of the improvement.

I really didn’t mind the ending of Mass Effect 3, but more on that in another post; regardless, I still can’t help but admire the improvements (not just the graphics) which BioWare keep bringing to their section of the genre, improvements which seem to have been generally overlooked or dismissed due to the unfortunate backlash which has occurred.

I hope BioWare continue to stick to their beliefs and make the RPGs that they want to make, because, my goodness, they seem to be getting exponentially better at it with each and every release.

The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

“Shepard, where are we?”

“London… I think.”

“London? How did you work that out? Some sort of alien navigation fixing? Did EDI, our spaceship’s virtual intelligence, triangulate the location using the galaxy-spanning Mass Effect relays? Did you manage to patch your omni-tool’s computer microframe and sensor analysis pack into the Alliance spaceship fleet and get them to relay the output of your cybernetic tracking implant via subspace comms?”

“No, look, a red phone box.”

It’s comforting to know that, around two hundred years from now, we English folk will be firmly ignoring the flying cars, VIs, aliens, spaceships, Mass Effect relays, space stations and the like, and stalwartly sticking by the good old copper wire public payphone. ‘If it was good enough for my great-grandparents, it’s good enough for me. Now you kids get your hoverboards off my lawn!’

Did anyone else notice that each civilian corpse was wearing a bowler hat and clutching an umbrella?

Terry you slag you nicked the leg of time, give it back before you get a slap

This post for has been classified as Spoiler Free for Mass Effect 3 by the British Board of Blog Certification, but may include light spoiling of Mass Effect 1 or 2, early Star Wars: The Old Republic flashpoints, Dragon Age: Origins and the film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (spoiler: he eats his shoe).

As widely observed by, to pluck some random examples, Kieron Gillen, Penny Arcade, Melmoth of this parish and Vic Sandman in the comments, the narrative personalisation of the Mass Effect series is rather impressive. The decisions of each player affect their own observable universe, and each instance of the game forms a separate strand of a Mass Effect multiverse in which other characters may be alive or dead, friend or foe, comrade or lover. Every time Shepard dies you take a peek down a different leg of the trousers of time where you fail to save the galaxy before quickloading back onto the right track.

It’s something I posted about before in Dragon Age: Origins, the way that a fundamental story can be the same for everyone at a very broad level (go to planet/village A, planet/village B, defeat The Big Evil, save the galaxy/world), and yet completely different in details. It’s something Bioware do rather well in their single players games, especially the way Mass Effect choices continue to ripple through the sequels, but it slightly unravels when transferred to a massively multiplayer setting in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

During the first Imperial flashpoint in SWTOR, Black Talon, the Captain of the titular ship refuses an order, and your party can either give him a stern talking to (“Now look here, Captain old thing, I’m awfully sorry but we’re really going to have to insist”) or, if taking a more Sith-like approach, kill him (“The penalty for disobeying an order is DEATH! The penalty for the rest of the crew for not killing the captain for disobeying an order is DEATH! The penalty for not bringing me a nice cup of tea is also DEATH! Now I come to think of it, the official Sith ‘Book of Penalties’ is just one page with ‘DEATH’ written on it…”) In a single player game this might crop up again later; perhaps you’d bump in the Captain on another planet and he’d be grateful that you spared him, while down the other leg of the trousers of time another player would meet the First Officer who’d taken over after his Captain had been demoted in a mysterious lightsabre-based industrial accident. In the shared universe of a MMOG both things happened, Schrödinger’s Captain is both alive and dead depending on who you talk to. Chat with someone who’s done the flashpoint a few times and it’s even more confusing:
“Oh, you’ve done the Black Talon, did you spare the Captain or kill him?”
“The first time, we spared him. Second time, we killed him. Third time I wanted to spare him, but got outvoted. Fourth and fifth times we were after the loot from the Republic group that spawns in if you spare him, then sixth through ninth was speed runs for social points so we killed him.”

Much of the narrative is experienced through the class-specific story missions, and these at least aren’t repeatable so make events more definitive per player, but you’re still sharing the world with other players who may have made different choices. I don’t think any of your SWTOR companions can die; if they could, the emotional impact would be lessened by seeing other versions of them accompanying other players around the world. Things are even more confusing across factions, as Spinks mentioned, due to visiting planets at different points in their timelines (or possibly alternate versions of them), rendering it all a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.

The class stories of SWTOR do work, but it doesn’t feel like they naturally mesh with the multiplayer elements of the game, the flashpoints and warzones and operations. It’s almost like playing two different characters, in the same way that you don’t take your Shepard into the multiplayer component of Mass Effect 3. I wrapped up my Imperial Agent’s story and it was interesting enough, albeit with a slightly anticlimactic final confrontation with my nemesis (perhaps it was unfair to have been kitted out with gear from a few operations and quite a bit of end game PvP), but it never felt as personal as Mass Effect or Dragon Age. Like I mentioned I actually got into a bit of raiding in SWTOR, something I’ve hardly done before, and that had less than nothing to do with story; there’s probably some deep backstory about how The Infernal One ended up in The Eternity Vault and why he’s a Bad Person, but the Imperial briefing might as well be “There are dudes. They have loot. GO!” It’s probably best not to try and construct a narrative imperative to explain why this needs to happen twice a week and again at the weekend, the attraction is the prospect of loot, and the cameraderie of the guild who are a great bunch. I’d been meaning to keep dabbling in both SWTOR and ME3 but I’ve hardly logged in to the former since the latter arrived; it doesn’t feel like I’ve completely lost touch with the SWTOR guild, though, with forums, Twitter and blogs, so hopefully they won’t be too put out if I return at some point.

So as Gillen also tweeted “The silver lining to the ME3 ending debate: it shows the “who plays games for story?” position to be complete bullshit.”, but I don’t think a developer-driven story will be a vital pillar of MMOGs until they’re running on quantum servers.

The key to good eavesdropping is not getting caught.

This post for Mass Effect 3 has been certified SF (Spoiler Free) by the British Board of Blog Certification.

I’ve been playing a fair bit of Mass Effect 3 recently, and when I say ‘a fair bit’ I do mean those extensive sessions of intensely focussed play, where every time the player blinks they see the game’s UI as a soft orange glow against the dark backdrop of their eyelids, and upon finally crawling into bed their dreams coalesce from a fog of the evening’s play which enshrouds their mind.

Dreams being dreams, mine didn’t stay true to Bioware’s carefully crafted Mass Effect universe for long, and I quickly found myself as Commander Nipplard, trying to protect the Areola galactic sector from the suffocating constrictions of the Bra’rians. It all turned out well in the end, especially when chocolate Roman Polanski flew me to the local supermarket and I got a job as a badger in the swimming pool section. With the Bra’rians clapped in irons, the finale of my dream was quite uplifting (and separating), unlike the nature of the Mass Effect 3 ending, of which I have managed to learn little, other than the fact that there are people on the Internet who are unhappy about it. ‘Are people on the Internet angry about things?’ is one of those rhetorical questions that’s right up there with popes and woods, or bears and Catholicism.

What I’ve taken away from Mass Effect so far is that it really is an exemplary example of how to gently evolve a game’s systems without breaking the continuity of the player experience. The evolutionary jump from Dragon Age to Dragon Age 2 was a brutal mass extinction event where players either rapidly evolved to the new order, or soon found their enthusiasm suffocating beneath the sticky tar pit of the unfamiliar game system. Mass Effect’s evolutions have been kinder. For example, the quest system has evolved once again in this latest incarnation of the game. Bioware have moved away from the improbable ‘butting-in to everyone’s conversation’ system, which led to such classically surreal scenarios as Commander Shepard helping a couple of complete strangers in deciding whether to abort their unborn child, a sort of drive-by moralising more in line with a comedy super hero, who drops from the sky to smack the unsure about their head with the Holy Book of Morals. The moral decisions have been maintained in the game, but now exist in a quick-fire choice of supporting one side or the other in a public argument, with each argument being tailored towards the events of the galaxy-spanning genocide at hand, rather than a four hour winding conversation which eventually leads to the question ‘Should NPC A continue to kick kittens?’

The new side-quest system instead involves Shepard overhearing conversations, finding the object of that conversation while out fighting the good fight, and then returning it to the NPC whose conversation was overheard. It’s a slightly more organic system, and certainly doesn’t grate as much as running up to complete strangers and punching them squarely in the conversation with your fist of moral obligations, but it’s still just a bit silly in the context of the cinematic and elegantly dominoed chain of events which form the main story. And me, being me, can’t help but wonder how far Shepard will go to overhear these conversations: sweaty naked couples in the heat of passion rolling over to see Commander Shepard peering above the end of the bed. “I couldn’t help but overhear… you were desperately trying to find a rare artifact called the G-Spot? Well, I just happen to have found one while fighting the Reapers on the planet Sirotilc Prime in the Avluv sector. Enjoy!” Then Shepard’s head slowly descends below the bedline, but when ecstatic ululations are not forthcoming, the Commander’s head slowly rises to peer above the end of the bed again. The shocked couple, their actions frozen mid-coitus, stare in stunned disbelief.

“I saaiid: ‘en-joy‘”

I like to play blackjack. I’m not addicted to gambling, I’m addicted to sitting in a semi-circle.

The British Board of Blog Classification (Game Plot Revelation Committee) has classified this post as Spoiler Free for the single player story of ‘Mass Effect 3’. Please refrain from any revelations in the comments, especially about that bit where that thing happens. I mean I was all totally like “NO WAY!”, and the game was all totally like “WAY!”, and then when the thing turned out not to be that thing but the other thing? Definitely don’t tell anyone about that. Though I was a bit disappointed when it all turned out to be a dream.

Like much of the rest of the galaxy I’ve been desperately fighting off the Reapers in Mass Effect 3, but I haven’t got terribly far in the story yet, so there really won’t be any spoilers. If you’d manage to insulate yourself from ME3 information so completely that “fighting off the Reapers” is a surprise, I apologise for ruining the first 17 seconds of the introduction. One of the main reasons for lack of single player progress is that I keep getting distracted by the multiplayer.

The mechanics are pretty simple, you create multiplayer-specific characters from slightly cut-down versions of the main classes (Soldier, Infiltrator, Adept etc.), kit them out with a couple of guns, then either host or join a co-op fight in a squad of four against 10 waves of opponents. I haven’t heavily played an online shooter since Unreal Tournament 2003 so I’m a bit out of touch, but the combat elements of ME3 stand up well enough on their own, and one round is a nice 20-minute chunk of gaming (so long as everyone hits “Ready” fairly promptly to start things off, and three of you aren’t sitting in the lobby staring at one “Not Ready” status).

There are a couple of slightly troubling aspects to the multiplayer, though. The first is the contribution to the single player story; success in multiplayer improves the “Galactic Readiness Rating”, which is helpful in the single player story. It’s not a bad idea, to give people a bit of a nudge to at least try the multiplayer to see if they like it, but it sounds like it can have quite a significant effect on how the game ends rather than being a bit of an optional bonus (I might revisit the subject after finishing the game myself, until then: NO SPOILERS!). It’s particularly jarring in light of the separate settings for Combat and Narrative that allow a player to adjust one or the other to their preference, whereas the multiplayer is exclusively combat, and not particularly forgiving.

It doesn’t take a conspiracy theory of “world leaders are giant lizards in human skin polluting our essence by fluoridating water” proportions to connect the less than subtle shove towards multiplayer with the second troubling aspect, the equipment upgrades. You earn credits through your battles, and with those credits you can buy Recruit, Veteran or Spectre packs containing a random mix of consumables, weapons, upgrades and multiplayer characters (you can always create a human of any class, other races like Salarians and Krogan are unlocked via the upgrade packs). The kit you get is mostly Common, but with a chance (or certainty, depending how much you spend) of Uncommon or Rare items. Sound familiar? As Evan Lahti of PC Gamer put it, “When I play it I smell Magic cards.” It’s not Magic for me, it’s 1983 Panini Return of the Jedi stickers, isn’t it? Wasn’t it? Small boys in the playground, jumpers for goalposts, got, got, got, got, need! Need! I’ll give you two ewoks and a quarter of the death star for the top of C3PO’s head! No, Mrs Brown, I wasn’t playing with the stickers in class, don’t confiscate them!

Random loot alone isn’t so much of a problem (or churches surely wouldn’t hold so many raffles), it’s a staple of many games, and though it can be annoying when you seemingly turn up endless shotgun upgrades and nothing for your favoured assault rifle it’s nothing that hasn’t been hashed out many times here and elsewhere around the blag-u-spore (and doubtless would have been on the Panini Stickers forum in 1983, had it existed; “drop rate of admiral ackbar is REDICKKYEWLESS!!1!”). As well as being available for in-game credits, though, the Veteran and Spectre equipment packs can be bought for real money (in the form of Bioware Points). I’ve got no fundamental issue with microtransactions (again, see repeated discussions here and elsewhere), but the combination of real money and randomness puts gambling on the table, then spins a big wheel and shouts “faites vos jeux”.

I haven’t really got a problem with gambling, but for whatever reason it’s not something I particularly enjoy, perhaps I’m too risk-averse. I can appreciate the appeal (win lots of lovely money, check), I’ll happily bet piles of virtual money on virtual blackjack in something like Fallout: New Vegas (especially when there’s a Quick Load option), but I’ve no desire to to shovel 10p coins into a slot machine. Mind you the slots player might be just as baffled by me and a friend doing the same thing with a Golden Axe cabinet when there isn’t even a chance of getting money out of it. (Note: adjust for inflation and substitute a more modern game to avoid too much 80s nostalgia.)

Turbine’s treasure hunting event in Lord of the Rings Online has similar overtones, offering random loot and requiring Treasure-hunter’s Picks that can be obtained either via in-game quests or from the store, although they sound quite easy to obtain via quests. Cryptic have rightly been drawing more flak for the Cardassian Lockboxes in Star Trek Online that can only be opened with a store-bought key. Some people can get into serious trouble with gambling, and though a stack of lockboxes are unlikely to cost someone their rent money or bring down a bank, a friend who worked in a games shop had enough stories about Magic players begging, borrowing or stealing enough for a couple of booster packs, feverishly ripping them open, and collapsing in a sobbing heap surrounded by discarded Sorrow’s Paths without a Yawgmoth’s Will to show for it. At least ME3 multiplayer is co-op rather than PvP so it really doesn’t matter if other players are tooled up with diamond-encrusted hyperguns, worst case your comparative contribution to the team might be reduced, but you’ll get the overall team rewards.

Venture Beat spent $100 on Spectre equipment packs in an interesting investigative piece that doubles up as a genius wheeze to claim Bioware Points as a tax deductible expense, and the results aren’t terribly impressive; as it concludes: “I’m sure there will be those who purchase just a couple packs and get some awesome stuff, while others will go on to have worse luck than I did. That’s the problem with gambling. But according to our little test, the odds are stacked against you in Mass Effect 3.” There is another method of boosting your single player Galactic Readiness as well, an iOS game that doesn’t sound terribly good, and *also* has an option to purchase equipment upgrades for cash.

It’s not that the purchasable equipment packs are a hideous abomination that completely ruin Mass Effect 3, they’re just a bit of tarnish on what is otherwise a rather nice addition to the game. If the co-op multiplayer was a separate free-to-play download with microtransactions that would be one thing, buying equipment packs seems a little excessive on top of a big-box full price game, but then so does launch-day DLC and the piles of tie-in merchandise unlocks, such is the way of so many titles these days. The Galactic Readiness aspect of the single player game may not turn out to be such a big deal after all, rendering this something of a storm in a teacup; perhaps we should just be thankful that Bioware didn’t use a less subtle approach to hook in players who care more about the story and relationship between the characters…

“Commander, over the course of our mission I feel we have become close, so close that I can’t help myself, I have to ask… Have You Tried Mass Effect 3 Co-Operative Multiplayer? Why Not Do So Now! Buy A Spectre Equipment Pack For Just 160 Bioware Points!”

“Shepard, I treasure our time together, but… it’s just… your Galactic Readiness score is rather low, so there’s a good chance I’ll die in the climactic confrontation. If you really loved me, you’d play Mass Effect 3 Co-operative Multiplayer and buy lots of Spectre Equipment Packs for just 160 Bioware Points!”