Category Archives: mass effect

Rejected side quests in Mass Effect 2

As Melmoth rather splendidly points out Bioware games do have a bit of a formula, a key part of which is getting to know the other members of your party by chatting with them, discovering unfinished business in their past and helping them out on some form of quest. When Bioware are on form with characters, story and voice acting these can be amongst the most engaging parts of the games, forging bonds with your comrades beyond the fact that they’ve got Shield Block Level 4 to handle an alpha-strike and helping to establish popular characters like HK-47 and Minsc (and Boo, of course).

It’s a short hop from formula to formulaic, though, and Mass Effect 2 does tend to emphasise the latter a bit. If you had three or four companions it might not be so noticeable, but running through the same set of actions ten times in a row rather drives it home; crew member has something on their mind (if you don’t pick up the subtle signals like them appearing distracted in conversation then your Yeoman will shout at you every time you pass: “hey Captain, someone wants to see you!”), have a bit of a chat to find out that their brother/sister/mother/father/son/daughter is in some sort of trouble, fly to a planet/space station, have a bit of a chat to a few people with some connection to your party member, shoot a bunch of bad people, get to the big finish where your party member is pointing a gun at someone, right click the blue option to grab the gun off them and say “you don’t want to do this”, home for tea, cake and Paragon points.

It could’ve been worse, though; entirely fictitious leaked documents that we’ve just invented reveal Mass Effect 2 originally had no less than 25 recruitable characters, and they were starting to run out of ideas for new and interesting side quests with some of them:

Eliza, a biotic freelancer: “Shepard, I’ve just got word from my brother Jeff; he and his wife live on the frontier worlds, they went out shopping leaving their children with the nanny, and while they were out there was a planetary alert warning of Batarian slaveships.  On returning home the children were nowhere to be seen, and they couldn’t get hold of the nanny.”

   That’s terrible, we must get after the Batarians, there’s not a moment to lose!
 /
O
 \
   I’m sorry Eliza but the fate of humanity is at stake, we can’t dick around looking for a couple of kids.

Eliza: “Oh, no, they’re fine, turned out they’d gone to the zoo and the nanny hadn’t charged her mobile comm unit so the battery was dead. Anyway, my brother and his wife had bought a load of furniture while shopping and it’s all flat-pack; they had a go at putting it together but silly old Jeff, he’s all fingers and thumbs and almost nailed himself to the coffee table when putting it together, so could we pop around and help them finish it off?”

Sharmura, the Asari Commando: “Shepard! I am so sorry to disturb you, but I do not know who else to turn to. You have already done so much for me, but I must ask for a favour. It is my… I am not sure how you humans would describe the relationship, but somebody I met while on holiday and exchanged addresses with and we send each other a postcard now and again. They are facing one of the ultimate rites of Asari culture.”

   We must go and help them at once!
 /
O
 \
   Yeah, whatever.

Sharmura: “Thank you, Shepard, I knew I could rely on you. The ritual is difficult to describe, but… do you humans have what we would know as Cornflakes? They are like flakes, made of corn; served with milk they are a breakfast delicacy, or sometimes even as an evening meal when you can’t really be bothered to cook and you’ve run out of Pot Noodles. My friend had a bowl of them, and forgot to rinse it out straight after finishing as the ancient texts decree, and now faces the Rite of Brillopad to cleanse her crockery. I was thinking we could pop along with the M920 nuke launcher, that should do the trick.

Abel, an ex-Alliance soldier turned Mercenary: “Hey Shepard! Y’know how, like, I don’t talk about my family much? Well I just got this message from Uncle Geoff, he’s the guy who got me into the Alliance in the first place, I really looked up to him as a kid, he’d let me dress up in his tac pads and stuff. Well it’s bad news; see, his patrol got caught in a duststorm on one of the dark zone planets, took out comms, their support ship had to pull out ‘cos of heavy Geth presence, Uncle Geoff caught a slug in the knee and can’t walk.”

   Don’t worry, we’ll pull him out and make those Geth sorry!
 /
O
 \
   I haven’t got enough Renegade points so I’m going to be pointlessly insulting.

Abel: “Huh? Oh, no, this was last year, the patrol holed up until the storm cleared and the Alliance came back in force. No, he’s fine now, well, apart from the knee, even with reconstruction he was invalided out of the military. He used the pension to set up as a handyman, though, and he needs some business cards and a few fliers. He got a quote from a local printer for 79 Euro, and I was all “Whoah, total rip-off, I could pick up the blank cards and stuff and do them for 20 Euro tops”, so can I use the Normandy’s colour laser printer? We’ll put 10 Euro through to cover the costs of the paper and stuff, split the other ten between us, whaddya say?”

I can believe anything provided it is incredible.

So that was the weekend that was; that is to say, that was the weekend that was when I finished Mass Effect 2. I’m left feeling slightly more empty than I was when I finished Dragon Age: Origins, I think it’s probably as much to do with the fact that I took time to complete everything I could in Mass Effect 2 and therefore have no desire to go back through it, even if there is the option to play as a renegade rather than a paragon. Let’s face it though, there’s no real difference between the two at the end of the day: in the paragon version of events you would verbally persuade a guard that it would be better for their family and friends if they let you through the door, and they would thank you for the advice and let you go on your way, whereas in the renegade version you explain things via the arcane diplomatic art of fracturing their skull against a door frame, and they thank you for the advice through the remaining half of their jaw, and let you go on your way.

Both Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect 2 follow Bioware’s now standard technique for telling a big story with various branches: hero exists; hero is tasked with saving the country/planet/universe; hero goes around recruiting a formidable group of allies through various location-based missions; hero finds out that all of the people they have recruited are wet-blanket children who can’t solve personal problems on their own; hero runs around several other locations solving the teenage angst of their companions; hero runs around a bit more to make sure they’ve done any plot-inconsequential side missions that might award some sexy looking armour or weapons; hero goes to obvious location of Final Battle; hero defeats inevitable Big Bad; some party members leave/die depending on a few arbitrary decisions that sometimes make sense, sometimes not. The End.

As far as it goes it works, and works well enough, because they’ve had several generations of games to iterate through and perfect the system, but once you’ve played through a few, Bioware’s games do seem a bit like RPG Trivial Pursuit: fill up your little party-wheel with coloured wedges of heroes, and once you have a full set, head in to the middle of the board to answer the final boss question, which is always either about dragons or giant robots depending on whether you picked the Fantasy or Sci-Fi category.

So the game design is fairly formulaic within the little genre that Bioware have created, which, in a fit of inspired originality, we shall call Bioware RPGs, but also the game play often has obvious flaws or bugs in it.

In Dragon Age: Origins my rogue character kept heading into melee every battle, even though I had their preset tactics set up for archery, because I’d picked a selection of archer talents. I didn’t want to have to micro-manage them every fight, like some sort of errant three-year-old child who happens to like stabbing people to death with daggers.

“No dear, I’ve told you before, use your bow to kill the bad men or you won’t get any pudding tonight. Oh now, there’s no point in rolling around on the floor like that, it’s not going to change anything. No, banging your head on the chest of loot won’t work either. And stabbing the cat is right out! Go to your room young lady and think about what you’ve done!”

So I bit the bullet and went into the tactics menu and set a bunch of options, I can’t remember what, precisely, but essentially the plan was to force them in any situation to get their bow out and shoot from range. I don’t know quite how I managed it, but what I ended up with on the first fight was a rogue who stood on the edge of the battle and just constantly swapped between their daggers and their bow, unsheathing one, only to put it a way and draw the other. It’s like my rogue was having some sort of authority crisis, or they had suddenly turned from a tempestuous toddler into a sullen teenager who was going to do exactly what I asked in just such a way that meant they weren’t doing what I intended, before stamping up the stairs to their room and sulking to the sounds of Ben Folds Five or Jimmy Eat World. So I did the thing that any parent would do given the chance, I took them gently to one side, made thoughtful meaningful eye contact, and carefully smacked them upside the head. Then took the dog with me instead.

In Mass Effect 2 I had a similar problem, but this time I was Bugs Bunny and I had Daffy Duck on my team. There are various ammo abilities in the game that, as a soldier, I could level-up to add extra effects, my favourite being the Cryo ammo which had a chance to nullify enemies by encasing them in ice, and if you got a lucky shot, you could then shatter them into a million satisfying pieces, essentially getting a kill for far less ammo than you might otherwise have had to expend. At its maximum rank you can choose to have this ability freeze more often, or instead have it apply to every member of your group; since it already froze enemies on a pretty regular basis, I went for the latter option with the thinking that more people using it would mean more frozen enemies, and indeed that worked wonderfully. The issue came when I was forced to take Jacob along with me for his side mission. I hadn’t used him much on away missions as I didn’t really care too much about him, primarily stemming from the fact that every conversation option about Getting Jiggy With It led to him being all coy and bashful and… YEAH, RIGHT, have you seen my sexy female butt in this officer’s outfit? I’m offering it to you, no questions asked, and you want to talk about it later because you’re unsure? Fine, I’m following Tamarind’s advice and going gay for Garrus instead. Look, I’ve had a placard made up and everything; we’re doing a march around Citadel next Sunday: Garrus Pride.

Anyway.

Not really caring in the slightest for little miss prude pants over there, I hit his auto-level-up button. Which was a mistake, I admit. It turns out that he gets an ammo boosting ability too, one that sets people on fire; a flaming enemy is useful enough, but having both ammo types myself I found the soft control provided by the Cryo ammo to be a far better option. He also, as it happens, had taken the Give This Effect To All Group Members ability. Now, it turns out that you can only have one of the group ammo abilities apply at a time, so you can probably see where this is going. Of course I hadn’t realised that he had this ability, I had just punched the Yeah Whatever level-up option, and got on with the mission. It was shortly after the first fight that I began to wonder why the enemy forces were suffering a large number of flame-based deaths when I had my Cryo ammo set — I was reasonably certain that Flamey Death and Freezey Death were at opposite ends of the F’ing Death spectrum. I checked my gun and, sure enough, I had Inferno ammo set. Curious, never mind, I’ll set Cryo ammo and away we go! Freezey Death. Freezey Death. Freezey Death. Fiery Death. F… wait, what? And so it would continue: Set Cryo ammo; enter combat; Freezey Death; Freezey Death; Fiery Death; Swear Loudly.

It didn’t take me too long to realise what was going on, and that there was no obvious way to tell him to turn off his Inferno ammo. I did a quick search on a few forums and all I turned up was a bunch of, y’know, Forum People (imagine that phrase whispered, with that haunted look in one’s eyes, in a tone of voice reserved for use when talking about the criminally insane. Or Right To Roam advocates). The next combat I entered I waited until he had activated his Inferno ammo, overwriting my previously active Cryo ammo, then went in and switched the power off in his power selection bar. Turning my Cryo ammo back on I carried smugly on with the fight. Freezey Death. Freezy Death. Fiery Death. F’ing Death to you Jacob, you git!

I wouldn’t be beaten though, oh no.

It was at this point that we got into the aforementioned Bugs Bunny versus Daffy Duck battle of wills, as I resolved to pretty much ignore combat and concentrate on turning on my Cryo ammo whenever I saw Jacob turn on his Inferno ammo.

“Cryo season”

“Inferno season”

“Cryo season!”

“Inferno season!”

“Cryo season!”

“Inferno season!”

“Inferno season!”

“Ok, good, glad you agree”

“Fuck you, Jacob!”

All the while the enemy is stood around, some looking nervously at each other, others twisting one foot on its side and staring embarrassedly at the sole of their boot as they rock back and forth on it, yet others kicking at stones and suffering that intense moment of panic when they see the stone veer off in the direction of the two idiot humans yelling red-faced at each other on the other side of the battlefield. The humans see the stone whiz past, look up and seem to see the enemy for the first time, and then set the poor unfortunate individual on fire under a hail of Inferno ammo, then just as rapidly extinguish the flames and freeze the poor sod in place, before melting the ice away with a hail of incendiary fire, and so on and so forth, until eventually the poor fellow simply evaporates into a steamy mist and his companions look on in slack-jawed disbelief and wide-eyed horror while the humans go back to arguing with one another.

Thankfully my two regular companions didn’t have such ammo options; even so, I made sure I levelled them up by hand, just in case they tried to sneak a new ammo power in there while I wasn’t looking.

So what makes these Bioware games great? The game design is formulaic within the Bioware RPG genre. The game play is good, but isn’t outstanding by any measure: the cover system in Mass Effect 2 is a great addition, for example, but just doesn’t seem to be as elegant as that found in, say, Gears of War; the cover system is also somewhat infuriating.

“Hah, I see you Mr Enemy, and I shall duck behind this wall and fire from cover, what do you think about that?!”

“Well, I can only commend you on your tactics. I concede that it is a well thought out and thoroughly good plan. I, however, will see your ‘Cover’ and raise you ‘Walking Through A Hail of Bullets and Crowd Control And Just Punching You In The Face While You’re Glued To A Wall And Unable To Attack Me Back’.”

“Touché. And also: Ow, my face.”

There are a number of game play ‘features’ that are undesirable; also, the textures on many of the NPC character outfits look awful to the point of distraction when in a close-up shot, such as in most conversations; and then there’s the planet scanning/probing/mining mini-game. Actually, let’s not go there, that’s a dark place and my counsellor worked so very hard to help me get through it without too much medication. Suffice it to say, if you’re an MMO player it will nearly kill you via your OCD completionist indoctrination, and if you’re not an MMO player then you’ll do the bare minimum to gather the resources you need to complete the game, and remember later that you were quite bored at the time.

So what makes most games journalists froth at the mouth at these Bioware games, because on the whole, if you take a hard look at them, they’re not perfect by any sense of the imagination. My theory is simple, and probably fairly obvious: they tell a good story with your character at the centre of it. That’s it. If Bioware remade Pacman then Pacman would go around trying to recruit pellets to help him, those pellets would refuse to activate his super power unless he helped them find their long lost aunt on the other side of the map, he’d do a bunch of side missions in order to grab some fat fruit loot, and then he’d head in to the final battle with a bunch of ghosts, using his pellet companions to weaken and defeat them, and any pellets he didn’t need to use would come back for Pacman 2. There would be problems with the game play: sometimes pellets wouldn’t activate properly, or Pacman would go off one side of the screen and never come back on the other. However, there would also be a tale woven between all of this, about how our man was the last in the long and noble line of Pac, and that an ancient blight of undead was once again upon the lands and could only be defeated if he discovered how to wield the unknowable Power of Pellet, knowledge long lost to his people in the dim mists of history. Pacman would become a personality to you, because you influenced his decisions on which pellets to get and which paths to take, and therefore you can identify with the character, because that character is, in part, you.

Until a character becomes a personality it cannot be believed. Without personality, the character may do funny or interesting things, but unless people are able to identify themselves with the character, its actions will seem unreal. And without personality, a story cannot ring true to the audience. — Walt Disney

And Bioware’s Pacman would be a magical experience.

There is another company that offers magical experiences, one form of which is the theme park. They have people they call Imagineers who build systems that offer escapism, albeit briefly, into another world. If you look too closely at the rides you can see the wires, the smoke machines, and the rotating mirrors that cause things to appear out of nothing as if by magic. If you sit back, however, and relax into the ride, let the experience wash over you, you find yourself transported somewhere fantastic, and when you come out at the other end you find yourself a little disappointed to find that the world in which you live is somewhat mundane in comparison.

I imagine that Bioware’s version of Imagineers have been busy for some time crafting the Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 experiences, and I find myself joining the back of the already miles-long line of people, breathless in anticipation of my chance to ride on Bioware’s next great digital ride.

We like to have a point of view in our stories, not an obvious moral, but a worthwhile theme. … All we are trying to do is give the public good entertainment. That is all they want. — Walt Disney

Dogs are better than human beings because they know but do not tell.

There’s something about Mass Effect 2 not having an obvious key bind for screenshots that is nagging at me. Silly, I know, but it does. It’s like a small dog, yip yip yipping away in the back yard of my mind, bouncing up and down at the fence of my reason and trying to get my attention. The problem is that it sets off all the other dogs of deliberation in my mind. Now I have cause to think about the fact that Bioware have streamlined the inventory system to almost non-existence, something which veers very much towards the console end of the Console – Normal – Fiddly – Needs A PC With Seven Input Peripherals end of the HCI spectrum; that’s a big shaggy dog, hoof hoof hoofing while standing on its hind legs with two huge paws pulling at the fence of reason. Then there’s the general lack of micromanagement required of your team members when in combat: simply point and assign one key or, more importantly, one scarce button resource, for each of the two companions; a scrawny mutt, howling and trying to dig its way under the fence. There’s also the combat, which flatters the fast action of Gears of War with its imitation whilst paying only token respect to the tactical deliberations of Knights of the Old Republic; a sleek dog that spends its time running in ever faster circles around the fence line, barking all the while.

This canine cacophony is driving me to distraction, and so I have to feed the dogs of deliberation, in order to silence them, if only for a little while. So excuse me while I publicly deliver them their food for thought: Bioware are going to bring Star Wars: The Old Republic to the consoles. I know. I know. There’s no evidence for it, and what little evidence there is points against the fact – for example, HeroEngine offers no support for anything other than the Windows platform, as far as we know – and yet the thought persists. Blizzard have always supported the Mac platform with their games wherever they could, and World of Warcraft was faithfully released for that platform, and a fine implementation it was too. Bioware are consistently getting their RPGs onto the console platform with considerable success; wouldn’t it make sense for them to release their biggest undertaking yet on those platforms too, and thus reap the benefits of a wider audience?

Bioware could take MMO popularity to even greater heights, as Blizzard did before them, if they can deliver a top tier MMO to both the PC and the console market.

Ah, peace: the dogs of deliberation are muzzled once more.

Until the next foolish notion lets them out.

I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

As we alluded to yesterday there’s a curious element to Mass Effect 2 where the first part of the game involves you running around and recruiting some of the biggest badasses in the universe — don’t make the same mistake as me and run around trying to recruit some of the baddest bigasses in the universe, that’s a different game entirely. Ass Defect 2, probably — and then, having fought your way through the labyrinthine corridors of some random aggressor-filled warehouse/skyscraper/nursing home/factory in order to rescue said badass and free them into indentured service to you, you then spend the rest of the game leaving them to rot in some forgotten corner of the Normandy, only speaking to them every now and again to see if they are willing to offer you a) some equipment upgrades b) a side mission that might offer the chance of equipment upgrades or c) hot steamy intercourse of the third kind, with post-coital equipment upgrades.

The fact that you can only ever take two companions with you is a curious notion which Zoso has previously touched upon for Dragon Age: Origins, and I grant you that its a well known staple of Bioware RPGs, and in fact most RPGs in general. In some instances it works and is understandable — Star Trek episodes would have been a lot shorter if everyone on the Enterprise had just beamed down at once and crushed any opposition with weight of numbers — but in other cases you can’t help but feel that, given the fact that you have an entire ship filled tribble-like to bursting point with badasses, your current mission to fight through overwhelming odds in order to recruit yet another badass would be much easier if you made those odds less overwhelming by simply employing a few more of the badasses currently lounging around your ship picking out their toejam. Or clawjam, depending on species. Or thingyjam, if they have those… you know, ‘thingies’.

Where Mass Effect was a more cohesive whole, Mass Effect 2 starts to feel like two entirely separate games, there’s a tangible dichotomy of combat and conversation. Where the Normandy is a social hub, most away missions involve a fair amount of combat and, unlike Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins, you fight all of these missions alone. You see, the thing is, although you are able to take two companions with you on your away missions in Mass Effect 2, when it comes to combat they aren’t really companions, they are merely extra mobile weapons that you can deploy. It’s a curious artifact of the more streamlined shooter experience that Bioware have employed with Mass Effect 2, but you actually fight alone, and once you notice the fact it becomes increasingly obvious the more you play.

A couple of examples to illustrate. There is a standard boss fight at one point, I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice it to say that you enter a room, the doors all close behind you (Shock. Horror. Want to buy Door Wedge ability, please and thank you) and you have to fight off the standard waves of enemies before the boss turns up to see what all the fuss is about and you shove a rocket up its backside. And, as per usual, in the pre-boss warm-up there are fast moving weak mobs and a couple of big and slow heavy hitters. I must have played through this section seven or eight times before I managed to win, and I eventually won by realising that I’m fighting on my own. You see, unlike, for example, Dragon Age, if you die in combat in Mass Effect 2 the game is over and you have to reload. Where in Dragon Age you can take over one of your companions and carry on the fight, in Mass Effect 2, if you die – Game Over. So what tactic do you think the enemy (read AI programmers) would sensibly employ in order to ensure victory? Well quite: they ignore your teammates a disproportionate number of times in order to take you down. Honestly, within about five seconds of the start of that boss fight, no matter where I hid and where I placed my team mates, I’d have five of the fast mobs chewing on my very attractive arse, whilst the two big heavy hitters pummelled from range the area of cover I was hiding behind. If I stood up to shake off the fast mobs, the heavy hitters wasted me; if I stayed in cover the fast mobs chewed me a new Omega-4 Relay. There were at least several comedy attempts where I placed my team mates out in open ground in order to distract the mobs whilst I hid, and yet within five seconds of the start of the fight I had fast mobs clinging to me as though we were the inter-species equivalent of Velcro’s hooks and loops; all the meanwhile the big heavy hitters were pummelling my ‘hiding’ place from range, whilst my two companions stood directly in front of them and unloaded submachine guns, shotguns and biotic powers into their general facial region.

Another example that made me boggle and laugh was when I attempted a flanking manoeuvre. It was a standard corridor setup, with a main route through and a little side room that allowed one to sneak to the side of the enemy ‘unseen’. I set my two decoy… companions up to start attacking from cover along the main route, and I snuck around the side. A quick aside: in Mass Effect 2 there are enemy-seeking missiles that can change direction somewhat in order to make sure they’re not wasted and hit a target each time; the enemy has these missiles too. My totem… companions were doing a sterling job of attracting the attention of the various entrenched opposition, and I waited until the more dangerous member of their number had launched a missile at my companions before I burst from cover to launch my flanking assault on their exposed side. At which point, and I kid you not, the missile that was half a metre or so from my companions turned through about ninety degrees and travelled across the corridor to hit me instead; I wish I’d had the presence of mind to hit the screenshot key because the path that the vapour trail of the rocket left behind was a marvel to behold.

It’s not always like that, obviously, but it soon becomes very obvious that there appears to be a heavy bias in the AI to taking down the Game Over objective as a priority over any companions who might otherwise present a more immediate clear and present danger. Once you realise that you’re primarily playing on your own, and that your companions are really just slightly more attractive mobile gun turrets, you can adjust your play style to match and things become significantly easier. I actually think I prefer it this way, I’ve often found myself tiring of the tedious micromanagement required in RPGs where your party members are essentially another character for you to level up and play. Mass Effect 2 makes sure that Shepard is the focus of all things (be it your attention or the AI’s) and as such your companions are designed to not draw your attention away from your own character and story; sure, they all bring stories of their own with them, stories which you can choose to develop or not, but they are characters in their own right, and as such you feel that you can just let them get on with whatever they’re doing and concentrate on what you do best – kicking names and taking ass.

Wait, that’s Ass Defect 2 again, isn’t it.

Pictures deface walls more often than they decorate them

In Mass Effect 2 you can decorate your captain’s cabin with various bits n’ pieces like model ships or, quite splendidly, a space hamster (thus empirically making it the best game of all time). While shopping for these knick-knacks (and other less important stuff like weapon and armour upgrades) in the Citadel, every shop gives you the opportunity to offer an endorsement in exchange for a discount: “Hi, I’m Commander Shepard, you may know me from Saving The Entire Galaxy From Mortal Peril And Generally Being Brilliant, and this is my favourite store on the Citadel.” This seems like the sort of deceitful manipulation that would characterise a Renegade character, as not only is every single store on the Citadel your favourite, but you get to record your message before you’ve even glanced at what they’re selling let alone tried any of the goods to see what they’re like (“Geoff’s Emporium of Sex Aids, Cut and Shut Shuttles and Malfunctioning Weaponry? Oh yes, it’s my favourite store on the Citadel.”) Only it’s not. It’s the “Paragon” choice, apparently, netting you +5 Paragon points every time you shill. I haven’t tried the “Renegade” option, I’m guessing you strong-arm them into a similar discount, which at least would be a bit more honest. Speaking of advertising, while wandering around the Citadel it’s well worth having a look at some of the billboards, there’s a particularly excellent one for an all-Elcor production of Hamlet.

Anyway, after putting the finishing touches on your own cabin, there’s the small matter of the rest of the ship to decorate. Thanks to a slight misunderstanding (the original plans were metric, the new ones imperial) Normandy 2 is much larger than the first ship, driving your most vital mission…

“Look, Shepard, all this empty space is a bit of waste, so go around and find a bunch of amazing people to decorate it a bit, lean on bulkheads in a broody fashion and the like.”

So off you toddle around the most dangerous spots of the universe, assembling a crew of the amazing and powerful warriors…

“I will help you fight the Reapers!”

“Err, yeah, don’t worry about that, I’ve already recruited thirty seven other amazing people and can only take two of them with me at a time anyway. Could you just lean on that bulkhead over there for me and chat about your life history now and again?”

A life without cause is a life without effect.

Yes, it’s true, I too have been sucked into the universe of Bioware’s Mass Effect once again, where I generally run around enjoying the effects of various projectile weapons on the body mass of various alien species.

‘We come in peace’? Oh please. Allow me to introduce you to my heavily armoured gunship. Pile of charred smoking meat remains this is my gunship, gunship this is… oh, you’ve already met?

So yes, I’m missing the release of Star Trek Online at the moment but feel that, should I want to, I can happily simulate the experience by yanking the power cable out of the back of my PC at random intervals and not allowing myself to plug it back in for three or four hours. ‘Missing’ is probably the wrong word, and ‘avoiding’ is probably more appropriate, possibly with the words ‘like the Phage’ concatenated on to the end.

I imported my previous Mass Effect character into the game, and as I watched the introduction movie I looked forward to seeing the ol’ girl again, and I am willing to admit that I got a little bit emotional in those last few moments of the introduction sequence when you see them out in the silent blackness of space, and all you hear are those breaths…

Sexy breaths.

The character generation screen loaded and I waited those last few moments for my imported character to appear, thinking back with that fondness one often has for one of their virtual partners. I remembered being quite pleased with myself when I created her — I do pride myself on my ability to create a good looking avatar against all the obstacles that some of these Uncanny Valley models seem to throw in the way, and Bioware’s games do allow for some really freaky looking characters, especially when contrasted against the painstakingly and lovingly sculpted avatars of your companion NPCs. I remembered that Aria Shepard was a real looker though, and she was once again going to bring sexy death to the enemies of humanity. Or Uoomanity, if you want to believe the pronunciation of the otherwise splendidly dulcet tones of Martin Sheen’s character, the Invisible Man.

“Commander Shepard, Uoomanity is still in desperate danger.”

“…”

“Commander?”

“Sorry, one moment, I’m looking for the “Who the fracking frell are the Uoomanity” chat option, but it doesn’t seem to be here”

The character screen loaded.

I’m not quite sure how to convey the horror. Imagine walking up behind a cute little dog of one of the toy breeds, one of those fluffy little things, you know the ones — a cross between Lassie and Winne the Pooh. Now imagine that as you pick it up it turns towards you and you see that it has the face of Margaret Thatcher. And then she/it licks you enthusiastically all over your face.

I quickly rushed back to my old post to confirm that this was indeed an error in the way that Bioware were importing old characters into the new game. But no, she really was the freaky-looking wax sculpture with melted liquorice for hair that was being presented to me now. Fie cruel memory and the tricks that you play! Thankfully Bioware allows you to change the face of your imported character, for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has played the first few minutes of the game, and so I set about creating a character who didn’t look as though they’d be more at home swinging around the rooftops of Notre Dame.

The funny thing was that, no matter how much I tried not to, I eventually came back to something that looked pretty much the same as my original Shepard. Yes the eyes were slightly tweaked so that they both at least pointed in the same direction, and the nose was toned down somewhat so that it was less likely that Joker would try to accidentally dock the starship Normandy up there, but she had the same overall look as the original. Because this was the virtual woman who I’d shared so many adventures with previously.

The more I looked at her the more attractive she became in my eyes, even though she wasn’t really any different to the Margaret Thatcher Pomeranian cross-breed of earlier. Because, I realised, I liked this person regardless of how they looked, as long as they looked like themself.

“Person”, I thought.

I think this is what Bioware does so well: they create virtual people. Not characters. The reason that the conversation and story is so compelling is that, as with a truly exceptional movie, you forget that the lives you are witnessing aren’t real, that the people who you’re getting emotionally invested in aren’t real. The genius of Bioware, however, is that they manage this by coordinating several people to bring to life one person. Whereas a movie director has to direct just the one actor to bring a person to life on the big screen, Bioware has to direct voice actors and animation artists in order to create life. It’s a fantastic feat, and it helps to lift their RPG games above most other contenders.

Not only that, but they are able to create convincing worlds and even, in the case of Mass Effect, universes that are both familiar and yet at the same time differ wildly from our expectations in many ways. Take the much vaunted Agent Zero of Mass effect 2, a ball-busting no-nonsense lady of no mean combat ability who, with shaven head, a body covered in tattoos, dungarees and overtly aggressive make-up turns out not to be a raging bra-burning feminist lesbian. Honestly, the moment I saw her I thought that, with the right conversation options about how all men are bastards and the liberating empowerment of armpit hair, it was a sure bet that there would be some cravat-exploding interaction between my character and her. “Ah ha!” cries Bioware, “not in this future universe. You’ll never know where you stand with us. Things are different here. Lesbians aren’t what they appear to be”. It’s a strange and confusing place, to be sure; I’ll have to talk it over with Yeoman Kelly Tokenlesbian the newly appointed ship’s counsellor at some point, maybe she can clue me in on how to spot them.

A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory

As predicted, the launch of Star Trek Online has been slightly overshadowed in KiaSAville by Mass Effect 2, which has both of us hooked at the moment. The ability to import your original Mass Effect character, once a staple of CRPGs (I remember taking a character from the slightly odd minigame collection Hillsfar into Curse of the Azure Bonds), is unusual these days, and really gave things an added hook at the start. I’d more-or-less forgotten the events of the first game, and didn’t think it would matter too much if I created a new character or imported an old one. I started a new character, as I’d heard that the game would let you make decisions on the key points of the previous game and was interested to see how that would work, but it seems that feature was removed before launch (RPS has a piece on it, including a link to a library of saves should you not be able to find yours, or want to bring in slightly different choices). After a quick run through the starting areas with the new character, I imported my previous character, and it was surprising how quickly it clicked as ‘me’, the character I’d got used to and all the decisions taken. Even early on I’ve bumped into a couple of people outside the main cast of characters who’ve recognised me, people involved in side quests from the original game who I’d forgotten until they wandered up for a chat.

There is something of the “inverse butterfly effect“, naturally; the differences in decisions you may have taken don’t change the major plot points. ‘My’ Shepherd had saved the council, the new one hadn’t, but that just meant a tweak in a line of dialogue from something like:
“After saving the council, they embraced humanity and gave us greater responsibilities”
to
“In the wave of the destruction of the council, humanity was able to play a greater part in their reformation.”
Even so, the imported character just felt more right than the default starting option.

Couple of other early impressions, I think I might have found my favourite party member from a line in combat when using his fire-based ability, something like: “Ah, flammable! Or, inflammable. Can’t remember which. Not important right now.” Also slightly disappointed that “bonus” suits of armour like the Blood Dragon and Collector’s armour can’t be customised in the same way as your main suit, which you can tweak the colours and pattern of. I was wearing the Blood Dragon armour for a while, and it looks pretty good (they’ve done a good job of making it fit into the setting), but when I sat down at the bar, ordered a drink, and promptly smashed the glass into the visor of the full helmet it did look slightly odd…

Anyway, time to play some more, there’s a galaxy to save!

We have all the time in the world

I’m totally hooked on Mass Effect at the moment, really enjoying it. Exploring the galaxy, Killing evil constructs a-plenty, Achieving the Achievements and Socialising with NPCs (particularly a couple of members of the crew, if you know what I mean), it ticks all the boxes. It strikes a nice balance, giving enough side quests and options that you don’t feel you’re totally on rails without being so open that you’re overwhelmed with choice. While the side quests are entirely optional I’m always drawn to them just in case there’s some especially shiny reward, which can lead to some slightly odd situations plot-wise: “Commander, the GALAXY is in MORTAL PERIL and TIME is of the ESSENCE! You must find the EVIL MASTERMIND with ALL SPEED before he DESTROYS US ALL! Oh, and some cult has gone a bit mad, there’s maybe twenty or thirty people in mild peril on some godforsaken planet nobody cares about.” “Really? Mild peril you say? Sounds like loot to be had, call the Evil Mastermind and tell him to hold off on the galactic destruction, I’ll be round later…”