Tag Archives: mass effect

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?

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 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.


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.

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.”



“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.

Massive Effects.

Are badgers simply the criminal element of Ger society, and somewhere in the wild there is an as yet undiscovered policing subfamily of blue and white striped Mustelidae called the goodger?

Who knows! I must confess that it was just meant as a distraction, a piece of flavoursome bait placed carefully on the ground, covered in leaf litter and attached to a thick vine rope that will snag you by the leg, swing you up into the captive audience tree and force you to hang there so that I can bludgeon you with rather rudimentary ruminations regarding MMOs without risk of reprisal.

My apologies.

But hey, now that you’re here and conveniently immobilised hanging upside down by your mind’s leg (a bit like your mind’s eye, but it allows your mind to wander), I feel perhaps that you would be receptive to a little wistful blathering on my part about one of my favourite hobbies. If during the course of my diatribe you start to feel faint, hallucinate or develop an intense migraine, it is possibly just the blood rushing to your head as you dangle there, on the other hand these are also known side effects when listening to me for any extended period of time.

So the real question I want to pose is this: is ‘massive’ the wrong focus for multiplayer online RPGs?

I’ve recently started playing Mass Effect due to my need for a single player game that can be dropped at the scream of a baby (which is like the drop of a hat, only faster and requiring more poo clearing), and for the short amount of time that I’ve played it I’ve enjoyed the experience tremendously. However, somewhere at the back of my mind there is the parasite of dissatisfaction, nibbling delicately on my pia mater and making me wonder how much better the game would be if my two fellow adventurenauts weren’t controlled by an AI suffering dementia on a scale that would make HAL’s red eye turn green with envy, but were instead controlled by my close friends, who I am happy to report are not demented in the slightest. Although based on the witterings of this post, that may not be as much of an endorsement as I had intended. Fighting the parasite of dissatisfaction are the antibiotics of immersion, which help me to look past the fact that my compatriots in the game have had their intelligence modelled on the philosophies and theorems of an especially thick oak sideboard and their movement routines lifted wholesale from the frantic rampage of a hyperactive puppy with chronic diarrhoea, by pointing out that all the NPCs, every other character in the game in fact, is a paragon of subtle method acting and restrained existence. There are no crowds of people whizzing past me at full pelt blowing raspberries and emoting in spurious ways, no diplomats or traders spinning through three hundred and sixty degrees as they bounce back and forward between two spots of the queue they’re waiting in. None of them dance naked on top of the Citadel tour guide terminals. Everyone I speak to uses sentences, none of them talk in tongues, I mean not one person has shouted out in the alien embassies “HAI EVR1 LUVS ME COS I TLK LEIK GIBBON”.

The level of immersion is intense. Well apart from the times when I, as commander, tell my squad to move forward and hold a position; off we charge, assault rifles blazing, I’m taking a bit of damage, actually a bit more damage than I should if I was being given covering fire and so I search around for said coverers. Lo and behold, my squad have in actual fact run in the opposite direction to the one I commanded and are even now having a competition to see who can repeatedly ram their crotch the hardest into the sentry gun we skirted around earlier, while it merrily plugs away at the privates’ privates.

The thought that followed was: could I have had this experience in World of Warcraft? I’m talking about the immersion part here not the crotch ramming team-mate part, for that I’d just need to join the first pick-up group I could find. The answer was: quite possibly, if I’d taken the time to learn how to run a private (read pirate) server, a server where I just granted accounts to my friends, and perhaps a few of their closest friends. The world would still be populated with NPCs, the major cities would be no more empty than they currently are, Shattrath, Ogrimmar and Stormwind excepted, and yet the world would be entirely devoid of smacktards intent on ruining your gaming experience in whatever manner possible.

I then wondered, what if WoW itself was like that by default? Instead of logging into a single server with a population of six thousand people, what if guilds in the game actually had their own instance of a server? You’d log into your server and all the PCs would be guild mates, and they’d all (assuming you were sensible with who you invited) share the same goals and want the same things from the game. What advantages might this set-up have?

For a start, players would feel more like the hero in the traditional fantasy tale, part of a select group of individuals who were destined to change the world, not a nondescript part of the shambling mass of quest tourists and January Loot Sale fanatics that currently ravage Azeroth on a daily basis. The community would be small and close knit, and individuals in that community would have greater opportunities to make a name for themselves and create legends around their character. It would be easier to make player-driven storylines, because giving just one character the Immortal Songblade of Arsewhopping on a server wouldn’t mean that thousands of other players were missing out on having that item. It would also be easier to allow players on a small guild server to be able to affect the world around them in a way that mattered and changed it permanently, because again it wouldn’t be denying that experience to thousands of other players. I also imagine that the virtual world would feel less claustrophobic, because when you take your first tentative steps into the foreboding Forest of Dark & Doom[TM], you wouldn’t peer around the first set of trees only to see an entirely deforested swampland with the indigenous population of Flaming Hellforged Dire Wolves of Armageddon dashing past you, yelping and with their tails between their legs, as one hundred and forty adventurers clatter after them screaming “LOOOOOL”.

Not to mention that you could kiss goodbye to any gold seller chat and mail spam, because without an invite to your server, they’re not getting near you. There could be a public server for trial accounts, and I’m sure the gold sellers would make the place the home of their verbal fallout, but from a subscription sales point of view, it would only encourage players to subscribe and join their own private haven free from such unctuous spiced ham and the inevitable vituperation that follows.

There are many disadvantages even outside of the technical limitations, of course, but those that I have thought of so far are not all that bad, and certainly worth enduring to remove the smacktarded majority whilst maintain the ability to explore and adventure with others. Auction houses, for example, could be linked between server instances, so that all saleable items appeared to all players of the game, hence a universal economy would exist even with the worlds being instanced. And although there’s no real solution to the ‘fancy meeting you here’ effect, where you just happen to meet the same fellow adventurers day after day, you can look at it another way: Lord of the Rings would have been even harder to keep up with if the main cast had changed entirely on a daily basis, and besides, it’s not really any different from having a guild that you regularly group to the exclusion of pickup groups and others.

Obviously this is all dependent on the type of MMO. Planetside, for example, would probably be pretty dull with forty to fifty people on the server, although having said that, Starsiege Tribes didn’t have many more per game, and it was still brilliant fun, but then its maps were a lot smaller. EVE lends itself well to having as many concurrent players as its infrastructure can handle, but then its ‘world’ is actually a universe, which slightly edges out the two meagre continents of Azeroth in terms of ‘space for player to spread out in’.

Perhaps my point isn’t that these multiplayer games should not be massive at all, but that the measure of the massiveness shouldn’t necessarily be the number of concurrent players in the world but could in certain circumstances focus on the number of instances of the world. Just look at the constant demand for new servers from players in World of Warcraft, who want a fresh start and another crack at the world before everything has been done and completed; if the game offered you the chance to create a new fresh instance of the world whenever you wanted, and to only invite those people who you consider to be friends or to have the same play-style or mindset as you, would people find less of a problem with reaching the end-game and stagnating?

Although, all things considered, I have enough problems with alternative characters in MMOs, without the option of creating alternative worlds.

I think I just invented multiversitus.

Anyway, must dash, I can hear goodger sirens approaching; they must have found that stash of bread and milk I stole from old Mrs Crumbly’s garden.