Mass Effect: Arrival DLC – will you like it?

If you’re familiar with my views on Mass Effect, you may wonder what I think of the new Arrival DLC. The reviews are mixed, in general, ranging from Gamespot’s controversial 5.0 to Destructoid’s effusive 8.5. Numbers, numbers everywhere. Obviously there are some gamers who like it a lot and some who were less pleased. The question is, how do you figure out which one you’re likely to be? That, rather than numerology, is the goal of this article.

I’m a strong believer in the Penny-Arcade philosophy of game reviews: focusing a review around a numerical value doesn’t help anyone know whether or not the game is for them, so I’m going to leave numbers out of this for now. (Unlike Gabe and Tycho, however, if someone wants me to sell out and start writing reviews under a numerical system, I’ll say “yes sir, do you want a true ten scale, or the traditional six-to-ten?” This is because I am a people-pleaser.)

Arrival allows you to play through an event that would otherwise presumably happen off-camera, between Mass Effect 2 and 3. The event will most likely be revealed or explained at the beginning of Mass Effect 3, and there seems to be no way to influence the outcome in any way. You play as Commander Shepard, on a solo mission to rescue a missing friend of Admiral Hackett. You don’t have access to any of your squad at any point in the mission, though there is an NPC who follows you for a while. The only significant NPC interactions are some exposition dumps with a relatively unremarkable scientist, and short, relatively shallow bookending conversations with Hackett.

I’m trying to avoid any real spoilers, so I’ll try not to go beyond anything already established by marketing materials. Suffice it to say, Shepard has to do something some players may find morally difficult in order to save the Galaxy. You cannot choose not to do this thing, though it is possible to start the DLC and let time run out before completing your mission, in which case you get an interesting easter-egg cutscene which shows you what is on the line here.

Shepard is also given precious little time to react to his circumstances and the actions he had to take. I was hoping for a robust conversation at the end, where I might be able to talk with Hackett about why he sent me on this mission, and argue about the possible repercussions. Instead, the ending conversation boils down to “Yep, you sure did that, now it’s time for some consequences,” with a few very brief possible reactions from Shepard.

If nothing I’ve mentioned so far raises any red flags, you’ll probably like Arrival. It has some very pretty environments and decent cover-shooting. Just watch out if you’re a Vanguard looking to play on one of the higher difficulty levels: I found charge a bit buggy in parts, and some insanity players have reported even more trouble. Otherwise, there is plenty of shooting and it is good. I don’t have a lot more to offer on that front, because I’m not the most experienced in the “shooting people in space” genres; don’t think I’m damning with faint praise. Shoot people. Good. All the rooms full of chest-high walls you can eat.

What arrival really offers is the opportunity to be present for a major event in the Mass Effect universe. One game design philosophy I encountered during GDC was “play, don’t show.” The oft-repeated conventional wisdom of storytelling is “show, don’t tell,” but games can take this to the next level: instead of showing a cutscene, developers can allow players to actually do the thing the cutscene is about. This is what arrival offers: the ability to play through an event in Shepard’s life that you would otherwise simply be shown. From a design perspective this is quite admirable, and in any other game I would have accepted such an opportunity as the gift that it is.

The problem here is one of expectations. When some players take control of Shepard, they expect to be able to shape the character in some way – if not through his actions, through his reactions. While Lair of the Shadow Broker (Mass Effect 2’s previous DLC) similarly offered no chance to alter the mission’s result, it afforded players deeper roleplaying decisions throughout, giving players an opportunity to process events through Shepard’s own emotional involvement. In Shadow Broker, you encountered an old friend and subtly changed the balance of power in the universe; Shepard’s reactions felt appropriately deep in relation to the circumstances. Many have complained that Arrival lacks a similar depth of reaction: players who were distressed over the plot’s key event felt that their characters would have been too, but the paucity of reactionary dialogue made them feel disconnected from the character and the content.

If you want to be present for a major event in the Mass Effect universe, see some sights, and shoot some people, you’ll probably like Arrival. If you would be disappointed by presence alone, without influence over the event or significant character growth, then it may not be for you.

Mass Effect is Amazing

I’ve just finished playing Mass Effect and Mass Effect: 2, and I have a declaration: Mass Effect is the best game I have ever played.

Do I think that Mass Effect is a perfect game? I do not. Do I think it could be improved? Sure I do. But the imperfections don’t prevent Mass Effect from being better than any game I have ever played. It is rough because it is trying things, and the big things it accomplishes make up for the little things it misses.

Now that I’ve established my thesis, a few clarifications: firstly, for the purpose of this review, I’m considering the first two games as a single unit. If I need to refer to a specific installment, I’ll say ME1 or ME2, otherwise assume I’m talking about the series as a whole. Secondly: the main character is Commander Shepard, who is male by default, but can be played as female. Most of my experience is with the female version, so I may throw in some female pronouns. Now that that’s out of the way, onward.

Mass effect combines a mishmash of genre gameplay types to create an experience unlike anything else. It is a game that allows the player a great deal of choice, freedom, and personal investment without taking place in a sandbox. Players proceed through a fairly linear story with a few truly significant decisions, while still feeling like they have ownership of almost every situation. It provides strong, well-written characters and settings, but lets the player shape them. More importantly, it lets players shape their relationship with the world around them.

There are two types of main character you can have in a game: a pre-written protagonist and a freeform player creation. Some characters switch between these roles, depending on the type of gameplay you are currently engaging in: GTA IV’s Niko Bellic is pre-written during many cutscenes, but he’s an escapist freeform blob while roaming the streets. In a lot of modern games, a sprinkling of linear story is periodically layered onto the formless goo of the sandbox, creating a tasty gameplay parfait. This can create a disconnect in characterization between sandbox and storyline portions. When viewed from outside the game, characters appear to behave inconsistently: Dead Rising 2 fans often joke about “concerned dad” Chuck messing around with costumes instead of finding medication for his sick daughter. This disconnect is considered something of a necessary evil, required to provide players with the freedom to play the game their own way. To me, this is a false assumption, which begs the question: if the fun part of the gameplay isn’t in-character, why not change the character so they’re the kind of person who would do fun things?

Mass effect neatly avoids this trap. The fun in Mass Effect comes from things the character logically wants to do: join the Spectres, meet interesting people, and kill them. What’s more, any action Shepard takes feels in-character, because the actions Shepard takes determine her character. Shoot a guy in the leg instead of talking to him? Your Shepard has just become the kind of person who shoots people in the leg, seamlessly, even if she’s been a perfectly reasonable person so far. If you’ve been playing her as a renegade, that dude obviously just messed with the wrong badass If you’ve been playing her as a paragon, she feels like a reasonable person who was simply pushed too far. This naturalness emerges from the variety and intuitiveness of the options Shepard is presented with, as well as the seamless writing that maintains tone no matter what path is chosen. Other games have similar variety of choice, but the excellent voice acting for every line of Shepard’s dialogue makes these conversations seem more real. It makes the game feel more like a movie than a choose-your-own-adventure novel.

The dialogue, social, and relationship aspects of Mass Effect’s gameplay are excellent, but that’s only to be expected from a Bioware RPG. In ME1, the combat portion of the game is adequate and interesting but heavily flawed, while in ME2 it’s streamlined but more generic. Where Mass Effect shines is how it mixes dialogue and face-shooting: whenever I was about to get tired of combat, I’d stumble into a dialogue-wheel plot intersection or a tactical roleplaying decision. Conversely, when I was getting tired of talking, I could usually expect some action right around the corner. It’s this balance that makes the game feel so whole: through the next tunnel could be a room filled dangerous enemies, or a scientist cowering in a corner, waiting to confront you with moral ambiguity. Similarly, a lot of seemingly ordinary conversations have a high probability of erupting into gunfire; if you’re not the talking type, there are plenty of opportunities to shoot first and completely neglect to ever ask questions. These transitions make everything you do feel real, relevant, and in-character.

Unfortunately, sometimes all this great writing hints at more than the game can deliver, content-wise. I often found myself wanting even more interaction than was provided, and when an NPC’s content has been temporarily exhausted, it’s laughably obvious and endlessly picked-apart; ask any ME2 fan about calibrations, and they’ll agree. Still, this is evidence of another thing that makes Mass Effect great: its willingness to do something cool even if the ideal implementation is impossible. The love interests and squad-chemistry character development aren’t perfect – they’re just the best I’ve ever seen, by a wide margin.

A lot of people say that Mass Effect offers the illusion of choice rather than actual choice; this is both true and misleading. Mass effect let me choose how I felt about my companions, and act upon those choices, which caused me to develop stronger connections to my party. It also neatly sidesteps an immersion-breaking trap many other RPGs fall into. Often I’ll be loving the main character in a narrative game, when suddenly they do something I feel is massively out-of-character, or fundamentally stupid. Usually I’ll facepalm and move on, but my rating goes down a few tenths of a point. When the kickass girl I love playing goes for the doofy hunk instead of the sarcastic nerd, I’ll shake my fist impotently at the sky, and curse my unique taste in men. Mass Effect ensures that you will rarely have your immersion shattered in this way. The associated paragon and renegade system also takes the first important step away from reducing all moral choice to Mother Theresa or baby-eating. The choices are less about evil and more about attitude, which makes them feel more valid.
This doesn’t just apply to character development, it’s also a big part of how you interact with the main plot. I’ll give you a spoiler-free example: say Murray is your boss. You can choose to be nice and deferential to him, or rude and disrespectful. This will determine the tenor of your next conversation, and your relationship with him throughout the game. Now, at the end of the game there’s a huge decision: you can either help Murray or get him fired. If you help him, he instantly forgives your past misconduct, while if you get him fired, all that goodwill you’ve built up counts for nothing. You could argue that this means that all those little choices didn’t matter, but the smaller decisions influence who Shepard is, and give the player ownership of Shepard’s decisions, attitude, and identity. Shepard’s personality has more more weight than characters in games where you’re given only a small number of good-or-evil turning-point decisions.

When you do finally encounter the major plot points, with their weighty repercussions, this system is even more powerful. In many games, the plot will throw you into a no-win situation, a trap you see coming a mile away, or an obvious manipulation. Usually you have no choice but to accept your fate and do whatever inadvisable thing the plot railroads you toward, just to get to the next chapter of the story. Mass Effect’s decision system always gives you some sense of agency: the job you have to do may be unpleasant, but you get to do damage control according to your own priorities. The player is always left with the impression that they were the best person for the job, the only person for the job, rather than a pawn in someone else’s game.

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg. I can’t fit everything that makes Mass Effect great into one article, and I’d never stop writing this article if I tried. There’s so much more to be talked about: how the setting is one of the best science fiction universes I’ve ever encountered, how a character whose sole purpose is delivering fast-paced technobabble exposition won my heart, and how Commander Shepard has real weight as a character, despite being made up entirely of player-determined decisions. One article can’t contain every lesson Mass Effect has to teach, so I’m going to be doing a series: expect a new article every week, until I go insane or run out of things to talk about and things to learn.

For now, I’ll close by saying this: Mass Effect may be the best game I’ve ever played, but that doesn’t tell you a lot about it, so I’ll try to boil my praise down to something a little less hyperbolic sounding. Mass Effect toes the perfect line between having writers tell a great story and letting players play an actual game. If dialogue and character have a future in games, Mass Effect embodies one of the best possible futures. It’s a revolutionary evolutionary step in several right directions.

And you should totally play it.

My Mass Effect 2 Romantic Arc

Or: how I stopped worrying and learned to love aliens.

I just finished Mass Effect 2 a few hours ago, and I finished ME1 for the first time  a few short weeks before that. Everything is incredibly fresh in my mind. I’ve never really cared about a romantic arc in a game before, but sitting here, bereft, at the end of the game, it amazes me how much I had invested, how many actual emotions I experienced. And now I’m justifying my actions, and still having… emotions about them. So I decided to write up a summary of my FemShep’s emotional processes in her narrative arc.

Read the rest of this entry »

Nier so far

I’m on another one of my extended nomadic trips. Am I the only one who takes these? When freed from the bounds of reason by summer, vacation, or fate I slip the chains of longitude and embark upon a…

What? I was supposed to be talking about a game here? Right right, I forgot.

I had a roommate, once. His name was Adam. He showed me that there were JRPGs beyond Final Fantasy, games like Shadow Hearts, Suikoden, and Breath of Fire.  So when I went to visit him and he wanted me to play a new game I was intrigued. The game was Nier, and he praised it more highly than any other current generation RPG. I was already passingly familiar with Nier, my favorite humor boys having done their respective things to it. I expected a weird, grim, post apocalyptic world that transitioned suddenly into a fantasy and town maintenance RPG. That’s sort of what I got, but there is some important information you need about this game, right now:

Bookpunching people is AWESOME.

The bookpunch, as Unskippable dubbed it, is a magic attack that you get very early in the game. It’s represented prominently in the game’s opening cutscene, and for good reason:  it feels powerful, it’s an awesome-looking effect, and it’s the most tactically interesting ability I’ve discovered so far. You’re running around with a book hovering behind you from which all your spells emanate. You’ve got a magic bar that refills at a decent rate, and one bookpunch uses about half of your mana bar. A simple press of the trigger and a giant red ghost hand emerges from your book to punch the CRAP out of the ground about a meter in front of you. This means that the best way to deploy this ability is to let enemies get really close, almost in melee range, before knocking them back or, in some cases, simply annihilating them. When it works it feels crafty, risky and good, and it works almost all of the time.

I got so good at using this ability that Adam was shouting at me to stop; warning me that I’d be sorry when I came to a section of the game where I had to melee things again, He might be right about that but screw it. That’s tomorrow, this is today, and I’m a bookpuncher for life.

Ok, I’ve sufficiently covered joy of bookpunching, but what it the game actually like?

You start off with an opening cutscene in the not-too-distant future, but after a few short scenes and sample combats you flash forward to a post-apocalyptic, post-technological society, a la Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Always Coming Home.” You live in an idyllic little town (filled with silly, mostly meaningless little sidequests) with your sick daughter. Eventually you discover a magic talking book that may have the power to cure her if you can unlock its sealed verses. So you travel to other towns and villages and fight monsters in search of these verses. Pretty standard RPG plot.

This is an action RPG, and the combat system is a fun and nerve-wracking. The four face buttons and four triggers have different functions, jump, attack, block, magic, other magic, dodge, special. Pretty standard fare, but the variety of magical attacks, all of which serve very different strategic functions, is interesting.  I’m also bad enough at the game to make combat exciting, but it’s not that inherently difficult. Dungeons are simple but interesting in general, except for one dungeon that is the definition of frustration. The sidequests are largely of the kill, fetch and fedex style. I like them, but my roommate says he’s angry at their uselessness and wishes he hadn’t bothered with them on his playthrough. They are rather simplistic and trivial, but I liked the idea that, beyond fighting monsters and trying to save your daughter in classic RPG fashion, you are also the nice old man who does odd jobs. And since there are monsters pretty much everywhere, it makes sense that some shopkeep in town would need you to go to the next city over on a supply trip.

This game has two major minigames, fishing and cultivation. I like minigames, but the fishing in this game is a frustrating trial. Take it from someone who did every fishing-related thing in Ocarina of Time, someone who fish-raced with the best of them in Dark Cloud 2, someone who has maxxed out fishing in World of Warcraft several times: the fishing is terrible. If I get the game home where I can play it without Adam shouting at me, I might do some of the fishing-related quests just for completion, but in really fishing is the worst job in this game. I haven’t started the agriculture minigame yet, but it relies on plants growing in real time, and if you don’t gather them at the appropriate time they wilt and you lose everything. I’m interested in seeing how exactly it plays out.

So far the writing in the game is pretty good. Nier is convincingly concerned for his daughter, and the paternal motivation is a refreshing change of pace from the romantic or politically-motivated plotlines of most RPGs. The characters have fun banter that is often voice-acted and can be triggered by something as mundane as quest acceptance or as major as defeating a storyline boss.

The game’s art direction and atmosphere are a major draw. Something about the world makes me keep wanting to come back. There are some games where it is difficult to explain the appeal, but somehow the whole picture just makes it hard to walk away. Nier is one of those games. That said, I’m not sure if I’ll play the game when I go home: $60 is a little too dear for a new game when I have a lot of unplayed ones sitting around, and the text would likely be unreadable on anything but a decent-sized HDTV. That’s a trend in games I find really frustrating, but it seems pretty unavoidable in current generation RPGs.

In short, Nier is refreshing in many ways, pretty fun, and very engaging. If you’re looking for a JRPG that doesn’t feature a socially-dysfunctional emo git or overly naive, fresh-faced moron as the main character this is one of your best modern options. It also apparently takes only 40-50 hours to play through the main storyline and get most of the endings, if you don’t do all of the sidequests and minigames.

Unfortunately, watching me play has made Adam want to play more, so my chances of making significant further progress now is slim. Still, what I played has me interested enough that I might just make a purchase if Nier goes down in price or I go up in wealth.