When Places Tell Stories: Dr.Freeman & The Musterion of Half-Life

Valve recently updated Half-Life 2 to their latest Source engine and added a plethora of Steam features like cloud support & achievements. This was motivation enough for me to revisit this dystopian society and so far, it feels a lot like catching up with an old friend. Welcome to City 17. You still owe me a beer Barney! What cat ?! When it comes to Half-Life, I clearly have my nostalgia shades on. I've always been fascinated by Half-Life's storyline and more importantly how it's conveyed to the player.
 
With their ingenuity & insistent ambiguity, Valve have turned Half-Life's simple story arc of "science goes wrong, aliens invade" into one of the most frequently analyzed narratives in gaming. They have embraced the show, don't tell admonition and taken it to new heights in games. It's a theme that runs strong in all their games. While other developers are still stuck using derivative methods of storytelling (i.e. snazzy cutscenes, constant narrations, characters forcefully dumping heaps of exposition at your feet), Valve seem intent on exploring new possibilities for the medium. For one, they let their environments do most of the storytelling. Instead of hitting you in the face with a script, the Half-Life series make you inhabit the world and draw your own conclusions from the happenings in your surroundings. Players are encouraged to seek out the details for themselves, instead of being handed a manual. Every little corner inside this world is a clue that the player is slowly collating to form a cohesive story in their head.   

Oddly enough, this song captures what a City 17 resident must feel like
       

Gordon is in the details

Facts in the Half-Life universe are constantly hinted at, but out-and-out revelations are few and far. Factors like the elusive G-Man & the mysterious nature of the Vortigaunt give Half-Life an ambiguous, almost puzzle like quality and makes it an alluring prospect for an inquisitive mind. One little piece of the puzzle that I came across today is an old abandoned house while driving along Highway-17. This building was off the normal path and a completely voluntary experience (which seems to be the norm for a Valve universe). 

I have a bad feeling about this.

When I came across this house, I was being chased by a legion of antlions. I was looking for a quick refuge and saw this antlion repeller on the top of the hill. Next to it was this old house that didn't look particularly interesting. The only thing distinguishing it from the others is a hand drawn danger sign on one of the walls. A skull and crossbones...a warning from it's former dwellers. This piqued my curiosity and I tried to break in through the front door ('cause that's what you do, right?). Predictably, it was locked. I investigated further and found the basement door. It had another danger sign and the door had been clamped down from the outside. These guys were more concerned with keeping something from getting out, rather than stopping someone from getting in. However, they didn't count on me wielding the gravity gun.

Crap! I mean Headcrab! 
Once inside, the first thing that struck me was the Combine headcrab shell and the broken roof it came through. As I took a step further, a mutilated body fell at my feet and a venomous headcrab crawled in front of me. After taking care of Lamarr's distant cousin, I climbed up the crates. And there it was - the anti-Combine graffiti that gave context to the whole picture. This was a resistance hideout that was shelled. One of it's former occupant was now a walking headcrab nest and his friends had to lock him in and flee. Friend condemning friend. It's a small, neigh-insignificant tale that hints at the greater struggle going on outside the player's immediate purview. Ravenholm let us know that the resistance was having a tough time (on a large scale) but encounters like these shine light on just how bad things can get on a smaller, more personal level. 

And there it is...

Every Valve game is rife with places like these. But engaging the player in this manner and telling a meaningful tale in the process is a tricky proposition. It is asking a lot from your average video game player; it challenges their investigative instincts and their intuitive skills. As a result, many dismiss Half-Life's story as non-existent and it's understandable why. Valve have eschewed all conventional means of exposition and players have difficulty grasping the narrative value of what's been shown to them. Valve tend to use their game's real estate as much as their characters to tell stories. It's alienating & abstruse to those who don't get it but immensely gratifying to those who do.

 Could you leave your friend in this state ?

Portal to a personal space

Over the last 12 years, Valve have become progressively better at steering players towards these nuggets. In Left 4 Dead, checkpoints and safe houses have innumerable posters & graffiti that hint at events that lead to the zombie apocalypse and how the other survivors are dealing with this calamity. There are many layers of graffiti and warnings in L4D and show how the situation has deteriorated over time. Messages like Mike was here are half covered by evacuation posters pointing to safe houses, which in turn have graffiti & corrections pointing to the current safe house - while all of these are overshadowed by warnings of "NO CURE" or "Nobody is going to survive". These message provide a small window into other people's struggle and nightmares. 

In Portal, players are invited to crawl into a secret chamber with the message "HELP", presumably written in blood. This is where the previous test subject hid from GLaDOS. The subject couldn't figure out a way through the live fire course for months (if the tally signs are any indication). But he did manage to break into this secret chamber and avoid the course altogether. He decided to hold up here, using an open computer case to cook his meals and wait for help, slowly losing his mind. There is little chance anyone missed the famous scribbles on the chamber walls. His ramblings indicate his insanity but the equipment he left behind show his resourcefulness.
 
Strange how a graffiti in one little corner of a game can turn into such a persistent meme 
Adam Sessler often mentions that movies can show you a place; books can describe them to you; but only a video game can truly deliver the feeling of stumbling into someone else's private space. The sense of discovery and exploration we experience in games is unmatched. It is an interactive medium and this fundamentally changes the way stories could and should be told. Unlike movie viewers or book readers, game players have an active physical presence inside these stories. We act like detectives, trying to investigate every clue the developers throw at us. I'm glad Valve is creating worlds that are worth investigating. It's a step in the right direction, towards creating the ultimate interactive experience:    
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An Unsatisfying End

Is there any game that left you annoyed or angry with it's ending ?  Anything that left you almost questioning the quality of the entire game leading up to that point ?
  

*Heavy Spoilers*


I'll give the game props for perfectly reflecting my face as I watched the ending.
I finished Heavy Rain yesterday and got the Four Lions ending, which I take was the intended, Disney style fairytale closure. But this ending also leaves massive plot holes in the game's story arc and major character inconsistencies. Not to mention, the unreal circumstances of the last half hour, leading up to the final showdown. Most of these failures could be forgiven to a degree in a normal shooter or action game but Heavy Rain chooses to put the spotlight on player's every little action. It's the driving force behind this character piece, as it plots your storyline based on any & everything to do. So it's a big failure of trust when the game itself fails to keep up with the player's attention to detail. There are also multiple instances where it simply fails to convey the information properly to the player. 
 
To get started, here is a list of problems I had with just Scott Shelby: 
 
  • The biggest inconsistency of them all is anachronism. Scott is 48. John died 30 years ago. There is so much wrong with this fact alone.   
  • Why is Scott suddenly retrieving evidence from crimes he committed almost ten years ago ?  
  • How did he kill the old guy in the typewriter shop when we had control of him ALL THE TIME ?
  • Why did he take Lauren with him if his plan was to murder the guy all along ?
  • Scott's character up until Chp. 45 or so just doesn't fit as the killer. The guy is changing diapers one day and murdering 10-year old the next morning ? Why give us the "moral" choice of sparing a mob boss after gunning down his entire armada John Woo style (not to mention the child killer thing again) ? This is almost schizophrenic behavior from Scott, which would have made more sense with Ethan. 
  • If Scott is looking for a father, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice then why are players allowed to find Shaun's location after completing just 3/5 trials ? You can avoid cutting off your finger, poisoning yourself, shoot a drug dealer and do the other two non-fatal trials to get the address - it doesn't sound a whole lot like the "ultimate sacrifice" Scott is looking for. 
  • Why does he save Lauren again and again, when he knows she is going to kill him the instant she finds out the truth ? It doesn't fit with his usual analytical behavior.

 Just shoot me now. I don't wanna drown in your sea of inconsistencies
There are major problems with almost every major character in the game. Like the origami in Ethan's hands, Madison's altruistic behavior, Jayden's incompetence as a FBI agent just to mention a few. The list just goes on and on. And all this is from ONE of the game's ending. I don't even know what to make of all the other 17 or so alternate endings of the game.  
 
Heavy Rain sells itself as an interactive drama but it doesn't have the writing to support the interactive claim. If you fail to follow the intended path of the game, you end up with the most horrible scenario of the Oragami killer walking away scott-free and pretty much everyone else ending up in a ditch somewhere. It's really quite depressing how the game handles "choice" - if you don't agree with David Cage's original intentions, then you're heavily penalized for it. The character inconsistencies increase ten fold if you veer off the intended path, ruining the experience even more. Whatever happened to player enforcement ? Aren't we supposed to enjoy the game by making these choices ? Whats the point if everyone you cared about ended up dead after nearly ten hours of character investment ? There is no balance between consequences, fun and plausibility.  
  
I'm ragging on the denouement in particular because the game relies heavily on it's multiple story threads and a great deal is riding on how they all come together in the end. The old cliched saying is that it's all about the journey but in Heavy Rain's case, it's all about where your journey's choices lead you to. There is a big emphasis on choice every step of the way. I was expecting my choices to lead me to some kind of satisfactory resolution and I was disappointed with what I got instead. 
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Do celebrity endorsements work for games ?

Sure, the occasional game like Chronicles of Riddick can leverage the celebrity hype and grab attention of non-players for a few addition sales. But what about the rest (99%) of the games that have disinterested celebrities or sports persons reading straight from a prompt screen ? Take Blur for example:

Now here is a game by Bizarre, makers of PGR (a Pretty Good Racing series) and Geometry Wars (one of the best XBLA games). So instead of leveraging their existing gaming history, they decide to hire a failed INDY/NASCAR driver who's only real claim to fame in the racing world is that she's got boobs. On top of this, she looks so disinterested in the whole thing that it might actually be off putting to people who don't know anything about Bizarre or Blur. I'm definitely not the target audience for this particular ad but then again, who is ? I doubt anyone is stupid enough to check out a game just because Danica Patrick said it's awesome. Racing enthusiasts really have no interest in her actual racing abilities or opinions on games. Gaming enthusiasts probably don't even know her, except that she kind of looks hot. What is the point of grabbing her for this ad, when you can use perfectly good, cheaper and better alternatives like a decent PR person (like CliffyB of Epic, 402 of IW ) or a developer who knows what they are talking about (See Christina Norman's intro to all ME2 classes) ? What am I missing here ? (don't say boobs)

If you reaaaally want to leverage celebrities, then put them in your game and make good use of their talents. (See Mass Effect 2, Fallout 3 for good examples). At the end of the day, it's the quality of the product and performance of the celebrity that really matters. The presence of Keith David or Ron Perlman is at least interesting to me because they have a history of delivering solid VO in games. I know the Arbiter is going to yell "Stay Frosty!" with energy and enthusiasm, and not like a drunken hobo who just happen to wander into the studio; looking at you Ironside. :(

The broader question is simply who are game companies targeting with celebrity tie-ins ? Do they know what their gaming audiences want ? I think at least the GB community is far more likely to buy a game if they are simply shown clear and honest gameplay footage by someone who knows what they are talking about. If they happen to be a celebrity, awesome! If not, who cares ?

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The art of faux critique

Roger Ebert: Video games can never be art
 
The catalyst for his recent diatribe was a talk by Kelle Santiago at TEDxUSC last year. I was at TED when Santiago made that presentation. I've attended her other talks at USC as well and this probably wasn't her best effort (due to the time constrains). Regardless, Kellee made that presentation because she wanted the art students at USC to look at games as a possible canvas for their work and to generate interest in where the medium is going. That's what the entire event was about. Exploring and sharing of new ideas.  
    

TED's promotional line 
 
I think she made some fair points in the process and Ebert dismissed them without even playing or understanding the games in question (Braid, flower and Waco). That's just lazy and bad critique on his part. A life-long critic like him should know better. I don't understand his hatred for the medium either. If he doesn't care, then why does he continue to make arguments against it's validity as an art form. Because of his experience and standing, people pay attention to what he has to say but he is using that leverage to attack something he clearly doesn't know enough about.
 

Missing the point 

His closing shows his lack of knowledge about the subject and what Kellee was trying to accomplish: 

Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren't gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.

So why do we need validation ? I think by accident, he asks a good question. And my answer is that game developers need artists to do their job. The industry needs good writers, visual illustrators and musicians. And games needs validation for their sake. The engineers who write the code and the players who play the games aren't concerned with the artistic merits of a game. We just do our jobs and enjoy the game. But a game wouldn't even exist if not for these very artists. And if you attack the validity of their work by saying "this isn't art", you're demeaning their work and essentially driving them away.  
 
Validation is also important for the proper growth and maturation of a medium. Given his strong liking for movies, Ebert should realize this since it went through a similar struggle in early 20th Century. Kellee talks about this in more detail in her presentation and I must reiterate what she said: if we don't pay attention to these issues now, games could devolve in something resembling reality-based television. We need good storytellers to take an interest in games so the medium can continue to grow in the proper direction.
 
Also, Bobby Fischer and Michael Jordon didn't need writers or illustrators to play chess or basketball. Games need these artists to exist.

*No artists were harmed in the making of this game*

 
He finishes the blog by cheery picking Santiago's presentation, as to somehow conclude that there is absolutely no art involved in the process:

I allow Sangtiago the last word. Toward the end of her presentation, she shows a visual with six circles, which represent, I gather, the components now forming for her brave new world of video games as art. The circles are labeled: Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management. I rest my case.

The six circles labeled by Santiago are essential in creating a platform for an artist to show his/her work. It's true for games and it's true for movies as well (something Ebert definitely sees as art). I don't see how any of those invalidate the artistic merit of a game.
 
At the end of the day, the problem is quite simple. Ebert doesn't get games but still has a vested interest in the subject matter. He is a respected critic and his words might influence students looking to get into games. If there is one thing the industry needs, it's more artistic flair and variation. And comments like this don't help.
 

Just get me more flowers!

Games are probably closer to playgrounds than an art house but they have certain merits that are very similar to an art piece. I play flower regularly and I find it just as peaceful as a beautiful painting. It's very calming. This response is evoked equally through gameplay and visuals. It's the gameplay part of it that intrigues me most because great visuals are available in any other medium. You can't explore the insides of a scenic painting but you can do so in flower. Art cirtics can continue to argue semantics. I just want more games like it because I enjoy them.
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Halo is "full of bullshit" - A quick look at FPS storytelling

Do you remember the writer,Richard Morgan, from the recent Crysis 2 interview Brad did ? Well, he's been saying some not-so-nice things about the Halo franchise. According to him, Halo is full of "bullshit archetypal characters" [Link]. Quite an inflammatory comment and I won't be surprised if he did it as part of a deliberate marketing strategy of some sort to attract interest towards his own product. Anyway, he does raise a valid point that Halo's storyline is very played out. 

Halo:CE had a great world design
While there is no excuse for not having a better story, I think authors have to look at games from a different perspective than books or movies. For me, the biggest strength of a video game is making the player believe they are the author of their story. This is the reason why I appreciate choices in my RPGs, even if the end result is cliched. And when you're delivering a linear story like Halo, you have to trick the player into believing that they are in total control of what is happening on screen. The most memorable sequences in games are the ones where the player is directly in charge.  

In first person shooters, this is usually accomplished by giving the players a rich environment to explore and filling it with clues or interesting objects with narrative value. Combat Evolved does this well. I haven't touched the game since 2003 or so and I still distinctly remember the first time I crash landed on Installation 04 and stumbled into this vast ecosystem. It's a very cliched scene with the mountain cliff and the waterfall. But since it was a game and I had the chance to explore this surrounding myself, I remember it more than any movie's watefall/cliff scene. In cases like this, there is no need for clever words or witty writing when the environment itself can make such an impact.

More than just a chatterbox
Morgan criticized the characters and I'll definitely give him that. But if you analyze the narrative structure of shooter games, there is a very specific need for such archetypal characters as well. In most good FPS, you're also usually given a sidekick to help you understand what is happening around you (Alyx in HL2, Cortana in Halo, Atlas in BioShock, Price/Others in Modern Warfare). These characters are essential in getting us invested in a fictional world and they all become archetypes by necessity. These companion characters need humor, intellect or a sunny personality to make the experience enjoyable. And I think Cortana is very good example (though not the best) of how to do it right. The Arbiter is another good character and someone I liked immediately. He fills the archetype of the old enemy turned friend but the fact that players actually control him in co-op makes it more than his movie/book counterparts. A lot of this is down to execution and Bungie did a good job of making me like these two. Master Chief and Sgt. Johnson on the other hand are just lazy and they could have done better.

Anyway, my closing thought is that labeling Halo's entire cast as "bullshit" is just extreme and unwarranted. They are archetypes but they are well executed archetypes. If Morgan truly believes what he said, then Crysis 2 better set a new standard for shooter storytelling. Nothing against CryTek (I love their games) but he is just setting himself up for a hard knock back to reality here.
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If the Giantbomb quest system was designed by...

BioWare

I would have the following dialogue options:

  • [Renegade+10] Punch Jeff for insinuating that I've to work for my rewards
  • [Renegade+5] Intimidate Jeff by telling him that withholding rewards can be bad for his health
  • I don't have time for this...
  • Tell me more about this quest...
  • [Paragon+5] Sweet talk Jeff into giving me extra xp for no good reason
  • [Paragon+10] Complete the quest promptly while also posting hints for others

*All wiki pages are now fully voiced by the Giantbomb crew.

GSC Gameworld (the S.T.A.L.K.E.R guys)

After visiting the quest log, I would

  • Kill Dave for introducing me to the quest system
  • Complete the quest and then kill Dave for extra xp
  • Browse all day for the answers, get lost in the giant database and then come back to kill Dave
  • Try to complete the quest and get betrayed/ambushed by Dave. Obviously, I'd have to kill Dave in this scenario too.

*The entire site is now available only in the brown shade and requires the flashlight page to be open at all times for proper viewing.

From Software

  • Users have 30 mins to complete all quests. Failure to do so redirects users to the Death page and halves the screensize.
  • Users can leave sticky notes on top of each page to help others with their quest.
  • In the ultimate invasion of privacy, you can now watch glimpses of what others are browsing.

*Visiting the Death page results in loss of all wiki points and user levels.

Square Enix

  • Clicking on any link might direct you to the Vanille page.
  • Once you arrive on a quest related page, you're automatically put on a guided tour of the site.
  • Upon restarting GB in a new tab, you'll be given two options: Press X to continue the tour or close the browser.

*Giantbomb is now available in fuchsia, cyan and lime themes. Also, the "bomb" now sports a zipper.

Bethesda

Upon receiving a quest, users have the option to:

  • Try to complete the quest by clicking on links but fail due to the janky code
  • Continuously refresh the "Jump" page to increase level
  • Turn into a vampire by visiting the vampire page
  • Contribute to the Horse Armor page for +100 XP & a slightly prettier load screen.

*Clicking on any wiki page now automatically plays Morrowind's theme song.

Valve or Blizzard

Still in development.

I totally did this for the blog quest.

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DICE Highlights

An Insight into Indie Games with Chris Taylor & Mike Capps 

 
Adam Sessler talks to Chris Taylor (Head of Gas Powered Games) and Mike Capps (President of Epic) about the challenges of independent development. Tim Schafer was sadly MIA.  
   
[Source]  
 
Indie games are usually the breeding grounds for creative and niche titles so I'd definitely like to see them survive. But the middle bracket of developers like Gas Powered Games is a dying breed and the economic situation is forcing them to eschew innovation for mass appeal. It's an odd situation and I don't know how they are going to fare in the future.
 

Future of Games by Jesse Schell

Jesse Schell is the author of "The Art of Game Design", one of the best books for designing games and gameplay. His talk about how gaming can be applied to almost every facet of life and how this conversion is already in progress. 
 
     
[Source
  
I'm fascinated by Schell's idea for a game-fied future. He is absolutely spot on in his observation that people love the idea of XP and constant progression. Achievements have a tendency to make people do what they would normally ignore.
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Bill Gates is Batman

Because he will save 7.6 million children this decade. The challenges he takes on are straight out of a comic book.

Bill and Melinda Gates announced plans Friday to invest $10 billion in the fight against a number of illnesses including AIDS and said the record donation could save nearly nine million lives. 

"By significantly scaling up the delivery of life-saving vaccines in developing countries to 90 percent coverage -- including new vaccines to prevent severe diarrhea and pneumonia -- the model suggests that we could prevent the deaths of some 7.6 million children under 5 from 2010-2019." 

I know a video game forum is not the best place to air my thoughts on this but I feel like people just need to stop their portrayal of Bill Gates as some kind of evil genius that's out to get you. Yes, he is blessed with enormous wealth but unlike every other celebrity or head honcho, this guy puts his money where his mouth is. Since '94, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has donated over $21 billion and this latest donation of $10 billion is the largest ever recorded for a single cause. 

 
I've always had a very soft spot for any kind of philanthropy and I hold a personal belief of helping others any way I can (I donated my entire video game collection after passing high school - it was probably the only thing I had of any value back then). As a result, I've grown up admiring Bill Gates & Warren Buffet and their incredible effort in this field. These are individuals with genuinely good hearts and a great vision to go along with it. How many men in history can claim to have saved over 7 million lives as a direct result of their actions ? I'm truly in awe.

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Guide: How to survive the suicide mission & save everyone?

Here is a breakdown on how to save everyone through the ending of Mass Effect 2 and get the No One Left Behind achievement or trophy. Apart from the ubiquitous revelation that you're walking into a suicide mission, there are no other spoilers here.

Most importantly:

  • Loyalty: Get max loyalty with everyone to guarantee their survival. You'll be using a majority of your team in someway or another. It's imperative that you do this because normal/non-loyal team members are bad choices for any kind of mission (especially escort or your own team). Some people have reported success with non-loyal members on lower difficulties but it's very much a hit-and-miss kind of thing. Get your conversation hat on and get them loyal.
  • Ship Upgrades: Get the following ship upgrades: Armor (Jacob), Shields (Tali) & Thanix Cannon (Garrus)
  • Pick the right team: You have to choose the right people for every job. The selection is usually very limited and the following table can help you figure out who goes where.

The following factors also come into play:

  • Weapon & Research Upgrades: Not a priority but it helps to research character specific upgrades like Jack's L5 Implants since it makes them more viable for their respective roles.
  • Alignment: Your Paragon/Renegade alignment don't make a direct impact on who gets to live but they are essential in gaining your teammates' trust. Some dialogue options are only available at 75% or higher. If you lose the trust of a team member, you need 100% alignment to win them back.
  • Specialists: Assign specialists for each job, hybrids don't cut it. The requirements for each sub-mission will be made fairly obvious to you by the game itself. Pay close attention to the dialogue options and choose carefully as to who does what. Refer to the following table if you need directions.
  • Mission Dependencies: Often the success of one squad member will effect the life of another - all the sub-missions are connected somehow. Look at all your choices if you think a team member is dying in spite of being the right person for the job.

If you satisfy the above conditions, Shepard will survive. In addition, if you want everyone else in your team to make it through (for the achievement), these following approaches are known to work:

Combination

Vents

1st (Fire) Squad Leader

Shield

2nd (Fire) Squad Leader

Escort

Final Team

Notes (assume all loyal unless mentioned)
Recommended ChoicesLegion/Tali/KasumiGarrus/Miranda/JacobSamara or Jack w/ implantsGarrus/Miranda/JacobAnyone will do but Mordin is the ideal choice.Any 2 from the following: Jack, Tali, Kasumi, Miranda, Thane, SamaraPick only loyal members for any of these roles
#1/KilljoiTaliMirandaJackMirandaJacobMiranda+GruntInsanity.
#2/Ham08LegionGarrusJackMirandaGruntMiranda+Mordin
#3/HilikusLegionGarrusSamaraGarrusJacobThane+Garrus
#4/KilljoiLegionJacobSamaraJacobLegionGarrus+ThaneHardcore
#5/Chaser324TaliGarrusSamaraGarrusJacobMordin+Garrus
#6/NelanderLegionGarrusJackMirandaJacobMiranda+Samara
#7/NoXiousLegionGarrusSamaraMirandaMordinLegion+GarrusMordin died when Grunt was escort
#8/ShiftyMagicianTaliGarrusSamaraMirandaGarrusTali+Mordin
#9/NovyxLegionGarrusSamaraJacobZaeedTali+Jack
#10/9mmLegionGarrusSamaraMirandaMordinLegion+GarrusInsanity
#11/LukeLegionGarrusSamaraJacobGruntMiranda+Mordin
#12/SarumarineLegionJacobSamaraMirandaZaeedMordin+Jack
#13/MrDorkinsTaliGarrusSamaraGarrusThane-Jack was not loyal
#14/ImperiousRixLegionGarrusSamaraMirandaMordinThane+TaliZaeed was not loyal
#15/RenahzorLegionMirandaSamaraMirandaGarrusTali+JacobFull Paragon
#16/Joeyoe31TaliMirandaSamaraGarrusGruntTali+LegionFull Renegade
#17/MelaMedLegionGarrusSamaraMirandaJacobTali+Mordin
#18/Spiritwolf99LegionGarrusJackGarrusThaneTali+Grunt
#19/LaurenLegionGarrusSamaraGarrusGruntThane+GarrusFull Paragon on Veteran
#20/AndorskiLegionJacobSamaraMirandaGarrusTali+Jack
#21/TeranTaliGarrusJackGarrusJacobLegion+ZaeedInfiltrator, Full Renegade on Insantiy.
#22/AntonShpakLegionGarrusSamaraMirandaMordinLegion+GarrusJack - not loyal, Insanity
#23/CloneTrooperTaliGarrusSamaraGarrusMordinLegion+GarrusMiranda - not loyal
#24/thecobraLegionGarrusSamaraGarrusMordinTali+JacobJack - not loyal.
#25/GaarLegionGarrusSamaraGarrusMordinTali+SamaraMiranda - not loyal
#26/vpcwiuTaliGarrusSamaraGarrusMordinMiranda+GruntJack - not loyal

FAQs/More Strategies

  • Dealing with non-loyal team members - Miranda/Jack situation - If Miranda or Jack (or any other character) are not loyal, they have a tendency to die during the final cutscene, even if you don't use them. Here is a possible solution that works on Normal difficulty - pick a weak final team and send a weak loyal character on escort. Recommended characters to take with you are: Tali, Samara, Thane, Kasumi, Miranda or Jack (who ever is loyal). Send someone like Mordin on escort as well. The aim is to leave behind a physically strong ground squad (characters like Garrus, Legion, Grunt, Zaeed). The reason is the game tallies up some kind of hidden score and your ground team's chances of survival increase if you leave behind more number of tough fighters. Just as an example, on my Insanity playthrough, I used Garrus+Grunt for the final battle and Mordin ended up dead. To fix this, I used Miranda+Grunt instead and everyone survived.
  • Dealing with non-loyal team members (the lazy way) - You can always turn down the difficulty to Casual and not use the disloyal member at all.
  • Random death of loyal team members - There are certain combinations where a loyal team member dies during the final cutscene for no apparent reason. I found that changing your final team can help solve this. Like the above case, a good general strategy would be to take a weaker team with you to the final battle; just make sure they are all loyal. For the rear guard, leave behind strong, combat focused characters that can hold their own in a firefight. Characters that work well for this are Grunt, Thane, Zaeed and Legion. Characters that have a tendency to die in this scenario are Mordin, Tali, Kasumi and Miranda.
  • Trouble in vents ? - If your tech specialist is taking one in the head in spite of all the upgrades & max loyalty, try changing your 1st squad leader to Garrus/Miranda.
  • Picking an escort - As long as the rest of the squads do their job perfectly, the escort choice is almost inconsequential. Just make sure he/she is loyal and they will all survive. It's a good place to send your wimpy characters to.
  • Escort dying ? - In the odd case that the escort dies, try switching your 2nd (Fire) Squad Leader to a loyal Garrus or Miranda.
  • Mordin - Quite a few people are having trouble with Mordin dying for no apparent reason, even with max loyalty and all. Try using him as an escort or even part of your final team to fix this problem.
  • Saving the Normandy Crew (NPCs) - This depends entirely on how quickly you decide to use the Omega 4 relay. If you want to save everyone, use it as soon as it is available. The relay opens exactly one mission after the IFF and its recommended you use that time for Legion's loyalty mission. Any time wasted on side missions or other loyalty quests at this point will result in loss of lives. Your final team makeup will have no effect on who survives. The NPCs don't matter for the achievement.

Flow chart

The guys at Game Informer produced this flow chart back in June which presents the above information in a nifty format. You can view the hi-res version here (just hit the zoom in button at the center) or download it from the original GI article here.

If all else fails...

Game Informer Guide

Turn down the difficulty setting from the Options > Gameplay menu. Team members with Normal loyalty have a higher chance of dying on the harder difficulty settings. If you just want the achievement or maybe want a perfect save game for ME3, just swallow your pride and turn it down to Casual. It might save everyone's hide.

Thanks to the GB community for all the feedback. If you finished the game, please do tell what worked (or DIDN'T work) for you and I'll add your strategy to the list.

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