Summer Backlog: Brutal Legend

So, I got to thinking: I should really stop fucking around with Cook, Serve Delicious, Total War: Rome 2, and Sins of a Solar Empire. I should start clearing out my Steam backlog. The first game I tried to take off my list was Bulletstorm. Well, it turns out that game doesn't work anymore because GFWL is down. It felt like cheating when I changed the category to my "done with" section, but now there's one less game on the list, and still plenty to go.

Alphabetically adjacent to this was Brutal Legend, another game I'd been holding onto for much too long. Have you ever had a game or a book you procrastinated finishing because you didn't want it to end? This was me with Brutal Legend, except instead of procrastinating the end, I was procrastinating the beginning. I knew that this strange convergence of heavy metal fandom and video games was doomed never to be repeated after its poor sales, and I somehow knew that I would both love what the game stood for while not loving what it was.

I think that most of the ink that needs to be spilled about this game already has been, so I won't talk about how the RTS section was underdeveloped and the character action was unsatisfying. I won't talk about how it feels like an act was stripped out of the game. I just want to talk about one thing - how fucking effective was all that metal they played in the background? When it wanted you to race, they put on some Motorhead or Megadeth and you wanted to race. When Ophelia drowned, they played Ozzy Osbourne and man, it was creepy (I wanted to link this video, but YouTube has blocked the audio on videos containing it). When you fought the second to last battle they played In Flames, and it was epic.

I want to give credit to the artists for what they did with the world. It was lovingly crafted, but funny in a glib way at best. I would go as far as to say the things that made this game enjoyable are 25% Jack Black and 75% the heavy metal they play in the background. It's so easy. And it seems like I may never get the chance to observe it at work again. Say what you will about Double Fine - the game they delivered was the game that they made, and no amount of cut content would have changed its mechanics. The real tragedy of Brutal Legend is that metal had its day in video games, and now, it seems, it is dead.

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FFVII Redux

So as most of my blogs seem to be, this is basically a braindump after having completed a game that has some emotional resonance with me. This time, it's FF7. It isn't the first time I've played it, or even the second, but it is the first time in many years, after downloading Square's PC version and applying the Tifa's Bootleg mod for graphics and music. It didn't bring the game up to the modern age, but it smoothed over some of the rough edges that make it really hard to go back to this game today. Before I get much further, suffice it to say I still enjoy FF7, so if you're the sort who's irretrievably opposed to it, I'll be writing way too much positive to hold your attention.

What is still good about FF7

Something that FF7 doesn't get enough credit for is being the most difficult FF story that Square ever wrote. It's a story that's tinged with bittersweet nostalgia for things lost, a story where the most memorable conflict is actually between the main character and his inability to come to terms with what he's done. It also presents a very complicated villain in the form of Shinra - both President Rufus and his son do a bit of moustache-twirling where our heroes are concerned, but ultimately, they still represent the power of human industry. They spare no expense and no ounce of human ingenuity to try to save humanity from destruction, even if there are those who are wiser who know their methods are not the best. There are later FF's that approach complex topics with greater maturity, but not many (XII, mainly).

The other thing, which is probably less controversial, is the music. I'm not sure if it's just that it brings me back, but I don't think so. Some of these tracks are really good, even in their old 1997 glory. This one is very reminiscent of the theme to Last Samurai with its use of percussion.

Even so, as part of the modding process, I was able to hook in some remixes that impressed me. Here are two of my favorites, but it was hard to choose. First is the theme from the Chocobo Farm (I know, not one you'd immediately think of):

Here's the theme for Wutai:

You can only experience something for the first time once, and in a way, FF7 came in such a formative time of my life (I think I was 14) that it's impossible for me to separate things that I enjoy about this game today from memories about things that I found very impressive fifteen years ago. Some of the memories are so strong that it seriously messed me up with nostalgia, that I'd put in user information into forms that was ten years old after playing for extending periods. FF7 is in many ways a game about coming to terms with falling short of our dreams, whether it be through Cloud's failure to reach SOLDIER, Barret's inability to stop Shinra with his rag-tag band of rebels or CId's lost dream of reaching space. At the stage of life I'm in, thinking back on where and who I was the first time I played this game, that's a message that resonates in ways that go way beyond any credit the writers deserve.

What is not as good about FF7 as I thought before

I'd say that the biggest flaw in FF7 that I really hadn't realized existed is in the characters. The designs are varied and interesting, but most of the characterization is paper thin. Tifa, Cid, and Barret all have very solid and consistent personalities, but Cloud's personality is all over the place (and that's not just his schizophrenia talking). Additionally, Cait Sith & Red XIII are characters with good ideas whose personalities never really match up with what they are supposed to be (Cait Sith, Shinra spy and lovable doofus? Red XIII, descendent of a noble race of guardians and temperamental teen?) and Vincent and Yuffie, the secret (yeah right) characters, are both paper-thin, however cool you thought his red cape was when you were 12. FF7 had a lot of narrative, but not much time devoted to character dialogue. This is an area in which Final Fantasy improved greatly in later installments.

The boss fights are another weak area. FF7 has great boss music, but the fights themselves are really easy. I think I died to a boss once in the entire game, not counting my ill-fated attempts at the weapons. (It's not their fault - I'm just not enough of a completionist to slave over grinding up to killing those things.) Despite having an extremely complex network of magic types and resistances and stats, bosses require no preparation and almost no strategy to defeat. Definitely not what I remembered from my youth.

On the possibility of an FF7 remake

Every time a new generation of consoles comes, people ask if now is the time to revive Final Fantasy 7. Honestly, they could have done it this past generation, if they'd wanted to. I still maintain that FF7 is the most deserving of a remake, because the goofy "chibi" art style that it comes in, along with first generation 3D graphics, really can't convey the very serious story it wants to tell any longer. However, while I once thought all the game needed was a new coat of paint, I see now that there is more room for improvement than just that. Perhaps that's why they've held off. Even if SE does go through with a remake of FFVII, however, I'm not sure I can come along for the ride. When I played FFVII this time around, I realized its story for what it is - it is a reminder not to live in the past, to accept what we did and what we did not, and to look to the future unburdened by what came before. In a way, to revisit it again would be to ignore that message.

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Can games tell some stories better than movies?

(Contains spoilers for Spec Ops the Line)

There is a genre of story out there about a man who, while no saint at its outset, nevertheless finds out just how far down he can spiral by the movie's end, without hope of redemption or salvation. It's really not my favorite sort of movie. Generally, when I find out the movie I'm watching is one of these, I'll turn it off. Even if not, I'll have emotionally tuned out. All those bad choices the character makes to bring it on himself aren't my choices, and the fact that he made them makes me disown him. He brought that shit on himself, why should I feel sorry for him? I just feel uncomfortable, like someone watching a train wreck. (I guess a lot of people are into that, but I'm not).

Spec Ops is a lot like that kind of movie, but I didn't disown my character because his choices were my choices... at least, for the most part, they were. There were a few places where the writers would have been better to force my hand than to have my character make a batshit decision, but for the most part, I legitimately felt terrible about what I had done in/to Dubai.

Not me

I think that a lot of people would say this same logic would apply to any game driven by your character's choices, i.e., RPGs, but I don't really feel that's the case. RPGs almost invariably have happy endings, and making a story with a happy ending that people are engaged by even without making their own choices isn't hard, for a storyteller with any talent at any rate. The Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular stories of all time, and its readers have never once made a choice about its outcome. Spec Ops: The Line has taught me that making a choice only affects my interest in a story when the outcome of that choice is bad. In retrospect, this lesson also explains why the Witcher was such a revelation to me.

As I mentioned before, though, there are some places where Spec Ops could have managed this even better. For example:

Me?

1) Why did I destroy the radio tower? "Because I want to test out this gun" is a pretty dumb reason. I'm not sure why Adams followed my orders.

2) Why didn't I opt to leave the city?

These are choices the game made for me, and in so doing, I lost attachment to my character. Because my character made choices that my circumstances did not justify (in my mind, anyway), it wasn't really me that I chose to shoot in the head at the end of the story. It was just a guy I had helped at some points along the line (no pun intended).

I don't really think that this genre has a future as a staple of the industry. Downers in general are always going to be a niche market, because a lot of people aren't a fan of that sort of ending. Furthermore, one of my first thoughts after finishing Spec Ops was "I am never going to play that again." Liked it, thought it was mostly well done, really emotionally felt it, but I did not have fun and I did not want more. This lack of replay value - and Spec Ops' multiplayer was nothing to write home about (nor should it have been there. It really can't be) - means it's tough to argue for a game like this at the full $60 retail. I paid something like $10 for this, but I don't think any game like this will ever make a ton of money at more than a $40 price point. Spec Ops did not meet sales expectations, and I have a hard time saying that was a crime considering its shortfalls as a piece of entertainment, regardless of its surprising or transcendent qualities.

Your Honor, I swear I didn't kill those 600 men. I mean, let's be serious, how could I?

One last point, and this is something I complained about with Max Payne 3, too. It's time for video games to consider just how many enemies we're asked to kill. Okay, in Devil May Cry and Diablo, the entire point is killing hordes of bad guys. I enjoy doing so, and it's fun. but in games like Max Payne and Spec Ops, which are supposed to be serious pieces of work and not just escapist action, we're still building up ludicrous bodycounts. Glancing at my achievements, my little squad of three Delta Operators killed at least 600 people in Dubai while being outnumbered an average of 3 to 1 throughout the story. Okay, we're badasses and I'm good at video games, but when the game's loading screen asks me "How many Americans have you killed today" I don't feel bad, because I can't process the fact that I have actually killed American soldiers and not half-intelligent video game drones thrown at me in sufficient numbers to keep my trigger finger busy. I'm not pretending I have the answer, but if video games want to bring the modern military shooter to something approaching Apocalypse Now instead of GI Joe, they need to figure out a way to present a realistic sense of scale.

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Mass Effect 3, the Final Complete Playthrough

After 5 months, I have finally completed my quest to follow Mass Effect from beginning to end. and to muse on my experiences along the way from both a gameplay and story perspective. I feel obliged to warn you that I could probably be classified as an ME3 apologist, so if you'd like to avoid growing angry with a person like me, or if reading a wall of text doesn't sound like your cup of tea, I direct you to the back button. It's probably at about -50 degrees from this point on the screen. If you're interested in following my reactions from the beginning, it starts here.

I said I was a Mass Effect 3 apologist, but my second playthrough of ME3 revealed to me a dramatic flaw in the game that I did not experience the first time around - character importing, which I had been led to believe was fixed. What was worse was that character creation used a totally different set of stock features, and seemingly to me, a set that was less effective at getting a human-looking character out of the bargain. I ended up going with the default femshep, but her surreal features began to bug me, and so for the first time I made my default armor one of the complete sets that kept her in a full helmet as often as possible. Ultimately, however, this flaw ended up being so serious that I no longer felt like I was playing the same character as I had before. With my attachment to this character as low as it already was (I explain this in the first installment) I ultimately gave up on Female Shepard after the Geth Quarian mission, and returned to my default dude. Male Vanguard Shepard has always been a bit of a mixed bag. He let the council die, but saved the rachni queen. He went full renegade in ME2 and destroyed the Krogan cure, but also destroyed the collector base. His first time through the game had been a paragon run. This time, he was going to be true to himself - on insanity.

Gameplay

Everyone knows ME3 is the shootiest Mass Effect, and with the addition of dodging and shifting between cover, the game actually begins to feel like a full action game. I have to admit, though, I don't really play it that way in single player. I hold down RB to select my allies' powers instead of using the shortcuts (though I do use my own) and I often even use that screen to fine-tune my aim with the shotgun. Close quarters aiming is probably ME3's greatest weakness. I'm not sure whether to blame a reticule that's too wide or whether it's the lack of any auto-aim to speak of. Either way, it's really easy to do a biotic charge and miss. At the same time, this was the first time Mass Effect combat was responsive enough for me to really want to play on the highest difficulty. And there were indeed times when that difficulty got to me. I don't know if it had to do with my choice of armor or upgrades, or just the fact that I insisted on using my biotic charge, but if I opened myself to a single burst of enemy fire, I was pretty much dead. I think it took about five standard enemy rounds to kill me. I actually really liked this, and it was probably one of the few times that I felt like the amount of damage I could take was "realistic" without forcing an overly deliberate style of play, thanks to the quick ability recharge (drain energy being a key one) to keep hovering on the edge of destruction without falling over..

In multiplayer, where none of this pausing is an option, the game just doesn't seem fluid enough. Without having the time to consider my actions, I often find my character rushing into the wrong cover or getting stuck on things, and in turn, for some reason, this leads to me pushing the buttons too hard and my hands hurting. I assume it has something to do with trying to force my character to cooperate, which isn't a good thing.

The Multiplayer

Speaking of multiplayer, it's really interesting to me how popular this has remained - though I will not-so-humbly point out that I predicted before the game was out that it would have a long life, as Mass Effect 3's many superfans are left with nothing else of their favorite franchise to look forward to (in the immediate future). I wouldn't be surprised if this is, in fact, the main reason that ME3's multiplayer remains as populated as it is, as I really don't see the long term appeal of it in a mechanical sense. The shooting is inferior, the ability wheels are too simple, the teamwork elements are minimal (no ammo packs or healing, no enemy marking, just revives) and enemies soak up too many bullets. I have to admit the item slot machine they designed was pretty clever. Even without really having any intention of maxing out any good guns, I've probably bought at least a few dozen item packs (with in-game currency. I'm not crazy.) However, as they've expanded the mulitplayer and added more high-end guns and characters, the odds of getting multiple levels of *anything* that's rare or ultra-rare is prohibitively low, especially if you're like me and not playing with friends. As such, silver is the highest level of difficulty I can reliably beat. At any rate, despite these complaints, it was a good idea to have multiplayer in ME3, and for a first time effort, Bioware did pretty well with what they had.

The Side-Missions

I'll get the negative out of the way first - I would almost say that ME3 would be a better game with no side missions at all. I say almost not because I actually enjoyed the side missions (though the N7 missions were fun little sandboxes to enjoy your powers in) but because I actually did enjoy coming back after I finished scanning planets and reading the little descriptive text for all the various assets I found. If only they factored more visibly in the end game. But I won't get ahead of myself. I don't need to go on about these at length, but I will just point out that if they'd had the time to associate short little 5 minute sidequests for each of these like they had in ME2? That would have been 500% better and extremely impressive, instead of seeming like a cheap way of reusing old code from the previous game. Probably the place where the game's tight schedule bit the hardest, because you know that if they had an order of priorities, these were at the bottom. If you look at it like, "They had 2 days to create sidequests, and this is what they came up with" it actually becomes sort of impressive - in a totally irksome way.

The Story

I'm not going to reopen old wounds by talking about the various issues with Mass Effect's "Diamond-shaped" story arc. To be honest, there was only one time in the course of ME3 (aside from character creation) where something they decided to do made me think - "Hey, but what about what I did in ME1/2?" That one point was where my female Shepard took on the Rachni, whom she had eliminated previously. They went to way too little effort to create a secondary path for that eventuality. I'm not saying this in defense of the game, necessarily. I definitely think they should have done more with the Collector Base decision, particularly given it was really the only one you made. I'm just saying that I wasn't thinking about it while I was playing, so it didn't diminish my enjoyment.

What I want to give ME3's story credit for is something much more simple than the question of the big decisions. It's the deliberate pacing and good dialogue that really help you feel your long-standing relationships with the characters, with Ashley, Garrus, Liara, and Tali particularly. The new characters are good, especially Javik, but it's those last conversations you have, as you realize that the end is near, and as finally, your crew have made their peace and accepted it, that is really, truly outstanding. I've never played a game where as NPCs were telling me, "I guess this is it. Goodbye", I was saying it back to them. A part of it is just because I've been playing with them for 3 games, but god knows I didn't feel like that for Sgt. Johnson or Dom.

The Decisions

ME3 only really has three decisions that matter. I stuck with my paragon solution to the Geth and Quarians, but having let Eve die, I decided to take the renegade route on the Krogan thing. I thought that shooting Mordin in the back was fucked up enough, but shit really got real when I shot up Wrex in the citadel. I felt like a scumbag for selling him out, but the truth was, Wrex should never have been alive in the first place. My gut instinct was always to kill him on Virmire, and I simply left him alive because his replacement was so colorless in ME2. Miranda also ended up dead because I wouldn't trust her (even though I already knew what she was doing from my previous playthrough). All in all, I didn't have many of my suicide crew left - just Grunt, Jacob, Jack & Zaeed. I killed Samara for Morinth (who did not help me out with the end of the universe - bitch) and Kasumi's quest bugged out, which is apparently something they never bothered to fix. I never liked her anyway. Is there a way I could have lost Grunt, Jacob, or Jack? I'm curious - I can't think of how I might have done so. But hey, I saved Steve Cortez this time. That has to count for something.

Of course I haven't mentioned the last decision, which is...

The Ending

Oh, god, you say, not this again! Well, fair enough. I'll keep my opinion brief. The extended cut helped a lot with explaining the ending I did get, though the little concept art pieces in the aftermath were worthless. I don't have a problem with the ending. My first time through, my paragon run, I chose destroy. My second, I chose control, because on Insanity, my Shepard was willing to make the hard calls that got people killed. Originally, my opinion of the ending was: I understood generally what happened with the Star Child (and believe it or not, Leviathan did not signficantly alter my understanding of what he was), but everything after that is a disjointed mess that makes no sense. The EC solves that latter problem. At the same time, I agree with a couple of the things the GB crew said. A) I believe that the ending would have been better if it had just cut out after you and Anderson sit down, without any decision to make at all and B) I agree that it should have been possible to win with the refuse option if you had done, like, literally everything you could to get every fleet on board. Naturally it would be difficult to implement both of these solutions at once, but I was actually very satisfied with reaper-Shepard's narrated monologue, aside from the fact it wasn't quite renegade enough. But then, my character ended up being a net paragon (just barely), so maybe he shouldn't have been.

The Future

So, there will be another Mass Effect. I, for one, will probably buy it. I have a strong preference, however, for the sequel over the prequel option. Prequels are a cop out, and while they can have nice stories (e.g. Reach) it's also better to be surprised - especially by an adventure game like Mass Effect. But if there's a sequel, what should it be?

The control option seems like a pretty good canon that actually fits in with some stuff I've seen them do before. Imagine this - in the far flung future, the Shepard rules all with his tyrranical fist. There is prosperity, but there is also stagnation, as the Reapers prevent species from building the arms necessary to defeat them, and in turn, they cannot protect themselves from the threats posed by species beyond known space (this would probably have to be a different galaxy). However, only the mass relays in the most populous systems are a part of this empire. Other systems, lacking the means to repair their own relays, became isolated and developed separately. Without the Reapers to police them, they have developed in ways that surpass the empire in some ways, but are lacking in others. You are from one of these planets, and are the captain of the ship who is leading the first voyage through the newly discovered mass relay. Discovering what has become of the galaxy beyond, you begin to unite the discontent into a force that can finally overthrow the Shepard and allow the races to develop freely, following their own path once again.

Also, please add capital ship combat, along with a crew-buliding element that goes beyond your own party members.

Lingering Questions

There is just one point in all of Mass Effect 3 that makes no sense to me. Legion was somehow never convinced that it would be correct for the Geth to join the reapers. Why? At the same time, he was used as a relay for the Reaper code. Why? Are either of these answers really explained?

There's also another part of the lore carried over from ME2 that I don't understand. According to the Star Child, the Reapers create a machine copy of each species to preserve their essence and their accomplishments. If so, then why do all proper reapers appear to be of the Leviathan race? Are the others just left in dark space and not used for the harvest because they're too valuable to lose?

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Mass Effect 2, the final complete playthrough.

Intro

As I began in my previous entry in the blog (here, if you care), so I shall continue, marching through Mass Effect from start to finish, plotting the trajectory of the story in one continuous stream.

Hot off the heels of the great credits music of ME1 (here, feel free to listen to it in the background), I slipped in Mass Effect 2. I haven't seen a poll to this effect, but if I had to guess, I'd say that most people would vote for ME2 as their favorite game as the series. I'm not sure which my favorite is. My review of ME1 went much as I expected - I began by playing through all the side content, and started to absolutely hate ME1, but when I played the remaining story missions all in one big run, I left with a much rosier view. Will ME2's more complete experience supplant it, or will its ho-hum middle chapter side-story sink it?

Let me start by saying that ME2 definitely has the most game to it of any Mass Effect. If you were to sit down with this game now, with all the expansions, and play 100% of its content, I think it'd probably come in around 50 hours. It really does just keep going. However, while I might phrase this as a positive under normal circumstances, I have played ME2 more times than any other episode in the series, including a couple attempts at the insanity achievement that I gave up on because I'd grown too bored of the story. That made completing ME2 this time a real slog, which I regret.

Gameplay

Ground combat is much improved in ME2, bolstered in part by more tactile shooting, the end of the bullet-spread reticule, and in no small part due to better environments. Really, the amount of effort they went to in crafting even those minor side planets that net you almost nothing of value is quite impressive. I really don't have any qualms about the way they actioned ME2 up, and man, was it ever so much more helpful to be able to order your squadmates separately. Not only that, but they can actually hit what they shoot at! At the same time, as the shooting became more functional, it was harder to ignore the missing 'dodge' button. They wouldn't add any kind of rolling or cover transitions until 3, which, considering when Gears came out, is kind of surprising.

It also introduced the mechanic of shielding enemies from certain tech attacks depending on their armor type. This was a minor tactical nuisance at Veteran, where I'm playing through the series, but at Hardcore and Insanity, the levels of shielding make playing a lot more cumbersome. When your singularity or whatever it is is only working on one unshielded enemy out of a set of five, it hardly worth it to switch from your guns to your biotics, making soldier the least irritating class to play. Not a fan of this decision, though without it, the game would be too easy. I suppose I'd call this a bigger problem with the difficulty scaling then the mechanics.

The best part of the gameplay is the final mission, where you actually assign tasks to your crew that they're best suited for. This is a rare instance in a modern RPG where the game actually tries to make use of all your characters even though the mechanics dont' allow for them to all be fighting at once. I think it worked great, and I would have been pleased as punch if every mission in ME3 were built this way. (Granted, it's a much smaller cast in that game).

Story

This is definitely ME2's weakest point. As I mentioned earlier, I rolled into ME2 with all the momentum you could possibly bring in from ME1. From a bird's eye view, the transition of Mass Effect, from the discovery of the reapers, to proxy war with the reapers (via the Collectors) to actual war with the Reapers seems like a pretty good continuum. ME2 might have actually pulled it off, even with its fragmented structure, if your crewmates' various troubles had something to do with the collectors. As it is, though, with the collectors rarely appearing throughout the game, it's hard to feel they're quite the threat to humanity that you're led to believe. Yes, they're certainly evil and yes they're certainly killing a lot of people, but if humanity would just stop colonizing planets without defending them, they'd be pretty harmless.

As it is, ME2 is a nice game to live in for awhile. You see the sights, get to know the various populated planets, and get to know your crew members and help them work things out. The stories on the small level are fun, but when you're actually trying to make forward progress toward ME3 and aren't just looking to kill some time with an RPG, its charm fades a bit. The game doesn't pick up its endgame momentum until literally the final mission, and when it does, it starts it off on totally the wrong foot with the non sequitur decision for your entire crew to get on a shuttle and go on a mission that you never even go on. The first time I played ME2, I didn't notice this. I accepted that I was probably going on a mission and the attack on the Normandy distracted me and made me forget what had happened. Now, I run into that part and want to slap someone. That is a seriously lazy point.

I have to give ME2 credit for one thing though, which is the steady elaboration on the two main conflicts that feed into the most dramatic moments in ME3 - the Geth/Quarian rivalry and the Krogan genophage.

Characters

ME1 had a pretty weak cast of characters, and a pretty small one, by RPG standards, especially if you let some of them die. ME2 went way overboard in correcting this. So many of them are good characters, and you can hardly use them. It's hard to shake the feeling, also, that these characters are designed to be incomplete in part in order to justify the large cast. If there were too many abilities per companion, there would be too few combinations to spread among them. I even like Jacob, who people like to rag on for being the least interesting character there. The only character I could never stand was Thane - not because I had any issue with his personality, I just couldn't stand the stupid stream of consciousness style of recollection the writers gave him.

The combination of the huge cast and the suicide mission gimmick (I've never lost a crew member in the suicide mission) made for one of the worst things about ME3, which is the non-return of any character introduced in ME2 to your party. Well, except EDI. Because they all had to be able to die, they had to account for the possibility they weren't around, and because there were so many of them, they couldn't exactly record dialogue for each and any one of them. Imagine this: Say the crew manifest was reduced to Garrus, Miranda, Tali, Mordin, and Thane, and Jack. (Removing underdeveloped or two-dimensional characters like Samara, Grunt, Legion and Jacob, and the DLC chars or reducing them to supporting roles like Kelly Chambers). If they had done that, you'd probably have gotten some of them back for your last mission.

Overview

Mass Effect 2 is a super solid game that's diminished by the fact that it's part of a series. If it had been a standalone RPG, people might have remarked on its weak overall plot, but they wouldn't have been expecting anything specifically more, either. However, in the ways that made it part of a larger whole, I feel like the writers and designers dropped the ball on several counts that made it difficult to follow on in the third installment. Nevertheless, it remains a fun game to play, particularly with the heavier, slower-firing weapons, and the Vanguard charge in particular is one of the funnest things in a game. It's also a game that had the necessary time put into it. There are none of the rough edges in ME2 that you'd see in later Bioware work like DA2 and ME3. Down the most minute detail, everything is well-made, and there's so much of that stuff that you have to admire the craftsmanship that went into it.

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Mass Effect, the final complete playthrough.

Intro

It's funny, because I glanced at the Mass Effect page and saw someone was doing a very similar thing already, at just the same time. I briefly considered not posting at all, but then, what the hell. It's my blog. It's almost gotta be irrelevant to other people by definition, right?

So, Mass Effect 3 now has it's officially final ending. There will be DLC, which I will probably play, but it will not change the story. I figured there's no better time than to play straight through, beginning of the story to end, without any interruption in between. Naturally, that starts with Mass Effect 1. Mass Effect is a really important franchise to me. It's big, it's smart, it's my favorite game trilogy of all time and probably my favorite RPG as well. So I felt I needed to commit my thoughts to digital paper on it as I complete this journey, even if I'm doing so in a public forum but for explicitly private purposes. Still, I hope someone is bored enough to read this someday and provide their own thoughts. I'm only about halfway through the main story now, as I post this, but I will update with additional thoughts as the story proceeds.

Character Creation

I've beaten Mass Effect 1 3 times, I believe (or maybe 2, with one playthrough that I didn't quite finish). I know the story like the back of my hand and know what sidequests to expect and where, though I seem to have forgotten 'when' in some cases. How do I keep this fresh? Well, naturally, by doing my very first 'femshep' playthrough. I've played ME 1 with the female avatar before, and I sort of recognized that Jennifer Hale turned in the superior performance from the beginning. But male Shepard was my Shepard, and so it felt to artificial to carry on with. I can't say I feel any differently about it now; everything that happens seems to be in some bizarre alternate universe, where Spock has a beard and Shepard has tits (not very large ones, though).

The primary dilemma this presents me with is, who to romance? In all of my previous playthroughs of ME1 as a male character, I always settled on Ashley, as I hated (and continue to hate) Liara. Damned spineless, inept, hippy Asarian, and always fishing for sympathy. "Shepard, have you come to check up on me?" "No," I say. "I'm just here to talk about your mother, who somehow managed not to pass her hotness gene onto you. You must take after your father." So really, the only option I have is: Kaidan or not Kaidan? I've already resolved that for once, Kaidan will be the one to survive the nuclear detonation at Virmire, but he's so touchy-feely and sensitive... I'm not sure I can bear to endure his romance even for the sake of seeing the whole story.

More importantly, I'll admit, was the question of class. Previous playthroughs I have been a vanguard and an infiltrator, and possibly a soldier. This time I went with adept, A) because I've heard it's very fun in ME2 and 3 and B) because it totally removes any reason I might have to use Liara in my party. She is definitely last in line on my gear chain and I only pull her out to make sure she's leveled up when I dock at the Citadel.

Finally, difficulty. I've never beaten ME1 on insanity, but it goes without saying that I'm not going to do that on a level 1 character. I choose veteran, because I recall a lot of frustrating moments on hardcore, and really, I'm just here for to finish the game, not to challenge myself.

The Gameplay

So I get dropped on New Eden and refamiliarize myself with Mass Effect's combat. I push every button on my gamepad (oh, I'm on 360, by the way) before I realize you take cover by running into it. Really? What different times those were. The overheating thing I remembered clearly, though really, on my Adept, it's hardly an issue. If my weapon overheats, I just use some of my biotics until it's good to go. I never really used a guy who focused on ARs before this character, and I think this must be the way that people who resented the addition of clips played. By the time you've maxed ARs and are using the Spectre equipment, you can fire that thing forever. It has its charms, I can't deny.

Speaking of biotics, they really did come a long way in subsequent iterations of the game, didn't they? I'm not going to pretend that they aren't effective; it's certainly useful to throw charging husks or lift snipers from behind cover. But it's really just a crowd control class, holding enemies in place so you and your teammates can shoot them down more easily. Warp is effective, but doesn't work nearly as fast as the old-fashioned way, and that's the only attack ability you have. And how about Stasis? Let's see, I can choose to lift my incapacitate opponents out of their cover to shoot them with lift, incapacitate my opponents and keep my distance with throw, and incapacitate my opponents and make them impossible to shoot with Stasis. What a dud. I was surprised to find, however, that enemies can be affected by biotics despite the presence of shields in 1. I suppose changing this came part and parcel with improving the effectiveness of biotics in 2, but man, was that an annoying system, particularly on the hardest difficulties.

The Story

They threw a lot at you all at once in Mass Effect. It was a brave new world, the galaxy lay out there before you, and there you are on the forefront, proving that humanity, not those other dirty, old-fashioned, alien politicians, was the race to save the universe. Part of the allure of it all was the fact that you clicked on something and then you had a codex entry, telling you a boatload of really fascinating lore about it. But the details aren't the best part. The feel is the best part. Somehow, behind all that utilitarian gameplay and cookie-cutter sidequests, Bioware nailed it. The cold gunmetal of the Normandy's bridge, the sparse, rhythmic electronics of the soundtrack. You really got the feeling that space was a cold, unforgiving place, acting without regard for the beings within it. I think people who prefer ME1 to others in the series must be thinking first of this aspect.

At the same time, it's really not a surprise that after this game, Mass Effect had to keep struggling for the mainstream audience. Did you ever stop and realize that, after the first away mission on New Eden, you spend at least several hours running around the Citadel doing fetch quests, before you even get the Normandy? Okay, sure, you can skip through all that, but you weren't meant to. And I'm certainly not going to skip over things when they could affect my playthroughs of subsequent installments.

Post-ending edit: Man does this game end right. I'm sitting here with the credits music playing, and I'm sure I played it the right way now. I did all the tedious sidequests before the game had picked up any momentum and then did Noveria, Virmire, the Bring Down the Sky DLC, and then Ilos & the Citadel more or less straight through. It washes away all that other stuff - and this would be a better game if it was just the main story, for sure. Sort of a diametrical opposite to ME2, where the main story was the weakest part.

The Sidequests

They're short, they're tedious, they take place in cookie-cutter environments that make DA2's dungeons look like a labors of love. I suppose some people might say that it was a different time. Standards were lower, budgets were smaller. But we can never forget that the forebear of the modern party-based RPG, Baldur's Gate, did not suffer from this shortcoming. They knew what they were doing wrong, but they still chose to do it.

By the way, did you know that you get a later quest from the clinic where the doctor is being blackmailed? In my previous three playthroughs, I never knew. And yet, I'll still never learn how it ends, because it leads to Admiral Kohaku, who had already gone to his untimely demise at the hands of Cerberus. Maybe I should just look it up. I guess I will. Hm, it turns out it's only tied to Kohaku's other mission and there seems to be no clear-cut resolution. Oh well, onward!

The Mako

People who say "the Mako wasn't that bad" are out of their minds. The thing doesn't shoot where you point itm (I guess I heard that on PC this was fixed?) the shield recharge rate is so slow you're better off leaving the planet and coming back if you get damaged, and besides that, the planets are designed terribly. People who talk about enjoying driving sideways up mountains are suffering from some kind of gaming Stockholm syndrome. The crazy part about this is that these planets are not procedurally generated. Someone designed them. By hand. And then someone else looked at them, looked at the Mako and said, "Yes, it is okay if the player needs to spend ten minutes climbing out of that ravine after they go down to get that mineral deposit we put down there." This is not because it is an old game, it is because someone was either cutting corners or high during the design process.

The Elevators

I think all the jokes that can be made about the elevators have been made, sometimes within the sequels themselves. But yeah, they're long. What always puzzles me is, why are the elevator rides longer than the full-on loading screens?

Decisions

I'm trying to do most of the things I didn't do on my main playthrough. Hindsight is 20/20 so I killed the Rachni queen (I could have saved her again and actually spared her in 3, but fuck that.) I saved Kaidan. And I saved the council. I'm curious whether that will make much difference. I still let Wrex live, because I don't see how I stand to gain anything otherwise, and I still picked Anderson to represent humanity. Sure, he'll suck at it, but Udina's a traitor.

I also made some different minor decisions I'm curious about. I let Helena Blake keep her criminal syndicate. I let the negotiator have his stimulant under the condition he received treatment afterwards. Maybe some of that will make a difference aftewards.

I'm also brought to the conclusion that the decision-making in this game is the best in the series. 3 is also all right, but 2 is an abomination. It's nice that I can mix paragon and renegade decisions and not have to deal with consequences afterwards - such as crew disloyalty as you would in 2. So this is definitely the best me simulator of the 3.

Overall

People who say this game is the best Mass Effect are out of their damned minds. The only thing that might be superior about it is the story, and in large part it gets bonus points for being the original delivery device for the Mass Effect universe. The actual central story, while interesting, is mostly nonexistent until Virmire save for dialogues at the end of your first two missions. However, after that point, it really does pick up. It probably has the best unbroken stream of main story sequences once you start Virmire if you play it like I did. It really does leave a good taste in your mouth, left you feelilng like a hero AND wanting more.

But even if you grant it the story, the shooting's worse, the sidequests are the worst, and the fact that the Mako is actually a plot-essential mechanic and not just something to do on the side (like the Hammerhead) can't be ignored. There's no reason ME should get much more slack for broken gameplay than Alpha Protocol (which I don't give much slack) save for the fact it came first and AP should have learned something.

Yeah yeah, cool story bro. Let me get that out of the way for you.

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