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Mass Effect 3: Things That Work

I’m still dutifully trucking my way through the galaxy in Mass Effect 3. After a weekend in which I dumped very nearly every spare moment I had into the game (and I had a lot for a change), I’ve poured in nearly 30 hours. At this point I’d guess that I have about a third of the game to go. My Effective Military Strength (with no bonuses coming from multiplayer) is to the end of the progress bar (at 3072), but there’s still at least one big chunk of content to go. I don’t want to get into drawing conclusions about the game before I finish, but certainly I’ve played enough at this point to know what I particularly like about it and what I don’t. Since I’ve been bagging on the multiplayer-singleplayer interconnectedness so hard, let’s go ahead and theme today’s post around what I think works…

1. In past ME games your crew was fairly static when aboard the Normandy. Everybody had a location and there, for the most part, they would stay. Although that did make it easier to run the gamut of tracking them all down to see if they had anything new to say, it didn’t make the Normandy feel particularly lively. In this game the NPCs traveling with you across the cosmos are rather active. Between missions, if you should stroll down to Liara’s quarters there’s no telling if you’ll find her quietly working away, engaged in an intercom dialog with another NPC, or not there at all, in which case you’re likely to find her engaged in some other activity around the ship. It’s the same for everyone, from the characters you take with you on missions to the engineering staff and ship’s doctor. It makes the Normandy feel alive in a way that it never really has before. (Although not perfect about it, the game also seems to do a better job of letting you know when someone wants to speak with you.)

2. The old gang. I can’t say I’ve run across many new characters that I’ve felt added very much to the game, but the legacy cast is aces. I’ll touch on the writing later on in the list, but I think given the challenge of dealing with the variability of who, in an imported game, is alive and who is not, Bioware did an excellent job of giving you at least some time with every past member of the cast and paying worthy tribute to those that didn’t make it to the final act. I’ll use a non-spoilery example from my game. In my game the Krogan, Grunt, died in the Mass Effect 2 endgame. I played through the section of this game where he would’ve appeared and had absolutely no idea he was missing. (In retrospect I should’ve seen it.) The worry has always been, how big will the hole in the game feel for missing characters? The answer, in this case at least, is not at all.

3. Some of the new combat mechanics really do make the shooter part of the game more interesting. Cerberus gas bombs can be a real bitch to deal with as they eliminate your ability to lock onto an adversary (which means no biotic attacks on them). It’s a terrific new dynamic for the series. I also like how, now that you can equip your character with any weapon regardless of class, you have to be wary of total weight. More encumbered characters can’t use their powers as often. Characters who pack less get a bonus to power recharge. It’s a very effective mechanic. Finally, the combat environments are hugely improved in this game, as is the AI’s ability to catch you unawares. There are maps where you have to think about high and low ground, which is awesome if you’re like me and use the Infiltrator class. Almost all maps are laid out such that you can work to outflank your rivals. More importantly, if you’re not careful they’ll work to outflank you. The number of times I thought I was safely in cover only to get tagged with extreme malice by Cerberus troops that had successfully out-maneuvered me has been quite something.

4. The Reapers are vulnerable. For two games we have heard all about how the Reapers are this unstoppable menace. They are more bogeymen than reality. The Reapers come and all life is extinguished. There’s something very right about how not true that is in this game, something that is highlighted rather notably in the From Ashes DLC. I like this because the Reaper menace should exceed their malice. At first I found this rather off-putting because I was so focused on the bogeymen. The Reapers are supposed to be insta-kill aren’t they? They’re here. We die. Done. Yet I’m off flying around the galaxy and the battle on Earth continues to be waged as it does throughout the galaxy. Shouldn’t Earth have been conquered in like a day and a half? No. That’s not the “reality.” Don’t get me wrong, we see them waging savage destruction at multiple corners, but they’re not perfect killing and harvesting machines. They can be held or even pushed back. This is important not just to the internal consistency of the game’s story, but it actually helps humanize the inhuman in an important way. It’s like that moment in The Predator when Ahnold says, “If it bleeds, we can kill it.” Say what you will about that movie, but that’s a critical moment for the good guys. The story arc in Mass 3 is trucking steadily along a consistent line of, “The Reapers are here, we are sooo dead!” to, “We can do this thing.” I dig that.

5. “Someone else might have gotten it wrong.” You’re not going to know what that means if you haven’t played the game yet or haven’t played very far and I won’t spoil it by providing context. I will just say that there are moments in this game and lines of dialog that completely erase whatever misgivings I might have about how generic other parts can be. I’ll stop short of saying any moment has brought me to the verge of tears, but there have been plenty where I just sat back and thought, “Wow,” or generally felt like I’d taken a punch to the gut. There are moments in the game that work so well and are so memorable that, no matter how much I want to punch in the face the person who put Chobot in the game, I can’t help but be happy with my experience playing it. It’s not a spoiler to say that the conclusions to some of the character arcs I’ve seen… I just cannot imagine how they’d do it better. Well done, men and women of Bioware!

Soon: Stuff I don’t like so much.

Bioware Clarifies Mass Effect 3’s Galactic Readiness

Last night, while recording Jumping the Shark, Brandon and I went about seven rounds over my utter disdain for Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer being connected to outcomes in the single player game. That show will be posted Sunday night. Bring popcorn.

As we argued over finer points, we found it impossible to reach a consensus, but one thing we did agree on (I think) is that we really had no solid grasp of to what degree this game balances what happens in multiplayer with what you do in single player and how the game ends. Yes, we’re all aware you can get the Uber Mega Happy Ending if you do some chunk of what sounds like “everything” the single player game has to offer. And, believe me, it’s not about whether it’s easy to get such a Super Duper Let’s See Young Anakin’s Ghost at the End of Jedi victory, but whether getting that is in any way harder for pure solo players than it would have been if multiplayer Galactic Readiness weren’t there. As I noted in yesterday’s post, my casting stones and auguries say it probably is harder because I think that’s how EA/Bioware roll these days. It would be in no way surprising were I to be wrong about this.

That said, at the crux of it all, is a distinct lack of understanding of just how all this Galactic Readiness and Effective Military Strength work together. Mr. B and I could blame ourselves for not digging further into that, but it’s so much more fun to blame Bioware for not making it clear in the game. (Or maybe I just haven’t properly read my Codex entries. I’ll have to check that when I get home.) Fortunately, Brandon today did dig up this nugget from Bioware’s forums

Your ending(s) are determined by your “Effective Military Strength” (let’s call it EMS for now) bar. Focus on that bar – that is your indicator of how well you will do in the end-game.

You can maximize your EMS just by collecting War Assets in the single-player game. There is a certain threshhold of these you would need to exceed (I can’t get too specific) but I can tell you there are MORE than the required amount that can be gathered in the single-player campaign.

“Galactic Readiness” is a modifier you can improve by playing multiplayer. That is to say, if you play a lot of multiplayer, you will need less War Assets from single-player to fill up your EMS bar (ie it will balance out the requirements to account for you playing in both modes). Single-player game play does not impact that bar.

EMS = success. EMS can be maximized via collecting war assets alone, even if your Galactic Readiness is 50%.

That’s the word from Jarrett Lee, Bioware’s Senior Marketing Manager.

I can tell you that before this I had no earthly idea that Galactic Readiness only changed via multiplayer/iOS app and that EMS changed only by single-player campaign actions. Again, maybe I should have read my codex entries before getting in a huff. So, if nothing else, this provides some understanding of how they actually function. Nonetheless, I don’t think this changes my argument against, or Brandon’s argument for, these systems. I fundamentally don’t think this story’s conclusion should be at all affected by what you do or don’t do in multiplayer, regardless of what’s possible with the endings. Brandon thinks it’s a galactic-wide conflict and, given that, it’s being done here in a way that makes perfect sense. All fair arguments as far as I’m concerned, even if I’m little bit more right than everyone else. (In truth, Brandon pretty much wipes the floor with me on JtS this week. By all means, enjoy yourselves.)

Mass Effect 3 Impressions

At this point I have about four to six hours in Mass Effect 3. The reviews, not surprisingly, are trending towards the very positive end of the spectrum. I am not remotely close to passing judgment on it, but I did want to put some impressions out there regarding what’s stood out to me so far. The short version is, it’s Mass Effect. That’s trite, but it’s accurate. If you were done with this series after the first game, or the second game, or it just never grabbed you from the get go, I can see no reason so far to think you should jump in (or back in) here. You are Shepard, the only man/woman in the galaxy capable of stopping a threat that, for eons, has wrecked galactic civilization at regular intervals. You do this by shooting lots of guys and flapping your gums at people. There’s plenty of nuance involved in all that, to be sure, but that’s the game in a nutshell.

Now, let’s dig into some specifics. Turn on your listening ears…

It’s a shame EA and Bioware are so obsessed with setting the wrong tone before you ever boot up the game. Between paying $60 for the PC version of the game (I still believe these games should be $50), the fact that you no longer get the “big” day one DLC pack with the regular game and have to shell out $10 for it right off the bat, and the fact that you have to install Origin to install the game, I was not in a glowing frame of mind when I could finally actually play. The degree of EA’s invasiveness in our computers and pocket books is going from annoying to beyond the pale. Speaking of which, the multiplayer.

Look, at the end of the day I don’t care if the game has multiplayer or not. I’m probably not going to play it much and would rather a game like this not have development time and money put into it, but it’s not the end of the world. Also, I still have no idea to what degree multiplayer really effects outcomes in the single player game via the Galaxy at War feature. (The buzz is that its significant.) That said, I really really hate the entire notion that my willingness to play a boatload of multiplayer can have an iota of impact on a series that up to this point was an entirely solo experience. It’s just wrong. There is not an argument you can make that will make me think it’s okay for these two play modes to be in any way intertwined. I am flat out insulted that the plot for my Mass Effect story, the one I’ve been building through multiple playthroughs of two games, should now have any connection to my willingness to go online and shoot stuff over and over and over again with a bunch of strangers. Supposedly you can still get the uber-happy ending without playing multiplayer. Even if it’s true, this is irrelevant to me. You cannot convince me that the “end” conditions, whatever variety of them there are, are not configured differently in this game because of the multiplayer/iPad app connection than they would have been had it remained a purely single player affair. I can’t prove that, but I believe it.

I did pick up Jessica Chobot’s character. I hate her character on a purely meta level, but it’s also a meta level hate so strong that it interferes with my ability to put myself into the game. I cannot talk to that character without feeling like I’m being played as a horndog fanboy. Make no mistake, her character is there so that “hard up” gamers can oggle digital tits and think about how they kind of sort of belong to a real person they’ve read or seen on TV. It’s shameful. The character is pure sex pot. True, you don’t have to take her character with you, but of course, you lose out on a war asset if you don’t, so I find the “optional” argument disingenuous in the extreme.

If you have a character that you’re bringing forward that’s face design originated in the first game, don’t expect that face to import. Whether it’s a bug or a deliberate gloss over, my imported ManShep looked nothing like the character I created in ME1 and carried over to the second game. This led to a half hour of trying to re-create the look. I got close, but it’s still not quite right. Speaking of which, here’s the stuff that the game specifically tells you it transfers in:

The writing so far is not knock it out of the park good. I’m finding Shepard saying a lot of the same things to a lot of different people. Some of that’s just the nature of the game, but nearly every character you can talk to has you asking about their thoughts on the status of the war or what family they have involved, etc. You don’t have to engage everyone on this level, but if you do it can get repetitive. You could also argue there’s a lot of sci fi “end of everything” cliche being employed, but I’m not sure how you avoid that given what’s going on in the game. It is, after all, end of the galaxy type stuff happening.

Enough with the negative. Like I said in the first bullet EA/Bioware predisposes me to the negative because of how they treat their franchises, or more accurately, the fans of their franchises. Some more positive stuff steeped entirely in gameplay experiences (no spoilers):

There have been some really great story beats so far. Again, I’m not going to hedge into spoiler territory, but for the sake of example, there’s an optional side mission I encountered in which I thought, “Hmmm. This would be the ideal place for Mass 2 Character X to make an appearance.” Then I got there and found an unsigned note that I thought, tonally, sounded like that character. A few minutes later, I encountered that character and I was thrilled with that person’s evolution between games. I’m guessing now that this mission is complete they drop out of the game for good, which would be a shame, but it was a cool hour of gameplay while it lasted.

Take the multiplayer component out of it, and I do like the War Readiness idea. Most everything you do in the game is about the war and acquiring assets to fight it. The notion that you have to make decisions about where to go and what to prioritize in your effort to unite a galaxy against the Reapers works. Everything you do, so far as I can tell, has you doing something that ties in some way back to the war effort. Given the scale of the conflict, I think it’s crucial that you’re not off helping crewmates with their daddy issues. Even if I don’t entirely buy into everything the game tries to sell about how Shepard is the only one that can get the job done, it’s cool that nothing I’ve done in the game so far feels superfluous.

I thought ME2 was a competent shooter. Overall, I think this is notably improved. It feels precise and it feel like it has weight. Sometimes too much so. Shepard feels a bit sluggish at times and there are times I run into trouble getting him into or out of cover the way I’d like, but overall I think it’s very solid.

The fact that how good the game looks and how well the characters emote and how stunning the set pieces are is expected at this point is really a compliment to Bioware. It’s not something I even really thought about in these initial hours with the game, but all that work remains top notch and it would be notable if it weren’t. This aspect of the game is where the franchise truly eats and breaths and the tradition continues here.

This isn’t really praise or criticism but the nature of the game does feel like Mass Effect 2 on steroids. It’s just the scale that’s different. In Mass 2 you were recruiting individuals. In Mass 3 you’re recruiting races and armies. The methodology really doesn’t seem very different so far, although I get the sense I’m making more decisions of consequence more often in this game than in Mass 2 and I like that feeling a lot. The flip side to that is it becomes harder to buy into the notion that the council and the major races continue to quibble over stupid shit while Reapers are actively wrecking entire worlds (not just Earth). It’s one thing to see governments drag their feet and refuse to work together at the thought of a phantom threat, but the destruction -the destruction you’ve been warning them of through two full games- is real now. The game does its best to give valid reasons for races not uniting in the face of it, but it’s still a little hard to believe you have to work this hard to get people to work together to save their own skins.

Mass Effect 3 Demo Impressions

No High Scores

Like any good FemShep enthusiast, I downloaded the Mass Effect 3 demo last night and took my time on the bike this morning to put it through its paces. I’m not sure why, really, as I have every intention of picking up the game when it launches in March. In fact, my copy has been paid off since before Batman: Arkham City launched as I paid for both of them at the same time. I guess I downloaded it because even though I know I’ll be playing the game when it comes out, I really enjoy playing Mass Effect, so if I get to play some new stuff early, I’ll do it.

At the risk of being incredibly pithy and offering an opinion that has little or no value, here’s my take on the game: it’s Mass Effect.

Again, I know that’s a pretty worthless statement, but at the same time, I once knew a guy who said he’d like Halo a lot more if it contained none of the design elements that made it Halo. I’m not saying that line of thinking makes any sense, just that it’s out there.

Now that we’ve established that Mass Effect 3 is, in fact, Mass Effect, let’s move on…

The demo consists of what appears to be the opening level in the game as well as a mission set sometime mid-game. They don’t waste any time setting things up, nor do they spend any time explaining why you have no powers when, based on how many times you ran Shepard through ME2, you may have ended your last adventure with godlike powers. Maybe they explain that later, but the beginning is all “Reapers! Oh noes! Run! Shoot! Vault!” and then it’s over. Along the way they tell you how to run and shoot and use the abysmal cover system (more on that later) before ending with an “emotional” moment that anyone could see coming from a mile away in the typical ham-handed way that video game writers seem to feel portrays loss but ends up making you roll your eyes so hard they pop out of your head.

I didn’t spend a lot of time configuring Shepard in the facial department, so I don’t know how robust the customization is in the demo. I did like that the demo starts by making you agree to the EA online terms of service even though I don’t have access to the online part of the demo. I figured that going through bullshit online hoops to then be denied online or single player content based on some sort of server malfunction or arbitrary restricting of content would prepare me for the future, if past EA/BioWare online shenanigans were to be trusted. One has to laugh, lest one say “fuck it” and go back to Pong.

Any way, you can pick Shepard’s origins and say who died in previous games, including an all encompassing “There were many losses” or something like that. Me, I wish that choice was titled “Mistakes were made.” If so, I would have laughed my ass off. Alas, there’s no laughing when Reapers are hell bent on destroying us. Once you’ve established which crew member died because of your incompetence, you can pick you class and be on your way. I stuck with my ME and ME2 class, the Vanguard, because I suspected that I didn’t want to play ME3 as this class, what with it being somewhat useless in ME2. I was right, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

Before jumping into the story, I took some time to peruse the additional options and found some interesting stuff. For one, you can turn off conversations in their entirety, instead allowing the game to make conversation choices for you. I didn’t see an option to have Shepard lean towards Paragon or Renegade, so I’d love to see how they handle that. I think they should make it random and make it seem that Shepard is completely off her rocker, with absolutely no moral compass to speak of. They also give you the option of choosing how to play the game, aside from the normal difficulty options. You can play it as a story, which reduces the number of combat encounters. You can play it as an action game which has all conversations as cut scenes, or you can play it as an RPG. Obviously I chose to play it as an RPG, but woe befall whoever has to review this game and is forced to play multiple hours in the different modes to see how different they are. I know it’s not going to be me.

You hear that Bill? It. Won’t. Be. Me.

One of the oddest choices I saw, in fact, one of the oddest choices I’ve ever seen in any game, ever, is the option of when Shepard takes her helmet off. You can have her leave it on all of the time, or take it off for “most” conversations. As someone who was forced to watch Shepard not only throw back a drink through her full face helmet, but also make out with Liara through the very same helmet, I have to wonder just who in the nine hells would want Shepard to keep her helmet on during conversations? It makes zero sense. Worse, it’s not all conversations, it’s most conversations, so you know there’s a cut scene where Shepard is eating a Bomb Pop through her helmet and I’m going to get up and kick a hole in my projection screen. Personally, I don’t think they went granular enough. I think they should have had the ability to tick various options and on off so that I can have a Shepard that keeps her helmet on for talking, eating candy bars and licking poisonous toads but takes it off for kissing, catching snowflakes on her tongue and licking envelopes. Come on BioWare, why you gotta hate on choice?

Once the demo gets going there’s all sorts of sturm und drang about the Reapers, because even though Earth is, literally surrounded by ships, the Reapers show up with zero warning and start blowing the city up. So much for planetary defenses. Before the shooting starts, you get to see the new Freddie Prinze Jr. character, complete with stupid pseudo-mohawk and you get to see Ashley, provided you didn’t let her die. Ashley looks good, but I swear she was checking out Shepard’s ass. I don’t blame her. Shepard has a fantastic ass, and the new redheaded “official” Shepard is quite well done, but I don’t remember Ashley playing for the other team. In fact, I know she doesn’t because in ME I tried to get her into bed on multiple occasions only to get shot down. My Shepard’s sexuality is somewhat fluid, having had relations with Liara and Jacob, so I know a little about switching things up. Maybe the animators were going for a look of begrudging admiration, but they ended up with “I am so gonna tap that ass.” Again, I don’t blame her, I am quite sexy, it just came from out of nowhere.

There’s some combat in the early part of the demo, but nothing significant. That comes in the later mission when you have to help Mordin get a Krogan female off of some Salarian planet while Cerberus tries to stop you. They put the Krogan female in some sort of full body veil, which I thought was interesting in that they let you know that it’s a female Krogan without trying to make some sort of biological differences. After seeing lizard boobs in Skyrim, I’ve seen enough of my share of scaly bosoms so I’m more than happy with this. This just further cements the notion of the Krogan being the dwarves of the Mass Effect universe. They’re gruff, incredibly hardy, go insane in combat and are the only ones that can tell the females of their species apart from the males. I also liked the line about Wrex not being able to resist a fertile female, because nothing wakes one up in the morning quite like the notion of crazed Krogan sex.

I liked that BioWare added a more combat heavy portion of the demo and that they jumped you forward and gave you a bunch of skill points to allocate. The ability to choose between two paths for your powers is a nice tweak, as is the ability to jump between the paths. By that I mean that you can use the Path A choice when you upgrade your power to level 4 and then use the Path B option for level 5. It’s a little more RPGish than the stuff in ME2 which only allowed a choice once you leveled a power all of the way up.

What I didn’t like about the combat heavy portion is how utterly shitty the cover system still is. Cover seemed clunky and twitchy and worse, the game allowed me to keep moving along cover even once the cover ended, causing Shepard to pop up like a Whack-A-Mole only to promptly get shot and killed. Me not remembering how to apply health packs certainly didn’t help, but the point is that if cover stops, you need to give the player a choice as to what they want to do. Let them decide if they want to come up from out of cover or if they want to stay there and reevaluate. Don’t just pop a dude up and get him shot in the face. That’s just rude. Also, the slowing down in the middle of a run because your shield shattered is extremely annoying, especially when you have no choice but to run full force into a hail of gunfire. Oh hey, are you losing health? Here, lose more health!

On a similar note, I was disappointed to see that my beloved Vanguard class is not going to be a viable option for me in Mass Effect 3. The specialized biotic power, the ability to catapult yourself, Cannonball style towards your enemy and stun them, was more of a liability than anything else in ME2 and the trend continues here. Worse is that your submachine gun, one of your close quarters weapons, is incredibly twitchy and inaccurate with an amazing amount of recoil. I spent all of my time rocking an assault rifle in this demo. That shouldn’t happen. A Vanguard should be all pistols, SMGs and shotguns. Maybe if you’re playing on easy or you’re taking the story approach to the game then the Vanguard is a more viable option, but I found myself regretting my class choice more and more as the demo wore on. I guess it’s good that I found this out now and not five hours into the game but still, it’s disappointing. Oh well. If they’re not going to explain why Shepard doesn’t have her powers, I don’t have to explain why she decided to change classes. My hope is that I can import my Shepard, make a class change and have it still count as a run through with a ME2 character for achievement purposes.

All of my gripes aside, I still enjoyed the hell out of this demo as it had all of the things I’ve come to expect, good and bad, from the Mass Effect series. With SSX releasing a scant week before ME3, I can’t guarantee that I’ll jump into ME3 as soon as it comes out, but it will be shortly thereafter. I’m curious to see how the various play style options make a difference, especially for something like an Insane run done for achievements. If the story play style really does tone down the combat, I’m all over that for those achievements. In the end, the demo did what it was supposed to do, namely get me excited for the game. I’m not sure how many people who haven’t played the first two will be willing to give this one a try, so the demo does feel like BioWare is preaching to the choir, but at the same time, Modern Warfare 3 sold more than enough copies to support the idea that a sequel, even a threequel, can bring in lots of new players.

My understanding is that the online portion unlocks on the 17th, so I’ll try and revisit then and see if adding multiplayer to a single player RPG ends up being as bad as an idea as it sounds. Good thing I haven’t made up my mind or anything.

FemShep Finally Gets a Bit of the Mass Effect 3 Trailer Spotlight

YouTube video

A couple weeks ago I was complaining about how bog standard boring the multiplayer trailer of Mass Effect 3 looked. This is more like it, and not just because it’s finally FemShep taking center stage. (Honestly, she looks a bit odd to me, but maybe I’m just used to my version.) Could still use just a couple more clips that make with the talky, but this makes me want to gear up and play some Mass 3. More please.