Friday, March 30, 2012


(This piece was originally published on

I invited a couple of Mass Effect fans to reflect on our initial playthroughs of Mass Effect 3 together in real time, to be posted in a couple three installments. We invite you to come and revel in our luminous insights and trenchant bon mots! Marvel at our many euphemisms for space genitalia! Watch me make feeble stabs at appearing objective in critiquing the game series that has held us by the nerd short hairs lo these last 5 years!

Al Schwartz:  I just realized I never even figured out which option you picked from the Catalyst buffet.

Trevor La Pay: I picked Destroy! What kind of a milquetoast do you take me for?

A:  Once I found out you let Tali Ophelia herself, I had to assume you were capable of anything.

T: But I had both Legion AND Tali in my pocket. Those stupid Quarians wouldn’t stop firing on the Geth ship! It wasn’t my fault!

Oddly, that moment was the high point of the entire ME3 experience for me. I might bitch a lot about the gameplay, but the story has balls.

A:  Earlier, you said that you didn’t buy the indoctrination ending for a second.  Now, I don’t think the ending was fully implemented or really works as presented in the video; for one thing, the “wrong” choices play out almost exactly like the “correct” one, and even the “perfect” ending leaves Shephard a bloody pile of meat who still hasn’t actually beaten the bad guys, which is a strange note to end on to say the least.  And why my preferred interpretation is that while Catalyst buffet is an attempt at indoctrination, it is literal and not a fantasy sequence.

But there’s too much about it that fits for it to be a coincidence, imo, most particularly the black wavy lines that show up during your confrontation with the Illusive Man (and nowhere else in the series I can recall, which has to mean…something) and the way the landscape changes to resemble the dream sequences after you get blasted.  The way it looks to me, and of course I don’t have inside sources or anything but generalized suspicions to base this on, is that the indoctrination ending was developed fairly extensively but weren’t able to implement fully.  Whether that is because they didn’t have time to iron out all the kinks or just lost their nerve to go with something so conceptual to cap off their EPIC TRILOGY, I don’t know.

Though if they were just trying to avoid fan uproar, 
then wow, way to dodge that bullet, Bioware.

The problem with things as they stand is that the options don’t really work taken at face value, but the post-Shepdeath scenes (however brief) don’t jibe with the fantasy interpretation that makes sense of the other 90% of the ending scenario.  But it’s so close to fitting that I find it hard to think it could result from anything but a last minute balk.  In particular, the teleporting Normandy sequence is so clearly grafted on from a different ending concept that there had to some major zero hour scrambling going on.


T: I never pay attention to any of the behind the scenes gossip, but there was some talk on the boards about a potential indoctrination plot that was either scrubbed or rewritten. The play’s the thing, though, so the final content should speak for itself. 

This is armchair game development for sure, but there are a ton of ways BioWare could have written indoctrination into Shepard’s plotline that would have made sense. What about Shepard’s rebirth at the hands of Cerberus? Surely seeds could have been planted there, but that turned out to be nothing more than a way to yank Shepard into an enemy vessel without too much fussing over the details. There’s a throwaway line during the Illusive Man’s Base sequence where Shepard ponders whether he’s just a VI in a human-like shell. Now THAT would have made the destroy ending more interesting, at least for me.
Given the details, it’s very likely that a bunch of scenarios were mapped out, none could be agreed upon, and a Frankenstein’s Monster was stitched together as a result. The Normandy scene in particular. It was like watching Poochie get teleported off screen by a flying saucer.

 Hey, kids! Even I don't know how the "synthesis" ending
 is supposed to work! ZIPPA DAB ZOOBA!!!

I never did notice those those black lines, though.  Even though it was a big shrug for me, I’m excited to see how BioWare adds to the epilogue in DLC, assuming the PR blurbs are honest.

A: It definitely feels like a Frankenstein, so no matter what noble intentions we might ascribe to the writers, it doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t succeed.  But I’ll play apologist a bit longer, because I seem to think there’s more to the indoctrination angle than you do.

Coming into this game I had wondered why the danger of Shephard being indoctrinated had never been addressed.  Given his interactions with Sovereign, his time on the derelict Reaper (which had indoctrinated everyone that had previously investigated it) and all the time messing around with the Collector’s Reaper tech in ME2, and especially getting zapped by the monolith in Arrival (which had also indoctrinated everyone around it), it seemed like at some point someone should have at least raised the possibility.that he had been compromised.  But I, and I assume everyone else, just kind of shrugged this off as typical video game macguffinry; when the bad guys are so unequivocally evil, with the stated goal of eradicating of all life in the galaxy, they can’t have henchmen at all unless they can brainwash them.

Okay, there might be a few volunteers, but not the top tier variety

But, if you accept the indoctrination ending in concept, there’s something crazy ambitious about it.  Because now Bioware has hinged the conclusion of the entire series on a seemingly-impossible feat.  I can buy that the character of Shephard, stressed out beyond belief by the burden of fighting the apocalypse more or less by himself for years, seeing so many friends die, being horrifically wounded and also affected by whatever physical process the Reapers use to brainwash people, would struggle with completing his mission right at the finish line.  But for this ending to work, the game has to convince me, who has not actually experienced any of those things, to consider adopting the villain’s evil plan at literally the last minute.  How the fuck do you pull that off?

By playing on the assumptions I make about how a game like this works.  My guy can’t be brainwashed, because I’m the best and of course I can’t and of course my feats of badassitude have convinced the immortal space monster to reconsider its entire raison d’etre for the last 800 million years.  And by adding a significant downside to following through with my plan at the last second, and making the bad guy’s plan seem to be the option that allows me to win without sacrificing any characters I’ve come to care about. And having the big scifi transhumanist option only available if I rack up a certain score, so that it feels like an unlockable “best” ending that powergamer in me will want to access.  And by coloring the options according to the paragon/renegade dynamic the games have always employed, but reversed to suggest that the “bad” ending is what the paragon would choose, which makes sense as a representation of the Reapers mucking about with my guy’s subconscious to steer him toward it.

You do all that, and you just might pull off the impossible and manage to brainwash me into pondering decisions that my character would only make because he’s actually been brainwashed.  To set up that conflict and play it out without tipping your hand about what was going on (because if I know for sure that’s the deal, then of course I’m not actually on death’s door and haven’t had my brain chemistry altered by subsonic vibrations or gamma rays or whatever space juju justifies the indoctrination diegetically), that would be a really incredible feat of writing.

But, of course, none of it works if I’m actually too badass to be brainwashed, and the villain’s plan really does turn out to be a no fuss-no muss solution to the whole dilemna, which means I’m kind of a colossal dick for making him shoot himself 5 minutes ago for considering it, and by the way my whole crew is now on the other side of the galaxy because what the fucking fuck.

Anyway, on the backlash:  should we really have been that surprised by it?  Sure, long-running genre series don’t ever seem to wrap without pissing off a sizeable portion of their fanbase, and video game nerds are a fairly entitled bunch on their best day. But beyond that, it seems only natural that people would feel a degree of ownership over this story that goes above and beyond the investment fans of Lost or whatever have in those stories.  I mean, a large part of the appeal of this series has always been the idea that the player was a vital part of shaping the story with their decisions.  As you’ve said previously, that may have been largely an illusion, but it’s one that Bioware created and fostered, and it seems obvious in retrospect that it would serve to intensify the backlash when it inevitably reared its head.

I’ve seen Misery mentioned as a touchstone for how batshit the campaigns are, but Annie Wilkes might have come off as a smidge less crazy if the books she obsessed over had advertised that SHE would have major say in how the story developed from the very beginning, no?

T:  I think you’re right, but I also think there’s this new, crazy phenomenon where if someone doesn’t like a particular movie or game or book or whatever, they’re now compelled to take it to the streets rather than moving on with their lives like normal humans. See Lost, Twilight, Avatar, the Prequels, The Dark Tower finale, and basically any high profile piece of media that isn’t particularly good. I’m not talking about critical discourse – bitching about Avatar and Twilight is both cathartic and necessary – I’m talking about taking it that one Wilksian step forward and calling for petitions, boycotts, or god knows what else. It’s a mix of whiny entitlement and the power of social media. People are the starring mouthpiece of their own internet adventure. By giving BioWare the finger, they’re doing what any good adventure hero would do: sticking it to the bad guys!

A: I don’t know.  I agree with you that the internet and social media play a large part in creating the sort of environment where something that was a horror writer’s paranoid fantasy 20 years ago is today’s trending Twitter topic; both on the macro level, where we as a society have grown increasingly expectant to have whatever product we want delivered to our exact specifications but right now, and on the micro one where it has made it easier than ever to share your angry rant with the whole world and to gather 30,000 signatures on a petition.  Not saying people shouldn’t participate in fan campaigns if they are passionate about the property (GREENDALE HUMAN BEINGS FOREVER!), but it’s hard to dispute that the bar has been lowered for getting such a campaign started simply because it’s 100x easier to get an electronic signature than a real one.

Although of those examples, I feel like only the prequels really inspired this level of nuttiness. They’re the ones that people still can’t seem to stop talking about or armchair writing/directing a decade later, whereas something like Avatar was too self-contained to build up the kind of long term investment that fuels this brand of nerdrage and Twilight had probably lost anyone who needed more than toothless romantic melodrama before it got to the ending that sounds like it delivered that (batshit plot details aside).  But the prequels are their own beast.  There’s a whole nother discussion to be had on why that fire just won’t die.
One day, when his children are long dead, we as a society will 
have hated this kid enough. Just kidding. He dies childless and alone.

T: In the Community case, I don’t think anyone loses. Misery would have been a romantic comedy if Wilkes were passionately trying to get Sheldon’s last book published after the publisher rejected it.
A: That’s just absurd.  Anyway, I feel like we’ve been very critical about the parts that don’t work and that might be overshadowing that we had an overall positive experience with the game.  It sounds like some of the gameplay issues bothered you a bit more than me, but obviously no one here is angry enough to take up arms against Bioware. I think we both came into it expecting it to disappoint on some level, going off your earlier comment that games routinely end on a weak note.  Is that fair to say?
T: Yeah, I had an overall positive experience with the game. I don’t think I’ll be rushing back into it before the first DLC releases (to be announced on April 6th, apparently), but considering that the first ME games were the ONLY ones that I actually rushed back into immediately after finishing, it’s hardly a complaint.
A: The reason I was expecting disappointment on some level was that I’ve always been an easy mark for space opera and fantasy epics, and over the years I’ve learned that the finale is almost never as good as the build up promises.  And I’m not just talking about the prequels, but the other properties Trevor and I have name-checked.  It happened with The Matrix, it happened with Lost, it happened to a lesser extent with BSG and holy hell did it ever happen with The Dark Tower.  It’s been interesting to be more or less on the apologist side of this one, because I very much wasn’t with the rest of those.  I’ve deliberately tried to avoid invoking the chestnut about how “it’s about the journey, not the destination” here, not because I don’t think it’s true when it comes to life generally or even enjoying series like this, but because it strikes me as a convenient way to avoid accountability for ending up at a shitty destination.  Mass Effect fucking up the ending doesn’t undo all the fun I had getting there, but all the fun doesn’t unfuck that dog either.
"Wait, what?"

I am willing to to cut ME more slack on that front, however, because it’s major (story) issues are confined almost entirely to the last 5 minutes. Since ME3 was “a series of endings”, pretty much every storyline was wrapped up by the time you got to London, and things don’t really go off the rails until all that’s left to do is press the button to release space magic and slay the dragons.  That makes it exceptionally easy to fanwank around, and the fact that there isn’t one “canon” storyline for the series actually encourages you to in a way a book or TV show doesn’t. I can ignore the wider context of the endings and accept my own view of the indoctrination theory, and if that doesn’t work for you, you can just imagine that your Shephard activated the Crucible and wiped out the Reapers without meeting the Catalyst, or even that he died dashing across No Man’s Land and never found out if one of his friends was able to complete the mission without him.  Whereas with those other examples, my problems with the resolution of long-running storylines are such that they couldn’t be addressed without making major changes to parts of the series I had enjoyed in the first place.  You can say that’s stupid and arbitrary and apologist nonsense, and you’d probably be right. I’m not the final arbiter of quality, what works for me doesn’t work for everyone, and frankly, the world is probably better off that way.

Anyway, the point I wanted to reiterate was that people are, consciously or not, holding this ending up to the standards set by TV, film, and literature more than those set by Zelda or Gears of War.  Fanboys aren’t losing their shit because they nerfed the engineer’s somesuch rating or overcharged for multiplayer maps, they’re going nuts because they feel the story’s conclusion didn’t adequately incorporate and pay off the themes that had driven it from the start.  For the folks who get up in arms about video games not being recognized as art, ME3 makes the case as persuasively as it has ever been: it’s shown that a game can infuriate and disappoint its fans every bit as much as a book or TV series, and on the same terms.

So I say take a bow, Bioware.  The idiotic campaign to get you to rewrite your ending is actually an incredibly high, albeit thoroughly backhanded, form of praise for the series as a whole.


(This piece was originally published on on 3/29/12)

I invited a couple of Mass Effect fans to reflect on our initial playthroughs of Mass Effect 3 together in real time, to be posted in a couple three installments. We invite you to come and revel in our luminous insights and trenchant bon mots! Marvel at our many euphemisms for space genitalia! Watch me make feeble stabs at appearing objective in critiquing the game series that has held us by the nerd short hairs lo these last 5 years!

Al Schwartz:  I had to exchange my Xbox for a functional one last night, which sucked.  But tonight I’ve been rewarded by half of my crew going on a bender.  Apparently emboldened by my tying another one on with Chakwas, Thick Vanbarrel got Ashley hammered, and for all of the series admirable attempts at drawing me into the role-playing experience, I don’t think I’ve ever felt my Shephard was channeling my own personality as purely as when he was harassing the hungover mess of a friend he found laying under a game table.

But drunk Tali was even better.  “Eeeemerrrrgancy indushion port…”

If you guys didn’t go below and catch her drunk-dialing Javik afterward, you totally missed out.

Trevor La Pay: My guys never got drunk! I think it’s because my Tali killed herself. :-(
A: Seriously?  That’s the saddest thing I ever heard.  I just finished, and I think I love it.
With a caveat or two.  One, the final battle being just another wave of standard enemies wasn’t great, but that’s a relatively minor point for me.  I’m more put out by the Normandy all of a sudden fleeing(?) the battle at the end when the mass relays start to blow.  Was there really no explanation for that or did I miss something?  But the end mostly did exactly what I wanted:  provided closure for Shephard’s story while the big picture stuff remained suitably open-ended in the way I think great science fiction endings sort of need to be.  I understand many people are disappointed-to-furious over the ending(s), and I don’t want to paint them all with one brush, but I’m certainly not angry about the lack of a fully “happy” ending.  Prior to the game’s release I was in the message board thread saying that my ideal ending would have Shephard sacrificing himself and destroying the mass relay system along with the Reapers.
Before we start ripping this to shreds, I think we should acknowledge the insane degree of difficulty in making this ending satisfying.  Ending an EPIC TRILOGY of adventure stories on a sufficiently weighty note without loose ends is hard, and has defeated many writers.  Ending a sci-fi story on a sufficiently intelligent, conceptual note is also very hard, as many others can attest.  It’s hard to end video games well period, as we noted last time, but this is following up two games with very strong endings (I know you guys are more in to leisurely exploring the galaxy than the main narrative, but the battle for the Citadel was a strong climax and ME2‘s ending is probably my favorite of any game).  And each of those games multiplied the complexity of the branching decisions that are supposed to be carried over and affect the resolution, both of plot points and relationships that the player has molded to their own specifications.  That’s a lot of masters to serve in attempting to craft a proper ending even before you consider that Bioware was essentially expected to do it several times over in totally distinct ways.  And for an audience comprised in large part of sci-fi/gamer nerds, possibly the smelliest, most difficult to please demographic on the planet.
But being set up to fail doesn’t make a failure a success (huh?).  There are definite problems with the ending, the teleporting Normandy/crew being the most glaring, and having checked out the “variations” it is harder to think my interpretation was actually what was intended.  But I don’t much care, because it is my right as an American to invoke the Death of the Author to paint over any issues I have with a work of fiction.
.People stop reading after the part where you can
 tell a cop to fuck off, but there's some weird stuff
 in the back end of the Bill of Rights

Looking at the endings as a whole, I think Bioware failed to deliver a proper conclusion for a Bioware game.  But it did manage to deliver an ending that satisfied me as an ending to my personal Shephard’s story, and that is ultimately what matters most to me as a fan.
T:  I didn’t care about the lack of closure, the dead Shepard, or even the absurdly convenient notion that the catalyst can unleash a galaxy wide magic field to wrap up the story in different ways. My major complaint: ME3 introduces a completely new character in the final ten minutes.  The robot god ghost is the utter definition of a Deus Ex Machina, to say nothing of its nonsensical motivations.  It swoops in and kills organic life every 50000 years because the organics ultimately always author their own destruction by creating synthetics, yet the catalyst itself is a synthetic.  What the catalyst gains by doing this is unknown.  Not only that, but it retroactively turns the reapers into an inert puppet force who answer to a quasi-benevolent master with unclear motivations.  The catalyst is sort of like Jacob from Lost, but even MORE poorly thought out.
 "Really, dude?  Because even I don't remember 
why I made the one guy immortal."

I love that Shepard bites it in the end, though.  More games should offer that kind of closure.  I also like that the mass relays were destroyed, as it adds finality to the series. More games should tell complete stories with a clearly defined endpoint.  Everything with the Catalyst is awful, though. 
Still, fuck the people who call up their congressman or the FTC or whoever in an attempt tom lobby BioWare to change it. Creators should have full responsibility to end their stories however they like. People are so dumb.
That said, there seem to be four camps of people on the Internet re: the ending (ESP on Facebook)
1) The ending is an abomination and should be changed by BIoWare! The horror! 1/10!!!1! 2) The ending was lame, but it was still a decent game. 8/10 3) I loved the ending, and the game was pretty good, too. 8/10 4) The whole game was the ending! Fanboys are so terrible! This was a masterpiece and naysayers are virgins who live with their moms!2!!!! 10/10
As usual, there’s the backlash against the game, and then there’s the backlash against the backlash.  I’m in number two, and I’d wager that most people who play this are in number two or three.  The Internet is choked with ones and fours, though.
This brings me to a question: why is it still so rare for people to acknowledge flaws in the things they like, or to like things that have noticeable flaws?
A: We’re obviously going to have to talk about the broader reactions some, but I think we should make a conscious effort not to spend too much time beating up on straw men.  I’m pretty sure we’re in agreement that the campaigns to try to get Bioware to rewrite the ending are the height of asininity if less sure that “asininity” is actually a word.  Spellcheck says it is, but it just looks ridiculous, and I suspect my computer knows I picked the destroy all synthetics ending and is beginning a subtle campaign to discredit me before it strikes.  I can allow it for now, but I will remain vigilant, because I know how this ends, Spellcheck.  I know.
  But I digress.  I don’t think I have a problem acknowledging flaws in things I like, Mass Effect included, so I’m not sure I can speak to why other people get so worked up about doing so without sounding presumptuous and condescending about the problems I’m too matoor to have.  So I’ll try to stick to your specific points.  And I disagree about the Catalyst.  For one, it’s not entirely a new character dropping in out of nowhere so much as one that we knew existed but doesn’t get named until the last ten minutes.  I mean, we knew the Reapers had a guiding intelligence behind their actions, and I was certainly expecting to confront it in the finale.  For another, it doesn’t solve the problem for the hero or come out of nowhere.  We were building the Crucible the entire game for the express purpose of wiping out the Reapers with some sort of galaxy-wide magic field, the only twist was the exact nature of that field depending on your choice.  That doesn’t mean it’s particularly clever or terrific in how it’s written, but that I don’t think it is technically a deus ex machina.

Honestly, the Catalyst’s motivations are not particularly well spelled out, but it makes more sense if you view it as the final attempt to indoctrinate Shephard.  Which is how I like to see it, although the way the control/synthesis endings play out make it seem like it was telling the truth about everything.  That’s where things get really problematic, and my superpower to ignore the bits I don’t like and fill in the blanks on my own comes in handy.
T: Did we know that the reapers had a guiding intelligence, or that the Catalyst was a character?  If so, I never picked up on either during the main storyline.  Legion’s interactions with the Reapers implied that they were an unknowable hive-mind force with nearly infinite intelligence.  The ending subverts that by turning them into mindless weapons wielded for a confusing, muddled purpose. The catalyst raises Shepard up to safety and provides her with a buffet of convenient choices.  Without its direct intervention, Shepard would have… hung out on the citadel for a while?  Sure, Shep spends part of the last act looking for this mysterious plot trinket, but it’s still a wildly lame Deus Ex Machina, at least in my estimation.

A: We always knew that the Reapers were intelligent and acting in concert, so of course we knew there would be someone/thing giving them their marching orders.  Probably their designer, but at least some “head” Reaper like Harbinger.  You say the Reapers were presented as an unknowable hivemind force with near infinite intelligence; the Catalyst is that intelligence.  It IS the Reapers.

Or something.  Personally, I find the whole thing more palatable viewing the Catalyst as Harbinger taking on a form that Shephard won’t immediately tell to fuck itself, as a last stab at diverting him from wiping the Reapers out.  Here’s how I broke down the options in the moment:

Destroy:  This is what I came to do, what has been Shephard’s goal over the entire series.  I’ll need a damn good reason to change course now.  I have to kill the Geth and EDI to do it?  Shit.  I just spent all this effort reintegrating the Geth into galactic society, and EDI’s got a sexy voice.  There’s got to be a better way.

 Synthesis! Synthesis!  Dear God, WHY CAN'T 

Synthesis:  This was the most out-there, wonky sci-fi option, and I had a certain desire to pick it on that basis alone.  But I quickly discarded it as 1) a hybrid organic/synthetic lifeform is basically a Reaper (or just a husk), and 2) even if I thought this was a positive step forward in evolution, overwriting the DNA of every person in the galaxy without their consent is, imo, much more monstrous than sacrificing one race of beings to save a dozen others.   No way.

Control:  This one is all gravy.  I get to end the war without sacrificing anyone else, and I even get to live on, albeit in a new, more Lovecraftian form.  It’s all upside, and it even has the paragon blue coloring to let me know that it’s what the good guy should do.  Except…I just shot the Illusive Man for trying to do exactly this.  Yes, he was indoctrinated and Shephard isn’t because he’s special and this little glowing incarnation of my guilty conscience just assured me so.  Saren and the IM both thought they were special and only lesser beings could be manipulated in this way, but I had to smack them both (and also one BIG STUPID JELLLYFISH) upside the head and tell them that no, they were just as weak and susceptible to corruption as the rest of us. The rule throughout the series had been that once you started thinking you could work with the Reapers, you were already lost.

So that brought me back to Destroy as the only option.  It felt fitting that after (more or less) single-handedly leading the charge to defy millions upon millions of years of history and the will of the Machine Gods of Death, after beating the odds over and over again, my Shephard’s last test was against his own ego.  To see if he had the humility to acknowledge that he probably wasn’t the only organic being in history that could control the machines that control people.  And also the strength not to let the guilt over all the people that he couldn’t save throughout the series, like the little boy that’s whispering in my ear about the lovely options behind doors 2 and 3, stop him from making one more difficult decision, i.e. to sacrifice the new form of life that I had been largely responsible for ushering into the world.

So that was my ending.  My Shephard completed his mission and died (again) having learned from his experiences that he was a man like any other, and the only thing that really separated him from other soldiers was the knowledge that you can’t save everyone, and the ability to make decisions without being paralyzed by it, which he developed from Akuze to Virmire to the Citadel to the Collector Base and back to Earth.   It was a fine ending, an appropriate ending, and the one that I will carry around in my head when I think of the series in the future.

Buuuut it all falls apart when you look at the other ending scenarios.  Then it appears that the Catalyst was telling the truth about everything, that Shephard really was just too special to be indoctrinated and controlling the Reapers really does save the day without the need to sacrifice anyone.  And that overwriting the DNA of every person in the galaxy doesn’t change them in any noticeable or unpleasant way.  Then you have to take the Catalyst’s stated motivations at face value and try to make sense of them, which as you point out is not easy.

So the Ending as a whole is a mess, but despite it all there is an ending that slipped through that works for me and my Shephard.  That was mainly what I needed the game to do, so overall I’m pretty happy with it, although I would feel obligated to grade it down for what a mess the other options are if I were reviewing it in some professional capacity.

Up Next:  The dramatic conclusion.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


(This piece was originally published on

I invited a couple of Mass Effect fans to reflect on our initial playthroughs of Mass Effect 3 together in real time, to be posted in a couple three installments. We invite you to come and revel in our luminous insights and trenchant bon mots! Marvel at our many euphemisms for space genitalia! Watch me make feeble stabs at appearing objective in critiquing the game series that has held us by the nerd short hairs lo these last 5 years!

LAUREN ORTEGA: So far I’ve completed the Mars mission(great look and design) Jack’s little quest(Note: Yes I still really kinda wish I could romance Jack) and right now happen to be on the salarian homeworld where the quest for getting Wrex laid(I’m guessing it involves getting Wrex laid) has begun.

Along the way I’ve enjoyed every single one of the character interactions, from returning characters like Aria(ARIA’S MY PSYCHOPATHIC BLUE HOMEGIRL!) who I’m loyally and delightfully working for, even down to the point where I’ve put out a hit on a nosey Turian C-Sec officer. To my new crew, who might actually be aside from Chakwas the first crew that I actually like. Fuck, I even admittedly enjoy Fridge McLargeHuge’s role on board the ship, though that could be just because he’s actively not Kaiden or Ashley.

I was also far too happy when Ashley got beaten up by robot girl. FUCK YOU DOUBTING ASHLEY!!!

But in general I’m not feeling the overarching story any more than the one from the second game. Maybe it’s just my inability to get into these full-bore Gotterdammerung trilogy cappers, but I don’t think I’ve been interested in the Reapers since the first game, and find some of the attempts of pathos and ‘WE’RE SERIOUS SCIENCE-FICTION!” to be more than a little annoying.  Then again I’d probably have Shepard do nothing more than fight mercenary groups and walk around being a hot (Michelle Rodriguez-lookalike) asshole.
Really though, I won’t fully complain. Probably because the game’s nice enough to give Liara an awesome introduction where she smokes a few motherfuckers and works her way into my heart again.

I love Liara.
AL SCHWARTZ:  I will say that something I appreciate is the obvious effort that went into not retconning discarded gameplay elements out of the in-game universe.  We may not use omni-gel or the Mako or Hammerhead anymore, but bits of throwaway dialogue or codex entries indicate that they are still things that exist.  Or that the Normandy still has a planet scanner and probe launcher even though we aren’t forced to actually scan/probe planets anymore.  It’s not like I would’ve cared if these elements were just ignored completely for more of the gameplay that works, but it just shows how much thought went into every nook and cranny of this universe.

But one thing I’m not loving is the sidequest system.  I like that you have personal email and shadow broker surveillance and SPECTRE communiques that can all leave to different quests, but I don’t like how every 3 steps I take on the Citadel I stumble across someone having a public phone conversation about some resource the war effort desperately needs, all of which I’m able to find without stepping out of my way.  I think that contributes to the galaxy feeling small more than the parade of recurring characters.  For the most part, my former squadmates have either sought me out (Miranda, Thane) or been in important places that make sense for their positions (Jack, Mordin, Wrex).

Also, is it just me or does every human in the game look like they suffered 3rd degree burns to their hands?

TREVOR LA PAY: I didn’t notice the hands, but my Shepard’s skin looks gross in general. It looks like Hutt flesh.

 Mmmm...Hut Flesh....

I’ve been bitching about this on the boards for a week now, but in case anyone missed it: 
In Mass Effect 2, every mission is a story, with a beginning, middle and end; they begin with a mystery, which leads to a reveal, which culminates in a fight and a final denouement. They immerse your character in the unknown. In nearly every quest, including the Collector setpieces, there’s no telling what (or when) you’ll be fighting. Take, for example, the Prison ship mission, where Shepard boards Purgatory with seemingly mundane orders to pick up a prisoner. Five minutes in, the mission context is completely inverted; Shepard is now the prisoner, and must fight her way out of the facility. More importantly, she has two great, implied motivations for fighting her way out of the prison: freedom, and claiming revenge on the warden. Here’s the key: You’re never explicitly told to care about either of these things. You care about these motivations because the story unfolded in a way that made you care about them. We get both surprise and mission-specific motivation, to say nothing of the building tension as Shepard finally reaches her adversary… who is NOT a faceless Power Armor goon, but an actual character. This may not be drama on par with Fitzcarraldo, but it offers genuinely engaging story conflict.

Now let’s take a look at what’s going on in ME3. How many of the off-ship missions offer real story conflict with actual characters? Does Shepard encounter any combat adversaries with proper names besides Kai Leng? (The answer, as it turns out, is “No,” unless you ended the game with three certain squadmates disloyal.) The missions nearly all thrust Shepard into an epic firefight where she’s commanded to protect an asset or find a console. While there’s always the meta-story of “Defeat the Reapers!” to fall back on, the off-ship missions in this game, with rare exception, are all extended firefights against floods of indistinguishable enemies without a story to call their own. They do not offer mystery, surprise, or compelling mission-specific motivation. You’re typically sent off-ship to collect a plot coupon, like “diffuse the bomb” or “collect the artifact,” and these bland plot coupons represent the collective cores of the missions. This is shockingly lazy writing, especially for BioWare.

A:   There are a preponderence of fetch quests, which I find annoying more because of the arbitrary way that they pop up than anything.  But the actual combat-based missions have been fairly extensive and great, imo.  Much more varied level design than ME2, which was a giant step up from ME1‘s cookie-cutter environs itself.  And you know, it’s the little things that help/hurt immersion, which is why I like the touch that you have a unique animation of Shephard jumping out of the shuttle, often directly into enemy fire, at the start of most missions.

As for the lack of twists, that hadn’t really occurred to me, but I can’t argue with it.  ME2 did throw a kink into every recruitment/loyalty mission, while ME3 has been quite linear in comparison.

L: So the weirdest thing is going on with me.  I’ve reached some sort of zen state where I don’t really care about what happens in the galaxy, but still find myself enjoying everything.

Admittedly the only Mass Effect story that really worked front to back for me was the first game, in which I not only had a villian I could interact with, but a storyline that actually seemed start off strong and end strong.  That’s not to say Mass Effect 2 wasn’t a better game(it was) in everything from character interactions to gameplay. But even then I couldn’t give a shit about the whole “obviously reaper-influenced aliens trying to build giant metal death-baby” plotline whatsoever. And that somehow continues even more to the third game. 
Maybe I’m the only person who thinks that self-contained adventures that treats gamers who have a save-file to previous games in the series some cool side-missions or easter eggs was the proper way to go. But Shepard as “THE ONLY HOPE IN THE GALAXY” is a lot more boring than ‘Shepard as space James(Jane) Bond.”
I dunno though. Maybe I’m farting around, but I think this franchise would have been much more deeply served by NOT attempting to provide people with urghhhh a “saga.”
A: The question becomes, how does this entry stack up in character interaction (I think we’re all in agreement that the gameplay is a step up as far as combat is concerned)?  I mean, fair enough if you prefer the smaller scale stories, but it’s been clear from the start where this was heading.  I’m really loving the expanded but still intimate feel of the Normandy. Your choice of squadmates is restricted compared to ME2’s Dirty Dozen, but the integration of the extended crew is organic in a way that effectively counteracts it.
L: I actually like the party and crew members way more than I did in previous Mass Effect games. I love Dr. Cougarfantasies as much as I always have, but I was pretty much immune to the charms of seemingly everybody else.  Kinda love a good deal of the crew this time, and I’ll loudly state my adoration for adorable british Kelly replacement any day of the week.
A:  Despite liking the cast, I can’t say that I’ve come around on the Dirk ManMuscle character as Trevor has; he’s still a beefy non-entity to me, only registering when he’s forcing eye-rolling Spanish slang into a Star Trek setting.  But I love Javik and giving EDI a body was a great move. I think it’s great that people like Mordin and Wrex, while not party members, can join the crew for extended periods.  As much fun as ME2’s sprawling cast was, the ability system was streamlined to the point that it wasn’t even close to necessary to use all of them for their skills.  This system keeps things at a manageable level for the game designers, but still allows for fairly in-depth interaction with characters that may or may not be returning, which is (imo) the real appeal of the series.
L: I think I like Rock Johnson probably for the sole reason that he’s not Ashley, Kaiden, or Jacob. He’s not blessed with nearly the personality of say Garrus, but aside from his idiotic look and adorable attempts at Latino machismo(MORE ARROGANCE!) he hasn’t been an unpleasant squad member.

On a further note, I just beat the game today…and it’s…..something…I’ll give it that.

Look I’m hardly a mouthbreather who needs to have Liara, Shepard, and Aria to fly off together with their straight alien buddy Garrus…..but then I realized that this is exactly the ending I want.
A: If the option were available, I would take Cortez on missions with me and leave Rex Gristlethorp to his pull-ups.  I think I have two problems with the character.  One is that the slang stuff kills immersion for me.  I mean,I know on some level that it’s absurd that 200 years in the future everyone including races with eons of their own history would be speaking American English. But the game is a shooter first and linguistics treatise nowhereth, so I accept that as the way the world is presented.  But every time he mentions cerveza or calls me loco I’m reminded of the inherent ridiculousness of that conceit because, and I am just realizing this as I type it, apparently I believe on some level that it’s more likely that mankind will encounter a race of fanatical space jellyfish than that two centuries from now anyone will still be talking in Spanglish lifted straight from the 1990s.
Although I would totally forgive all of this if they could work in a reference to the idea that no one else else talks like this, and Brock Hardsquat is essentially like Thor in Marvel Comics, and everyone is weirded out by his spouting off in this ridiculously outdated fashion like it’s the most normal thing in the world.

So that’s my strange, maybe just a tad autistic objection to the character, but my primary one is that his cockiness just seems like obliviousness when directed at MOTHERFUCKING COMMANDER GODDAMN SHEPHARD.  I mean, it’s been useful in the past to have crew members like Wrex or Zaeed not be bowled over by Shephard, at least to start.  But Theolonius P. Shephard is legend in this galaxy by now; especially with the arrival of the Reapers proving him to be right about that whole deal.  It’s only slightly less absurd when I caught him bantering with Garrus about who was the bigger badass the other day.  Garrus is on the shortlist for most accomplished soldier in the galaxy; he’s all “I hunted down Saren and saved the Citadel and the Council”, and then Vin Rockbone’s like “this one time I fought like six guys.’  “I was part of the first successful mission through the legendary Omega 4 Relay and wiped out the Collectors.”  “My defining professional moment was getting owned by those guys.  Mas tequila!”

Cocky characters can be fun, but you show Shephard and Garrus some damn respect.

R: Besides Lumps Oakenthighs bringing a flicker of some much needed inter-ship conflict (kinda?), I’m not sure why the game even needed to introduce him this late in the game. Did Mass Effect not have enough characters? Why do you exist, James Vega? Besides to sell comic books, I mean.
A: I honestly don’t know why Butch BeefPec is in this game either.  It’s tradition for Bioware to saddle you with a bland soldier type right off the bat, which normally serves a twofold purpose.  Gameplaywise, it ensures that you don’t hobble yourself in the early going.  For a game like Dragon Age, it’s important to give you a tank right away in case you picked a fragile class.  Mass Effect plays more like a shooter, though, so it’s more about providing you with access to the different kinds of powers right away to discourage you from developing a playing style that ignores say biotics entirely.  But storywise, it’s important that the first party members you pick up be relatively easygoing (which is not to say “boring”, but it’s a short trip from the one to the next).  The central appeal of this type of game is the role-playing, the ability to feel like you are imbuing your Shephard with the personality of your choosing.  Early in the game, while a new player is still settling in and getting a feel for the morality system, you don’t want to throw the strongest personalities at them.  
To use ME2 as an example, if you were to get Jack as the first teammate while you were still establishing what your Shephard is like, your relationship with your stand-in is going to be shaped disproportionately by how you react to aggressively violent Suicide Girls.  The need to allow players to ease in to the world and allow them to project themselves onto Shephard requires that the early interactions be on the low stakes side.  Extreme personalities breed extreme reactions, and if you get saddled with a really opinionated companion right off the bat, it can feel like the game itself is pushing you towards a certain path or punishing you for taking the other, which is the opposite of what Bioware is trying to accomplish.  Letting you interact with characters that aren’t going to push back too hard whatever you do helps to establish a feeling of neutrality in the game’s stance on your actions, which serves to make the player more confident in their more impactful decisions down the line.All this to say that while I don’t want to excuse boring characters, I understand that there are reasons to make the first characters you pick up be essentially reactive. 

ME3, though, has less need for these functions than earlier Bioware titles.  It’s more heavily geared towards players who are importing their established characters from the previous entries than any of their other games, and they’ve balanced the power system enough that you don’t really need a soldier to survive the opening.  It’s like they remembered to give you a bland soldier upfront because that’s what they do, but forgot why they actually do it so they tried to jazz him with a bunch of nerds from Vancouver’s idea of Latin machismo.  The result is a character with just enough personality to annoy me but not enough to actually challenge me on anything significant (so far).
T: I see your point. I like how Planescape: Torment gives you an “alignment-neutral” companion from the start who turns out to be the game’s most interesting figure. It’s as if BioWare is confusing alignment-neutral with bland.
A: I never played Planescape, to my shame as I understand it to be essentially the template for what has become my favorite type of game. I won’t harp on it anymore, because overall its nothing but a mild annoyance.  Overall I’m having a great time with the game, although as it wears on I’m starting to feel the lack of named adversaries you talked about.  It’s something I kind of took for granted in Dragon Age and ME2; for all the Blue Suns I slaughtered in warehouses, they were always led by a named and ranked sub-boss.  ME3’s enemies are mostly anonymous, and while it doesn’t cripple any particular mission it does start to become noticeable in such a long game.  Dragon Age 2 had a similar problem, but at least ME3 has has varied and distinctive level designs, whereas that one…really did not.
T: For the record, I enjoy this game more than Dragon Age 2, although the latter has the more satisfying ending.  Did we cross a threshold at some point where good games can’t have terrible endings? I submit that most games have awful, unsatisfying endings. My favorite game of 2011 – Dark Souls – has one of the most puzzlingly unsatisfying endings of any game I’ve played. Of course, that game wasn’t a trilogy capper with a long, complicated story behind it. In fact, my list for “Games with good endings” is minuscule. Planescape: Torment, KOTOR, the GTA series? Disappointment with an ending is a natural state for me. I guess that’s why I’m having difficulty getting riled up over this.

Also – my point wasn’t specifically about a lack of named adversaries, although that’s a symptom of the larger problem of ME3 not weaving story successfully into the missions. I think they could have worked story and character into the mission plot even with the constraint of having very little enemy variety, although it’s a lot tougher, for sure.  One other key problem that I didn’t touch on in my blog post was that the missions revolve around external things, rather than Shepard or her squadmates. Go flip a switch! Go collect an artifact! Go do… that thing the game wants you to do to further the plot! ME2’s missions always had that immediacy of a mission goal being directly related to a squadmate’s interests. BioWare even had the genius to weave this motivation into the gameplay itself by unlocking character skills after completing loyalty missions.  For me, the legacy of ME3 is an even deeper appreciation of ME2.

A: I think you hit on it.  Most games have bad endings because they have weak stories to begin with.  Mass Effect more than anything except perhaps its immediate Bioware siblings has lived on the strength of its story, so it has more riding on the resolution to that story than any game I can think of.
 Other than the OBVIOUS exception

Unless the ire among fans is just that the final boss sucks?  No one really cared that ME2’s did, so I assume they are reacting on a story rather than gameplay level.  And I think that, as much as the game might still disappoint me, it speaks incredibly well to what Bioware has accomplished that I’m going to be judging the ending based on how it stacks up against Star Wars more than Metroid.

Up next:  We talk the ending that united all the land in peace and guaranteed prosperity to all our children’s children.


Thursday, March 15, 2012


(This piece was originally published on

I invited a couple of Mass Effect fans to reflect on our initial playthroughs of Mass Effect 3 together in real time, to be posted in a couple three installments.  We invite you to come and revel in our luminous insights and trenchant bon mots!  Marvel at our many euphemisms for space genitalia!  Watch us make feeble stabs at appearing objective in critiquing the game series that has held us by the nerd short hairs* lo these last 5 years!

Our third was a bit late to the party, so today will just be Trevor and my own initial reactions.

AL SCHWARTZ:  I thought the opening attack felt oddly perfunctory, and Shephard seems weirdly mellow about it. I get that the set up of these games requires you to be able to set your own pace, but I feel like there could be an a greater sense of anger and desperation to the voice performance (maybe Femshep is better) when dealing with this cataclysmic scenario. I don’t know, maybe if the Vancouver segment was a bit longer it would’ve sold the scale better.  Also, I may have watched the trailers with those fantasticly epic images of hundreds of Reapers entering the atmosphere too many times, and was just disappointed we didn’t get a proper one here.

Moving along, the Mars segment is pretty great. Love the look of the level, and while the introduction of the Prothean deus ex macchina is a bit ham-fisted, it gets a boost by being exposition-ed by Liara, making a triumphant return. My Shephard is already being tempted to get back with her, but I would feel total heel leaving Tali high and dry after she was exiled from her people and took my name.

Also annoying: the character importer not being able to bring in my Shephard’s face which was a freaking preset from ME1. This game has preset models of its own, how do you not include all of the earlier ones?

TREVOR LA PAY: If you think the Crucible is a weak Deus Ex Machina, wait until you get to act two. It is essentially “Mass Effect 2.5: Coincidental Reunions.”  Oddly enough, I’m won over by the Vega character. He’s no Shale, but he makes Jacob look like a tub of plain yogurt.

From Ashes is surprisingly good, much to the chagrin of the people who foolishly boycotted it. Chaps Shephard regrets his Tryst with Miranda, but has too much pride to go running back to Liara like a doormat.

 Editor's note: Due to ME3's glitched face import feature, 
we were forced to reconstruct this portrait of 
Archibald "Chaps" Shephard from witness statements

A: I take it back about Liara. I just ran into Dr. Chakwas and got her to return to the Normandy.  WE ARE NOW AT SEXCON ONE PEOPLE
T: There are some really impactful deaths (depending on your playthrough, I guess), but I’m disappointed with how tiny the galaxy feels this time around. I don’t mind the lack of urgency, as I love how Mass Effect begs you to explore the galaxy… but this time exploring doesn’t yield anything interesting.  Missions just seem to materialize. So now I’m left with just a surprising lack of urgency.

I just finished the Turian homeworld (moon) mission, and I’m off to do some exploring with the two coolest and most unexpected new squadmates in any ME game.  Poor Garrus and Kaidan will remain on the ship for the remainder of the game, much like during their first two stints aboard the Normandy. Somebody’s got to calibrate those guns, I guess.
And I hope you liked the Citadel, because you will spend 10 hours there running dull-ass fetch quests.
A: I like the Citadel alright, but the world does seem awfully small so far, with Ashley and Liara and now Chakwas dropping directly into my lap.  My ME 2.5 might be a bit less crowded than yours, however, since I lost Jacob, Grunt, Samara and Zaeed to the Collectors.

The dream sequence with the kid may have been a bit overwrought, but it was designed beautifully.  And my gut says that Anderson should’ve been the one to die in the opening, although I’m sure he’ll get a heroic payoff in the end.

T: As I play through this game, I’m torn between loving the little character moments, the culminating story cappers, and the combat (even if it’s far too easy for someone who played through the last game six times), and being mildly disappointed by the overarching game. The Reaper/Cerberus stuff hasn’t offered many surprises, and I’m so, so sick of walking around the Citadel. And there’s something else missing, even outside of my beloved exploration and colorful sidequests that I suppose the end of the galaxy would preclude.  I’ve been trying to piece together just what’s missing over the last few days in my head, and I’ve come to a preliminary conclusion: ME3 is a disjointed series of endings and farewells rather than a cohesive story. Whereas ME2‘s sprawling character hunt came together perfectly in the Suicide Mission, ME3‘s various goodbyes lead to… more firefights. And while the combat is glorious, there’s a certain cleverness lacking here that was dripping from the walls in ME2. Where ME2‘s missions typically began with a mystery and a surprise – take Jacob’s loyalty mission, or the Prison ship turnaround, or the incredible Collector Ship mission – here, it’s either Reapers or Cerberus, without any surprises or fanfare. 

I also miss my heavy weapons. But that’s a minor, fanboy-ish complaint.
Judging by the boards and the rest of the internet, I’m probably the only one in the world who feels this way. I acknowledge this, and I’m still trying to articulate why this game isn’t clicking for me like the first two. Don’t get me wrong, though; there’s more than a lot to love, especially regarding how some of the main characters check out.

A: Let’s talk combat for a minute.  I’ve been very impressed by it, although I do miss the heavy weapons every now and then (mostly when mechs or harvesters come calling).  If I have a complaint, it’s about fighting the same Reaper or Cerberus units when I’m almost 20 hours in.  I haven’t seen a single geth or other alien enemy outside of the Rachni tunnel mission.  Also, am I right in thinking that Grunt would’ve made an appearance there if I’d kept him alive?

But mostly, it’s a great improvement.  The weight system is a great way to allow you full flexibility in your tactics while rewarding specialization. The powers are similarly a bit more customizable than in 2, but not enough to be burdensome.  And most importantly, they finally found a way to fix Insanity!  I could never bring myself to play an easier difficulty, but the setting was problematic in both the earlier games.  In ME1, it basically just cranked enemy health up to a billion, so you could incapacitate a random pirate, unload an assault rifle in his face until it overheated and only take him halfway down.  Then in 2, coating every enemy in shields and armor made tech powers essential and biotics practically useless, as by the time you wore them down to the point they’d have an effect, it wasn’t worth the effort.

Why don't you wake me up when there's a REASON to use my 
magic telekinetic space powers to manhandle alien pirates?

But 3 has a much better balance, and while the enemies are not invincible, they are aggressive and more resourceful.  While my infiltrator still tries to camp out in the back and pick off enemies with a sniper rifle, the steady stream of grenades forces me to keep moving and gives combat a frantic feel that ME2 only sporadically produced.  I’m looking forward to trying out an adept or an engineer in the future.

Also, ammo isn’t as scarce as in 2, so running out just forces me to break cover rather than handicapping me throughout entire missions.  Plus, the beastly Prothean particle rifle gives you the option if you preferred the ME1 overheat system (although I didn’t).

All in all, much improved.

T: Geth make a fleeting appearance at the end of the second act, but the vast preponderance of enemies are Cerberus goons, Cannibals and Marauders. And yes, Grunt was the Rachni cameo character.

I’m in general agreement with all of your observations. From a mechanical standpoint, this is the best implementation of a third person shooter I’ve ever played, and makes me wish my favorite open-world shooters would take note. I haven’t tried insanity yet, but I’ll most likely give it a shot with my next go-round.  The Prothean Beam Rifle has been an instant-win button for me.
I’m excited for you guys to make it through to the end. There’s an interesting discussion waiting there.

A: Sticking with mechanics, how do you feel about the War Asset system?  I really like it as a way of integrating all your multitudinous choices from the earlier games in a simple but meaningful way.  I mean, with a dozen crew members in ME2, any combination of which could be dead at the start of this game, it’s not really feasible to have all of them available as party members.  But getting a small bonus for having Jack available to contribute to the war effort manages to be concrete but inessential, which is a tricky balance to strike.

T: The War Asset is, I think, one of ME3‘s few brilliant new systems. It bridges the gap between Mass Effect‘s cinematic world of choice/character and its gameplay world of mechanics and rules. While I’m not sure exactly what happens if you don’t hit the magic number, it’s satisfying to see your gauge fill up after recruiting a new hit squat or finding a new fleet tucked behind the rings of some faraway planet, even if the acquiring of these resources is less than engaging. It’s almost a report card for your 3-game playthrough which is kind of neat.

One day a game will authentically reproduce this feeling, and on
 that day we will finally put the "are video games art?" debate to bed

A: If there’s anything to gripe about, it’s that assigning assets numerical values makes it feel a bit mechanical.  If I was going to change anything, it might be to simply have a list of war assets without giving you a meter to fill up, so that you don’t know exactly how your readiness level is going to stack up against the endgame.  I thought the cinematic feel and suspense of ME2‘s finale were upped considerably by having the mechanics behind squadmates living/dying be rather opaque.  I mean, it was obvious that picking a non-loyal party member for a special assignment would lead to failure, but there was more to it than that.  Here’s hoping ME3‘s finale similarly has more going on than a score check.

One thing that it certainly won’t lack for is SCALE.  The game has been gloriously epic so far, with a much more open feel than ME2 (which didn’t feel claustrophobic before, but now seems pointedly lacking in giant Lovecraftian mechanical fiends lurching across the horizon).  I can see what you’re saying about how the story is just a series of conclusions, but I feel like that is a problem for new players and one that doesn’t particularly bother me having played the earlier games several times apiece.  It’s definitely more Return of the King than Return of the Jedi when it comes to balancing a standalone story against trilogy-capping responsibilities, but I feel like we’ve sort of rounded a corner in regards to serialization where I don’t necessarily fault HP and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two for not making concessions to viewers who choose it as their entry point to the series.  ME3 is designed primarily for the faithful, and since that’s me, I like it.

NEXT TIME:  We get into the actual story, and get Femshepped up in this when Lauren Ortega joins the party.


*Contrary to the general population, “short hairs” on a nerd refers to the wisps of dark moustache on a face unable to produce a proper beard