Elite: Dangerous – Take Me Away

New posts on Wednesdays if I can muster up enough desire to write about video games on Wednesdays. The Mass Effect schedule will resume soon, life was a bit weird the past two weeks.

A week ago today (Sunday the 25th) I was supposed to be at a work meeting and then I had a rarely-planned work party later in the day. It was supposed to be a thing where for just 3 or 4 hours I’d go be with my coworkers and relax at my boss’ house. The team I work with rarely gets to spend time outside of work having fun all together so I was really excited at the chance to get out of the house for the first time in about a week and go hang out with my coworkers.

That unfortunately didn’t happen. My dad had a breathing incident that morning, no one could be over here to take care of him, and to be honest I was little too worried about someone else not being able to take care of my dad the way me or the other primary caretaker typically could. In the following days I’d spend more time at home barely able to take time out for myself than ever before and then Tuesday morning my dad’s final turns towards the afterlife started. Simply put: I barely touched my computer from Sunday through Thursday night when Dad passed away. I played some games when I could but was too wrapped up in worrying about what needed to be done or getting things done to focus on what was uploaded to YouTube that day. And so after five days I had accumulated quite a backlog of videos to watch.

This past Fridaymy best friend Micael and his partner Kaden bought me Elite: Dangerous, a game I had in my wishlist mainly because my other friend rane0 had often played it as a game to enjoy while watching YouTube or Netflix. Little did I know the wonderful space sim world I was going to be diving into across my weekend and in the coming week. See my brother took it upon himself to do most of the funeral arrangements. And with the paid week off I have from work right now due to Dad’s passing, I decided to take the opportunity to rest. I sought the best ways I know myself to unwind: Hang with friends for the first time in a while, catch up on YouTube, do chores, take care of myself, and play some video games, oh and work on my mixes of course. It’s not an easy thing to forget the images and experiences taking care of a loved one on hospice, it all flies by even though it feels like forever. Regardless, shifting from the ugly picture of a loved one slowly dying to thinking on memories of your loved one just brings into focus the reality that your loved one is gone. That too isn’t the best feeling in the world. And while I’ve mostly accepted that feeling I don’t want to spend all the time off I have sitting in my house staring at pictures and losing my mind either. So…Elite: Dangerous.

It’s a space sim played by many people online. It’s not as grand scale as EVE Online but you basically live life as a “space trucker”, a “space miner”, or a “space fighter”. With my YouTube backlog and the ordeal I’ve just been through I thought “space trucker” would be a fantastic mini vacation for myself as I caught up on YouTube and took some time for myself without sitting in sorrow over my dad’s departure. Fly from system to system, deliver packages (whatever they be), fly around, you know, the fun stuff. To be honest I added this game to my wishlist just off of screenshots and Rane’s insane number of hours spent playing it. I really didn’t know it was this deeper space sim. Growing up I had spent plenty of hours playing TIE Fighter and X-Wing Alliance (two games that practically REQUIRED a joystick AND keyboard combination of controls to manage your ship effectively). Imagine the glee I found when hitting up the training missions and realizing that I could use boosters to push myself in any direction but wouldn’t have perpetual forward motion until I carefully adjusted the throttle on my spaceship. I do recommend the training though, even though it’s not clear and you’re just pushing buttons thrown up on your screen (or not) until you figure out how to actually play the game it’s a safe place to mess up, start over, try again without any consequence. Even the training can be a challenge as you train yourself to dogfight, where to look, how to find your enemy or properly use your weapons or approach the enemy force (hint: Pick the small ships first). It was in the last combat training mission where I found myself doing close pass byes to a larger cargo frigate after taking out a 2-ship escort just barely missing physical contact with the enemy and flying right over their front end. At that moment I said, “Okay! I’ve definitely got the hang of this.” What better way to focus the training of the game: What you need to know to survive the most unexpected danger of space: Other people.

But I didn’t have the hang of it actually. See with training out of the way it was now my turn to learn the system-to-system mechanics of the game. And boy are there a lot. See with the Star Wars X-Wing series the space simulator never got past the “jumping between systems” scale of things, which basically meant that you’d be returning to the same base most of the time by the end of the mission, landing was done with the push of a space bar as long as you were flying slow enough, communication was contextual and simple, and multiplayer was dogfighting. And this is where I, among probably many other people, think that Elite: Dangerous might actually be a game that (given more time, adjustments made to certain features, etc.) could be at least 50% more of the game that people wanted No Man’s Sky to be and even contain the features the lead directors talk about. Because Elite: Dangerous is a big and (maybe even accurate) replication of our milky way galaxy. And that’s just crazy talk to me but well just spend a few minutes in the game’s galaxy map (which you will do when first looking for missions to take on) and you’ll just notice the sheer density of how many systems there are to visit, explore, and traverse in this game. No the game doesn’t have that space-to-earth transitionary element to it but it already had the gigantic spcae thing done and apparently expansion packs DO let you go to planet surfaces for mining and resource gathering or missions. To be honest as much as this realization slowly creeped into my brain about the amount of work that has gone into building this universe for an MMO of sorts to exist, the more blown-back I am that I haven’t seen millions of No Man’s Sky haters all carrying Elite: Dangerous on their shoulders with memes and clickbait articles telling me 10 reasons why E:D did it better before it was cool.

Regardless, the game’s huge. The most wonderful kind of huge: Space huge. And so I started picking up missions and getting the ropes of how to accomplish them or what missions I wanted to do. As a space delivery guy I wanted to be the most boring version of the Firefly, no space pirate stuff, no trouble, just floating on between the stars taking packages from one place to another and getting paid for it. I tried doing missions involving finding lost things but it seems to require that you go to a star system and float around each planet and its orbiting moons/space rocks/random lost space debris and see if you can find the item. This may seem menial but it’s also confusing and makes you feel like it’s not worth the effort when sometimes a star system can have 15-20 asteroid formations, 5-10 planets with their own orbital moons or space debris to search through. I’ve heard bounty hunting is really cool and I’ve heard space-mining is more boring than space-delivery so I chose the road less pulse-pounding. I just wanted that YouTube catch-up tool, or that “just got home from a long day of funeral service stuff, don’t feel like getting wrapped up in exploring Wikis just to find out where to go next in Mass Effect”. It’s almost contradictory of me though since navigating so much of this game (being a sim) is not straightforward.

Your ship can dock at various stations and orbital platforms and cool hexagonal hubs in many systems across the galaxy. You start off docked at one and at any station there’s an available mission board where you can choose to accept missions and go get them done. Of course this is built as an MMO of sorts (internet needed but you can play without actual people if you want) so the grind missions all have a realistic timer on them. The factions or industries you accept jobs from need stuff done within 24 hours typically. So I typically loaded up three deliveries at a time, turned left in my space interface and pulled up the galaxy map to pick a destination and try to plot out my path. I learned a little later you can have the game plot your course for you (but only if the servers cooperate and before you get the good tech: Only close enough systems). So you lift off from your current “truck stop”, leave the area, raise your landing gear, speed up enough to get some distance from the station at which point they’ll release their mass lock on you so you can jump to inter-system-travel mode or just make an immediate jump to lightspeed/hyperspace and hop over to the next system over on your journey. Destination arrived, you go to the small planet system where the station you’re delivering the goods resides, slow down enough for you to enter the system safely (or you’ll just ZOOM on by using the force of gravity and centrifugal force if I know my science right….I don’t), and once you’re close enough you can enter the “tiny area of where you are” and fly towards your next orbital platform/space station/destination. Then you turn over to your panel on the left of your cool spaceship interior and tab over to nearby ships, and send a request to land (that’s right: You gotta ask permission before you waltz in). If you’re close enough to the place they’ll grant you a bay, tell you where to land and ask that you don’t speed on your way in. You will, you’ll also forget to put your landing gear down sometimes or land in the wrong bay for a moment or accidentally hit the button to discharge your turrets thinking for some reason it’s your landing gear or throttle and suddenly an entire space station blows you to smithereens.

And that’s just the basics of a delivery. As you upgrade your ship at stations for unique utilities or simply better gear to do the job and protect yourself (or if you’re BUYING a better ship) you have to make sure the stuff that needs to be equipped in inventory slots are set correctly. You have to make sure to refuel when at a station so you have enough fuel to make the next big star system jump until you find out what a fuel scooper is and how to get one, then you can fly close to the sun like Icarus (EXCEPT SNOW COLORED SUNS: AVOID THEM LIKE THE PLAGUE JEEZ THEY’RE HOT) and turn that energy into fuel like Wall-E. You’ll upgrade your weaponry to try and hold your own a bit more whenever invasions happen (happens more around busy hubs), find the much better efficient way to navigate star systems without using the galaxy or system map and look for nearby stations to fuel up on gas like the time Han was looking around for help and noticed Lando’s name come up. It has happened horribly to me at times too. Ship kept overheating, my recent additions to my ship created a power problem and I could only fly to another system by draining my shields and so I flicked my display over to my left panel and looked for the closest station where I could land, re-sort my ship parts and find a better setup that wouldn’t drain power on me. Last thing you want in space is to be out of fuel, unable to jump to another system where there is fuel, or be losing power while on your own. It was after a good chunk of doing delivery missions that I realized not only was I getting really comfortable flicking back and forth between my ship’s wonderful HUD and just going from mission to mission but I also getting a little bored of it. Like any giant world / MMO / big game: Pad the stuff to do to get more time out of it, but make the stuff you do so much less significant.

It was around this time that I was playing with the galaxy map, crazily zooming in and out of the milky way’s center and saying, “Man I hope my missions take me from this end, through the middle where there’s TONS of systems nearby to the other end and maybe throws me at earth along the way.” Then I laughed, looked at how much money I had already accumulated by flying by planets and mapping out systems by scanning each unknown planet in a system and selling the map data to the public, and said, “Why don’t I make this a trip?” And so I am. I picked out a few well known documented nebula, bookmarked them, made a 2-day journey over to the nearest giant “city center” in the game where factions do stuff or something and then mapped out my path to a “dark nebula”. I’m so excited to head through these things, see what they look like in game. The game’s pretty, though a bit oversold by its own store pictures, it’s beautiful watching a tiny star on the horizon grow into a giant ball of fire as you sit back and watch the distance counter run down, gracefully nudging your joystick to keep the course straight while catching up on YouTube. I’m going to have some wonderful journeys traversing our galaxy and watching daily videos.

I’m only about 15 hours in and there’s plenty more I could talk about. The sheer lack of direction for newcomers, the way the game fails to engage the players in its world’s ongoing story (like WoW does) or create a functional system that allows players to craft the world’s story on their way (like EVE does), the intensity of being pulled out of frame-shift (system travel) mode by an enemy looking to blow you to smithereens for your stuff, the rush of scaring them off, or the frantic feeling as you divert power to your systems or your engines, mash the booster button and look to escape to a nearby system instead. I could talk about how those mediocre training elements reminded me of Dark Souls 1’s flawed “too hard” moments that only made players who sit around to figure out what to do in the game love it. I definitely should talk about how beautiful this game is (but not all the time) and how you should actually avoid looking up pictures of the game because the developer images don’t show gameplay too much and gameplay images are only capturing the beautiful moments instead of the beauty you’ll realize in just sort of spacing out staring at a tiny star in the distance actually slowly growing on you across 10 or 20 minutes or how you start to notice the spatial orientation of the special locations of the galaxy. I can see the density of the stars increasing but it’s mostly horizontally aligned but I can also see the nebulas afar off that I know are going to get bigger and bigger in view as I get closer and closer to them with each jump along the way. I could go on and on about the wonder I found in games like Homeworld and X-Wing Alliance where universes were crafted and space backdrops were the body of water to traverse and navigate carefully while simultaneously the very thing you just wanted to stare at for hours and just go…a little farther to see what things will look like if you went deeper into the wondrous and vast sea. But now I don’t need to look to worlds like Homeworld or X-Wing Alliance. I can just play Elite: Dangerous and go to those places I saw growing up or when I look up at the sky at night these days.

For that alone it’s won me over.

Maybe it’ll win you over too. It’s available on PC and XBone.

Mass Effect 3 – Saving the RPG (Part 4)

New posts on Wednesday! Not all Wednesdays just…when I have them ready on Wednesdays.

Leaping forward a bit in the story and we reach The Citadel, one of only a few places in the Mass Effect series that truly feels like home. I think being grounded in RPGs with a hub is a really good design to bring to the table. The “board the ship and check every character for new dialog” routine is something so done to death in space RPGs that by this point we have parodies of this process.

But the strength of being able to go to these characters that we do not bring on missions allows players to feel like all characters have some sort of a progress across the game’s story (or some don’t because their emotional attachment to the quest is…minimal). We see these ideas even taken to new expanses in games like Knights of the Old Republic 2 where character interactions don’t entirely involve the player (though they may still surround and regard the player in their character’s absence). Sometimes as you board the ship, characters are talking in secrecy to others about card games, routine maintenance, disagreements that you might settle, or stories from their past that they wish to remain hidden from you in particular. This allows the developers to show players that characters might choose to hide something from their avatar, but restrict the player’s ability to understand what those characters are doing, or what their motivations are. It’s also, altogether, a very interesting social interaction that video games don’t explore often enough in RPGs. So often the hero quest means everyone wants to get to know you, everyone opens up to you, you’re not just this action hero, you’re their developmental hero. The possibility that a person around you loathes you, wants nothing to do with you outside their own self-interest, and even conspires against you and questions you behind your back is…very un-gamey in a party-based RPG.

Regardless the “hub” remains the wonderful go-to grounding zone of the party-based RPGs that BioWare tends to make. And with space RPGs it’s the hub is your ship: The vessel by which you pursue your quest. It’s a wonderful design but I feel like this grounding in a place that’s so important feels even more rewarding when it is earned. And that’s why we talk about the Citadel today instead of the Normandy or the Ebon Hawk.

In Mass Effect 1, the Citadel was what Taris worked as in Knights of the Old Republic. The game starts with a small / short mission that gets the story in motion before you and your party join you on a more non-hostile location where the story develops further and you get to know the characters traveling with you. KotOR 1 did this by crash landing the player and 2 allies on Taris while you hid from a Sith army takeover of the planet. Many quests across Taris work towards rescuing one of your two allies, getting to know other party members that will join you, joining a bounty hunter guild, becoming a fighting champion, a podracer, and then hatching a plan to get off the planet safely. The journey involves getting to know the ins and outs of a planet that has a layered socioeconomic society. The rich live in the beautiful city while the poorer and less privileged live in the lower city and the destitute live in the undercity surrounded daily by the possibility of death, eeking out a way to survive near sewers. The end reward of your long journey is the spaceship that becomes your world hub for the rest of the game. It’s by no stretch of the imagination that BioWare developed Taris as a part of the game players would spend nearly 15-20% of their KotOR experience on. It’s developmental for the story, the characters, and the many different quests and deeper RPG encounters that players will experience across the rest of the game. The same is repeated in KotOR 2 on a mining asteroid. And with Mass Effect 1 BioWare gave players time on a peaceful super space station called “The Citadel”. It functions pretty much the same way Taris does. You uncover more of the plot of what’s going on in the main game, prove it to the Space Council so you can be granted Super Space Agent status, gather a team, meet many people who you’ll remember in years to come while learning a lot about the technology and ancient race that predated human and alien civilizations (where the Citadel comes from), and (lastly) get the awesome space ship that lets you do the rest of the game’s quests.

https://typertyme.files.wordpress.com/2016/09/1cb40-04-taris.png?w=620

For players of the series, returning to the Citadel in Mass Effect 3 and hearing its musical motifs will be reminded of the wonder and curiosity of the station while they gape in awe at just how huge this thing is. It almost feels like Taris and the Citadel are even meant to LOOK similar just to plant in the players’ mind the concept of “open” and “big”, or even “sprawling” when the core games actually consist of smaller worlds that they just spend a lot of time on doing many things. A location like this early on in the game would help players feel like the world is bigger than it is. And that’s…a wonderful thing to do to players actually. Half-Life and Half-Life 2 are these phenomenally paced corridor shooters but because of the use of vistas after long amounts of time making progress and carrying the player to new places, the games feel like they span an entire country or an entire facility in a matter of 8-12 hours.

Design decisions like this would be a fault if BioWare didn’t recognize it and support it the ways they have. In Mass Effect 3, the Citadel feels similar. We’ve escaped Earth, done a mission on Mars and now, for the first time, we explore layers/floors of small side quests, have many different conversations and get an idea of where we’ll be going in the game next without being given the urgency to go there NOW. It’s a chance to catch your breath, get your bearings for the absolutely dense stack of quests you’ll get before too long (too dense in Mass Effect 3, but that’s another entry).

The Citadel in Mass Effect 3 practically serves as a secondary hub as we return to it again and again. We watch characters overcome their losses, find ways to mingle and relax during the brief times they get shore leave, meet family members from their past for the first time, and players get to comprehend how the war is progressing. There’s entire floors dedicated to refugees where you overhear conversations about planets being entirely wiped out (poor Batarians), even some of your party members join the refugees to help their own species that have been run off planets. Meanwhile the political-based floors still have espionage and spy work ready for you to pick up. Even some missions that end on other worlds start at the Citadel as everyone knows it’ll be the last great place of defense in the galaxy, so refugees are going there first. People looking to join the war effort are leaving from there, and in many ways it is this gigantic central hub of communication.

I think this morphed hub that we return to across the game is something BioWare consciously decided to focus on in the game. We watch Kaiden as he rests up from his injury and is granted Super Space Spy status or sit next to our dying friend Thane. With Mass Effect 2 and other RPG titles of BioWare’s, the team was always small, elite, and performing a mission that wouldn’t involve an entire army. It fits with the designs of RPGs where parties and small teams are the foundation of the design (it’s an RPG, not an RTS). And so in the past players have always understood or perceived the scope of what they were doing through the lens of the small transport hub, the campfire that the whole party huddles around or the Ebon Hawk’s many comfortable and quiet rooms as it travels through the dark and silent space. Mass Effect 3 though is a mixture of the experiences. All out war is happening across the universe while Shepard continues to gather his private team of fantastic soldiers and act in the shadows of the same fight for the universe.

In simple terms: You, Shepard, and your team, are reminded of what you’re fighting for every time you return here.https://i1.wp.com/vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/masseffect/images/d/d7/MassEffect2Citadel.jpg

Mass Effect 3 – Saving the RPG (Part 3)

Mars, Kaiden Alenko, and Character Talks

Earth left behind after its sudden invasion, and we get a call from everyone’s side-quest initiator: Admiral Hackett. Boy does everyone love Admiral Hackett. No complaints about him either. In Mass Effect 1 and 2 he heads up the entire Alliance fleet and doles out missions to the Normandy when necessary. Oh, and his voice is really cool.

Hackett says there’s some super important research that has been uncovered on Mars so the game immediately sends us there. Meanwhile we get all huffy and puffy with new human crew member James Vega as he throws a fit that Captain Anderson stayed behind and then we throw ourselves onto the surface of Mars with Kaiden Alenko (from ME1) or Ashley Williams (and James of course).

Okay, before I go any further I suppose I should address this:

How many people actually picked Ashley Williams to survive in Mass Effect 1?

I mean I did, on one of my Mass Effect runs, just to see if anything was any different but jeez if there’s anything anyone seems to universally agree on in Mass Effect, it’s not who is the better OTP for your commander Shepard, it’s that alien-racist-Ashley dies in Mass Effect 1. No one thinks otherwise. I almost want to see an end-of-episode statistic poll on that one.

And no I’m not defending Ashley, literally just curious if anyone has found her character has some redeeming qualities. I guess I’ll find out whenever I play that Shepard again.

Anyhoo, Mars is darn pretty.

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The game even has dialog moments in the core missions where characters talk about something and you’re prompted into pressing a button, the camera wheels out, turns, shows you what the topic at hand is referring to. It’s great, it’s this optional thing that lets you focus on what’s being discussed here and it typically points the players at something gorgeous in the game anyway.

And Mars was a wonderful test bed for this that paid off in my opinion. Sure the whole tragic Earth destruction scenes have their share of these moments too but Mars is something we as human beings today see as our current space frontier. So, seeing Mars as this established space base that deals with the storms and something that even has a built-in tram system to move from station to station, and we even walk around it and inside it, yeah the Mars mission are really where I started to get involved in the game a bit more.

Interestingly enough the beautiful Mars mission is something that leans the series more towards a semi-scripted adventure instead of an open world game. I’ll explain more but first I need to explain Kaiden Alenko a little further.

So while the world may have hated Ashley Williams from Mass Effect 1, Kaiden Alenko was one of three romance options in the first game. He’s a decent character, well written and even has enough backstory as he’s a human that has an older-style biotic implant, went to an academy where biotic kids were treated like crap, he wrestles a bit with the rules and…yeah, he’s likable enough to be someone you don’t mind talking to plenty in the first game. But in Mass Effect 2, Shepard is kinda roped into working for a shady company that does really evil twisted stuff (Cerberus), Kaiden Alenko (or Williams I guess if you saved her) finds out and doesn’t want to see you ever again or want to believe that some hero that killed a Reaper could side/work with someone so shady.

Fascinating to me is that someone can believe that their commanding officer was given visions by an antenna / beacon, and that the visions foretold the coming of a sentient race that will wipe out the galaxy every once in a while, follow that commander’s quest for the reapers to the ends of the galaxy, save the day and then immediately give up on that same person who came back from the dead and told you another sentient race is going to wipe out the galaxy. If you ask me, the sudden shift in Alenko/Williams’s loyalty in Mass Effect 2 is odd and a little misplaced.

What felt even more misplaced that Kaiden is constantly complaining about me working for Cerberus in Mass Effect 3 as well. It’s the focal argument of the Mars mission. I should inform you that at some point during Mass Effect 2 Alenko/Williams send Shepard an e-mail trying to be more rational.

“Then I saw you, and everything pulled hard to port. You were standing in front of me, but you were with Cerberus. I guess I really don’t know who either of us is anymore. Do you even remember that night before Ilos? That night meant everything to me… maybe it meant as much to you. But a lot has changed in the last two years and I can’t just put that aside.

But please be careful. I’ve watched too many people close to me die — on Eden Prime, on Virmire, on Horizon, on the Normandy. I couldn’t bear it if I lost you again. If you’re still the woman I remember I know you’ll find a way to stop these Collector attacks. But Cerberus is too dangerous to be trusted. Watch yourself.”

And yet when Kaiden and Shepard are working together in the Mars mission, he just constantly brings it up to argue with Shepard. Cerberus was right: Collectors were a problem, now they’re gone, Shepard’s left Cerberus, and yet that’s not enough from where Kaiden is siting. Weird, right?

As offputting as it is, it adds drama and tension. Less “Kaiden doesn’t understand me” drama and more “wow Kaiden’s being a real a-hle about this for no apparent reason.”

Across the mission players are reunited with Liara (yup, Liara was my first Shepard pairing and I wanted to do at least one plotline where my pairing never shifts or changes, Liara is that pairing). Some plot-things happen but every pause for talk, it’s either kinda setting the mood for Liara and Shepard (whether or not the relationship should be continued sorta thing, or plot details) and Kaiden v. Shepard’s arguments.

Then something really cool happens.

Mass Effect 3 gets a pretty decent chase sequence. It controls well, the character you’re chasing is in decent sight the whole way, explosions happen, you’re forced to take other routes, and beef-head James shows up and crashes a shuttle to stop the chase. All the parts leading up to this chase are still pretty linear by design, we’re not choosing where next to go on the galaxy map, the corridors are pretty straightforward and the fights are nice and open for tactical design. The chase is the most linear part of the Mars mission and then this cyborg lady beats the crap out of Kaiden oh no!

We manage to shoot / knock out cyborg lady (though the sequence where we’re expected to shoot her several times is awful and I had to replay it twice because the margin for error is stupid slim) and rush Kaiden off to the Citadel’s hospital.

In retrospect and thinking on the Mars mission, I realize that Telltale games released The Walking Dead, their conversation adventure game magnum opus, in the same year that Mass Effect 3 came out.

And this just throws us into the discussion of story, presentation, player agency, and this weird design:

MassEffect3Modes.png

Yeah, this post is actually about story and how EA mucked around in Mass Effect 3. See I think this design here, splitting up how players control the game was a failure. Story mode makes the combat easier apparently, action mode removes the custom characters models you can build and plays out the conversations without your input, and role playing mode gives you everything. It was a mass market appeal design that I think ultimately no one cared about. People probably were up in arms about this when ME3 launched, which is funny because people who played Mass Effect 3 still got what they wanted. What’s wrong with other people being able to play the thing? There is something wrong I’d say in taking a product that clearly has a dedicated playerbase and trying to make it appeal to so much more than that dedicated market. Growth is fine, trying to be as big as Call of Duty or Minecraft is…unrealistic. And yet with this horrible thing that EA did to BioWare in ME3’s development I feel like…Telltale and BioWare would be able to make something cool together. I think Telltale need some real lessons about writing, their writing in games is most of the time just kind of run of the mill (save for a few outstanding games) and their engine is crap by this point, but there’s something there that might be really interesting in a video game.

A non-Mass Effect BioWare / Telltale game is something that might be pretty awesome if done right. Consider the dialog wheel, having to live with consequences. I feel like one of the greatest challenges the Mass Effect games face is that players have save slots and entire wikis that tell you how not to mess up your run that is meant to save certain characters, romance others, and have X certain ending. And sure, people do this because they’re going to invest 30-60 hours in this one BioWare RPG and don’t want to waste a second of it (that’s what I do). But approaching games these ways avoids the real concepts of consequences. Jeez remember the pride people had for not killing Wrex back when Mass Effect 1 was newer? Or if you’ve been playing games for longer than me, remember how awesome it was that you could save your brother in Deus Ex if you did things right? And in the context of the Mars mission, think about the chase sequence, before that the arguments with Kaiden, it’s oh-so very Telltale done right. I was having too much difficulty arguing with Kenny to agree with me in the moments of The Walking Dead (S1) to the point that I just kinda resented the guy for it. I didn’t want to hear more from him. That’s real emotion, backed with real thinking processes that are there in that Mars mission. Kaiden was being a pain, for very little good reason from where I sat, and even my best efforts at keeping him on my good side didn’t magically change the way he thought about my character. He just kept being a jerk.

Telltale games, like Souls games, in their autosaves and constant movement, prevent players from being able to sub-play the game’s systems. It keeps them in the moments. And when it comes to narrative or story, the very thing that should be engaging the player so well into the experience, wouldn’t that be better to keep the players in the moment? Just imagine going through Mass Effect without multiple save banks…

Mass Effect 3 – Saving the RPG (Part 2)

Introductions are out of the way now, so let’s move on to the actual game. That opening sequence is really cool, right!?

Except for people who maybe didn’t play that DLC in Mass Effect 2 where you saved everyone by blowing up a planet and preventing an early Reaper invasion. The context of this is just barely written in for those who don’t know about it and makes for a confusing introduction to the experience. We start off with Shepard going to a hearing because planets are just going dead silent on the edge of space and his old friend and mentor Anderson wants Shepard there to tell everyone for the thirdteenth time that “IT’S THE REAPERS YO”. So the Arrival DLC that people were intended to play at the end of Mass Effect 2 lays this groundwork of Shepard supposedly buying us time to prevent the Reaper invasion but really it just lays the groundwork for Shepard to not be a Spectre and be stripped of his office as a part of the Earth Alliance. It also just makes it easier for Shepard and his gang from Mass Effect 2 to split up and not be a part of Cerberus anymore. All this groundwork is what we call plot convenience because at the meeting more outposts go dead silent and then the Reapers invade Earth making all that setup completely useless (so much for buying time) except to have Anderson put Shepard on the remodeled Normady that he gave to the Alliance, leave Captain Anderson on Earth, and fight the Reapers while Shepard goes off and finds a magical way to destroy the enemy. Here’s where this DLC logic fails: DLC introduces imminent Reaper threat that forces Shepard into sacrificing lives to delay Reapers. Shepard gets stripped of position and surrenders Normandy to Alliance but he has bought everyone time. NOT HAVNG DLC means Shepard still quits Cerberus and gets stripped of position and surrenders the Normandy to the Alliance and this need for more time just doesn’t exist from the player’s eye. And it doesn’t matter or affect the 3rd game, it just adds in a blank hole in the story for your hard earned cash. Truly it was a DLC meant to lead into the third game since the writers needed Shepard & Co. working for the good guys again but it showcases difficulties of game production, writing, and the dreaded DLC monster.

Oh, and Shepard witnesses a child get super slaughtered by the Reapers along with hundreds of millions of other people trying to escape the planet, giving the start of Earth’s destruction a poetic scale to emotionally attach players to Shepard’s long fight with the Reapers. This would actually have been a really effective scene if the entire series had given Shepard any depth beyond the player’s own perceived / custom preferences for certain party members and their potential romantic interest in the series.

There’s even a nice tutorial sequence with Anderson and Shepard shooting their way across a war-torn Earth with a brief pause talking up how exhausting this has all been: Uncovering the Reaper threat, getting people to listen to you, killing Sovereign, fighting the Collectors, and now the war is here. Later in the game this child’s death comes up again in dreams and in conversations with characters like this long struggle has been haunting Shepard. And it probably would haunt anyone who lived to see those horrors. But Mass Effect as I’ve heard it put before is a game in which you’re practically interviewing the other characters in the game as they pose for the game camera and you act as their bartender as they tell you life’s problems. No one cares about your problems, you’re the Commanding Space Hero! And maybe it’s a flaw of the series across its development and maybe it is a part of that grand question that I mentioned before, “What would Mass Effect be like if it launched in today’s video game market?” But this is a thing (so far at least) of too little, too late. Reapers are here, it’s not time for Shepard to have an emotional breakdown. It’s time to kick-ass!

Next post we talk about extended intro sequences, the MARS MISSION, and Kaiden Alenko. OOOOOOOO.

Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst – The Slanted Reception

I’m still writing part 2 of what will likely be a very long and hard look at Mass Effect 3 in relation to the franchise and the story its production and release told. I’ve got a draft saved and I probably will write up more for it later.

But something else has distracted me recently. See when I visited my friend Dougss back in July I got a lot of hands-on time with Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, the reboot developed by DICE (those Battlefield guys) and published by EA. Mirror’s Edge, the original, and the reboot continue to be this fascinating thing to observe and study because each game has received average/decent scores (around the 7 on a 10 scale basically). Personally I think numerical scores are pointless and detract from what reviews and critical reception are supposed to do: Inform/suggest the reader if they should make the investment, and provide an analysis as to the strengths and weaknesses of the game as a whole.

That can mean a lot of things for a video game, not to mention a reboot of a franchise that was released as a sort of experimental IP that didn’t take wind like expected several years ago for various reasons.

Needless to say, I really really enjoyed Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. In fact I was craving more by the time I got home and so I bought a copy, plunged myself in and finished just about everything enjoyable the game had to offer from a single-player standpoint aside from the slightly boring collectibles. And yet, for a game that’s built by a company that has a reputation for making insanely intense arcadey battle experiences, Mirror’s Edge (Catalyst or not) continues to be one of the most refreshing first person games I’ve played in a long time from a mechanical standpoint. And for an open-world design I’m actually pretty darn happy with the end result.

So….why the average scores? What’s wrong with Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst that keeps it from the recognition of any of your other yearly-blockbuster-fun games like an Assassin’s Creed or a Call of Duty?

The answer is really complicated, and believe it or not, has less to do with bad critics so much as it does a game that not everyone “gets” or even “wants”. Aaand since I’ve got two other writing projects currently in some sort of a cycle (Mass Effect and Political Spirits), then I think I should really address Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst the best way  I can:

By doing a stream analysis series.

That’s right, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst streaming! I’ll give you all a good notification in advance and also post with a link the day of / prior to starting. I don’t know how long this’ll take but with the game still fresh on my brain I want to take a stab at it and talk about it at lengths.

Hopefully by the end of the series, the flaws in the game will be visible but the strengths will be even more visible and help you consider grabbing a copy of this series yourself.

Think of the streams as my attempt to rally around something I want more of in this industry. Like when people rallied for more Pacific Rim, I’d like to convince a few people that despite the problems in this game, that they want more of it!

See you all soon, next lengthy post going up will definitely be the Mass Effect 3 one. Bye!

Mass Effect 3 – Saving the RPG (Part 1)

So I think we can’t really start talking about Mass Effect 3 without first addressing the bigger elephant in the room. No, not the EA-shortcomings (that’s to be addressed LATER). First there’s something far more important to get out of the way when approaching Mass Effect 3. That gigantic colossus achievement that came before it.

Seriously, flip your video game pages back across the years and land back in early 2010 and think for about 10 seconds what a insanely refined experiment Mass Effect 2 was. Sure the squad and action mechanics were by-the-numbers mixtures of Gears of War and Mass Effect 1, the planet scanning was stupid boring and panned player time needlessly, and the expanded world and main questlines and sidequests were lackluster for developing a world like previous BioWare games would. But that’s because a lot of the world was already developed in ME1. ME2 did the daring and insanely smart thing by deciding to hone in on character interaction and writing more than ever before (to be honest Mass Effect 2 could be grounds for arguing that BioWare should be making those Telltale games instead of action-RPGs). In fact, they made these fundamental “care for your team” requests so important that if you didn’t do enough of those well-written character stories, YOU DIE AT THE END OF THE PLOTLINE. Metaphorically speaking, BioWare was essentially making a big grand statement that if we don’t stop to help each other (even when the galaxy is at stake), NO ONE WILL BE LEFT TO SAVE YOU. Talk about breaking the action RPG mold of hero-quests where you win so long as you kill the end boss. And BioWare has that hero quest formula nailed down so well that by the time I saw it copying itself from Knights of the Old Republic onto Mass Effect 1, I was skeptical. When they did it again in Dragon Age: Origins I just flipped my computer desk because as cool as it was, I was getting tired of BioWare doing anything BUT Knights of the Old Republic II or The Witcher in terms of worldbuilding (BioWare are great writers, but their world depth is hard to compete with others IMO).

So what does that leave BioWare to do with the third in the series? Mass Effect 1 is starting the BioWare franchise anew with a proper good hero quest in a Star Trek-tinged universe that hasn’t really developed past racism, war, and good ol’ political struggle. Mass Effect 2 does a 180, kills the typical sequel design and decides to try something radically different…so what do you do with the third game? Blow up the franchise so big it gets a failed RTS project? Play it safe and just do another Mass Effect 2? Instead build a game that somehow magically links to the universe of Mass Effect and thus extends the universe life of Mass Effect while the developers work out #3? (That’s a Portal reference, btw)

This is literally the type of question that plagues Valve software and the people trying to imagine what an almighty Half-Life 3 might be and what paradigm-breaking gameplay designs it’ll have. Those areinsanely huge boots to fill in terms of BioWare trying to keep up the standard of “Mass Effect” now that the sequel was so good it transcended their own typical gametype.

And from the good 6-10 hours of Mass Effect 3 I’ve played so far…the answer is: Refinement (and secretly acknowledge sometimes you can’t constantly outdo yourself).

It actually seems to be the answer Valve had for Half-Life 2 in which they took a formula that worked extremely well (Half-Life 1), and made the focus on refining and polishing and cutting the designs of what made the first game great with a few innovations. Here, this visionary “Super Space Agent RPG Game” concept that has been stewing since 2008 has been given a few key innovative elements to create just enough new things to make it…well a Grade A sequel that also is conclusive.

It might just be the literal 8-year experience talking here (especially since I’ve played Mass Effect 1 and 2 three times each with three unique Sheperds) but the refinement design of Mass Effect 3 works extra well when it’s the end of the trilogy. Things coming to the conclusion, everyone realizing war is here at last (and it sucks and everyone’s dying), everyone being in an extra divided and extra repressed scenario only further encourages thinking back on the previous two games and the good times had in them as we rally the heroes we know and fight the good fight. We’re not just talking about the characters and relationships formed though, we’re talking about literally game designs that worked in the past sharpened to meet the needed design of the game. Mass Effect 1 was about the quest effort, Mass Effect 2 was about the team effort, Mass Effect 3 is about the war effort.

And that war effort design is actually the three or four KEY LOCATIONS/PLACES TO TRAVEL in the main plot it seems. Yes this may be a bit cut and dry and easy to point out in BioWare games but it works, okay? We’re shortchanging the three or four major Prothean Beacons / plot points in Mass Effect 1 for all the diplomats we want to collect for our Reaper-Fighting-Political-Board. Where BioWare borrows from Mass Effect 2 is in progress. So sidequests don’t beef up your team, they beef up the war effort meter, with main quests being the very visible “PROGRESS HAPPENS HERE, BE READY FOR IT” marker.

Jeez I’m just barely scratching the surface here, not even getting down to the mixed space-travel designs (a few shortcomings there), the action-gameplay mechanics and the queues taken from ME1 and 2, and most importantly how seeing Thane made me nearly weep till Thane told me to not be sad for him.

But I’ll save that for the next time I want to sit down and type for a while. For now, reflect on this (paraphrased) text I shot a friend of mine who also loves Mass Effect the other day:

It almost feels like Mass Effect was released a generation early. Just imagine Mass Effect 1 being released on modern technologies and designs today with everything people know about building games like this.