Rogue One (Spoilers)

I did not see Rogue One in the theater. I regretted that decision for a day or two, then felt good about it. I decided that it was “fan fiction”–a term I don’t use in a particularly positive sense. (Sorry superfans.)

I waited until it came to FIOS VOD. Then I forgot about it. Then I remembered it. I went into the movie with very low expectations. I wasn’t expecting “real” Star Wars. (I am expecting to repeat this behavior for the “Han Solo” movie.)

And the results are now in: Rogue One was “okay” but it wasn’t great.

Honestly I think it would have been better if it hadn’t been a Star Wars movie. It seemed like a weird mashup of Star Wars and World War II genres.

I mean, it wasn’t terrible. It just wasn’t great. It was not as good as The Force Awakens. I got pretty bored with the first two acts, actually. I didn’t feel any sympathy for any of the characters. I don’t even know why Forest Whitaker was in the movie, his part was so meaningless. I have literally no clue why these characters suddenly decided it was important to get the Death Star plans.

(Later I learned that the movie suffered from extensive re-shoots and re-edits, which might explain why the first two acts didn’t make much sense.)

On the plus side, the last act of the movie was a hell of a good action ride. There was some really top notch CGI work there. Actually, if you start the movie at roughly the 1:20 mark, it’s pretty good.

Overall I kept getting confused though because sometimes it looked like a Pacific War movie. The rebel uniforms clearly were inspired by Pacific War marines. Star Wars really doesn’t look right on a tropical beach. Other times, especially early on, it looked like a samurai movie. I mean, was it just me? Why in the holy hell was there a blind samurai in this movie?

The K droid was funny as hell. (I’m sure everyone else has his exact designation memorized but I don’t.) But does every Star Wars movie really need a funny droid? It’s sort of a cliche at this point.

It was a real treat to hear Gold Leader again.

The most memorable scene in the entire movie was nearly the last one: Darth Vader trying to get onto the rebel ship. The scene was completely out of place and unnecessary in the overall movie, but man was it bad ass. That was Darth Vader like we’ve literally never seen him before. (It was almost out of character, it was so different.) It was the embodiment of how we always imagined this evil Sith, but seeing it right there in front of your eyes was frightening as hell. That tiny scene was like a miniature horror movie.

Tarkin looked like a talking wax doll. It was very bizarre and off-putting. (His scenes looked like a Bioware game.) His voice sounded wrong, too. How could they spend so much time trying to get the visuals right and blow the voice? Wax-doll Leia looked a little better but only because she didn’t move or say much.

Rogue One was a good try, I suppose, but it didn’t quite do it for me.

Story In Video Games

A while back there was an article in The Atlantic with the rather controversial title Video Games Are Better Without Stories.

I didn’t even know about the article–who looks for gaming articles in The Atlantic?–until I started to see tweets about it filter through my feeds, and I got the distinct impression that it was polarizing the gaming community (again). On one side, there are people saying, “Of course games are better with story what a dumb article.” On the other side, there are people saying, “Finally someone said what we’re all thinking.. story sucks!” There are literally no other opinions. Well, except this one.

I read the article. It’s … well, it’s completely fair. The only thing I disagree with is the incredibly pretentious tone of the writing. (I have a pet peeve about pretentious writing. Read Strunk and White you bastards. Use simple words.)

As usual in the modern digital era, the title of the article gives little or no indication of the subject matter. The article lays out a pretty solid (but, again, annoyingly pretentious) case for why a narrative story might not be improved when it’s told through a game engine, as opposed to books, television, or movies.

If I had read this article six months ago, I might have had a different opinion. But I recently played DOOM, and I just played Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3.

One of the new things in DOOM was the addition of some narrative elements to explain why you are running around shooting demons on Mars. They came in the form of cut scenes and some environmental storytelling. I will be blunt: DOOM did not need a narrative. This is game where you run around shooting demons on Mars. I repeat: You shoot demons on Mars. There does not need to be a backstory. There does not need to be an antagonist. Your character does not need a personality. There does not need to be a narrative payoff at the end. You buy the game, you shoot demons on Mars until you’re done. The end.

Another good example of a game that doesn’t need a story is Devil Daggers. A super fun game. You run around on a platform shooting daggers at floating skulls. Why? Who cares? No story expected or required. (And in that case, no story was given.)

Those are my first examples for why I can understand the author’s point. My second example begins with a minor little game called Mass Effect 1.

You may remember Mass Effect 1 as that game you never finished because you could never get into those weird controls. And it’s true. The game mechanics are terrible. But it has a fantastic story. The best in the series, in my opinion. Some of the best narrative moments in any video game, actually. This is an example of a game where the game gets in the way of the story. The entire time I played Mass Effect 1 (twice, actually), I hated when cut scenes and dialog scenes ended and I had to slog through playing the game to get to the next scene. It was an interruption. An annoyance. A waste of time. All I wanted to do was sit back and watch the story unfold, but I kept having to run around shooting at stuff to unlock the next chapter.

That story was not improved by integrating it within a game. It was hindered, in fact. I would have much preferred to sit back and watch the Mass Effect 1 story in a television show or movie format. This is exactly the reason why people make and watch YouTube videos of cut scenes in games. Because they want to watch the story, but they don’t want to bother going through the game to see it.

(Yes, I am largely ignoring the issue of player agency–getting to choose your own story. There are many ways that the Mass Effect 1 story can turn out, but are they all equally good paths? I can only speak from my own experience with crafting stories that when faced with a decision point, there is usually only one path that has the most dramatically satisfying outcome.)

There was another much-maligned game called Enslaved where I had a very similar reaction. I liked the story, but I hated the game (well, I didn’t hate it but it was a bit dull). I just wanted to watch the cut scenes.

Those are two more examples of why I can understand the author’s point.

Do I think all stories should be removed from all video games? Of course not. There would be no more RPGs if that happened.

But does every game need a story? Is every game helped by a story? Of course not. (See DOOM and Devil Daggers. And checkers. And tennis. And yatzee. And poker. And golf. And chess. And hearts. And solitaire. And Zaxxon. And Galaga. And Pitfall. And Battle Zone.)

The point I’m trying to make (which I believe is ultimately the same point as in The Atlantic article) is that developers should think carefully about how the story serves the game, and how the game serves the story, and the balance and interaction between the two. Too often the story part of a game (ie. cut scenes, environment) is an entirely separate entity from the game part of a game (ie. the shooting or running or puzzles). If there’s an imbalance, or one piece is just “tacked on,” you get situations like DOOM or Mass Effect 1, which is annoying for everyone.

Tied up with this issue is also the issue of what a “game” actually is. Most everyone thinks a “game” is their kind of game, and not the million other kinds of games that are out there.

We use the same words (“video games”) to describe things which are radically different. DOOM the video game is radically different from, say, Gone Home the video game. They should not be compared, ever. They are both created with a “game engine” and they are both “entertainment” but that’s about the only thing they have in common. It’s like comparing gospel music and dubstep, or Gone With The Wind and bondage porn. They are meant for different audiences. The DOOM audience is entertained by challenge and obstacles. The Gone Home audience is entertained by exploration and story. Two radically different things.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s plenty of room in the industry for everyone right now.

International Grammar: Punting

Risking military action by the NFL by showing this picture of Drew Butler.

Here’s a grammar thing I learned, regarding the word “punt.”

I’m American, so the word “punt” has always meant exactly one thing: Punting a football, as in kicking the ball to the other team. (American football, that is.)

Occasionally I also see “punting” used metaphorically, as in something like, “I’m going to punt on making that decision.” In that sense, it means you’re going to put off making the decision, or give it to someone else to make.

If I were to write that I was going to “punt” on playing an upcoming video game, I would be saying that I was not going to play that game. I’d probably never put it that way, because it’s a bit awkward, but that would be the intent.

The point is, I associate the word “punt” with a rejection of sorts. A negative. Almost a synonym for “pass” or “skip” or “bypass.” As in, “I’m going to pass on making that decision.”

Recently I saw Bhagpuss’s article on Ashes of Creation. He talks about how he plans to support the Kickstarter. Then his last paragraph begins, “It’s worth a punt.”

Instant cognitive dissonance. He wants to support the game, but he’s “punting?” In my mind, those two things were opposites.

It reminded me that I had seen unfamiliar usages of punt before. A quick search of my Twitters turns up phrases like, “worth a punt,” “punt the Tory line,*” “cheeky little punt.”

Well, guess what? It turns out there are other places in the world besides America that use the English language.

I’m not sure this accounts for all of the above phrases, but in some of these non-American places, a “punter” is not, in fact, a position on a football team. A punter is also another word for a gambler. Therefore, a punt is another word for a bet, or a gamble, or a chance.

So when Bhagpuss writes, “It’s worth a punt,” the Americanized translation would be something like, “It’s worth a try” or “It’s worth taking a chance on.”

“Taking a punt” is apparently a common phrase in these wacky non-American places that I understand exist in the world. Who knew? I have a feeling that if I watch some British comedy shows again, I will now understand more of the jokes.

It’s weird when you have to translate English into English. :)

* “The Daily Mail, of course, is on hand to dutifully punt the Tory line.” I think this might be a third meaning of “punt,” because it still doesn’t make sense. :)

Games Played – March 2017

Why yes, I *am* still looking for a picture for these posts. From Wikimedia.

I strive for timeliness here at the ol’ blog, so here is what I played in March. You might possibly detect a theme. Besides the nearly 100% lack of MMORPGs.

  • Mass Effect 3 – 42 hours
  • 7 Days To Die – 39 hours
  • Mass Effect 2 – 31 hours
  • Mass Effect 1 – 23 hours
  • Mass Effect Andromeda – 2 hours
  • Factorio – 2 hours
  • Shroud of the Avatar – 1 hour
  • Revelation Online – 1 hour

Just for the record, I also spent 39 hours in Movie Studio Platinum. And then my USB hard drive crashed and I lost every bit of that work.

Persona 5 and Streaming

Streaming… get it? via Wikimedia Commons

I saw that the makers of Persona 5 made the odd choice of limiting streaming of their game. (I use the word “streaming” here to include Twitch and YouTube Let’s Play videos.) Liore and Eri also weighed in on this with contrasting viewpoints.

I’d never heard of Persona 5 before this, and never heard of or played Persona 1 through 4, either. (I think it’s a console game from The East.) I don’t even know what kind of game it is. The point is I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m only interested in the intellectual property angle.

These days, we take it for granted that game developers allow streamers to play their games on their channels. But this is a great reminder that legally speaking, the developer (or publisher, probably) owns all of that game content. (Presumably the same way that record companies own the recordings of music we listen to.) So whether we like it or not, it is certainly within their legal rights to prevent people from streaming it (at least in the U.S., I have no idea about other countries). From that perspective, I don’t have any issue with Atlus’s choice.

But… it’s certainly a head-scratching choice in this day and age.

I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but I would guess that publishers get some measureable revenue out of what is effectively the free advertising they receive from streamers (or nearly free, wink, wink, nudge, nudge). It’s true that streaming probably helps smaller studios proportionately more, but I don’t think it hurts bigger studios, simply because there have been no efforts to shut down streamers. If big studios were quantifiably losing money because of streaming, I am confident that Twitch would have been sued into oblivion years ago. Either that or we’d be seeing a lot more streamer rules like we see with Persona 5.

I can only guess that the bean counters at Atlus don’t think they will get any benefit from streamers. Perhaps they even think that, as Eri suggested, every stream viewer represents the loss of a sale. I don’t personally believe in the loss of sales theory, despite Liore admitting she never buys the games she watches on YouTube. Maybe she can comment on this, but I suspect that people who watch games instead of buying them probably never would have bought them in the first place, because they either aren’t interested in the gameplay or don’t have the time to play it.

In any case I don’t believe that Atlus is really worried about spoilers getting out. That’s just amazingly clueless.*

I think Atlus is making a big deal about nothing. Developers talk to each other at conferences and stuff, so if there was a problem in the industry with streaming, there’s no way that Atlus is the only one who noticed it and took a stand. I don’t necessarily think it’s an evil conspiracy like Eri thinks (beyond the baseline conspiracy that all corporations try to make a profit), but you have to admit that the controversy sure generated a lot of press for their game.

On the predictably overblown reaction from streamers, I don’t know that I would have put it quite the way she did, but Liore is exactly correct that streamers are at the mercy of game developers, and not the other way around. When you build your career around showing somebody else’s intellectual property, you have to expect there might be some bumps in the road. Streamers might be able to exert some pressure over smaller games, but I have a feeling big game studios could bring substantially more legal firepower into that fight.

Liore’s right: Streamers should just deal with it and move on. A week from now nobody is going to care about Atlus or Persona 5 or whatever lifetime ban streamers have in the works.

In a related story, I just saw an article on Kotaku which implored “content creators” to “organize.” I mean, I get that it’s hard as hell to make a living as a streamer, but really? A streamer union? Nobody is forced to choose streaming as their profession. It’s a huge risk with very little chance of a payoff.

* However, to be fair, a recent MassivelyOP podcast interview of Shards Online-turned-Legends of Aria developer Derek Brinkmann gave me newfound insight into how unaware a developer can be of current gaming trends. My jaw dropped when I heard the guy admit he hasn’t really played an MMORPG since Everquest.

Mass Effect Andromeda – 50 Hours In

Possibly some spoilers below if you haven’t reached Kadara.

So this game has pretty much taken over my life, as I figured it would. Honestly I think this is why I put off playing Mass Effect 3 for so long. These Bioware games are really hazardous to your health. :) The first three games took over my life, too, but I played them more quickly than I might have at the time they came out. With Andromeda, I can savor it at my leisure, because it could very well be another five years before the next one.

Except I’m still kind of paranoid about story spoilers, so I feel like I need to get out ahead of the Internet. I think for the next Bioware game that comes out, I will quickly speed-run through the main storyline only, and then go back and play it a second time to do all the optional side stuff (ie. the fun part).

Here’s my dilemma with Andromeda: I’m torn on whether I should pursue the main story and go back to do side quests, or “finish” each planet before moving on with the main story.

I want to explore all the planets and do all the things there are to do (narratively, at least, I don’t care so much about “collect X things” quests which are just busy work with no story payoff). But I want to do it in a way that optimizes the narrative as much as possible. Right now I don’t know what’s tied to what. I don’t know what things trigger other things. What if I miss something because I did something in the wrong order? It’s maddening.

And it bugs me that I always have to pick only two squad mates. I want to see every squad mate’s reaction to every situation. Not just the two I happen to have with me at the time. Grr.

This game is so massive I’m not going to play it a second time, at least not for a long time. (I might one day play as Sara I guess.) So I feel like I have to get it right the first time. My goal is to time it so that I’m ready to head into the final story ending just as I’m finishing up all the open world side quests, then put the game away forever. I’m probably not going to play anymore after the main story ends, in other words. (For example, after finishing ME3’s story, I had zero desire to continue playing to finish up all the side missions. I mean, why bother?)

Here’s where I am: In the “priority” story arc, I’ve gone to Kadara, sprung the dude, and had the meeting aboard The Tempest where you have to choose your next destination, one of three places I think. I’ve done Cora’s and Liam’s and Jaal’s loyalty missions. I’ve gotten 100% viability outposts on Eos, Havara, and Voeld. I’ve done a lot of exploring on Eos and cleared away most of the quests there.

I feel like I went “too far” in the main story, and went back to catch up on the planets. Somehow I initially skipped right over Havarl and settled Voeld, so this week I settled Havarl. After that, there are a lot of quests left to clean up on Voeld. Then I have the entire world of Kadara to deal with. Not to mention I’ve been ignoring what I assume is Drack’s loyalty mission this whole time, the investigation of Spender and The Nexus. And of course every time you turn around on The Nexus, somebody is piling more quests on you. Then maybe I’ll continue with the main story by picking one of those three directions.

I haven’t been this overwhelmed by a game since Black Desert Online.

I’ve gotten used to the “Normal” combat, by the way. It’s not as hard as I initially thought. With my Engineer build, my squad can do most of the work while I sit behind cover and watch. I have turrets and “Zap” to rely on. (One time on Voeld I literally ran in circles while my squad and turrets killed three big monsters.) I do agree that it’s the best the combat has ever been in the series. It’s challenging but doesn’t overstay it’s welcome…

…except for those Architects, that is. There have been some boss fights in Mass Effect before (Saren and Big Half-Finished Reaper Guy), but there’s never been anything like these monstrosities. These are more like MMORPG boss fights. That is, they are mechanically fairly simple, but because the boss has so many hit points, the fight goes on and on forever until you start to go stir crazy from the constant cacophony of explosions and gunfire in your ears and will do anything to get it over with. I hate those kinds of boss fights. The “challenge” is to stay attentive for what seems like an endless amount of time. It’s like they’re trying to make a therapy program to cure ADHD more than trying to make a game.

But I digress.

The other thing that irks me about the Architect is how the best strategy is to abandon cover and run constantly. That goes completely against the Mass Effect series combat model, which has always been to stay in cover. (Maybe it was just my build, but my Ryder got decimated when trying to remain in cover, because the Architect shoots right through it.)

I haven’t done any multiplayer. Can’t say I’m terribly interested in trying it, either. I could see where it might be fun with this combat, but, you know, random Internet people. Yuck. Admittedly I’m in a cynical mood these days, but random people pretty much ruin multiplayer games.

Overall Andromeda is a fantastic game (the jury is still out on the story), but there are a few things that bug me:

I would like the jump jet a lot better if it weren’t for that annoying pause of animation lock every time you land. I’d also like to meet whoever thought that jumping puzzles was that one key thing the Mass Effect series really needed. (I don’t usually have a problem doing them, it just bugs me whenever there is a time sink between me and my destination.)

Speaking of animations, it’s really “immersion-breaking” to see Ryder doing anime-style jumps. Makes me think Andromeda started as an open world fighting game or something. :)

I get literally angry with rage every time one conversation is interrupted by another one. First there is the problem of walking around crowded spaces where incidental background conversations overlap each other and you hear them simultaneously. And of course you can’t trigger them again.

There are a lot of audio balance problems where conversations are just too darn quiet. I have the sound on “Medium” dynamic range so there isn’t that ridiculous 20dB difference between dialog and gunfire, but it sure doesn’t help those background extras.

What really irritates me is when you’re driving around in the Nomad, and your squad mates start talking. That part is awesome, right? But if you happen to drive close to something that triggers more dialog, it interrupts and ends your squad’s conversation. And as far as I can tell, they never repeat the same conversation twice. So that interrupted conversation is gone forever. Whenever I hear the squad start talking, I now stop the Nomad to make sure I hear the end of the conversation.

There is another issue when fast traveling inside the Nomad. When you arrive, the squad will often start a conversation, but you usually miss the first part because it fades the audio in. So you’ll hear like the punchline to the joke but not the setup. Arg!

The dialog issues particularly annoy me because that’s literally the main reason I’m playing this game. I couldn’t care less about the design of the combat or how much fun it is to fight the bosses. (I would enjoy Mass Effect games exactly the same if you simply walked from NPC to NPC without encountering a single enemy.) But missing a few words of dialog is a punch-the-monitor rage-quit kind of moment for me. (Possibly that’s an eccentricity on my part.)

Also: The Nomad is still not as fun as the Mako was. Where are my guns??

Mass Effect 3 Finished (Spoilers)

Whoops. Forgot to publish this dramatic conclusion to Mass Effect week.

I finished Mass Effect 3 on Friday night, March 31st, completing my play through of the original trilogy. I spent a total of 42 hours playing it, but I restarted it twice so you can probably throw 6 or 7 hours away. (And if you’re keeping tracking of days and hours played, yes I played these games a ton in March.)

Massive spoilers below.

I forgot to mention the bug where people turned their heads around backwards in ME3. If you stand behind someone and talk to them, characters sometimes turn their heads around way farther than a human neck could possibly move, and you can just feel the bones crunching. But they just keep on talking like they didn’t just show you they were possessed by demons.

I was pretty much right in my “halfway” post. Everything led up to a final conclusion that was extremely final. There could never have been a Mass Effect 4, and they made it very clear from the beginning of the game that they meant for this game to end the trilogy.

I have to admit I had trouble following the story when it got to the quarians. There were two competing factions of quarians but I couldn’t quite keep them straight, and then Legion showed up again. It was very, so I just sort of followed where the quests told me to go and tried not to make Tali angry. Legion turned out to be yet another ME2 character who didn’t survive. This time because I shot him/it. I said in my ME2 posts that I never really bonded with him/it. Plus I don’t think robots have souls. So there.

Then we went to help the asari at a temple and ran into Samara again. I didn’t care for her that much in ME2, but it was a touching little storyline here. Continuing the theme, yet another character died making a sacrifice, but it wasn’t Samara, so at least there was that. Samara almost killed herself in the name of her code, though. Fun times abound in ME3.

Then the story took us to a Cerberus base and we finally got to find out what Miranda was up to the whole time. I found it unsatisfying as a major plot moment. Miraculously, nobody died.

After that, we went into the final mission to rescue Earth. Man, if it wasn’t clear this was the End Of All Things before the end, those last interactions with your squad mates should have sealed it. Every single person said something like, “Goodbye Shepard, it’s been an honor working with you.” You had a chance to talk to just about everyone you’ve ever met in the game before. Then it was off to the final push.

I played the original ending first. I found it confusing. I wasn’t angry, like apparently most of the Internet was, just confused. I just sort of sat back and thought, “Huh, well that’s a thinker. I wonder what that was about?” I didn’t particularly like or dislike the ending. I felt it was lacking in punch, but it didn’t make me angry. I was sad that there was no more to see, but I expected it and accepted it.

I take it back, one thing did annoy me: At the very end you have to make a choice by walking to one of two places. It wasn’t super clear which one would do what. I went to the one I thought was the choice I wanted to make, but it turned out it wasn’t. But you can’t walk away and pick the other one. Your choice is locked in when you arrive at your destination. I had to re-load an auto-save so I could walk to the other choice.

Admittedly I was a tiny bit distracted during the ending, and probably missed the information that would have made it obvious which way to go. I was making supper at the time, and stove timers were going off, so I had to keep getting up while trying to listen to the cut scenes from a distance. Still, I think you should let players change their mind.

Since I knew that the Internet had lost its mind over this ending, so I went Googling to find out what their problem was. I found a Kotaku article that did a good, if totally biased and clickbaity, job of summing it up.

To be fair, the article makes some valid points. But I’ve been totally into these games, having played ME1, ME2, and ME3 all in a row, and I didn’t put together half of what that article sussed out. I never thought for a second that the whole universe got wiped out. Even after reading the Kotaku article and their completely valid reasoning for why the universe got wiped out, I still didn’t think that’s what happened. It sounded like a crazy superfan theory. I mean, obviously no epic story would ever end with, “And they all died and everything was for nothing. The end.”

Later that night I found the free “Extended Cut” DLC and replayed the ending. I made the exact same choices, and it was definitely better. I recommend installing it before you get to the end, unless you’re curious to see the difference between the original ending and the new ending.

My personal feeling is that they simply ran out of time and couldn’t polish the ending like they wanted to. They didn’t have to make that Extended Cut and it probably cost them a fair amount of money to do it (bringing back all the voice actors, etc.). I, at least, appreciate that.

It was a much better resolution, but I still have questions after the Extended Cut. The most obvious one is what the heck was the Normandy running from?? They were at Earth, so the only thing that happened there was the big discharge of energy that was Shepard assuming control of the Reaper technology (in my game). Was there Reaper technology on the Normandy? Not that I know of. Would EDI have been affected by that energy discharge? Is that why Joker was trying to avoid it? That doesn’t make any sense. No other ships were shown to be destroyed by the energy pulse. So what the heck? The Extended Cut didn’t address that.

Not that it matters, they all survived, and weren’t stranded on a random planet for no apparent reason. The Extended Cut made that perfectly clear. Everybody lived happily ever after. Except the ones who didn’t. But their sacrifices were not in vain!

There’s a little scene after the credits finish, by the way, with presumably a grandfather and a child in silhouette talking about The Shepard. It’s a nice little scene, but the child’s shadow was very off-putting because it looked like a regular-sized human outline shrunk down to child height. The arms and legs were too skinny. It looked more like a hobbit than a child. It was odd.

One last thing on animations in Mass Effect 3: The female running animation was terrible. Shepard should not be running around like a Barbie doll. Come on.

I haven’t played any other DLC and don’t plan to. Overall I’m not a huge fan of DLC. (Unless it’s for Dark Souls, then I’m a huge fan of DLC.)

I’m now moving on to Mass Effect Andromeda, which was the whole purpose of playing the trilogy.

P.S. My enjoyment of the end of Mass Effect 3 was slightly ruined for me because my roughly 6-month-old 4 TB external USB hard drive died about 3 hours from the end of the game. The drive and the game aren’t related, except that I had been recording my entire playthrough of Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3 and storing the video files on that drive. They’re all gone now, unless by some miracle the drive magically starts working again some time in the future. (Even if it does, I was so bummed out that I didn’t bother recording the last 3 hours of the game, so my complete play through would be incomplete.)

Mass Effect 3 Halfway Point (Spoilers)

Mass Effect week continues…

I don’t know how far into Mass Effect 3 I’ve gotten at this writing (March 29th), but I’ve just gotten the Quarrians on board the Normandy. Percentage-wise, I have no idea where that is in the game. I’m just guessing it’s the half-way point.

I have some initial impressions which I’ll write down, and as usual, I’ll follow it up with another post when I finish the game.

It’s pretty clear that there was a big game engine update for Mass Effect 3. (I don’t know that for a fact, but I can’t think of any other reason for these obvious changes.) I guess this was because of the newer generation of consoles? I don’t know. The rendered cut scenes are still 30 fps though, which I find annoying. It looks lame to go from 1440p 60 fps game video to lower res 30 fps rendered video.

The point is that because of the game engine update, I guess they added a lot of bugs, which still aren’t ironed out 5 years later. I’m seeing a lot more quirks than I did in Mass Effect 2. There’s this one spot at the front of the Normandy, right behind Joker’s seat, where you can get stuck so bad you have to re-load your game. I’ve gotten into a habit of hitting Quick-Save on the way up from the CIC to talk to Joker.

They did some horrible things to the hair. With ME2, I imported my Jane Shepard character from ME1 and accepted the defaults. The hair changed a bit but it was otherwise pretty similar. (Depending on the angle, she looked like one of Lena Heady, Felicia Day, or … I can’t remember the other one she looked like.) But when I imported my character from ME2 to ME3, they selected a hair style that I think was supposed to look like Jennifer Anniston from late-era Friends, but actually looked like some weird animal had been glued to Shepard’s head. I tried to play it but had to abandon it and re-start with a different hair style after about 5 hours. I just couldn’t get used to it.

Unlike the previous games, I started out trying to play on Normal difficulty. I figured I would take my time with it and really get into the game mechanics, because surely ME3 would represent the pinnacle of gameplay in the series (so far). (I played The Witcher 3 on Hard difficulty and it was a very satisfying experience.) Also, the longer I take with ME3, the more likely Andromeda will be discounted by the time I’m ready to play it.

Sadly I only got to the Turian planet before abandoning Normal difficulty and resorting back to Casual. Dying is a super annoying experience in Mass Effect, and I wasn’t too fond of how everything was a bullet sponge. At least on Casual, a head shot actually kills people (usually).

There’s been yet another re-design of The Citadel for ME3. I didn’t like the change in ME2 but at least it made some sense, story-wise, because of Sovereign’s attack in ME1. This time it’s a change for no apparent reason.

The story of Mass Effect 3 picks up about six months after the end of ME2, and makes every effort to erase ME2 out of the timeline. Shepard is back with the Alliance after a mild slap on the wrist, and The Reapers are attacking in force. It’s kind of like picking up at the end of ME1. Story-wise, this is fine, considering that, as I wrote before, most of the events of ME2 are meaningless from a galactic perspective.

I said that ME2 was a bit darker than ME1. Well, Mass Effect 3 is pretty grim as well, but for entirely different reasons. ME2 was dark because Shepard seemed like a fundamentally darker character, perhaps as a result of dying and being rebuilt by the hated Cerberus. (I can see how that might ruin one’s day.) This time, the tone is dark because the galaxy is at war and everyone is miserable.

At the time of this writing, I don’t know how the game is going to end. All I know is that there was a big controversy when the game launched about the ending, and I did and still do suspect that Shepard doesn’t survive. From what I’ve played so far, everything is pointing to that. There’s a fatalistic attitude that pervades everything, from not only Shepard, but all the other characters and plots around him. There is also very much a sense of “wrapping things up.”

I’ll now discuss some major, major spoilers, so feel free to skip.

Many of the characters from ME2 return in ME3, though most in supporting roles. I’ve already met Miranda, Jacob, Mordin, Grunt, Jack, Thane, and Samara.

Kaiden (and presumably Ashley) and Liara return from ME1 as selectable squad-mates. Wrex returns, but not as a squad-mate. Tali returns as a squad-mate, at least temporarily. (I don’t yet know whether she will stay with the crew or not.)

As far as new characters, the first new guy is James, a steroid-pumped beefcake marine who for some unknown reason tags along at the beginning of the game. I can’t remember ever hearing an explanation of how he got on the Normandy, but presumably he was under Kaiden’s command. (Kaiden apparently captained the Normandy after Shepard was “grounded.”)

Later we meet EDI, the Normandy’s AI, who becomes a selectable squad-mate. She’s kind of a cliche but I think she and Joker make a funny pair, and their humorous interactions from ME2 continue into ME3.

I’ll now get into why I get a fatalistic, things-are-winding-down vibe from the game, and it has to do with the mortality rate of the ME2 characters.

As I said, Mordin returns, but he dies, and it was a heart-breaking but perfect story moment. I could not decide whether to cure the genophage or not, so I let him decide, and he sacrificed himself to cure it. It was pretty much a complete reversal of his character to go from fighting to preserve the genophage in ME2 to dying to cure it in ME3, but I let it slide because it was so well played. (They threw a few lines of dialog in there to try to smooth that over but basically he changed his mind.) Anyway it was such a huge relief to hand off that decision to him, and he bore that terrible burden with immense grace and professionalism. I can’t say enough about how much I loved that character.

(My instinct was to “pretend” to cure the genophage and leave it in place, but it was hinting that I would have had to kill Mordin to do that, and I don’t think I could have.)

Thane died a bit later, and it wasn’t quite as sad (I mean, we knew he was dying when we met him in ME2, and he might as well have been wearing a neon “I’m going to die to serve the story” sign when we first saw him coughing in ME3) but it was still very poignant and I really appreciated the spiritual twist there at the end.

Grunt almost died, but I had to commit genocide on the Rachni to save him. I wanted to let the queen live, for the same reasons I saved her in the first game, but it was clear Grunt would have to die to save the queen, and the Reapers were using the Rachni against us. Because I was tired of all the ME2 characters dying, I decided to save Grunt, and then the game went and almost killed him anyway, and man was I mad about that. But then he staggered back covered in gore and I celebrated. I never really liked him much but that was a good story moment.

Those three events, and their laser focus on death and sacrifice, not to mention the recurring dream about the kid, lead me to be 100% certain Shepard is going to have to sacrifice himself for the galaxy at the end of the game. It makes playing the game a bit grim. At least Jack and Jacob seem to be doing well.

As if the grim events of the main characters weren’t enough, most of the little vignettes played out by the “extras” standing around on The Citadel are pretty depressing too. There’s an asari suffering from PTSD in the hospital, a human solider losing his legs, an old demented woman trying to find her son, etc. The voice acting in those tiny little background stories are some of the best in the game, by the way.

Speaking of which, Jennifer Hale has stepped up her voice acting in ME3. In the previous two games, her tone was mostly flat, but there’s a lot more nuance and range in her voice in the third game. It’s a big improvement.

(I don’t like the sound mix in ME3 though. With the voice volume level set at 100% the speaking voices barely reach -21dB in my OBS recordings.)

There’s a baffling story twist where Counciller Udina betrays The Citadel and lets Cerberus in to attack. I have literally no idea where that came from. It seemed totally out of character for him. He was always kind of a jerk, but I never saw him as actively hostile or subversive. And I haven’t yet seen any explanation for that behavior. (I did sort of kill the guy, so I guess I can’t interrogate him.) It was an interesting twist in the game, but it just didn’t make any sense coming from Udina. I guess the point was to throw Shepard and Kaiden into direct conflict.

I’m also pretty baffled about the Illusive Man’s general behavior in ME3. I’m assuming that there will be some kind of resolution and explanation for that toward the end of the game. I can only guess his goal is to take over control of the Reapers so that humans can rule over the other races. (As opposed to just destroying the Reapers.) I imagine there will be some decision points later in the game revolving around that. (I can’t help but wonder how the game would have started if I’d decided not to destroy the Collector ship in ME2–I almost decided to keep it, because it seemed like a good idea to study it, but my whole squad was like, “Oh hell no” so I gave in to peer pressure.)

More later when I finish the game. It might take a while, because after every mission, I have to walk around the whole ship and talk to everyone, and every time I go to The Citadel I have to check every floor for new things. In ME3, the crew moves around to different places all the time, and they go on shore leave too, so it takes a lot of methodical wandering to experience all of their incidental dialog. [Ed: It did not take a while, as it turned out.]