Friday, August 29, 2014

The Mass Effect trilogy postmortem

Phineas Shepard, presumably making a tough call
This article contains endemic spoilers for Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3.

I finished Mass Effect trilogy a couple of weeks ago. Yes, I know that you all did that in 2012. I, as many of you will know, spent two years in Japan without a console and as such am two years behind on games. This works in my favour because I usually end up getting them cheaper, often as Game of the Year editions with included DLC and suchlike. But on the other hand, I have to put up with people going on about the newest and best games and know I have two years of games to play before I get there.

Anyway, I will confess to feeling emotional and a little conflicted about the end of my beloved Mass Effect. I have long championed the franchise as a classic example of how games can match and even surpass film and TV in terms of characterisation and pure storytelling power. The ME games were popular primarily because they created a game world with memorable characters that you actually cared about. Some of the franchise's most powerful moments weren't running around and shooting aliens (although there was a fair amount of that), but - for wont of a better word - drama.

I had played ME1 and 2 before, but on different machines, meaning I had lost the save files. This meant that my previous characters - the swaggering Leonid Shepard, who looked like a thick-necked Kyrgistani, and the crotchety Apollonius Shepard, who resembled a melted Bradley Cooper - were a no go. So I decided to play 1 and 2 again to build up my character so that I would get the full impact of the series' finale in 3. This entire process took me a little over nine months (I don't get much time to play videogames anymore).

For this definitive playthrough, I named my new Shepard "Phineas" and chose the infiltrator class, knowing from experience that it was crap in ME1 but looking forward to using the invisibility cloak in the later games. For Phineas, I had in mind a grizzled commando type who had clearly seen a lot of shit. I also knew I didn't want to be the galaxy's White Saviour, so I made him a delightful golden brown, with a shaved head and stubble. He looked a bit like a mix between Common and Keanu Reeves, or from certain angles Nicolas Anelka. I chose Earthborn and Sole Survivor for his background. I played Phineas as more or less a straight up paragon, but enjoyed engaging in unexpected acts of roguishness once in a while. For the romance, I chose Liara because nerd chicks.

Lets talk a bit about the characters here. This is the only game I have ever played where the majority of secondary characters actually have sensible and well thought-out character arcs. You can actually see the characters grow and develop over time. Take for instance, everyone's favourite wingman, Garrus Vakarian. In the first game, Garrus was a stickler for the rules, crying foul when Wrex casually dispatched a gang boss in front of him, reminding everybody to stay hydrated. His big epiphany in the first game was realising that sometimes in order to preserve the law, you have to break the rules. In ME2, drummed out of the Alliance with the rest of the alien members of the Normandy's crew, and with no C-Sec to go back to, he goes to the most crime-ridden, sin-infested station in the galaxy and essentially becomes Batman, taking the whole "renegade" thing to the extreme. By the third game, we see Garrus taking up a position of responsibility in the Turian hierarchy while simultaneously refusing to conform, and making his father proud. In addition, one of the most touching elements of the games where watching Garrus and Shepard's friendship develop into one of videogaming history's finest bromances (or creepy giant insect/lady romance, if you're so inclined). If you could go drinking with one videogame character, let's face it, it would be Garrus.

Throughout the course of the game, you see your teammates growing and maturing. You bring Tali on as a naive young girl, and over the course of her arc she is disgraced and virtually exiled from her people before redeeming herself and taking a central role in reclaiming the Quarians' home planet. I always found her to be something of a spunky little sister, and particularly enjoyed her scenes. Her getting together with Garrus at the end was sweet but more than a little bit creepy.

Kaidan is another character who comes a long way over the course of the story. In ME1 he's a socially maladjusted whiner that I only saved because I needed someone with biotics and a shotgun, and Ashley's space racism was grating on me. In 2 he's just self-assured enough to tell Shepard he thinks he's making a huge mistake in working for Cerberus, and by 3 Kaidan is a Spectre himself, and treats Shepard almost as an equal. Some of the scenes with Kaidan are made slightly awkward by the game developers assuming that because I didn't leave him for dead on Virmire I obviously wanted to hit that, but I can forgive them. Nothing is perfect. Oh, Kaidan gets an extra shout-out for being Canadian.
Goodbye forever, space wife!

On the other hand, though, in some of the arcs you can see Shepard's influence becoming something a little bit scary. Liara's character arc was a favourite of mine, although I feel that without the Lair of the Shadow Broker and From Ashes DLCs, it would be a little bit lacking. Another innocent when brought on board the Normandy, Liara is a nerd with poor social skills. She constantly puts her foot in her mouth, and it's kind of adorable. In ME1 She deals with the indoctrination and death of her mother with classic stiff upper lip, but for her the mission is never anything less than one of scientific discovery. Eventually, she abandons her purely philanthropic scientific ideals in favour of the power of becoming the new Shadow Broker. She basically manipulates Shepard into helping her, when it's clear that she was after after the Broker's job all along. It's an unnatural move for her, and you can't help but think Shepard has led her astray by involving her in the battle against the Reapers. Even with that quest  to keep her honest, it's still a huge amount of power heaped on a relatively young pair of shoulders, and a couple of times when she's threatened to psychically flay informants you start to think she might have a dark side. Liara gets some good scenes showing just how she's changed between the first and second installments in Lair of the Shadow Broker, and the part in which Shepard confronts her about their relationship is actually very well-written. She doesn't just fall into your arms (not until she gets what she wants, anyway). When she's introduced in ME3 there's a slightly chilling moment when she immobilises a Cerberus trooper with her biotics and then walks over and casually shoots him in the head. That's not the anxious lab rat that you brought on board in the first game. That's someone much scarier. And you have to live with the knowledge that you did that to her. Truthfully, I'm going to miss Liara.

Some of the lesser characters who were on the team for shorter periods deserve mention. I really liked James. To begin with, I thought he would be another muscle-bound grunt, but instead he turned out to be a big sensitive teddy bear with idiosyncratic habits and killer recipe for heuvos rancheros. Mordin the oddball scientist with his mish-mash of religious beliefs and love of musical theatre. EDI subverting the usually boring "robot becomes human" storyline with a hearty dose of humour. Legion, Shepard's robotic stalker. These were GOOD characters. More good characters than any one franchise had a right to.

So, what of the ending? Unlike most of you playing it for the first time two years ago, I had the extended cut from the get-go, so my ending more or less made sense. I botched it the first time, because I wanted to go for the Destroy ending but accidentally went to the wrong panel and chose Control instead. Was this a good ending? Shepard makes the ultimate sacrifice, and gives up his life to essentially become the force that drives the Reapers, using them to help rebuild the galaxy. Although the idea of the heroic Shepard watching over us for all eternity and protecting us from evil is a comforting one, it gets a little freaky when you realise Shepard is essentially going to be policing the galaxy and eliminating free will, because it inevitably leads to conflict. In essence, he's just picked up the same BS job the Reapers were created for in the first place, with the same limited set of options for dealing with the galaxy's problems. How long until he's harvesting planets, I wonder? We'll see what a few centuries inside the collective mind of a bunch of immortal machines does to his finely developed sense of fair play.

I was annoyed I had picked the wrong option, so I went back and played the final level through again. This time I picked destroy. I wish I had picked it the first time because now I can't really see this as the 'canon' ending for my Shepard, even though it's what I would have picked if I'd paid more attention to which panel did what the first time round. Because the end sequence is virtually the same as Control, it wasn't much of a payoff. But wait! Who's this lying in the rubble, N7 dogtags round his neck? HE BREATHES! I'd luckily picked up enough points along the way to get Shepard out alive. I wouldn't want to speculate on what condition he's in (going to need a LOT of reconstructive surgery - luckily I paid for that advanced med bay on the Normandy) but he will live to retire and hopefully father some little blue babies. I think that would make him happy.

One question about the destroy ending: what happened to the Geth? The Catalyst said the beam would target all synthetics, so did my army of friendly sentient robots get destroyed too? I hope not, because that would be something of a betrayal.

So many thoughts. This game is going to stay with me for a long time. I am already looking forward to ME4. I just hope they give you a bit more freedom with character creation. I'd love to play as a Turian or Asari.

Some moments I loved:

1. Shepard decks Saren (ME1)
 On Virmire the erstwhile Spectre Saren Arterius gets a little too close, and Shepard gives him a knuckle supper. Classic Shep.

2. Shepard reassures Garrus he's still pretty (ME2)
After almost dying on Omega, Garrus has got a few more scars. Does Shepard politely downplay them? No, he tells Garrus not only is he hideous now, but he was always hideous. As all bros should. Somehow that's the right thing to say. 

3. Liara shows Shepard his legacy (ME3)
Liara and Shepard get a nice moment together that doesn't lead to sex for a change when Dr. T'Soni comes round to show the Commander her science project.

4. Liara flips out at Javik (ME3)
After the fall of Thessia, Liara does something she's never done before: flip out. The target of her wrath is Javik, the disappointing Prothean. Deal with the situation by ripping them both a new one. It's best for all of us that way.

5. Kaidan and Shepard argue on Freedom's Progress (ME2)
Kaidan actually made me feel a little ashamed of myself here. It hurts that an erstwhile member of your crew thinks you're a traitor.

6. Shepard and Garrus shoot first (ME2)
If you can't be bothered listening to the villain's monologue, pop his guards and get on with roughing him up. He'll never expect you to be that impolite.

7. Anderson's goodbye (ME3)
"You did good, son." Keith David, you have made me cry.

8. "That was a joke." (ME2)
Poor Joker's face when EDI tells him she likes seeing organics kneel before her.

9. Shepard's renegade speech on the Collector base (ME2)
This is the best speech in the trilogy. To cut a long story short, Shep essentially declares he's tired of the Collectors' bullshit and they're going down.

10. Shepard tells the Illusive Man to go fuck himself (ME2)
The grin on his face when he turns the comms off says "this is why I get out of bed in the morning."

11. Mordin sings Gilbert and Sullivan (ME2)

12. Shepard escapes the Collector base (ME2)
I hate slo-mo jumps, but this one made me cheer.

13. Liara is injured and airlifted out (ME3)
 This was added in the extended cut, and I don't know what the moment would have been like if it hadn't had my love interest in my party, but it was absolutely harrowing to see Shepard and Liara torn apart there, knowing it would likely be the end of their story.

14. James flirts with Tali (ME3)
"Sparks. Because of the sparks in your... ah, forget it."

15. Drunken Tali mourns Miranda (ME3)
Drunk Tali is always a win. This one was poignant, though, because I'd just lost the first crew member that I knew I *could* have saved.

16. The Normandy takes down Sovereign (ME1)
The original fuck-yeah moment from the first game. When the Normandy swoops down and takes out Sovereign, that's when Joker gets his badass card.

When your assembled fleets arrive in ME3. That's a lot of ships.

18. Wrex flirts with Liara (ME3)
When Wrex shows another side of himself and puts the smooths on Liara. Hey! She's taken, dammit! Whose ship is this?

19. Liara tells Shepard she would like to dissect his brain (ME1)
And true love blossomed.

20. Shepard gets poisoned by Forvan (ME2)
Let's not forget the time a Batarian bartender roofied Shepard, but when he woke up he forced the bartender to drink his own concoction until he died. It's not a Normandy party until you've poisoned a Batarian. Ha ha. Classic Shep.