Monday, November 30, 2009

“We are legion. The time of our return is coming. Our numbers will darken the sky of every world.”

I’m throwing a wrench into things for this update. Call it experimentation, call it whimsy, call it an excuse for me to nerd out, call it jumping the shark, but I’m going to, on occasion, discuss video games as well here.

No, wait! Come back!

Look, there are perfectly good reasons to look at video games, particularly modern ones, as a legitimate medium of visual storytelling. Graphics have increased to a level where they can almost compete with top level CGI productions (and completely blow away bottom level ones) and the medium can simulate decisions and consequences in ways that a 90 minute film can’t. As video gaming in general emerges from the basement of the antisocial (everybody’s heard of Mario and Halo's a pretty cool guy who kills aleins and doesn't afraid of anybody), developers, particularly ones interested in interactive fiction have made some absolutely fantastic games that blur the lines between simply killing the hell out of things and “choose your own adventure” style storytelling. Officially it’s a “role-playing game” but here, interactive story is more appropriate. An interactive story where you can kill bad guys and level up. Canadian developer Bioware has been making these kinds of games since the early 90s, and their 2007 opus, Mass Effect definitely counts. Originally released for the Xbox 360, its also available on PC, and it’s a big story.

Okay, so in 2148, humanity discovered ancient ruins on Mars left behind by an extinct civilization called the Protheans, who used advanced technology based around mass accelerators and a fictional substance called “element zero.” This discovery jumped human tech forward 200 years and facilitated rapid colonization across the stars, eventually leading to contact (and a brief war) with other alien species. Eventually making peace with them and joining up with these so called “Council Races” humanity is now the new kid on the galactic block, looking to earn its place among the rest of the aliens who run civilized space. And that’s all backstory.

The main character is a human marine in the Earth Systems Alliance Navy and a candidate to be the first human being allowed into the Spectres, a group of elite, independent agents who are “the right hand of the Council” (basically commandos, diplomats and wetwork agents rolled into one). An evaluation mission to a human colony to recover a Prothean artifact goes sour when another Spectre, an alien named Saren shows up with an army of sentient robots and blitzes the colony to get access to the beacon. You survive, but the beacon gets destroyed and a lot of people die in the raid. The Council is not happy with you, but they’re also not happy that one of their most decorated Spectres might’ve gone rogue. What follows is a big, big storyline where you have to earn your way into the Spectres, prove Saren’s a traitor, chase his trail across several alien worlds and discover that what he’s trying to accomplish threatens all organic life in the galaxy. No pressure, Commander.

Commander Shepard: This is you. You is a very flexible concept. You can be male or female, have access to multiple character backgrounds and military records you can be and have six combat classes to choose from. For instance, you can be an orphan from Earth who’s an infiltrator (sniper) with a ruthless reputation, or you can be a space-born engineer who single-handedly held off an enemy invasion on a colony world. These aren’t just for flavor, they affect side quests and how some characters talk to you. Even more capable of shaping your character are your decisions during the game. Sometimes you get access to “Paragon” or “Renegade” dialog options where you can affect outcomes. Taken to their purest forms, you can either build yourself into a full paragon “Captain America in space” character or a completely ruthless asshole. Either way, you still have to save the universe. Voiced by Mark Meer (male) or Jennifer Hale (female)

Captain David Anderson: The ever awesome Keith David is the badass human captain of the SSV Normandy an experimental, high performance frigate that is your vehicle of choice for hopping around the galaxy. He’s a respected veteran in the Alliance Navy and has some history with Saren.

Jeff “Joker” Moreau: Seth Green is the snarky, smartassed hotshot pilot of the Normandy. You eventually find out why he’s never seen outside of his pilot’s seat.

Lieutenant Kaiden Alenko: Raphael Sbarge voices a human biotic in the Alliance military. Biotics are people with modified genetics that can affect mass fields using their minds. Essentially a telekinetic engineer, Kaiden’s a quiet fellow who’s mentally stable as far as early biotics go, he only gets migraines instead of “the crazy.”

Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams: Kimberly Brooks voices a human marine that your squad rescues/picks up on Eden Prime, the site of the mission where the beacon gets blowed up. A career soldier with a long family history of service to the Alliance, she’s not exactly trusting of the aliens, but later reveals a surprising amount of depth for a “run and gun ooh-rah” soldier. A great, solid, ass kicking female character. (and yes, her name is a shout out to Evil Dead)

Garrus Vakarian: Brandon Keener voices the Turian (one of the major alien races) you recruit on the Citadel (basically the Capital of Space), he’s a cowboy cop who knows Saren’s crooked and tags along with you to dispense some justice. Depending on how you play, you can either help him decide to be renegade or paragon himself. He’s also a crack shot with a sniper rifle if you level him up right.

Urdnott Wrex: Steven Barr voices the game’s biggest badass, a Krogan “Battlemaster” who’s a tough mother of an alien that can destroy people with biotics and is a tank with a shotgun. Krogans are a reptillian/amphibian like race of warriors and mercenaries (think Battletoads with shotguns and the ability to affect mass fields with their minds and you’re on the right track) who are dying out thanks to a genophage they’ve been infected with that has lowered their birth rate to almost nil. Wrex’s real charm is in his old soldier attitude and general willingness to do very bad things to get the job done.

Tali’Zorah nar Rayya: Liz Sroka voices Tali, a Quarian engineer that you pick up along the way who has evidence implicating Saren. Quarians are a mysterious species that aren’t trusted much after they created a race of machine servants called the Geth that developed sentience and went murderously rogue. Tali herself is on a pilgrimage, a coming of age journey away from her people to bring back something interesting/useful. Sort of like traveling to Europe to find yourself after college. She’s also the only female member of your party that you can’t romance, leaving many fans…frustrated (think of it this way, she’s got the personality of Kaylee from Firefly but has to wear a hermetically sealed sterile suit at all times in the rest of the galaxy because Quarians have basically no immune systems).

Dr. Liara T’Soni: Ali Hillis voices an Asari scientist that you recruit. She’s young for one of her race (blue skinned, human-like mono-gendered alien space babes that can live for thousands of years). She’s not really skilled in social interaction, and she’s also somewhat naïve, but damn are her biotics powerful.

Admiral Steven Hackett: Lance Henriksen is the commander of the Alliance Fifth Fleet and exists only as a faceless voice. Most of the game you think he’s a minor character, just calling you up from time to time to give you side missions, but even this minor character’s important, because by the end, **Spoilers**the entire goddamn Fifth Fleet is the cavalry that comes screaming in to give Sheppard a hand in wrecking the bad guys’ shit. As far as cutscenes go in video games, its one of the rare moments where I’ve jump off my couch and shouted “Fuck Yeah!” at the TV. **End Spoilers** Not bad for a character who exists only as a voice.

Saren Arterius: Fred Tatasciore voices the Bad Guy that you chase across the galaxy. He’s a Turian Spectre that doesn’t like humans, but he’s also planning something. Something big. Something bad. Something that threatens the entire galaxy and all civilization in it. To help him, he’s got an army of Geth, synthetic life forms (genuine artificial intelligences in the Mass Effect universe are illegal because they always tend to take the “kill all organics” approach to politics: case in point, the Geth) that worship him as a kind of prophet. He’s also got an Asari Matriarch (a very, very powerful biotic) named Benezia (Marina Sirtis) as his lieutenant (she’s also Liara’s mother). Saren’s a bad, bad dude and a great villain.

Well, uh, there are a lot of people involved in the production of a video game, but the project director was Casey Hudson. The visual style of the game is simply incredible. Enormously cinematic with fantastically well thought out technology, aliens and structures, the visual immersion is staggering in its quality. Gameplay is also quite fun (its an over-the-shoulder shooter in real-time, itself an exception to standard RPG conventions) though not quite perfect. Elevator rides are notoriously long loading screens and a lot of the exploration of less important planets can feel a little redundant visually as you drive the Mako over rocky expanses over and over (the Mako itself is a love-it-or-hate-it vehicle. Its either a ungainly truck that handles like a lobster trying to ice skate or it’s a tenacious mountain goat that can conquer the tallest mountain). But overall, the experience of playing the game is addictively satisfying.

Lots of writers for this one. Drew Karpyshyn, Lukas Kristjanson, Mike Laidlaw, Chris L’Etoile, Mac Walters and Patrick Weekes have collectively created a sprawling, insanely detailed and well-thought out universe. There is an in-game codex you can look up and find explanations for every race, group and technology you can encounter. They even explain why you never run out of ammo. And it makes sense in context. Every single planet you can scan in your travels has a paragraph written up about it, even the ones you can’t land on and provide nothing more than story flavor. The way they explain space travel is also fantastic. Instead of something like a warp drive or light speed, the spacecraft in the game use Mass Relays to travel across the galaxy. Mass Relays are basically giant rail guns that fire ships to other Mass Relays. Let me repeat: the game has Rail Guns. That fire. Space ships.

Dialog in the game is also fantastic, which is a good thing, because there is A LOT of it. Many of the conversations you can have provide options for renegade answers, which can be hilariously sociopathic. For example, you can make Shepard call one of the floating, alien Hanar a “big, stupid jellyfish.” (which is exactly what it looks like). Consequences of your actions are also fantastically well thought out, but I’m not going to mention any of those because they’re all spoilers.

The original music by Jack Wall & Sam Hulick is of an equivalent quality level as the rest of the game, which is good. Sweeping and action oriented, the score mixes real instruments with electronic touches and works brilliantly for the genre.

Now, I haven’t exactly gone on about gameplay and so on because that’s not how we roll here at RMWC. However, based solely on the merits of the story and presentation alone, the game is absolutely fantastic and a brilliant example of the “gaming as storytelling” medium at its finest. Mass Effect is unquestionably recommended if in-depth video games are your thing, especially since the sequel is coming out in early 2010.

Oh Wrex, you card.

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