Massively Affected

This marks the first blog from my new pad in Texas.  Happiness abounding!  You may have noticed that to celebrate the occasion, I have radically altered my blog setup and avatar.  I have also now acquired a Twitter account, in acquiescence to years of prodding from my computer-oriented friends. I am typing in a balmy atmosphere of 76, while outside the sun scorches the hapless earth at a blistering 107 or some such degree. Due to pre-paid utilities, I can air-condition my apartment into the Ice Age if I so choose.  I’m told, however, that this ability will become useless sometime around the middle of September, when things cool down.  Still, for the moment, it’s a great relief.

All last week I worked on getting myself settled in–food, furniture, etc. and familiarizing myself with the town.  All THIS week the university worked on getting me settled in, which they decided to do mostly by bombarding my fellow students and I with speaker after speaker who felt compelled to tell us how proud they are of us, how excited they are for the future we represent, and how they felt all those many years ago.  Inspiring stuff, I am sure, but after four days of three separate orientations, one tires of it.  I am so oriented right now, I am actually DIS-Oriented and just wishing classes would hurry up and get here.

Work too.  My job doesn’t actually start until this coming week, and until it does, I’m essentially living off my savings.  Oh my goodness, I feel like I’ve just been eating up money since I arrived here.  Been trying not to eat a lot, but hey, a man needs some kind of sustenance.  So far hamburgers and hotdogs have been serving me pretty well, but I imagine I’ll tire of them before too long.  I have a pizza sitting in the fridge, maybe I’ll bake that up tomorrow.

The University itself seems like a nice place.  Beautiful buildings, good student body, strong academics (according to report) and friendly people.  I’ve met a good number of people already, and though I imagine I’ll forget a fair amount of them, there is always the chance they might remember ME and make my life here more interesting from time to time.  Some of the students are in their early 40’s, which took me off guard but makes sense when you think about it enough.  The second-year grad students are starting to scare me with their tales of abject poverty and hard labor, but there’s nothing I can do about that except wait and see.  But like I said, wonderfully friendly people, beautiful campus, and every lawn kept lush and green, which seems pretty odd, in the middle of drought.

I mentioned the heat earlier.  Apparently, I arrived in the middle of a record-breaking heat-wave, which has caused a massive drought throughout Texas.  Hasn’t affected my water supply yet–nor anyone else that I know of–but if you drive around, you can see brown grass just stretching for miles.  Unsurprisingly, morale to go and enjoy the great outdoors is low, and what little time in my week hasn’t been spent in orientation or food runs to the mall has been spent on playing video games.  Chief of which has been (as you can guess from the title) Mass Effect.

Mass Effect itself is a somewhat dated game.  The original game was released in 2007, and the sequel came out in 2010.  A third game is slated for sometime in 2012.  It’s something of an RPG, something of a third-person shooter, (slightly different than a first-person shooter) and something of a visual novel, in the sense that different choices send you on different paths to do different things.  But one thing that it definitely is, is ABSOLUTE Sci-Fi goodness.

The world of Mass Effect is ostensibly not far ahead in the future, but it’s reality is FAR different.  Essentially, Humans discover magic alien ruins on Mars that help them design faster-than-light ships, than find ANOTHER magic alien device randomly floating outside Pluto (the game was made back when Pluto was a planet), that propels them at still faster speeds to another whole solar system.  Pretty quickly, humans start colonizing the stars and meet up with more advanced (but not magical) aliens, who have already been dominating the galactic scene for a couple years or so.  Humans join the alliance and life is good.  They find out that the magic aliens are called Protheans, and the weird floating relics that are slingshotting everyone all over the galaxy are called Mass Effect Relays, which are powered by Element ZERO!  Element Zero is… well, it’s a magic element.  If you’re exposed to it you get psychic powers.  Or you die painfully.

That’s the setup.  And simply the fact that the game makers SPENT so long making the setup and trying to make it semi-plausible should tell you one thing–this is a game with a very powerful backdrop.  The world (or universe) of Mass Effect is rich, diverse, and exhaustively developed.

There are many alien races, each with their own particular culture and history, each fitting into a grand over-arching history of the galaxy, some of which is relevant to game-play and most of which is not.  There are many different worlds.  There are many, many different characters.  And there are millions of tiny details.  There’s actually an in-game encyclopedia or “Codex” which gets added to as you play.  With everything from species history to political techniques to outright-useless-technical data, the Codex is a marvel of universe creation.

The central hero of Mass Effect is Shepherd, and who exactly Shepherd is depends entirely on the player.  He can be a war hero or a survivor, born in space or on a colony, fighting as a soldier or as an engineer.  “He” can even be a “she,” and “he” (or “she”) can look like anything the player wants him to. Shepherd is essentially a blank slate, he (just assume its a guy) can be anything the player wants him to be.

And, of course, in the game, Shepherd acts however the player wants him to act.  In simple dialogue, players can choose whether to have Shepherd respond rudely, politely, or neutrally (it makes astonishingly little difference most times).  In more critical moments, they can choose whether they want him to act like a hero (Paragon) or anti-hero (Renegade).  Depending on how you play the game, certain key figures can live or die.  More, in the second game, most of these decisions will come back to haunt you in one way or another, and apparently this will be even more true in the third game.  The replay value of the game is great, because you can explore hundreds of options you never investigated before.  It’s a wonderfully personal and interactive way of character development.

So much for gameplay.  The story is intensive but fairly simple–a special ops agent from the alien government has gone rogue, blowing up human colonies.  As you investigate, you find out this guy is working for a bunch of big killer aliens (the ones who killed the magic aliens) and he’s trying to bring them back to destroy the galaxy.  WHY he’s doing that, and how exactly he intends to make it happen, come out in the gameplay, but a lot of that stuff is spoilers so I won’t go into it.  Suffice to say, a lot of the so-called “background” information becomes important, and you realize that a lot of those tiny details you’ve been passing by throughout the game have actually much greater importance than you thought.  It’s a moment of wonderful realization that really brings the whole universe together–without being obvious, the game has been hinting at the many story elements all along.

At least that’s the first game.  The second game is much simpler.  Shepherd, having killed the first of the big killer aliens, now sets out to destroy a group of smaller-but-still-deadly aliens who have been kidnapping entire human colonies.  Unsurprisingly, they turn out to be working for the big killer aliens too and the battle is on once again.  Though there are a few “holy smokes” moments, they’re not nearly as incredible twists as came out in the first game, and the hints at the plot definitely aren’t as subtle.  But that’s kind of unavoidable, because the big secret behind the universe has already been revealed.

Most people like the second game better than the first, but I don’t.  The combat and upgrade tree are smoother, but the scope of the story is remarkably shrunken.  It’s just a story about you and the ten or so people on your ship.  The galaxy, as a group of people, really doesn’t enter into it.  The first game ended with climactic battle featuring aliens from all around the galaxy, the second ends with you leading a three-man squad deep into a control center.  Not that small, understated battles don’t have their place, but you never actually get a feeling that you’re fighting these aliens for the survival of all life.  It seems more like a personal vendetta.

The universe is a much smaller place too.  In the first game, there were hundreds of side-missions and sub-plots with NO bearing whatsoever on the main storyline.  Nearly every world you visited had a different story with different heroes and a different threat.  It provided a wonderful image of a thriving galaxy, full of people living out their lives.

The second game has no such diversity.  You can visit different worlds, but usually only in the context of the main plot or your characters.  The few unconnected side-missions you have are uninteresting and have no real story to them.  Even the enemies you fight fall mostly into three categories, corresponding to the three big mercenary groups of the galaxy.  Instead of a galaxy full of people with their owns trials and troubles, Mass Effect 2 has a universe revolving around you, where enemies fall into five nicely distinguishable categories.  World creation was Mass Effect 1’s strength, and the sequel seems to have more or less relaxed on that issue.

Be that as it may, they’re both fun games, but not games for the young.  One of the major features of the game is the ability to pursue relationships with different members of your crew (or not, as I did), and sometimes the cutscenes can get a little strong.  The series has at least one suicide–more if you explore your options–and the second game contains one VERY foul-mouthed prisoner as part of your crew.  The game doesn’t revel in it or emphasize it unduly, but it’s there, and if you have small children you may not want to play this game around them.

Still, if you’re mature enough to handle that and you’re into sci-fi and apocalypse scenarios, play this game.  Definitely.  The universe is amazing, the character development is engaging, and the story is entertaining.  Try not to play it obsessively, as I did, but do play it.  At some point.

Oh, and DON’T read the accompanying novels, Revelation and Ascension, by the games lead writer Drew Karpyshyn.  The guy might be able to write a good video game, but books are NOT his strong point.


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