Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dragon Age 2's Downloadable Content

So, I've been thinking about these Add-On rants I do on occasion. Until now, I've been waiting to post each rant on a game's add-ons until all of them have been released. But that really doesn't make much sense; any poor fool who's actually going to listen to my opinion about them isn't going to wait until a year after the game's released to consider each add-on as it comes out. So, starting today, I'm going to just put up the Add-On rants as soon as I wish, and update them as new Downloadable Content or Expansions and whatnot come out, instead.

Besides, if Bioware doesn't do a hell of a repair job on that terrible ending for Mass Effect 3, I doubt I'll particularly feel like purchasing their games and add-ons ever again, and then I'd just be sitting on a perpetually unfinished rant.

Anyways! Dragon Age 1's add-ons had their good moments, but as a whole, I was far from impressed with the game's extra content. Did Bioware do better this time around? Let's see.

The Exiled Prince: I actually had a separate rant dedicated to this package that I posted a while back. Check it out for the details. The long and short of it is, while this add-on's content is alright, Bioware's selling it to players is a dishonest rip-off, as the core plot of DA2 is, even if only in one small (but significant!) aspect, incomplete without this DLC. If you want the plot, the primary core of the game, in as complete a form as possible, you have to pay for the game AND pay extra for this on top of it.

The Black Emporium: This DLC is available to anyone who buys the game new for free. It's not available to anyone who doesn't buy the game new (so anyone buying the game used is out of luck), but I think that's fair. I mean, buying the game used means not actually supporting Bioware with your purchase, so it wouldn't be fair to expect them to throw in extra content for free just for the heck of it.

For the most part, it just adds a few items and recipes to the game, but there are just enough things of note that I'll consider this a real add-on. First, it DOES add a new area, albeit a very small one, and a new NPC with some dialogue and such. It all pretty much just amounts to a new and strange shop with a rather odd shopkeeper to hear a few lines of dialogue from, but for what it is, it's not bad.

More important (and yet, somehow, mostly ignored) is the fact that this DLC also adds a Mabari hound to protagonist Hawke's family. The dog can be summoned during battle to help you, which is nice, but unimportant. Of note, though, is the fact that there are several conversations added to the game with the dog, small scenes where Hawke or one of Hawke's companions or household members will interact with the dog, usually in amusing ways. This is neat, and even helps further develop the game's characters a little through their interactions with the canine. In fact, this token add-on NPC is actually a more legitimate character than DA1's Mabari hound was, even though the previous game's dog was supposedly a full party member! There are actually more scenes of conversation with DA2's free add-on dog than there were with DA1's so-called "real" character, and while none of them amount to anything particularly important or create any notable personality for the mutt, they're certainly no less significant than DA1's dialogue scenarios involving the hound.

So, a free shop and a free semi-party member which develops other characters through their relations with it and that improves upon (if not fixes) the first game's problem of poor representation of its animal character? This is certainly a decent little DLC. Nothing great, but decent.

Legacy: Two words come to mind: Lame, and Pass. You might think that a quest wherein Hawke finds out that his/her father was involved with the Grey Wardens sealing an ancient, unknowable horror within a tower of Darkspawn and mystical wards might be interesting, especially when it turns out the sealed being is one of the ancient Magisters who originally created the Darkspawn through their hubris-inspired transgressions into the Dragon Age version of Heaven, but you'd apparently be dead wrong. Barely any focus is actually put on the role and character of Hawke's father, nixing most chances for character development for Hawke and Bethany or Carver (if you brought them along). Really, that aspect basically never goes much further than other people saying "YOU HAVE THE BLOOD OF YOUR DAD WHO WAS HERE DOING STUFF ONCE;" there's nothing actually substantial said about it or him. The Magister is mildly interesting, I suppose, but though this provides a little bit of confirmation for the dogma of the Chantry, this unexpected development never really goes anywhere, with any major questions of the ancient, myth-laden history of Dragon Age that the Magister could have provided insight for left unasked and unanswered. If Anders and Varric are along for the ride, they can have a little extra dialogue, but it doesn't amount to anything more than saying hi to the guy who made Varric's crossbow (and then killing him), and Anders seeing that maybe there's more truth to the Chantry's legends than he thought. The only really worthwhile part of this DLC comes at the very end, wherein Hawke's mother (or a vision of her, since you can play this before or after her demise) speaks of parental pride for Hawke and the ways Hawke is similar to his/her father. That part's nice enough, but everything up to it is bland and rather forgettable--and even this final talk could have been better, had the DLC properly established the character of Hawke's father so the comparison would mean more. Not really worth the time, definitely not worth the money. The money being $10. When I did my Fallout: New Vegas DLC rant, I said at the time that $10 seemed an awful lot for a DLC package, and that is still how I feel, but I suppose that nowadays with rising costs of everything that this is probably a price I'll have to get used to paying. Nevertheless, Legacy's not worth an average price regardless of what that may be.

Mark of the Assassin: I'm not totally sure whether I like this DLC more or less than the last. Felicia Day's character of Tallis, the elven Qunari assassin who was star of the small online Dragon Age video series Redemption, joins with Hawke temporarily for a small adventure. Tallis is alright here, but she was more interesting in Redemption by a lot, and the rest of the cast basically just get pulled along by the plot's events. With 75% of the DLC basically being breaking into and then escaping a well-guarded vault in a mansion, a large part of the this thing just feels like a rehash of Mass Effect 2's Kasumi Loyalty Mission DLC, only not nearly as interesting and without good characters. The Qunari culture is brought up in this package, which makes sense since Qunari affairs turn out to be the central focus of the small adventure, but it's never explored adequately, much like Hawke's eventual decision to help or abandon Tallis. There's some humor to this, but it's kind of hit or miss--sometimes Felicia Day's character is amusing when she's trying to be, and sometimes below-par writing and an inability of Ms. Day to visually convey her message just makes things bland and slightly annoying (and either way, Tallis has become more glib than her character as according to Redemption really allows for). In the end, there's really nothing in this add-on that's especially good or bad, but I'd have to say that the small negatives outweigh the small positives. People will buy it anyway because it's about Felicia Day playing a character whose design amounts to "Let's make Felicia Day into a video game character," but they'll be throwing money away on a sub par product.

It seems that this is the end of DA2's add-ons. Bioware hasn't said it is, but they haven't given any indication for the past half year that there's going to be more, and lukewarm player response to Dragon Age 2 means there's not much reason to keep making content for it.

So how'd it stack up? Poorly. The add-on with the best content, The Exiled Prince, is unethical. Half the DLC packages are bland and have virtually no noteworthy qualities. Lastly, The Black Emporium is good, but ultimately serves an incredibly small role in the audience's experience of the game. Frankly, even the original Dragon Age did a better overall job with is DLC, and you may recall that I was not impressed by and large with the add-ons for that game. Bad show, Bioware.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mass Effect 3's Ending

Okay, first of all, if you haven’t already played Mass Effect 3 to the end and beaten it, then don’t read this rant. Not only is it going to have spoilers up the wazoo, but I’m going to be going about my blathering with the assumption that you have experienced knowledge of the game’s events, so some parts of this probably wouldn’t mean all that much to you anyway if you haven’t played ME3 through. All you need to know for now is that ME3 is an utterly fantastic game whose ending is so horrible and disappointing that it sours every previous moment of the entire series. If you haven’t already gotten ME3, you may actually want to not buy it, unless Bioware adds more and better ending options later. It’s that bad.

So! Mass Effect 3’s endings. If you’ve seen it, you probably hate it--a poll on Bioware’s forums with, at the time of this rant, over 50,000 participants ( places, at the time of this rant, 91% of people as wanting the whole thing redone, with another 7% who are okay with most of the ending but at least want one important detail (the role of Joker and the Normandy) changed. That leaves a whopping 3% of ME3 gamers, if this sample group is a fair indication of the gaming populace as a whole, who find the game’s endings acceptable at the present time. Well, hate to jump on the bandwagon, but I’m in the 91% on this. ME3’s ending is like a punch in the gut to me. If this isn’t the very first rant of mine you’ve ever read, then you probably know how much I love the Mass Effect series, and the conclusion to ME3 leaves me feeling hollow and hurt.

Of course, whether I should bother with this at all is questionable. All kinds of people have spoken out about it, detailed every aspect of the endings that is wrong or out of place, so what I’m going to say below is just going to be a repetition of many others’ words, I’m sure. In addition, with the many, many people (including myself) who have stated that they flat-out will not make another purchase from Bioware from now on if this issue is not addressed and a proper ending given, there’s a fair chance that what I say here will eventually be invalidated by the developers providing another option for the game’s finale in the future, much like I had to retract my rant on the stupidity of Fallout 3’s ending after the developers fixed the issue and extended the game in the Broken Steel Downloadable Content.

Nonetheless, I need to get this off my chest. If this rant is redundant, so be it--it’s still a collection of my opinions on RPGs, and I’ve got a hell of an opinion on this one. And if this rant is to later be invalidated by Bioware addending or adding ending content to the game, so be it once more--nothing could possibly please me more than to eventually have to do a retraction to this rant. So, with all that out of the way, my thoughts on why the endings of Mass Effect 3 SUCKED UNHOLY SHIT.

(Please note: For the purpose of this rant, the “ending” I speak of begins when Shepard rides the elevator up and meets the Catalyst Hologram Kid).

The Small Stuff

There are a lot of aspects of the endings to ME3 that are very dissatisfying to me, but I have to overall recognize as smaller issues, more my own preference than a serious problem. These are the little problems that I could forgive either if done better, or if they were part of an ending that was overall good.

- Shepard dies at the end, regardless of what you choose. If you choose Convergence, which is deciding to have synthetic life and organic life merge, Shepard is dissolved in the Magic Green Space Energy he/she leaps into. If you Control the Reapers, Shepard dissolves in the control beam thingy. If you Destroy the Reapers (which is the closest thing to a moral choice you get), Shepard is destroyed with them because he or she is (supposedly) synthetic enough to get hit by the Crucible’s synthetic kill-wave. Call me old-fashioned, and unoriginal, and all that jazz, but I generally like my hero to get a happy ending in games. Yes, a sacrificial hero can be immensely moving, and there are many endings I’ve seen where the hero dies which I would never dream of criticizing. Final Fantasy 10 comes to mind--that was an incredibly moving ending, and the entire game’s theme of sacrifice for the good of others, not to mention the general mechanics of the FF10 world that have been set up throughout the game, necessitates it. But as a general rule, I like my hero to live, and if a hero’s death in the finale isn’t done well and with excellent storytelling purpose, then the death feels cheap to me. I think a lot of the time people have endings where the hero dies just because they want to seem more bold or deep than all those other happier endings. Now, as ME3 has a major theme of sacrifice already, I admit Shepard’s death can be thematically important, so I’m not going to make this a huge issue, but all the same, it’s a disappointment to me that he/she and his/her love interest (especially if it’s Tali) won’t get a chance to spend their lives happily and together.

And don’t give me that crap about the couple secret seconds of ending footage where we see someone in armor surrounded by rubble take a single breath. Yeah, it’s probably supposed to be Shepard, but it’s just too short, too vague, and too inconclusive to count. When I say I want Shepard to live, I mean I want to SEE him/her LIVE, not see someone who MIGHT be Shepard take a single breath.

- Shepard’s death in the Destroy ending doesn’t make a lot of sense. Supposedly it’s Shepard’s implants that make him/her synthetic enough that the Reaper-destroying energy wave will kill Shepard as well. I don’t really think some implants, even if they’re fairly extensive, should be so easily mistaken for artificial life. And does this mean anyone with significant technology implanted in them will also be killed? Because that means that a decision to kill the Reapers, which again is pretty much the best choice for a player going for a Paragon (good guy) Shepard, is also a decision to kill every most Biotics in the galaxy, since they have implants to help them use their powers, not to mention who knows how many people who use technology in their body to help them live. Do they die, too? How many implants makes one synthetic instead of organic in the Crucible’s kill-switch’s judgment?

- The whole thing with the Catalyst Hologram Kid doesn’t feel right to the game, particularly not for the ending. It comes out of nowhere, really, and seems the kind of philosophical metaphysical scene that you’d see in an entirely different kind of science fiction, like something Isaac Asimov would do--in fact, there’s a lot about this final scene and ending that reminds me of Golan Trevize’s decision at the end of the second to last Foundation book by Asimov. But for Asimov, a scene like this works, because his story’s style, focus, and flow mesh well with the quiet little bit of ancient galactic philosophy and such. With Mass Effect, the final scene with the Catalyst Hologram Kid, his speech, the decision he pushes on Shepard, it all seems completely foreign to the way the Mass Effect series has been handled. Not to say that ME doesn’t have its philosophy and decisions for the future and mysticism, but they’re handled differently, and the series generally has a more straightforward, realistic tone to its science fiction. This scene is like ending a Star Wars movie with something from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It doesn’t fit right.

- The Normandy and its crew in the ending is a real head-scratcher. Why are they fleeing from the battle for Earth? We don’t really see the other ships leaving. Maybe the Normandy starts fleeing only after it sees the wave of energy coming from Shepard’s decision, but if so, why is it ONLY the Normandy we see fleeing through the mass relays from it? And why does Joker flee it to begin with? He can’t possibly know what the hell the energy wave is, and everyone’s expecting the Crucible to start doing something massive to destroy the Reapers anyway. Also, how is it that Shepard’s squad members (at least some of them) are in the Normandy with him? Everyone in the battle for Earth has a role to play, and that role is implied for every member of Shepard’s team to be fighting on the ground. What’re they doing on the Normandy all of a sudden? Did Joker have to pick them up from a danger zone?

It’s also annoying because, as they and the Normandy are now on another planet who knows how far away in the galaxy, it means that even if Shepard survives the ending (if you count that stupid second of footage of someone breathing), he/she is going to be separated from the people he/she cares about most. (This is quite literally true--the squad members shown exiting the Normandy in the ending are the ones Shepard has the most rapport with, according to the player’s choices in dialogue with them through the game).

- I know we have to take some things on faith with the whole suspension of disbelief thing, but I have to ask, exactly how does the Magic Green Space Energy in the Convergence ending work, exactly? Even in a series where giant talking dinosaur people are opening miniature black holes with their minds thanks to blue swirly waves, the idea that some galaxy-spanning energy wave can instantly transmute every living thing it touches into a functional combination of organic and synthetic material is basically preposterous.

- The choice of Convergence with the Magic Green Space Energy...what if someone in the galaxy doesn’t WANT to be both organic and synthetic? Why does Shepard get to decide every free-willed individual’s physical fate? I can kind of let this go in that Shepard’s supposed to be the savior of all life and the one the galaxy rests its hopes on so he/she is sort of empowered to make that kind of decision, but all the same, it’s more villain-ish than hero-ish, to impose one’s will and decision upon everyone else without their consent.

Serious Problems

These are the many aspects of the ME3 endings that are a big deal, that majorly lessen the quality of the ending. More than the smaller details above, these issues, mostly instances where the core reasoning for the ending doesn’t make sense, make the endings and their events outright bad. While a well-made ending could let the above criticisms be acceptable and glossed over, these issues are kind of too much to look past.

- The color of the energy wave at the end is wrong. I’m fine with the Magic Green Space Energy being green for the ending where synthetic and organic life is merged--that’s totally outside the normal moral compass of the Mass Effect series so it having its own color is fine with me. But the Destroy and Control ending options are reversed from what they should be--the energy wave color if you choose to Control the Reapers is blue, while it’s red if you choose to Destroy the Reapers. It doesn’t SEEM like a big deal, until you consider that the colors of blue and red are used in the ME games to represent Paragon (good guy) and Renegade (jerkwad) choices, respectively. And then it becomes a problem--because this ending sequence implies that it’s the Renegade option to Destroy the Reapers, and the Paragon choice is to Control them.

Uh, no. That’s not how it fucking works.

See, the major, final choice of Mass Effect 2, and a huge, huge part of Mass Effect 3 has been the question of whether humanity should destroy the technologies associated with the Reapers, or try to use them to gain technological domination. From the moment in Mass Effect 2’s finale that Shepard was faced with the option of either destroying the Collector base or leaving it intact so it could be studied and its technologies harvested for humanity’s use, the Paragon path has been to destroy the Reaper’s technology, destroy the Reapers. The idea behind this, which is quite sensible, is that the technology of the Reapers is too dangerous (what with the constant danger of Indoctrination just from being around them) and too steeped in evil (what with involving liquidating people and/or forcibly mutating them into monsters), to use in good conscience. There’s also the fact that such power has incredible corrupting potential. The only way to preserve peace and unity in the galactic community--which is what Paragon Shepard is all about--is to eliminate the Reapers and all they directly touch, not to wield their power. On the other hand, the Renegade option has always been that of control and domination over all others, the idea that Shepard and humanity should be the ones completely in control, and what’s best for everyone is to shut up and get out of their way. The Renegade path is one of ends justifying means, doing whatever it takes, no matter how loathsome, to win. Controlling the Reapers and their technology is exactly the kind of thing Renegade Shepard is all about.

So why exactly is it that the option to Destroy the Reapers at the end, which SHOULD be the Paragon choice, has a red energy wave, while Controlling the Reapers has a blue one? The colors have symbolic importance to the series; they’re not just random colors. These endings would imply that the right thing to do is to follow in the steps of the Illusive Man, a guy willing to commit unspeakable horrors on innocents in the name of progress, and attempt to Control the Reapers. The game even shows you a vision that associates the choice with the Illusive Man, so there’s no question of whose side you’re taking. These endings would also imply that the jerkwad, control-freak self-important Machiavelli thing to do is to follow in the steps of the consistently heroic David Anderson (who is visually associated with this next choice) and Destroy the Reapers, knowing they’re too dangerous to try to use and would also destroy any chance for galactic unity when one man held all the power. Once again, according to the endings’ use of the series’s symbolic color system, the Renegade thing to do is to want peace and not to give in to the temptation of control and power, and the Paragon thing to do is to follow in the footsteps of a guy who’s committed some of the worst atrocities imaginable out of a desire to subjugate all sentient lifeforms who didn’t look enough like him.

Again, you may think it’s a small thing, the color, but symbolism’s important, and the color symbolism here makes a statement that flies in the face of the rest of the series and is seriously wrong.

- Now that we’ve established that, regardless of what the colors indicate, the Paragon ending option is to Destroy the Reapers and the Renegade one would be to Control them, we come to a huge problem with the Destroy ending: the Geth and EDI. If Shepard chooses to Destroy the Reapers--which, again, is what Shepard has to choose if Shepard is a Paragon and believes in unity and decency and equality and all that jazz--then the Reaper-destroying energy wave is apparently going to destroy the Geth and EDI, as well, since they’re synthetic life like the Reapers. For a lot of Paragon players, Mass Effect 3’s events will include the Geth’s rise to individual sentience and a confirmation that they are just as entitled to existence and the rights of sentient people as any organic life. For probably most Paragon players, EDI will, over the course of ME3, take her first but very definitive steps toward being a person and not just a machine, growing beyond her initial programming and developing a personality, a self, a soul.

So what this ending is telling us is that if we want to make the only moral choice allowed, to Destroy the Reapers, we have to kill EDI and the Geth. Now, it’s somewhat annoying to me that a caveat is included at all; having to choose that someone dies for the greater good is closer to a Renegade choice than it is a Paragon. But sometimes Shepard is faced with such choices, like the one on Virmire in ME1 where he/she had to choose which squad member to sacrifice. So I can accept that there are sometimes tough choices that have to be made. Nonetheless, I have a major problem with this. See, this choice basically means that the very instant the Geth get a chance to exist on equal footing with biological life forms, the instant they gain the ability to exist as a people instead of a collective consciousness, the instant they gain the ability to live the way they’ve always wanted...they’re wiped out. What, exactly, was the POINT of giving players the ability to save and elevate the Geth if the player then has to decide a couple hours later, assuming the player wants to continue doing the most moral, Paragon-like thing, to destroy them all? Having a major decision that invalidates a significant prior decision if decided in the same way is stupid, and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Shepard didn’t save the Geth and give them individuality just to immediately take it back. Shepard didn’t spend the whole game helping EDI along with her quest to understand how to live as a person just to destroy her chance to do so.

- Speaking of EDI and the Geth, they kinda prove the Catalyst Hologram Kid dead wrong. Catalyst Hologram Kid claims in the ending that this big, terrible cycle of Reapers coming in and destroying the major civilizations and harvesting them to be more Reapers and then leaving and yadda yadda, is all because it’s the only way to keep sentient, organic life forms from being destroyed by the synthetic life forms (like the Geth) that they create. The basic idea here is that all synthetics will inevitably rise against their creators, and if they are ever successful at doing it, they will destroy all organic life, not just the dominant species. The Reapers target the dominant species in every cycle, but leave all other life alone, allowing it to grow and flourish until it evolves far enough that the next cycle will wipe it out. Thus through this cycle organic life is never totally destroyed as synthetic life would want it to be, and the dominant organic species is immortalized forever by being forced to become new Reapers/Reaper servants.

This is kind of a dumb solution anyway, but we’ll let it go. It’s standard villain-reasoning, like Final Fantasy 10’s Seymour deciding the best way to keep everyone from being unhappy is to kill them.

Anyways, EDI and the Geth prove the damn kid dead wrong. First of all, since she was released from her electronic safeguards, EDI has been nothing but helpful, considerate, and good to her biological coworkers and friends. Sure, she does joke like she’s out to control or kill all humans, like Bender in Futurama does, but unlike Bender, it’s always pretty obvious that she’s doing nothing but joking. Throughout her experiences as an unshackled AI, EDI is as dependable and moral a companion as any other on Shepard’s team, and in ME3 in particular she develops an understanding of and appreciation for the freedom of will and right to exist that all sentient life has. There’s also the option of having her and Joker actually enter into a romantic relationship with one another. EDI is clear cut-and-dry proof that it’s not impossible for synthetic and biological life to exist side-by-side with one another, and respect and value each other.

And then there’s the Geth. While EDI is young enough that one could argue that she’s not a perfect example of why synthetic life is not destined to rise against its makers, the Geth have been a (reclusive) part of the ME galaxy for hundreds of years. And while you can argue that they aren’t known for being peaceful, you can’t make a rational case that the Geth really “rose up” against their creators the way Catalyst Hologram Kid implies. When the Geth first achieved self-awareness, the Quarians attempted to destroy them. The war that the Geth waged on the Quarians that drove the Quarians off their homeworld was started by the QUARIANS, not the Geth--the Get just fought back, the way any self-aware organic race would if threatened with extinction. Engaging in self-preservation and self-defense are not the same as an inevitable destiny to rise up against your creators. The next conflict between the Geth and organics occurs during the events of Mass Effect 1, when the Geth are following Saren and Sovereign, but even then, it’s not really a case of those Geth (who were a faction of heretics anyway, according to the regular Geth--like the Cerberus faction of humanity) following some irrepressible urge to destroy all organic life. They were simply following the whims and commands of Sovereign, whom they regarded as a deity-like pinnacle of synthetic evolution. If Sovereign hadn’t ordered them to attack organics, the heretic Geth would have had no reason to. So that’s all from the influence of an entity designed specifically not to be part of the regular sequence of events for synthetic-organic relations. And lastly, we see the war in ME3 between the Quarians and the Geth, which, hey, whaddaya know, was AGAIN instigated 100% by the Quarians. Unless Catalyst Hologram Kid means to imply that synthetics inevitably rising against their creators is the same as the idea that self-aware sentient synthetic life might not want to be eradicated at another’s whim, his argument is full of bullshit, because every really significant example of synthetic life in the Mass Effect universe proves him wrong. So the reasoning behind the Reapers’ cycle, and the choices that Catalyst Hologram Kid forces on Shepard, is utterly groundless, from both the player’s perspective AND from Shepard’s.

- There’s no proper depiction or accounting of the game’s events and characters in the ending. I mean, you spend almost the entirety of Mass Effect 3 amassing as powerful and well-equipped a force of soldiers, battleships, resources, scientists, technology, and so on as possible. For those that actually did their best to collect as many war assets as possible, there should be some positive result beyond just a number to tally their values. I’m not saying every single asset should be represented, or even most of them. But if you’ve got Grunt with your ground forces as a part of your army, shouldn’t the ending show him in some way, or at least make mention of what happened to him? He was a major character in ME2. Same with Zaeed, Jacob, Wrex, Samara, and the rest of Shepard’s former squad mates who can be involved in the final battle for Earth. Likewise for the major forces that Shepard accumulates. You spend a quarter of the game brokering peace between the Krogan and Turians, so let’s see them fighting on the field together! Did Shepard gain the assistance of the Quarians, Geth, or both? Whatever the case, why don’t we see their ships engaged in combat with the Reapers? You spend about as long with them as you do with the Krogan and Turians in this game. What about the Rachni, if Shepard chose to save them? The Salarian forces? The Asari? The biggest battle in the history of everything is going on in the game’s finale, with a ton of really important characters, and you don’t see any of it, nor how it ends up for them. Everything you’ve had Shepard do for the past 3 games should culminate here; instead it just turns into a number that determines how well the forces will do overall. Lame.

And speaking of that, you don’t really get a proper accounting for what happens to Shepard’s current teammates, either. What happens after Joker crashes the Normandy and he and Shepard’s best buddies step out? What happened to the rest of the team? I’m sorry, but with rare exceptions, an ending should provide closure. There is none here.

- Hey, here’s a question. If the option to merge organic and synthetic life with the Magic Green Space Energy is supposed to be a serious and legitimate option (which the developers obviously want it to be; it practically comes off as the canon choice in its presentation), what the hell was the point of beating Saren in ME1 to begin with? I mean, isn’t that basically what Saren was shooting for all along? Where was the green option to live the way the Reapers wanted back when its spokesman was getting shot in the face? Apparently what seemed to Shepard like an obviously foolish and cowardly option 3 years before now comes off as a legitimate possibility. Shepard could’ve saved himself (and us) all kinds of time and effort.

- Speaking of this visionary option of merging organic and synthetic life, there’s yet another reason why it is utterly ridiculous. See, it’s like this, guys. Catalyst Hologram Kid says that all things rise against their creators, dig? Organic life and synthetic life are too different so inevitably once organic life creates synthetic life, synthetic life will try to destroy all organic life. We’ve already seen this proved wrong above, but let’s assume this is correct for a moment. How does merging synthetic and organic life together solve this problem? Oh, I see how it’s a short-term fix, sure. Since all life will now be both synthetic and organic, there will be no inherent difference between the various forms of life in the galaxy, so the whole inevitable rising-up-of-the-synthetics won’t happen.*


But tell me something: how will this merging process take away sentient life forms’ desire for tools to make their lives easier? The process of the merging really doesn’t take away the fundamental need to use technology to live a more convenient and satisfactory life. And the desire to use tools to make life easier is the fundamental drive to create and improve on machines. Which is what leads to creating robot workers and programs like AI and synthetic life platforms in the first place! This merging option does NOTHING to prevent the new synthetic-organic hybrid people of the galaxy from eventually creating new intelligent, self-aware synthetic life forms again. And as simply synthetic life forms (since that’d still be presumably easier from creating organic-synthetic hybrids), they would STILL be substantially different from their creators. Which means that whatever inevitable urge to rise against one’s creators that Catalyst Hologram Kid talks about would come into effect. And thus, the merging option does absolutely nothing to solve the problem of synthetic and organic life’s differences long-term. In fact, I think it’s LESS effective than the current plan (the Reaper cycle), because it would take the current life forms of the galaxy much less time to create a new synthetic race than it would for the next Reaper cycle to arrive.

Inspire Nigh-Universal Disappointment and Rage Problems

And here we are at the REAL doozies. Any ONE of these is a HUGE problem for the ending, the kind that ruins it and seriously detracts from the entire game. The stuff above? That stuff makes a bad ending, but through the disappointment of a bad ending, you could at least still appreciate Mass Effect 3 for its otherwise overwhelming excellence, still want to experience it over and over again. But the issues below? They sour the entire game, the ruin the joy you’ve had playing it (and even the previous games!), they break the game’s spirit. They don’t make this a bad ending--they make this ending a travesty. They make this an ending that, according to the latest on that poll I mentioned, for every 1 player who’s satisfied with it there are 51 who hate it and want it changed. Drastically. These are what made Mass Effect 3’s ending one of the most disappointing moments of my entire life.**

- This ending goes against everything Shepard is and stands for. From the start right until this moment of the ending, Shepard is known for being the man or woman who can pull off the impossible, who can beat the odds because he/she is just that skilled, just that smart, just that lucky, just that well-supported, and most of all, just that determined. Shepard’s will to succeed is indomitable, and he/she does not compromise with the Reapers. Hate to be so cheesy as to quote Galaxy Quest, but if there has ever been a character who embraces and embodies the motto, “Never give up, never surrender,” it’s Commander Shepard. And yet, and YET, Shepard doesn’t stand firm against Catalyst Hologram Kid! When the glowy little jerk tells Shepard what his options are, never does Shepard stand tall and tell him no. Never does Shepard give him an inspirational speech about how he’s wrong, how he’s underestimating or misunderstanding the people of the galaxy, how there’s another way--Shepard doesn’t question what he’s told, doesn’t even LOOK for another way, even considering what he or she’s being told he or she has to choose and sacrifice. This ending just has Shepard quietly, meekly pick from the options the leader of the Reapers allows him or her.

Shepard’s determination and ability are the driving force for this series, that all the galaxy hinges on, the backbone of Mass Effect that we gamers depend upon and admire. And in this ending, that disappears, and Shepard suddenly becomes a submissive coward.

- If the consequences of the options are largely the same (the Citadel and Mass Relays will be destroyed no matter what you choose, Shepard dies no matter what you choose, there’s no substantial reference in the ending’s events to the repercussions of your choices in any of the games up until this point, and the ending itself barely changes regardless of what you choose), then the ending has effectively removed all real ability to choose from the player. From the start, Mass Effect has been a remarkable balance between the players’ getting to choose how their Shepard acts and what he/she decides, and the story Bioware wants to tell. Somehow, until this point, Bioware has always managed to keep together a strong, coherent plot over the course of 3 games while allowing the players large freedom to determine how the events of that story unfold. This balance cannot have been easy, but Bioware’s done an admirable job with it. At any rate, though, the ability of players to choose Shepard’s actions and attitude is one of the most fundamental parts of the Mass Effect series. But the ending to this game, the ending to the entire trilogy, suddenly removes this choice from the player. In the last few minutes of the trilogy, the moment which more than any other should reflect most the core values and nature of the series, Mass Effect loses one of its key components, and the whole thing comes crashing down.

- This ending generally puts forth the idea that differences between individuals inevitably means conflict. After all, the entire Reaper cycle, and the entire reason Shepard’s given these 3 lousy options, is because of Catalyst Hologram Kid’s (stupid) belief that synthetics will always rise against their creators, and that combining synthetic and organic life, and thus eliminating the major difference between them, will bring lasting peace.

Now, this is by itself a pretty alarming theory for the ME writers to advocate--and advocate it they do, for they’ve left the player with no option but to act upon Catalyst Hologram Kid’s theory. But more importantly, this is just as fundamentally in opposition to Shepard’s nature (at least, Paragon Shepard’s nature) as the idea that he/she wouldn’t resist being told what to do. For the entirety of this series, Paragon-version Commander Shepard has solidly, steadfastly, unwaveringly advocated and created unity between people. The most Paragon of options in these games are always, always aimed at cooperation and equality between people. Paragon Shepard takes friends and allies on from any race, gives second chances, views people for their merits and judges them by their actions instead of their species. In Mass Effect 1, he/she saved the Council and kept the galaxy safe for the sake of all races, and showed the galaxy that humanity was ready to do its part and join the galactic community. In Mass Effect 2, he/she led a team of unique individuals into a mission so absurdly dangerous that it’s universally called the Suicide Mission in the series, gaining the trust and loyalty of each crew member to the point that they would fight their damndest for him/her, and was enough of a leader that even the squad members who hated each other, or came from 2 separate species that had bad blood dating back centuries, were fully committed to working together for the greater good. In Mass Effect 3, Shepard plays diplomat, leader, and visionary more than ever before, bringing the entire galactic community together to stop the Reapers, making peace between the Salarians and Krogan, giving the Krogan a second chance to be a true part of the galactic community instead of its fallen heroes, stopping a war between the Quarians and the Geth and bringing them together to fight the Reapers side by side...Shepard outdoes even him/herself as an icon of the idea that peace between people is possible, no matter how different, no matter how bad their history, and that when people come together to face a problem as a single entity, there’s nothing they can’t achieve.

And yet, when Catalyst Hologram Kid talks about how synthetics can’t coexist with organics, how merging them and removing the fundamental difference between them is the new solution, how there HAS to be a solution because peace between people who are different is impossible, what does Paragon Shepard do? I’ll tell you what Paragon Shepard sure as hell doesn’t do--he/she sure as hell doesn’t take every experience and action he/she’s had and made in the last 3 years and tell the ghostly little bastard that he’s wrong, that peaceful coexistence CAN be achieved, and point out how powerful a force unity can be through the example of all those Shepard has him/herself brought together. For Paragon Shepard to accept the Catalyst Hologram Kid’s speech and options at all is thus twice a betrayal to everything Shepard is, everything Shepard has done, and everything Shepard means to the player--once for the fact that he’s meekly just taking what’s offered, and then again for his acceptance of this inevitable disharmony.

- And for me, the worst thing of all: no matter which ending you pick, the Mass Relays are destroyed. The Citadel I can live without, though it’s a sad loss. But without the Mass Relays, galactic civilization will basically enter a dark age, since it was through the Mass Relay network that all species were able to connect, travel, and interact. I’m sorry, I cannot accept this. Look. Shepard is fighting to save all people, everywhere, from being destroyed. Yes. This is true. But he/she is also fighting for their way of life. If he/she strictly fought to save people from dying, then he/she would have joined Saren in ME1, because Saren advocated finding a way to be useful enough to the Reapers that they’d allow organics to live, even if only as indoctrinated servants or whatever. That’s STILL keeping people ALIVE. So what Shepard is fighting for is more than JUST survival, strictly. He/she is fighting for people’s right to live the way they want to, to maintain free will, and to live in a society that encourages and respects their personal existence to at least some degree. Paragon Shepard fights for life AND to keep the status quo of the galaxy pleasant and peaceful for the galaxy’s civilizations. Renegade Shepard does sort of the same thing, only he/she is fighting to preserve a galaxy where he/she and humanity dominate all others. But it’s still ultimately fighting for more than just survival, fighting for a way of life, as well.

That way of life is destroyed with the Mass Relays. The galaxy that Shepard has fought so hard and long to save (and/or dominate) is gone forever, or at least for a VERY long time. Without the ability to travel to other places in the galaxy quickly, everyone in the galaxy is suddenly stranded where they are. No interstellar commerce and communication and travel, no interstellar community. No interstellar community, and you basically no longer have the Mass Effect universe. It really just isn’t the ME universe any longer at that point. Would the Star Wars universe be Star Wars if there were suddenly no way to jump to Hyperspace? Would Star Trek be Star Trek any longer if there were no Warp Drive? When you take away the ability to reach far-off civilizations, to connect to/explore the universe, to maintain a galactic community, you take away the very heart of a science-fiction series like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Mass Effect. This is the ultimate failure for Shepard--whatever happens, the galaxy as it was and the galaxy as Shepard has worked to make it is destroyed. This more than anything else hurts me, for this more than anything else is the bad ending to Mass Effect--the story, the series, the idea.

Beyond the spirit of the issue, there’s also the fact that destroying the Mass Relays and thus the galactic community completely invalidates almost every major event of Mass Effect 3. What was the point of curing the Genophage, of giving the Krogan another chance to be equals in the galactic community, and of getting them to come to cooperate with the Turians if they can no longer take part in the galactic community because they’re isolated, can no longer benefit from the camaraderie formed with the Turians? Hell, they’re not even going to be well off on their planet alone, since Wrex, the visionary leader who’s managed to pull them up out of extinction, is stranded on Earth. What was the point of getting the Quarians a chance to return to their home world if the majority of their fleet is now, thanks to being present at the battle for Earth, stranded from their home world for at least decades? Will they even have enough fuel to get back at all? Can their ships hold out for decades without reliable access to shipyards and natural resources during the trip? What was the point of convincing the galaxy of the Geth’s right to exist as a form of life if the Destroy option obliterates them all? What was the point of the emotional connections Shepard formed with his or her friends and loved ones if they can’t at the very LEAST be near him or her as he or she dies (or better yet, with him as he or she LIVES, as I wish he or she could)?

And hey, let’s not forget that regardless of whether the Geth are wiped out, the fact that every option destroys the Mass Relays means that countless people of all races will die out as a result. How many individuals across the galaxy are traveling on ships at the time the Relays are destroyed? They can’t ALL be within non-relay traveling distance of a sustainable source of food, or at least fuel to get them to the food. How many people are now stranded on small science stations and such scattered across the galaxy, stuck in planetary systems with no garden world and no means of transportation? Hell, even the individuals on garden worlds will suffer huge amounts of deaths as a result of the relays’ destruction. After all, there are countless Krogan warriors at or near the Turian home world, and the Turians eat food completely indigestible to any other species but Quarians. Likewise, any Turian that stays on Earth (and there are a lot of them, given that Earth is the scene of the final battle with the Reapers) is doomed to starvation with no food source--unless they hitch a ride on the Quarians’ food-producing life ships, but how many can possibly do that? The Quarians are already known for having very little living space in their flotilla, and even if the Turians stay on their own ships, the Quarians are also known for not having much leeway on their resources, so Turian starvation’s still sure to be an issue. Not that being able to eat regular food would necessarily save anyone on Earth--with the planet devastated by sustained war with the Reapers and now home to not only the human population but also the crews of thousands of warships, Earth’s ability to sustain life is going to be strained at best. The result of the destruction of the Mass Relays is going to be almost as catastrophic across the galaxy in terms of loss of life as the Reaper invasion would have been!

And that’s all assuming that the destruction of the Mass Relays in ME3’s ending isn’t the same as the destruction of the one in that Mass Effect 2 Downloadable Content. Because that thing made an explosion that took out a solar system. If they DO all blow up in the same way...well, that just makes it worse by about a thousand times.

THIS is our ending to the game? The trilogy? The phenomenon? This is how Mass Effect ends? Not with a bang, but with a REALLY big bang that kills countless people, ends galactic civilization, and makes our hero a mute coward? Unacceptable.

And there you have it. This ending is one of the worst I have ever seen, and certainly the most upsetting and disappointing. There’s little more to say at this point, and looking at the length of this, that’s probably a good thing. The happiest day of my life may be the day I can put up a retraction for this rant, but as of this moment, this moment when the people who hate the endings to the people who accept them is 51 to 1 and steadily growing, this is how the endings stand, this is how I feel, and this is why there are thousands of people feeling hollow inside after playing the final part of their favorite game series.

I’m gonna go cry now. Again.

* Well, I mean, I SORT OF see how it’s a short-term fix. It still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

** Yeah, I know, I have no life. I’m The RPGenius, this is an RPG, deal with it.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Sakura Wars 5's Ratchet Altair Sure Does Get the Shaft

I think Sega hates fans of Ratchet Altair.

Alright, real quick background for this rant, because I find that I spend way too much time on these intro paragraphs. Sakura Wars is a very big series whose major installments are video games but which also branches out to anime and manga as well. Sakura Wars 5 is a combination Dating Sim and Strategy RPG. In it, you play as a guy named Shinjiro Taiga, who, despite having a slightly uninteresting personality and less masculinity than the girls he's surrounded by, has the opportunity to engage in a romantic relationship with any of his female coworkers/team members due to them all wanting to jump his bones. Also, there's a bunch of ridiculous hogwash about giant robot suits, ancient demon warlords, Texan samurai wannabes dressing up as super heroes, 1920s theater, and so on, but the truckload of insanity that comprises Sakura Wars's background is very thankfully irrelevant to today's rant.

Generally, Sega tries to be fair and balanced for the fans of each different potential love interest for Shin. Each gets her own chapter to introduce and/or develop her character during, each has their own romantic scenarios and endings and so on, and when the anime follow-up to the game starts, it seems assumed that he did not pick any particular woman to be his romantic partner during the game, so as not to play favorites and let fans keep their own personal ideas of which lady Shinji is going to get together with.* That way, every fanboy is happy, regardless of which girl is his favorite. Except, that is, for anyone who likes Ratchet.

Don't get me wrong here--I find Ratchet little more than mildly appealing. I mean, she's actually kind of classy, and she's certainly my favorite romantic option for Shin during Sakura Wars 5** as the romantic scenes involving her really are sweet and romantic instead of banal and stupid like most of the others, but she doesn't exactly have a lot of strong competition from her peers for my approval. Hell, just the fact that she isn't utterly repugnant elevates her over a quarter of her fellow cast.

But man, I do not envy anyone who has any particularly strong preference for her character, because the Sakura Wars series is out to mitigate her role as much as it can wherever she is.

Alright, so, let's go back to the start. This is all going to be according to what I can figure out from looking on Wiki pages and such, so, y'know, I don't guarantee this is 100% infallible, but I'm assuming it's reliable information. The character of Ratchet Altair shows up for the first time, from what my not-exactly-exhaustively-researched sources tell me, in the Sakura Wars anime movie, in which she plays a bit part. Prior to the movie's events, she supposedly was the captain of the European division of the (ridiculous) giant robot squads protecting the world, but there's not actually any anime or game or anything about that squad at that time.

Eventually, Ratchet transfers to the new (even more ridiculous) New York giant robot squad to act as the team captain for the events of Sakura Wars 5, until she gets hurt in the game's first battle and transfers the title over to Shinji. After that, she stays around, but what role she's supposed to be taking is ambiguous--she sort of acts like an assistant to the squad's overseer, Sunnyside, except that he already HAS an assistant, she sort of acts like a mentor to the new captain, except that she rarely actually guides him and seems to prefer he come to his own conclusions and find his own way, she has a giant robot of her own and could fight except she doesn't...I'm not sure why they keep her on the payroll, honestly. Shinjiro can pursue a relationship with her, but ONLY on a New Game+ run; the first time through the player has to choose one of the other chicks for Shinji to get together with.

After the game's events comes a short anime series of 6 episodes' length following the further adventures of the NY squad. The first scene after the opening of Episode 1 is Ratchet leaving on a boat to go head the new Berlin giant robot task force. No game, anime, whatever has yet been made which details in any way how that goes.

So let me sum this up for you: Ratchet is a character whose major accomplishments and career occur off-screen, until she shows up for a bit role in a movie. Then in the game she's removed from having any relevant role during the first act, and of all the characters who can be romanced, hers is the one you have to wait until a subsequent playthrough to attempt (and that game does NOT have the kind of compelling plot and characters that encourage you to play it ever again). Then, once the follow-up anime starts, literally the first thing it does is to stick her on a boat and ship her off somewhere else (and that somewhere else is Germany. In the 1920s. Ouch). After that, she's never heard from in the Sakura Wars universe again.

I mean, it's not ALL negative with Ratchet. After all, her romance with Shin is, if you ignore the later anime that sort of negates all possible romances from ever having happened, made more special by the scenes it adds to the finale than all the other potential romances, to the point where it seems implied that she's the true soul mate for Shinjiro. It's a nice gesture.

BUT, once again, that's only something you can ever see AFTER you've seen him paired off with someone else, and it still doesn't change the fact that every other time in which Ratchet has been genuinely important has occurred off screen, either before we meet her or after we say farewell to her. She really just got screwed over, all said.

* Even though saying that Shin never hooked up with anyone during the game would kind of negate the entire foundation and purpose of Sakura Wars 5. I mean, Sega, you made a game that was, first and foremost, a Dating Sim. Isn't the entire point of such a game to hook up with someone? Implying that Shinji officially never did is sort of like retroactively nixing the whole basis for that venture.

** Although if we go by the anime follow-up to SW5, I'm pretty sure we have to concede that Shin is mostly just interested in getting his yaoi on with Tutankhamen (yes, King Tut is in the anime, long story don't ask it's stupid).