Mass Effect 3: Citadel DLC


Shepard. Wrex. Grunt. Shepard. SPOILERS!

There’s this big fancy apartment on the Citadel that Anderson gives to Shepard.

Because he’ll never need it himself anymore.

No, really, he won’t. Most players have already played through that (air quotes) “ending” and know Anderson dies.

And for some reason he has datapads with bits and pieces of his biography thrown around his apartment.

He must be really rich to afford all those datapads! Shame he can’t keep it tidy and put them all in one place.

The audio logs are really touching, though!

Like that really vague one about Shepard, which may or may not match how you actually feel about your own character.

So Shepard and Joker go to a dinner and are immediately attacked.

Boy, they just can’t catch a break!

And they decide to find out who hired those party-crashing goons.

And they’re assisted by a clumsy, neurotic and easily distracted Alliance officer named Maya.

…Gosh, that sounds familiar!

Only I’m not an Alliance officer. And I spell my name with an I. But it’s not originally written in English anyway.

Still, I now have the dubious honor of hearing Jennifer Hale say my name, which is totally sweet.

So they investigate undercover in an upper-class bar.

And in Shepard’s view, “undercover” means repeatedly pestering the same guards over and over with silly queries, because all guards on the Citadel have the memory of a goldfish.

But when they get to their contact, it turns out he’s dead! And someone has already formatted all the drives on his computer!

But EDI recovers the data anyway.

(Note to self: when I want something deleted, use secure wipe software. And hope the government doesn’t have EDISoft Data Recovery Pro.)

So Shepard takes her entire crew on the chase. Plus Wrex.

…Wait, they can do that?

That could have come handy earlier. Like, maybe in the middle of enemy territory, rather than on the most secure space station in the galaxy.

And Maya keeps cowering and freaking out as they advance, wondering if Shepard’s companions even take the danger seriously.

Wow, this is some really thoughtful, insightful and genuinely touching commentary of how an ordinary person from behind a desk would react if presented with Shepard’s tough wisecracking squad and their crazy antics. It’d be a shame if this message was undermined by her, like, faking it all along or something.

So the mastermind behind the mercs turns out to be… a clone of Shepard.

Adult and identical and having exactly the same haircut and voice.


Turns out this clone was grown by Cerberus in case Shepard needed spare organs or something.

…Wait, they can do that?

Why bother artificially aging a whole person anyway? Can’t they just grow individual organs?

Oh right, Cerberus.

And the clone doesn’t have any of Shepard’s memories, but somehow knows how to walk, speak English, shoot, use biotics, stay undercover on the Citadel, and where to procure armor, weapons, and a crapload of mercs despite having no friends or shady organization with funding.


So they catch up with the clone, but it turns out Maya was a traitor all along.


And she was actually competent all along.


And the clone leaves Shepard in a slow deathtrap instead of killing her right away… because…

…she studied villainy from Dr. Evil? Maybe?

But they’re all saved by Liara’s holographic drone.

WHAT A TWEEEE– wait, what?

So the shell of that capsule somehow blocks radio transmissions to C-Sec and Shepard’s squad, but not to the drone?

That’s one selective radio jam.

So they escape and board the Normandy just in time before the clone takes off on it.

And EDI doesn’t stop the clone from hijacking the ship because… they turned EDI off.

…Wait, they can do that?

I wonder if the Collectors knew that.

And if Shepard has the EDI sexbot in the squad when boarding, it doesn’t shut down… because…

…uh… something about quantum mechanics, probably? They always buy that kind of technobabble…

So Shepard, the clone, Maya, the two squadmates and like a dozen mercs fight in the shuttle bay, somehow avoiding totally wrecking the entire ship with all the shooting, explosions and biotic powers thrown around.

Meanwhile Cortez is trying to stop the Normandy from jumping into FTL because…

…Shepard will fail to recover the ship if they leave the Citadel?

Those are some really location-dependent fighting skills!

So Shepard and the clone end up dangling from the exit ramp, but Shepard is saved by companions, while the clone refuses to be pulled up… because…

…she lost the will to live?

Like Padme Amidala!

Well, that’s convenient.

So Maya goes to prison, they recover the Normandy and celebrate by throwing a party.

And Mom Shepard gives a sweet phone call, too.


And they live happily ever after!


…Actually, since the Extended Cut they pretty much do, yes. But tell that to someone who remembers the original endings!

This is me saying… EGGS! You’ve got to try eggs! Kaidan, Liara, want some eggs? Glyph? EDI? Come on, everyone! Eggs!

On a serious note, I almost don’t hate this one. I know, I know, damned by faint praise, but some of my gripes with ME3 are still fresh in my memory, and a second playthrough only made those moments sting more. I admit I don’t hate Citadel as much as I thought I would after hearing that it was essentially lighthearted fanservice. I didn’t really get that impression, and I thought the lightheartedness was not in-your-face and a lot of it was actually damn funny. It was also nice to have the characters and the setting fleshed out more, especially from Anderson’s audio logs and the holograms in the Citadel archives.

Really, if I were to sum up my complaints, I think it would boil down to only three major ones.

  1. The clone. A cheap, stupid and overused plot device, playing every outdated SF cliche in the book and completely out of touch with the tone of the setting. (Well, how I see the tone of the setting, anyway. I know others disagree.) I hoped BioWare would at least make it make sense — they usually know how to do that for the more questionable elements of the setting. I was wrong.

  2. Brooks. Potential for character development and outsider commentary wasted by the cheap, predictable twist.

  3. Autodialogue. Lots and lots of autodialogue. This issue is not unique to Citadel and plagues all of ME3, the only game in the trilogy to regularly give me moments of “wait, my Shepard would never do that” because I don’t even get the option to refuse an action. ([cough] Traynor shower kiss [cough]) This time, I played through the main plot of Citadel and the party and thought, “Well, this is better than I thought it would be, I almost don’t hate it”… and then I went to the bar. Sorry, what? Shepard hooks Garrus up with a completely random turian woman, feeding him cheesy dating advice, and I don’t even get the option to stop her? Is this Mass Effect or a 1990s teen comedy? Where were those women on BioWare staff who reportedly make sure the male writers don’t embarass themselves?

Heart of the Swarm


We must evolve, absorb and collect the SPOILERS!

There’s this chick called Sarah Kerrigan.

And she has, like, real anger issues.

Seriously, she spends the whole game getting pissed at someone. I guess they fired all counselors in the future. Well, good riddance, I say!

And when she’s angry, her eyes flash weird colors, like green or purple or red.

I had red eyes once!

(In hindsight, I shouldn’t have stayed up all night playing WoW.)

Anyway, Kerrigan is madly in love with the cool hip rebel guy Jim Raynor.

And he’s madly in love with her. So madly that between the last game and this one, he stripped her of all her powers and turned her over to Prince Varian Wrynn to experiment on her.

That must have been awkward.

“Oh, Jim, I love you so much! Even though I used to crush planets with an iron fist and now I’m stuck as a lab rat summoning a couple drones for that smug blonde guy. I feel so angry I could TRASH THE ENTIRE LAB WITH MY LOYAL ZERG MINIONS! KILL! KILL THE PUNY FILTHY HUMANS!!”

But it’s okay, because that level of the lab was all automated and no humans got hurt.

So the Prince lets Kerrigan go, even though she just destroyed half the lab to make a point.

And Raynor is leaving with her, because he really digs emotionally crippled omnicidal maniacs with tendril hair.

Except the Dominion attacks and they get separated by a broken bridge! In space!

And Raynor is like, “Sarah, leave without me!”

“Hey, you realize I have a ship and I could just fly over the gap and pick you up?”

“The plot says we have to get separated! So that Emperor Meng the Merciless can pretend to kill me but I’ll actually be still alive, in a totally obvious twist everyone is expecting!”

“Uh, okay.”

So Kerrigan gets really mad at Prince Varian for not losing her preeecious Jim, even though it was none of his fault.

And instead of staying with the rebellion and the only people in the whole galaxy who wouldn’t kill her on sight, she goes all Darth Vader on the Prince and leaves to build up a zerg army instead.

And she’s met by a snake girl who likes to hang from the ceiling.

“Oh cool, I get a ship! And a whole crew of one-dimensional lackeys, once again!”

And she’s also met by Mordin Solus! Genetics expert. Short sentences. Articles redundant. Prepositions inefficient.

Only this Mordin Solus is a big worm thingy who likes to fiddle with pools of green bile and is named Abaddon or something.

Ew! What does Kerrigan even eat among these icky zerg folks? And how does she avoid throwing up?

And the snake girl is like, “My queen! You must go kill some random protoss for three missions without advancing the plot at all!”


So they spend three missions on some random ice planet not advancing the plot at all.

But at least it has bears and snowstorms.

I saw a bear in a snowstorm once!

(Well, actually I see that every week here in Siberia.)

Except by the second mission the snowstorms disappear, I guess global warming is catching up.

“My queen, we must go to Char, your former seat of power, to pick up a crew member who’s even more one-dimensional than me!”

“Is that all?”

“Well, also to kill General Warfield.”


“That guy from like one mission and two cutscenes in the last game.”

“Prince Varian?”

“No, that other guy, the stereotypical cool old general.”

“…Oh, HIM. I forgot about him, to be honest. Aren’t we supposed to be avenging Jim?”

So they’re done with this loose end and then Kerrigan runs into that guy they call when they nudge the plot into the right direction, or Zeratul as he’s sometimes known.

“Kerrigan! Listen to me! There is a prophecy!”

“…So you aren’t mad that I’ve just badly beaten you up without even letting you say a word?”

“Well, maybe that will help you with your anger issues for a while?”

“…And that I also beat you up back in Wings of Liberty?”


“And that way back in Brood War, I corrupted your Matriarch and duped you into killing the second Overmind for me?”

“Look, just listen to the prophecy already, so I can get my Mr. Exposition paycheck!”

“If you mean I’m the Chosen One, I know that already.”

“Kerrigan! I foresee that Chris Metzen will lose whatever shreds of respect he has left among the fandom. Also they will announce a Warcraft TCG game, and patch 5.4 will contain a raid. Also, you must go to Zerus, the zerg homeworld.”

“Wait, I thought Char was the zerg homeworld? And… really… I was expecting more ash and less jungle.”

So Kerrigan’s crew is joined by a Dungeons and Dragons lizardman who only knows the words “collect” and “essence”.

Also she awakens Cthulhu.

“FHTAGN! What would you sacrifice to avenge your poor pwecious Jim Waynow?”


“Then go bathe in that pool.”

“I have a bad feeling about this.”

So she bathes in the pool and is back in zerg form, claws and wings and everything.

Wow, what an unexpected twist!

I mean, it’s not like it’s the cover art or anything.

But it’s all right, because she’s now a good Queen of Blades, not a bad Queen of Blades like in the last game. We know that because her skin is now purple.

I had purple skin once!

(Turned out it was a bad idea to go skinny-dipping in a snowstorm.)

So because her power is now over nine thousand, Cthulhu reveals he planned to betray her all along.

“FHTAGN! I must collect your essence!”

“Look, I already have a guy on my ship who does nothing but talk about collecting essences, and besides, you won’t fit on my ship. Die!”

So Emperor Meng contacts Kerrigan and tells her Raynor is still alive. What a totally unexpected twist!

Turns out that Kerrigan turning zerg was all part of his plan.

…It was part of his plan to make her a royally pissed off demigoddess who can tear down his capital planet with a literal zerg rush?

Wow, and there I thought Dr. Evil’s plans were foolproof, but he just can’t compete with this guy.

So Kerrigan contacts Prince Varian and asks him to find out where Raynor is.

“Why should I work with you, considering you almost Force-choked me earlier and now look like you fell into a vat of chemicals?”

“I’m on the cover art, this means I’m the protagonist and everyone does my bidding!”

So Prince Varian and that other guy from the last game plan to hack Dominion records to find Raynor.

And it turns out it can only be done by that guy from that one mission whom they turned over to that purple-haired girl from that same one mission.

I remembered that by reading the wiki. They sure make their characters deep and memorable!

But the purple-haired girl doesn’t want to give him away, so they challenge her to a game of Zero Wing.

“Now all your base are belong to us! Turn him over!”

“Fine, fine. I’d have done it right away if we didn’t need padding in the already thin plot.”

So Kerrigan storms the Dominion prison ship and frees her precious Jim.

And it turns out that he has a gun in his prison cell!

“Yuck, look what you’ve turned into! I won’t kill you, but I only fell in love with your looks, so bye!”

Wow, that’s awkward.

Was this what Lelouch felt when it turned out his sister was alive and working against him?

Except Sunrise, unlike Blizzard, actually shows us what characters feel.

So even though Emperor Meng didn’t really kill Raynor, Kerrigan is still focused on her revenge.

So focused that she goes on a totally unrelated mission to investigate some research on hybrids.

And she meets Marshal Zhukov!

I met Marshal Zhukov once!

Well, actually I didn’t, but my great-grandfather did. Just before Stalin exiled him to Siberia.

But he already lived in Siberia, so he didn’t care.

So the guy we all thought died back in Brood War is somehow alive and speaks with the accent that Americans think is Russian. Silly Americans!

“Kierrigan, you mahst break intu zis facility ahnd kill Doktar Narud!”

“Why? Because Narud is an anagram of Duran? I KNEW IT!”

“Nou, ahktooally zere is nou mention off Duran in zis game aht oll! Not even khow khe killed me! Baht I know khe is ahn ahncient shapeshiftehr kho plahns tu resurrect ze dead god Amon!”

“And how do you know this?”


So Kerrigan meets Narud and they have an epic fight with Force powers, like Yoda against Count Dooku!

In a cutscene.

So unfair! Why does all the interesting stuff happen in cutscenes? I wanted to punch him in that smug face myself!

More importantly, why can’t I use all those awesome powers Kerrigan has in cutscenes?

So Narud is like, “Kiss me, and I’ll turn into your true love!”

“What? Jim?”

“No, yourself! In my last incarnation, I was known as Shang Tsung!”

“So I get to pass out with a dying copy of human me lying next to me. Awkward!”

“AAAARGH! You may have killed me, but my master Amon has returned! And he will get you, my pretty, and your little zergling too!”

So she passes out because he stabbed her in the stomach.

I got stabbed in the stomach once!

I then spent a month in bed in a decrepit hospital with cracked walls and a leaky ceiling.

But Kerrigan just needs to lie in a pool for a minute and she’s good as new. So unfair!

Then she goes to assault Emperor Meng’s capital.

And suddenly in the middle of the battle, Raynor comes to assist her!

Wow, what a totally unexpected twist!

And Emperor Meng is like, “wtf hax”

And Kerrigan is like, “gg zerg rush kekeke”

So she walks into the palace, alone, to kill the Emperor herself.

I guess she didn’t just want some random mutalisk to fly up and shoot him through the window.

I mean, that’d be anticlimactic!

But Meng reveals that he has that phallic thing that made her human at the end of the last game!

And she’s like, “What’s the worst you can do, turn me human a third time?”

“No, I’ll slowly torture you with lightning instead of just shooting you, because that’s what Emperors do, until someone saves you!”

So Raynor does just that.

Kind of anticlimactic.

I mean, Emperor Meng spent the whole game gloating about his secret trump card, and THAT’S the best he got?

So Kerrigan kills him with a witty one-liner, and then the two of them look at the ruins of the planet they wrecked to kill this one man out of petty revenge.

And they live happily ever after.


So yes, “Heart of the Swarm” really touched my heart!

Even though Ariel Hanson wasn’t in it and Nova was there for like ten seconds to kidnap Raynor offscreen.

This game needs more sights to look at than just Kerrigan’s nude purple butt.

…For the lesbians, I mean!

I mean, we have just the same tastes as straight men, right? RIGHT?!

Seriously though… This is Wings of Liberty: More of the Same. With exactly the same narrative faults.

Except more icky. Back in SC1, when zerg were just low-resolution sprites, this wasn’t a problem, but here, I definitely wouldn’t recommend looking at things like Abathur and his Evolution Pit on a full stomach.

But that’s a fundamental problem with a game centering on zerg as protagonists.

The main reason why, in my opinion, SC1 works and SC2 doesn’t, is the question of narrative focus. SC1 – like WC3 after it – was about an epic galaxy-spanning conflict, fast-paced, with the pieces flung all across the chessboard every couple of missions. It relied more on a sense of scope and grandeur – something Blizzard has traditionally been good at – than on believable characterization. If anything, deep characterization could have been detrimental to the enjoyment of a game where all the characters were talking heads, plot devices to toss the nameless player from one mission to the next.

And SC2 kind of tries this, but it’s the same it’s more torn about what kind of story it wants to be. It doesn’t give us the same feeling of a great war that SC1 did – instead it tries to be character-driven. And you can see that at least the CGI animators are trying – the new Kerrigan, despite her ghastly looks, feels surprisingly human, with vivid eyes and convincing facial expressions.

But all this effort is wasted because Metzen sucks at character-driven stories. Every time he tries to write one, be it Warcraft or Starcraft, the characters still end up being nothing more than one-dimensional plot devices, and spin-off writers invariably do better jobs at characterization than the games themselves do. Recycled cliche dialogues where every single character is Captain Obvious, which fit well into a fast-paced broad strokes plot like SC1, look out of place in a decompressed story where about the same amount of stuff happening is spread over three games.

A good writer would use the extra space to flesh out the characters, but Metzen, it seems, is too afraid to let the characters live their own lives and do anything at all other than deliver their bunch of pre-scripted lines in his lifeless bare-bones construct of a plot, hollow on the inside.

SC1, like the original Star Wars movie, succeeds because it relies on time-tested symbols and archetypes – while at the same time throwing in enough references to a larger setting to give the impression that there is more to the story and characters than meets the eye, and every player can fill this “more” with something that appeals to them. In contrast, SC2 draws too much attention to the wires holding the scenery together – and thus reveals that is is indeed just scenery, pretty but flat, with an emotionless void behind it.


Just watched the intro cinematic… and while it’s entertaining to see Definitely Not Bastila, Definitely Not Bao-Dur, Definitely Not Han Solo (now with an Indiana Jones hat!), Definitely Not Revan, Definitely Not T3-M4, Definitely Not the Millennium Falcon and Definitely Not Imperial Star Destroyers, the sheer sense of deja vu overwhelms me…

Maybe I’m just too old to take Star Wars seriously anymore.


”I wasn’t expecting Ammon to clap us on the back and say “Great job kid, now let’s go home,” but it’d be better than what we got. As it is, all our work, all our effort invested into NWN2 as a game is undone in seconds because Obsidian wanted a ‘tragic’ ending. It is tragic, mind, but only for the player.”

~ Let’s Play Neverwinter Nights 2, by Lt. Danger

How do you end a game? Especially one as ambitious as Mass Effect 3?

BioWare had a tremendous task ahead of it. It had to tie up the loose ends from the first two games, resolve its own Reaper invasion plot, and account for a multitude of variables, including providing alternate plot branches for main characters who could be alive or dead based on your past choices. The writers even admitted that they shot themselves in the foot with some ideas, like the idea of a suicide mission in part 2 of a trilogy.

Overall, I’d say they did… adequately. It’s linear, railroaded, the writing is uneven – some of it brilliant, some of it corny, and some of it plain tired and uninspired, as if they gathered every idea they had and threw them all into a blender – and most of your past choices amount to little more than some numbers and tweaked lines here and there, but your decisions do matter overall and you get the power to shape the fate of the galaxy.

ME3 is a decent game, better than I expected based on marketing material and previews. I’m sure Yahtzee will do a better job at picking it apart than I can, and mainstream critics are already gushing out compliments left and right, like they tend to do with games of such calibre, focusing on its good sides, which I have trouble describing – despite their abundance – because I usually focus on the negative. But the part of almost any game that interests me most is the story, so let me say some words about that, in particular.

Is ME3’s story good? Yes. It’s a competently written three-act story, with a clear beginning, middle, and climax. You could even say it has an end. With some reservations that I’ll stop on later.

But even discounting the ending, ME1 still had overall better writing. Even despite all the cheese, being essentially a rehash of Knights of the Old Republic, despite everyone living in a world of boring copy-pasted grey boxes, it had a sense of “realness”, verisimilitude, relevance, an extrapolation of our own world into the future, that the other two games failed to replicate.

* * *

Mass Effect has been, at its worst, a somewhat more verisimilar Star Wars clone. At its best, it has been a solid SF setting with a well-thought-out, interesting background and plenty of untapped potential. Each game had its share of good writing and bad writing, as it is common with BioWare games. But in the chain of ME1 -> ME2 -> ME3, we can see the proportion of plausible elements gradually diminish and the outrageous elements, inserted only for the Rule of Cool (and for the sake of flashy trailers), take over.

Perhaps it is inevitable that given enough time, any game franchise that sells itself on visuals is going to pile on more and more ridiculous over-the-top stuff, simply because publishers need copies to sell – and for that, they need engaging, action-packed trailers, logic be damned.

I can forgive such elements as a Cerberus cyber-ninja, curvaceous robot girl squadmate or Shepard lines ripped out of your average generic war movie, because mainstream games need a mandatory amount of cheese to sell themselves to their target audience. And I went into ME3 with low expectations to begin with, so I was pleasantly surprised a few times. Which, if anything, makes the ending even more bitter to swallow.

There was a time when BioWare endings had a simple dichotomy about them. As Yahtzee puts it: “In the good ending, you’re a virtuous flower child with love and a smile for all the shiny-coated beasts of God’s kingdom, and in the bad ending you’re some kind of hybrid of Hitler and Skeletor whose very piss is pure liquid malevolence.” I would be deluded to think that those were good times. Rose-colored nostalgia glasses are not in my arsenal, and have never been. The studio has matured, and so did their endgame choices. I welcome that.

You could have a “light side” ending, a “dark side” ending, and a middle ground ending. This is ME1.

You could have several morally ambiguous choices, some more repugnant and some almost happy – almost. Black, grey and light grey, if you will. This is Dragon Age: Origins.

You could make a scale based on your success, with one shining, golden ending you have to work for, and some less satisfying endings. This is ME2, and previously, Obsidian Entertainment used it in Mask of the Betrayer, the (much superior) expansion pack to Neverwinter Nights 2.

And finally, you can do the kind of ending that renders the entire buildup to it pointless and moot.


Money Effect 3

Looked at the leaked endings.

Roland, I guess this is the part where I say “I told you so”.

Edit: The truth is, I’m bitter. It even taints ME1 and ME2 in hindsight and makes the whole trilogy feel like a shaggy dog story.

My BioWare PCS

I played these games more than once, but these particular playthroughs I regard as “my personal canon”. The way the events “really” happened in my imagination.


Light side Soldier/Jedi Sentinel
No romance
Spared Juhani
Spared the Progenitor
Killed Uthar, spared Yuthura
Redeemed Bastila
Destroyed the Star Forge


Light side Jedi Guardian/Jedi Watchman
Sided with Ithorians
Defended Khoonda from Azkul
Sided with Talia, Vaklu in prison
Left Tobin behind to set off charges
Malachor V destroyed

Abigail Shepard (Mass Effect)

Earthborn Sole Survivor Vanguard
Saved the Feros colonists and Shiala
Left Anoleis in charge
Saved Ashley on Virmire
Spared Wrex
Romanced Liara
Saved the old Council, put Anderson as human councilor

Mass Effect 2:

Reignited romance with Liara
Spared Harkin and Sidonis
Killed Morinth
Got Miranda to talk to Oriana
Turned Jacob’s father over to the Alliance
Proved Tali’s innocence, her father not implicated
Saved Joram Talid
Spared Maelon, downloaded genophage cure research
Spared Aresh
Rewrote the geth heretics
Destroyed the Collector Base, entire squad survived

Lyna Mahariel (Dragon Age)

Dalish Warrior
Cured the mabari dog
Recruited Leliana, Sten, Oghren and Zevran
Romanced Leliana
Left Flemeth alive, lied to Morrigan
Lifted the werewolf curse, left Lanaya as Keeper
Saved the Circle
Cured Connor
Recovered the Urn, cured Eamon, Jowan executed
Killed Branka, destroyed the Anvil, made Bhelen king
Made Alistair king, Anora imprisoned
Convinced Alistair to do the ritual


Spared Nathaniel
Recruited Anders, Oghren, Velanna, Sigrun, and Justice
Sided with the Amaranthine guards
Defended Amaranthine personally; Vigil’s Keep saved
Sided with the Architect

Liscara Hawke (Dragon Age II)

Sword and Shield Warrior
Made Aveline captain
Romanced Merrill
Recruited Fenris but ignored his questline
Lost Bethany to the Circle, later reunited with her
Isabela ran away with the relic
Killed the Arishok
Sided with Orsino
Spared Anders
Supported by the whole party against Meredith

Edit 14.02: Just realized KOTOR II isn’t actually a BioWare game. %) Epic facepalm.

A Reply to Ryan Keyworth

Since I can’t find your email address anywhere, I’ll use the comments to post a summary impression of your Mass Effect posts so far.

I found your blog in a Google search for “ME3 will suck”, and I found myself agreeing with most of your five-part series of caution about ME3. I’ve been following the development of ME3 for the past year, and the more I learn, the more it seems they’re steering development in a direction that goes away from what got me hooked on ME1 in the first place.

Story is the main reason I play video games at all, and I often set the game to an easier difficulty if the frustrating save-load cycles distract me from story presentation. I look for themes, messages, clashes of ideas, and I like to ask myself, “What was the author thinking when they wrote this scene?” In your analysis of the ME games, I saw a kindred spirit.

ME1, if you ignore the fact that it was basically KOTOR without the Force and lightsabers – in other words, it had the same kind of basic story as every other BioWare game – it was indeed about humanity proving itself to the rest of the galaxy. We are, for all intents and purposes, aliens to them. Alien immigrants who’ve been taking their jobs and demanding privileges. My Shepard’s goal was to prove to the galaxy that we could all live in peace, and that we could be trusted with responsibility – and to prove to the Alliance that they were right in advocating her for Spectre status. And although the side missions were mind-numbingly repetitive, I took them too, because I actually felt like an officer on duty – an officer responsible for the lives of her crew, and for making hard decisions.

And when I was scanning unexplored planets, it felt like I was really treading into the unknown, like Columbus sailing to the west, ready to do a service for the Alliance – and for the benefit of the entire Citadel space.

Then in the first minutes of ME2, the hand of the cosmic Author cuts that entire Gordian knot of relationships surrounding Shepard, estranged from the Council, the Alliance, and the ME1 crew, and puts us back at square one. And it feels jarring. It almost feels like Shepard’s story was supposed to go in a different direction, like ME2 is an altered timeline that went off the rails. It’s like seeing your protege ascending a lavishly decorated stairway, only for a trapdoor to open at the worst moment and kick her down into the garbage dump.

At first, I was prepared to hate ME2. I was skeptical about the “streamlined” direction they took, as well as the superficial “darker and edgier” elements. I hated Cerberus, I hated being railroaded into working for Cerberus, and I still do. I chose the most “in your face” options when talking to the Illusive Man, I avoided talking to Miranda and Jacob or taking them on missions at first. In the end I’m glad I did, because there were layers to them that I wasn’t aware of, judging them based on initial impressions.

The story took a very different turn than I expected based on ME1 alone, but now I think you are wrong about ME2 not having a theme. I agree it has a weaker main story than ME1. Much weaker. But in my eyes, ME2 isn’t really about the Collector arc. I don’t even see the Collector Base mission as the sole ending of its arc. The Collector Base, LOTSB and Arrival each provide some kind of closure for parts of Shepard’s personal arc. But none of them provide the definite end to anything. This game has no end. Shepard is restless. The mission is accomplished, but the adventure continues.

Here’s a comparison I saw somewhere: if ME1 is a novel, ME2 is an antology of short stories. The Collector plot only serves as a premise to bring the characters together, while they themselves are the real meat of the story.

As I see it, the main theme of ME2 – at least the Paragon story, since I haven’t played Renegade – is healing broken minds. Shepard assembles a team of ten (Kasumi and Zaeed, as DLC characters, don’t count) dysfunctional, messed-up individuals, and gives each of them a renewed sense of purpose and hope of recovery – as well as helps with one of the causes of their grief. It’s not enough to fix them completely, but it’s a start. And then there’s Liara, the not-quite-companion, for whom LOTSB serves a purpose similar to the one loyalty missions serve for your regular companions.

And my Shepard, in my personal internal view of the story, was also healing herself as well. She didn’t ask to be revived – she was forcibly pulled out of the grave, kicking and screaming. She came back broken, if not physically, then at least mentally, seeing everyone she knew and cared for bite the dust or go their own separate ways. Dumped to the bottom of society, working with the trash and scum, so she could find herself again.

I wouldn’t say that the theme is executed particularly well, mind. With two exceptions, the companions feel like they ignore each other’s presence, and the choices made on loyalty missions don’t affect the finale, either. DA2 did better with its “Questioning Beliefs” series, when your actions towards your companions meant a lot in determining who would stay at your side in the end, and for what reason. And in the end, I think both ME2 and DA2 were damaged by being marketed as sequels, while they were really side stories.

Just like DA2 was better off being something like “Hawke: A Dragon Age story”, so was ME2 not really a sequel, and ME3 would probably work better being called ME2. It’s not about the Reaper menace, and I’m fine with that. Screw Reapers. They’ve served their purpose in the story. We’ve gone from Sovereign, whom I found the one BioWare villain that actually scared me by creating a sense of unstoppable approaching doom, to Harbinger – a total joke after you kill its avatar the first five or so times. I actually applaud Dragon Age for having the guts to shift from a bland and arbitrary external threat to exploring conflicts inherent in the system. Alas, ME is set up as a trilogy about the Reapers, so it will have to bite that bullet, even when I think there’s inherently no satisfactory resolution that won’t feel like a deus ex machina.

Regarding the treatment of Ashley and Kaidan in ME2… I’m obviously biased, being pro-Liara, but I think the main problem is not the shifted characterization per se: it lies deeper. It lies in the merging of two very different Alliance officers into one combined “Ashdan Willenko” hybrid that doesn’t do justice to either of the original characters. Their lines in ME2 are exactly the same, from what I can tell. It seems that ME3 is bound for the same treatment. It saves the writers the bother of writing different situations for them, sure, but it also takes away everything that made them unique and memorable. And don’t get me started on the redesign of Ashley’s looks in ME3. EA’s “streamlining” and “wider audience” in action. Ugh.

I actually read through the leaked ME3 script you avoided. Without spoiling anything, I think that it’s bad, that it doesn’t do the setting justice, and that there are some ideas in it that should have never ever entered the brain of any halfway competent ME writer. Between that, and everything else you said – the excessive marketing focus on the wrong elements, shooterization, EA influence, having a story too crammed with characters to do each of them justice – we have a recipe for failure. With the exception of SWTOR sales, since SWTOR has already launched and is apparently doing well, I expect your worst-case scenario to kick in.

Strong clever writing can still be that game’s saving grace even with everything else ruined, but I already know this is not the ME3 I want. Whether or not it’s good or bad, it most likely won’t be a part of “my personal canon” and I’ll end up plotting a different conclusion to Shepard’s story in my mind.

And weeping over what could have been.

That asari mind control thing

I don’t know how this keeps popping up, and the only way I can explain it is with the ease with which humans fall for conspiracy theories, arguments that purport to “explain everything”, no matter how flimsy the evidence is and no matter how strong the counterevidence is.

But let’s examine the gory details.

“Theres a conversation on Ilium between a Salarian, Turian and Human where all 3 say that Asari look more like their own species than any other. Its also hinted at that Asari use their psuedo telepathy to alter how other species see them.

In conclusion: Asari are pleasure GELFs.”

~ A user on the ME3 forum

It’s a one-shot joke based on comments by three drunken guys ogling an asari stripper in a bar, who were likely not serious themselves. It’s amazing how many people make theories based on that one mention of supposed mind control.

To hopefully sink this theory, let’s look at the evidence for the null hypothesis: that asari actually look, within the fictional universe, the way they look in the game.

  • First of all, postulating such an extraordinary claim — that a species doesn’t really look the way we see it — by itself requires extraordinary evidence, so the burden of proof lies on the proponents of this hypothesis.
  • What would be the purpose of such an ability in the first place? If the idea is to appear to each species as an attractive potential mate, they fail at that even for humans (the image we see). Never mind that blue skin and head tendrils are decidedly not attractive traits to many humans — why do they always appear female-shaped? Wouldn’t it make more sense if they looked male-shaped to women?
  • Apparently this postulated ability also works on cameras, holographic projectors, monitors and printers everywhere, because drawings, still images, and video footage of asari look like we would expect them to look.
  • The ability would have to extend to their clothing, which would need to be made in the dimentions of their real appearance rather than the projected human-like appearance. There is no evidence of this. Furthermore, Liara in ME1 wears human armor, while the other three alien squadmates each use armor custom-made for their species.
  • If this ability really existed, it would have been studied and catalogued centuries ago. Instead, everyone except our bachelor party trio is completely silent about it — including Dr. Chakwas, who has been tending to Liara and said by her to have good understanding of asari physiology.
  • The ability to alter other beings’ perception without consent would not be tolerated by other species, and a countermeasure would be developed.

That about covers it. Based on this evidence, we should assume that their appearance in the games is their real appearance. Why, then, they look so human-like? I don’t know. Maybe the developers know; maybe they don’t. Normally I would say “widespread humanoids are a genre convention”, but seeing how BioWare doesn’t like using tropes verbatim without at least giving them some justification that makes sense in context…

Ah, Valve, How Charming

Valve has consistently been remaining the voice of reason in the PC game industry.

In a situation where Activision has been systematically crippling Blizzard games with DRM, Ubisoft caused a drop of their PC sales with their own folly (with pirates as a scapegoat, of course), and EA is pressing on BioWare to turn their RPGs into shooters (to say nothing of the spyware vomit that is Origin), Valve’s Gabe Newell isn’t afraid to state the obvious.

He’s fundamentally right. Digital distribution is a competition between publishers and… people who can offer the same services cheaper. I’ve been saying this a lot, and I’ll say it again: DRM, ultimately, does nothing but complicate life for legitimate customers.

In general, we think there is a fundamental misconception about piracy. Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem. For example, if a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24 x 7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country 3 months after the US release, and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store, then the pirate’s service is more valuable. Most DRM solutions diminish the value of the product by either directly restricting a customers use or by creating uncertainty.

Our goal is to create greater service value than pirates, and this has been successful enough for us that piracy is basically a non-issue for our company. For example, prior to entering the Russian market, we were told that Russia was a waste of time because everyone would pirate our products. Russia is now about to become our largest market in Europe.

I can see why.

Back in 2004, when Steam was introduced as a distribution platform with the release of Half-Life 2, the situation seemed hopeless. Russia was still covered with a network of semi-legal stores selling pirated games in heaps. Piracy was second nature for Russian software users through the nineties and early 2000s. Most people couldn’t afford licensed software or thought the prices were outrageous. It was not competitive. A lot of it still is. How many Russians do you know who have bought a retail copy of Windows? Or bought music in an online store? As long as there is no practical reason to prefer licensed versions, piracy will continue.

Meanwhile, back in those years, the prevalent forms of Internet access in Russia were dial-up and per-traffic billing plans for Ethernet ISPs. My ISP charged $0.05 per megabyte downloaded. Steam has an offline mode, sure, but Steam games, even those bought in retail, insist on downloading all available updates at first activation.

Under these conditions, introducing Steam in Russia seemed like tactical suicide.

And indeed, back then, Steam was widely unpopular around the world, and especially in Russia. Howeve, it has proven to be the right solution in the long term. Today, however, in the age of cheap and reliable Internet access, Steam has shown its true appeal.

Traditional DRM only makes users’ lives worse. With region locks, requirements for a CD in the drive, for perpetual Internet access (Ubisoft really shot itself in the foot with this one), registration forms, rootkits in the system, and so on. Under these conditions, pirated versions start looking more appealing — at least for purely single-player games. World of Warcraft, for example, has little to fear because you pay for an online service, one that private servers simply cannot hope to match.

Steam is a service, first and foremost. The convenience of having your games bound to your account, now and forever, on any computer you access. Automatic updates. No annoying third party DRM… usually (yes, I’m looking at you, Ubisoft). No tying to physical media.

Today’s Steam, a far cry from the messy state it was released in, found acceptance first and foremost in games where pirates couldn’t hope to compete with it. This includes, first and foremost, multiplayer games, where Steam provides instant tools for building communities. Even for single player games, now it is often more convenient to find a game on Steam than run around the city looking for a retail copy, or searching Google for a torrent.

I’m not saying Steam is perfect. A lot of its UI decisions are counterintuitive even now. Localization is often an issue: sometimes, for odd reasons, a Steam release is missing either the English version or the Russian version. (Steam has often allowed me to play English versions of foreign games, which I generally prefer, when only Russian versions are available in retail.) And now, since September, Valve has forced publishers to cut their prices in Russia. Not everyone likes this. Some publishers have decided not to release their games in Steam for CIS countries for this reason. I personally find it ridiculous. If the lowered price isn’t acceptable for you, let me pay the European price, just as long as I get worldwide access to the game. Why should I be treated as a second-class customer just because I have a Russian IP?

Nevertheless. Thank you, Valve. For not being evil.

On Skyrim and Hype

Recently I’ve been unnerved. The pre-election craze left me to spend two evenings doing nothing but reading about recent political events, and it seems that no matter what scenario unravels — a more peaceful or more violent one — the common people will be the ones who lose.

Anyway, still bitter after the My Little Pony hype — a show that I would just ignore otherwise, but which I got to utterly hate despite never watching it because of its obsessed fandom — I decided to finally take a peek at the next big thing, well, you know, that game with number five which is a sequel to the big thing of five years ago, more or less the same thing but with number four.

Hype has its downsides, and I’ve learned to set my expectations low by default when taking a look at big things, because a lot of the hype comes from blinded fanboys who refuse to see any fault in their precious franchise and from mainstream critics, who basically have to write positive reviews lest they lose the press benefits. But that’s just repeating the obvious banalities by this point.

Sometimes I get pleasantly surprised. Often I don’t. I thought Mass Effect was a genuinely great franchise despite my initially low expectations (I expected a bland KOTOR clone with silly implausibilities galore), and I thought Dragon Age was solid but needlessly dragging, unforgiving, and retreading on BioWare’s earlier grounds that had become cliche by that point. Certainly not the avatar of perfection on this sinful Earth whose very piss smells of nectar and makes flowers blossom. On the other hand, I installed the much-maligned Dragon Age II fully thinking it’d be good but not my kind of game, and well… it’s actually good, story-wise and presentation-wise, and my greatest issue with the game is the patently ridiculous and unfair encounter design: somehow they managed to make combat even worse than in DA1. (I’m expecting inquisitors with stakes and bonfires any time now.)

Even Portal, which I would call the overall best game I’ve played (first game, not second), would probably have ended up in my blacklist had I not had the fortune to play it before the hype wave started. But I was fortunate to play it when it was still not a big thing. I was looking for something to play while taking a break from Episode Two, and I thought I could as well try this puzzle game bundled with it. It was before the cake and companion cube craze started. The rest is history. Portal 2, on the other hand, was a big thing from the very start. I preordered it knowing exactly what to expect — more of the same, more puzzles, more portals, more Chell, more GLaDOS, more black humor — and that was exactly what I got, no more, no less. I don’t really have a problem with Portal 2 — it’s Valve’s best executed game from a technical standpoint. But story-wise it’s a sequel to a game that didn’t really need a sequel, and one that made the story of the first part retroactively impossible to take seriously, turning all of Aperture Science into a cartoonish farce.

Anyway, the great and bountiful Skyrim.

I’ll be brief. It’s atmospheric, yes. The music especially captures the mood from the get go. As a sightseeing exercise, a sort of fantasy Google Street View, or for someone who wants to actually pretend to be a denizen of a fantasy world — as opposed to realizing they’re a real person playing through someone else’s story — it may be the way to go.

Let me reiterate, Skyrim is not a bad game. It has its players and I think they deserve the right to enjoy a game they like. But it’s not my thing. It doesn’t inspire me, it doesn’t capture my imagination or instill a sense of awae in me. To my eye, it’s just unmemorable, in a “so okay it’s average” way.

One thing BioWare and Obsidian games in general did well is inspiring you to care about the world even in sequels. I’ll be honest: I started Skyrim completely new to the TES franchise. The earlier big things, namely Morrowind and Oblivion, passed by me.

I can start a BioWare or Obsidian game and immediately feel engaged, even when I don’t know anything about the setting. Here, after ten minutes of a scripted scene where I ride a cart while listening to small talk without being able to do as much as turn my head — a scene that would make Valve scratch their heads, then scrap the prologue and start over — I’m suddenly dumped into the world as ye olde Adventurer Classic, the one that fetches bear asses to ungrateful villagers, and I just find it hard to care, or to even understand why I’m supposed to care about these empty forests and bare hills, with bland and unmemorable NPCs in between.


I heard that the focus is on immersion and exploration, but well, to immerse yourself into a setting and explore it, you first somehow have to start caring about it, which brings me back to square one.

And I’m probably a minority on this one, but to me, a game (except for little timekillers like Tetris and Minesweeper) is first and foremost a work of literature — like movies and TV series, but with different media possibilities and conventions in each form. And I prefer a game to have a story: a clear beginning, end, and a suitably complex storyline with a fleshed-out cast of characters in between. The TES series is… quite different and, again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just not what I like in games.

Speaking of conventions, Skyrim deserves a special award for quite possibly the messiest video game UI I’ve seen. I’m not a designer by any means, but I’ve read essays and saw quite a lot of desktop software, and my experience as a programmer has taught me to distinguish good UIs from bad UIs. Bluntly, Skyrim doesn’t have a good UI. It breaks too many principles to count, the most important of which is the principle of least surprise. Conventions don’t exist for this game. Keys do unexpected things, widgets behave in an unexpected way, and just about every screen — trade, inventory, spells, you count them — is done in a “new and improved” way that goes completely against existing RPG traditions. I understand developers’ need to feel original, but originality shouldn’t get in the way of usability. Conventions exist for a reason: they let users easily get used to a new interface. Bethesda instead preferred to confuse the heck out of the user in the name of looking “trendy”.

With that said, I’m back to hacking and fireballing my way through the remainder of Dark Messiah. This game might not have been gushed by critics and fans, but I would prefer even a bad game (not that this is a bad game) that at least tries something interesting, anything at all, to a game that appeals to reviewers with form while feeling trite and hollow on the inside.