Thursday, 15 March 2012

Crackpot or Genius? Bioware Weaves a Tapestry of Controversy.

Yes, this is another article on Mass Effect 3.  This game is sort of a big deal to a lot of people, myself included.  But no, I will not be delving into the 'political' side of gaming this time around; I actually intend to talk about the game in question.  Shocking, right?

And yes, there will probably be spoilers ahead, though I will do my best to avoid them where possible.

So the game arrived just over a week ago, and it didn't take long for most people to finish (though it still weighed in at 32 hours for me, the longest of the three games).  It took me just over a week, due to various constraints, but before finishing I rather alarmingly noticed a large number of people clamouring angrily over the ending for Mass Effect 3.  A very large number.  In the sea of disappointment and rage, it was actually nigh-on impossible to find anyone who was happy or even satisfied with the game's ending.  Some proclaimed it the ruination of the trilogy.  But I was 27-odd hours in, and being blown away by incredible voice acting, amazing writing, perfect character moments and epic set could any ending ruin all that?

Finally, after gathering the might of the galaxy, and launching an absurdly large attack on Reaper-controlled Earth, my Commander Shepard made his way to his destination, his final confrontation, the solution to the Reaper threat.  Everything was shaping up to be one of the best and most epic endings to a franchise of all time.  Then Bioware throws a ruthless curveball at you as you seem about to succeed.  "Did I just fail?", I actually thought to myself.  No.  Shepard picks himself up, dusts himself off (only just), and limps on towards his destiny. Something felt...odd, from this point on.  And indeed, from this point on is where the controversy entirely stems.

The following 10 minutes consist of a slow, dramatic final push towards the conclusion you've been salivating over.  The final confrontation between Sherpard and the now-deluded shadowy leader of Cerberus, The Illusive Man, ensues.  An extremely tense standoff ensues, followed by resolution, one way or another.  At this point, you're certain you've succeeded; the Reapers are about to get theirs.  What occurs instead is an absolutely, shockingly bizarre and seemingly unnecessary 5-10 minutes of something that can only be described as an acid trip.  Without ruining much, Shepard is effectively given an arbitrary choice of three options.  All three options will 'solve' the Reaper problem in some way, and will affect the galaxy forever, but all three will also result in, *gasp*, the death of the story's protagonist.  I made my choice; it was time to see how the galaxy would be affected.  What came to my mind after the 5 minutes of cutscene that followed was something that I, or anyone else for that matter, would never have expected from the ultimate ending to one of my favourite franchises in gaming history...

"Uh...what the hell just happened?"

As it turns out, all three choices present a similar reaction.  Do not expect a grand epilogue a la Return of the King/Jedi, because you will just end up massively disappointed as I did.  The ending is bleak; incredibly bleak.  It also leaves questions not only unanswered, but infuriatingly made more complicated.  It seems rushed, sloppy and above all, just completely baffling.  What the hell was the need for all that?  Bioware does storytelling right, and this seemed entirely wrong.  Something smelled funny.  The biggest question on peoples' minds now was "Did Bioware intentionally make this ending incredibly abstract and messy, or is this the most epic troll of all time?".  

In truth, there may be a third way of looking at this.

(At this point, it's difficult to avoid getting spoilery, so be warned.)

Under the right circumstances, making the 'right' choice, you bear witness to the truth of the matter; Shepard is still alive.  He/she never even made it onto the Citadel.  Wait...what?  Well if you're familiar with Mass Effect at all, you know that the Reapers use a form of telepathic domination known as indoctrination, where the subject is effectively under the influence of the Reaper, ranging from being susceptible to suggestion, to being completely under its control.  As many Youtube videos have shown, every sign points towards the idea that Shepard became indoctrinated shortly before he/she was about to accomplish his/her goal.  This effectively means that the final 20 minutes or so of the game did not happen. really was all 'just a dream'.  

On the upside, this makes the ending that we have not only finally make sense, but it actually becomes quite brilliant and beautiful.  On the's not an ending.  What we're left with is Commander Shepard on the verge of accomplishing his mission, but in truth, he/she is still on Earth, with the Reapers still actively reaping.


Yeah, that's a trilogy without a conclusion, folks.  I do, however, have a theory.  See, already people are taking to this indoctrination theory, effectively accepting it as the true explanation to an otherwise plothole-filled ending, and already they are going off the deep end about Bioware selling us the true ending as future DLC.  Now, this is a distinct possibility, and I wouldn't put it past them after the debacle that was the "From Ashes" ordeal, but I'd like to play devil's advocate for a moment.  A few months back, the ending to Mass Effect 3 was leaked, and it seemed pretty legitimate.  At the time, there was no outrage or overreaction to it.  I personally have not seen it, but I have read the basic premise, and indeed it makes sense in a literal manner, whereas the ending we have now does not.  This leads me to believe that Bioware purposely cut the 'real' ending to prevent their flagship franchise from having a predictable conclusion, something people would just sort of nod their head at and grunt in mild approval, as they knew exactly what to expect.  Instead, they left us with this strange indoctrination ending, a move which I believe was entirely intended to stir up the hornets' nest, so to speak.  They have even gone on record to say that a controversial ending that people talk about for months is better than a forgettable one.  

Now, Bioware is pretty good at fanservice, regardless of how corrupted they've become since EA started whispering in their ear.  I fully expect that this 'real' ending, with a full epilogue, is lingering around their offices somewhere, waiting to be released as DLC.  The thing is, this could easily be released as free DLC.  "Free DLC, how preposterous," you say?  They've done it before (admittedly not with anything as huge as the end of the game), with Zaeed and the Firewalker mission pack in Mass Effect 2, and Shale in Dragon Age: Origins.  All these pieces of DLC were completely free...IF you had bought a new copy of the game and had the code enclosed.  I would not be entirely shocked to see the 'true' ending of the Mass Effect trilogy released as a thank-you to those who bought the game new.  Charging for it would probably be the worst PR mistake Bioware could ever make, and would never be forgotten.  As it stands, Mass Effect 3 needs closure one way or the other; the story remains incomplete.

So Bioware may have done something no other developer has ever done; they've tricked us with a false ending, perhaps with the intention of providing the real deal down the line.  If this is the case, I could see this conclusion going down in history as one of the most mind-blowing.  I, for one, have changed my tune about the ending we currently have, after reading the various indoctrination theories.  However, I'm equally adamant about getting my big, epic epilogue, complete with a final reunion with all of your friends and allies you've come to know over the years, and ultimately seeing them all go their separate ways in a galaxy free of looming destruction, the choices made by you echoing throughout galactic civilization.

Alternatively, Bioware has given us a bleak, depressing and confusing conclusion to a beloved trilogy.  Let's hope they're better than that.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

When Lust Trumps Morality

Wind the clock back to late 2005.  The Xbox 360, the very first of the next generation of consoles, was just entering its release stage.  Gaming was entering a new era.  Times were changing, and none of us were sure exactly what to expect.  In that sea of uncertainty, certain beacons of intrigue stood out ahead of others.  One of these was an immensely promising looking title by the name of Mass Effect, by Bioware, the studio that brought us RPG classics like Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire, and of course, the masterful Knights of the Old Republic.  The game was pegged as an homage to science fiction as a whole, paying tribute to classic sci-fi films and TV shows from the 70s, 80s and 90s, all the while presenting the idea of choices and decision making having massive impact on the game's universe.  You would represent humanity on a galactic stage, one race among many, and your actions would determine the outcome of the entire galaxy's fate.

This sounded...incredible.  A science fiction nerd's wetdream.  Personally, nothing else on any of the existing or upcoming consoles captured my interest as much as Bioware's visionary plans for this game.  The initial artwork and developer commentary was more than promising, and when a trailer was finally released, any doubts I had about the game went out the window.  It looked like the wave of the future.

Thankfully, as it turned out, Mass Effect did not disappoint.  I'm not going to pretend for a moment that it was a perfect game; far from it.  It had technical issues that reduced performance, the combat system was a bit weird, a lot of the side missions were just reused fluff, and the main story just wasn't actually all that long compared to previous Bioware games.  With all that in mind, though, Mass Effect was hugely critically praised, and rightly remains so to this day.  It was an absolutely massive leap forward in terms of interactive storytelling.  Never before had I felt so much like I was IN the game.  Commander Shepard, the game's protagonist, felt more real and tangible than pretty much any other character whose boots you had stepped into.  The characters around you were more well fleshed out than many characters in books and movies, and the main plot, while not overly complex, was fascinating, combining tributes to the classic sci-fi of old with fresh new ideas.  As a story and an experience, it was utterly brilliant, nearly without flaw.

These are the voyages of the starship Normandy.  Its continuing mission: to drop you on strange new worlds, to seek
out new life, and shoot it in the face.

Fast forward a few years after the release of Mass Effect and we come to the release of Mass Effect 2.  The sequel, quite frankly, had a lot to live up to.  Fans made their qualms with the first game known, and lo and behold, Bioware listened.  By and large, Mass Effect 2 took what was wrong with the original game and outright fixed it.  Yes, I will admit, some of the alterations went too far, such as removing the option to customize weapons, and indeed the main plot was nowhere near as interesting as the original game.  However, when you look at Mass Effect 2 in every other respect, it's how a sequel SHOULD be done; the combat was infinitely better, the performance problems were effectively gone, and the very interesting cast of characters had expanded into a larger, even more fascinating group than before.  As far as character arcs and those little moments of dialogue and action set pieces that you never forget go, Mass Effect 2 had its predecessor beat completely.  It felt even more like a fantastic book or movie, yet the gameplay elements were also more fun to play.  This game was darker, richer and more gripping than the original.  This was Bioware's The Empire Strikes Back.

Now, in 2012, the release of Mass Effect 3, the finale in what was conceived as a trilogy, is upon us.  In a few days, gamers around the world will re-assume the role of Commander Shepard, and all the decisions they had made in the previous two games will culminate to determine the outcome of the fate of the galaxy, for better or worse.  This huge.  It's certainly one of the most anticipated RPGs in recent memory.  Mass Effect has the attention of many, ranging from the hardest of the hardcore sci-fi fan to those who just enjoy blowing some baddies up in Modern Warfare or Battlefield.  You would expect, then, that EA and Bioware are already counting their coppers, having daydreams about what wonderful ways they'll have to spend the ludicrous amounts of money heading their way. looks awesome.  It just makes it that much harder to be shaking my finger at Bioware.

But apparently, the inevitably huge sales of Mass Effect 3 aren't enough.  Because it was recently leaked and eventually confirmed that Mass Effect 3 would have launch day downloadable content.  Oh dear.  Yes, we've seen this before, and it's never pretty.  However, in the past, it's mostly been fairly pointless vanity junk, such as the paraphernalia in Portal 2 or the extremely lame Warden's Keep in Dragon Age Origins.  Yes, indeed Bioware has 'been there' before, but in truth, they've actually been quite reasonable with it in the past.  Shale from DA:O was a free piece of DLC if you bought the game brand new, as was Zaeed in Mass Effect 2 under the same circumstances.  This was meant to encourage new game sales as opposed to people buying used.  And as you may or may not know, used game sales equal a 100% profit to the retailer with absolutely not a cent going to the developer, so one can hardly blame the developer for upping the ante in an attempt to stop physical retailers from exploiting them.  While it's unfortunate the games industry has to fall to these points, it's understandable and acceptable in my eyes.  I always buy new these days anyways, and encourage others to do the same.  What's saving a couple bucks compared to knowing you're supporting the developers and games you like and want to see more of?

Anyways, so, what is the problem with Mass Effect 3's DLC?  Well, first off, it's only free if you get the collector's edition.  Which is very irritating indeed, because even a month before release, all the collector's editions were sold out, and there was no announcement whatsoever of this particular DLC anywhere near that far back.  This DLC, called "From Ashes", will cost approximately $10.  What makes it devious, however, is the nature of what it entails.  This is no ho-hum Warden's Keep or silly hat for your robot in Portal 2's multiplayer; this is...*MASSIVE SPOILER WARNING* a Prothean squadmate with the accompanying mission.  *End spoilers*

If you've played any Mass Effect game before, you know that that's a huge deal.  And you also know you won't be satisfied playing Mass Effect 3 without having this content, merely knowing it exists.  This is utterly evil.  EA knows damn well that people will cave and buy this, effectively raising the price of Mass Effect 3 by $10.  Now, 10 dollars may seem like it is a small amount of money, and indeed it is, but there are a few things to consider.  First, is the content really worth paying 1/6 the price of the full game for?  Regardless of whether or not it is, it's all but assured that most people will, as previously mentioned, cave and buy it.  Second, and more importantly, handing EA and Bioware this extra $10 on a silver platter will tell them that this sort of thing is okay and we're willing to deal with it more in the future.  And no, this constant nickle-and-diming is definitely not okay.  Game developers and publishers are becoming increasingly greedy and controlling with their customers and fans that have supported them enough to be able to put them into these positions of power.  This is how they treat loyal customers, and they expect us to swallow yet more insults and thank them for it.  Disgusting.

What's perhaps more disgusting, however, is that I will be one of these weaklings that buckles at the knees and hands Bioware and EA first my $60 for the game, then another $10 to experience this DLC that they *claim* was developed entirely after the core game was completed (a suspicious claim at best).  Yup, I'll be one of those I'm seemingly preaching against.  Why?  Well, as I exampled previously with my multiple-paragraph introduction into this article displaying my affection for the Mass Effect series, I'm too invested in it now to turn back, despite all these evil corporate slugs do to try to push me away.  Let me just say that if this was any other game, any other series, I absolutely would not be buying it.  Mass Effect, unfortunately, has a hold over me that other games never have.  I've never been *this* big of a fan of any franchise for this long.  And no, it's not just rampant fanboyism; I acknowledge that Bioware is doing some really awful things with Mass Effect 3.  And it's not limited to this day 1 DLC, because, as usual, we have the ever-loved pre-order bonuses.  Oh yes, pre-order bonuses, where you get to unlock pieces of the game that are IN THE GAME with a code acquired only if you purchase from certain retailers.  And wait, there's more!  Mass Effect 3 is coming to iOS devices, where you can get stuff like the portable Codex (an in-game catalogue of the lore).  Sounds fine, right?  Well, guess what, buying these silly apps will net you yet more content in the game that's, you guessed it, already in the game.  This sort of garbage needs to end, and sadly for me and my moral compass, I won't be one of the people leading the charge in stopping it.

So while I stand here admitting completely that I will be one of those enablers going to pick up Mass Effect 3 on launch day, my tail between my legs and eyes downcast, do not for a second think that I'm encouraging this behaviour.  If you're free of the grip that Mass Effect holds over me, by all means, show Bioware and EA that you won't tolerate this crap.  Be a stronger willed gamer than me.