So, to continue in this vein of highly improbable reinterpretations of things that I am so fond of, let me tell you about another wacky idea I cooked up.

It all started when I was watching this Mass Effect 3 episode of the game commentary show “Spoiler Warning”, and one of the hosts, Josh, mentioned that Cerberus can “still manage to succeed despite being terrible at everything”. (He says it at about the 2:00 minute mark):

Hmmm.  Is there any other organization you can think of that still succeeds, despite making lots of bad decisions and being widely despised?  An organization which, when seemingly being beaten, simply uses its seemingly-inexhaustible resources to take the advantage?


I see  that Electronic Arts has gotten the exclusive rights to Star Wars video games.  I remember another thing EA got exclusive rights to, and that didn’t work out so great…  but we’ll see.

I’m not saying this is necessarily bad news–for one thing, if I understand correctly, EA can still publish games that other developers make. To my mind, it could be good or bad.

I’ve been thinking about the Mass Effect series again, and how weirdly uneven it was for a trilogy that was supposedly mapped out in advance.  The first Mass Effect had a very interesting story, but the gameplay was a little wonky, at least to people like me who aren’t really familiar with RPG mechanics.  Combat in ME1 feels very awkward.

Then Mass Effect 2 streamlined the combat, making it much more like the popular Gears of War series.  The hardcore RPG people may disagree, but I think this made for a superior game, even if they had to mess with some established background information of the setting to make it work.  ME 2 is still my favorite in the series, even though parts of the story don’t make sense.  And I think it’s interesting that EA acquired BioWare between ME1 and 2, and in the latter, the game suddenly became much more  accessible to the average gamer.

But then you have Mass Effect 3, which had many well-known problems with its infamously unsatisfying endingBioWare insists that they had total creative control, so you can’t blame EA for the ending.  (Then again, the Illusive Man insisted he had control of the Reapers, too…) But in addition to all the in-game problems, it was criticized for forcing players to buy a bunch of additional stuff in order to get the “full” ending.  Again, it’s just interesting to me that there was no comparable marketing scheme for, say, BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic (2003) or Jade Empire (2005) or even the first Mass Effect (2007).

So, I think we have a pretty good roadmap already for what is going to happen to a beloved science-fiction franchise whose video games department is now being run by EA.  But wait!  There’s more!

Everyone thinks that this means Star Wars game will become increasingly Call of Duty-like, and you will see a lot of polished but simplistic games.  Pretty much everyone feels that the  Battlefront series or something like it will be making a comeback. And why not?  If EA can make something Star Wars themed that can compete with the highest-grossing game series in history, why wouldn’t they?

This isn’t so bad, really.  Battlefront was a fun game.  It’s just that I think everyone feels EA is just too big, and when a company gets that big, it’s hard for them to function the right way.  They can keep making money off of AAA blockbuster games for a while yet, but they can’t really innovate, because that involves risk. Which means we probably won’t be seeing any deep, philosophical,  Star Wars RPGs like the great Knights of the Old Republic II anytime soon.

But more than that, there are indications that EA is just generally mismanaged.  As Shamus Young says in that article, they are not running their company as well as they might, just from a pure business point of view.  However, I think their model is sustainable for the near-term future.  Star Wars has been popular since the 1970s–people will continue to buy any heavily-hyped game that ties with that franchise for a few more years.  This is where we see the similarity to EA’s NFL license monopoly–the NFL has been popular since the 1960s, and for those who play sports games, it’s the only show in town.

The difference, of course, is that the NFL, while not technically a monopoly is the only widely-watched pro football league in America. Star Wars is not the only major science-fiction franchise. There are still more of those to compete with Star Wars games.

That’s why I think the monopoly on Star Wars has a greater chance of blowing up in EA’s face than their NFL  monopoly–the latter is essentially a monopoly on a near-monopoly, because the NFL controls a huge amount of market share in the market for football.  EA is building off of that. But it’s different with the market for sci-fi games–it’s more of an oligopoly, with just a few competitors: Star Wars, Star Trek, and so on.

If we assume that consumers are indifferent as to which science-fiction franchise’s video games they choose to spend money on, this means there is still an element of competition in the market.  But, of course, not all consumers are not indifferent–they have preferences for franchises.  So, I want Star Wars to have the better video games, among other reasons, to show up the Trekkies. (Not that I dislike Star Trek, but still.) Branding is always very important in oligopolies.

The point is, this arrangement coupled with EA’s past problems with understanding different markets as mentioned in the Shamus Young article linked above and… well, the title of this post says it all.

[NOTE: If you plan to play the Mass Effect series, know that this post contains massive spoilers.  And if you haven’t played any of the Mass Effect games and don’t plan to, this post will probably make no sense whatsoever.]

I think I got the “control/bad ending”, although it’s hard to tell for sure.  Personally, I didn’t hate it as much as most people did, but I do think the ME3 endings should forever exonerate the vastly-superior Knights of the Old Republic II from charges of having an “incomplete” or “unsatisfying” ending.

So… where to begin… I guess first of all I should say that I don’t know what to make of the “Renegade” or Paragon” interrupt options.  The first time it really struck me as odd was when Kai Leng (who I kept wanting to ask “did you escape from Jade Empire or what?”) was sneaking up behind Shepard with his sword drawn, and you have a renegade interrupt button. I pressed it, on the logic that doing something is better than doing nothing.  I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t.

Then, during the climactic end scene with Shepard and the Illusive Man pointing their pistols at each other, I got another Renegade interrupt.  Again, I took it; figuring that the sooner I could end the Illusive Man’s career, the better.  I read later that if you don’t do this, Illusive Man will shoot Shepard, and the game will end.  If this is true, it’s kind of a weird game mechanic.

So, having done this, I proceeded to the controversial endgame sequence, where Shepard meets the Catalyst.  The Catalyst is an artificial (I think, as opposed to “virtual”) intelligence that governs pretty much everything, including the Reapers.  It presents Shepard with three choices to end the game, none of them very pleasant.  This parody video sums them up fairly well:

I can’t imagine that others haven’t pointed this out, but the Catalyst is literally “God from the machine”, or, as they say, deus ex machina. Deus ex machina is, as Wikipedia describes:

a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object.

All fit the Catalyst, except for the part about solving things.  The Catalyst solves nothing, but it does end things.

Having said that, it’s not such a bad ending.  You could argue that all Shepard’s thousands of choices amounting to only a minor difference makes a grand philosophical point about the Universe.  Or you could argue that the writers were lazy.  Your choice.

Looking back, the Mass Effect series is surprisingly uneven.  The mechanics of the first one feel very different from the sequels.  It kind of morphed from an action, sci-fi RPG into a third-person FPS with dialogue.  Which is okay with me, although the fighting did grow tiresome after a time.

The characters and plot likewise are uneven.  There are some deep philosophical concepts in the story–the Prothean V.I’s dialogue with Shepard on  Thessia reminded me a little of Oswald Spengler’s writings–but there are also quite a few space-cowboy movie cliches.

The characters are sometimes believable and emotionally compelling.  I liked the scene where Shepard and Garrus go to the top of the Presidium, for instance.  The Illusive Man himself is a fairly complex and interesting character.  But then again, you have Shepard and Ashley’s messed up relationship, which felt like artificially-created drama, especially in ME2. And don’t get me started on the forced relationship with Liara.  I liked both Ashley and Miranda better.

The voice acting was all pretty good, though much of the dialogue was corny.  I lost track of how many times people said “This is it,” during the final hour or so.  Most of the Big Inspirational Speeches in all three games were pretty hackneyed, I thought.  But the actors did their part; and frankly, I’d listen to Jennifer Hale or Yvonne Strahovski read the phonebook.  Or Codex, as it were.

Mass Effect is not a great series, it’s just a good one. I think it got a little too “franchisified” too early, and tried to be all things to all players, and of course it could not be.  But it’s still a very enjoyable sci-fi adventure series.  It’s not the best series of games ever, but I’m still glad I got to play it.

Finally got it this Christmas, and have been playing it this weekend.  It’s good, but the missions are kind of repetitive: go to base held by Geth/Cerberus forces, choose who you want to either activate or deactivate the Anti-Aircraft gun, defend them, wash, rinse, repeat.  Anti-Aircraft guns are the new rogue V.I.s, it seems.

Also, the whole idea that “well, yes, the Reapers are destroying the Galaxy, but we refuse to ally with [whatever other species of alien] because we’ve been at war with them forever” is a little unbelievable. I think intelligent beings could put aside their differences long enough to fight the attack of the Metal Cthulhus. As Ronald Reagan–yes, that Ronald Reagan–once said:

“In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world. “

Same principle here, except it would be all the members of the galaxy uniting to stop the threat from outside the galaxy, not just the planet.  It seems kind of unbelievable they could be so petty.

I’m sure there will be more plot developments, of course, and maybe it will be explained.  It’s still a fun adventure game.  I’m sure I’ll post a lot more when I finish it.

This should tell EA and BioWare that they have a problem: I am a huge fan of the KotOR games, and yet the news that the MMO sequel The Old Republic is soon going to be free-to-play still does not make me a slam-dunk to get the thing.  I might, admittedly; which is far better than my “no way” stance before this news, but I’m still not guaranteed to.

Even without the awful problem of a subscription to deal with, there’s still the problem of having to get online to play the game, not to mention the hassle of making PC games work in the first place.

I am a console gamer, because you only need two things to play console games:

  1. console
  2. game

It is really just that simple.  If both the disk/cartridge and the console work, you can play your game. Contrast this with a PC game, where you need:

  1. game
  2. compatible sound card
  3. compatible graphics card
  4. compatible processor
  5. compatible monitor

And with online games you need all that, plus:

  1. stable internet connection
  2. reliable internet service provider
  3. reliable servers at the game company

The fewer single points of failure you have in a system, the better.  Online gaming introduces more single points of failure into the system.  If any one of these things breaks, no game for you.  (Christopher Knight documented the pain that “always-online” caused Diablo III players.)

This doesn’t even take into account the nightmarish trials inflicted upon PC gamers by Digital Rights Management (DRM) tools.  I’m all for protecting the rights of the artist, but for Pete’s sake, the movie industry manages to get along okay without punishing their customers every time they watch a movie.  Why can’t the PC gaming industry do likewise?  And if they can’t, then all gaming should move to consoles, since apparently they don’t have the piracy issues.

PC gamers tell me “but having the PC game makes it easier to fix bugs in the game!”  While this is not technically a lie, it conceals a key fact in order to mislead the listener.  The unspoken component is that bugs are far more common in the PC games than console versions. You don’t need to fix bugs on the console because there are less of them.

The other thing I get is “but I can download mods that aren’t on consoles if I have a PC game”.  Well, yeah, if you do somehow manage to make your PC game work and then feel like taking the chance of crippling it by installing stuff that third-parties designed, then yes, I suppose consoles cannot compete with you there.  Personally, I’d prefer to just buy a game that already had the features I wanted in it, but to each his own.

Diablo III and The Old Republic together demonstrate pretty much everything that makes me try to avoid PC gaming.  Alas, I fear that console gaming is already slouching in the same direction, and that soon the truly “single-player” game will be a thing of the past.

I haven’t played Mass Effect 3 yet. I don’t even own it. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. Maybe I just don’t want the series to end, or maybe it’s something else.

In any case, I have been reading some reviews of it and I came across this Forbes article by Erik Kain. He’s addressing why there was a massive avalanche of negative user reviews for ME 3 on Metacritic, many appearing within hours of the its release. Kain initially attributed this onslaught to the fact that there are same-sex romance sub-plots in the game, and that this enraged many. However, he did sort of refine that view in his subsequent post.

Kain also links to a post over on the BioWare forums by a user called “Bastal” criticizing BioWare’s Dragon Age II. You can read his complaint in full, but the gist of it is this: BioWare wasted too many resources on the same-sex romance in DA II, even though–according to Bastal’s calculations–only about 5% of gamers are gay. He argued that since the majority of gamers are straight men, they should have designed the game to cater more their interest.

I’m probably a pretty bad person to comment on this, as I have not played either Mass Effect 3 or Dragon Age II. However, there are a few comments I can make. First, on Kain’s theory, I suspect his later conclusion is right: somebody somewhere has decided it would be amusing to bomb Mass Effect 3 on Metacritic. Who knows why? Who, frankly, cares why? The vast majority of user reviews on Metacritic are worthless. I mean, even though it’s on a scale of 0-10, the numbers 2 through 8 seem to show up far less than 0, 1, 9 and 10 in reviews of most games. Most users seem to have no clue how to do anything other than love or hate a given game. To me, it looks like the trolls were just faster than usual on this one.

On to “Bastal”s point about Dragon Age II. I understood that it was a choice which romance sub-plot you see in that game. Am I wrong? He complains that they “neglected the straight male gamer”, but I just can’t imagine that as being the problem. Like I said, I haven’t played DA II, but I can imagine that BioWare failed to come up with any compelling characters and romances in it. But that doesn’t follow from them trying to appeal to non-straight, non-male gamers. Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas has, shall we say, something for everyone; and it never detracted from the experience. You could play it how you wanted to play it.

Moreover, after ME 2, it’s hard for me to imagine BioWare ignoring the straight male. If you played the game, there is a scene involving Miranda Lawson that seems to dispel that notion quite thoroughly. You know the one I mean. Also, the Asari are an entire species of alien pretty much designed by and for straight men. And if BioWare did move away from that in DA II, well, who can blame them? They have one product, ME 2, designed for the straight-male gamer and one product, DA II, designed for others.

Anyway, the whole damn thing is sort of ridiculous, and makes gamers look like a bunch of immature jerks.

Well, maybe I’ll have to play this thing now. I can say it’s part of my researches into human psychology and sociology. “I’m Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite sociological issue on the Citadel.”

The trailer for Mass Effect 3 is out:

I admit I didn’t particularly like the first Mass Effect. In absolute terms it was a great game, of course, but it was poor relative to what BioWare had accomplished before it. Mass Effect 2 more then made up for it, even if its story wasn’t quite one what might have hoped for, the overall gaming experience was vastly superior. A joy to play, in fact.

I feel that the third installment will make or break everything. If it’s well thought-out, it will be one of the greatest video game series ever. If it continues to exhibit the same sort of story flaws displayed towards the end of ME2, it will rank as… well, still a thoroughly enjoyable series, but not quite the epic space-opera we all are hoping for.(Isn’t it telling that even BioWare’s disappointments are great games?)

(P.S. About the warning on that video: it only says that because it is a trailer for an “M”-rated game. There’s nothing terribly traumatizing in the trailer itself. At least, nothing you wouldn’t see in movie ads regularly on broadcast television at all hours of the day.)

Sega announced today that there will be no sequel to Obsidian Entertainment’s game Alpha Protocol.
That’s really a pityIt was, underneath all the glitches, really a very good idea for a game, with some very memorable characters. I can’t believe how it’s getting savaged in the video game press. 
I mean, look at BioWare’s first Mass Effect. That thing was glitchy too, and, if I do say so myself, the characters weren’t nearly as memorable as AP’s. But everyone knew it had major potential; and sure enough, you give BioWare two years to iron out the flaws and they made a masterpiece.
And also, can someone explain why everyone hates the rather intuitive combat mechanics of Alpha Protocol, but not the extremely awkward controls in Fallout 3? (Or, as I call it: “Fallout: The Quest for Liam Neeson”.)

It’s really good. Much better than the first, as I said. I did think the last mission had too many chances for big speeches by Shepard, though. The final battle was like the end of The Terminator on steroids. It’s not quite back to the level BioWare was at with KoTOR, but the plot is more engaging and the characters are way more likable than the ones in the first ME. I was truly concerned for my party members at the end, but fortunately everyone I cared about made it through.

I haven’t finished Mass Effect 2 yet; but it seems to me that there are a hell of a lot of quests that involve parent/child relationships. Miranda and her dad, Jacob and his dad, Thane’s son, Samara’s daughter, Tali’s dad…

Just an observation; I’m not sure yet if it’s a brilliant thematic device or laziness.

I’m sure other people have discussed this, but I’m not reading anything about ME 2 until I finish it.