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Game Review: Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2

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by Kyt Dotson

Mass Effect 2 starts essentially where Mass Effect ends—the races of the galaxy are still reeling from, and mostly denying, the facts of the first Mass Effect and for the most part try to get along with their lives. The story begins with something rarely pulled off the narrative bookshelf: the death of the main character, Commander Shepherd. An unexpected foe catches up with the Normandy and annihilates Shepherd and most of her crew in one fell swoop, basically ending the galaxy’s ability to prepare for the inevitable Reaper threat.

Of course, the video game and the resulting story continue to follow Shepherd and her exploits, so the commander isn’t really dead—this is primarily an excuse to have the commander change political allegiance and allow the player to choose a new look for their character. One fatal flaw of the Mass Effect series game mechanics is that not only does it extend the interactive story as well. Ordinarily, this shouldn’t be a flaw; but a player who starts ME2 without a ME save file will be given the most boring possible play through of the ME narrative possible.

So far, every game of the Mass Effect series has plot points where player decision affects the outcome. Some of those decisions from ME directly change the story within ME2 and most likely this will true for the next game. As a result, if you’re playing ME2 then find a site with save file downloads and grab one where the player actually had some sort of adventure; otherwise you’re in for some really sad surprises.

Mass Effect 2 spends a lot more time in giving the player time to get accustomed to the story of individual characters. In fact, the plot of the game revolves initially around gathering members for Commander Shepherd’s team. This involves finding what they’re doing and convincing them to come along. For example, one of the first missions involves seeking out a salarian scientist named Mordin Solis. In order to bring him on board with saving the universe, the player first must save the population of a slum on an asteroid from a horrible plague. Doing so involves the player directly in Mordin’s life story and sets the groundwork for further character development later.

After each character is brought onto the ship, the player has a chance to find them and speak with them. Doing so introduces them to the inner life of the character and lets them open up more dialogue about them. One of the characters, Grunt, is a tank-born krogran who didn’t have a childhood; instead his personality and knowledge were all inborn in him as he was being vat-grown. As a result, talking to Grunt in his room on the ship makes Grunt more than just another computer-controlled companion who shouts and shoots at enemies in combat.

Each character also has what’s called a “loyalty mission.” Aside from getting to know each of them further, the loyalty missions directly effect the end game in making them tougher and more likely to survive. Loyalty missions function as a sort of second side-story for each of the team members that enriches the storyline by giving the player a chance to put give them specifically more screen time. During the game, Garrus (a friend from the first game) has a crisis of conscience as a mercenary when he decides whether or not he’s going to kill someone in cold blood. His action hinges entirely on the decision of the player whether to convince Garrus into sparing the man or allowing him to kill him.

With all of these side stories going on, you’d think that Mass Effect 2 wouldn’t have enough time for the main plot; but in spite of that, the story does drive inexorably towards the final showdown between good and evil and an exciting ending. Each of these recruitment and loyalty missions, the ability to talk to all the characters in the game, and the way that it lays out the foundation for the universe makes it feel like a deeper and more real place. It also means that people playing the game begin to empathize more with different characters than others.

Some end game missions mean choosing the right characters for the job—or having half of the crew die horribly—having spent time with the characters, getting to know them, and understanding their capabilities allows the player to choose properly. Some of these missions also put them into mortal danger and as a result, I found myself refusing to put people I actually liked into serious danger…or at least I felt serious trepidation that I’d just put the perfect person for the job into a lethal situation.

Much of Mass Effect 2 storytelling is world building but the real power of the narrative is where the characters are woven together into the fabric of the plot that allows the player to choose their own relationship to their teammates and how that directly effects how the plot eventually unravels itself.

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Game Review: Mass Effect

Mass Effect

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by Kyt Dotson

Mass Effect is the first in a series of video games that will eventually end with Mass Effect 3—the series is exemplified by a passel of science fiction tropes that run most epic storylines and drives a very real narrative that has struck a chord with both the gamer community and science fiction fans alike. My review will cover only the literary aspects of the Mass Effect story and the universe that it sits in; if you’d like to know how it functions as a game, you’ll probably have to look elsewhere. Mind, it’s actually an excellent game and you should play it—and then you should play Mass Effect 2.

The Mass Effect universe presents itself as one that has been lived in long by numerous alien races and humans are essentially late to the scene. In the story, humanity pushed themselves off their pudgy butts and thrust themselves into space to finally explore and colonize and promptly discovered a vast network of interstellar travel devices called “mass relays.” Essentially, the mass relays are gigantic artifacts left behind by a precursor civilization thought to be the Protheans that form an interstellar travel network permitting faster-than-light (FTL) travel. Unbeknownst to humanity, numerous other races had already discovered the mass relay network and had already colonized many of the worlds within.

The mass effect, while eponymous to the video game series, is actually also a unifying force of the universe—in essence, it’s an effect that can manipulate the effect of mass. Using an extremely rare element, “element zero” and an electrical field, the mass of an object can be increased or decreased; this can be useful for generating impenetrable force fields (like shields) or allowing the rapid acceleration of heavy masses for example spaceships (for FTL travel) or bullets in guns. Like any video game, Mass Effect tells a story surrounding a dangerous universe full of strange politics and stranger conspiracies.

As it turns out, the mass relay network has a focal point, a crossroads where a giant space station sits, called the Citadel. The alien races who make up the Council—the biggest empires in known space; humans not yet among them—inhabit the Citadel and keep it running. They didn’t build it; much like the mass relays they simply discovered it and colonized it. This brings up questions about the reasons why the previous race who built the network and the Citadel left it behind for it to be discovered. This actually becomes a central theme in considering the makeup of the universe and humanity’s role in it.

Like any other story for us as an audience, humans take the central role and the protagonist—in this case the player—is the first human Spectre. The Spectres are essentially elite agents of the Council races who receive special dispensation by the Council to enable them to enforce laws and investigate dangers to the universe. Our protagonist, Commander Shepard, finds herself (players can choose either male or female) thrust into an investigation of the most perilous situation the universe has ever seen: the potential invasion by a far superior race bent on enslaving or destroying all sentient life.

Here, the “geth” are introduced as protectors of this newfound threat. The geth are essentially a race of synthetic-intelligences created by another race known as the “quarians,” rebelled against their creators, and fought a war that drove the quarians off their own planet into a life of space-gypsyhood. Since their expulsion from their home, the quarians have done little but mope about the fact and run around in a vast armada of ships called the Flotilla and plan to retake their homeworld. The geth, however, began to spread and terrorize the universe and now ratcheted up to attacking colonies and unearthing further artifacts.

Amid these artifacts, one in particular is uncovered that appears to foretell a terrible machine-race of spaceships that strips the universe of sentient life every so many millennia and also describes it as an event happening soon in the timeline of the game. Beset by this vision from the artifact, Shepard sets off with her powers as a Council Spectre to uncover exactly what’s going on, how the geth are involved, and what this expected invasion might look like.

Not to mention how to prevent it.

The expected invading race of sentient machine-race ships is given the dread name “The Reapers” and lies at the core plot of the narrative. With each mission played out the closeness of this potential invasion and the intent is expounded. Each of the difference races within the universe and those of the Council have their own opinions on the so-called “Reaper invasion” and what it might mean for them. The origin of the mass relay network, the Citadel, the mysteries of the different artifacts, and the disposition of the universe itself are questioned as Shepard investigates.

Needless to say, players who work their way through all the dialogue and spend time with their shipmates, the missions, and follow the story will be subjected to a lot of philosophizing about the way the Mass Effect universe works and why the races are where they are now. They’ll also find the characters charming, effected of inner lives, and also a sense of dread and expectation from what will happen to them. As the story progresses, the characters and the missions begin to reveal a bigger, broader picture much in the same way a science fiction novel would.

The Reaper invasion provides a ticking clock and a Sword of Damocles to drive the player forward in the narrative and give a reason to drive through the plot as it unfolds—although sheer curiosity and the need to feel the sense of a job well done works to a similar effect.

If you’re willing to put down your science fiction books for about six to ten hours of gameplay and dialogue and willing to pick up a controller and explore an interactive universe, you could do worse than play Mass Effect.

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Game Review: System Shock 2

System Shock 2

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by Mark Aragona

No classic science fiction video game list is complete without one of the most ambitious titles of the 90s: System Shock 2. A sequel to the 1994 hit, SS2 is a deft merging of cyberpunk and horror that also merges two seemingly disparate styles of gaming: role-playing and first-person shooter. Not only is it considered a gaming classic, it’s a precursor to an entire host of first-person shooter games and was considered way ahead of its time.

The story begins in 2114, more than 40 years since the events of the first System Shock. You play as a soldier of the United National Nominate and crewmember of the spaceship Rickenbacker. Your mission: escort the experimental FTL spaceship Von Braun on its maiden voyage. True to its RPG roots, SS2 gives you the choice of enlisting in the marines, the navy, or the psychic-powered OSA. This choice merely lets you choose your specialization, but afterwards you can mix and match your skills and abilities as you see fit.

Your mission starts out quiet and uneventful, until your ship answers a distress call from nearby Tau Ceti V. Instead of bringing back colonists, the would-be rescuers return with a nest of strange eggs—never a good idea. Before long, both the Von Braun and the Rickenbacker fall to a psionic, flesh-feeding parasitic race known as the Many.

You are woken from your cryosleep by the voice of Dr. Janice Polito, who orders you to make your way to Deck 4 on the Von Braun. On the road you encounter a host of horrifying creatures: mutated crewmembers begging to be put out of their misery, murderous security bots, escaped psychic monkeys(!), worm-like parasites, chittering alien spiders, and many other malformed monstrosities. And lest we forget, there are ghosts too.

But the game’s greatest surprise is the return of a former nemesis: SHODAN, the rogue AI from the first System Shock. SHODAN has a bone to pick with the Many, as they turn out to be her wayward creations intent on surpassing her.

System Shock 2’s villains are its story’s most valuable assets. The Many is a chilling alien adversary. True, it’s a mass of science fiction tropes: parasitic nature, mutagenic capabilities, psychic powers, etc. But the game takes things a step further by giving the Many a voice—several, actually, as the alien hive-mind speaks with a host of hypnotic voices that take turns being enticing, threatening, and downright terrifying. The game’s genius is that it makes your adversary seemingly omnipresent, either through biomass seeping the metal walls of the ship, or through invasive psychic messages and hallucinations. It’s always there, watching whatever you do.

Your only ally is also your adversary. SHODAN’s choppy synthetic voice orders you around like an electronic dominatrix, bribing you with enhancements to your cybernetic implants and threatening you with extinction if you subvert her will. And even then, you can’t help feeling that she has an ulterior motive for helping you survive at all.

The gameplay involves not just surviving each level of the ship but also improving your character’s skills. Your abilities include light and heavy weapons, melee, hacking, repair, and psychic powers. Though you may favor one build over the other, you need a good mix if you want to survive. Ammo is scarce and weapons degrade each time you use them, so you have to choose your engagements carefully. Sometimes it pays just to batter your enemy with a wrench (which never breaks) or simply run away.

SS2 isn’t perfect. The weapon degradation system will cause countless moments of panic as your gun breaks down just as you’re facing a charging monstrosity. It’s also entirely possible to abuse certain psionic powers. Nevertheless, System Shock 2 provides a solid gaming experience as you creep through the corridors of a starship, keeping one eye out for your foe’s mutated creations while keeping another on your ammo and health bar.

On one hand, an alien invasion, on the other, renegade AI. In between them is you, your guns, and your wits. System Shock 2 is not just a great mix of science fiction tropes—it’s an exhilirating and terrifying experience.

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