Mass(ively) Effect(ive)

This Tuesday sees the release of the latest entry to the Mass Effect franchise, Mass Effect: Andromeda; a game where players get to explore the Andromeda galaxy. Given that Andromeda begins following the conclusion of Mass Effect 2, I wanted to offer an overview of the series in order to add context.

In 2007, Bioware – opting for their own take on sci-fi after making Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic –  released Mass Effect, their take on a third-person shooter/RPG hybrid. What’s very notable, is that not only were they creating their own mythology and universe, but actively envisioned a trilogy of games from the very beginning. Additionally, Bioware focused on creating a system for player choice to be a vibrant component to facilitate true impact from these choices. The player assumes the role of Commander Shepard, being able to determine how the character looks, acts, his/her background and specialty, all based on user preference.

Personally, I am a huge science fiction fan and Mass Effect seemed to be an experience I couldn’t pass up once I heard about it. As I began to explore the Mass Effect games, I was quick to realize that childhood sci-fi favorites like Star Trek had nothing on the lifeforms created for this franchise.

Mass Effect‘s alien species feel very alive and most of that comes from the shipmates you encounter on your journey. Through characters like the weapons specialist Turian Garrus Vakarian, the Asari Dr. Liara T’Soni, the Quarian engineer Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, and the Krogan warrior Urdnot Wrex, each of the major races you encounter feels more fleshed out, allowing the player a more personal connection to some of the large scale conflicts happening in the game.

One of the larger aspects of the game is the in-game character-to-character dialogue one can choose to engage in. Speaking to your shipmates will reveal conflicts and point you in directions to solve them. Black Market trades, war atrocities, and issues stemming from belief and religion rear their heads during play. It was common in my own playthrough to have my morals challenged knowing full well it would affect not only the characters in the vicinity, but would undoubtedly create unforeseen circumstances later in the game(s).

With Mass Effect giving the player a way to control their own future, it gives true weight to the decisions you make as Commander Shepard by having them be reflected and recounted by NPCs. The story of the game does traverse along a path, but the player has the ability to add variances to the story and in this way make it their own. Before Mass Effect, I had not experienced a video game that accomplished such a branching story to such a successful degree. During my own playthroughs, it felt like I was getting closer to these characters and doing my own self-discovery. It ended up being that much more rewarding since I had to bide my time and ask these characters questions in order to dig a little deeper and learn more about them, their motivations, and what makes them tick.

Mass Effect is truly a fantastic introduction of a living and breathing sci-fi world that isn’t perfect. That imperfection drives a lot of the drama, and from there arises an interaction and experience that blew me away. Coming up on the 10th anniversary of the release of the game and given that no game is without flaws, I would say that it is one of the best RPGs to have come out for the last generation of gaming consoles. Since release, Mass Effect has earned 12 awards including RPG of the Year (2007, TeamXbox), Best Original Score (2007, IGN), and Best Story on PC (2008, IGN).

If you are interested in trying Mass Effect out for yourself, here are some links to get you started:

Steam on Windows for $20

EA’s Origin Service for $15

PlayStation 3 for $15

On Xbox 360 and Xbox One for $20

In addition, a box set of Mass Effect is available for $16.95 – $29.99, depending on your preferred platform on Amazon. Or, as always, check with your local used game shop!

How Plants vs. Zombies Can Teach Us About Multiplayer Shaming

If there is any one kind of game I am really bad at, I think it’s competitive multiplayer. I’m not “Jumping off a bridge would be just as good” bad, but I have trouble stringing together a series of kills. As such, I loathe the summary reports at the end of games like Battlefield and Call of Duty.

Both titles clearly show how well each player did on respective teams, and what the kill/death ratio is. This might appear as 8 kills and 12 deaths for instance, but mine tend to be more lopsided. It’s especially embarrassing when you see someone who has a score that only Hawkeye would go “pfft” at. No, not embarrassing – crushing. It’s enough to make me wonder why I spent $60+ on a game when I am so undeniably bad at it. That kind of feeling does not make me interested to continue a game franchise, or, at best, play the single-player mode and then move on.  So imagine my surprise when it took a multiplayer only title to make other titles look bad. Enter Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare.

So, what do I mean? Well, Garden Warfare has a lot of the same modes you might expect in a Battlefield title along with a few that seem very much made for Plants vs. Zombies. And it manages to create a very exciting third-person shooter experience. But what really sets it apart are it’s summary screens after the battle. See, Garden Warfare will tell everyone how many vanquishes (the game’s version of kills) and how many coins you earned. Coins can be earned for a variety of different tasks like healing others, destroying fortifications, and even for just trying! But you notice what’s missing? Your death count is not publicly disclosed to the other players. Instead, if you really want to know, you can view how many deaths – and indeed your ratio – on a separate, private screen.

This simple little change gets rid of what I like to call “Multiplayer Shaming”. That feeling you get when you realize one way or another that you aren’t as good as you thought you were.  When you don’t have to worry about how that looks, suddenly every little vanquish you get helps out! Why don’t more games do this? My only assumption is that a game like Halo or Call of Duty has a huge Professional Circuit and wants to keep it professional and the pros want those stats.

Aside from that one reason I can only think of more reasons to hide the death count from other players. Garden Warfare is also a title where shooting your opponent isn’t always the goal you need to aim for. Take the Cactus character for example. It has the practical role of being the plant’s sniper. But aside from that it has three very distinct abilities which can turn the tide of battle. It can lay down potato mines which work exactly how you would expect. But they can also lay down some Wall-nuts which a zombie has to either break down or walk around to bypass. But the last ability is the most flexible. The Cactus can summon either a Garlic or Artichoke Drone that the player controls to fly overhead and pelt zombies with pin-prick shots or call in a corn airstrike. Did I mention the game is on the zany side?

And maybe that zaniness is the key to the multiplayer shaming. Where actually having fun with the games and trying to not take them so seriously is the best thing to do. Despite this, the atmosphere of a game can lead itself to a certain environment. But why so many multiplayer titles choose to take the more serious approach is beyond me. But maybe with Garden Warfare leading the charge, multiplayer shaming will eventually fade.

Xbox One Download of Garden Warfare

Xbox 360 Download

PlayStation 4 Download

PlayStation 3 Download

PC Download via Origin