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!

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I Warped Into Star Trek Online and All I Got Was a Starship

These days, it seems that Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) are a dime a dozen. You have juggernauts like Final Fantasy XIV, World of Warcraft and the Elder Scrolls Online, but this barely scratches the surface of what all is available for a gamer to choose from. Lately most have gone free-to-play, making it too easy to slip into one, but the question remains about whether it’s worth your time. I recently stumbled into playing a bit of Star Trek Online and have raised a character up to level 10 on the Federation side. Star Trek itself has been about exploring the human condition and a future where humanity works to better itself. Star Trek Online, however, doesn’t always reflect the mentality of the franchise.

 

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The U.S.S. Kershaw

Long story short,  Star Trek Online is a solid Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game at odds with itself. Short story long however, when you create a new character (out of a surprising number of established races and an option to create one yourself) you find yourself a Cadet about to graduate from Starfleet Academy in San Francisco roughly thirty years after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis. You pass a test and find yourself enlisted as the First Officer on a shake-down cruise on a Miranda-class vessel. Klingons strike your vessel, kill your captain and leave you as Acting Captain. Then somehow you manage to fight off a Borg invasion. It seems a tad far-fetched, but your actions grant you the rank of Lieutenant and the official command of your vessel.

 

The next missions have you fighting the Klingons as they have started war with the Federation. You have some slightly different scenarios while you strike at the Klingons, but personally I felt there was very little challenge. Even then, the challenge truly comes from ship-to-ship combat. It feels right, perfectly balanced, and feels as engrossing as even the best of Star Trek’s battles. However, on the ground things change. You have to take out groups of enemies and conduct bonus objectives when they arise, like venting plasma to eliminate a group, or heal wounded along the way, but it’s unclear to me if you are killing the enemies or simply stunning them as is historically what the Federation prefers doing.

Now I don’t know if it’s the mission, or if it is indicative of a larger issue, but so far there hasn’t been much in the way of negotiating, or conducting explorative activities as is what the Federation usually does. Most interestingly, aside from your bridge, it appears that you can’t explore the rest of your ship. It strikes me as a big surprise only because it seems like a feature that would be on the list of most Trekkies. But, aside from these issues about the activities you do in the game, it is a very well made title.

As you traverse the quadrants, it’s easy to stop and stare and the magnificent ships flying past, or at the surrounding galactic phenomena peppering the environments. Truth be told, the only graphical hiccup I’ve seen on my Xbox One is that when a communication window pops up, sometimes the character model lags behind the dialog box. Other than that, everything appears to run smoothly.

Further, it’s impressive how much of the game has been added since it’s debut in 2010. While on the Federation side you start out cooling off the Klingons, eventually you start fighting the Breen, Borg, and dealing with temporal anomalies bringing less then friendly foes to your doorstep. And all of it is free. Currently, the only thing to spend real-money on is customization items, things that enable your bridge to look like the classic Enterprise’s or to get the uniforms as seen in a movie or TV series.

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The Bridge crew of the Kershaw on a Cardassian flagship, led by Vulcan Lt. Commander T’Pia (middle).

Notably, once you hit level 10, further customization becomes possible, where you gain control over what ship you are the captain of, and what she looks like. For example, when I hit level 10, I gained a Constitution-class refit vessel. Think of it as being similar to the Enterprise-A and you’re on the right track. Along with the ship, you can customize your bridge crew to be in the shape you want it to be.

All-in-all, I believe Star Trek Online is a good MMORPG, featuring solid gameplay, but lacking in a sense of immersion that feels at place in the Star Trek universe. Still, if you enjoy the franchise, it’s difficult to say no as a fan. See, the game manages to do something that so far hasn’t been accomplished in a visual form: it continues the lore. Since Star Trek: Nemesis, there hasn’t been a movie taking place further in time. And the upcoming TV Show, Star Trek: Discovery reportedly won’t either, so for those that want to know what happens to the galaxy after the Romulan sun goes nova will find a treasure trove of scenarios and information to dive into.

So who is best served by Star Trek Online? Trekkies looking for an expansion of the lore and for a good Trek game, of course, though I hesitate to suggest that it is any better than other MMORPGs out there.

Star Trek at 50 – The Human Adventure Continues

Pop culture anniversaries seem to be a dime a dozen lately, but there’s not very many that can claim to still be making new fans 50 years after it’s initial creation. Star Trek has done exactly that. For the uninitiated, Star Trek was a TV Series that aired on NBC between 1966 and 1969. During that time, it aired for three seasons and 79 episodes. However, the show didn’t garner much in ratings at the time and was canceled. But, throughout the 70’s, the show became a hit in syndication, and Paramount attempted to create a second series, known as Phase II. However, after much behind-the-scenes drama (seriously, lots of drama) and the successful releases of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars, the initial pilot was rewritten into 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Since then, Star Trek has cultivated 12 (with one more on the way) films, over 700 episodes of television through 5 different series, and has gone on to influence more than a few scientific inventions and discoveries. And that’s all fine and dandy if you like behind the scenes info, but what about what is truly at the center of every Star Trek adventure?

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Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) defending Lt. Commander Data’s (Brent Spiner) ability to be his own person and not property in “Measure Of A Man”.

The characters and moral dilemmas take center stage in any truly great sci-fi story, and the best of what Star Trek has to offer exemplifies this. Take an episode from Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s second season, The Measure Of A Man. In it, Lt. Commander Data (played by Brent Spiner) is taken to trial and Captain Jean-Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) defends him. And what is he on trial for? Whether or not Data, who is an android, is the property of the Federation or a sentient being. It calls into question what exactly makes up a true being, and when we build robots, are we not creating a race of beings? It further questions how far would you go to fulfill your own duties, even if you don’t agree with them? Such questions, plots, and strong character-driven moments are at the heart of what makes Star Trek a success.

At the end of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the Enterprise goes to warp and viewers are presented with a single sentence: “The human adventure is just beginning.” That has been the cornerstone of each series so far. The Next Generation sees Picard and crew go on trial for the crimes of humanity against itself as Q, a god-like entity, challenges the crew of the Enterprise-D to show him that humanity has evolved beyond it’s troubled past. Deep Space Nine was a show tackling a lot of different issues, chief among them, religion and rebellion during times of war. Voyager hearkens back to The Original Series by throwing Captain Kathryn Janeway and crew to the other side of the galaxy where they meet new races and worlds on their way home. But Enterprise was the most unique show of the bunch. Enterprise chose to turn back the clock and has us see the Federation being formed when humanity first starts to truly explore the stars.

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Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) discuss giving Nero (Eric Bana) leniency as he looks on from the view screen.

In each of these series, there is a deliberate choice to create very unique characters that tackle subjects the majority of television doesn’t dare explore. Things like the aforementioned qualifications of sentience, sexuality, and of how often what is right or wrong can fall into a gray area. But to me, Star Trek has shown me that when you have a disagreement with someone, there is always a solution that is better than the initial idea.

The Federation, more often then not, seeks to find peace in the galaxy. That desire is reflected in each captain’s actions. Even in the 2009 film, Captain Kirk asks if Nero wants assistance while his ship begins to be ripped apart by the black hole. Nero adamantly refuses by saying he would rather witness the death of his homeworld a thousand times over. Yikes. Point is, diplomacy is at the forefront of what the Federation hopes to achieve. Is it perfect? No, just look at Star Trek Insurrection. The Federation is capable of heinous acts, but for the most part Star Trek has shown me that humanity can overcome it’s greatest obstacles and push ever farther into space and other frontiers.

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San Francisco as depicted in Star Trek: Into Darkness.

And that’s what I see and get out of Star Trek. It creates a future for Earth and for humans that is nothing short of wondrous. Where we as a species have shed our prejudices, and collectively strive to make humanity the best that it can be. And an ideology where peace and negotiations take precedence over waving the biggest stick. It gives me hope that the squabbling I see in our current world will eventually give way to something prosperous.