Sunday, March 25, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Review

Mass Effect 3
Developed by BioWare
Released in 2012

The Mass Effect series is, so far, the only
body of video game fiction worthy to join the heavies in film, television and literature like Star Wars, Lost and Harry Potter. The rich universe of characters, locations, conflicts, phenomena and funny names created by Canadian developer BioWare not only stirs a rabid fanbase but also mines a vein of franchise dollars on a scale unseen before in role-playing games. All tales must end, and Mass Effect 3 concludes the trilogy just like those aforementioned series: with nostalgic nods to its revered canon, inspiring additions and a handful of questionable decisions.

Despite what EA Games' marketing team may be preaching, Mass Effect 3 is made for the fans. Who starts with Return of the Jedi, after all? As hero Commander Shepard, you run into basically every key and bit character of the trilogy (well over 50) as you prepare to battle the gargantuan threat of the Reapers, an ancient alien race that wipes the universe of all sentient life every 50,000 years. Since you can import your save file from the second game — which, in turn, could have been imported from the first — the choices you made way back in 2007 decide who is alive to fight by your side.

The word "choice" rules most discussions of Mass Effect. Once again, choices you make shape your character into a good — “paragon” — or bad — “renegade” — character, though saving the galaxy is the common goal at both ends. The variable is more how you get there: unite the quarreling races or save only those already on your side? (Hint: the latter approach is most unwise.)

Guiding your Shepard’s morality takes place in the abundant cinematic dialogue the series is famous for. Not much has changed in aesthetic since the first game, but I am once again astonished how they record over 40,000 lines of dialogue and attach them to convincing, animated characters in proper lip-sync. The voice cast includes such actors as Martin Sheen, Seth Green, Keith David and Yvonne Strahovski. It speaks to the respect BioWare has accrued that these acclaimed talents bring their all to this medium.

BioWare fills the Milky Way with species ranging from beautiful humanoids to sentient Portuguese Man o’ Wars. There are the brilliant, if neurotic, amphibious Salarians and the brutish, reptilian Krogans. Ignore that all these disparate organisms evolved with roughly equal intelligence and have spoken modern English for millennia (shh, ignore it). Shepard has to find a way to band together the warring factions and recruit the isolated ones to unite against the greater threat. In my playthrough, Shepard solved not one but two Israel/Palestine analogous conflicts; one race involved, the Quarians, carry an unmistakable Middle Eastern accent. Earthly ties can be drawn between all events, if on a macro scale. It is a post-human society where contemporary quibbles over evolution — “the cosmic imperative,” a wise, African-inspired race calls it — and homosexuality — pilot Steve Cortez recalls his dead husband with no camp or novel subtext — are relics of the past.

But your time with Mass Effect 3 will not rest solely on futurist political theory and interspecies sociology. At its core, the game is a cover-based shooter a la Gears of War. Action still does not flow as smoothly as said game, and both schools and monasteries possess invincible architecture primed for war. However, there is a broader cornucopia of choice on how each battle is played. Dozens of pistols, shotguns, snipers and machine guns flesh out the arsenal, and new modifications can be purchased to strengthen your stopping power. Biotic and tech powers, including a repackaged Force push, are now easier to complement conventional weapons, leading to varied battlefield encounters encouraging experimentation.

There are only 15 or so hours of required missions, but to see all the content — and achieve the “best” ending — 30 to 40 hours will accumulate. One central mission culminates with directing airstrikes on and dodging the death rays of a giant Reaper, the design of which resembles Halo’s Covenant ships and H.G. Wells’ alien forces. Another smaller assignment has you defusing a bomb that could decimate a planet, ending with a scene of thrilling cinematography and moving sacrifice. There was only one mission I actively disliked, involving a digital Shepard recovering important files; basically, a virtual reality CCleaner. Regardless, most missions reintroduce familiar faces from past titles and carry enough thrills to induce involuntary gamer vegetation, or bliss, as we prefer it to be called.

Between missions you roam the Normandy SR-2, your sleek vessel capable of faster-than-light speeds, and talk to your squadmates about the mission ahead. The different perspectives of your varied crew lead to enlightening discussions on the toils of war. However, if playing the good guy as I did, it usually boils down to Shepard reassuring those worried that cooperation is the key to victory and, when Shepard laments all those dead, a pal like series steady Garrus reminding that sacrifice is the other key. War is bad, that is for sure. The game even opens with you watching a little boy crash as his ship fails to escape a smoldering Earth. For a triple-A blockbuster title of the sort, there is legitimate contemplation on the price of war, even if the theme’s execution leans more Independence Day than The Battle of Algiers.

Love is still on the plate, of course, and virtual romance is still as incendiary as it has never been. I favor overhearing crewmembers hit on each other and the awkward results that follow, or the exchange of dirty jokes between a meathead soldier and a 50,000-year-old warrior (“Now the joke’s on you, human, hehe”).

To guarantee the “best” ending, assisting different races to find traitors or artifacts boosts their morale and, alas, readiness. Your in-game journal does not register progress on these tasks, so these preparations for war just become what they really are: cumbersome chores. Thankfully the Citadel, an ancient space metropolis, is a triumph of artistic direction, so running across a beautiful plaza to deliver the third missing war bible right after taking down a mile-high Reaper is not that much of a buzzkill.

Playing multiplayer is also necessary to gain access to the “best” (again, the quotes) ending by some inexplicable logic of ratios and “effective military strength” EA threw in. Thankfully, the online co-op is surprisingly fun, structured like Horde mode from Gears, with waves of enemies to defeat and simple objectives to complete. I cannot picture myself playing it weeks down the line, but it is a worthwhile diversion from the main campaign.

And then it ends. The ending already lives in infamy, with thousands signing protests against it. I find this widespread devotion to story inspiring, signaling how great writing is now expected of great games. The final moments do not take into account the whole arc of your journey and enter some serious Lost territory that will frustrate some, or many. I do not personally loathe it so for it still successfully wrings emotion, a tough feat in video games, and there is a convincing justification making the Internet rounds (look up: Indoctrination Theory). The real issue is that, after bonding together the entire galaxy to fight the Reapers, there is little proof of collaboration in the final battle. I would have appreciated some help from the bloodthirsty Krogans I befriended after dying for the ninth time battling endless screeching Reapers.

The first Mass Effect received a fair share of ridicule for its loading screens disguised as the slowest elevators in the universe, inching up as you and your squad just awkwardly stood there. There is a not so subtle nod to that ignominy in Mass Effect 3 as you blast off on top of a high-speed elevator to apprehend an assassin. BioWare has brought this series to remarkable heights over five years, aware of its weaknesses and ever eager to improve. While the third may hold its own flaws, it closes the greatest modern video game franchise with style and heart. I finished the game and was struck by that unique depression that also accompanied the finales of Lost and Harry Potter. Now what? I guess I’ll play them all again.

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars out of 5










This review was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

#StopPhony

Courtesy of Santi Slade
I guess I’ll have to start off this column by stating the obvious: Yes, Joseph Kony is an awful, awful human being. His crimes against mankind deserve the highest punishment within law. All the children he has brainwashed deserve to be free and enjoy their childhood in peace and innocence. I find these truths to be self-evident. Nonetheless, I am morally and ideologically opposed to Invisible Children (IC), the group bringing Kony’s crimes to the public light through their viral video triumph Kony 2012, and, more crucially, those blindly backing them.

Countless criticisms have already surfaced. Infamous posts like Tumblr’s “Visible Children” all hone in on the facts. I take little stock in them. Let us look past IC asking you to buy their $30 box of posters and bracelets when less than 40 percent of that money goes to charity. Or their unequivocal championing of the Ugandan Army, accused themselves of human rights abuses not unlike that of Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Or the fact that said LRA has long left Uganda with little proof of Kony’s mere existence for six years. Or the realization that, to get to Kony, you may have to kill the child soldiers we seek to save.

No, I am going to focus on you. First, thanks for killing the English language. I witnessed literally hundreds of statuses and tweets linking to the video, proclaiming, “This will change your life.” Really, it will change my life? I had absolutely no foreknowledge that the world, and especially Africa, was filled with genocide and suffering, and to this day, no less! To paraphrase Louis C.K.: “What’s going to happen on your wedding day, or when your first child is born?” Because you already wasted ‘change your life’ on The Help 2.

Annoying Facebook Girl is surely still poring over the life-changing exposure of that video, a night or six after the fact, I am sure. And don’t forget the “you’re heartless if you don’t watch this” mold. Thanks for letting me know a little more about myself. The ending of City Lights and the death of my grandfather never convinced me there was anything in there!

Such hyperbole can breed potential violence. These posters throw Kony’s face next to bin Laden and Hitler. In my last column, I discussed how we demonize the enemy and, in turn, desecrate our own humanity. There are no moral absolutes. There is good and bad in everything, yin and yang. If Kony is nothing but the Spawn of Satan, it teaches us nothing about how to build a future free of terror, not just in a poor Ugandan village but here at home, as well.

This simplification of complex issues apparently makes it easier for the masses to swallow. There is that grotesque scene where the filmmaker, Jason Russell, presents a picture of Kony to his photogenic son, Gavin. In the span of but 60 seconds, a deadly 25-year conflict is reduced to the comprehension of a little child. “We should stop him,” Gavin declares with authority. A child should not understand these tensions. Not to preserve any youthful innocence, but because their mind cannot emotionally comprehend the magnitude and scope — spanning more than just one sole belligerent — of such political violence. You’ve likely heard about the Holocaust from a young age. But when did you really get it?

Russell and his team manufactured this well-edited film with a strictly American audience in mind. The donkey-elephant political imagery and Mumford & Sons atop a privileged family finding cruelty beyond their backyard … with a side of light African suffering. Our social media users eat it up. But what do they do? Change their profile picture for a day, “like” the IC page and donate their parents’ money to where Russell told them. It is first-grade slacktivism for an idealist age where people are unwilling to walk outside without their iPhones.

IC has limited its range away from those who can actually find a way, some way, to take action. This gooey sob story would not appeal to the Middle East, to the revolutionaries who wielded social media to its first significant application during the Arab Spring. Besides, they have their own problems to deal with. All this boils down to a phrase everyone has been tossing around: It’s to raise awareness! Okay, you have “raised awareness.” Everyone knows about it. What now? “Cover the night” on April 20? (Am I the only who noticed that date?) I can tell you our cities’ sanitation workers won’t care for it.

No revolution is fought by the majority. That gut reaction of parading the streets upon the death of a tyrant (ditto bin Laden) is how we act. Do not mess with the masses. We lose sight of what is true and go all scorched earth on your ass. Or, more likely, we just do nothing. The passionate minority brings change through integrity and sacrifice — at least they try to. You can say this video has inspired some to join such a cause for all the right reasons, but I question why it took a slick YouTube sensation to find the generosity in their hearts to finally take action.

Now, these last words are mine only, and I do not expect any decent person to agree with me on this point. Okay, let’s say Joseph Kony is caught, through the methods outlined by IC, and decades of tyranny come to an end through the will of the masses. Say all that good stuff happens and college idealism has its day. What will be of Facebook, Twitter and reddit, the websites that championed this cause? What social media did — in the users’ minds, at least — worked. Will causes for aid to every exploited people flood the News Feeds? Will petitions to “pledge my support" by subscribing to a Listserv fill every tweet? What will happen to my havens that once housed cat pictures and in-jokes? Will I seriously have to sift through updates composed by an army of brainwashed children to find ... uh ... wait a minute. WE ARE TOO LA—

Zachary Zahos '15 died last night in a freak attack by a blue songbird that crashed through his dorm window. Reportedly, his last words were, "Go get 'em, Gavin." Words of condolence and goodwill can be sent to arts-and-entertainment-editor@cornellsun.com.


This post was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed its original location via this link.