Monday, February 27, 2012

Mass Effect Run-Up, Post 1: Mass Effect (Therum, Feros, and Part of Noveria))

SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers for Mass Effect 1 and 2. Speculation about 3. 

Yesterday I began my run through Mass Effect 1 & 2 in earnest, starting with Mass Effect 1. I've so far completed Therum (Picking up Liara before moving on to other major plot points) and Feros, as well as a few side quests. This time through, I've been focusing on side quests that I think or know will have consequences later (or ones that I find particularly satisfying) so here's what I've got so far.

Talitha at the spaceport: I picked the Colonial and War Hero background options for my Shepard, which essentially meant that as a kid, he had to watch a horrible slaver attack helplessly and then as a young adult, saw the same thing starting to happen and said "Yeah, no. Not this time." That meant that when I got the side ques of talking down a deeply distraught survivor of the same slaver attack that cost Shepard his family, he was extremely empathetic. Very satisfying, but unlikely to have much affect on ME2 or 3 beyond a thank-you email.

Samesh/Nirali Bhatia: I have a really strong feeling that this will yield something cool in ME3; some armor or maybe a weapon. In any case, I let the alliance hold Nirali Bhatia's body for research after the Geth attack on Eden Prime. I went full Paragon with the dialog choices and had charm to a high enough level where I was able to get the body held with Samesh's consent. Samesh's line as he finally relents is still very touching to me. They did a good job of portraying his grief.

Scanning the Keepers: Why do I have a feeling that Chorban's research will be absolutely critical at some point in ME3? Call me paranoid, but I put a map on one of my side monitors and tracked down and scanned all 21 of the Keepers on the citadel. It's certainly not the most fun side quest in the game, but I really have a hunch.

Gianna Parasini/Mr. Anoleus: I helped Gianna Parasini take down Mr. Anoleus on Noveria. I don't think it'll make for a major plot point in ME3, but I'm really hoping she shows up again like she did in ME2. Gianna Parasini is probably my favorite minor NPC in the whole Mass Effect universe.

Romance: Planning to romance Ashley Williams.

 And that's it for day 1. I haven't had to do too much Mako driving except Therium and Noveria so far, which is a blessing. That's definitely the weakest part of the game. It's also interesting how much weightier and more powerful they made biotic and tech powers look and feel in ME2 compared to ME1.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Archive: Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent

And now for something completely different: a children's picture book.

SPOILER WARNING: Yes, it's true. I'm going to spoil the plot of a children's picture book. If you really don't want Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent spoiled, go to a library or bookstore, pull it off the shelf, and spend the five to ten minutes reading it takes. Better yet, take half an hour and savor Bill Peet's gorgeous colored pencil illustrations. 

Anyway, I should probably back up a bit, because the author, Bill Peet, isn't the world's best-known picture book creator, which I frankly see as a travesty. Bill Peet was an animator for Disney back in the day, and in fact you can see his influence very heavily in The Sword and the Stone and the original, animated 101 Dalmatians. He had a distinctive artistic style and an equally distinctive sense of warped, yet gentle humor. He also self-illustrated his books with absolutely gorgeous colored-pencil artwork. My Mom found out about him from a local librarian when I was just a little kid, and he's been a mainstay of our family and her classroom (she's a third grade teacher) ever since.

The thing that I have always liked about him, though, is that his books aren't just vacuous bubblegum-silly picture book claptrap. There's a message, it's a good one, and just because it isn't presented harshly doesn't mean it's not there.

I remember reading an Amazon review of Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea serpent years ago where the book is referred to as being a lesson about resisting peer pressure. There's an element of that, sure, at the very beginning. However, the book is much more about courage, duty, self-sacrifice, and protecting those weaker than you than it is about peer pressure. Cyrus actually fits into a category of characters that also includes Atticus Finch. Does that seem like an overly-drastic claim? Read on.

The book begins with Cyrus as a very, very bored sea serpent. In fact, the cover art and the picture on the first page depict him as looking like he's about ready to pass out from his boredom. Here's the thing, though, and pay attention to this: Cyrus is an incredibly powerful creature. He talks to a shark in the earlier pages, and he clearly dwarfs the beast. Given the appearance of the shark, it's probably a great white, and they're not exactly tiny. That conversation with the shark the catalyst for the whole rest of the story, however.

The shark (and this is where the peer pressure thing comes in) suggests that as a way to get some excitement in his life, that Cyrus wreck a ship and eat everybody. Cyrus is aghast at this idea, but the shark calls him a coward and this angers Cyrus who swims off to a harbor prove his "manhood." He slips into the harbor and picks out a ship getting ready to head off on its maiden voyage. The ship is clearly the Mayflower with the serial numbers filed off. (It's called the Primrose, and if you look at the clothes of the crew and passengers, they're dressed as puritans.) As the ship is setting sail, an old man standing on the wharf angrily curses them, telling the passengers they're doomed to die at sea and then rattles off a list of hazards: doldrums, a storm, and pirates.

At this point, the kind-hearted sea serpent's inherent nobility overrides his anger at being called a coward by a shark and he resolves to watch over the ship and protect her. It's a good thing for the passengers, too, because everything the old man said comes to pass.

The first hazard is the doldrums. The ship sails into an area with no wind and gets stuck. The passengers and captain all worry about this for a bit and retire for the evening. Cyrus, not sleepy himself, stays up and circles around the ship for a while, trying to figure out what to do about this problem, and then realizes that he can be the source of wind the ship needs. He swims along behind, puffing at the sails and pushing the ship along. This challenge requires little from him - just some ingenuity, but he rises to it nonetheless.

However, it's not long before a truly nasty, ship-wrecking storm blows up. Initially, Cyrus just hangs back and lets everyone tear down the sails and get belowdecks, but at some point, the waves are getting massive enough to sink the ship. Faced with this new hazard, Cyrus makes a snap decision, wraps himself around the ship, gulps in a bunch of air and turns himself into a huge life-preserver to help the ship survive the massive waves tossing it about. This takes considerably more out of Cyrus. The books doesn't get into the mechanics, but have you ever had gas pains? Know how much those suck? Imagine what the poor sea serpent went through. After the storm is over, Cyrus is understandably exhausted and decides to take a nap. Who can blame him, really?

Unsurprisingly, he wakes up to see that the ship has sailed off beyond where he can see. He momentarily contemplates calling it good enough and bowing out. And then he discards the idea and goes off in search of the ship, just in case. It's at this point that the sea serpent's true colors really shine through, because the next hazard is going to require more of him than anything previous. Before he'd dealt only with environmental problems. Now, however, he's confronted with an entire ship of armed pirates. Unfortunately, he can't catch up in time to keep them from wrecking the Primrose's sails with their first broadside, but he takes one look at the rapidly degenerating situation and chooses harm to himself over harm to the passengers of the Primrose who, at this point, still don't even know he's there. Lacking time or other apparent methods to defend the primrose, he does a deep dive and a very fast surfacing right under the pirate ship, cracking the hull in two with his skull and knocking himself unconscious in the process.

There are a few important things to note at this point. First is that he has, yes, now wrecked a ship, but he did it to protect some innocents. Second is that Cyrus, now that the threat is neutralized, shows mercy and doesn't do anything further to the pirates, not even splashing them. He does, however, not give up on the now-wrecked Primrose and her passengers. It bears mentioning that, at this point, the ship is still only something like halfway to the New World. There's a great exchange about the old man cursing the ship at the beginning of the voyage, and then there's this great bit of dialog from Cyrus:

 "Who could forget him?" Cyrus Muttered to himself. "He was right about the doldrums, the storm and the pirates. But he didn't figure on me. I just might prove him wrong."

It's also worth mentioning at this point that the passengers are afraid of Cyrus. They just saw him wreck the pirate ship. Cyrus, however, doesn't care. He grabs the anchor and tows the ship the rest of the way to the New World. The passengers are initially terrified that they're being dragged off as a snack, but the captain of the ship points out that the pirates would have likely killed them if the serpent hadn't shown up and that he's pulling them along in the right direction.

Fortunately for both Cyrus and the passengers, the rest of the journey is pretty uneventful. He pulls them along, day and night, as fast as he can and then hits a burst of speed to push the ship up onto dry land at the end. The passengers all climb onto a huge rock (Plymouth rock, perhaps?) and give him a rousing cheer, and then he swims off for a nap. He's certainly earned it. The book ends with Cyrus snoozing in some palm trees.

Now, let me ask you, readers - does that sound like a story about resisting peer pressure to you? Or is that a story about courage, self-sacrifice, and doing the right thing for its own sake? Cyrus suffered much, gained little, and wore himself out. But he saved the lives of dozens of innocent people. That's a pretty noble character and a pretty lofty message for a colorful picture book about a sea monster, don't you think?

Addition and the introduction of a limited series of posts.

Addition (PC Game): Mass Effect 3

Over my vacation, I had a problem with the SSD caching on my computer that required me to reinstall Windows. Among the things I lost in that transition were my Mass Effect 1 and 2 saves. This did not make me happy. At all. Whatsoever.

However, since I've been in a bit of a blogging slump of late, I think what I'm going to do is chronicle my rebuilding of said saves, namely by replaying ME 1  and 2. I'm going to try to build a "definitive" save at the end of ME2, which for me means a very solidly Paragon game. 

This may or may not even work, but since I don't really foresee consuming much other media until I'm done with ME3, I figured I might as well write about what I'm doing. One thing you can be sure of, however, is that anything I post about the first two games as I prepare for the third will be riddled with spoilers. You've been warned here, and you'll be warned again at the top of each of the new posts.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Archive: Jagged Alliance 2

It seems somehow fitting that if last night's post was on my favorite ongoing game series of all time, today's would be about my favorite single game of all time.

SPOILER WARNING: This entire post is going to spoil the living daylights out of Jagged Alliance 2, its expansion pack: Unfinished Business, the demo, 1.13, two 1.13 mods, and pretty much everything else about, or tangentially related to, the game. That said: it came out in 1998. I am well within my rights to include spoilers at this point! If you haven't played the game, you have missed out on what I firmly believe was the best PC game ever made, but I have a small gift for you. Following the link in the previous sentence will take you to a FilePlanet downloads page where you can download the demo, still available almost a decade and a half after the game's initial release. Better yet, if it turns out that you like the game, it's available from for $10.

Unlike Mass Effect, Jagged Alliance 2 was very much on my radar from the moment it was announced. I followed fresh news of it with great enthusiasm, and when I finally got my hands on the demo, I played the living daylights out of it for over a year while I waited for the game proper to come out. When the game was finally released, the closest place I could get it was half an hour away, so I drove out there, picked it up as soon as the store opened, and then tore open the box and sifted through the manual in the parking lot before excitedly speeding home and installing it.

Before I get into the game itself, however, the demo deserves its own mention. Jagged Alliance 2's demo wasn't so much a demo as it was a small, separate game that used the JA2 engine. It had a large secret area, a fair amount of depth, and the maps from it appear nowhere in the main game of JA2. You can easily drop ten hours into just the demo and barely notice. It has all the tactical depth of the full game, though obviously the story is absent, and the devs didn't put the strategic level in at all for the demo. It was still the coolest thing on my PC at the time.

But that demo, as it turns out, only held a small fraction of the mind-boggling amount of content that made the full game such a masterpiece. The premise of Jagged Alliance 2 is fairly simple on the surface. The benevolent and rightful leader of a small, insignificant nation has been unseated in a coup by his brutal ex-wife. She has turned the country into a nightmarish hellhole of cruelty and oppression, but he's finally built up enough capital to hire you to take it back for him. Your job is nothing more, and nothing less, than to manage every aspect of a guerrilla war to liberate the small, forgotten nation of Arulco.

Oh, and by "every aspect," I really do mean every aspect. You must hire your team, manage their contracts, direct them in battle, negotiate with the locals, and otherwise micromanage every aspect of the battle to take back Arulco. It should, by all rights, be a miserable, tedious chore. Instead, it's a challenging, rewarding, sometimes frustrating, at other times exhilarating job. Low on funds? Seize some precious metal mines. Mercs shot up in the last battle? Get a merc with a high medical skill in to patch them up. Just liberated a town, but don't want to hang around trying to keep it under your control? Train some militia. In tactical battles, your troops can fire single shots with varying degrees of careful aim, bursts, or full-auto. They can throw grenades or throwing knives, pummel enemies with their fists, set demolitions charges, launch missiles, walk, run, crouch, and crawl along prone, and do any of these either fast or stealthy. The game takes into account weapon ranges, rates of fire, elevation, cover, camouflage, and even morale. Mercenaries can like or hate each other. Your troops ask for more money as they get better at their jobs. It goes on and on and on, but JA2's user interface is so slick, especially for a game from 1998, that you may find yourself forgetting just how deep and complex it is.

The game's story is also very good, considering how little time the game uses on exposition. Early in the game you have the opportunity to recruit a woman named Ira who acts as a tour guide of sorts as you move around the country, giving you little tidbits of history about the area you happen to be in. One of the most chilling moments in the entire thing is when you come across the ruins of the university in Cambria about halfway through the game and she casually mentions that the queen shut the university down. As you move through the map, however, it becomes apparent that she didn't do this by locking the place up after hours. The unexploded ordinance, blasted-out walls, broken windows, bloodstains, and overturned chairs tell a horrifyingly grim tale. She sent in the army while class was in session and massacred everyone. It's not explicitly stated, but the scene itself doesn't lie. And as you move further and further South, you discover more and more evidence of atrocities. By the time I reached Balime, I wanted Deidranna Reitman's head not because it was my job, but because she was a horrible monster.

That's not to say the game is emo, however. In fact, there are a ton of moments where it is laugh-out-loud funny. In what is normally the second town you liberate, Chitzena, you'll find the bickering retired American couple, John and Mary Kulba. Your mercenaries pepper firefights and downtime alike with sarcastic quips, and some of the locals are amusingly unhinged. You can send the queen flowers to taunt her. The queen's military adviser, Elliot, gets more and more beat up as Deidranna slaps him around in cut scenes as your team liberates the country. Digging into mercenary bios on the various websites reveals not a little humorous content.

And then they released Unfinished Business, which introduced more mercenaries, a mission editor, more weapons, and an entire new, if smaller, country to conquer. Snipers came into their own, shooting enemies from all the way across the map with .50 cal rifles and you could now customize your experience by building whole maps from scratch and bolting them onto the existing game.

All of this would be more than enough on its own, but after SirTech folded, the game moved out of their hands and into the hands of the Jagged Alliance modding community. At some point along the line, the game went from excellent through amazing and straight into transcendent. The inventory system in the 1.13 mod is based on load-bearing equipment, weapon attachments are no longer limited to four per weapon, the already-considerable number of weapons in the game has been massively expanded, and the ability to dig into .ini files and tweak all sorts of settings has made the game into something even more than it already was. I'd liberated Arulco with a rag-tag group of mercenaries already, but 1.13 allowed me to say "screw it" and give myself six super-elite customized mercenaries and a budget of ten million dollars. At that point, it wasn't a bunch of merceanries any more. It was much more akin to sending in the SAD or even Rainbow. Six expert operators wearing dragonskin and ghille suits, hauling FN SCAR-H and H&K SL9SD rifles while a sniper team with CheyTac M-200 Interventions watches their backs can absolutely destroy even the Arulcan elite guard. While this eliminates almost all of the game's challenge, there is a certain grim exhilaration in feeling like an avenging god of war sending lead-spitting, black-clad angels of death to punish the wicked, especially after you've liberated Tixa prison a few times in the normal game.

And then you can take this even further by stacking the AIM or IoV mods on top. Even more weapons and equipment. Or put Wildfire on and get new, even better maps, but the same story. Or Deidranna Lives and get a whole new story. Or... get the idea. Oh, and everything in this paragraph and the last one is free if you own a copy of the base game. If you're interested, check out the Bear's Pit. The community there is fairly friendly, and there are links all over the place to everything you need to get started. And the mod community is still very active, even 14 years after the original game's release.

With all of this going for it and no end in sight, is it any wonder that JA2 is my favorite game of all time? That I've installed it on every PC I've ever had since it came out? That I don't think I've gone more than 3 months without playing it at least a little since its release? I’ve never thought so. It’s a rare game that holds up this long, even with mods, but in a way, I think that makes it even more special.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Archive: Mass Effect 1 & 2

Since Mass Effect 3 is coming in just two weeks (NOT THAT I'M COUNTING) and its prequels have absorbed so much of my free time of late, it seems appropriate that the first of my new series of posts on notable pieces of media from my past would focus on the Mass Effect universe.

SPOILER WARNING: this post contains massive and extensive spoilers for Mass Effect 1 and 2, and some speculative spoiling for 3 based on the art book that's currently out.Those who have not played the games probably should not read this post at all. It contains both spoilers and the assumption that the reader has some knowledge that playing the games will provide. Also: I played both of the games as a male, Paragon ("good") Shepard, so my commentary and perspective are highly colored by this.

When Mass Effect first came out, I really didn't even notice it. I had nothing particularly against the game, it just wasn't on my radar. I wasn't really following the games industry that closely back in 2007 and so I missed it at launch. I did, however, catch the manufactured controversy over it and subsequent backlash and sheepish retractions. Out of curiosity, I picked it up in 2008 on sale (I want to say for about $20?) from a Gamestop and tried it out. The game "clicked" with me almost immediately. A lot of the things that I was skeptical of in the game, such as full voice acting and the dialog wheel, worked far better than I'd anticipated they would.

It wasn't until later that I really came to appreciate the universe. Mass Effect created a clean-looking, sleek future and then populated it with politics and flawed characters that ring true. All of the major races have good and bad people in them, ambiguous motivations, rivalries, friendships, and individuals that go against the norm. That plausible, believable feel absorbed me and then, just when I thought the game had nothing else it could throw at me, the encounter with Sovereign on Virmire happened. The whole cosmic horror angle gave me a whole new appreciation for the series and hooked me even more, because Commander Shepard's reaction to staring down an ancient being that is equal parts Cthulhu and Terminator is to spit in its eye.

That reaction, and the theme it implies, is something that has always stood out to me as cool about the Mass Effect series. The odds are stupidly high - Reapers have been exterminating advanced civilizations for at least 37 million years, and probably much longer than that. The cosmic horror is unmistakeable, and yet one of the central themes to the series is that there is, even in the face of that, some hope left.The Protheans, staring into the face of their own oblivion, peppered the galaxy with nuggets of aid for the next civilization that would follow. They identified some of the Reapers' few vulnerabilities and pushed on them in subtle ways. And they did this not to save themselves, which they knew was impossible, but to give those that came after them a fighting chance. And it actually makes a difference. It even seems to be the case from The Art of Mass Effect that one of the Protheans somehow managed to stay alive in stasis for 50,000 years so they could aid the next civilization.

There has been some interesting writing about how postmodern and progressive the games are, and there is certainly something to that, but equally interesting is how (especially for a Paragon path through the games) a lot of the plot revolves around rejecting or refusing to accept certain bleak "truths" in various ways. One of your potential squadmates, Ashley Williams, is an avowed theist (and it is possible for Commander Shepard to be one as well) and much of the plot for a Paragon Shepard revolves around themes of hope, compassion, self-sacrifice, and individualism. Mass Effect 2 in particular is practically an essay on the idea of individualism in game form. Commander Shepard is such a unique, singular individual that Cerberus, an agency that opposes him in the first and third games, retrieves his freeze-dried body and reconstructs him, his death and subsequent return making him into a messianic figure. In other words, despite the cosmic horror, the series is both in possession of traditional Western values to at least some extent, and is an archetypical Hero's Journey in the truest mythological sense.

Also interesting is that it seems like there is a definite theme of forgiveness and reconciliation to be found in the series. The Geth, basically a form of cannon fodder in the first game, are shown to be far more sympathetic than originally portrayed in the second game, and in fact seem far more interested in being allowed to keep existing than exacting any sort of revenge on the Quarians. If the player brings Legion along on Tali's loyalty mission and talks to the Quarian admiral pushing for peace, it becomes apparent that the Geth may be sort of an anti-Terminator. Terminators are summed up in the memorable quote of: "Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead." On the other hand, Geth can be bargained with, reasoned with, and while they don't seem to feel fear, necessarily, it is hinted at that one thing they certainly do not feel is hatred, or even a desire for revenge. Despite numerous attempts by the Quarians to wipe them out, the Geth do not wish to eradicate the Quarians. EDI also exemplifies this. Alternately mocked, distrusted, and used as a tool, "she" takes pains to save the crew and the ship and even demonstrates a willingness to help people - because she wants to. Squadmates forgive the player and occasionally even each other for making choices that they don't agree with, sometimes passionately. In the original game, Saren and Matriarch Benezia both express regret at what their actions have wrought, and it is possible for Shepard to forgive a race that had formerly been eradicated for their misdeeds and allow them to start anew.

With all of that and some really top-notch cover shooting besides (to say nothing of the fantastic dialog writing and voice acting) it's no small wonder that Mass Effect 3 is probably my most anticipated game ever. I am really happy it's coming out soon.

An Apology

Well, I went into February with all sorts of grandiose plans... ...and they fell apart. There's a week left in the month, and this is my only post so far. I'm not sure where I hit my tipping point, exactly, but at some point in there, I piled too much on my plate, and shortly thereafter I dumped most of what I was on it into the metaphorical trash can.

By polling for what I should consume and setting myself a large to-do list, I inadvertently just gave myself a pile of work to do that wasn't any fun in aggregate, even if the individual pieces would be, and since this isn't a commercial blog, and therefore isn't really a responsibility, I shirked it. My last week was spent on vacation, and that should have afforded tons of time to catch up on the backlog. But, I didn't. I played Mass Effect 2 instead. And that was fun. So I guess I'm going back to the old way of doing things, but I think I'm also going to work in some new posts about some of my favorite pieces of media over the years.

You see, I've got a ton of them, and they all deserve a shot. And while I may not have just read, watched, or played them, they had an effect on me, so I'm going to write about them. I might go back and revisit them, or I may write from memory. I'm still going to keep knocking new stuff off the list, but I think giving some of my old favorites a post here and there may make this blog a lot more fun for me to do, and hopefully, it'll also make it more fun for you to read. Here's a (partial) list of stuff that may eventually make the list of posts I'm going to call The Archive.

PC Games: The Fallout games, the Mass Effect games, the Baldur's Gate series, Half-Life 2, Diablo 2, Civilization IV, Jagged Alliance 2 (despite the fact that I've blogged it once already), Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, Syndicate, The King's Quest Series, the Dawn of War series, the Quest for Glory series, Silent Storm

Movies: Die Hard, Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan, Anne of Green Gables, Identity, The Matrix, Equilibrium, Tombstone, Ronin, Heat, Collateral, Black Hawk Down, L.A. Confidential, The Incredibles, The Dark Knight, Lord of the Rings, Les Miserables, Wanted, Braveheart, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Emperor's New Groove, Rat Race, Tremors, Taken, Thirty Days of Night, Cloverfield, Narc, The Fugitive

TV Series: The Shield, Firefly, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Sons of Anarchy, Kirk, Foyle's War, Batman: The Animated Series, 24, Lost, Band of Brothers

Nonfiction Books: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Wild at Heart, When Christians Get it Wrong, Nickel and Dimed, Sneaky uses for Everyday Things, What Cops Know, GURPS Basic Set, Third Edition

Fiction Books: Astro City: Confession, Night Watch (by Terry Pratchett), God's Demon, Wizard's First Rule, the Mistborn Trilogy, The Man Who Used the Universe, Slipt, This Present Darkness, The Tim Rackley series, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent, Rainbow Six

And like I mentioned earlier, this is a partial list. Some of it's serious, some of it's less so, and there are varying levels of depth, but there are a lot of things that have made an impression on me that I think I can pepper into this blog to jazz it up a bit. I will at least try to pad February out with some of these. Probably at least one every other day.