Monday, December 03, 2012

Alpha and Omega

I've been getting back into Mass Effect 3 lately. I officially beat the single-player game back in July, but since then I've periodically checked back in to the multiplayer campaign, typically just accomplishing the weekend challenges to unlock promotional weapons from the Commendation Packs. In the last couple of weeks, though, my multiplayer has "graduated" to first place in my gaming rotation. That's driven by a couple of things, but the biggest is probably the release of the Retaliation expansion and its accompanying Challenge system. The challenges are structured to give you nice goals and things to look forward to, and along the way, they've been prompting me to break out of my rut and try some new stuff, with great results.

For example, I've almost always played an engineer in multiplayer, with occasional forays into other classes. The new weekend challenge system, though, has included some awesome, fun challenges that force you to play with a specific type of character. There was one where you had to score a certain number of points with fire-based attacks (Incinerate, Carnage, Flamer, Flame Turret, etc.); another required doing a certain amount of damage through Biotic Charge; this weekend's was to set off a large number of Biotic Explosions. The resulting teams are fairly chaotic, but way too much fun. I would have thought that playing with four Vanguards would be disastrous, and to be sure people died a LOT more than typical, but everyone seemed good-natured, and took advantage of the opportunity to earn some Revive medals. The fire-based and biotic explosion challenges seem like they may be designed to help educate the players about the mechanics and use of Mass Effect's explosion system. If so, it was successful: players can see first-hand just how quickly matches can be won when everyone is setting up and setting off one anothers' explosions.

Along the way, I've finally made the step up to regularly playing on Silver difficulty. There are a lot of things that change from Bronze to Silver: enemies are faster, and hit harder; ammo boxes have fewer grenades; less health is restored after each round; bosses appear in earlier waves (Reapers by Wave Four in Silver versus Wave Seven in Bronze); and there's no limit to the number of times a boss can appear in a wave. During Operation Blast Furnace, I started playing with my Vorcha Soldier, and was surprised at how easy he made it. The Vorcha is an interesting character: with his Bloodlust skill, he's able to regenerate health, but his regeneration rate is dependent on having recent kills. This led to a COMPLETELY different playstyle than I was used to. Generally, as an engineer, I hang back behind cover, spawn a helper to draw fire, and opportunistically take shots with my powers when I can. As a Vorcha soldier, though, I strapped on my flamethrower, started running around, and learned to kill kill kill kill KILL THEM ALL CAN'T STOP MUST DESTROY WARGHARGHAWARGHA!

I kept playing with the character after beating the challenge, and started to get a better appreciation for what he does. He especially shines against the Reapers, who used to be my least-favorite faction to play against, but their mindless hordes of fodder were actually a perfect match for the soldier's mechanics. I'll typically start off by finding some Husks and Cannibals, and use my Flamethrower to quickly kill them, gaining several stacks of Bloodlust. I then run around the field, mowing down all the weak enemies I find. My biggest target is Ravagers, who are hands-down the most dangerous Reaper enemy. I used to always hate facing them, but now, if I have full stacks of Bloodlust, I can actually regenerate my health more quickly than Ravagers can shoot it down; and so I can face them with my flamethrower and burn them down in three seconds, rather than cower behind cover for half a minute or longer. I love it, and I'm sure my teammates appreciate it as well. The health regeneration is what gave me the confidence to try the build out on Silver. I equipped some one-time-use equipment for my first game, made sure to play against Reapers, and was really pleased with how it went. I died a few times, and it was definitely harder, but in a good way: I felt like I needed to be smarter, and more aware of the battlefield, my position and the enemies'.

For about two weeks, every game I played (except for Challenge matches) was a Silver Reapers game. This had a great side-effect: more cash! I typically finish a Bronze match in about 15-20 minutes. A silver match usually takes just a bit longer, a little over 20. (Though, a game on Glacier can take as little as 17.) But, a Silver match awards roughly twice as many credits as Bronze does, and I usually walk away with around 35k in credits. That means that I'm now getting a Premium Spectre Pack after every three matches, unlike before, when it would take seven Bronze matches to get one. That's meant more and better gear, new character unlocks, upgraded weapons, and carry capacity. I think that I've finally reached my maximum for the number of missiles, medi-gels, ammo packs, and survival packs I can take into each mission.

While I love tearing things up with my Vorcha, the Challenge system has been giving me some good incentives to try out some other builds. Thanks to my proclivity with engineers, and the fact that Flamer counts as a tech ability, I was about halfway towards reaching the Tech Mastery achievement. This would unlock a nifty banner, "Mathemagician", which would display in the lobby. To finish the remaining parts, though, I would need to try out some other types of characters to get some points from rarer skills. So, I played with the N7 Paladin's Snap Freeze a bunch, and the Krogan Sentinel's Tech Armor, and so on. I was bummed to realize that I couldn't actually get the banner, though, since I was missing three characters who had four of the rarest abilities: Submission Net, Geth Turret, Shadow Strike, and Electric Slash. So, I went back to my Silver Reaper games with my Vorcha, and sure enough, I eventually unlocked the N7 Slayer character. A couple of matches later, I had my swanky new banner!

I'm finally getting to the point where I'm comfortable playing Silver with other classes and other races. This weekend I did most of the challenge as an Asari Adept playing on Silver, and after getting my packs, I moved on to some other classes: the Drell Adept, and most recently the hilarious Volus Adept. I'm mostly poking away at the Biotic God challenge, but I'm also enjoying building up my skills for Silver without the crutch of infinite health regeneration.

Against this backdrop of multiplayer goodness, I was feeling even more positively disposed towards the Mass Effect universe than usual, and so I perked right up when I heard about the latest DLC expansion for the single-player game. Mass Effect: Omega is set in the Omega space station, possibly my favorite location in Mass Effect 2, and features Aria T'Loak, my favorite recurring character from the series. I haven't bought any of the other DLC for the game - there have been two campaign expansions and a couple of smaller cosmetic weapon or appearance packs - but this story just seemed too good to pass up.

MINI SPOILERS FOR MASS EFECT: OMEGA

Omega is set during the main campaign of Mass Effect 3, so I loaded a save game from before the final push. I suspect that it's playable after you recruit the Blood Pack during the main campaign. In my case, I got an email from Aria inviting me to a meeting on the Citadel (docking bay 42!), and from there we headed off to retake her station.

I was very pleased with the high level of polish in the expansion. There are plenty of great cut-scenes, dialogue, interesting moral choices to make, some Renegade interrupts. I couldn't find credits specifically for this expansion, but I'm pretty sure that Carrie-Anne Moss is reprising her role as Aria. Her dialog is as awesome as always: she's curt, arrogant, and supremely confident, even when her position seems objectively weak. There were also some wonderful little moments in her scenes. She has some amazing miniscule eye-rolls when someone says something particularly virtuous or naive. Jennifer Hale reprises her voice work as Shepard, and is as wonderful as I've come to expect. She's never showy, and perfectly expresses the role of a strong woman in a dangerous situation. There's also a cool new character (the first female Turian we've seen!) and a colorful assortment of minor Batarians, Vorcha, Turians, and Asari. Almost no humans to be seen, aside from a cute hacker at a terminal.

The combat is pretty fun. I should not have been surprised to discover that my months of playing multiplayer have totally spoiled me for the single-player game; I ended up taking the difficulty all the way up to Insanity, and still was able to beat all the fights without dying or using medi-gel. My companions were less useful than my human companions in multiplayer, but I would still treat them somewhat similarly. Back in engineer mode once more, I would stick behind cover, deploy my tools (Combat Drone PLUS Sentry Turret PLUS Defense Drone), then proceed to fight. With a better understanding of power explosions, I now alternate between Overload and Incinerate, and thus can set off a lot of helpful explosions. My companions would inevitably die, but rather than medi-gel them I would rush to their side, revive, and then get back into cover.

The fights do often feel rather different from Multiplayer, though. In MP, you're in a fixed combat space, and need to survive or accomplish objectives there. In Omega, you're generally moving forward through an area, and rarely backtracking. The levels are still interesting - there's lots of cover, some exposed zones, often multiple levels of elevation, etc. - so that was a nice change of pace. Most of the fights are simple "kill all the bad guys as you go from Point A to Point B" missions, but a few fights towards the end had more complex objectives to accomplish during a fight. Those final fights were the most difficult in Omega, but still probably a bit easier than the fight against Kai Leng, and much easier than the big London battle.

The enemies you fight are mostly Cerberus, primarily the units we've come to know and love from the single-player campaign, but they've also added in the Dragoon that was created for multiplayer, as well as a tech unit that seems unique to this DLC. There's also a new species they've created, which looks really impressive, although almost no time is spent actually fighting them.

It isn't all fighting, of course: besides the cut scenes, you also spend a bit of time in ally-controlled sectors of Omega. This is like a very stripped-down version of the Citadel: there are a couple of people you can talk to, one or two optional missions to pick up, and a single store that sells some upgrades. (One piece of advice: buy every upgrade that you want as soon as you can. You won't have many opportunities to return there.)

As usual, I generally followed the Paragon path, although I did take one Renegade interrupt (shooting out a security camera) and a handful of Renegade dialog choices (while I want to preserve as much civilian life as possible, I don't have any problem with Aria returning to her dictatorial role: I want a strong ally holding down that region). The DLC ended for me with a typically bittersweet mixed outcome. I'm curious now if my choices could have altered the outcome... it would be in keeping with Mass Effect's approach to storytelling if making a choice to sacrifice the lives of innocent civilians could have prevented the death of someone I cared for.

END MINI SPOILERS for MASS EFFECT: OMEGA

 On the whole, I was really happy with the DLC. I'll address my complaints first. Most of my issues with this are the same as my problems with ME3 as a whole:
  • It's extremely easy to miss items located in a mission - datapads, salvage, credits, weapons and upgrades. It's frustrating since, unlike ME1, you can't revisit an area later to grab anything you missed the first time around; and unlike ME2, you need to be almost on top of an item before it will display in your reticule. I really wish there was some indication that items are remaining to be found.
  • There are a few minor graphical glitches. Nothing too major, but occasionally characters will zap into the frame. On one elevator ride, Aria's shadow was dancing on the floor psychotically.
  • I have a hard time justifying the price tag. On the one hand, it's a great expansion. On the other hand, it's $15. I bought it on Saturday night and had beaten it by Sunday night, and I wasn't playing non-stop. It's about a third the cost of the entire game of ME3, and adds the equivalent of one planet's missions.
If money is an issue, then I'd recommend waiting for a bit, as I'm sure that Bioware will eventually release an "ultimate edition" with all DLCs included. Playing through this DLC, while a good experience, actually makes me less inclined to pick up the first two ("From Ashes" and "Leviathan") - both of those are just $10, so I doubt that they would be any longer or more impressive than this one, and besides, I'm still irked at From Ashes being a Day One DLC. (Conversely, I feel increasingly dismayed that I never tried out "Lair of the Shadow Broker" from ME2, and I'm pretty sure that I'll never go back to experience it.)

If you can swing the cash, though, it's definitely worth checking out Omega. It adds lots of wonderful character moments with Shepard and Aria, and feels like a worthy addition to the Mass Effect epic. Be aware that it's a bit on the short side, but everything you do is fun, so minute-for-minute it's a wonderful expansion.

Switching topics:

I was GOING to say that I had wrapped up Fallen London, but it looks like my timing has been impeccable: right around the time I finished the last storyline, Failbetter started rolling out some new content. Much of the focus has been an extension to the Seeking Mr. Eaten's Name plotline, which I personally do not participate in, but has been fascinating to hear about second-hand. I've also seen some new heists crop up, and some recent changes to the faction Opportunity cards make it look like another wave of plots are coming up.

MINI SPOILERS for FALLEN LONDON

I'm currently frantically running through the Fidgeting Writer sequence, and I think that I, erm, might end up with an Overgoat. I know, I know, I'd sworn that I wouldn't do it, but I'm so close now!

The last storyline I did was the Mystery of the Plaster Face, and boy, am I ever glad I saved it for last - if I had tried it earlier in the game, I'm pretty sure I would have quit in frustration. So much about it irritates me... starting the second phase will cut off the chance to experience the first phase, without giving you any warning of doing such; the second phase requires a horrendous grinding without any intermediate progress (basically, keep trying a nearly impossible luck-based challenge until you succeed, and get hit by nightmares for each of the many, many, many, many times that you fail); for the bulk of the plot, I was paying my way to keep my companions safe and boost a quality to progress; only to learn that, in the latter phase of the plot, I needed to DECREASE the same quality I had spent so much money increasing, and would have been far better off not parting with the cash; THEN I lost my favorite companion in the whole game, and wound up with a nifty-but-useless pet at the end. It was pretty horrible at every step of the way, and if I wasn't such a completist I would have given up long ago; as it stands, I'm mad at myself for wasting so much time and so many resources when I could have been doing Fidgeting Writer instead.

So, if you're wondering whether to do the Mystery of the Plaster Face, I'd kind of urge against it; but if you want to give it a try anyways (and, from what I can tell, it isn't NEARLY as painful as SMEN), here are a few tips.
  • If you think you might want to eventually do "A Night-time Conference" (the storylet in your lodgings with your rats), do NOT take the first step in "The Mystery of the Plaster Face" (the storylet in your lodgings with, well, a plaster face). Starting the latter cuts off access to the former.
  • I think that A Night-time Conference may actually let you get through the Plaster Face without that luck-based challenge, though you may need to build up a Quality a certain amount to do so. If you do need the luck challenge, though, be prepared to bang your head against a wall for quite a long time - it took me about 20 tries to get it. For me, a good approach was to grind that storylet until my Nightmares reached 5; then take a break and go back to other stuff, using helpful Opportunity cards (A Moment's Peace, A Familiar Face by the School Railings, etc.) to bring Nightmares back down to around 2, then go back to grinding. You'll eventually get it.
  • I don't have great advice to give for the middle portion... I think it might be best to stick with the cheaper bribes all the way through, but maybe it's worthwhile to grind it out with some disposable rats. 
  • For the love of all that is good and holy, do NOT use your disgraced bandit chief ever, for anything, under any circumstances. It simply isn't safe. And you'll cry.
Other than that miserable experience, though, I'm still generally enjoying the game. I do look forward to acquiring my Overgoat, and suspect that by the time it's in my greedy hands, the next tier of content will be available for me to explore.

END MINI SPOILERS for FALLEN LONDON

And, as long as I'm posting random stuff....

MINI SPOILERS for SKYRIM

I'm continuing along Skyrim, though less quickly now that I'm back on Mass Effect. I've completely finished the Thieves Guild quests, and think that I'm nearing a climax of the Dark Brotherhood. After this, I think I'll probably switch back to the main quest. I'm not too interested in the Companions or the College of Winterhold factions, and many of the other missions are basic "explore dungeon X to acquire item Y and return it to person Z" endeavors.

I do still want to figure out how to buy more houses - so far I've only gotten the ones in Whiterun, Riften and Solitude.  The one in Solitude is awesome - it's sort of a cross between a townhouse and a mansion, three stories of luxury. That's where I took my wife after our wedding. Oh, yeah, that's right - I got married!

After experiencing the romance systems in Bioware games, romance in Skyrim is... pretty hilarious. It's also another great example of the philosophical differences between Bioware and Bethesda. Bioware, in their quest for curated experiences, will offer a handful of romance options; each one will be a full, complex, creative creature, with long relationship plots, myriad dialog options, and ways for you to shape and influence the relationship and your partner. Bethesda, as typical, trades off quality for quantity. You can marry any one of... well, at least dozens, and probably scores, of people. They're rather forward-thinking in that you can marry someone of either gender, and also of any species you like: Nord, Redguard, elf, lizard, cat, whatever. The romance itself is pretty laughable. You need to wear a special ring, see. Then talk to that person. If they're interested in you, they'll comment on your ring. You express your own interest. Then they agree to marry you! The ceremony itself is pretty cute - it's held in a chapel in Riften, with your housecarls on one side and your beloved's associates on the other - and they wear a pretty wedding dress. Afterwards, you can decide whether to move in with her or send her to one of your houses. And then... that's pretty much it. She'll stay there, making you home-cooked meals and providing an extra experience bonus. I think there's like a single line of dialog post-marriage to hear; otherwise she'll keep repeating stuff she'd otherwise say.

Oh, yeah: I ended up marrying Muiri, a cute apothecary's assistant from Markarth who had me murder her ex-boyfriend. I know, I know, THAT old story. I was also kind of interested in Sapphire, from the Thieves' Guild, but she doesn't seem to be marriageable. Aela the Huntress will actually accompany you on your journeys, but personality-wise she didn't seem to be a great match with my character. I'm still much more of a lone wolf, preferring to sneak through dungeons with my dual-wielded daggers rather than leading a charge of companions.

And, as long as we're comparing franchises, playing through ME so close to Skyrim has reminded me of yet another difference: just how pointless so much of Skyrim's dialog is. There are almost no points where you actually get to make any decisions when talking to someone. In most quest-related dialog, there's only one single line to "choose" from. In some cases, like the Dark Brotherhood quests, there might be three responses, but none of them will have any material outcome on the mission. I have so few opportunities to establishing my character's personality. It feels a little constricting.

However, there is one BIG choice you can make in the game, and I have been putting off making it. Skyrim is taking place against the backdrop of two crises. The first, most obvious one is the return of dragons. The second one, which I think is actually more interesting, is a... well, a revolution or a civil war, depending on your perspective. This game takes place hundreds of years after the end of Oblivion, and the Empire has gone through many changes: the Septim dynasty has ended, it's been involved in a war against the Dominion (an alliance of Altmer and Bosmer elves), been forced to sign a humiliating treaty that, amongst other things, forbids worship of Talos. In Skyrim, the Nords are increasingly disillusioned by the Empire and their role in it.

There's a struggle for power between two factions of Nords. One, led by Ulfric Stormcloak and based in Windhelm, seeks to claim independence from the Empire and establish a free Skyrim led by the Nords. The other, led by the puppet ruler Elsif and based in Solitude, seeks to continue Skyrim's membership in the Empire. At the start of the game, I had assumed that I'd be backing the side of independence. Since, you know, I'm in favor of freedom and against oppression and tyranny. So I created a Nord character, sided with the Nord prisoner during the initial attack, and even freed another Nord prisoner on the road.

As I'm delving deeper into the story, though, I'm growing increasingly drawn towards Elsif's faction. Part of this is based on my understanding that the Empire is essentially like the Roman Empire here on Earth: yeah, they're in charge, and have big armies, and appoint puppets to rule; but, they're generally happy to let their subjects run their own lives so long as they don't fight the empire, and they tie together most of the world in a multicultural, cosmopolitan quilt that's helpful for trade and culture. I've also come to understand that the Nord faction is pretty, um, racist. You never see any Khajit inside the Nord cities, and it's extremely rare to see any Argonians. The Empire-friendly cities, while still dominated by Nords, seem much more tolerant of other races and cultures. While I myself play as a Nord, and so I don't directly feel that hostility, it's still something that's pulling me towards allying with the Legion.

END MINI SPOILERS for SKYRIM

Last night's Dexter seriously bummed me out. This happens to me EVERY SEASON since the second one: The show starts out really promising, the first few episodes seem to be taking the show in an intriguing direction... then everything gets stupid, and awful, and I hate myself for getting fooled again into watching it. Note to self: next year, don't be swayed by independent reviewers who say "this season looks good!" - wait until the END of the season when they can use that phrase in the past tense. I'll save hours of time that can be devoted to more worthy programs.

On the plus side, I didn't think it was possible, but I love Parks and Recreation more than ever this season. That show continues to evolve, taking characters in believable, heartfelt, hilarious new directions. I'm really enjoying Tom's arc - I'm one of the few viewers who loved the Entertainment 720 storyline, and it's great to see him learning from his mistakes and trying to succeed again. And the relationships on that show - April/Andy and Ben/Leslie - are just delightful, and growing better as time goes on.

Speaking of relationships, last week's 30 Rock was one of my all-time favorite episodes. Jack Donaghy's reading from Atlas Shrugged was a definite highpoint.

The Walking Dead has been pretty painful this season, but I gotta say, it's still less painful than the comic books. I've been cringing during all the scenes in Woodbury, and am very, very glad to see that the show's creators have stayed away from the most sadistic elements of that sequence in the books. It's been interesting to watch The Walking Dead as an adaptation; they take a far looser approach to the source material than Game of Thrones does, and still hit many of the same story beats while radically changing around characters, timelines, and settings.

I've finally started watching the reboot of Doctor Who, starting with the Eccleston season. It's... very cheesy. I've been assured that it gets better.

Um, I think that's it for now! So many games, so much great TV... it's a wonder I ever manage to read any books these days!

UPDATE: I grabbed some screenshots from my play-through of Mass Effect: Omega. These should probably be considered mega-spoilers. Also, I can't believe it took me until now to realize that, since Omega is typically used to mean "end" (as in, you know, the title of this blog post), that name may have been a deliberate choice from Bioware to indicate that this will be the final piece of content in Shepard's story. Something to think about!

2 comments:

rahkan said...

Entertainment 720 wasn't popular? I enjoyed it too. That was so much fun. Especially the final blow-out party they threw.

Also, I always meant to play Skyrim and the Mass Effect series but never got around to it...

Christopher Charles Horatio Xavier King III, Esq. said...

Yeah, it seems like nearly every critic review of Parks seems to think Tom is a "weak link" on the show, and cites E720 as a low point. I don't get it. Part of why I like that arc so much might be because I'm a Midwesterner who moved to Silicon Valley, and E720 is the reverse of that movement: E720 presents a Californian attitude towards business, dropped in the middle of a practical Midwestern.

I HIGHLY recommend Mass Effect. Taking the series as a whole, it may have the best story of any video game I've played. It also has a really interesting, well-fleshed-out sci-fi world, which you might appreciate. The Trilogy edition just came out, which bundles all three games together, so if you're curious you can check it out!