Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Bottom line up front: Mass Effect 3: Citadel is probably the best expansion I've ever bought for a current-generation RPG.

And now, to provide a bit more, un-spoilery detail...

I'm on record as hesitating to purchase Citadel, mostly because I was unhappy with the idea of playing it out-of-order. Chronologically, the expansion takes place in a late act of the game, but prior to the ending sequence. (Unlike, for example, something like Lair of the Shadow Broker, which could be played either before or after the final mission of Mass Effect 2.) I felt like I already had a definitive version of my Shepard's story, and so was reluctant to splice something into the middle.

After playing through the game, I have to admit that it actually works quite well. The expansion strikes a lot of great notes, and also provides a pleasant feeling of closure and, dare I say it, catharsis. I'm trying to think of a good analogy... well, it's similar to what the TV show Lost did sometimes, when a particular character's life would end poorly, but later episodes would recall earlier, happier times with them, and thus feel more satisfying than a straightforward chronological recounting might. It's a bit like a flash-back epilogue, if that makes sense; after the story is all over, you look back on earlier times, and celebrate the lives you have saved and the community you have created.

I'm kind of jumping ahead here - while there's lots of great emotional stuff in here, it's far from the only thing you'd get for fifteen bucks. So, what else is provided? For starters, there's a cool new plot with a bunch of linked missions. These aren't quite as long as Omega, but it's on a similar scale. You meet new NPCs, get to make some interesting (if not hugely consequential) decisions (including a couple of paragon/renegade interrupts), meet some new enemy types, have a cool and well-designed boss fight, etc.

Even this portion of the expansion, though, is already providing lots of meat for those of us who are more invested in the story of Mass Effect. Audio logs and holograms provide lots of insight into the backgrounds of people you know, and also provide glimpses at some crucial moments of Council history. There's some fascinating stuff about the Genophage, and AIs, and even Shepard's recruitment. If someone wanted to just play through the mission, you could totally skip all of that stuff, but I probably spent well over an hour all told just plumbing the various nuggets of history and biography it offered up.

This portion of the expansion is also really fun for including your whole squad (including a blast from the past). Sure, at any given moment you only have two teammates under your control, but the rest of the folks are still present in the field: you'll see them racing ahead to secure a checkpoint, or providing suppressing fire from above. And there's a lot of chatter, too... Garrus in particular has some fantastic lines to offer during combat.

Oh, yeah, I should make this very clear: the expansion is funny. The actual mission isn't a joke, but the banters and dialog have what's probably the sharpest, funniest writing and line-reading from any Bioware project ever. It can draw on all we've come to know about these characters over the years, jokingly referencing their quirks and past missions, and even gently breaking the fourth wall at times. (At one point, a new NPC asks about joining the team, and says something like, "It seems to involve a lot of... getting shot at." Garrus's reply is along the lines of, "Yes, there's lots of getting shot, and shooting, and running. Occasionally there's a button to be pushed, but Shepard always takes care of that." Ha!) There are also fantastic ambient dialogs to eavesdrop on. Much later, we see the impresario who mounted that all-Elcor production of Hamlet back in Mass Effect 2; his new project is casting a Krogan as Macbeth. He mentions to his fawning admirer that he's trying to find Pyjaks for the production. Confused, she says, "I don't remember any Pyjaks in Macbeth. Unless... were they in Birnam Wood? Did the Pyjaks come to Dunsinane?"

My favorite ambient dialog, though, is probably between a human woman (who self-identifies as an N7 Shadow) and a Vorcha soldier. They're talking shop about some of the missions they've been on, and when you overhear them, you realize that they're discussing Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer. Not just in the abstract, too: very specifically, complaints about how bad teammates have ruined matches. Some examples:
  • An ex-Cerberus Vanguard who ran over to activate a beacon. N7 Shadow: "That should be my job! I'm an Infiltrator, I can cloak for it!" Vorcha: "Yesssss! Infiltrator good! Also an engineer, with a drone or decoy! Or me! Because I don't die!" I have to say, I literally laughed out loud at that - it's so funny, and completely true. First of all, Vanguards are pretty notorious for doing stupid things, and since their skills are all oriented to zipping around the field, uploading a beacon is the worst thing they can do. I tend to play as either an Engineer or a Soldier, and I often try to do the activations for exactly the reasons he noted: as a Human or Salarian Engineer, I can give another target for enemies to shoot out, and if I'm a Vorcha with three stacks of Bloodlust, I can heal through it while enemies are shooting at or chewing on me.
  • "And then later, that SAME ex-Cerberus Vanguard goes to pick up a package! And before he can make it back to the drop-off point, he loses his shields. So, what does he do? He charges!" Vorcha: "Gah! Charging bad! Makes drop package!" Shadow: "I know! If you charge, or if you activate a cloak, it makes you drop the package. So if you're going to charge or cloak, don't take the package in the first place!" I can't add anything more... because I've said all that before!
  • Shadow: "... and then he starts meleeing everyone!" Vorcha: "Not problem! Claws good!" Shadow: "Well, it was a Banshee." Vorcha: "Nooooo! Claws bad!"
Anyways. There's just so much I love about that. Partly because it makes me feel like I'm on the inside of the joke.  I also love how it continues to tie in the multiplayer experience with the single-player story, and makes me feel like the missions I do in MP really are part of the galactic struggle.

So, yes: there's strong humor throughout, both during the missions and in the more ambient areas. Those ambient areas are the second major addition in this expansion: you can access a new area on the Citadel called the Silversun Strip. This is a recreational area, and besides having gorgeous environments and tons of NPCs, it also has a whole bunch of game-within-a-game options. There's a casino with games ranging from roulette to varren racing to quasar. An arcade has futuristic updates of Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots and a crane game and some video games. (Shepard: "Towers of Hanoi? I don't think so.")

The highlight of this area, for me, was a combat simulator. I'd initially thought that this would be a single-player clone of the multiplayer experience; that really isn't the case, but there are some analogies. Like ME3 MP, you can select a combination of stage, enemy type, and difficulty. Completing a mission will give you a token, which you can then use to unlock other features (new enemy types, new teammates, new difficulty conditions), or cash in for credits. The maps are all wholly original, though, and are quite good; I think they would feel cramped for ME3 MP, but are a great size in single-player. I haven't unlocked them all, but there's one on an asteroid, and a really fun one on a speeding train. The best part, though, might be your teammates: you start off with access to your standard ME3 companions, but you can unlock companions from ME1 and ME2. So, for example, if you ever wanted to play with both Wrex and Grunt on your team... now you can! Or you can bring Miranda and Liara together. All of the new characters enter at your level, but haven't allocated their skills, so you can level them up however you want.

So, yeah... I spent another good hour or so playing around with this. The matches themselves are fun, and as you advance in them, you start getting fan mail. People will write in and ask or challenge you to fight under certain conditions: get through a match without medi-gel, for example, or fight the Reapers by yourself, or fight Cerberus with an all-Alliance team. Accomplishing these will give you extra bonuses: higher reputation, or credits, or weapon mods, and so on. There's also a scoreboard where you can track your progress against other players (including the champion, Aria T'Loak, and James Vega). Once you max out your score (which doesn't take TOO long - I think I maybe played a grand total of five games, albeit aggressively increasing difficulty and rewards along the way) you are rewarded with a new suit of armor that I think is the best in the game. Compared to my previous Inferno Armor, this has the same boosts to power damage and recharge, but also provided some shield bonuses on top of that.

The third and final aspect of the Citadel DLC is a wealth of interactions with virtually every major surviving teammate, and some touching invocations of the non-surviving ones. Some of these are conversations, others are outings; most are humorous, some are touching; all of them look great and nicely recall the importance of Shepard's relationships.

MEGA SPOILERS (for both Citadel and ME3)

Jumping back in time a bit: I was pretty impressed by the main action-oriented part of the DLC. I mean, the "evil twin" thing has definitely been done before, but the way they tied it in to the prologue of Mass Effect 2 was pretty brilliant. I did suspect early on that Brooks was a traitor. That's the risk of introducing an entirely new NPC at the same time you learn that there's a traitor around. I was surprised, though, to find out that she was actually the one pulling the strings, and was also surprised by the details of her Cerberus involvement.

While the gamplay of Citadel varies a lot, I actually thought that the themes were very consistent. It's quite focused on the idea that Shepard is remarkable, but what makes her so successful is the people she's come to trust and work with. This idea is introduced fairly early on when you listen to Anderson's memoir notes and interviews; there's a lengthy interview he gave to an Earth reporter where he muses on the importance of leadership in improving the effectiveness of a squad. I think this idea was illustrated extremely well at the climactic fight in the Normandy cargo bay. Why did the "real" Shepard survive and the "fake" one not? Shepard's friends ran out into danger to save her. Pseudo-Shepard's creator turned away and abandoned her. (And, as she herself later admits when I ordered her sent to prison, her own creation wouldn't have shown her the mercy I did.)

The entire third act is basically a celebration of this idea. Friends help you get things done, but they're also wonderful for who they are. I visited with each and every teammate I could, whether it was helping Samantha out-psych her Space Chess opponent, or shopping with EDI, or listening to Liara play the piano. I was delighted to see that some characters had multiple chances for interaction, which strengthened the impression that your relationships are continuing to grow and deepen. I was actually a bit surprised by how some of them made me feel. I never particularly liked Zaeed in ME2, but knowing that Robin Sachs has passed away made his sections here incredibly touching.

The highlight, of course, is the party. Ah, the party! I had the feeling that this would be my capstone, so I put it off until after I had exhausted all of the various invitations and outings and things. I invited everyone. (Well, everyone I could - since I haven't purchased all DLC I don't have Kasumi or Javik.) Things started out pleasantly, with quiet music to support conversation. Jack and some of the guys seemed a bit bored, but people were having a good time. Later, we turned it up a notch and people started dancing. (Tangent: I love Glyph's bow tie!) They start getting drunk and silly. Grunt has a ton of fun turning people away from the door. Zaeed starts hitting on Samara, who seems fully bemused. James and Ashley starts falling towards a hookup. I encouraged Joker to dance with EDI. A bigger party breaks out in the kitchen, and everyone laughs when Shepard jumps in. (I seriously don't get why everyone thinks her dancing is awful. Sure, it isn't great, but I don't see anything wrong with it.) The evening ends in delightful chaos: Grunt, fully inebriated and virtually comatose, crouches muttering in the shower; James and Ashley corner one another to whisper sweet nothings; Traynor is mortified by the realization that EDI remembers everything she said back when she thought EDI was just a VI (and there's at least a suggestion later that EDI may have kind-of cheated on Joker [not that I think he'd mind (especially if she continued to keep logs)]); and eventually the whole gang stumbles together so Glyph can take a photo of the whole group.

I loved that they included the morning after as well. Waking up in bed was nice, but the arguable highlight from the whole expansion was finding, on the floor, a datapad with recordings from Moridin. They were absolutely hilarious, and end on an extremely touching note (literally) that nearly brought tears to my eyes. Of course it's impossible to interact with Moridin, and I was so happy that they came up with this terrific way to honor the character and remind us of his awesomeness.

Otherwise, the morning after seems entirely like what you would expect. A bunch of hung-over people are quietly clustered in the kitchen, watching James cooking scrambled eggs for everyone. A few hard-core people, Jack and Jacob, are up bright and early exercising. A few people are quietly distraught at what they might have done the night before, or are trying to remember exactly what happened. For the most part, though, everyone is happy from the great party, and just wish that people wouldn't talk quite so loudly.

Returning to the Normandy, you stare at the ship through the windows, and share a few words with your loved one. There's really nice music here. You see all your friends clustering around, watching the view, enjoying a moment of quiet before rushing off to save the galaxy. It's a quiet moment, a happy moment. I'm delighted to have it as my final memory of the Mass Effect trilogy.


In case you're thinking of playing the expansion in-line with the rest of the game, I think that would work fine as well. It's a major positive beat before the frenetic pace of the end-game, so I'd suggest taking the time to savor it. (I also think that certain elements of it can be spread out; I kind of did all the interpersonal stuff back-to-back, but you can probably weave it in between other missions if you'd prefer to break it up a bit more.) The rewards are pretty good, too. There are some new weapon mods and weapons, including a flashback to a ME1-style weapon that uses an overheating mechanic rather than thermal clips. You pick up some new war assets from completing the missions (including the more social missions). And, perhaps most intriguingly, I think that this gives you a way to legitimately acquire an endless supply of credits, thanks to the repeatable combat simulation. For power-gamers, that would be a great way to do stuff like acquire all the Spectre weapons or to max out your upgrades.

On the issue of screenshots: this is rather embarrassing to admit.  I had gotten used to my screenshot technique for DA2, and had thought I was taking some screenshots throughout the game, only to remember too late that I actually can only do screengrabs for ME3 by using FRAPS. So, I ended up taking a bunch, but as is sadly typical for me, they're all from near the end of my time with the expansion. These are all very spoilery for ME3, and for the social stuff at the end of Citadel, though they shouldn't reveal any plot from the main Citadel mission.

So, yeah. Phenomenal DLC. One of the best ever. It's also tremendously encouraging to me because it helps show that Bioware listens to their fans. Coming so soon after playing the Dragon Age 2 DLC, which pretty directly addressed and fixed the game mechanics from the main campaign that people had complained about, this seemed to continue my experience of good-but-flawed games being made better after the fact. Knowing that they're capable of telling stories this well, of hitting such great emotional points, makes me increasingly enthusiastic for what might be coming in the future for Dragon Age 3 and whatever comes next in the Mass Effect universe.

No comments:

Post a Comment