Mass Effect 3

Posted in Games, Mass Effect with tags , on May 3, 2014 by pieman70

And so, dear Friends we come to the final part of the Mass Effect trilogy.  Many of the choices you make will have consequences here and one way or another the fate of the galaxy and the reapers will be decided once and for all.  No pressure.

As always, this article will contain Spoilers.  Avoid until you play Mass Effect 3 and also if you haven’t played the first two games.

The game follows the same format as the last two, a third person shooter with RPG elements.  The game kicks off with Shepard facing a court martial after being suspended for a period of time. I initially thought this was for joining cerberus in the previous game but it seems to be due to the events of the Mass Effect 2 DLC “Arrival” which culminates in Shepard destroying the Batarian Mass relay, and most of the system, to slow down the reaper advance.  During the court martial the reapers attack earth En Mass and, with the help of Anderson, now returned to military life apparently, Shepard escapes on the Normandy while Anderson remains to co-ordinate resistance on earth.  Your mission is to unite the races of the galaxy and find a way to defeat the reapers.  In your way are the reaper forces, mercenaries, Geth and a more aggressive and amoral Cerberus.

As always there are tweaks to the gameplay.  These are less major than previously, there is a larger selection of weapons and armour, essentially bringing back the system from the first game, however they have kept ammo types as standard which is something.  In the game there is now jumping, but it is used as an action, similar to vaulting cover, rather than an unwelcome foray into platform games that tends to happen.  There are also occasions where you can take control of turrets and mech suits.  Outside of combat the system is pretty much unchanged, Paragon and Renegade interrupts remain but I have to say I found the conversation options less ambiguous.

The scanning of planets has been altered again.  Now you enter a system and have to set off sensor “pings” to find supplies, objects and sometimes reinforcements for the galactic fleet or parts for the Crucible (A device that may defeat the reapers)  this is actually pretty tense as the reaper alertness only resets after a mission.  I found myself barrelling the Normandy through systems, pinging madly, pursued by reapers, trying to catch that last object.  It really adds to the tension and the feeling that the reapers are unstoppably marching through the galaxy.  Any player will be hard pressed not to jump every time the loud horns sound heralding reapers arriving in the system.

And so, to the most important part; the story.  This is always the strongest suit of the mass effect series and this one doesn’t disappoint.  As stated previously, the story involves Shepard trying to defeat a full on reaper invasion and liberate Earth.  To do this you have to unite the council races to commit assets to the fleet that will free earth and to the crucible project.  A prothean device that is the key to defeating the Reapers.  Through this and some side missions you will bring your crew back together and encounter all of your surviving allies from previous games.

The story can almost be split into three acts.  The first involves recruiting the Taurian fleet to your cause.  To do this you must persuade the Krogan to help the Taurians fight the reapers on their own world, and to do that the Krogan want the Genophage cured.  The second involves you intervening to stop the war between the Quarians and the Geth.  Finally you have to take the fight to Cerberus before launching the assault to re-take Earth.

Each act runs the theme of victory at a cost, be it the bittersweet cure of the genophage at the cost of Morden’s life or the freeing of the Geth and the return if the Quarians to their homeworld at the cost of Legion’s life no victory comes free.  The game does do a great job of building you up over the first two acts, between the main stories and the side missions, and despite the losses of some friends along the way you feel invincible.  You regularly achieve the impossible and you feel like an all conquering hero.  By the end of act two you feel lime you’re going to give the reapers a good thrashing.  Quickly kick the illusive man in the nuts and back home for tea and medals.  Act 3 brings this crashing down when you loose the Asarii homeworld to the reapers while searching for a prothian archive.  It really helps to take you down a peg.  It also adds to build up a villain called Kai Leng, a dark mirror of Shepard working for the Illusive man, as he is responsible for you failing to get the archive and loosing the Asari homeworld in the process.  There is also another worthwhile point before we reach the endgame.  The Reapers are hard.  They have minions which you fight normally, but when an actual reaper shows up it is properly terrifying.  You actually down 3 over the course of the game, but each is such an achievement you never feel the threat diminish.

Procrastinating from the end game a little more, I was given the choice to re- kindle your romance with Tali or Ashley (or indeed start a new one). I chose to stick with Tali and I’m bloody glad I did.  You are rewarded with some lovely moments on the Quarian homeworld and a romance plot that feels genuinely affectionate.

Also, I should mention the extra colour you pick up on as you travel around the citadel, be it an alliance soldier wanting to change assignments as her brother has joined cerberus or the salarian who finds out his new armour was bought from his friend selling her car, combine this with catching your engineers snogging below decks (not a euphemism) and the universe seems fully fleshed out.

So, to the end game, the invasion of Earth.  Starting from a lovely cut scene of the combined citadel races, plus the Geth vs the reapers you are quickly thrust into a ground assault through the streets of London.  In the middle is a short break where you catch up with everyone, featuring a touching scene with Garrus, and indeed a general feeling of the positive impact you have made in the lives of all these people.  However it was at this point I got the distinct impression old Shep wasn’t going to make it through this one.

The final mission initially continues the battle through London as your forces push towards a transport beam to the citadel, now under reaper control and in earth orbit, and being the last piece of the crucible.  This culminates in a really hectic battle as you try to defend missile launchers poised to take down the reaper guarding the transport beam.  Once downed a mad dash to the beam begins.  I took garrus and Tali with me on this.  Representing both the people who had been with me from the beginning and my in game best friend and girlfriend.  Half way along this dash through exploding vehicles Tali is hurt.  There is a heartfelt goodbye as the Normandy picks her and Garrus up for you to go on alone.  It is at this point where things take an unexpected turn and indeed where I suspect the controversial part of the ending begins.  Caught in a large explosion shep comes to burned and bruised and you take control and limp to the beam.  Yes, the end game eschews combat for talking.  I love it.  Your final confrontation with the illusive man is verbal, there is some real pathos as Anderson dies next to you and then you finally you activate the crucible and are given three options.  Destroy all artificial life, which will kill the reapers, but also wipe out the Geth, Edi and of course yourself.  Control the reapers, which will still kill you or option three use your half artificial form as a template to make all organic and artificial life part organic, part artificial.  And of course die in the process.  This was my choice, and I found the ending both hopeful and satisfying, and the memorial service on the Normandy for shep and Anderson may have made me shed a small tear.

Now, to address some of the criticism, the lack of a boss fight and your character dying, frankly get over it.  I’m sure some would have preferred an ending where you kill the reapers and waltz off to victory but I thought the direction the game took was more interesting and original, and worked better.  Second, the criticism that in a game where it stresses choices having consequences everything boils down to a choice of three endings, first what the hell did you think, that they’d programme a thousand different options for every combination of events?  For starters, we know that while choices influenced events through each game only 3 or 4 transfer between games.  Also, look at the game as a whole, your choices counted.  Was a character dead?  Who trusted you?  Just because the ending doesn’t represent every conversation tree doesn’t mean each choice was for nought.  I thought the ending wrapped up the story and left a hopeful note for the future.

So, to summarise, a barnstorming story, good gameplay, were there any issues?

Well, I wasn’t too happy with adding the complexity back into weapons, and instead of being able to keep a heavy weapon at all times those were now things you pick up at certain points but drop if you select a different gun.  Finally, a rather minor point but worth mentioning.  During the game you meet the crime lord Omega from the previous game on the citadel.  She is in hiding after Cerberus took over the Omega satellite.  You run a few missions and she says she may ask you to help when she re-takes Omega.  I wondered when this mission would appear and it never does. Turns out the Omega mission is DLC which I felt was a bit of a swizz.  I don’t mind DLC adding extra to the experience but to have a section highlighted only for it never to appear feels a bit like a cheap in game plug for DLC.

Overall though this is a fitting end to the trilogy.  The story grabs you and the gameplay entertains.  Highly recommended.  As I have said previously, I am developing an itch to re-play all three games.  I may get the DLC first and comment on the differences when I manage to do that.

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Jonathan Creek

Posted in Jonathan Creek, TV with tags , on April 24, 2014 by pieman70

Back in the 90s the BBC produced an intriguing murder mystery series named Jonathan Creek.  The series starred Alan Davies as magician’s assistant who uses his skills at devising magic tricks to solve seemingly impossible crimes.  Usually with the assistance of a touchstone character to act as a foil/audience sounding board. This character has changed over the years, starting with Caroline Quentin’s true crime writer Maddie Magellan, later replaced by Julia Swahala and later Sheridan smith.

 

The series was always clever and kept you guessing and while it ran for a good while it had more recently been reduced to occasional specials which I always assumed was due to the creative team only making the show when they had a new idea.   It was with this in mind that I looked to the new 3 episode series with some trepidation.

 

Spinning out from a recent special Creek has now retired from advertising, married Sarah Alexander and got a job in advertising which is a decent way of filling in the years between specials.  They move to the country and encounter some new mysteries.

 

The first story was a real let down.  The mysteries themselves are Ok, although the only ones that are left at all mysterious involve a roomba and a magically appearing newspaper cutting. The actual mystery is revealed as it happens which is a bit strange.  Aside from a friendly jab at Sherlock there wasn’t much there.

The next too were improved but, as the kids say, I wasn’t “feeling it”. Possibly fixing the setting in one village is part of the problem, diluting the mystery with zany small village antics, but I also think Alexander doesn’t help.  It is hard to place but she doesn’t seem to work as well as her predecessors.  I can’t help but feel the series would have worked better if Smith had been retained to create a bit of friction, with Alexander being an anchor to normality and smith dragging creek to the next mystery.

Overall it is definitely weaker than the older stories.  I’ll keep watching if more are made but at the moment I think.this was best left alone.

Mass Effect 2

Posted in Geek Stuff, Mass Effect with tags , on April 17, 2014 by pieman70

Continuing my review of the Mass Effect trilogy I will now cover Mass Effect 2.

As before I will be revealing spoilers for this and the previous game.  If you have not played or finished both Mass Effect 1&2 I would advise you to go no further.

There is no real need to describe the mechanics, gameplay largely follows on from the first game with some differences I will cover later.

The game begins explosively when an alien ship attacks the Normandy, ultimately the Normandy is destroyed and Shepard is killed rescuing Joker.

Jump several years later and Shepard is revived by a militant, pro-human group called Cerberus, who were encountered as antagonists ins side missions during ME1.  The base you are being revived on is attacked and Shepard has to team up with Cerberus agents Jacob and Miranda. In this sequence there is an interesting scene where you are interviewed regarding key events of the last game.  This was to allow people who were not importing a Mass Effect save game to set up the required history for the current game and does show what decisions actually carry over.  Namely, who you romanced, Did wrex survive, who died, did you rescue the council and who you recommended as the human council member.  Basically 5 decisions.  Take note here because I will re-visit this in te next game.  Anyway, basic plot is that human colonies are being attacked by a race called The Collectors, who are abducting the colonists and vanishing.  The Alliance is not taking action and the citadel council don’t believe the near legendary collectors are involved so Cerberus are going to deal with the problem independently leading Shepard into an uneasy alliance.

More on the plot later, first I will talk about some of the gameplay tweaks.

First, the MACO tank is gone.  Planets still have to be explored for side missions and to collect resources for upgrades, but this is done from orbit.  To explore systems costs fuel and probe that have to be bought, and I couldn’t call planet scanning interesting but it is strangely addictive.  Do a mission in a system and you may find an hour slip away as you scan each and every planet near the relay.

In the main part, guns now have ammo, so clips need to be collected, but are universal for all weapons.  There is also the option for a heavy weapon, different types of which become available through the game and require separate ammo.  There is also limited melee combat.  The weapons upgrading has been massively simplified.  Ammo upgrades are now gained through your character levelling, so you can now swap in ammo types mid combat which adds a good strategic element.  The weapons now get one upgrade through the game and a second upgrade can be found on one weapon later on.  I actually preferred this, possibly because I’m not a hardcore RPG player and so hunting for the ideal combination of ammo, weapons and enhancements holds little appeal.

Finally the conversations have been tweaked a little, the wheel is still there but it isn’t always obvious which answer will be paragon and which will be renegade.  In general I like this but at times you pick an option which seems reasonable only for Shep to say something really evil on occasion causing much shouting at the screen.  There are now also paragon or renegade interrupts where a mouse click can force a paragon or renegade action which I quite enjoyed.  As always decisions made have plot consequences.

To the plot, this game is very well written.  It uses familiarity from Mass Effect to really involve you in the characters plot.  For starters each squad member has a loyalty mission, an optional quest to aid one of your team mates.  Again this helps in the final mission and nets extra upgrades.

There is also a neat bluff.  The video that runs if you leave the start screen up shows only the new characters like Jacob, Grunt etc but none of your previous crew.  You even meet Tali on your second mission but she doesn’t join.  At this point I really thought my previous team mates would only appear as characters to talk to and I would be dealing with an entirely new crew.  Accepting this I went to start gathering my new squad, first trying to find a vigilante codenamed “archangel”. As you hear more about him he sounds faintly familiar.  When I finally realised that Archangel was Garrus I took on the mission with renewed enthusiasm and finally meeting him genuinely felt like meeting an old friend.  While ultimately Garrus and Tali rejoin your crew you will meet everyone who survived and each reunion is emotional and satisfying.  The new characters develop and, partly thanks to the loyalty missions you will bond with them as well.  In fact the Loyalty missions are worth a mention in themselves.  Each character will ask you to do an additional optional mission.  In the game this makes them more likely to survive and unlocks some extras, but it works narratively as well.  You are working for Cerberus and need your crew to be loyal to you, not the organisation.  Ultimately only Garrus and Tali join your squad and there is a lovely moment on teh citadel where they joke about the long lift rides of Mass Effect and start trading banter.

Overall the game is a vast improvement on Mass Effect.  The tweaks to combat mean that gameplay is enjoyable and no longer something you tolerate to see the story.  Voice acting is of the usual quality, and the pacing works well.

As for my specific path, everyone survived the suicide mission and I destroyed the collector base.  I also preserved the geth heretics.  Finally for romance, after being dumped by Ashley for joining Cerberus there were several options.  Eventually I went for Tali.  It was odd how involved you get in the story.  Initially thinking of who I would romance with my new in game single status I was surprised when I realised Tali was an option.  It was like having a good friend who you suddenly see in a different light. Made for a much more satisfying sub-plot than the more basic romance of the original.

On DLC I actually didn’t net much but you don’t seem to miss much.  Apparently much of the DLC can be done after completing the game which Seems fair.  I do consider this run done for now but may run through all 3 with all the DLC at a later date.

So, we end on a cliffhanger with the reapers on their way we will see how Mass Effect 3 goes.

Auto Cruise

Posted in Cars, Transport with tags , on April 3, 2014 by pieman70

Sorry, drifting close to politics here.

There has been much said recently regarding self driving cars.  This seemingly Sci-fi idea is getting very close to becoming a reality as companies like Google are developing systems that can reliably navigate urban environments without mowing down pedestrians.  It really is exciting stuff.

Sadly this has given a mass of clueless pundits a stick to beat any public transport project with.  Mention purchasing new buses, or worse, building railways and out they come shouting “this is obsolete technology, driverless cars are the future”. Usually combined with a demand to build more roads instead, unsurprisingly something that will help them in the short term while doing very little for everyone else who relies on public transport.

The argument sounds tempting, why should a government invest in railways when we will soon be whizzing to our destination in our personal travel pod?

The argument has two problems.

First, the argument is a bit like saying we shouldn’t build coal/nuclear fission/wind/tidal/giant bicycle power stations because Nuclear fusion is the future.  Or indeed don’t buy an electric car because hydrogen fuel cells are the future.  In short they probably are the future but are no where near there yet.

To give an idea of how distant self drive tech is, lets look at how common self drive elements are in today’s cars.  First, automatic parallel parking.  First commercially released around 2002 this tech has now filtered into several models of car as a high end extra.  Considering how long extras like cruise control have taken to become commonplace and that self driving cars have yet to leave the prototype phase, this is at least 5-10 years away from being a plaything for the rich let alone a standard feature.

Second, while some US states have passed laws to allow self driving cars there is still a sticking point over having entirely autonomous vehicles and with good reason.  Those who deride older forms of public transport see a futuristic dream where your car drops you off before driving away to park itself, returning when summoned to take the driver home again.  Sadly I see this as a pipe dream.  For the immediate future I can’t see laws allowing cars to operate without a human being on hand to take over.  Why?  Responsibility.  We currently technically have self flying aircraft.  A commercial jet can land on auto pilot, so why have a fallible human at the controls.  Partly it is a final backup but mainly because someone has to be responsible for the aircraft.  This is the same with a car.  While an automated vehicle is significantly less likely to be involved in an accident, nothing is impossible and when you get hit by a car with no driver who is to blame?  And while reading or watching a film while the car does  the driving would be OK being in any way unfit to drive, i.e. Drunk would be out of the question.  The closest to this would probably be a robotic taxi, where a person would observe the vehicle remotely with an override available.

We will see auto driving cars within the next decade but they are no reason to neglect the current public transport infrastructure.

Mass Effect

Posted in Games with tags , on March 27, 2014 by pieman70

What? Two posts? Madness.

So, years after the event I finally got round to playing the Mass Effect trilogy. Did it live up to the hype? Do I now describe Garrus as my best mate and was I corrupted by the alleged wall to wall alien rumpy?

I will cover all 3 games but in individual posts, so for the moment, Mass Effect.

This post will contain Mass Effect spoilers but none for 2 & 3.

For those living in a cave, Mass Effect is a Sci-fi 3rd person shooter with RPG elements. You play Commander Shepard chasing around the galaxy in pursuit of a rogue agent who is trying to bring a race called the reapers back to the galaxy to wipe out all sentient life.

So, how was it? Mass Effect is a definite flawed gem. A distinctively average game salvaged by a decent story and interesting characters. Gameplay flaws mainly centre around repetitive side missions. The idea is many systems can be visited and their planets explored. Sometimes this can be through a specific side quest but also just by tooling around. The downside is that this ultimately means driving around a planet in your tank, occasionally encountering near identical structures. In short it gets boring. The RPG elements were a bit too hardcore for my tastes as well, each weapon can be upgraded and modified as can armour for your whole party. This means you often spend ages trying to work out which combination of weapons & mods suits.

The story however is compelling, your team builds up with likeable and fairly well rounded characters and the actual missions are entertaining and well structured. The game also uses a system where your interactions have bearing on your character, with the much vaunted paragon/renegade system. Indeed the interactions are one of the best bits of the game and I spent many hours wandering around the citadel chatting with people. Again, decent writing and a good voice cast pay dividends here.

I was slightly spoiled on ME 1. I was told one of your party died. When that mission started It managed to sell me a few dummies. The game gives you options of who to sacrifice, but it is never put as “send X to their doom” to the extent that I really thought I could save everyone and so was rather crushed when I lost a man.

Overall this is an average game built up by good writing creating investment in the characters. It also constructs a complex and textured universe full of interesting alien species that would not be out of place in a major Long running TV space opera. Weakest of the series but as we will find out in future posts the small gameplay issues are addressed in the sequels.

The Mass Effect series is as much about the journey as it is the destination. So, for those who have played, I was pretty much all Paragon. My Shep was a male, soldier war hero. I romanced Ashley, saved wrex and sacrificed. Kaiden. I chose to rescue the council in the final battle and at the time didn’t pick anyone to be the human council member.

Next Mass Effect 2

On literary snobbery

Posted in Books, Children, General Ranting with tags on March 20, 2014 by pieman70

Sorry about not posting, real life and a big juicy helping of laziness has prevented me so far. Not that I’ve been short of material, just with family, children, work and videogames blogging takes a backseat. Hopefully there will be more regular posts but no promises

Anyway, to what was bugging me.

Freya has been enjoying some books known as the “Rainbow Magic” series. The plots are unimportant, but suffice to say the writing is fairly repetitive, predictable and hackneyed. Then again I’m a man in my 30s and they are broadly aimed at girls in the 7-10 age bracket. Why do I mention this? Aside from a way to subtly boast of my daughter reading above her level it is that recently I have heard teachers in the primary 3 upwards bracket have told children that these books are not to be read as part of school reading.

Now, back in my early secondary school there was a certain mantra often repeated by the English department. “No point horror books”. I never read a point horror book but from what I can ascertain they were a series of horror novels. The English department seemed to feel they lacked the artistic merit or intellectual challenge to have a place in the school.

We live in a world where many don’t read books, and I can’t help this weird snobbery has something to do with it. Effectively the school has told children that, having found books they enjoy they can’t read them any more, worse, this is now being done at an even earlier age. I understand that teachers want people to challenge themselves and read more complex books, preferably erring towards “the classics” but to my mind with these arbitrary bans all they’re doing is cementing reading’s place as something you have to do rather than something that is fun, something that you would do by choice in your own free time.

I also have a gripe about the “classics” how english teachers will shove Austin, Hardy and Bronte down everyone’s throats for personal reading. By all means study them, but they seem genuinely surprised that someone wouldn’t find tales of genteel women in society enchanting.

First and foremost we should be encouraging children to read recreationally, from there on teachers can channel this towards more challenging fare, although this may require them to have a broader knowledge of literature. A kid likes SF? perhaps enjoys trek or 40k tie ins? Why not suggest Clarke, Wells or Asimov? Someone enjoyed the Sharpe series? Try the Aubrey Maturin books. The current one size fits all is putting people off and definitely has no place in a primary school.

10 O’clock Live

Posted in Channel 4, TV with tags , , on June 5, 2013 by pieman70

As always, life and laziness have got in the way of blogging.  I have also decided to drift away from the more overtly political blogging, quite frankly because there are people who do a much better job than me, they research and everything In a sort of farewell to the politics side of things, I thought I’d talk about Channel 4’s irreverent political show 10 O’clock Live.  For those not in the know it is a show which mixes humour and satire with political discussion fronted by Lauren Laverne, Charlie Brooker, Jimmy Carr and David Mitchell.  10 O’clock Live initially started life in 2010 as the one off “Alternative Election Night” on Channel 4, a show designed to give a more light hearted take on the live election proceedings.  At the time I surfed between this and the regular BBC coverage and while the BBC was still the best the alternative was a welcome break, particularly early on when not much was happening and the Channel 4 presenters, after the polls closed naturally, could have a bit more fun than their serious counterparts.

The Alternative election night was obviously a success because later that year Channel 4 commissioned 10 O’clock Live, essentially the same show but covering topical news instead of an election.  Many were initially unimpressed, and indeed I was rather annoyed that they had put the show up against Question Time.  As a devoted Question Time tweeter this meant that I ended up watching on a repeat or +1.  The show itself was a mixed bag.  It was obvious that most of the presenters were not used to live TV, Jimmy Carr is a bit of a Marmite comedian at best and they didn’t have much of an idea what to do with Lauren Laverne.  I have to admit that when that series ended I expected that would be the last we would see of this show, however in 2012 it returned.

The show seemed to have been streamlined quite a bit, with several items dropped, one which I wish they had kept was David Mitchell’s interviews.  While Mitchell was definitely not an attack dog like Paxman or Humphries, I actually liked his interview style, essentially, he knew he wasn’t going to get the better of these people, and didn’t go out the way to humiliate anyone, however his easy going style allowed him to often surprise a guest with a comedic barb or even a well placed question.  In all that time Mitchell still appeared like a reasonable man asking reasonable questions and I think this could have grown.

Again, after series 2 finished I thought “It’s gone now” but it is back for 2013 with some improvements.  Most of Jimmy Carr’s skits have gone, and he now just does his regular review of the week stand-up routine.  All the hosts have only one segment, and in fact poor old Lauren Laverne doesn’t generally get a segment at all, a shame as her guides to various events and her piece on Serco were actually one of the better bits.  What has been added is much more round table discussion between the three hosts and this actually works really well and was something that was inexplicably kept to a minimum in the last two series.  I will still say that David Mitchell does not chair a debate particularly well (Perhaps Laverne would do better) and the new skit with a fake American news anchor is pretty dull.  However overall the show continues to improve.

I’m glad Channel 4 will give successful one off or event shows a go as a regular programme.  (See “The Last Leg” as another example) and they also do seem to have the commitment to refine the format, drop what isn’t working and improve on what is.  A couple of more tweaks and 10 O’clock live will become must watch TV.