Thursday, June 9, 2011

Things That Should Be In Mass Effect 3, But Probably Won't Be (Part One)

(Grammarian disclaimer: Mass Effect makes it a point of saying that their race names are to be considered common and a-political--treated as species common names, and hence kept lower case. Similar to how we keep dog, cat, and human lower-case, they keep quarian, krogan, and asari lower-case as well. The Reapers, being a legendary force that are addressed on mythic terms, are an exception to this rule. This is logical and effective to their message about race identification, but it feels wrong to me when I'm used to writing Terran, Cylon, and Vulcan. Just note that I know it looks funny to have sci-fi jargon and alien names in the declined form and keep in mind it is deliberate.)

I love Mass Effect.

The deep complex that is the setting's background, the gripping and universe-defining conceit, the mores and lessons inherent to its plot, the fascinating skew of its technology, weapons, and ships...just about everything about the story of this sci-fi gem grabs me the right way.

For those of you who don't know, Mass Effect is a science fiction game created by Bioware. The title is a reference to the technology that forms the central conceit of the setting. An ancient alien race that has long been extinct--the protheans--seeded much of the galaxy with 'mass effect' technology and huge monolithic structures. In our solar system, the protheans left behind a cache of technology in a bunker of sorts on Mars. When humanity found it, they began reverse-engineering the incredible piece of non-newtonian tech and followed clues that eventually revealed that Charon (large moon of the shamed former planet Pluto) does not even qualify for NASA's stingy planetoid status anymore: it is actually a massive mass effect relay--a piece of an interstellar network that allows ships to travel to other systems at FTL speeds.

That's faster-than-light, by the way, though faster-than-ludicrous also fits this particular use, since mass relays transfer ships at essentially instantaneous speeds.

Problem is, everybody and their fifty year-old mother has been doing this space-hoarder routine for centuries or more. Humanity quickly bumps into a grumpy alien race called 'turians' that also uses the mass relays and their own reverse engineered tech. The space UN called the Citadel steps in and prevents humanity from getting kacked by the turians--a member of the Citadel races and bound to obey. Additionally, the Citadel likes humanity's chutzpah and soon makes the squishy new guys members of their galactic club.

A few decades later, humanity is wanting to have more sway in galactic affairs, and one human butt-kicker named Shepard becomes the key to those aspirations. Shepard is the player's avatar, so he might be a she, sport wicked battle scars or pink blush, be an old navy brat or be a former space-age street urchin. In accommodating this customization, the characters of Mass Effect don't use Shepard's first name--you assign it yourself, and use it to refer to your particular iteration of the protagonist. My favored Shepard is named Nathan Shepard, has a chiseled jaw, prominent chin, and hawk nose that looks too pretty to die.

Shiny, right?

The series starts with Shepard coming under evaluation for becoming the first human Spectre--the Citadel's black ops. The mission goes FUBAR, and a human colony is wiped out in the process. Oh, and they discover a threat to all known life that forms the central plot of the trilogy, too.

"Problem is, everybody and their fifty year-old mother has been doing this space-hoarder routine for centuries or more."

There's a lot of choice and customization built into the plot of the game, allowing the player to define the title character and his/her interactions with the action and plot of the story. Shepard builds a team of like-minded space-borne A-Team qualifiers, and the relationships with them have become a big link in the franchise' success so far. But it still tells a story of a specific hero, a veteran of the human military of the future, who has tough tasks to accomplish and diabolic decisions to make.

Two major games have been released in the trilogy so far, with the third one lurking in the 2011 holiday marketing nebula. These are complemented by an iPhone game, several novels, and a comic mini-series which have filled out and elaborated on some of the many side-stories that have cropped up in the Mass Effect franchise.

As I eagerly await Mass Effect 3, I have certain expectations of the final installment in the trilogy. Some of these I am certain will be gratefully met--or even exceeded, knowing Bioware. A few of my hopes, however, are almost certain to be dashed, mostly because of the pragmatism of the video game development process. But, mark my words, they would be awesome, and if even one of these were integrated into the game I'd count it as a tremendous asset.

So here's my list of features and hopes for Mass Effect 3, along with my reason for wanting to see it implemented and supposition on why they probably won't see the light of day. This first part of the list are hopes that are more likely, but the rest of the dozen items in the list are probably a lot less likely. Keep in mind that spoilers, while carefully avoided so far, will flow plentifully in the following list's rationale. The spoilers will flow.

I want to kill the frakkin' geth dead.
Why I want it: Of all my hopes on this list, this is the only one that is almost certain to appear in the game, but since there is a chance that it won't happen, I'm including it in this list. The geth, as the machine bastard Cylons of the Mass Effect universe, have been cruisin' for a bruisin' since they attacked Eden Prime. Add to that the fact that wiping out the rogue race of robots would endear the quarians--Tali and Jayne/Kal'Reegar amongst them--I wouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger on the flashlight-heads.

(Grammarian side note: I originally wrote this wish as 'I want to frakkin' kill the geth dead', but that contained a split infinitive, which I felt was too serious for the tone of the piece.)

Why I won't get it: For one thing, people are funny about wiping out a race of toasters. For another thing, since Legion was introduced as a party member in Mass Effect 2 and seems likely to return in Mass Effect 3, his presence might outright preclude this option. After all the build-up on the geth threat in ME 2, though, I doubt Bioware is going to leave us hanging. Though I bet if it does appear, we'll only get to kill the geth faction that worships the Reapers, not the heretic geth. I'll take what I can get. Of course, I'm sure this will become a razor choice between wiping out the geth to get the quarians' relatively weak support or helping the geth finish their genocide in order to get the backing of their much more powerful fleet.

I want to see more of the aliens.
Why I want it: I'm not talking about getting more varieties or new aliens. ME 3 is certain to have that anyway. I want to see more of the quarians, turians, salarians, batarians, krogan, drell, volus, and even the elcor. We haven't so much as seen what the females look like of any of these races, and that only makes plot-based sense regarding the krogan, who jealously guard their females and young from outsiders and competing clans. In particular, it would be interesting to see if turian females kept the avian tendency for females to be notably bigger than the males. And who doesn't want to get to see some more highlights of the elcor production of Hamlet? The bottom line, though: if we don't get to see what quarians look like without their environmental suits, I will be very disappointed.

Why I won't get it: Regarding the quarians, I feel so strongly that Bioware must reveal what they look like that it feels inevitable to me. That said, they have reasons to keep Tali and her race's faces hidden. For one thing, if they do so in any detail, revealing what quarians look like beneath their environmental suits will probably require another distinct set of models to be made for the game--probably one of the stingiest resources that developers don't like to invest in for games. This stands in the way of making females of the other races, too--they'd almost certainly require a lot more game models to be made. Secondly, the guys at Bioware are probably leery of making sexual dimorphism for the alien races specifically because it'd be creatively and conceptually intensive. But they should just knuckle down and do it. Finally, when a game's plot has an element of mystique that means the developers have to do less work, you can usually bet that they will cling to that mystique as long as possible.

I want to fight against some hanar.
Why I want it: In Mass Effect 2, fibrosis-faced bad-attitude-mercenary Zaeed liked to regale the player with stories of his past exploits, one of which included a story of him nearly getting strangled to death by a hanar--the non-first-person-pronoun-using jellyfish hipppies of the game, who worship the protheans. Hearing the gravel-voiced merc intone about how the gorram jelly strangled him half to death, I wanted to have to fight one. Tack onto that teaser the fact that the hanar dogmatically worship the protheans as the enkindlers of their race--who are revealed in Mass Effect 2 to have been repurposed as slaves of the Reapers--it stands to reason that many of the zealots of the hanar faith will voluntarily fight alongside the Reapers in order to follow the protheans' example. And it would be so cool to have these hovering jellyfish come screaming down the hall at you, droning, "This one will honor the Enkindlers by killing you," and firing a half dozen pistols at you, then going for squiddy strangle-tactics when he gets into cephalopod-range.

Why I won't get it: Here's a little clue-in to computer rendering. An animated model begins with keyframes and a skeleton, which is a series of simple rigid segments around which the mesh moves. The mesh is a simple armature of polygons wrapped around the skeleton like the wire basis of a paper mache sculpture. The mesh would look simplistic and ugly by itself, though, so there's a high-quality picture called a skin that wraps around the mesh like strips of paper. Game companies make different 3d characters by making the most superficial changes possible. If you look at two characters in a game, the most likely difference is just a skin change. If the character is meant to be that important or unique, it might have a different mesh--which also necessitates a different skin. But making a different skeleton means the keyframes, mesh, and skin have to be changed as well. That's why almost all game segments only have one set of skeletons--one set of keyframes--upon which all their characters are built. Hanar don't have anything resembling a skeleton, let alone a human skeleton. To animate them in the game would be an intensive process, which is why the games haven't depicted anything but a strictly stationary hanar yet. This one is very doubtful, but this one still wants it. At the very least, they should reference how some hanar are willingly helping the Reapers, even if we don't get to see it.

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