Mass Effect

Game Description: Set 200 years in the future in an epic universe, Mass Effect places gamers in a vast galactic community in danger of being conquered by a legendary agent gone rogue. A spectacular new vision from legendary developers BioWare, Mass Effect challenges players to lead a squad of freedom fighters as they struggle against threatening armies to restore peace in the land.

Mass Effect – Review

Mass Effect Artwork 

Perfection in videogames, as well as life, is impossible. There will never be a truly perfect game, flawless in every aspect and irresistible to all players. Putting aside the fact that some people will dislike Mass Effect for no other reason than it's not their cup of tea, what's actually wrong with the new blockbuster science fiction opus from superdevelopers BioWare?

The textures during certain scenes can take a few seconds to load, resulting in a distracting "pop-in" as the game adds the details. The framerate drops during crowded firefights. A player's inventory can become bogged down with too many duplicate items, and there's no quick way to clear them out. The nondescript title lacks a certain pizzazz, and the in-game elevators are quite slow. That's about it. Oh, and by the way... those issues? Utterly insignificant.

Besides the things listed above, Mass Effect is as close to perfection as a game developer working on modern consoles could realistically hope to come. I honestly can't remember the last time I was so hopelessly addicted; so completely drawn in to a game that I started to neglect responsibilities and push all other activities aside for the sake of carving more game time out of my schedule. To a been-there, done-that, seen-it-all jaded critic like me, immersing myself into Mass Effect felt like falling in love with games again for the first time.

Considering what it does and the approaches it takes, I almost hesitate to call Mass Effect a videogame, really. Something along the lines of "virtual emotional experience" or even the hideously cliché and outdated "interactive film" come a little closer to capturing its essence, but even these terms can't sum up what it's like to play through the adventure.

Mass Effect Screenshot

Anyone who's spent time with BioWare's previous efforts like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or Jade Empire (both excellent) will recognize the structure in Mass Effect immediately. The game is clearly built upon the bones of its predecessors by putting the player in the shoes of a customizable main character and surrounding them with a cast of interesting personalities that can be engaged to a depth that's extremely rare on consoles.

Although the plot may not revolutionize the science fiction genre in terms of originality, the relationships that develop between the player and the characters are the heart and soul of the experience, and the one thing that the house of Greg and Ray does better than any other developer in the industry today. Simply playing the game and saving the universe would be enjoyable enough, but when coupled with BioWare's undeniable ability to make real connections with those holding the controller, Mass Effect transcends expectations to deliver something that has no equal.

Throughout the game, the player is surrounded by endless opportunities to take in and explore a universe filled with diverse life that's been developed to an unparalleled degree. By being able to believe in the situation, the opportunity arises to believe in the characters—and these characters are the best-written I've ever seen. Despite being set in a fantastic future amidst circumstances that are pure fantasy, every single face, whether human or alien, has depth and resonance. Their logic, emotions, and attitudes all ring true. From the naïve researcher to the prejudiced squad member with something to prove and everyone in between, each portrait painted through conversation and camaraderie contains real slices of the human condition.

Although similar to other efforts with "good/evil" or "light/dark" paths for players to follow, the quality of the characters is reinforced by the fact that many of the moral situations to navigate have no "right" answer, only a hard decision that must be made. With the peerless scripting and dialogue that happens along the course of the game, making some of these choices is agonizingly painful because the consequences possess a gravity and relevance that are in a class all by themselves. It's not hard to relate to what happens onscreen, and I was surprised several times by the level of emotion that was elicited. It's not very often I feel paralyzed by a choice I don't want to make, but it happened time and again in Mass Effect.

Mass Effect Screenshot

Additionally, I want to recognize BioWare for consistently furthering the cause of "mature" games. As in previous efforts, there are romantic subplots completely nonessential to the experience to be discovered, and the way this subject matter (including sexual content) is handled is a perfect example of what games could be like if more developers would steer away from the lowest common denominators and address the topic with some sophistication and good taste.

Intellectually satisfying to an unbelievable degree, Mass Effect follows through in every other aspect by crafting a game that is a joy to play, completely apart from the characters. The graphics showcase a level of imagination and artistic ability that rivals anything in any medium and the level of energy and excitement generated by the events in the dramatic arc are second to none. Although the critical path leading from the strong start to an amazingly explosive blockbuster finish can be whipped through at a breakneck pace, it's just as satisfying to get off the rollercoaster for a while and explore the vast array of planets and celestial clusters at will, discovering unexpected surprises in uncharted corners of every galaxy. For those wanting a little more purpose, following any of the game's plentiful sidequests will lead to interesting situations and people that all significantly contribute to the Mass Effect canon and strengthen the ties holding its world together. No matter how play time is spent, it always feels rewarding and rich.

An incredible effort from any perspective, Mass Effect sets the new standard for story-driven games, and has unquestionably surpassed all others to become the preeminent science fiction franchise today. As far as I'm concerned, nothing else can hold a candle to it, and the great minds at BioWare should be extremely proud of what they've created. I was honestly sorry when the game came to an end, although in a way, I'm glad it did. I'll start showing up to work again, and my pets will finally get fed. I'll just have to console myself with the knowledge that this disc is the first of a planned trilogy—and if the next two are even half as good as this one, it will make the torturous wait to return to the Mass Effect universe well worth it. Rating: 10 out of 10

Mass Effect Second Opinion

For those of you who don't feel like reading the whole thing: it's awesome.

Mass Effect Screenshot

HIGH Wonderful narrative from beginning to end.

LOW Inventory management.

WTF Twenty minutes into the game where I accidentally chose the dialog option to punch out a hapless NPC.

Role-playing games/Console Role-playing games constitute a unique breed of game. In no other genre must the plot and the player’s interaction with the game world work so harmoniously to create something worthwhile. A successful merging of both aspects have resulted in some of the finest games ever made, while botching either one can lead to a disaster. For me, an RPG must be a challenging, intricate, and emotional experience in order to justify those 50-60 hours I'm going to spend at the computer when I might otherwise be doing something productive (Stop laughing. Jerks). Mass Effect, BioWare's latest effort into an area it has already contributed so much to, is not perfection. It is fraught with its fair share of problems, but it is without question one of the best gaming experiences I have had in a very long time.

One thing needs to be made abundantly clear above all else; Mass Effect has one of the deepest, most engrossing narratives I have ever come across in a game. If a large, complex, and intricate plot isn't your cup of tea, you will not like Mass Effect. For me, however, it was absolutely fantastic. The game grabbed me from the beginning and never let go—I was always interested in advancing the story, and each new plot point I reached made me feel as though I had accomplished something. Considering that over half the player's interaction with the game is going through line after line of dialogue in conversation trees, the story better damn well be good, and it certainly is.

The universe I was thrown into was massive, complete with history and background information for every race I encountered, and even for some I didn't (at least not until the expansion came out). The game world's chronicle has been fine tuned down to the smallest detail, providing quite a long reading list for those who care to learn. Aesthetically, things have also been well crafted, especially for the races. As someone who grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and wondering how many different kinds of forehead makeup the artists could possibly come up with, I can safely say that each race/species has been designed to a tee, every one with a distinct look and personality. The voice acting is a notch or three above the rest and the soundtrack is one of the very best I've ever heard. The main worlds themselves are also generally unique and well-done, although the majority of the side missions consist of the same underground bunker/prefabricated base/cargo ship copy pasted about fifty times over, which got a little old after a while.

Mass Effect Screenshot

The characters all mesh well with the player character and often times with each other. The relationships and connections you develop with them over the course of the game feel genuine, as I found myself actually caring about all of them in one way or another. Indeed, Mass Effect earns its "Mature" rating the hard way (in my eyes, not the ESRB's)—providing real depth of story and character rather than wanton bloodshed. However, I sometimes felt that the instances of party members conversing with each other rather than the player were a little underutilized. For example, I wish the random conversations that occur between the two party members I had with me whenever I used an elevator had been used a little more often. (Side note: in the future elevators will still be slow as hell. Just FYI). These provided some great insight into the characters' psyches, and it was a treat to see some of the more interesting personalities bounce off of each other.

I also noticed a distinct improvement in the way the good/evil (or in this case paragon/renegade) dynamic is handled. In several other similar RPGs, the "choice" I am given doesn't leave any middle ground between the two moral extremes. On one hand I can bring good tidings, plentiful nourishment, and free candy to the huddled masses, ensuring my status as the most goodly and altruistic person in the history of existence. Or, I can routinely abduct young maidens and tie them to train tracks, twirling my impressive mustache as I do so. I can crush kittens in the street beneath my heel as I'm on my way to convince a group of orphans that selling themselves into slavery is the only way to save their villages from being burned, and then subsequently burning said village after collecting their selling fees. In Mass Effect, the primary goals are the same throughout the game regardless of which path is chosen. The difference lies on how the player gets there—careful negotiation and planning, or brute force and ruthlessness. I found the choices in most instances to be much more believable than in a lot of similar games, and the experience was greatly enhanced as a result.

Mass Effect does however carry with it one of the most loathsome aspects of many RPGs that I have encountered over the years—forcing me to choose between which party members to take with me and completely separating me from the others for the duration of my time in that particular area. The only way to switch anyone out most of the time is to go all the way back to your ship. I hate being separated from parts of my party if it isn't directly related to the plot, and I hate being forced to choose between the most powerful or well-balanced group and the one I feel will provide more entertainment value. I always feel like I'm missing out on some juicy piece of dialogue or some great side quest when I leave people behind. I understand that the player must be forced to strategize in regards to his party members, but couldn't this be accomplished by simply disabling the ability to switch out during combat and in other specific instances? Why does it mean I have to live with the feeling that I'm missing out on something and there's nothing I can do about it? I have learned to live with this trait over the years, but it still bugs the hell out of me when I know I might be missing one of the funniest or most thought-provoking moments in the game.

Mass Effect Screenshot

The non-dialogue portions of the game are solid, if unspectacular. Moving and shooting is smooth and intuitive for the most part, and I found most of the battles engaging and sometimes challenging. Combat is an area where many RPGs miss the mark quite badly, and getting some real enjoyment out of the fights to go along with the story was a pleasant surprise. I was able to switch between weapons with ease and use special abilities with little to no trouble, as the pause/select target/use power system used in Knights of the Old Republic makes a successful return here. However, the game's greatest failing by far is the inventory system—this could've really used another trip or two to the drawing board. As I progressed later into the game I hit the stored items limit, which required me to dispose of some of my inventory to be able to acquire anything new. There is no "clear multiple items" function, so getting rid of all those low-level items is a massive pain. Something that allowed me to drag and highlight (at least on the PC version) all the items I wanted to get rid of would have been ideal, but even putting a checkbox next to the items and a "dispose checked" function would have been better that having to click dispose, confirm it, then do that over about fifty times. Getting rid of weapon mods is even more of a problem, as they are only displayed in the mod addition/removal screen and not in the main item list, adding another layer to an already frustrating system.

In the end the positives of Mass Effect are so overwhelmingly strong that every single problem in the game is almost totally eclipsed. The superb narrative, smooth conversation tree system and surprisingly engaging combat far outweigh any technical problems or annoyances. An RPG needs to be an overarching, epic playing experience in order to make it worth the time that I put into it, and Mass Effect is just that. BioWare, you've officially sent my hopes for the sequel in to the stratosphere—don't let me down.  Rating: 9.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: The Xbox 360 version was obtained through borrowing, and approximately 60 hours was spent in the first playthrough. The PC version was obtained through retail purchase, and approximately 60 hours was spent on the second playthrough.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains language, partial nudity, sexual themes, and violence. Younger children might be frightened by some of the imagery, but I wouldn't be concerned with an adolescent playing it.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All spoken lines can be subtitles, and audio is not a factor in gameplay. However, the soundtrack is at times extremely influential in setting the mood for a particular area.

Mass Effect – Consumer Guide

According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, and Violence

Mass Effect Screenshot

Parents, this game is mature in the best possible sense of the word. Characters have issues that the adults can easily relate to, the dramatic events in the story are handled quite seriously, and although there is explicit violence (guns, blood, and a wee bit of gore) and not-so-explicit but still quite obvious sexual content (straight or lesbian), this game is clearly intended for older audiences. It's an amazing experience and one I highly recommend, but maybe not so much for the kiddies. Get it for yourself now, and let them play it once they're old enough later.

Action gamers and RPG fanatics, this game strikes a near-perfect balance between your two respective genres. The combat is in real-time, and strongly resembles the action seen in Epic's Gears of War with its over-the-shoulder third-person perspective. Although RPG-style customization is present, it's not as deep or as micromanaging as some players would likely enjoy. Mostly related to stats and modifying equipment, it's good, but not the core of gameplay. Don't come here for hardcore shooting action and don't come here for item-management and random battles, but if you're after an amazing adventure that currently has no equal, Mass Effect is your ticket.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers get much love from BioWare. Every bit of dialogue and speech in the game is subtitled, and the lip syncing is almost good enough to lip-read off of. I may be exaggerating a little bit on that last part, but there are absolutely no problems with accessibility with regard to this story, and there are on-screen indicators that clue players in to when they're under attack. Jump in and have no fear, there are no problems with communication or audio cues.

Mass Effect: Bring Down the Sky – Review

Released for download March 10th on Microsoft's Live service, BioWare's first add-on expansion for the superb sci-fi adventure Mass Effect is now available.

Titled "Bring Down the Sky," the plot of this mission involves a captured mining facility on an asteroid. A group of never-before-seen aliens called Batarians have taken the resident scientists hostage, and intend to collide the asteroid into a nearby planet with the aim of annihilating millions of innocents.

There are few people who are bigger fans of Mass Effect than I am, and I was practically giggling as I waited for the content to finish loading onto my hard drive. The thought of waiting for a true sequel is torture, so anything getting me back into the Mass Effect universe is welcome. However, I was somewhat disappointed at what my money actually got.

Priced at 400 Microsoft points ($5.00) this pack is essentially a single, self-contained sidequest comparable to the wealth of optional missions that are already included with the original game. No longer or more complex than the dozens of others that I've already been through, by the time I had earned the new 50-point Achievement for its completion, my playtime was somewhere around the one-hour mark.

$5.00 for an hour? I enjoyed the mission and new Mass Effect content is good content as far as I'm concerned, but there's absolutely nothing differentiating it from what the original game offered in spades. I certainly didn't expect BioWare to come up with completely new material by any means, but such a brief, straightforward and otherwise unexceptional mission would feel like a better value if there were at least two more like it included in the purchase price. Rating: 5 out of 10 -- for quantity, not quality.

Technical note: the new content can only be accessed from the star map inside the Normandy spaceship. If the last save available (like mine) is inside the endgame area leading up to the final confrontation, players will have to start a new game and advance the story until the ship becomes available.

Mass Effect: Pinnacle Station Review

It's garbage.

Mass Effect: Pinnacle Station Screenshot

HIGH Nothing.

LOW Everything.

WTF Why in the world was this even released?

So, out of my ten-year career reviewing games professionally, I've only awarded two perfect "10" scores. I'm no math whiz, but if you average that out, I'm pretty sure that's one for every five years. My point? I don't hand out the highest honor lightly.

One of the games to which I gave top marks was BioWare's Mass Effect. Encapsulating everything I love about video games, action, and sci-fi in one complete package, I devoured every last tasty morsel. I couldn't get enough. Although it's true all good things come to an end, thanks to the current trend of releasing post-game Downloadble Content, good things can keep going for a little longer. More Mass Effect? Yes, please.

The first piece of DLC, Bring Down The Sky, was short and felt a little cobbled together, but it was basically another chunk of what I was looking for. A few quick missions, some dialogue and choices to make, and another opportunity to put my own personalized version of Commander Shepard through her paces. It wasn't mindblowing, but it was good enough. Besides, BioWare had promised at least two pieces of DLC before the launch of Mass Effect 2. I still had (at least) one more to look forward to, and surely, that one would be a home run, right?

Not so.

After months of nearly total silence on the final add-on, it appeared on Xbox Live with not a whisper of fanfare or forewarning. Catching me completely by surprise, I drove home at the first opportunity, breathlessly queued it up for download, and was... absolutely disappointed.

Titled Pinnacle Station, the new content is essentially a tiny base that Shepard can enter. There are no new alien races that I noticed, no moral choices, nor any quests to undertake. No tasks, no jobs, no missions... instead, Pinnacle Station is a bunch of combat-driven time trials that players can enter and attempt to rank on a leaderboard.

That's it.

Although there are a few different types of trials, they all boil down to being something that feels completely out of place and inappropriate for a story-driven RPG like Mass Effect. Time trials? Really? After all these months of waiting and looking forward to getting back into one of what I consider one of the best games of the last decade, the brightest idea BioWare came up with was time trials? In recycled environments, no less.

Adding insult to injury, the content is choppy, extremely buggy and glitch-prone. Out of five separate attempts, I was not once able to complete a single round of combat. The first time, my character inexplicably became unable to move and I was reduced to an immobile gun turret. During my next try, the game simply froze. The time after that, I went into the menu screen and the game froze again, necessitating a full hardware restart. Reviewers have a responsibility to go into a game and evaluate it for what it is, but when a reviewer is literally not able to finish the content in question due to its poor quality, any obligation to see it through to the end goes out the window.

I think it's pretty clear that I hold Mass Effect in the highest possible regard, having nothing but the utmost respect and affection for it, but I need to be honest when I say that Pinnacle Station is not only a complete waste of money, it's an insult to Mass Effect itself. I can't imagine why this shoddy cash-in was even released at all, except for a quick infusion of ill-gotten income from all the suckers like me who bought it on faith. Rating: 0.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 45 minutes of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the content was not completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, language, partial nudity, sexual themes, and violence. Since this game is definitely aimed at mature audiences, all the usual caveats apply. However, most of these warning tags apply to the core game itself, and not this DLC in particular. Specifically, this DLC contains a metric ton of gunplay, but that's about it.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You should be aware that the dialogue and speech in the game is subtitled, and there are on-screen indicators that clue players in to when they're under attack. There are no problems with communication or audio cues.

The future of conversation in videogames

Mass Effect

I’ve been thinking recently about how conversations occur within videogames. In many role-playing games (RPGs), players can talk to various non-player characters (NPCs) by walking up to them and clicking on a button to hear what they have to say. In many cases, NPCs will repeat the same thing over and over again no matter how many times the player talks to them. To be honest, it isn’t really a conversation at all. It’s more like information gathering. The player’s onscreen avatar usually doesn’t say anything in most RPGs. Just walk up to an NPC, hit the talk button, and he or she spits out some preprogrammed dialogue.

More recently, games have increased the complexity of these “conversations” by including points where the player can choose between a set of responses, which in turn affects the next thing the NPC will say. For the most part, however, these choices are of little consequence beyond providing a touch of variety to the standard grind of gathering information and exploring. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion does a good job of extending the basic formula by giving the player a menu of topics to choose from when conversing, but it’s really not fundamentally different from what’s come before.

That’s why the forthcoming Mass Effect has me so intrigued. The game’s conversation system allows players to choose from multiple responses, with the added option of interrupting an NPC with the chosen response or waiting until they are done speaking. This is meant to lend a more dynamic quality to conversations, and judging by the recently published review for Mass Effect in Game Informer, the system works very well in practice. I hope this will pave the way for further innovations in conversation and storytelling. At the very least, this has already got me thinking about what the next wave of advances will look like.

One possibility may be the use of conversational programs. A recent article in the journal Computers in Human Behavior describes a study in which a group of college students chatted with a conversation bot (i.e., a computer program capable of engaging in a conversation). What fascinated me about the study was that the students clearly perceived the program as having human-like qualities. Even though the students knew they were talking to a computer, they actually showed general agreement in their perception of the bots personality traits (e.g., friendliness, thoughtfulness, neuroticism, etc.).

In addition, the researchers were able to manipulate the students’ feelings about the bot by changing whether or not it used the students’ first names and how long it took to respond. On top of that, the researchers found that the length of time that the students spent talking to the bot was inversely correlated to how neurotic they though it was. So it seems that not only do people dislike talking to neurotic humans, but they also dislike talking to neurotic computers. In a sense, this isn’t surprising. But it is surprising to me that a computer program could actually come across as possessing a recognizable personality.

So what does this have to do with videogames? For one thing, it suggests interesting possibilities for how players could interact with NPCs. Most RPGs are filled with random incidental characters, many of whom have no connection to the main plot. I think it would be fascinating if certain secondary characters in a videogame actually behaved like conversation bots. (For this to work, it would obviously be necessary for the player to use a keyboard.) Of course, there are all sorts of problems this would present from a design perspective. I’m not sure how it would be possible to have well written dialogue in a game if the player is partially responsible for creating it.

The real issue, as I see it, is figuring out how a conversational program could be meaningfully incorporated into a game, rather than just being used in some throwaway manner. If players can say or ask anything they want, then how could the conversation program react in a way that is meaningful and consistent with the game world? It’s an unrealistic expectation to hope that the player would only say or ask things that make sense given the context. Players would inevitably say things to the computer that are anachronistic, nonsensical, or just plain silly. This is not to say it could never work, but the issue of player unpredictability would have to be dealt with.

The notion of having a conversational program in a videogame may be a little far-fetched, but then again a game like Grand Theft Auto would have seemed pretty far-fetched 20 years ago. There's ultimately no way of knowing for sure what kinds of technologies will find their way into the future of interactive entertainment. For now, I am very much looking forward to checking out Mass Effect for myself and experiencing its unique conversation system firsthand.

Mass Effect for PC: Why do people hate DRM?

Bioware's highly acclaimed and formerly XBox 360 exclusive RPG Mass Effect is fast approaching its release on the PC. Most PC gamers were undoubtedly pleased to hear about enhanced graphics, faster load times, and a re-designed menu system; but it's likely that fewer were happy to hear about the evil digital rights management that will be unscrupulously bundled with the game.

Like an increasing number of PC games nowadays, Mass Effect will require an online activation when it is installed. This has been common practice ever since Half-Life 2. But Mass Effect will also "phone home" every 10 days to make sure the key is valid, and it will carry a three-install limit. This has set many message boards afire with rants about "draconian" DRM and people threatening to pirate the game precisely because of the DRM.

It's times like this that I wonder why people are so adamantly opposed to DRM. It's worth noting that piracy came first; if people didn't steal their games, there would be no need for DRM. But the argument is something like this: the game will be pirated anyway, and DRM just inconveniences those who legitimately purchased their game.

But let's shift gears for a moment. The music industry has been similarly ravaged by piracy. It's easy enough to avoid any DRM simply by purchasing a CD. But that's not what most people do. The number one retailer of music is none other than Apple's iTunes. That's right – the same iTunes that gives you songs at 128kbps AAC and won't let you burn any song to CD more than five times. Apple has tried to appease the DRM-haters with iTunes plus, but it's a pretty small percentage of iTunes songs that use the "plus" format.

How has Apple managed to become the number one music retailer with such evil DRM? It's simple: most people don't care about DRM. I mean really, when you buy a CD, do you make ten copies? Twenty? Why on earth wouldn't five copies be enough? And the vast majority of people cannot tell the difference between a 128kbps AAC song and an uncompressed song on a CD. It's hard to imagine how iTunes songs would really inconvenience anyone.

So let's look again at Mass Effect. Is it really draconian to expect gamers to be connected to the internet? Sure, some people may want to play offline for some arbitrary reason, but is that really going to comprise a significant percentage of players? And what about the three-activation limit? How many times do you plan on re-installing the game? How many friends are you going to "loan" it to?

Here's the thing: due to various upgrades and reformats, I've passed the activation limits on one or two of my games. I simply contact the support with a request code given by the game, and they activate the game for me. Big. Deal.

The resistance to DRM like that seen in Mass Effect does not, in my view, come from a real belief that gamers are being inconvenienced in any significant way; rather, it comes from the belief that if you buy a piece of software, it's your property and you should be able to do whatever you want with it. But here's the thing: it's not your property. You are paying for the privilege of using the software, not ownership of the intellectual property.

But to the larger question: Does DRM really inconvenience legit gamers while utterly failing to combat piracy? Sometimes, yes, it has. But as long as piracy remains rampant, developers have every right to try to protect their software as best they can. Online authentication is perhaps the most promising form of piracy protection, and it's likely that more and more developers will use it, particularly as PC games move from the retail shelf to digital distribution.

Futhermore, I always have to cast a skeptical eye at those who claim that copy protection such as SecuROM causes bugs and glitches, because in the two and a half years that I've been a PC-only gamer, of all the 30 or so games I own, not a single one has caused me any problems at all due to copy protection. While it's not impossible that some users have legitimate problems, I feel that it's more probable that copy protection is often erroneously blamed other system issues.

Ultimately I feel that those who raise hell about DRM are in a minority. The alleged inconveniences are incredibly trivial, and if DRM can reduce piracy, it's good both for developers and gamers. And those who threaten piracy because of DRM? Well, those schmucks are probably already familiar with getting the five-finger discount. I challenge these irate gamers to offer their own solutions. PC piracy numbers are staggering, and causing many developers to leave the platform. If gamers don't like DRM, what other solutions might there be? What are these gamers accomplishing by throwing a fit and threatening more piracy, aside from egging developers to develop even stricter DRM?

DRM is not going anywhere. It's here to stay and until our society becomes a utopia where everyone is honest and nobody steals, gamers are just going to have to suck up the horrible inconvenience of plugging in their ethernet cable.

Mass Effect, piracy and DRM, part 2

The response to my previous post has been remarkable; clearly, many gamers are passionate about DRM and its place (or lack thereof) in PC gaming. I've read through all the comments, and would like to take a moment to respond to them.

As a few responders noted, EA has now relaxed the every-10-day "phoning home" rule; now, Mass Effect will authenticate only when new patches or content is being downloaded.  

Gamers have pointed to Stardock as an example of how to run a successful PC studio without DRM; however, I feel the comparison is moot, because Stardock is a very small company and games like Galactic Civilizations and Sins of a Solar Empire are not expected to sell, or be pirated, on a scale comparable to games like Crysis, Call of Duty 4 and Unreal Tournament 3, all of which were very heavily pirated on the PC. Because a small company like Stardock doesn't have the tens-of-millions budget that a company like EA or Epic has, selling a hundred thousand units would be considered a big success for them, even if another three hundred thousand pirated the game. With big budget games, the risks are greater and the effects of piracy are more serious. It's also worth noting that piracy has indeed crippled small developers, as was famously borne out recently when Iron Lore shut down, which was followed by a passionate criticism of PC gaming (and PC gamers) by THQ Director of Creative Management Michael Fitch. 

Gamers also need to understand that DRM is not intended to stop piracy. No developer in their right mind would be arrogant and ignorant enough to assume that even the most sophisticated DRM would be bullet-proof. Rather, DRM is intended to reduce piracy, to make it harder. If simply increasing the time it takes for a game to be cracked may improve sales significantly, the developer would view the DRM as worth the trouble. 

People complain about the games being "too advanced", like you need some sort of supercomputer to run Crysis, or it's required by law to be able to play games at maximum settings despite the fact that nearly all games are designed to be scalable across a broad array of platforms. I do not buy this as a reason or an excuse for piracy. Clearly if someone has a system that can play these games, they can afford to pay for their games too. In fact as this recent article shows, piracy is as much a concern for the "casual" PC game developers as it is for the big boys like EA.

There's also a lot of confusion about "rights". Players want to believe that when they purchase a game, they have the right to use it however they want. That's simply a fallacy—the owner of the IP gets to decide. This is plainly evident in the fact that every game installer has an "End User License Agreement"; it's safe to say that most users simple click "agree" rather than actually read through all the legal mumbo-jumbo. Suffice to say though that it is the developer and publisher who have the right to decide how their software will be used. Love it or hate it, DRM is well within the creators' rights.

Do I like DRM? Of course not. I don't like inputing a CD key. I don't like CD checks (I avoid them, though, by purchasing all my games digitally). I don't like the rare occasion when I have to contact a publisher because my SecuROM activation limit was used up (happened once). But they are incredibly small niggles, a meager price to pay for the greatness of PC gaming. Perhaps the best DRM models are those such as Steam, which imbeds its DRM within a digital distribution and community-based service. (I rather like that Steam requires no keys or CD checks, and updates games automatically.)

And while piracy numbers are certainly high for PC gaming, much of the fuss has come from the supposedly poor sales of high-profile games like Crysis and Unreal Tournament 3. These stories were based on brick-and-mortar retail sales tracked by the NPD. However, PC gaming is fast moving away from this; as many have pointed out,  when one factors in sales from digital distribution (such as Steam, Direct2Drive and the EA Store), e-tail, and subscriptions, PC gaming is in all likelihood doing much better than many would believe. I would add the acquisition of Alienware and Voodoo by Dell and HP, respectively, along with the blooming boutique gaming PC market, as further evidence of a growing market for PC games. Neither piracy nor DRM is damaging the market as much as many would believe.

Furthermore, it's quite difficult to quantify how many pirates equal lost sales. Certainly it's not 1-to-1 (likely far less). Yet when you have developers like Crytek, id and Epic counting piracy as a primary reason for a move away from PCs as a central platform, it's tough to discount the notion that piracy does indeed translate to significant lost sales in many cases. After all, who would be so naive as to assume that the millions of people downloading music illegally from Napster in the late 90s would never have bought any of that music anyway?

DRM is a necessary evil. Gamers must realize that reducing piracy is good for developers, and the problems some people face with DRM (including Steam) must be viewed as collateral damage—assuming, of course, that the DRM is actually the issue, which may often not be the case. The challenge for developers is to find a DRM scheme that is as unintrusive as possible. EA's move to change Mass Effect's DRM shows that they are indeed cognizant of the notion that certain types of DRM may repel some gamers. Yet for current piracy rates to be reduced significantly, DRM must continue to be a reality. Here's hoping more developers can follow Valve's example, and that developers and gamers can reach a mutually beneficial solution.

Beyond Gender Choice: Mass Effect's varied inclusiveness

Beyond Gender Choice: Mass Effect's varied inclusiveness

For the most part I seriously enjoyed Mass Effect despite the initial problems I wrote about in my previous post. After the first couple of missions I had a handle on the gameplay and was at a point where I had the freedom to shoot things up or have deep conversations with my crew at my own whim. I completed most of the side quests and finished the game wanting more; I immediately began a renegade playthrough, though I did not have time to get very far.

Overall, Mass Effect took huge steps forward for inclusiveness in games. Its racial diversity is unlike any I have seen in a game: nearly all of the major and minor human NPCs are people of color, and none of them are stereotypes. In another impressive step, not only is there an important character—the Normandy's pilot, Joker—who happens to be disabled, but a conversation with him reveals the many different layers of ableism he has experienced throughout his life. Unfortunately, the game stumbles when it comes to gender inclusiveness. While the game seems quite egalitarian on the surface, notably in the ability to choose whether to play as a male or female character, I have noticed some deep sexism in the world-building (galaxy-building?), some subtle and some not. I will be writing about how the game explicitly addresses sexism, racism, and other social issues in a future post; for now I want to examine how the fiction of the game has been influenced by sexism on the part of the developers.

I. The Alien Race of Women—I Mean, Asari

The Asari are the all-female race of blue aliens that are iconic to the game. The Asari member of Shepard's crew is Dr. Liara T'Soni, a (relatively) young scientist and possible romantic interest for both male and female Shepard. Liara is a frustrating character because she is likable, but she was clearly designed to be as likable as possible—to a certain type of male gamer. Go on any gaming forum discussing her and there will be multiple posts talking about how hot she is because she is so “innocent." This perception of her seems to stem from her nervousness when talking to Shepard and her implied virginity.

The positioning of innocence as an attractive trait in women has its roots in patriarchy, related to how patriarchy encourages the infantilization of women: women are portrayed as childlike and unable to make decisions for themselves, necessitating a male protector and provider who knows what's good for her (thus maintaining patriarchy, despite how insulting and inaccurate this characterization is). The infantilization of women is seen in many aspects of our culture, and a quick Google search turns up examples in law, religion, advertising, and fashion. For this reason, I find the obsession with Liara's innocence to be creepy, not to mention in contradiction with other aspects of her personality, namely her actual age—over 100—and her extensive experience as a scientist. (For the record, I also think rompers are awful.)

In addition, while some have praised BioWare for including the option of a lesbian relationship in the game, Liara is, frankly, a cop-out, a way to have hot girl-on-girl action for straight men without actually having any gays: both Liara and the codex explain at length how the Asari don't really have a gender (by which I assume they mean "sex", since sex and gender are two different things and the Asari are clearly gendered female) and they mate through psychic mind connections. While I don't think the actual development of the relationship or even the sex scene is outrageously exploitative (though I would note that the sex scene with Liara is slightly longer, with more nudity than the others), when contrasting the romance options for male and female Shepard, I found the lack of a romance option between two men to be conspicuous. The absence of a gay male romance, which is due at least in part to the gaming community's reputation as a notoriously homophobic space, implies that the female Shepard/Liara romance is mostly for straight male titillation rather than a concern for the inclusion of LGBTQI folks.

Obviously, my problems with how one Asari character is written shouldn't condemn an entire species, but the Asari as a race are also problematic. In short, they are every female stereotype or cliche rolled up into one new species. According to the codex, the Asari have three stages of life: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Matriarch (otherwise known on Earth as the "crone"). These stages just so happen to correspond with what were, until fairly recently though arguably still today, the three acceptable roles for women in society. Making these archetypes an explicit aspect of an alien race that just happens to be all-female is at worst sexist and at best lazy and uncreative.

In addition, the Asari are sexualized to a much farther extent than any other species (partially as a result of point two, below). The first Asari the player meets in the game is called the "Consort," and yes, she runs what amounts to a brothel: clients meet her for her "services," which may or may not be sex. Walking through the Consort's chambers, the player overhears nervous aliens telling the Consort's aides that this is their "first time." While the consort is not explicitly a prostitute, the situation is clearly meant to humorously resemble a brothel. The player can also watch Asari strippers dance at the club called Chora's Den. Thirdly, Liara and the codex both describe how Asari can mate with any intelligent being through a sort of psychic mind-meld. Now, I am all for science fiction experimenting with different kinds of sexuality and sexual practices, but this is another case of pandering to straight men. It's no coincidence that the all-female race is the one that can mate with anybody.*

Even Matriarch Benezia, one of the most powerful and wise beings in the galaxy, is sexualized. She had to have huge breasts and a revealing outfit because even though she is old and powerful, she still needs to be sexy, as the primary purpose of the Asari (just like women here on Earth) is to be attractive to straight men. Their second purpose is to serve men: as Liara drops her research to serve Shepard, as the Consort serves her clients, as the dancers serve the bar's patrons, Benezia serves Saren and Sovereign. This turns her into a villain, but not even a willing one—she loses all agency because of Sovereign's mind control, breaking it just enough to tell her daughter that she is not worth saving.

Beyond Gender Choice: Mass Effect's varied inclusiveness

In another frustrating move, the Asari are known for their skills with Biotics, Mass Effect's science fiction version of magic. This isn't a problem in and of itself, but in the context of video games as a medium and RPGs in particular, there is a sexist trend of always putting women in the role of magic user, with few exceptions, ever since White Mage was the only female character in the original Final Fantasy. The codex also pays lip service to Asari Commandos, who are described as extremely deadly; the player encounters them in one battle in the entire game, during which they didn't nearly live up to the hype.

As another detail that serves to emphasize how stereotypically feminine the Asari are supposed to be, the Asari member of the Council is representative of compassion and diplomacy. Where the Turian member represents military action and strength, and the Salarian represents intelligence and strategy, both men, the Asari member of the Council is the only woman and occupies the traditional role of women: peacemaker. Because she's so good at understanding peoples' feelings. Again, this isn't bad in and of itself, but combined with all the other ways in which the Asari are stereotypically feminine, it belies the sexist assumptions about women in the mind of the people who created them, namely that the creators buy into gender essentialist arguments about how women are. (That article even cites the sexist and simply wrong idea behind the arrangement of the Council [emphasis original]: "A common corollary belief is that while men are physically and rationally superior, women are morally superior.")

The Asari are the only alien species in the game with visible females, so they were made to be "hyper-female", encompassing the stereotypical roles for human women. This is not only sexist and gender essentialist but a failure of imagination: why would an alien race conform to our (incorrect, arbitrary) human assumptions about what women are or should be? Good science fiction challenges our deepest-held assumptions, including those about gender, femininity and masculinity. With the Asari, Mass Effect only reinforces the idea that all women are a certain way, and that way should be as pleasing to straight men as possible.

II. Why Are There No Ugly Female Aliens?

In general, the portrayal of women in Mass Effect is better than many games. It meets the required minimum of having female characters that aren't hypersexualized: they have relatively realistic proportions and their clothing is appropriately similar to the male characters', for the most part. There remains, however, a notable discrepancy between men and women in the galaxy of the game: all the women are hot, but not all of the men are.

Beyond Gender Choice: Mass Effect's varied inclusiveness

Look at the varied body types we see among male aliens in the game. In addition to the humans (most of whom, I will grant, are meant to be attractive—Kaiden certainly is), we see the lizard-like Turians, the hulking and reptilian Krogan, the large and cattle-like Elcor, the amphibian Salarians, the squat Volus, and the jellyfish-like Hanar.

All the female aliens present in the game, aside from a single female Quarian (who I will get to in a moment), are Asari**. The Asari, a species with all the issues I outlined above, that seem to be a space representation of femininity. This is Othering via world-building: male is the default for most races, but the ones that have females at all are so female they encompass female archetypes, run brothels, strip in bars, and have sex with anyone and anything.

Go ahead and do a word search for "female" on those Wikia articles linked above. It isn't even mentioned on the Elcor or Volus pages; the only mention on the Hanar page is to say that there is "no discernible difference" between male and female Hanar, which is only problematic because of human sexism—see the side note about gender presentation below.

The only mention of "female" on the Krogan page is how all the Krogan females are on the Krogan homeworld trying to have as many babies as possible. Convenient! The only mention of "female" on the Salarian page is to note that the species is 90% male, and the females also all stay on the Salarian kitchen—I mean, home word, but it's okay because they are all powerful politicians. Of course, this means they needn't appear in the game. How convenient!

The only mention of "female" on the page about the Turians is in the "trivia" section, and it says: "No female turians are seen in the game. This is because there was insufficient development time and memory budget to support two different versions of the same species."

This explains everything. The reason the stuff about Krogan and Salarian females seems like convenient excuses is because they are: when time and budget were tight, the non-hot females were the first to go. Other than humans, there was only room for one model for each species, and for the most part, the females were disposed of—except for Tali, the only Quarian in the entire game. Having only males did not stop the developers from having many Turian and Krogan NPCs, so why does the player never encounter even one other female Quarian? I mean, other than the convenient excuse that all the Quarians never venture outside of their own fleet (except when they do). Tali is saved from the chopping block because, unlike Turian or Krogan females, she is acceptably attractive: she has an hourglass figure, a sexy accent, and her mask allows fans to imagine that she has a face like their favorite actress.

Beyond Gender Choice: Mass Effect's varied inclusiveness

The absence of something as insignificant as females may be explained, but that doesn't mean it is excused. And it certainly doesn't mean that Mass Effect's depiction of a galactic society where every single woman, both alien and human, just so happens to have a humanoid body a supermodel would be jealous of isn't sexist, messed up, and wrong.

A side note on gender presentation

The thing that kills me about the "we didn't have time to make any females!" excuse is that there is no real reason male and female Turians, for example, couldn't look just alike above their clothes. Not all animals on Earth have sexual dimorphism; why should all aliens?

Technically some of those Turian or Krogan or Hanar NPCs in the game could be female, despite having deep voices and no breasts. There is no reason an alien society should have the same ideas about femininity or masculinity as we do (or have such ideas at all!). The catch is, only humans are playing Mass Effect; therefore, any creature lacking sufficient feminine markers are going to be assumed (in this unfortunate case, correctly) to be male. The developers could, however, have easily challenged players' ideas about femininity by casually referring to the ugly, deep-voiced Elcor ambassador as "she".

As I said above, good science fiction challenges our most basic assumptions. Unfortunately, Mass Effect is not good science fiction. In fact, it seems to embrace our own societal "common wisdom" about women and femininity all too wholeheartedly. I can only hope someone on the development team has read Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness or some Octavia Butler before writing Mass Effect 2.

* One thing I do find interesting about the Asari is the idea that "purebloods"—Asari who mate with other Asari—are lesser, as they don't bring anything new to the species. It's an interesting inversion of the "Mudblood" idea; the term is from Harry Potter, but it's a common trope in fantasy: see the vast number of stories about half-elves angsting that they don't belong to either the elf or human cultures.

** Some may object that the Rachni Queen is a female "ugly" alien; while this is true, they aren't part of Citadel culture in any way; they aren't meant to be seen as equal to humans or the other intelligent species. Not only that, but, as an insectoid species, the Rachni Queen's only purpose is to breed lots of children—quite patriarchal. Also, one exception does not outweigh the six other species that are "ugly" and all male.

Thank you to Kateri, Simon Ferrari, and Ryan Gan for their help in the preparation of this post.

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