On Origin

origin-logoA major part of consternation when it came to playing Mass Effect 3 recently was the forced alliance I’d have to make (for the sake of the galaxy) with Origin, a digital distribution system whose existence is gloriously unnecessary.

As it turned out, Origin wasn’t awful, although the experience was nowhere near as tuned as that I receive with Steam.

Firstly, kudos to EA for quickly resolving an issue with the CD key I was given. My good friend Jake gifted me ME3 as a Christmas gift; however he inadvertently sent me a used copy on DVD, which wouldn’t activate. The Origin rep I connected with – once sent photographic proof of purchase and DVD ownership – was very kind in generating me a key for the N7 Special Edition of the Mass Effect 3 game which would have cost considerably more than the base game I was gifted. This impressed me to be honest, and went against my expectations of Origin being awful to work with on a customer-service basis.

The Origin software itself proved… clunky. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Origin does a very good job in flattering Steam. However, the in-game interface proved to be a bit of a handful; the web browser misbehaved and was sluggish and on a few occasions the overlay ceased working entirely. It just felt as if EA had taken a photocopier to Steam but forgot to clean the glass with Windolene beforehand. It worked but was inelegant and seemed immature. Given EA’s vast resources I expected a more optimised and efficient effort.

My main complaint about Origin has to be the complete lack of gifting – this would have sorted my pre-owned key problem in an instant. I do question the point of even offering a DVD edition of Mass Effect 3 as the discs are unused; installation begins with Origin and then proceeds to activation of the game licence – at which point Origin renders both DVDs superfluous by downloading the entire game from EA’s servers. Surely a leaf could be taken from Microsoft’s book in terms of physical copies – distribute them as boxed product keys that save on DVD pressing costs on discs that never get used.

I had very little to do with Origin’s social features as all my gaming friends reside on Steam, and there seemed to be no chat or friends list function to speak of. Achievements were as irrelevant to me on Origin as they are on Steam; however I did end up somehow collecting Origin points, the purpose of which is quite confusing.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Origin’s performance – it did the job of getting me into Mass Effect 3 though I wanted it to do no more. I was quite surprised that the software wasn’t completely unusable and the support reps not complete morons. I still find myself seriously questioning EA’s petulance in making games Origin-exclusive as this is quite anti-consumer in my opinion. There’s nothing in Origin that Steam (or any other digital distribution service) can’t provide; and in terms of social and gifting, Steam certainly offers a comprehensively better experience, and that’s before going into Sales and Greenlight. It’s just a disappointing but ultimately unsurprising epithet of EA’s generally anti-consumer corporate attitude.

Oh, and the plastering of adverts for SimCity didn’t help things either.

Review: Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect was a game franchise I really got invested in during 2013 (yes, after everyone else) and I was eager to play the controversial third and final chapter in the epic space saga. Thanks to my good friend Jake, I received a copy of Mass Effect 3 right at the end of the year and, having completed it, feel it’s time to bring my review saga to a suitable condition.

Mass Effect 3

Oh, and if you don’t like the review, I’ll add a bit more to it later.

In Mass Effect 3 the stakes were never higher, with Commander Shepard seemingly the only person in the galaxy able to stop the Reapers and save all organic life. From the moment you re-join Shepard there’s a palpable feel of what’s to come – and it doesn’t disappoint.

Once the main story is set out and the mission made clear, you’re left to unite the galaxy for the upcoming Battle Royale. Once past the opening spectacle, it was down to business, Mass Effect style. The seemingly-simple objective soon becomes more and more complex, but there’s plenty of story and character development to come, too. There’s plenty of side missions to add meat to the bones of the universe and it gives a much more intimate feel to the quest beside the large-scale implications; it’s personal too.

However, going through the missions made me question one thing: to what timescale does Mass Effect run to? Did my mission take weeks or months? I felt, when the Reapers invaded, that help was needed like right now; though conversation later on alludes to a Reaper “cleansing” taking upwards of a century. A little clarification would’ve gone a way for me.

Combat in Mass Effect 3 can be dialled up or down depending on a player’s preference. As shooters are not my preferred game type, I initially thought of toning it down but kept it on the default; combat was challenging but not impossible. I definitely felt the benefits of squad powers more in this instalment, winning a few nigh-unwinnable situations with well-placed Singularity.

Going back to the characterisation – it was great to see my fellow comrades from Mass Effect 2 and explore their stories, which in more than one case proved to be the final chapters of which. Mass Effect’s story and character attachment made some of these scenes pretty intense emotionally, as I really was attached to some of these guys. It’s great to be so emotionally involved in game characters; likewise, my squad members made me feel never truly alone, even though they were just AI players underneath.

Mission tracking was further simplified in Mass Effect 3 going on from 2, though this was a failing in my regard. Missions and side quests (previously subcategorised as assignments) were lumped into one journal list, which annoyingly didn’t stay scrolled to the top. Often I found myself reaching for the game guide as there was no collapsible objective tree for each mission as there was in Mass Effect 2 – rather, the vaguest of vague hints as to where to go. It got confusing pretty quickly, especially as some missions were only found to be unachievable for now, due to artificially graduated galaxy map revelations, after expending considerable fuel and load-screen time.

When it came to the controversial endings for Mass Effect 3, I was lucky enough, by virtue of playing the game now and not immediately after release, to have the patched “extended edition” endings available by default. I can however see why people would be cheesed off by these endings – you’re essentially left to pick one of three endings (though unwittingly I unlocked a fourth, which is more a “game over” rather than a storyline conclusion) and your decisions seem to have but peripheral effect on these; they’re all scripted – your collection of “war assets” throughout the game seems to only determine to what degree of “success” the ending you choose has on the galaxy.

Ultimately with Mass Effect 3, the endings left me unsatisfied, especially after I inadvertently triggered and ending that made my efforts to stop the Reapers completely pointless. That said, the journey in Mass Effect is a lot more rewarding than the conclusion.

I’m yet to decide whether that’s a good thing or a damning indictment. Or neither. Or maybe both. You decide (though what you thought coming up to this point is meaningless. Pick one.)

Review: Mass Effect 2

Recently I’ve found myself fascinated and compelled by the universe of Mass Effect and after completing and enjoying the first game so much I was very eager to carry on with the trilogy; as you may gather from the presence of this post, I have now finished Mass Effect 2  and wish to reflect on it accordingly.

Mass Effect 2

Initially, I was expecting ME2 to carry on where I’d left of with the first game and be literally more of the same. As sequels go, that may sound unimpressive but Mass Effect was so good in my opinion that wouldn’t have mattered; just to continue interacitng in the universe with such engaging characters would’ve been just fine.

BioWare had other ideas, and interestingly had me essentially starting over again. I was initially uncomfortable with control changes that seemed needless to begin with but quickly bedded back in and my immersion in the game was restored. In hindsight, the control changes were a good addition as they made squad management much easier and didn’t require as much immersion-breaking thought – one button pretty much did all I needed to do and that was fine. However I did feel that the gameplay mechanics had been simplified considerably and the jury’s out as to whether I feel that good overall or detrimental.

Story-wise I found that I was a million miles from the idealism of the first game’s ending but the shenanigans that took place in the interim did indeed seem very much like what would happen – the big spectacle at the end of Mass Effect essentially being swept under the rug by politicians being short-sighted – does this sound familiar?

Characters new and old cropped up, and while the old friends gave a necessary connection to the first game, the new characters all had their own personalities that did lead to a number of quite hairy situations where, much like in ME1, I had to make quite big moral choices in the blink of an eye and get on with those decisions for the rest of the game. The Save-File Transfer system of taking a ME1 character and importing the decisions made there right into the story of the new game worked really nicely, and it was nice to have to face finally some of the consequences. Characters actually seemed to have a memory of my past dealings with them and in a computer game it really sold it as more than a game but a story in which I move along with interactivity.

The free-roaming nature of the game was retained, although events cropped up that reminded me of the main story and gave me gentle nods where to go. Planetary exploration has received a welcome overhaul and is considerably less of a chore of exploring though identikit worlds, and leads to new gameplay opportunities besides  simply achieving a sterile “finding X of Y unobtainium” goal etc.

Generally I was very impressed with Mass Effect 2 and would say it was definitely on par with it’s excellent predecessor. I don’t want to make direct comparisons between games in the series until I’ve played all three major games and have a trilogy-wide overview. But it was great fun and I only wish I’d played it before!

And deep breath, as the controversial third game is next! Suppose I’d better (begrudingly) install Origin…

Review: Mass Effect

I recently had the absolute pleasure to play the game Mass Effect as recommended by my awesome friend Jake, who’s a big fan.

Mass Effect

I approached Mass Effect with some trepidation as I’m not a big shooter fan, but after sitting down and allowing the universe to occlude around me, I was easily suckered in by intrigue as to what the plot had in store for me.

At first I was a little dismissive as the story had a few well-worn sci-fi tropes on display but once I was settled in I was letting the universe come to life around me and I was pleased to find a deep, well-executed universe with a lot of history that as I played through the game got chipped away at. The addition of a Codex of game trivia is nice, though I found it’s reams of text a little inaccessible.

Gameplay wise, it played in a very similar manner to first-person RPGs like Deus Ex and BioShock which I really enjoyed. I elected to play with the combat turned to casual as I’m not really a big FPS fan; this made the action sequences exciting but not overwhelming. I also really liked the character screen and the way one’s character could be shaped over the course of a game.

A big part of Mass Effect is how decisions you can make seem incidental but can have profound ramifications. You can elect to play the game as either a courageous and conscientious “paragon” or as a devilish “renegade” player with no scruples about getting the mission done their way. These actions allow different dialog options to be used to achieve objectives and ultimately affect the storyline in a really impressive way. Instead of being led along the sole track the developers intend the story to guide you, the player’s actions actively mould the story in interesting and unexpected ways, and I really approved of this. The non-linear path of progression throughout the “story” levels aided also in the atmosphere of being left alone to solve the game’s central crisis in one’s own way, while still finding time to perform side-quests that added to the backstory of the universe and made the game universe seem bigger and better thought out. A lot of imagination definitely went into this game to provide a rich and varied set of environs and characters and it shows.

The non-player characters were all refreshingly deep and well-rounded as individuals with personality; although I did miss both my chances of galactic carnality due to a pesky nuclear warhead and, er, a “really bad headache”.

The sound design of the game was excellent; the soundtrack was an effective companion to the situations I the player found myself in. Graphic design was also excellent, and the game still looks great for its age; a powerful config tool made optimising it for my system’s capabilities (ultra-high everything!) dead easy.

Overall, I really enjoyed Mass Effect and now I can’t wait to get started on Mass Effect 2!

Related reading: Mass Effect: The Best Franchise for Narrative RPG | Giants Domain