Shepard’s last hurrah

You’d best say your goodbyes to Commander Shepard next March as Mass Effect 3 will be his last appearance in a video game. BioWare ceo Ray Mazuka was asked as this year’s Gamescom by PC Gamer whether Mass Effect 3 will be the last game set in that universe. Echoing comments from previous interviews, Mazuka once again confirmed the company’s desire to further the fiction and world they so painstakingly created:

“We have ambitious plans to continue this franchise going forward. Mass Effect 3 is simultaneously a couple of different things; a thrilling and epic conclusion to the trilogy as we promised our fans we’d provide for Commander Shepard, but it’s also a brand new beginning – it’s an entry point for new fans and it’s also a brand new beginning.”

When asked if Shepard would appear in any more Mass Effect games, producer Michael Gamble said how ME3 will complete the Commander’s storyline and therefore will not be making a comeback.

With the level of detail put into the first two games, following one Commander and their loyal team is just a tiny part of a much larger story. Sure, whether Shepard succeeds or not has greater consequences on the universe as a whole but, like Star Wars, the lesser characters are equally if not more interesting than the one in charge. The loyalty missions from Mass Effect 2 and the franchise’s extensive codex scratch the surface on a vast number of species and personalities all ripe expanding on in someway. I’m curious to find out just how the third game in series can successfully draw in a large number of newcomers but it’s something both BioWare and EA have said a few times now so there’s something going on and I doubt it’s just the optional Kinect features revealed at E3.

Could this latest statement from BioWare add a little more credence to the rumours of a multiplayer co-op shooter set in the universe? It’s been lingering for some time now and was expected to be announced at last year’s Spike VGA’s but never showed up. Some claim it’s an additional mode in Mass Effect 3 whereas others say it’ll be a standalone product. I think it’s safe to say that no one really has any idea. Other than BioWare. And EA. So a couple of people then…

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BioWare’s massive effect on the female gamer

Having only ever played the Mass Effect series as a male character, I’ve only ever heard the celebrated voice work of Jennifer Hale, who plays female Commander Shepard, on the odd occasion. But word is Hale out performs her male counterpart and has done so relatively unnoticed by the majority of players so far. Because the games give you the choice to change pretty much all aspects of Shepard from appearance to attitude, BioWare had to design a default character to work on advertising campaigns and box art and until now, it’s always been a dude. But for the third game, the company have begun including the default female Shepard and so far she’s been spotted in a trailer and collector’s edition packaging with BioWare marketing chief, David Silverman, saying there could be more of her to come.

In an interview with VG247, Silverman discussed the debate over male and female Shepard and rattled of a few statistics to boot. Like how only 13 per cent of players use the default Shepard with the rest opting to make changes as they see fit. In total, 18 per cent of gamers will play Mass Effect as a female so whether or not Hale provides the brilliant performance that she does, it starts to look less like stereotyping and sexism that the male Shepard has always been the hero. Not to say that perception can’t change or at least make way for a co-hero. As Silverman points out in the interview, the games industry is lacking in strong female leads so the fact Mass Effect has one is worthy of celebration. But not just because she’s voiced by a talented actress but because a female Shepard represents a quality that BioWare are masters of; giving players choice. Despite a few angry forum posters, gender and indeed the choice of sexuality is something BioWare, for the most part, treat with a great deal of respect. In Mass Effect 3, players can now choose for their male Shepard to be gay which was only reserved for the female Commander in the first two games. Hopefully the implementation will be as humorous as it is poignant since most male Shepard players only chased women in Mass Effect 1 and 2.

On the subject of sexuality, Silverman defended BioWare’s inclusions of the many, many, butt shots and general curvature close-ups of Miranda in Mass Effect 2. Being a guy, I wasn’t overly bothered by them though did find them a tad gratuitous but according to VG247, female players were less than impressed. Silverman insisted the shots were necessary: “The fact is, some characters are defined by their attractiveness, such as a woman who is genetically engineered to be perfect. Camera angles help tell the story and portray key aspects of each character – in Miranda’s case, her curves and sexuality. We had similar shots of Jacob.” I didn’t notice the scenes of Jacob but arguably I wasn’t really looking. While I fully understand the fact that Miranda was meant to be ‘perfect’ so showing off her various curves helped get that point across, I can’t help but think the angles were mainly conceived to show off a nice butt. Now the adolescent heterosexual in me may be shouting “Yay, bum!” but if I listened to him for too long, I’d only be playing Dead or Alive games.

Will Shepard stay on the straight and narrow?

BioWare’s poster boy for Mass Effect has always been the male Commander Shepard and up until now he’s always been straight. If you chose to play as a lass, the opportunity to fornicate grew in size because for whatever reason, a female Shepard is a bi-sexual Shepard. For the third release, everyone’s fair game with both male and female leads having the chance to knock boots with the same sex. Casey Hudson tweeted (via Videogamer) the news over the weekend saying: “Happy to confirm #ME3 supports wider options for love interests incl. same-sex for m&f chars, reactive to how you interact w/them in-game=.”

A little bit of internet searching later and I found that Hudson revealed more to PC Gamer adding the choice of partners will only be those you’ve already met on your travels not anyone new the series. Liara was one of the popular companions from Mass Effect 1 but wasn’t an ‘option’ in the second game but did make a come back as part of the brilliant Shadow Broker DLC. Hudson said that Mass Effect 3 will know if you stayed true to her or indeed whoever you partnered up with in the first game and has the characters react to you accordingly. If you knows that then presumably it’ll know whether you chose the promiscuous route and poor old Shepard will be in for a grilling in ME3.

A neat idea and one that makes sense for the fiction but a bit harsh when considering you are rewarded an achievement for completing the ‘romance quest’ in Mass Effect 2. Anyone hunting for those 25 points could get boned in the third game – and not like that either. I would imagine this will have a greater impact on Xbox 360 and PC players since the first game never came to the PS3 other than in a digital comic form.

BioWare have previously said that the male Shepard was written to be straight because that’s just his character type but it makes you wonder if they’ll be exploring the idea of abused minority groups in ME3 like they did in the second Dragon Age. Within Hawke’s adventure, the mages were seen as the abnormal and should be converted rather than allowed to live with their magic. See the link? Problem is, you can’t please everyone and both straight gamers and gay gamers were angry at DA2‘s concept of sexuality. One forum poster claimed BioWare were ignoring the straight gamer while another suggested gay characters were being stereotyped as being sex-mad. So where does that leave Mass Effect 3? Probably right were BioWare intends it to be as the voice of a handful of upset people won’t effect the bigger picture. Kind of ironic huh? Regardless of that, I’m just fearful of how I’ll be treated when my male Shepard has to explain to Liara and Tali what he’s been up to over the two games…

EA’s mass tweaking

After the news that Mass Effect 3 will be delayed until next year and to coincide with the release, a handheld/mobile version is also in the works, EA boss John Riccitiello spoke to investors yesterday (via Eurogamer) about the franchise and his plans for the third game. Some may interpret it as dumbing down and others opening up Mass Effect 3 but either way, I’m not sure what to make of it: “One of the things that Ray Muzyuka and the team up in Edmonton have done is essentially step-by-step adjust the gameplay mechanics and some of the features that you’ll see at E3 to put this in a genre equivalent to shooter-meets-RPG and essentially address a much larger market opportunity than Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 began to approach.”

Considering Mass Effect 3 is supposed to end the trilogy for Shepard, trying to broaden the franchise to a larger audience seems a little odd. I guess a lot more people will potentially by the game regardless if there are anymore to come. Like Mass Effect 2 on the PS3, it’s said to come with a digital summary of the previous two games so you don’t necessarily need to play them to get the full story. But you’ll be greatly missing out if you don’t. It’s hard to imagine what else can be done in order to tweak it even more to the genre of RPG shooter since Mass Effect 2 tread the lines between the two blurring them as it went along.

One thought is that Mass Effect 3 will include a multiplayer component, often denied by BioWare but with EA hungry for the Call of Duty pie, anything is possible. Another idea could be the inclusion of motion controls by means of Kinect and PS Move but where would that leave PC gamers? Depending on how it could be implemented, they may not even want motion controls. EA has previously spoke of a desire to have some kind of connected experience in all future games with Frank Gibeau saying how the publisher’s job is to ‘inspire’ developers to “edit and tweak [their creative vision] so it’s a bigger commercial opportunity.” Sounds familiar huh? Who knows, maybe Facebook integration will be a part of Mass Effect 3 but without any more details, we’ll just have to wait until E3 when EA will reveal how they plan to extend (or insult) the franchise.

Mass Effect 3 delayed, Mass Effect portable okayed.

The official Facebook page for Mass Effect 3 had some bad news yesterday as it posted a message saying the game has been pushed back into early 2012 instead of holiday 2011 when it was said to come out. Executive producer Casey Hudson wrote: Mass Effect 3 will be released in the first three months of 2012. The development team is laser focused on making sure Mass Effect 3 is the biggest, boldest and best game in the series, ensuring that it exceeds everyone’s expectations.”

I can’t but wonder if this has anything to do with the outcry towards Dragon Age II and its many recycled dungeons. At the start of March, composer Inon Zur spoke to IGN about his involvement with the fantasy game saying how it was a bit if a rushed job due to EA wanting to “capitalize on the success of Origins,” pressing BioWare hard for it to be released sooner rather than later. Only 14 months stand between Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II and for some players it really showed. If it were allowed the appropriate breathing space, it’s probable that the gameplay could have matched the high quality story telling that DA2 is said to possess.

What happened to BioWare’s other triple A franchise may have nothing to do with the delay but I’d imagine it would at least be at the back of their minds. The time between Mass Effect 2 and 3 would have been a fair amount longer in comparison if it were to come out this year but an extra few months to really tighten up the code could be the difference between an award winning game and one that’s not quite up to par.

On top the the news about the set back, EA listed a handheld/mobile release for Mass Effect 3 and Battlefield 3 too. It comes as no surprise when EA are actively pursuing the mobile space and already have both franchises on the iPhone. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 has an iOS version as does Mass Effect who received a prequel to ME2. However, it needs to be said that neither of them are very good. Though mobile phones aren’t necessarily the avenue here because we could just as likely see a 3DS or NGP versions which would be a lot more interesting if true. Whatever they end up being, I’m hoping the Battlefield 3 (coming late 2011) and Mass Effect 3 (early 2012) portable won’t be watered down ports but follow the brilliant Dead Space on iPhone and create there own unique experiences.

The saddening of a nation

PlatinumGames ceo Tatsuya Minami has opened his heart via the company’s official site (via Videogamer) about the state of the current video game industry and how saddened he is by the lack of originality. He revealed that one of PlatinumGame’s founding ideas was to “delivery smiles and surprises around the world,” and after five years of dedication from his staff, the studio’s brand has “truly been recognised.” Even with the complete juxtaposition of mechanics, PlatinumGame’s previous big hitters, Bayonetta and Vanquish, are very much linked with their art style and frantic gameplay that have carved a neat little grove in the respective genres.

Minami went on to say how he and his team are following a new ethos, aiming to be the “Japanese standard bearer in the competitive global video game market,” as he’s one of the many voices who claim Japan as a video game originator is a shadow of its former self. To him, games exist to offer fresh surprises to those who play them, however “the current games business is struggling. The ‘fresh surprises’ I mention are becoming few and far between, especially in our home of Japan. Not so long ago, Japan lead the world’s games business, and it was not a stretch to call games a uniquely Japanese speciality; however, now it appears that Japanese games companies have lost their vigour.” Such a change hasn’t happened overnight with the decline in Japan’s influences spreading at least the last two generations. That being said, the games that truly count still have a foothold in the ideas of Japanese companies. Mario titles, more so the platformers, have almost always revolutionised the genre in their own special way, maybe not originating those ideas but certainly pioneering them. Like the eccentricities of Super Mario Galaxy for example.

But Minami is right, generally when you think of video games you think of Western developers and it’s more crushing when it’s for genres that Japan used to excel in. On a global scale, platformers tend to have been taken over by Indie developers adding all kinds of charm and wit to their games. As for RPGs, BioWare and Bethesda seem to almost have equal share in the future of role playing in a video game space with the term ‘JRPG’ reserved for titles riddled with cliche and tiresome grinding. One of the reasons for this is the frequency of sequels that simply don’t allow originality, “Games with new at their core are disappearing. Japanese games that garner worldwide acclaim are slipping away,” said Minami adding how PlatinumGames must adapt to reflect how they’re one of a few healthy Japanese game studios, delivering titles that now represent the country not just themselves.

I don’t think Minami should be quick to dismiss sequels altogether though. Some carry a great amount of change for the better, much like Mass Effect 2. While not drastically different from what came before, it changed enough fundamentals to be original in its own right. And right now, I’d kill for a Bayonetta 2. The first game was unashamedly Japanese and played like a crazy dream. Furthering its ideas in a second game shouldn’t be seen as unoriginal but simply extending an already brilliant concept. Though from Minami’s comments I doubt we’ll be seeing it anytime soon.

Manually redundant

In recent years the video game manual, a once prized possession in any young gamer’s back pack has shrivelled into something barely reflecting its former self. Publishers have lost faith in the paper based medium and last year, Ubisoft decided to do away with the traditional manual in favour for an electronic version. EA have just recently announced (via Gamespot) their rejection of printed tree-pulp leaving few companies to either follow suit or maintain the status quo. Those who bought either Mass Effect 2 for the PS3 or Fight Night Champion may have noticed the lack of manual in the box and addition of a virtual one on the discs but if you didn’t notice, it really just proves the point that a paper version is no longer needed.

Younger gamers probably won’t be all too fussed about the loss of an instructional booklet but being a child of the 80s, I remember when manuals were cool, feature rich documents that let you immerse yourself into the game world even when your platform of choice was no where to be seen. The car trips or school lunch breaks would always be a good place to brush up on your knowledge, usually bypassing the very first few pages which showed button configuration and onto those which gave background info on characters and settings. They were for me, the prelude to a game.

But for a number of years the manual is but an afterthought with few publishers savouring the chance to use them as extended fiction for an IP and merely regurgitate information readily available on screen. Rockstar are a newer company who know how to make a good manual though and games like GTA or Red Dead Redemption contain what can easily be imagined as documents plucked from the game itself. Maps on the backs of posters or booklets made to look like tourist guides, these are the kind of manuals that get people looking and talking about your game harkening back to the classic gaming literature found in early Zelda or Mario titles.

EA want to be more green however and along with the removal of paper, they’ll soon be using DVD case that are easier to package games. But doesn’t that suggest that these games are disposable? Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a hoarder – or collector – that I tend not to think of throwing out my old games but I’m sure there are enough people who treat their games differently, either trading them in or eventually chucking them out after a few years or even months. I can’t really blame EA for wanting to rid themselves of what has become a waste of time and money but I do blame the majority of publishers for letting them get that way. I’ll get over it, I mean I’ll have to when eventually we’re all downloading our games without even a disc let alone paper manual!