Gaming: Mass Effect – The essential catch-up guide

For those of you out there who are of the Xbox 360 persuasion, you may have heard about a little sequel called Mass Effect 2 – due to hit stores in Europe on Friday 29.

“But I’ve never heard of ‘Mass Effect’?!?” I hear you cry. Well, I hope to try and explain what it’s all about to those of you who are new to the Xbox family, or just those who the first game passed by, clued up on this tremendous and potentially genre defining sci-fi franchise.

So, what on Earth is ‘Mass Effect’?

Mass Effect is an Xbox 360 game released in 2007 (though it also got a PC release in 2008). The game sees you control Commander Shepard, a soldier in the Alliance, through the tense narrative of a space opera, which sees you uncover the truth behind an ancient evil threatening the galaxy and defeat it. Imagine playing your way through a mixture of Aliens, Star Wars and The Wrath of Kahn and you’re half-way there.

Why’s it called ‘Mass Effect’ then?

‘Mass relays’ are technology supposedly left behind by an ancient race which became extinct over 50,000 years ago called the Protheans. The relays allow spacecraft to travel across the galaxy over great distances in a short space of time, in a similar way that Warp and Hyperdrive work in Star Trek and Star Wars. The Citidel is the hub of the relay network, and since the technology was discovered the galaxy has been connected through it, allowing countless races to come together to meet, trade and share their own technologies and knowledge.

So you control this guy?

When you first start a new game you must create your character. Like many RPGs (role-playing game), you are offered the choice of a male or female character and an array of different classes which affect how you play the game. The in-game universe contains three main skill-sets – Combat, Biotics and Tech – which each class has varying degrees of. Combat is the skills of a traditional soldier, if you fancy the ‘all guns blazing’ approach then this is the skill-set to focus on. Biotics are a strange psychic-like force which allows you to levitate enemies in the air, throw them or otherwise immobilise them, meaning fans of spell-casting classes in other games will feel most at home here. Tech is, as the name suggests, focused on technology and levelling the battlefield in more of a supporting role than an out-and-out fight, making the players who use this ability more team-focused in combat, allowing your allies to get the kills while you weaken or hack the enemy troops.

So…why does how you play the game matter?

When talking to other characters, interactive dialogue options allow you to choose what Shepard says next, meaning you can change the way you respond to certain characters or react to situations in the story as they unfold. You can be as chivalrous or as dastardly as you fancy, turning your character into a ‘just’ hero or a hard-ass soldier as you level up and gain skill points to spend beefing up your character’s abilities and attributes. If you are nice to characters you meet in the game, they will often help you, or pay you to carry out certain missions, but if you aren’t you may have to fight your way to your goals, or knock down whoever is in your way rather than talk your way past them.

What is the point of the game?

At the opening of the game, a lone human colony on Eden Prime has discovered a mysterious artefact, your first mission is to go there and uncover what is going on. It soon transpires that the colony is under attack from an race of enemy machines called the Geth, under the command of a renegade Spectre agent: Seren. As the plot thickens, you must stop Seren from unleashing an even greater enemy and wiping out life in the galaxy.

‘SPECTRE’, isn’t that a James Bond thing?

Spectre stands for: SPECial Tactics and REconnaissance, an elite fighting group working directly under the Alliance council as their right hand their “first and last line of defence” and have access to unique weapons and equipment to get the job done, like a sort of inter-stellar SAS.

Didn’t I hear something about getting cosy with an alien?!

There are countless sub-plots in the game and one of the most controversial of these is the ‘romantic’ sub-plot. As Shepard you can attempt to woo some of your fellow adventurers between missions as the main plot progresses, leading to the inevitable just before you visit the final planet of the game – providing you’re particularly charming and romantic, obviously.

So what makes ‘Mass Effect’ worth playing?

For all those people who say computer games are nothing more than blinking lights and killing people, this game takes a chance on giving players a decent story to follow, and it pays off. Despite faithfully holding on to the traditions of the sci-fi of yore, the story is put across in a very sheek and modern style, and the interactive nature of the narrative means that the game can have several different endings depending on the choices the player makes during the game. On top of that the characters are full and realistic, with some very talented voice-actors lending their voices to the game, including Keith David as Captain Anderson, who has been heard lately in gaming blockbuster Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 as Sergeant Foley.

And what about ‘Mass Effect 2’?

There are some problems with the first ‘Mass Effect’, but the game’s developers BioWare have gone to great lengths to ensure these issues are addressed, and improved upon significantly in the sequel. The feel of the new game is much quicker, with the combat being easier to navigate and the visual detail of the game being greatly stepped-up. The most exciting feature of ME2 is the fact that the decisions you make in ME1 carry over to the next game if you continue your save. Something this ambitious has never been tried before, since the choices players have made can mean some characters will be either alive or dead in the second game. Side quests and plot points which seemed insignificant in the first game may prove to be important in ME2, creating a very different and individual game. BioWare always intended the games to pan out as a trilogy, meaning the stark contrast between different games is set to get even wider when Mass Effect 3 is released.

So, hopefully that has answered some questions. For those of you who are yet to play either game I would strongly recommend playing through the first one first, since the entire second game will be far more enjoyable once you know the characters, though if you do want to skip ahead you can start a new game in Mass Effect 2 with a ‘standardised’ storyline. But the beauty of this game is in the amount of detail put into it, from the moment you set foot in The Citadel for the first time, you get an epic sense of scale at what BioWare have created with this expansive universe. Even if you can only just stand science fiction, I would highly recommend buying this game. Since you can now pick it up for not much over a tenner, what have you got to lose?

James Michael Parry

Books: Review – Meltdown by Ben Elton

Satire is a difficult thing to get right. As simple as it looks on panel shows like Mock The Week or Have I Got News For You, behind the laughter lies teams of people trawling the news and random goings on of the world to fuel the comedy fire.

Meltdown, by Ben Elton, who’s comedy pedigree involves writing Blackadder series 2-4 with Richard Curtis and The Thin Blue Line, is one example of how when a number of satirical topics gel together well, you know you’ve got something special.

As the cover (above) implies, the book’s plot focuses around the recession and the fallout created after the collapse of Northern Rock, re-named in true Elton fashion as ‘Caledonian Granite’.

The recession? That’s old news?!” I hear you cry (from very far off…quietly), well, keeping things right up to date – an impressive feat considering Elton spends much of his time in far-off Australia – the book touches on the likes of MP’s expenses and cash for honours.

Elton, who has written 13 novels to date, has been criticised for his writing because his books often end unhappily, but really the important thing to note is that they always end as they would in the context of modern Britain. This is where Elton’s satire gains its power; these are believable stories which could happen, and despite exaggerating at points, mostly they just follow a worrying aspect of UK culture through to a conclusion and see what happens.

The protagonist (you know, the main guy) this time around is Jimmy, a banker was ousted from his job when phrases like ‘sub-prime’ and ‘negative equity’ began to creep in to the media. Despite living up to the reputation of his stereotype to a degree – he is (or was) a high-flying, arrogant executive who doesn’t know the value of money or the meaning of hard work – but Meltdown takes us on a light-hearted tour of what his life has become and how in many ways the fact that his ideal world has crumbled around him is for the best.

Jimmy belongs to an exclusive group representing the various aspects of high society: from Lizzie, the hard-working business woman with a world-famous catering business, David, an architect designing a building to bridge countries together, and Henry, a junior MP making his way up the ranks of the Commons.

The book is delivers what we’ve come to expect from Elton, though pointedly without any overly-graphic moments seen in earlier works, and Jimmy is one of the easiest of his characters to connect with, which helps draw in the reader every step of the way, from highs to lows; flashbacks to the present day.

For those who break into a grin at the thought of an MP pondering whether using his wife’s hair-dryer occasionally qualifies it to be claimed on expenses is just the kind of person who will love Meltdown. For those who think Qi and Celebrity Big Brother are on the same cultural wavelength…I’m sure there’s something exciting waiting for you on PriceDrop TV…

Verdict: 9/10

Surpassed only by earlier works like Chart Throb and Dead Famous, this is fun for the whole family – especially if you’re a banker.

Film: AVATAR – 3D’s shining light?

Director James Cameron gives lead guy Sam Rockwell a few pointers…literally

Seeing things in 3D is quite ordinary. Think about it, you see in 3D (and super-duper HD come to think of it) all the time. In cinema though there’s always been a certain fascination with the third dimension, to give films depth you can’t get on a run-of-the-mill screen.

Since I’ve already delved into the history and technicalities before (take a look at my previous post if ye dare), I’ll move on to the case in point: James Cameron’s much anticipated epic, Avatar.

After fourteen years waiting for technology to catch up with his imagination, or so he would have us believe, Cameron invites you to the far flung world of Pandora to learn about the dangers of damaging the environment – in a nutshell, it may fight back.

The film itself, ignoring any 3D aspect whatsoever, was good. The story and characters were on the cliché side, but the style of the picture saves it, plus a top-form performance from not-so-newcomer Sam Worthington as Jake Sully.

Comparisons to the story of kids’ 80s TV show The Smurfs aren’t totally unreasonable, in fact the South Park episode on the subject is well worth a watch, but it all comes down to a simple message about not destroying our beloved planet.

Never fear though, remember this is the James Cameron who brought us Aliens, so there’s action and excitement a-plenty – there’s even a giant tree!

But what about the gimmick/innovation that is 3D? As the screen instructs you to ‘Put on your 3D glasses now’ there’s a well of anticipation and as the spectacle begins there’s a satisfying feeling of ‘oooo ahhh’. Soon though the initial shock of seeing things with a little more depth wears off and you let yourself get engrossed in the story, and apart from the occasional flurry of leaves towards your face or burning shrapnel flying perilously close towards you, all the hype of 3D sinks into the background, adding to the film surprisingly subtly.

So Cameron delivers his master-stroke with ease, and an awful lot of patience, but it’s film-goers who benefit, since Avatar hammers home the fact that 3D films are no longer restricted to cheesy animated shorts or tedious specials about underwater life at the IMAX. Whether 3D will prove to be more than a fad this time around remains to be seen, particularly with home 3D technology just around the corner, but for now it’s here to stay, complete with its fairly ridiculous prices – unfortunately.

And happy new year everyone! Thank you for reading This Is Entertainment this past year and I hope I will continue to amuse and inform you in the coming months as well.