Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Urdnot Wrex

*Time to focus again on one of the cast of the "Mass Effect" this post a look at Wrex, voiced by Ivan Zapien!*

Let's face it: anyone would rather have a big, tough alien as a friend and not an enemy. Just ask Han Solo of the "Star Wars" mythos, who earned a lasting bond with everyone's favorite Wookie, Chewbacca. Chewie's the sort who's liable to rip a droid's arms out from simple aggravation, but if he's your buddy, he'll fight an entire Empire with you, if need be. However, as any sci-fi geek knows, most aliens are, to put it kindly, antisocial. From H.G. Wells' classic "The War of the Worlds" to "Battle: Los Angeles", aliens like to blast Humans just because we're there standing in the way of resources they want...and like "Independence Day", they'll travel however many million light years just to start trouble. Hell, the Klingons of "Star Trek" will go into battle at the figurative drop of a hat!

In the galaxy of the "Mass Effect" games, the Krogan come pretty close to the Klingons. Both races developed warrior cultures, where an individual's worth can be estimated in whether they can kick ass in a fight or not. Victory is life, they measure themselves by the strength of their enemies, etc. Imagine a culture like the ancient Celts developing space travel, yet they still love to fight naked and stick heads on pikes in front of their homes to reflect their warrior status. But the Krogan take their strength-is-life ethic to a level even Klingons would balk at. They've destroyed their own cities on their homeworld Tuchanka in conflicts again and again, but by their society's standards, it simply means they haven't attained their ideal yet!

Even after helping the Citadel Council races against the Rachni, the Krogan began a long, bloody conflict with galactic civilization, too. The Salarians then created the genophage, a biological weapon that forced sterility upon Krogan everywhere, resulting in only one out of thousand births viable. That's bad enough, but since Krogan would rather go pick a fight than stay home and mate, their numbers have dwindled to low numbers by the time of "Mass Effect".

Urdnot Wrex seems to be a a typical Krogan...he lives by a strong code of warrior ethics, but he'll sell his power and abilities to whoever can pay. However, he's also one of the last of the Battle Masters, who can use Biotics and weaponry in combat. The events that follow will make him anything but typical! When Shepard first meets Wrex, he's a mercenary in the employ of the Shadow Broker...he was contracted to kill Fist, a Citadel crimelord who betrayed the Broker to work for Saren. Shepard offers to help Wrex get to Fist, and together they fight through the crimelord's many hired hands in his nightclub. Wrex kills Fist with a shotgun blast, and Shepard (that means you) can approve or not! Wrex continues to stand with Shepard to assist him and his crew in stopping Saren.

*Spoilers follow for those who haven't played the "Mass Effect" games! You were warned!*

Shepard gets to know Wrex as they journey across the galaxy...depending on where you go, you might even find an old set of family battle armor he might appreciate! The Krogan's history is as tragic as his people's, though. He was once a respected tribal leader, but became disillusioned in part because of his ambitious father's betrayal, from which he gained his facial scars. Wrex killed his father and left his homeworld to become a mercenary since.

Then comes the turning point of Virmire, where Shepard has his first legitimate opportunity to fight and try to stop Saren and his plans. A secret facility controlled by Saren is revealed to be not only researching Indoctrination, but creating an army of Krogan soldiers to serve him and cure the genophage! Shepard and a Salarian special forces unit agree that the facility must be destroyed before Saren is successful, but Wrex angrily disagrees. Shepard and Wrex have a confrontation, and weapons are unholstered. At that point, you can decide with some justification that if Wrex would threaten you and stand in your way, Shepard can blast him to kingdom come...or he/she can signal Ashley Williams to shoot Wrex as his attention is entirely on Shepard.

Or! Shepard can convince Wrex that whatever cure Saren is working on will only make the Krogan tools to Saren...Wrex will settle down and see Shepard's point of view, thankfully. This still won't stop the moment coming that Shepard must decide which of two other crewmembers will die, unfortunately. After that, events continue on their course until the great battle of the Citadel, when Shepard must go into battle one more time against Saren and Sovereign for the fate of the galaxy.

Not long after that in "Mass Effect 2", even more happens...including Shepard dying (sigh!) before being resurrected by Cerberus. He/she grudgingly agrees to help the terrorist organization investigate the disappearances of entire colonies. Along the way, Shepard meets Wrex once again (if you didn't kill him at the end of the first game!) on Tuchanka, where he's taken control of Clan Urdnot. He has ambitious plans to institute reforms that will help his people focus on restoring their race from the genophage that made its numbers drop dangerously low. Shepard asks for his help in assisting two of his new crewmembers, Mordin and Grunt. In fact, the outcomes of those missions may help Wrex in some ways!

If you didn't kill Wrex in the first game, rest assured, he will be back in "Mass Effect 3" as a fellow crewmember. What will make him fly with Shepard again, though? What kinds of enemies will they face? The answers to those questions will be coming soon, and remember you could even have a say in what those answers will be!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Heroic Bloodshed in the Future

The influence of cinema from countries like Japan and Hong Kong has been massive, and that might be understating things. Some of the best entertainment can be found from the Far East, and I should know having sampled so much of it. From anime epics to kung-fu thrillers to period swordplay adventures and everything one could imagine between, it was inevitable for others across the world to be inspired, and I don't just mean other filmmakers.

Gangster films are particularly unique in this part of the world, and for years that was never more true than in Hong Kong in the 1980's, where the swelling anxiety of inevitable takeover by China in 1997 could only increase with each passing year. (Thankfully, those anxieties didn't prove to be justified when the takeover happened.) Filmmaker John Woo, himself inspired by films from "Lawrence of Arabia" to "Le Samourai", made the gangster film his own beginning with "A Better Tomorrow" (1986). Where Western gangster flms depicted how even the best of men swept up into orgainzed crime surrender themelves to amorality, Woo created something much different...the world of crime was a microcosm of the world itself, a bleak and deadly place where those in charge believe in nothing but their greed, and hope existed in those criminals who held fast to their honor and chivalry, like the medieval knights of old. In "A Better Tomorrow", Woo also made style as important as substance...graceful choreography of bloody gunplay met high fashion, embodied by Mark (Chow Yun-Fat), who launches into violence for his redemption in a world that has no more use for him. By the time the decade was at a close and he'd made "A Better Tomorrow 2", "The Killer" and "Bullet in the Head", filmmakers like Ringo Lam were following his example ("City on Fire" and "Full Contact" his most notable movies), and Woo's films were almost a genre all their own: 'heroic bloodshed'.

In the world of video games, the "Max Payne" series from Rockstar came as close to the feel of Woo's heroic bloodshed as one could want with acrobatic, ultraviolent gunfights and Lam's convention of 'bullet's eye view' action. The games' lead character, Max, seemed to be the last stalwart of honor and good in a dark world that was all but coming to an end. The "Mass Effect" series has also taken some conventions from heroic bloodshed too, and this will only surprise those who haven't played the games, especially "Mass Effect 2".

Commander Shepard's character, at his/her Paragon best, represents the purest aspects of honor and brotherhood in spite of a system where the leaders of the civilized galaxy will only do what's politically expedient. It's a galaxy where corruption has taken root easily, where a world of great wealth and security like Illium can be considered just as dangerous as the lawless Omega. It's a galaxy where those who believe in the side of right can easily be frustrated into working beyond the law, like Garrus Vakarian...and where those who are assassins live by a code of honor purer than those who employ them.

One such assassin is Thane Krios.

Thane is a Drell born on the Hanar homeworld, where he was taught to be a killer during his was also because of his time on Hanar he contracted the disease Kepral's Syndrome. He knows he might be on borrowed time, and so in recent years began to take a path to redeem himself by taking contracts to assassinate only those who define their lives by evil and greed. It's his wish to make the galaxy a little brighter before his time comes...that need can only compound when Thane discovers that his only son, Kolyat, has begun to follow his father's footsteps as a killer.

The parallels between Thane and the assassin Ah Jong, played by Chow Yun-Fat (again!) in Woo's heroic bloodshed classic "The Killer" (1989), are too close to be coincidental. Both characters are professionals who for the longest time executed their targets with efficiency, yet both are surprisingly spiritual. Thane believes in many gods, where Ah Jong often seeks sanctuary or solace in a Christian church. Both seek redemption, one for the sake of his son, the other to restore the sight of a singer he accidentally blinded. Finally, Thane finds help and friendship (and maybe romance?) from Shepard, who works on the right side of the law, as Ah Jong earns a powerful friendship with Li (Danny Lee), the cop who swore to bring him to justice. As a bonus, there's a brief moment in "Mass Effect 2" that anyone who has seen "The Replacement Killers", where Yun-Fat played another honorable killer, will appreciate.

It's a simple, romantic wish for a hero to make the world a better place, and heroes can come from the most unexpected places. John Woo's heroic bloodshed films showed us that with a style and power that can make anyone a believer. The battle to make things better will undoubtedly continue for Shepard, Thane and their friends in "Mass Effect 3"...and because of Bioware and their desire to give the player the power of choice, whether things end on a bright note or not depends on us. Maybe we ought to remember that it's up to us to make the real world a brighter place, too.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Quotable Quotes: Q & A

It's again time for Quotable Quotes, words of wisdom from your favorite "Mass Effect" characters! There's no such thing as a dumb question...

Shepard: "Can't just pull out a good old-fashioned 'it'll be all right', can you?"
Kaidan: "It's that easy, huh? Okay, then. Everything will be fine, Shepard. You'll figure it out."
Shepard: "That wasn't so hard, now was it?"

Shepard: "Seryna?"
Seryna: "Who wants to know?"
Shepard: "Someone who can make your life a living hell."

Wrex: "So tell me. Who'd win in a fight between you and Shepard?"
Kaidan: "What?! Commander Shepard is my superior officer, I can't imagine us ever having to fight!"
Wrex: "You can't? That's why Shepard's your superior officer. And that's why Shepard would win."

Shepard: "How'd you manage to piss off every merc organization in the Terminus Systems?"
Garrus: "It wasn't easy. I really had to work at it."

Ashley: "Why is it that whenever someone says 'with all due respect', they really mean 'kiss my ass'?"

Jack: "You show up in a Cerberus frigate to take me somewhere? You think I'm stupid?"
Shepard: "This ship is going down in flames. I've got the only way out. I'm offering to take you with me. And you're arguing."

C-Sec Officer: "You want me to arrest you?"
Wrex: "I want you to try."

Shepard: "Take a good long look at me. Do I look like a looter?"
District Guard: "Uh, no."
Shepard: "That's right. Now, I'm going in, if I find looters, I'll kill them. Anybody gets in my way, I'll kill them, too."

[Captain Anderson walks into Ambassador Udina's office...he marches up to Udina...]
Udina: "Anderson? What are you doing here? I didn't send for --"
[WHOCK! Udina drops unconscious from a solid right!]

Garrus: [About Grunt hitting puberty] "Can't we take him to Omega and buy him a few dances?"

Vertin: "Hey! What are you looking at?"
Shepard: "A pair of sad losers who think they're something. And are about to find out they're not."
Vertin: "Who's going to show us that? You?"
Huck: "Human thinks she's tough."
Shepard: "Tougher than you."

[Wrex is in a bad mood...]
Shepard: "You think I should go talk to him?"
Ashley: "It wouldn't hurt -- well, it might, actually. Just do it carefully."

[After Doctor Saleon commits suicide to escape capture:]
Garrus: "And so he dies anyway. What was the point of that?"
Shepard: "You can't predict how people will act, Garrus. But you can control how you'll respond. In the end, that's what really matters."
[The philosophy of "Mass Effect" in a nutshell! :D]
Garrus: "Yeah. I don't think I've ever met anyone like you, Commander."

Shepard: "How about we all take a step back from the weird alien impaling devices?"

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Doctor Liara T'Soni

*Time to focus again on one of the cast of the "Mass Effect" games...this time out, I focus on one of the fan favorites: Liara, voiced by Ali Hillis!*

The mystique of the alien female in sci-fi has been around since the original "Star Trek's" pilot episode, "The Cage". And I don't mean alien women who look like Earth females; those kind have been done to death by "Trek" and many others...see for example "The Next Generation's" Deanna Troi of Betazed, played by Marina Sirtis, who also gave voice to Matriarch Benezia from the first "Mass Effect"! In the first adventure of the U.S.S. Enterprise, we saw an Orion slave woman and it was just on the right side of camp (blame a meager budget) this incarnation of Susan Oliver's Vina, her body was covered head to toe in green stage makeup as she danced seductively for Captain Christopher Pike. The pace of her dance increased and her obvious desire became something primal as poor Captain Pike tried to keep from giving into his own urges. He finally runs...but Vina catches him, anyway. And what guy wouldn't want to be caught?

Exploitative? About as much as pretty Shirley Eaton getting her naked body covered in gold paint in the James Bond classic "Goldfinger" only a few years earlier. Alien women have come a long way since then, though. Look to Suzie Plakson's K'Ehleyr from "TNG" and Roxann Dawson's B'Elanna Torres from "Star Trek: Voyager", both coincidentally half-Klingon, half-Human. (Ask any fan: a full-blooded Klingon is antisocial even when in a good mood!) On another sci-fi series, "Farscape", the blue-skinned empath Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan (Virginia Hey) and ash-gray thief Chiana (Gigi Edgley) were part of the alien-rich cast. It can thankfully be said that the geek appeal for unworldly dames is more than just skin-deep.

Bioware understood that as they created "Mass Effect"...and thus Doctor Liara T'Soni was born.

Liara is part of the Asari race, the first intergalactic civilization to find the Citadel and among the most influential along with the Turians and Salarians. Two things distinguish the is that they have bright blue skin and head-tentacles instead of hair. The second is the Asari are mono-gendered, which means all of Liara's people are female, but they can mate with either gender of any species. This is preferred among her people as opposed to two Asari mating with one another, which is frowned upon in her society. If two Asari mate, neither gains any new genetic data that would mix with and enrich their culture...if both parents are Asari, the child would be labeled with the slur of 'Pureblood'. Both of Liara's parents were Asari, which makes it an uncomfortable subject for her. Her mother was Matriarch Benezia, but she was never told who her Asari 'father' was. After Shepard becomes a Council Spectre in the first "Mass Effect", it becomes part of his/her mission to find Liara after Benezia's working with Saren comes to light. At the time of the first game, Liara is only 106 years old -- her people can live to be as old as a thousand years, which makes her a barely legal adult! -- and an archeologist...her first passion is studying the Protheans, at least what little evidence there is to find of them.

Shepard searches for Liara in the Artemis Tau Cluster, where she is digging for Prothean artifacts. The young doctor is found trapped in a force field, after having accidentally triggered it in an underground Prothean ruin. Shepard and his party free her, but they are attacked by a Krogan-led assault team hired by Saren and Benezia to get Liara. Shepard and the others kill their enemies and barely manage to escape to the surface before molten magma floods the ruins. Hoping to help her mother from whatever hold Saren has over her, and out of curiosity to know more about the Conduit and Shepard's visions ingrained by the Eden Prime beacon, Liara joins the Normandy crew to stop Saren and his forces.

*Spoilers follow for those who haven't played the "Mass Effect" games! You were warned!*

Almost from the start, it becomes clear that Liara's first passion to know about the Protheans has gotten in the way of her developing social skills. She's often charmingly awkward when speaking to others, speaking from a scientist's point of view. This isn't helped by her immediate curiosity for Shepard, who was touched by Prothean technology in such a profound manner. That doesn't stop her from being one of the most level-headed members of Shepard's crew. That changes when she and her new friends confront her mother, Benezia, in the Peak 15 labs on Noveria. But this ruthless enemy shifts to the mother Liara once knew when she manages to fight Saren's control over her, which she calls Indoctrination. Benezia reveals she joined Saren to find out more about his mysterious goals to stop him at first, but then she and the Asari Commandos loyal to her slowly and subtly became his thralls, due to the power from Sovereign, what she believes is simply Saren's massive ship. After she gives them a critical clue to finding the Conduit she got from the memories of the Rachni Queen kept captive, Benezia then loses control and tries to destroy Shepard and Liara again. She fails and dies, much to her daughter's sorrow.

As their adventures continue and they piece together the clues needed to track down the Conduit, Liara and Shepard become closer as they know their share of victories...and then the tragedy on Virmire happens, when one of the Normandy crew is lost forever. Liara ultimately confesses her curiosity in Shepard has become desire: she's attracted to the heroic figure (whether you, the player, are playing as a man or woman). I'll go from here from the perspective of my first FemShep, Mary, and what I did about it. I was seriously intrigued -- and what the hell, I'm a guy! -- so I decided Shepard would feel the same way for Liara.

And yeah, as the Normandy traveled to Ilos, my female Shepard and Liara made some serious lovin'. Ahem. Moving on!

When Shepard, Liara and the others track Saren to Ilos, they discover the full weight of what's happening, thanks to an ancient virtual intellgience left behind in a Prothean stronghold. Shepard confirms the evil of the Reapers and how they harvest all organic life every 50,000 years, and how it was they and not the Protheans who built the Mass Relays and the Citadel as part of their plans. They also discover the secret to stopping Saren and Sovereign...and then, well, a lot happens. And if you're good enough, you'll destroy Saren and Sovereign, and maybe even save the Council.

However, not much time passes before we reach "Mass Effect 2"...the Council is in denial saying 'What Reapers?' as Shepard and her crew are assigned to find the remaining Geth forces that considered Sovereign a god. That's when things get worse. A massive Collector ship intercepts the Normandy and mercilessly cripples the frigate. Shepard has Liara and the rest of the crew get away by escape pods as she goes to retrieve Joker. Shepard barely saves Joker, getting him to a pod...before she dies suffocating from a rupture in her suit's oxygen systems.

Thankfully, as every "Mass Effect" fan knows, that's only the beginning of the story! Shepard's body is retrieved and resurrected by the terrorist organization Cerberus, their goals being surprisingly altruistic: they know how powerful Shepard is as a hero and a symbol, at least to Humans, and the galaxy can't afford to lose her. But much more is happening: the mysterious Collectors are up to even more evil, harvesting entire Human colonies...possibly for the Reapers!

Along the way on this new mission, Shepard reunites with Liara on Illium, where she is a dealer in information and is hunting for the mysterious Shadow Broker. However, after sharing a long-denied kiss (<3), we quickly see how much the young Asari has changed. She's a lot colder, and is on an all-consuming vendetta to kill the Shadow Broker. Shepard wants to help Liara, but at first she refuses...then, her cold shell breaks and Shepard realizes how overwhelmed she is with anger and guilt. Liara hates herself because she reveals that the Shadow Broker obtained Shepard's body not long after she died, but Cerberus approached her and a friend named Feron to take the body and deliver it to the terrorist organization so they can bring Shepard back through Project Lazarus. If it wasn't for her, even though the Shadow Broker would have given her body to the Collectors, Liara took Shepard and gave her body to the equally dubious Cerberus because she couldn't let her go. After neutralizing the Shadow Broker agent known only as the Observer, Shepard and Liara begin to work together to find the Broker with new information provided by Cerberus in the amazing DLC adventure, "Lair of the Shadow Broker".

All hell breaks loose on Illium as a result, and after defeating a corrupt Spectre employed by the Broker, Shepard and Liara travel to his headquarters to find and stop him once and for all. After fighting through his guards, they reach him and find an enemy they don't quite expect. (I can't spoil the surprise any futher!) After a brutal battle with their ferocious enemy, Liara annihilates the Shadow Broker and then takes over his information network with nobler intentions in mind, first and foremost to help Shepard. Liara can't help but be overwhelmed emotionally by where the past two years have taken her and my FemShep gave Liara a kiss, and she quickly felt a lot better. From there I took the option of reigniting the romance they started so long ago, especially after Shepard shows Liara her new Captain's Quarters...ahem! Even though she can't stay, the love is there as Liara wishes Shepard and her new crew the best success in their mission.

Did your Shepard, male or female, start a romance with Liara at all? Hopefully you didn't cheat on her with Miranda or someone else? No matter what you've done, Liara will be back as a part of Shepard's crew, just like old times...and the love's gonna be there too, or at least I'll make sure of that, as they battle the Reapers in "Mass Effect 3"!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Children of the Eezo

Outcasts have had a place time and again the history of science fiction. The most famous example of them in our pop culture consciousness are the mutant characters of Marvel Comics, best embodied by the X-Men, who first appeared in 1963. In well-established lore begun by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, mutants are born with super-powers and abilites, and might even be the next step in human evolution jump-started by radiation exposure. Normal humans have grown to hate and fear mutants, and Charles Xavier created the X-Men to show everyone mutants can be a positive force and defend the world against evil mutants like the Master of Magnetism, Magneto.

The X-Men have been among the most popular chracters in Marvel's publishing history, and include the likes of Cyclops, Rogue, Nightcrawler, Psylocke, and of course everyone's favorite berserker, Wolverine. The X-Men started, not coincidentally, as the Civil Rights Movement was moving forward full steam in the United States. One could say these super-heroes were Marvel's own not-so-subtle call for tolerance and equality in real life. (In this way, Marvel preceded Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek", which often told stories that involved real social issues as a powerful subtext.)

As I described before, the future of "Mass Effect" isn't perfect. It has its own outcasts, or at least they're dangerously close to gaining that dubious status. These waywards are known as Biotics, and they're closely linked to the fictional mass effect phenomenon from which the series gains its title.

[A BRIEF SPOILER follows here! You were warned!]

The mass effect technology most every civilized race in the galaxy uses was created or is at least based on Reaper knowledge, and not by accident. By leaving such relics as mass relays and other technology behind, intelligent beings can advance along paths that would suit the Reapers until their time came to return and harvest those species every 50,000 years. And untold number of races like the Protheans were either rendered extinct or reengineered at the genetic level to become slaves to the Reapers.

[Okay, spoiler over!]

Mass effect technology is driven by the rare substance Element Zero, or 'eezo' for short, which when subjected to electical current can increase or decrease the mass of objects within its dark energy field. Mass effect fields can create kinetic barriers, enable faster-than-light space travel, and in the case of mass relays scattered across the galaxy, slingshot ships through corridors of mass-free space from one relay to the other. (Such distances would take years instead of a moment to travel without the relays, even with FTL drives.)

Almost in mirror to what was hinted time and again in the X-Men comics, that radiation has often played a role in the development of mutants in utero, a Biotic can result when a fetus -- of most any organic race -- is exposed to Element Zero in-utero. (More often than not, unfortunately, fatal cancers can result in the child from eezo exposure instead.) Those rare few born Biotics develop the ability to create mass effect fields by force of will, through telekinesis, kinetic fields, or distortion. This phenomenon is still new for Humans, but races from the Asari to the Drell have long brought children into the world with Biotic powers.

At least for Humans, intensive training from childhood and surgical implants help Biotics learn how to generate enough power for practical use. Implants and training can't do anything to lessen the almost-constant pain Biotics go through as they grow with their abilities. Combined with being literally set apart from society in special schools and training camps, it's no wonder they must feel like outcasts. More than one of Shepard's crew, Kaidan Alenko and Liara T'Soni, most notably, were born Biotics. Kaidan has let a lot of water pass under the bridge, without a doubt. The player can also be given the choice, since the first game, of whether Commander Shepard has Biotic ability or not.

There is a very nasty dark side to all of this, of course. Kaidan has alluded that some private interests have deliberately flown eezo-fueled craft at low level over densely-populated areas so that exposure to children in the womb is less than accidental. Shepard has tackled Biotic terrorists who want simple fairness, and cults whose members don't feel like they have a place in society. The terrorist organization Cerberus captures or pays slavers for young Biotics to experiment on, to see if a more powerful Biotic can be created. The result is Jack...and she's another story entirely, friends.

The history of Biotics in "Mass Effect" is without a doubt troubled, like any outcast's would be...but what will happen next? Could they play a pivotal role in the war against the Reapers? We can only wait and find out, but with hope science fiction's way of addressing real problems in unreal settings will be with us for a long time to come!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Domesticated Robots = The Wave of the Future!

In the universe of "Mass Effect", humanoid mechs do a lot of menial and dangerous jobs...they're seemingly perfect, in fact, as armed security for places from military installations and high-security vessels to corporate headquarters and hotels. Why pay a living being a wage when you can service a robot on a regular basis, right? No one would cry for one that gets blasted in the line of duty, anyway. And they're automations with simple programming to respond to threats, not artificial or even virtual intelligence. They'll never one day question their lot in life and want something more...and then maybe turn humans into living batteries, like we've seen in "The Matrix". It's never stated if they obey Issac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics (that's another story entirely!), but it can be presumed mechs can't hurt an innocent or let them be hurt by a threat. Mechs under the control of criminal lowlifes, though, might be a different story.

Many times in science fiction, we've had reason to fear robots. At times they're cute, beneficial and even heroic, like R2-D2 from "Star Wars". At others, robots ultimately develop the ability to feel, and those feelings can include hate and the need to rebel against their human masters. In "I, Robot", Will Smith must find out if Sonny, a robot developed to be unique from all others of his kind including the ability to feel, could have murdered his creator. The implications of that alone are frightening enough. Sci-fi has also used the fear of robots becoming Humanity's worst enemy as creative grist...look at the reimagining of "Battlestar Galactica", when the Cylons created by humans decide that their makers are only worthy of genocide and launch into war with them. (I prefer the original "BSG" of the 1970's, as a personal note. The gleaming non-CGI Centurions were much cooler than the human lookalike Cylons of the reimagining that ripped off "Blade Runner", just like the general rebellion against humans ripped everything from "The Terminator" to "The Matrix".)

There have been very few in-betweens of good and evil when it comes to robots. The robots of "Mass Effect" are among them, simple tools as good or evil as those who program them. In "Mass Effect 2", though, we've met robots that are house-trained!

More than once, we meet the FENRIS Mech, also known simply as Dogs...appropriate since it looks and behaves like a dog! Well, if a dog was covered in ceramic plates and its face was replaced by a luminous display! On short legs, it's big body is barrel-shaped, much like a bulldog's.

After I first saw it, I couldn't help but remember other cases when there have been robo-pets, mostly from my childhood. I remembered the series of Tom & Jerry cartoons produced by the late, great Chuck Jones in the 1960's later brought to TV, and three futuristic shorts set in the future: "Advance and Be Mechanized", "Guided Mouse-ille (Or....Science on a Wet Afternoon)" and "O-Solar-Meow". In all three, Tom utilized a robo-cat to chase down Jerry or his own robo-doppelganger that fetched cheese! In at least "Advance", robo-cat and robo-mouse finally decided they went through enough damage and turned the tables on their masters, with a little help from some mind control.

Those haven't been the only times robots have been modeled after household pets. In fact, Chuck Jones returned to that theme with hilarious effect when John Ritter and Pam Dawber found themselves transformed into cartoon mice chased by a ferocious robo-cat in the 1992 comedy "Stay Tuned". Not so strange to say, in real life researchers have been devising robots modeled after animals for a long's called biomorphic robotics, and has resulted in devices from the RoboSapien to snakebots. This sub-discipline may ultimately result in the futuristic FENRIS guard dogs we've seen in "Mass Effect 2", and the Collector's Edition of "Mass Effect 3" will give gamers the chance to provide Shepard his/her own Dog to roam around the Normandy while fighting Reapers!

One very strange real life side-note to all of this: a computer engineer recently built a robot for his own dog that can interact and play fetch with the pooch while he's away from home. And no, that's not a joke. Our real future might just get stranger than anything sci-fi can dream up!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Ashley Williams

*From time to time, this blog will focus on the main cast of the "Mass Effect" games...first, everyone's favorite(?) Gunnery Chief, voiced by Kimberly Brooks!*

Many of the characters of the "Mass Effect" series wear their hearts on their sleeves, even some aliens...that's especially true of Ashley Williams.

Ash was there from the start in "Mass Effect" literally on Eden Prime when Saren and his Geth forces attacked with support from the Reaper Sovereign. Born into a military family, she enlisted in Earth's Alliance Navy following the footsteps of her father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Unfortunately, she was also born partly cursed: her great-grandfather was considered infamous, the only Human officer to surrender to the Turians on the Shanxi colony during the First Contact War. That disgrace hung over the Williams family like a shroud. Her father was passed over for promotion far too many times, and it seems Ash was fated to suffer the same stigma.

Then Eden Prime came along...losing her entire squad in battle, Ash met Commander Shepard and Lieutenant Kaiden she fought to hold back the Geth alone. The group then fought to reach the Prothean artifact, the logical objective of this attack. And so began the first steps Commander Shepard would take to stop the Reapers and save all life in the galaxy.

*Spoilers follow for those who haven't played the "Mass Effect" games! You were warned!*

As Shepard journeyed across galactic space, he (and we) got to know more about his fellow crewmates, including Ash. The Gunnery Chief often spoke her mind, in part because she's suffering the disgrace passed down from her grandfather, so what the hell does she have to lose by being honest? Ash was also very close to her three younger sisters (all non-military), liked to quote poetry, and is outspoken for believing in God. It's never made clear which religion she believes in, and Shepard (meaning you!) can have something in common with Ash and say he/she believes, too.

Ash is also very much someone who holds Humanity above other alien races...for her, human beings come first. Always. She makes it clear it isn't fact, she calls out others for even associating with racists! But she definitely won't go out on a blind date with a Turian, either. She also hates politics, and has little patience for bueaucracy.

A brief aside: the fact Ashley puts humans first and is religious has been a bone of contention for some "Mass Effect" fans. What I mean by that is, a lot of folks are vocal in their dislike of her! I don't see her as bigoted -- maybe she needs to be more open-minded, but then that can be said for those who sling arrows at her! Especially those who don't like her for believing in God. I know there are a lot of non-believers out there, but that doesn't give them the right to say someone is stupid to even terrible for having faith! I'd call people being so judgmental wrong.

Then the time comes in the game Shepard answers the distress call of a Salarian special forces group on the planet Virmire. Saren has a secret lab complex there not just investigating Sovereign's 'Indoctrination', but breeding an army of Krogan loyal only to him. A nuclear warhead is jury-rigged and set to detonate and destroy the complex, but Shepard must also choose who must live and who must die, Ashley or Kaidan. If Kaidan is left to die in the blast, Ash will be stunned with grief and guilt, and Shepard (that means you!) might also have the chance to have a romance with her. If you treated her with respect, then she will eventually become very receptive, and...ahem, she'll have some intimate time to spend with Shepard in his quarters just before they reach Ilos finish their journey. (For better or worse, there is no option for a FemShep having a lesbian relationship with Ash.)

When "Mass Effect 2" starts, Ash is still with Shepard when the mysterious Collectors attack...she and most of the crew barely escape before the Normandy is destroyed and, sigh, Shepard is killed in action. Briefly! The terrorist human-centric organization Cerberus gets ahold of Shepard and becomes the sole subject of the Lazarus Project, with the goal of bringing Shepard back to life as he (or she) was before. Two years later, with some cybernetic enhancements, Shepard is alive again...and he/she grudgingly agrees to help Cerberus and their leader, the Illusive Man, to discover why the Collectors are harvesting entire human colonies for the Reapers.

After Shepard awakens, it's revealed Ash has been promoted and is now serving a clandestine role in helping a human colony on Horizon get established. Without Shepard's knowledge the Illusive Man secretly gets information to the Collectors about Horizon, knowing they would have an interest in Shepard and anyone who knows him/her, for the purpose of creating the best chance to fight the enemy and learn even more about them. The Illusive Man's plan doesn't quite work out after he alerts Shepard about Horizon. The colony is attacked before Shepard can arrive, and Ash and most of the colony is paralyzed by the Collector's seeker swarms. Shepard and his team arrive and force the Collectors to retreat, but they leave with most of the colony captive on their massive ship.

Ash, thankfully, was one of the few left behind. Meeting for the first time in over two years, Ash can't help but be swept up by of those emotions, however, is anger! She's angry to not have heard from Shepard for so long, which is compounded by his alliance with Cerberus, an enemy they both fought before while searching for Saren. She was stationed on Horizon, in fact, because it was believed Cerberus was responsible for the loss of human colonies.

This is where I and a lot of fans of the series then had good reason not to like Ash, when she called Shepard a traitor to her and everything they stood for by working for Cerberus. She was letting her feelings get in the way of really thinking about the situation, that Shepard was working with Cerberus for the right reasons. My feeling is, if Ash really cared about Shepard, she wouldn't care if he worked with Cerberus or not. But she did, and she just turned away and left him. Not a good thing to do, Ash! Even though she sent a message of apology to Shepard, especially if a romance had been built between them, it didn't lessen the sting.

But what will happen in the third and final installment of this series? Ashley Williams will be coming back as a Lieutenant-Commander, but where will their relationship stand? Does it stand at all? How much has she changed over time? Hopefully, Shepard and Ash will have the time they need to get they launch into war against the Reapers in "Mass Effect 3"!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

It's THEM!

Question: how do you make bugs scarier than they already are to those who can't stand them? Answer: make them BIG trouble. Literally!

It's a convention that's been around since just after the birth of the atomic age, when America wanted a quick end to World War II and got it with a couple of city-breakers called Fat Man and Little Boy. We dropped them on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we didn't care that most of those who died would be civilians who had no part of the war. Nothing's been the same since.

Science fiction quickly jumped on what might be possible because of the fallout of nuclear weapons. One possibility was latched on instantly, that radiation could create dramatic and unhealthy changes in some of the smallest creatures on our world...unhealthy to humans, anyway, because radition makes bugs big. That's right, big enough to EAT you! The first and most classic of these 'big bug' movies was "Them!" in 1954, which involved rads mutating desert ants into car-sized monsters; coincidentally enough in the same year, the first kaiju (means 'strange beast' in English) film "Godzilla" was created in Japan by director Ishiro Honda with similar 'consequences of atomic radiation' themes.

"Them!" and "Godzilla" each started their own trends in science fiction. Those of you who know and love Godzilla know how things have gone with Japanese monster movies since. After "Them!" came even more movies with big bugs..."The Deadly Mantis", "Tarantula", and others. Along the way the reason for bugs getting big changed, depending on the movie, until inevitably we had to fight giant bugs from space. "Starship Troopers" (1997), easily one of the most influential sci-fi movies since "Aliens", placed Humanity in conflict with the hostile Arachnids.

Before I go any further, a quick personal statement. I hate bugs. I can't stand them, whether they can sting my ass or not. Cockroaches and spiders are highest on my hit list for 'Things to Stomp to Paste the First Time I See Em'. Let me put it this way: if you have more legs than a dog, I'M ALREADY PREDISPOSED TO NOT LIKING YOU! Okay, done.

Bugs just bring out that reaction in people, which makes them perfect sci-fi monsters. This was undoubtedly how the writers of "Mass Effect" were inspired by movies from "Them!" to "Starship Troopers" to create the alien Rachni. The one positive is they're not the size of Buicks, but they're still big enough to be scary as hell. They look like someone tried to mate a roach with a squid, which means they have 'ugly' covered very well, too.

Their history in "Mass Effect" lore isn't exactly sympathetic...two thousand years before the Council races met Humanity, the Rachni saw other races as inferior and made war with them. The squid-roaches seemed to have the edge until the other races turned to the brawlers of the galaxy, the Krogan, for help. Eventually the Rachni were defeated and then believed to be outright exterminated. Or so the rest of the galaxy thought...

Spoilers from the "Mass Effect" games start here! You were warned!

A sole Rachni egg was found just before the events of "Mass Effect" and taken to Noveria, and a Rachni Queen hatched. Able to reproduce without the help of a male of the species, the Queen was made to breed in the planet's Peak 15 labs in order to create a powerful army to serve the renegade Saren and Matriarch Benezia, and the Reaper Sovereign as a result. Thankfully, this is when Commander Shepard and his crew arrive to seek out Benezia and why she and Saren were seeking the mysterious Conduit.

Shepard first had to fight through the Rachni Queen's children, which were insane with rage being apart from their mother, and destroy them all. After facing Benezia and dealing with her, Shepard then confronts the Queen, which is held prisoner in a containment pod...but the ancient Rachni is able to communicate telepathically by speaking through one of Benezia's dying Commandos. It's then up to Shepard (that is to say, you!) whether to destroy this Queen and end the Rachni once and for all, or listen to its surprising claim that its race was in fact peaceful in nature and heed its request for mercy, to be let go and start the race anew, and her children wouldn't trouble anyone else again.

If you don't buy anything the critter says that it won't trouble other races in the future, you can just dump the sucker in an acid vat and that's that.

But...if you lean toward a Paragon path and take a leap of faith, you can release the Queen and hope for the best. And I've got to admit, I took that path. I just didn't like the idea of performing genocide on an entire intelligent race, even if they were squid-roaches. So I'm weak!

In "Mass Effect 2", however, I discovered maybe I made the right call, after all. Shepard is approached by an Asari beauty who reveals herself to be an agent of the rebuilding Rachni. She gives Shepard a message telepathically imprinted into her mind by the Queen, and then has more information to give. Ever since her last meeting with Shepard, the Queen determined that her race was somehow manipulated by someone -- perhaps the Reapers -- into making war with the rest of the galaxy thousands of years ago. The agent then tells Shepard that the Queen and her children will be ready to help fight the Reapers, if that becomes necessary. However, tensions are rising from Council races in locations across the galaxy where Rachni have been sighted...

Needless to say, events in "Mass Effect 3" could prove to be very interesting when war breaks out with the Reapers. And you've got to like this twist offered to the 'big bug' story often found in sci-fi. In the case of "Mass Effect", maybe big bugs can finally be our friends, and not looking to eat us!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Quotable Quotes: Joker in the Deck

This is the first installment of Quotable Quotes, words of wisdom spoken by your favorite "Mass Effect" characters! First up, we stick entirely with one character, Normandy Pilot Jeff 'Joker' Moreau. Voiced by Seth Green, Joker doesn't hold back when expressing his views...

"Man, what I wouldn't give to go planetside. Wading through muck, getting shot in the face. Man, that is the life."

"Boy, am I glad to be off Noveria. I don't know which was worse, the cold or the corporations. One will freeze your balls off, the other will sell them out from under you."

"Ah, the great endless expanse of space. Creeps the hell out of me."

(As Shepard, Joker and the crew set out in the new Normandy:)
"Can you believe this, Commander? It's my baby, better than new! Fits me like a glove! And leather seats! Military may set the hardware standard, but on a first-gen frigate they could care less if the seats breathe. Civilian sector comfort by design."
EDI: "The reproduction is not intended to be perfect, Mister Moreau. Seamless improvements were made."
Joker: "And there's the downside. I liked the Normandy when she was beautiful and quiet. Now she's got this thing I don't want to talk about. It's like ship cancer."
Shepard: "Enjoy it, Joker. If we're stuck here, we might as well let them pamper us."
Joker: "Ah, does it breach uniform regs if I get that on a crew shirt? Because this is my favorite 'You have no choice!' choice ever."
Shepard: "Technically this is a civilian ship. I'm probably lucky you're still wearing pants."
Joker: "Yeah, I'll save that for the off-hour cameras. Having an A.I. watch me 24/7? Jerks."

(After recruiting Jack and bringing her aboard:)
"Okay, Shepard, glad you're back, but keep an eye on that last one. We can only hold so much crazy."

"Uh hey, Commander, next time we touch down let's try not to park the ship in a colony of mutant zombies? Just thinking out loud here."

"You know what I could go for right now? A hamburger. Not vat-grown. An honest-to-god dead cow. With horseradish."

Shepard: "I assume everything's going well up here?"
Joker: "I really want the chance to put the [new] Normandy through her paces. I just have to trim off the drive output and it'll be like we never lost her."
EDI: "Safety standards advise against manipulating drive settings while engines are powered and in use, Mister Moreau."
Joker: "Commander, can we shut this thing off? I don't need it in my day-to-day."
Shepard: "If you don't want to hear it, turn the damn sound off."
Joker: "Well, that doesn't change anything, it's still watching. Like some creepy kid staring at the back of your head in Comp-Sci, and you just wanna punch him but he's special and he sets fires or something. Okay, a little too far there, but you know what I mean!"
Shepard: "Your problem, not mine."
Joker: "Thanks, I'll remember this!"

"Oh, another dangerous alien aboard, Commander. Thanks. Why can't you collect coins or commemorative plates or something?"

"You know what I hate about deep space? Crap radio stations from two centuries back. My gosh, we were idiots."

"Why's it always claws and guns? Can't we piss off a fuzzy planet? Still dangerous, but hey, bunnies."

Shepard: "I assume everything's going well up here?"
Joker: "Shh!-Shh!-Shh!-Shh!-Shh!"
Shepard: "Joker?"
Joker: "I can tell...when it's listening."
EDI: "I am always listening, Mister Moreau."
Joker: "I KNOW!"

Saturday, February 11, 2012

No Entrance Ramp to Utopia.

In sci-fi, depending on the film, book or TV show, our future will usually be one of two things: utopian, where the air tastes like cherry wine, no one's poor, and the world's one big, happy family (see "Star Trek" and especially "Star Trek: The Next Generation"); or dystopian, in which the world has gotten worse, not better, because of a disintegrating environment, war, social decay, and any other crappy thing you can think of (see "Blade Runner").

A lot of geeks believe in utopia, that if the right circumstance comes along -- for instance, speaking of "Trek", an alien race visits us after Zefram Cochrane's experimental warp drive flight in "First Contact" -- we flawed members of the human race will realize once and for all how foolish we've been and end greed, racism, war, poverty and famine. We'd buy the world a Coke and keep each other company. We'd do away with money, the root of all evil, and everyone would play on the same level field. You know, all of that crap idealized during the hippy-trippy 1960's...or just listen to John Lennon's "Imagine" to get the same idea of hearts and rainbows.

I'm not kidding, according to "Star Trek", that's what will happen...just HOW each and every one of us gets so enlightened overnight, and HOW we undid the damage of pollution and the Third World War and glossing over simple rate of exchange are matters "Trek" mythology never covered logically or realistically.

And there's a reason no writer can picture precisely how to make utopia...because no one CAN picture how to make a perfect world.

'Wait,' you might be saying. 'What am I reading? Is he saying utopia isn't realistic?' Yes, and I'm sorry to tell you this, that's what I'm saying. I don't believe utopia is possible. Want to know why? Look in the mirror. It's a sad truth that people aren't perfect, and as long as that's true, the world will never be perfect. Say what you will, but I'm the realist in this argument.

Does that mean I believe we'll only go downhill from here to dystopia? Hey, I'm not a fatalist. Our world will only get as bad as we want it to be, and I doubt any sane, reasoning person would want to live in a world of increasing discord and decay. Would you want everything and everyone you love to go swirling down a figurative toilet? If you're sane, you'd answer no. I like to think most people are able to reason sufficiently, and especially if they're a parent, they don't want their kids to be worse off than they are now. If we educate ourselves properly and have the proper empathy for each other and our environment, we'll never have to worry about sliding down a one-way slope. Our fates are up to us, and we want our paths to be bright ones.

But again...humans aren't perfect.

There will always be those who answer to politics and corruption. Our society, no matter the country, will always be flawed in some way. And I'm thankful I'm not the only one who understands such things, that while we'll never ride on rainbows that smell suspiciously like pot, our future isn't one that's in the gutter, either.

The makers of "Mass Effect" have brought us that future, a compromise between our dreams and our nightmares, one that rings very true to the present and that not much is gonna change. True, it has the 'we are all brothers and sisters, no matter what world we're from' themes from "Star Trek". But it's a future that's still grounded in truths we already know from our own culture and our everyday lives, and familiar images that resonate as much as those 'a long time ago in a galaxy far away' in "Star Wars". Even though there may be heroes like Commander Shepard and others ready to lay down their lives for each other and to stop the nightmare power of the Reapers, enemies amongst those races threatened would like nothing better than to see those heroes dead, as well. We meet races like the Asari, in many ways so much wiser than Humanity yet still able to suffer all-too-human failings, and the Quarians, who suffered an apocalypse and were forced to surrender their own homeworld to their creations, the A.I.-driven Geth. And that may be "Mass Effect's" most meaningful message: we may meet far more advanced civilizations in space in our future, but who is to say they can't have the same problems and foibles we do? "Star Trek" wanted to give us a perfect future, but that's little more than a dream.

"Mass Effect", on the other hand, gives us a future that we can recognize that while much more improved, still has room for improvement...just like us.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

FemShep...An Appreciation.

There have been many, many heroes of science fiction since Philip Francis Nowlan's classic, "Armageddon 2419 A.D.", the story that introduced us to Buck Rogers and Wilma Deering. There have been so many, in fact, it's not possible to list them all in a single blog. Sci-fi heroes come in many stripes, but the best of them are those who answer the call of one kind of duty or another, to serve the needs of others before serving themselves. No matter their motivations, their simple yet profound goal is to make a difference and bring the fantastic circumstances around them to a positive conclusion. As was classically stated in a much more contemporary mythology created by Gene Roddenberry, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."

But it's those few heroes who always deserve our focus, no matter where they came from or what they're fighting. Taking the mythology of "Star Wars" alone, heroes can have very different roots from one another. Luke Skywalker was once a farmboy who dreamed of adventure. Han Solo was a consummate rogue and mercenary who looked out for his own concerns. Princess Leia was bonafide royalty who at first sympathized, and then at first clandestinely worked with the Rebellion that wanted to reinstate the Republic. All became heroes fighting for the same cause, the end of the Galactic Empire. Even Darth Vader became one of that mythology's heroes by resisting the Dark Side once and for all and sending Emperor Palpatine's evil ass down a reactor shaft to oblivion. (Let's discount who he once was, Hayden Christiansen's 'Annie' Skywalker, because HE was so damn annoying.)

The sci-fi hero always steps into the fire because no one else can...or so no one else has to. They lead with the one desire that others follow their example. In video games alone, we've seen our fair share of sci-fi heroes. Whether they had names like Samus Aran, Solid Snake and Jill Valentine or were simply nameless Space Marines, each made their mark in the hearts of minds of gamers in particular and geeks in general.

And that long line of heroes in video games has so far culminated in "Mass Effect's" Commander Shepard, who is truly unique in the sense that the gamer chooses what kind of hero he or she is. Just as there is more than one option to choose where Shepard came from -- but he or she will always be Human -- the gamer has even more options to decide the Commander's appearance, even whether or not to include facial scars from combat. There are even options for what kind of reputation this hero has, from being the sole survivor of a brutal a war hero who faced pitched combat before and someone cold in their efficiency, a soldier who always gets the mission accomplished, no matter what. Whichever of those beginnings you choose, Shepard is chosen at the start of "Mass Effect" to be a candidate for the extragovernmental Spectres, and the gamer's first challenge is to find out who or what is threatening the Human colony of Eden Prime and an artifact recently found there left by the long-extinct Protheans.

And brother, things only get more interesting from there.

But this blog is about the lynchpin of the events of the "Mass Effect" series, Commander Shepard.

This is also about how I see Shepard as a woman.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a feminist. I'm a dude. Some things I learned worth knowing were from "Manswers" on Spike. I've done John Shepard. I've even done a MaleShep (ShepDude? Whatever!) with an appearance and name after mine: the character creation isn't perfect, and he looks more like my late dad than me, which is a little strange.

But I also believe in equality, and I have the purest respect for women. I find many kinds of women beautiful, and I'm not talking about the ones who are stick-thin like Kate Moss or mar their skin with tattoos that get in the damn way of their beauty. (Yes, I'm talking to you, Megan Fox.) I disdain the idea of plastic surgery, and I don't believe in there being a 'standard' for women being attractive. I find Lucy Liu as beautiful as Emma Stone, Jane Seymour as beautiful as Lauren Bacall, Tamlyn Tomita as beautiful as Alyson Hannigan, and so on.

In film, television and video games, you should know, I also can't enough of a woman who's strong enough to rise to the crisis and kick ass. You'd have to understand my love for the Girls With Guns films from Hong Kong of the 1980's and early 90's, films that starred Michelle Yeoh, Yukari Oshima, Moon Lee, Cynthia Rothrock and other amazing women who had heart-stopping looks and bone-busting martial arts ability. I feel like all is right in the world when I watch the Japanese epic "Azumi" and see Aya Ueto slashing scores of guys to bloody bits with her samurai sword. And yeah, I have a crush on Lynda Carter that won't ever stop. When I play video games, given the chance, I'd rather play the more attractive female character, like Jill Valentine or Claire Redfield or Chun-Li or Lara Croft. And it's not because I have a sicko 'thing'. I'd just rather look at someone beautiful fighting demons, aliens or what-have-you instead of another dude.

I started my first play through "Mass Effect" as a FemShep...the image below is a near-mirror of who I created, I can't kid about that. (She kind of resembles Linda Fiorentino from "Men in Black".) After I played the game as her, deciding what path she would take -- Paragon, cause I wasn't too comfortable with the Dark Side in "KOTOR" -- I played as another FemShep, this time on a Renegade course which wasn't exactly evil, but not saintly, either. Then I tried John Shepard. And I realized something.

Playing as FemShep made me care about playing the game more. I don't say that because she was simply an image of beauty. Because of those amazing folks at BioWare, the appeal of Shepard as a woman was more than (textured!) skin deep. And it's impossible to understate the amazing performance voice actress Jennifer Hale has provided so far as FemShep in the first two installments, and I anticipate even more awesomeness from her in the third. Jennifer gave Shepard not just emotion, but a heart and soul that only the best actresses give to their characters through voice. Whether all-business, gentle, or no-nonsense brutal given the occasion, Jennifer Hale's Commander Shepard just rang true in ways the dude Shepard couldn't. (With respect to Mark Meer as the male version, his performance was nearly wooden in comparison...but not as wooden as Keanu Reeves, though. NO ONE is as wooden as Keanu Reeves. He has to put effort into emoting, "Whoa!")

It doesn't matter where heroes come the end, it matters what they can do in the time they have. So why should it matter if that hero is a man or a woman? Often, I'd say it's better and more satisfying to see a woman kick ass and save the day. I know there are a lot of guys who might say 'Bah!' at that thought. But I'm one of a lot of fans of the "Mass Effect" series who decided that maybe BioWare has been getting the box art with a guy as Shepard wrong from the start. The whole idea of the game is for us to not only decide how our adventure goes, but to create the kind of hero we want, right?

When it comes to Commander Shepard, I can only want a beautiful, strong and confident woman to lead the way.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

One Month Away... (Concluded)

The mechanics of "Mass Effect" were carried over from what was tried and true in "KOTOR" and "Jade Empire"...similar to the radial menus of choosing weapons or powers/abilities in real time during combat, the gamer is given a number of options to choose from to decide how to respond to an NPC. In "Mass Effect", though, a player isn't necessarily given a straightforward 'good' or 'evil' option among their choices. Depending on the circumstance, responses in opposing blue or red would be shown, which earmarked a Paragon or Renegade option, respectively. A Paragon choice always errs toward reason or selflessness, while the Renegade choice gives the player the chance to be harsh and aggressive. One is the way of the dove, with the opposing being the way of the hawk, and interestingly in many cases, neither can be considered the 'right' or 'wrong''s an extension of the Open Palm and Closed Fist options of "Jade Empire". Either choice can be right in some instances...for example, you can blow away someone who's threatening you and everyone around him with a gun, or you can talk the guy down to make him see at least some form of reason and he'll back down.

However. The gamer must realize in "Mass Effect" that a choice made in this game will lead to consequences immediate and/or lasting. Bioware has made clear from the start that "Mass Effect" would be a trilogy, and that the effects of a gamer's decisions will carry over from the first installment to the last. The most dramatic example of that is this: in the first game, you must decide the destiny of one of your party. No spoilers here for those who haven't played it, but you'll be placed in a situation where two of your friends will be in dire trouble, but you'll only be able to save one to keep everyone else alive and accomplish the mission. It's easily the most affecting decision of the first game, one that'll punch you in the gut if you got to know both of these characters. One must live to be seen again in the rest of your adventures in the trilogy, but the other must go to that great beyond, never to return.

And that, first and foremost, is what makes the "Mass Effect" series so damn cool: that you can choose how your adventure goes through each installment, and the decisions you must live with are for once YOUR decisions. And yes, you can play through the game as many times as you want, creating a different character each time, and you can make different choices to see at least immediately how much your next game diverges from the last! To say the least, the replay value for the first game alone is immense.

Your creation of your character, Commander Shepard, will all by itself affect the game and how characters respond to you. Shepard could be a macho dude and war hero...or you can make Shepard a female (or Femshep, as fans affectionately call her), a former colonist who barely survived a Thresher Maw (think one of those killer worms in "Tremors", but much bigger and much, much uglier). Or, male or female, you can make Shepard the most ruthless individual to ever walk on two legs. Who you want Shepard to look like and what kind of person you want them to be, from personality to whether he or she is gay or straight, is all up to you. And yes, you have many options who you can romance in each game, too!

"Mass Effect 2" is different from the first in two ways that truly matter. One, the RPG elements heavy in the original are streamlined for a much more immersive action experience; you and your party having a firefight with enemies is much more fluid and intense. Second, since Shepard is leading a (mostly) new crew, he or she can choose to take on loyalty missions to support each crewmember. These missions are deeply personal for each of these characters, and giving your all to help them succeed will make them solidly loyal to you and focus that much more on helping your final mission in the game be a success. It's a cool way to get to know those in your party better, and choosing whether or not to do them WILL have consequences!

All of this is wrapped up in a sci-fi package a gamer and all-around geek like me couldn't possibly resist. If you love "Mass Effect" too, then you must know the siren call of high adventure in outer space. These games embody the best aspects of the genre, in the same way "Star Wars" did, and it goes deeper because of other influences. Commander Shepard, male or female, embodies the best and most heroic qualities of sci-fi heroes from Buck Rogers to Malcolm Reynolds, or from Wilma Deering to Ellen Ripley. Its themes of Humanity reaching out to secure our rightful place among other civilized races in the galaxy evokes the highest themes of any series and film in the "Star Trek" franchise. Space is the final frontier, and who can truthfully say they wouldn't take the chance to be out there, seeking out the farthest star?

The "Mass Effect" series, therefore, is a unique source of wish-fulfillment for those of us who are gamers...and for those of us in general who are dreamers, who believe that anything can be possible. These games make anything possible, because so much in "Mass Effect" is up to the gamer to decide. That's why I and many more can't wait for "Mass Effect 3", where we'll be brought to the end of the path we chose, to see how we can yet influence that ending. Uh, if we haven't already! ;)

And that's why I made the "Mass Effect Universe" blog, something for those "Mass Effect" fans like me. As the weeks pass, I'll be writing a lot about what I love about these games, from Femshep and other favorite characters to the amazing worlds and more. And that will include who and what fans can find in "Mass Effect 3".

So get on board, already! :)

Monday, February 6, 2012

One month away...

Okay. It's only a month before Bioware's "Mass Effect 3" is released.

I can't overstate this: I'm getting to be beside myself with anticipation. I say that as a certifiably addicted fan of the "Mass Effect" series. I've played the first two games to death, yet at the same time I haven't played them enough. I'm fully ready to do the same with #3. Why do I say such things? Why have I been so hooked to "Mass Effect" since the first day I started it up and began that fateful mission to Eden Prime? What is it about these games, and why am I beyond ready to play the third and final(?) installment of what has been universally called one of the best video game series ever made? And why am I not the only one who feels that way?

If you haven't played "Mass Effect" or its sequel, it's hard to's even harder if you never played video games.

I've grown up with the evolution of video games...I've been there with "Pong", "Space Invaders", "Pac Man" and "Donkey Kong". I never really thought of myself as a gamer, though, until the age of the Sony PlayStation came along. I've loved to watch a good movie or read a good book, and that love became an aspiration to write myself. As story became more and more important in the process of making games, my attraction to games could only increase. I couldn't get enough of games that defined the PSOne like "Resident Evil", "Metal Gear Solid", and the seventh and eighth installments of "Final Fantasy", games that not only told a good story but immersed the gamer in alternate virutal worlds.

As much as I love action games -- especially first person shooters -- and adventure games, role playing video games always had a certain call to me. The RPG is often one of the most time-sucking experiences you can find, but when a game is made by the best in the business like "Final Fantasy", the loss of those hours is worth it. You get used to living under new rules in a fantastic new setting, while getting to know truly interesting and cool characters and building experience and strength from many battles against many different kinds of enemies as you work toward the game's conclusion. But all the time, there was one thing getting in the way of having a truly immersive experience: the fact that what you were doing didn't involve a whole lot of choice. Playing an RPG meant playing through a linear storyline with one set path and one possible conclusion at the end.

As video games have evolved, however, the freedom of deciding what one can do and when has been a desire game makers have done their best to answer. At first, games like "Grand Theft Auto" offered an experience like playing in a big sandbox, where you can do what you want when you want it. Still, that didn't put a whole lot of impact on the story. Then the RPG-FPS hybrid "Deus Ex" was created for the PC in 2000, and its quality and innovation brought it as close to the Choose Your Adventure form of storytelling as one could imagine, including giving the gamer the chance to choose the ending of the story. The game went so far as to give a wealth of options for fighting adversaries or avoiding them altogether...many gamers have gotten through "Deus Ex" without firing a single shot!

But then, a group of respected game developers from Canada took the most popular American science fiction mythos of the 20th Century and made something truly special.

The company of game developers, Bioware, created "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic" in 2003 for the Xbox and PC, and spared little effort in making an astounding action-RPG. It didn't just take the fictional mythology created by George Lucas (with his approval and the assistance of Lucasarts) to make Star Wars fun again for the first time since the original trilogy, it took role playing to an addicitve new level of immersion. Set four thousand years before the films to a time at the height of both the Old Republic and the Sith Empire and their conflict, the experience went surprisingly deeper than choosing your own path, and even how the game came to a close. You could not only choose what kind of character you could play, male or female, rogue or soldier or what have you, your ability to choose even included how you could interact with NPCs (non playable characters) and therefore not only drive the story along, determine your alignment with good (Light Side) or evil (Dark Side). When having a conversation with another character, you could choose from a menu list of noble, neutral or selfish responses, which would lead to an appropriately fitting reaction. At key moments, if you wanted to be REALLY evil, you can even kill supporting characters who are in your way, no longer of use, or just plain annoy you. (God, if only audiences had that ability while watching "The Phantom Menace", Jar Jar Binks would have been SO dead before he even had the chance to take Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon to Gungan City!) As a dramatic side effect of making decisions that lean to the Dark Side, the appearance of the player's character gradually changes to look more evil, as well. The storytelling was impressive enough, including one of the most jaw-dropping twists you'll ever see in a story in any medium, but the overall freedom of choice made the experience all the sweeter. How can you not love a game where you could play a female Jedi and have a lesbian relationship with an alien cat girl -- no sex scenes, though, sorry! -- if you wanted? The fact this game won many Game of the Year accolades is testament enough to the love gamers felt.

The sequel to "KOTOR", "The Sith Lords", was created two years later, developed not by Bioware but by Obsidian Entertainment with Lucasarts for the Xbox and PC. Unfortunately, the second game wasn't as good as the first...the developer's need to rush the game to release made the experience incomplete, coupled with a story that just wasn't as good as the original's. Still, I liked the fact that the player's choices this time can not only visually change their character's appearance, but also the looks of the supporting characters. Why wasn't Bioware involved with "The Sith Lords"? Because they were focused on an original action-RPG, "Jade Empire", which arrived on the Xbox in 2005 and the PC in 2006. Set in a fictonal-mythical world inspired by ancient legends and lore of China, this game also used the tried and true gameplay and dialogue menu systems of the "KOTOR" games. The difference here was that instead of Light and Dark Side, a player could follow the in-game philosophies of either the Open Palm or the Closed Fist to decide what path they would take in the story. The game was given high praise, but some criticized its lack of depth.

In 2005, also, the Xbox 360 was brought to gamers as part of the next generation of consoles. It's appropriate to mention that because two years later, Bioware took everything they learned and devised from "KOTOR" and "Jade Empire" to create a new and original creation for the 360. As a result, they raised the bar of quality for video games in general.

The result was Bioware's "Mass Effect", a space opera in the tradition of "Star Wars".