Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Top 16 Mass Effect Squad Members Part IV: The Best Around

In many ways, this has been the hardest update to write. The differences between the quality of these last five characters is so minute that I've actually changed the overall ranking twice since the last post. Also, I've noticed that the posts have been getting longer and longer as time has gone on, making this the most difficult to write in terms of sheer volume as well. We know that only five remain and that they're the best around, but only one can say that nothing ever keeps them down.

5. Ashley Williams (Mass Effect)

Wait a second...That's Victoria from How I Met Your Mother. Apparently, her actress is Ashley Williams.
No, that's Ashley "Ash" Williams from Evil Dead
There we go! Who knew there were this many famous Ashley Williamses?
Apparently famous name aside, Ashley Williams is one of the best thought out characters in the Mass Effect universe. There's always more to this character than meets the eye. She has a minor role in Mass Effect 2 and is poised for a bigger role in next week's Mass Effect 3, but I'll be focusing mostly on her time in Mass Effect 1, since that's where we got to know her. When you first see her, she's on the run after a bunch of robots launched a surprise attack on Eden Prime, an agrarian colony whose primary exports are rainbows, smiles, and the laughter of small children. You help her out because her armor is pink and this a video game, ipso facto she is completely helpless. However, she turns out to be the most-effective non-Shepard member of your team on Eden Prime (although this is because the alternatives are Kaidan the Awful and Richard L. Jenkins, who dies 3 minutes into the game and was so irrelevant that I didn't rank him. He'd still be above Kaidan though!). Ashley isn't so much an everyman as she is a strong conduit to the everyman of the 22nd century. Back in 2007, I didn't have any strong opinions on the involvement of Turians at Shianxi because what are those things? (Short answer: Turians = Space Romans, Shianxi = Only Human Colony to ever surrender to aliens, specifically the Space Romans). However, Ashley lets you understand the anxieties of humanity integrating into a galactic community without shading your opinion one way or the other. By the end of Mass Effect 1, Ashley respects the contributions of her alien teammates. And isn't that the foundation of tolerance and trust?

Ashley is a woman of tradition. In many ways, her views are old-fashioned, but understandable and easy to relate to. She comes from a family where generation after generation has served in the Alliance military (which is impressive considering that the Alliance is just 40 years old by the time of Mass Effect 3). Unfortunately, she has the ignominy of being the granddaughter of the only human to surrender to aliens. But rather than perpetually complaining about it like certain Kaidans who won't be named, she uses that as motivation to try harder. She's also a poetry enthusiast and enjoys the works of Alfred Lord Tennyson, who was all about sucking it up and winning one for the team. Since she's the only soldier on the team, that makes her a warrior poet, which means that she must also fight like a true Scotsman (according to Braveheart, at least). Lastly, she's the only character who openly admits to being Christian and is not a villain, and that could be in any game, not just Mass Effect (Shortest Top Five Ever: the Top Five Christian Protagonists in Video Games. Off the top of my head: Ashley, Liam Neeson in Fallout 3,  Cole Phelps from L.A. Noire,is Batman a Christian? I think he celebrates Christmas, and ummmm... a fifth guy). She's the most familiar thing to the player in an entire galaxy of strange aliens, cultures, and emotionless "wounded soul" guys.

But I digress. The best moments for Ashley comes when she realizes that the Reapers are actually a race of sentient warships who predate time itself and whose power is beyond the scope of human comprehension. I'm going to paraphrase here, but she says that "my rifle may as well be a pea shooter if I'm up against a warship" but won't give up the fight. That is the ultimate sassback in the line of duty. "I'm hopelessly outgunned and certain to die, but WHATEVA! I DO WHAT I WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNT!!!!"

Apparently, Spectre's get free makeovers
Finally, I like where her character is going. She had virtually no role in Mass Effect 2 other than to show up at the end of Act I and be super mad that you didn't call her. You can try to explain that you were clinically dead most of that time and she was at work when you tried to call, but she'll still be mad at you. You can say she's being over-emotional and that'll just make her even madder. So I guess that makes her probably the most realistically written female in any game ever (Note to all fine honeys: there was no "You're right, I'm sorry" response. I tried my best to find it though!). However, by Mass Effect 3, we find out that Ashley has become a Spectre (sort of like a Space Government Sponsored Badass, charged with cracking skulls that armies can't effectively reach). This is the best kind of writing because it explains the stuff that didn't make any sense in previous games while retaining plausibility. Ashley was at the end of Act I because the Alliance was grooming her to be awesome and awesome people understand dramatic timing. Her files were classified and she was impossible to reach because, in Shepard's absence, she was the most qualified human secret agent type.

Most importantly, Ashley's survival means that Kaidan dies. Ignoring the previous 800 words, this act alone makes her worthy of a top five spot. In fact, let's watch that glorious moment together!


Saturday, February 25, 2012

And your Top 5 Squadmates Are...

Coming tomorrow night! Ironically, I spent the night talking about Mass Effect and watching documentaries on Mass Effect rather than writing a blog post about Mass Effect. It's far too late to get the full final five up tonight (which I estimate will be at least 3,000 words) and I need to go into detail because now my picks are getting controversial, as many of my close friends left one of my Top Five to die. But I need to post something, or else the Mass Effect momentum will be lost in the dark space between mass relays. So I will leave you with Martin Sheen explaining the story.

And now, Shepard fights some space zombies.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Top 16 Mass Effect Squad Members Part III: Then Things Got Awesome

Yesterday, we had a major milestone in Mass Effect squad members: they started to get good. Now, this is where my job gets tricky as it's no longer a matter of whether or not the character is awesome, but how awesome are they.

8. Tali'Zorah nar Rayya/vas Neema/vas Normandy
"Look me in the visor and say that!"

Tali Three Names in Two Games is the first of the squad members to feature heavily in both games. In Mass Effect 1, she's this shy, super curious alien gypsy (or "Quarian") who happened to be in the right place at the right time or, arguably, the wrong place in the wrong time. But I'm confident she was in a place to get an incriminating voice file of the bad guy in Mass Effect 1 at a time when Commander Shepard and his crew were busting skulls in her neighborhood, thus thwarting the bad guy's inevitable cover up attempt. Throughout the course of the Mass Effect 1 adventure, Tali spends her time in engineering being awed by how awesome the SSV Normandy's Tantalus Warp Core is. Most impressively, she never made a single "tantalizing" pun. Later on, you find out she's on a rite of passage with her people to find something, as the ancient Quarians would say, "totes legit". Then you give her a data disk with all the Geth's homework assignments on it, thus enabling the Quarians to cheat like crazy.

In Mass Effect 1, Tali is mostly there to give you a culture lesson on the Quarians and add depth to the universe. As a character, she's not particularly exciting or interesting. Luckily, Tali returned with a vengeance in Mass Effect 2. For starters, she's in charge of a Quarian Spec Ops team that you run into on your first mission. Unfortunately, Quarian Spec Ops is about as useful as the French Army in World War II. If memory serves, by the time she joins up with your squad, there is one survivor in her unit, and even his survival is contingent upon your ability to blow up 30 foot tall robots with lasers for eyes. But I'll get into the details of Tali's military career a bit later. As a result, Tali is pretty much at home only with Shepard and is incredibly protective of him. Rather than being relentlessly curious, Tali develops a backbone and is capable of making her own decisions. Her loyalty mission is extremely close to Mass Effect 1 in spirit and is a very moving story. The only downside is there's not really a strong dilemma to go along with it, but that's a minor blemish.

"Ow! My spine! It totally got crushed!"
But now I'd like to talk some about her military career, short and inglorious. It isn't really Tali's fault, it's more a product of her having heavy expectations from her superiors and little respect from her subordinates. For once, I will bore you with minutia, so fine honeys, do your thing. We know Tali's father is a very important figure in Quarian culture and she did well on her pilgrimage. We know from Tali's loyalty mission that her father was extremely ambitious. So from the start, Tali's assigned a mission that probably won't work out under the best circumstances. Tali's father really wants her to be like him and lead the Quarians on a grand campaign of ass-kicking. The thing is Tali was a member of an ass-kicking, name-taking crew, but she was never a primary ass-kicker or name-taker. She was an engineer and was good at breaking robots' programming. But because of family pride, she winds up over-promoted. Her soldiers know this and don't really respect her. She's just a teen girl with a famous father to them. As a result, they ignore her orders in the first mission of the game and they get their spines crushed. Her soldiers seem to be more loyal after that, from what little we see, but their mission is just too much.

The Top 16 Mass Effect Squad Members Part II: The Mediocre Three

Yesterday, I went over the bottom of the Mass Effect space barrel. Today, things continue to improve. These characters aren't great, but they certainly don't have the myriad of flaws that yesterday's bunch had.

11. Kasumi Goto (Mass Effect 2)

Tragically, Kasumi Goto was born without a forehead.

 Kasumi Goto is different than all the other characters I'll discuss. She's the only one to be made available after the game was released, coming out via downloadable content (DLC) a few months after Mass Effect 2 came out. That means people had to pay $7 if they wanted this character. As a result, BioWare tried their damnedest to make this DLC bundle worthwhile. And they succeeded at making the bundle a great value for $7. The shame is none of it has to do with Kasumi. Specifically, her loyalty mission is both fantastic and unique. It requires you to infiltrate the party of a interstellar arms dealer, James Bond-style. Schmooze up the host and impress some people with your tuxedo wearing prowess (or dress wearing prowess, if you're a Lady Shepard) all while scouting out the party and sabotaging their defenses. And the practical reward for the mission is a fantastic new submachine gun that is the most accurate and deadly of all the SMGs in the game. The thing is Kasumi herself is entirely forgettable and not needed for this mission at all.

As a character, Kasumi strives for that Joss Whedon style best seen in the short-lived but oft-cited cult TV show, Firefly. She'll make sarcastic quips and never take things as seriously as she should. Honestly, you'd think I would love this. But it really just undermines the tone of the much darker Mass Effect 2. It's not that characters can't be funny or make wise-cracks, there's just nothing else to her character and that won't cut it in a game of this caliber.

Maybe her motive was to wear leather pants?
From a broader standpoint, she has no reason to work with Shepard and Shepard has no reason to work with her. Kasumi is a master thief, so that means she's good at sneaking around and taking things. But Shepard is on a mission to fight a bunch of enigmatic aliens and their cybernetic monsters. I don't think the Collectors really have anything you could steal from them. Certainly nothing that requires a specialist. And what does Kasumi get out of it? Is it money? Revenge? Boredom? To appeal to RPG fans who adore Japanese culture and would typically not try out a Western RPG like Mass Effect, thus broadening the game's market to an untapped demographic? Is it fashion? I honestly don't remember. It's a bad sign if I can't remember why a character would sign up for a suicide mission.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Top 16 Mass Effect Squad Members Part I: The Bottom Five

Like all good space operas, Mass Effect is just as much about the people as it is about alien worlds, cosmic mysteries, and shooting cosmic mysteries on alien worlds.

While the crew of the SSV Normandy (for the uninitiated, that's the name of your spaceship) is filled with lovable characters (all right, it's mostly just Seth Green as the lovable pilot and a non-licensed knock off of Scotty that are truly lovable, but that's beside the point), it's really the squad that matters most to the story. Being a video game, almost all of the exciting things and moments of drama occur when you're fighting on foot. Concordantly, most of your time will be spent on these missions. So its important for the squad members you fight with to be unique, memorable and interesting. While almost every squad member in Mass Effect 1 & 2 succeeds at the former, there's some struggling with the latter. Obviously, there will be spoilers ahead. If you were planning on trying out the best games of 2007 and 2010 but never found time to do it, stop reading now. Without further ado, let's dive into the first part of a comprehensive ranking of the best, the worst, and the most mediocre of what Mass Effect can offer.

16. Jacob Taylor (Mass Effect 2)

Remember when I said most of the squad members were unique and memorable? Well, Jacob Taylor is the reason why it couldn't be all the squad members. He is so bland, so devoid of passion and intrigue that when I initially discussed this article with the Bean, we honestly forgot he was in the game at all. The thing is every other character has strong principles and motives and display superb talent before they join your squad. But that's not the case with Jacob. Jacob winds up contradicting his own viewpoints a lot. He joined up with Cerberus (a radical pro-human group) because they get results. So he's an action first, damn the consequences kinda guy, right? But then he decides that he's super hesitant about following the orders of their leader. So he's a man of honor then? No, because before the game, he was a thug on the Alliance payroll who took missions the Alliance couldn't officially sanction. As for his abilities, he's probably the least qualified person on the Normandy in that he is neither a telekinetic crusader, spec ops veteran, or vigilante who simultaneously fought three companies of interstellar mercenaries to a stalemate all by himself, but he was the main character of the terrible iPhone game Mass Effect Galaxies. So I guess that was his main qualification. In a nutshell, Jacob can't decide if he's a rebel or a conformist, has no real interesting back story and is not particularly clever or smart. I guess he's supposed to be an everyman, but some convictions wouldn't hurt.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Mass Effect Fortnight

First and foremost, I'd like to say that I am aware every single word in the title discourages readership from the fine honeys. But for Mass Effect, it's worth it. Before I continue, I must point the fine honey demographic to their sanctuary poem. Are all the fine honeys gone now? Good. Those honeys that remain have proven their status as ultra fine honeys and should be commended by their peers.

This was on Page 1 of the Google Image search for "Fine Honeys". I'm just as confused as you!

Mass Effect 3 is coming out in just two weeks and I couldn't be more excited. I've been looking forward to this release ever since I completed Mass Effect 1 all the way back in 2007, when the economy was still booming and I believed you just needed a bachelor's degree to get a decent full time job. Mass Effect the franchise has always had the best combination of setting, story, game play and player agency of any franchise out there. Mass Effect 3 is in the unique position to have the best, most widespread game play (being the first game in the series to offer multiplayer) and offer the best story (as the long built up to third and concluding part of the story, Return of the King style). While I could go on for a while, I have a test to study for tomorrow and I have, like, five goblins who need some industrial poisoning. So I leave you with this excellent article on Mass Effect's importance to Science Fiction.

I'll see you tomorrow when the Mass Effect Fortnight continues with the Top 16 Squad Members in Mass Effect 1&2. Why 16? Because there are only 16 squad members in the game. If I did a Top 5, then it'd really just be a Top 3 plus Wrex and Garrus. And if I'm gonna go to the trouble of a Top 10, I might as well take a little extra time and do the last 6 people.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Curse you, Ahart's!

So, Thing-A-Day met a disastrously premature end last Friday. I had concluded an awesome evening out on the town which consisted of seeing The Grey starring Liam Neeson (who is the best thing in everything he does) and then seeing one of my friends at Ahart's and getting as much reasonably priced food as possible as quickly as possible without subjecting myself to fast food (note to self: skipping lunch is and catching a 4:30 movie is a bad idea). I succeeded in getting a good number of chicken wings and a properly sized sandwich and enjoying a Belgian beer (oh Belgium, you may have never won a war but you brew a fine ale). I got home and proceeded to enjoy the evening while waiting until the last possible moment to update my blog (as is my wont). But at around 11, I began to feel very light-headed. I head to the bathroom and I find it almost impossible to walk in a straight line. Either the Belgians designed the world's most potent, slowest reacting alcohol ever or I was poisoned, Assassin Creed II style.

The guy in the white hood seemed so trustworthy. And he was Italian!
 I will spare the gory details, but the good news is I made it to the bathroom in time. Around the fifth time I threw up in a row, I began to suspect that maybe blogging would be out of the question for the night. I needed Saturday to get back on my feet and Sunday was reserved for enjoying the Super Bowl (although I did a ton of live tweeting, which I will reforge into a blog somehow). I'll repay you by doing two things some day in the not to distant future

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Happy Bill Murray Day!

I hope everyone has enjoyed their endless cycle of do-overs today. It occurs to me that today would have been an excellent opportunity to write about the Top Five Bill Murray films, but given how little time I have to update today, I feel like it would not be much more than "Five Bill Murray Films". But what the heck? I can come up with an informal list in the hour before February 3rd. And if I can't, I'm sure I'll wake up and it'll be the morning of February 2nd again.

5. Groundhog Day

This is in fifth place primarily because I really just wanted to write a quick update before bed and then go back to kicking my legs up. But Groundhog Day reminded me that I can do better. So thanks, Groundhog Day, I was really looking forward to reclining my chair too. But on topic, it's a very funny movie with a standard "Jerk learns to stop being a jerk" subplot but with a few nice quirks and Murray's own comedic flair. I thought things got a bit dark with all the suicide attempts, but I feel like it's also a logical progression of being trapped in the same day over and over.

You magnificent bastard, I read your book!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Review: World War Z

Finally, a book that combines my love of military drama with zombies.

A few years back, I heard that Mel Brooks' son, Max Brooks, had written a comedy book called The Zombie Survival Guide. As a fan of both comedy and zombies, I was intrigued by the possibility of a zomedy. It would require delicate balance to keep the melancholy of the zombie apocalypse from ruining all the jokes. While the zomedy would reach perfection in Zombieland, it shambled out of the box with The Zombie Survival Guide. The book couldn't decide whether it wanted to be a parody and a joke or if it wanted to provide legitimate zombie fighting advice and tell horror stories of zombie attacks of the past. The comedy bits were very bland and predictable, but his horror stories were incredible. Zombie attacks of the past had a ton of very interesting alternative takes on history. My favorite will always be in the Lost Colony of Roanoake, which was overrun by zombies. However, the book's inconsistent tone kept it from being a favorite of mine. When I heard that Brooks was returning to the zombie genre to tell a serious story, I was excited.

No one wants to see Will Smith fix utilities for two hours.
World War Z is presented as a series of interviews conducted by a UN Investigator to record the causes, events, and aftermath of the zombie epidemic. Right from the start, Brooks earns major credits by being one of the very few zombie authors to have humanity come back from the zombie apocalypse. For obvious reasons, most writers (and especially video games) prefer to stick you in the middle of the zombie apocalypse where all the action and destroyed cities are, preferring to leave the whole rebuilding of mankind to your imagination. More importantly, Brooks has a very realistic feel for how the zombie epidemic could spread across the world so quickly, how various countries would react to the zombie apocalypse, and how humanity could fight back against the zombies. 90 percent of the time, his thoughts are brilliant and combine a strong understanding of global politics with practical zombie fighting. For example, the zombie plague starts in China, a country with a very large, very dense population where the government controls the press and firearms are restricted.

The book is broken into 8 chapters, consisting of multiple interviews from people of importance from around the world. Sometimes they are leaders, intelligence officers, doctors or soldiers, but just as often, they are regular people thrust into uniquely brutal situations. The sheer number of names can be overwhelming, but they aren't particularly important. One of my favorite things is the amount of stories which intersect without the other people knowing about it. So you hear about an event you know the intimate details of in passing from the story of another character. It does wonders to add cohesiveness to the universe.

There's only one problem with World War Z and it's that Max Brooks' political opinions constantly seep into the book. Some things are inherent to the genre. For example, if the CIA was super good at containing zombie outbreaks, then we wouldn't get very far in our zombie apocalypse and there wouldn't be too much drama.. However, it's the times when he's not taking potshots that are the worst. At every opportunity, conservative values, people and places are vilified and liberal values, people and places are sanctified. For example, the military can't recruit the manpower to fight the undead hordes because people were war weary from Iraq. The northern states fare much better than the southern states because they have winters that freeze the zombies over (ignoring that the South has a shotgun per capita of nearly 1.17). The lifelong capitalist embraces the benefits of Keynesian economics (although this one is more forgivable, since rationing is more essential in a zombie apocalypse). The Sun Belt refugees don't pack warmly enough for the Canadian winter and are generally idiots when it comes to keeping warm. Because no one camps in the South and the winters are never cold. The most egregious line that stands out in my mind was "My father never hit my mother. He was a progressive." Because only people with traditional values beat their wives, right? A liberal would never be capable of violence!

METS: My Entire Team Sucks
There is one other thing that bothers me in the book, but it's fairly minor. In an otherwise fantastic chapter, a pilot who crashed deep in zombie country is talking over the radio to a woman by the call sign Mets Fan. As it turns out SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER the woman is either a guardian angel or maybe the pilot's subconscious SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER and that the name may have been influenced because the pilot's mother was from the Bronx. The problem is the Yankees play in the Bronx, the Mets play in Queens. How could an error like that get through publishing?! To the uninitiated fly honeys reading this who may not understand why it's a big deal to mix up the Yankees and Mets, it would be like mixing up Edward and Jacob in Twilight (if Edward had won more World Series than other franchise and was universally hated by all other people and Jacob was the laughing stock of the land who desperately tried to keep up with Edward but couldn't even keep Jose Reyes from signing a long term deal with the Miami Marlins! SUCK IT JACOB! I mean, METS!). Simply put, people in the Yankees neighborhood aren't going to be Mets fans and would be insulted to be lumped together. It's a mistake that becomes obvious with the slightest amount of research and would be so easy to correct in future editions of the book.

World War Z is a fantastic read, even for people who aren't obsessed about the zombie apocalypse like I am. While there are a handful of errors and political biases, it's never enough to break up the story's wonderful pacing.  The story provides a unique global perspective on the zombie apocalypse as well as the rare glimpse of the world after the zombie threat is contained. I strongly recommend reading the book and give it Four and a Half English Muffins out of Five.

Note to self: design English Muffin ratings. Maybe the half muffin will be like, half eaten or something. I don't know. It'd look cool though, right?