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!


4. Mordin Solus (Mass Effect 2)

"Hard to see big picture from behind a pile of corpses" - Mordin Solus
 Going into Mass Effect 2, I was convinced there would be no way my favorite character in the game would be a Salarian. In Mass Effect 1, all they did was act super neurotic and kept saying science at a problem until it stopped being a problem. The most badass Salarian, a guy called Captain B.A. Kirrahe (possible relative of B.A. Baracus) gave a rousing speech that basically amounted to "As a people, we have always depended on others to strike the winning blow. But today, let's maybe not suck so much and hold the line! TO GLORIOUS STALEMATE!". But in comes Dr. Mordin Solus, with an M.D. in Kicking Ass and a Ph.D. in Taking Names.

When you first meet him, he's running a free clinic on Omega (which is like a combination of Detroit and Afghanistan). In his spare time from discovering a cure to a plague genetically engineered by a species older than time, he guns down some mercenaries who were trying to rough up his patients. After that, he decides to go toe to toe with the Collectors secret weapon: a swarm of bugs that freeze you in stasis when they sting you. And once again, Mordin bests the species that has the most advanced technology in the galaxy and develops an effective countermeasure (although it turns out to be a sci-fi bug repellent). In between, he is both very insightful and somewhat humorous in a dry manner. But that's not what makes Mordin a great character.

What makes Mordin a great character is how he represents the moral ambiguity of the universe. Before running a free clinic on Omega, Mordin was a member of the Salarian's secret agent program. Their greatest assignment was to modify a biological weapon called the genophage, which was used to keep the population of a warlike species (the Krogan) in check. The problem is, as Ian Malcolm would put it, life finds a way and the genophage began losing potency. While they successfully deployed the new virus, there was a lot of soul searching about if it was the right thing to do. While Mordin understands the necessity of this action, he feels tremendous guilt about the cost of it. Every year, he would return to the Krogan homeworld and examine the results of the new virus himself. Opening the free clinic on Omega was an act of penance. In a world of ambiguity, Mordin believes that medicine is the one true good. I could go into why he believes that or I could show you this relevant video.

The cost of Mordin's cure is the complete erosion of hope among the Krogan people which leads to desperate and violent acts that are common when you've got nothing to lose and nothing to live for except revenge. The best part is Mordin's character development hinges upon Shepard's (i.e. your) influence. You can convince him that the genophage was too brutal and he should design a cure or that it was a necessary to protect the galaxy. It's the perfect integration of storytelling and player control that makes Mass Effect one of the best series.

And now it's time to address the elephant in the blogosphere. Apparently, there's a consensus going around that I'm like Mordin. Well of course this is absurd. Sure, we're both highly analytical and prone to go off on tangents at the slightest provocation. And sure, we both have reputations for being someone who will talk ad nauseam (a direct quote from one character about Mordin: "Don't get him started talking. He'll talk your ears off"). And yes, we may both be even tempered. But come on! It's not like he is prone to burst out into song randomly with lyrics he wrote himself.

Well... um... I... I guess the consensus is right. (P.S. An hour after writing this, I tried texting in pure Mordin speak and no one noticed a difference. Spooky.)

3. Liara T'soni (Mass Effect & Mass Effect 2)

Look, being #3 is very good. Most biotics would kill to be in the Top 5... POOR CHOICE OF WORDS! SORRY!
 In the previous 13 entries, you may have noticed that I spend most of my time talking about what the character does when they're in your squad, which makes sense for an article about squad members. But for Liara, the opposite is true. My absolute favorite part of her character arc is everything that happens while Shepard isn't around.

I'm still waiting for this to be announced as DLC for Mass Effect 3
Don't get me wrong, Liara was a very good character in Mass Effect 1. Much like Ashley helped you ease into the 22nd century, Liara eased you into the 4798th century BC with her extensive knowledge of the Protheans (a race of aliens who were the most technologically advanced in the galaxy until they disappeared 50,000 years ago). Liara is an archaeologist much in the same way that blonde German from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is an archaeologist. You don't see her do much digging, but she knows the meaning of a lot of places thatwould just be gibberish to you otherwise. If Ashley familiarizes you with the setting, Liara familiarizes you with the plot. She's there so that "Prothean Cipher", "Mu Relay", and "Conduit on Ilos" are more than a bunch of high tech sounding words. Additionally, it also turns out that her mom really disapproves of her becoming a Space Archaeologist because... I guess it's considered a really weak degree in a society that values art, poetry and diplomacy? Oh, and also her mother has teamed up with the Bad Guy to wipe out all space-faring life forms in the Milky Way. But mostly it's about the legitimacy of her degree (at least in my opinion). Also, this is Liara's first space adventure and she pulls off "Naive Savant Girl IN SPACE" better than Tali does and was a pretty good squad mate to have around.

If that had been the end of Liara's story, she would have finished a respectable middle of the pack. In a depressing alternate universe where Mass Effect had no sequels, she would have been 4th out of 6 (and this blog would be much less demanding of my time). But then Mass Effect 2 came out and, over the course of two years, Liara dialed up the awesome to 11.

In between games, she successfully navigated her way through Omega, which is a space station that combines the criminal elements of The Godfather with the anarchy of Lord of Flies. In Omega, there is only one rule: sucks to your assmar! In the process of screwing with the most powerful crime lords in the galaxy and allying with a more different kind of crime lord, she also made a mortal enemy of the Shadow Broker, who has all the power myths the CIA gets attributed with but on a galactic scale and is actually real. And why did she do all of that? Just to save Shepard's body so that he could come back and play the rest of Mass Effect 2. Without Liara, Mass Effect 2 would just be an incredibly detailed Dying of Asphyxiation in the Vacuum of Space Simulator.

Admittedly, the Dying of Asphyxiation in the Vacuum of Space Simulator genre is very underused.
But wait, it gets better from there. She somehow establishes herself as the best information broker (read: spy) on Illium (read: New York City but with more blue ladies) and intimidates her rivals by quoting her mother's pre-boss battle dialogue at them. So not only has her character significantly developed, but now she's chastising other characters in the game for not playing Mass Effect 1 so they could appreciate her awesome references. Liara is meta-badass. Most shocking of all, Liara has developed a sense of humor between games!

As a final cherry on top, Liara is also responsible for what many people consider to be the best DLC add-on ever made (in the prestigious six year history of DLC): The Lair of the Shadow Broker. In this add-on, you quit talking about how much Liara wants to get revenge on the Shadow Broker and actually go track him down and crack some heads in the process! I don't want to spoil things for you, but there are hover car chases, burning buildings, fighting robots across a spaceship while its flying around in a perpetual lightning storm, and finally, out-Shadow-Brokering the Shadow Broker. But then it turns out that Shadow Brokers operate under the same principle as the immortals from Highlander and, by killing him, Liara has gained his powers and becomes the new Shadow Broker.

2. Garrus Vakarian (Mass Effect & Mass Effect 2)

How do you beat dialing it up to 11? DIAL IT UP TO 12!
 There are two types of people in this world: people who recognize how awesome is and people who haven't played Mass Effect. In Mass Effect 1, he's a space cop with a nose for rooting out corruption. But he's a loose cannon and his chief is going to take his space badge, except that Garrus is the best damn officer in the force. He's heading an incredibly unpopular investigation into Saren, a fellow Turian is a Spectre/Primary Antagonist of Mass Effect 1. But Garrus doesn't care about nationalism (species-alism? planet-alism? I don't know), he cares about justice! Damn the bureaucrats and politicians, he's going to spend his furlough shooting robots and exploding space monsters. All the while, he's wearing what can only be described as a "Space Monocle." Why? Because he's so hardcore, the only person who is enough of a badass to inspire Garrus is Theodore Roosevelt, who boxed daily and invented college sports and national parks. But Garrus still takes time out of his busy schedule to track down a crooked plastic surgeon who escaped him years earlier and fled into no man's land. Why? Because Garrus didn't want anyone to think that trillions of miles can protect them from his Righteous Monocle of Space Justice.

"Hopelessly outnumbered, surrounded and about to die? Eh, I've had worse."
After Mass Effect 1, Garrus returns to life on the Citadel and examines his life. In a moment of intense self-reflection, he determines that his problem is that there are times in his life when he's not fighting crime or crushing the wicked and eliminates them all together. He quits the Space Police and travels to Omega. There he becomes a masked vigilante who leads a group of like-minded individuals on a never-ending war against crime. That's right, he went from being Dirty Harry in Space to becoming Space Batman, but with a more respectable voice. Naturally, it's only a matter of time before his group is tragically betrayed from within. Does Garrus get all mopey? Nope! He gets explodey and cuts off all but one entrance into his base.Then he holds off no less than three entire companies of mercenaries all by himself. Eventually, the mercenaries are like "Screw this noise. Initiate Operation Cannon Fodder" and start hiring random thugs off the street to distract Garrus while the real soldiers try to explode his face with a combination of subtlety, espionage and helicopter rockets. And even though they succeed in blowing up his face, all that does is make Garrus angry (and give him some truly badass scars).

I am vengeance. I am the night. I AM... GARRUS!
Now, if you were a pansy like Harvey Dent, you might let an incident like mobsters blowing up half your face and killing everyone you cared about destroy your beliefs and turn you into a bipolar supervillain. But not Garrus Vakarian! Being a true student of badassery, he decides to dedicate his life to revenge against the one guy who betrayed him, Sidonis. Living for revenge is the fundamental principle of badassery. If you're a paragon Shepard (or anyone who appreciates quality writing), then you can actually interfere with Garrus' perfectly planned revenge killing. That may seem anti-badass, but it shows Garrus that Sidonis is forever haunted by the faces of the men he betrayed and that letting him live is a far worse punishment. And Garrus is enough of a badass to not be able to pull the trigger when he realizes that is the ultimate form of revenge.

There is only one thing better than a badass. And that's a badass with a heart of gold. These are almost impossible to find because you have to carefully balance the amount of damns you give. With Garrus, there are two prime examples. The first is from the excellent Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC. You find out that Garrus' sister thinks he's a good for nothing layabout who quit the police force while their mother is suffering from an incurable terminal disease. What does Garrus do? He uses his friendship with Mordin to donate some of the bodies of the alien monsters he's killed to a medical facility. In exchange, the medical facility puts his mother into one of the trials for a cure to the disease. And he does all of this anonymously. Next, there's his romance with the Lady Shepard. Not being a Lady Shepard myself, I feel it would be irresponsible of me to say that Garrus' effort at romance is one of the sweetest moments in the game. However, I would like to say that it was one of the most emotionally driven moments of the game (skip to 5:38 for the great part).

Garrus, who is the author on the book of badass, is a complete fish out of water when it comes to emotions that don't revolve around revenge, justice, or calibrations. But he wants to. And no amount of Jacob's abs can replace passion.

And your #1 Mass Effect Squad Member is....

1. Urdnot Wrex (Mass Effect & Mass Effect 2)
So true.
Urdnot Wrex is so wildly popular and such a well-written character. He has so many memorable moments in Mass Effect that he makes even the horribly long elevator rides enjoyable. In fact, rather than talk about how great he is, I'm going to show you a compilation of his best small talk.

The best part of that is when he smacks down Kaidan down for being such a whiny wimp every single time they ride in an elevator together. Wrex is the epitome of the Krogan Warrior culture. He's one of the toughest fighters out there, is a powerful biotic, and, in the immortal words of Kenny Rogers, knows when to hold em and knows when to fold em. When his confidence was betrayed, he revenge killed the other Krogan during the ambush with nothing but a knife and still escaped with his life. Wrex can bring a knife to a gunfight and still win! But that would only make Wrex a very good character, not the best.

Wrex may be the epitome of a warrior culture, but he's smart enough to realize how that culture is flawed. He knows that if the Krogan keep fighting everyone else's battles, the entire species will be extinct in a generation because of the effects of the genophage. Wrex may be a badass, but he's a badass with a cause: the preservation of his people. Wrex is shrewd, but he loses it when it comes to the fate of his people. See what happens when he finds out that Saren has a cure for the genophage.

What is best in life? That's a stupid question to ask.
That's right! He pulls a gun on the main character. Sure, only one of them has an infinite amount of saved games to reload from, but he doesn't care. He'll take his chances to save his people. If Wrex survives (which he will, if you have any appreciation for conserving endangered awesome), he re-evaluates his life after Mass Effect 1, much like Garrus. However, unlike Garrus, Wrex determines that his problem is he's not king of his own planet and he's not leading the Krogan Renaissance himself (the Krogan Renaissance features less frescoes and more breeding/unification of warring clans). He even gets himself a Conan-style stone throne to sit upon and look bored. By Mass Effect 2, he's made his clan the most powerful not only through strength of arms, but also by being the most cunning diplomats and laying out a legitimate strategy to rebuild the Krogan population without sacrificing an individual clan's identity. Plus, he has the best reason of any of your old squadmates to not rejoin the crew in Mass Effect 2. He can't help you save your people from possible extinction because he's too busy leading his people from certain extinction. He raises a good point.

Last, but certainly not least, I found a picture of Wrex wearing a top hat and a monocle while gathering pictures for this update. It is too cool not to share with you.

"My name is Lord Wrexington of Urdnotshire. You shall prove yourself worthy of my command if you can successfully debate me on the ethics, merits, and consequences of xeno-industrialization in a post-contact society mired in pre-commercial technology. Good show!"
That concludes the Top 16 Mass Effect Squad Members. By this time next week, parts of this list will be obsolete. Hurray! However, I feel confident in saying that nothing can knockWrex and Garrus from the top two and nothing can save Jacob and Kaidan from the bottom two. At least, I hope not.

On an unrelated note, I never want to write a blog post this long again. Your ocular fortitude is to be praised if you read all of this in one sitting.


Cloud said...

Awesome read! I must say man, the Ashley section has me, again, doubting my decision to save Kaidan in ME1. But consequences are consequences and I am forcing myself to play ME3 the first time with the original decisions I made along the way. If I had only read this blog before landing on Virmire all those years ago! In 2007 I just thought Ashley was kind of a bitch especially to Liara and I really liked Liara. Also since I play as a soldier, Ashley was useless as a squadmate. But hey, gives me another reason to play all 3 again when I'm done.

Dan Jones said...

Man I don't think that you give Ashley enough credit. She should be #1 if you ask me.

But seriously, she may not be all that bad after all. This has swayed my view of her somewhat. I just think that the whole "Warrior Poet" thing is as old as King David, and te restoring honor to the family name may just be as old. If they had you write for her character, however, she may still be alive in my save games.

Hunter Barry said...

Thanks for the compliment, Dandroid. Someone forward this to BioWare!

Charles McReary said...

I get that its your list. You see things differently. That's what makes Mass Effect great is that you can play it your own way. But Ashley is irredeemable. She's as boring as Kaidan and Jacob, has a boring background (great, you're devoted to your family. I get it), and is a huge racist. Plus, she has a one-night stand with James Vega, the worst character of all time.

TL;DR Fuck Ashley.

Charles McReary said...

Almost forgot, when you meet her in ME 2, she says "Wahhh Wahhh I don't like Cerberus. I don't care if you're doing what you have to because I see in black and white. I have literally no reason not to join you but I'm going to whine and walk away after inexplicably surviving being paralyzed by the Collectors" At least other squadmates have their reasons. Liara is looking for revenge against a man who's tortured her friend for two years and Wrex is rebuilding a broken civilization. Ash's excuse is "I'm an Alliance soldier. Even after Virmire, I don't understand the necessity of sacrifice"