Retro Review: Mass Effect 1 is Grindy and Awesome

With Storm Legion just over a week away I’ve spent a lot of time in RIFT lately, but yesterday I felt the urge for something different. It was time to put away modern games and go back to an old classic, Mass Effect 1.

Mass Effect was originally released in 2007, and it certainly feels like a game from a different era. The graphics are old and a little clunky now, of course, but more than that the entire “open world” game design has fallen out of favor in the last few years. Yes, the sequels still followed the adventures of Shepard, space hero and rad person, but the gameplay itself was greatly streamlined. I’m not even sure a game like Mass Effect 1 could be released today, and that makes me a little sad.

How is it different? Well, to start, I haven’t finished the game yet and I’ve already put 58 hours into it according to Steam. In fact I’m not sure I’ve seen even half of the main storyline.

Exploration itself is much more free-form in Mass Effect 1. There are many more worlds to explore, whether it’s via scanning or away team, and it seems to me to have many more spontaneous side quests to go with those worlds. There are collection quests that give you no indication of where the items might be — “we need 8 dog tags from fallen soldiers that are in different places in the universe so good luck” — but reward careful exploration and investigation. And, of course, ME1 allows players to land on planets and explore their surface, whether anything interesting is located there or not.

If that sounds grindy as hell, that’s because it is. Mass Effect 2 streamlined the space exploration by removing the away team aspect and adding an email system, and ME 3 simplified it even more by making scanning for resources fast and easy. Most of the universe is already open to the player right from the start of ME1, whereas in 3 in particular gates much of the space content with quests and additionally discourages players from doing any lingering exploration with the new Reaper radar mechanic.

There’s also a total change in the character of space between the games. In 2 and 3 space is portrayed as a pretty populated place. The world of Mass Effect 1, on the other hand, is much more lonely. Shepard and her team drive around empty planets in the Mako and explore abandoned space pods while eerie, echoey music plays on the soundtrack. I feel much more like an explorer in a dangerous land in the first game. By contrast, Shepard is much more of a space cowboy than an explorer in 2 and 3, finding new races and punching them in the face. Don’t get me wrong — being a space cowboy is great fun, but it’s a huge tone change from the first game.

Speaking of which, the writing has never been better than it was in Mass Effect 1. Characters are flawed without being evil and go through some actual development as the game progresses. Having not played the first game before I finished 2 and 3 I was always kind of sceptical of Liara — bisexual blue alien pleasure race who are all female, huh — but as it turns out I’m quite enjoying her company. The writing feels less shoehorned into a Paragon/Renegade system, and the moral choices are legitimately difficult.

There are certainly things that improved in the Mass Effect franchise as it went along. Inventory management has always kind of been the bane of the series, but 3 arguably had the best system. And of course one of the great things about the series as a whole is the way your choices moved with you through the games, a feature that obviously couldn’t exist for ME1. Squad tactics certainly improved as the series went on, and Garrus got a lot better at shooting things.

Perhaps I’m just missing some obvious titles, but I feel like this game would never be made today. An open world game where the player can decide to totally avoid the main story for a great deal of the time, where the lead character may not get to walk away heroically from an explosion, where there’s no obvious path and the completionist will have to sink tens of hours into puttering around planets in the Mako* checking the map for ore. It’s difficult, it’s gritty, it’s grindy, and it’s one hell of a game.

* Oh, the Mako. I’m fond of it, but it IS like driving a blimp with bad tires.

Cat Context Episode 13: Morality in Games? What a Twist!

Morality is represented in games in many different ways. Sometimes it’s black and white, sometimes it’s difficult nuanced choices, and sometimes you can just put a bucket on a character’s head and do whatever you want. But does making hard choices in a game necessarily mean it’s not fun? Can we accept when a game portrays our actions in an entirely new moral light at the very end? Can there ever truly be a moral dilemma in an MMO?

Morality in games is the topic of the week, including elements from Spec Ops: The Line, Braid, Bioshock, SWTOR, and more. We also touch on the Guild Wars 2 Halloween events, talk about why real life should be more like Heavy Rain, and warn people away from destroying their marriages with Super Mario Bros. Wii.

Aro and That Angry Dwarf were in excellent form this week, with both interesting intellectual contributions and talking about bowls of dicks. Send in a question or comment for the show to and get a free beta key for Paradox’s new RTS, Starvoid!

Some links you might be interested in after listening:

* Extra Credits on Spec Ops: The Line, parts one and two.
* Free Music Archive page for our theme, in THE crowd by The Years


(Don’t forget to leave 5 stars!)

I Don’t Have to be Hot to be Right: hiding from internet sexism

I Don’t Have to be Hot to be Right: hiding from internet sexism

I have lived a lot of my life online, and much of that time was spent trying to hide my body from the internet.

Ten years ago I would routinely Photoshop any exposed photo of me as much as possible. Hips got smaller, boobs got bigger, eyes wider, blemishes disappeared in a blur. I even made my hair more blonde once or twice. I got tired of that, though, after a while. As someone who is essentially pretty honest I was uncomfortable with even minor levels of deception.

After that, instead of creating computer-assisted versions of myself I spent a few years just not existing as a corporeal being on the internet. Photos of me in my early 30s simply do not exist, online or elsewhere. Profile photos on social networks would be a decade old or simply shots of my assorted game characters. I never lied about who I was or what I looked like if someone asked in an appropriate conversation, but I was more than happy to hide behind a monitor otherwise.

There are many reasons I went to such lengths to hide my “real life” self, including just some plain old self esteem issues. I was also incredibly aware of the patriarchal message in our society that women have nothing to contribute except being hot and making babies. Appearance is often the first thing latched onto by trolls and haters when they deal with women, and even as a self-aware feminist it’s hard to ignore the inherent message in “you have made my penis sad and therefore are of no value”.

It’s not good enough to be smart or thoughtful or kind, if you’re not hot to go with it, says popular thought. It was entirely evident that being overweight and not traditionally attractive would cause people to stop taking me seriously, and there is nothing I hate more than being intellectually marginalized.

Perhaps I’ve just gotten older and wiser, or at least less patient with putting up with dumb shit, but in the last few years my body has begun appearing on the internet again. I use real, untouched photos of myself for my social media profiles, and my full name (and with it, my gender) is very easy for anyone to find. I even appeared on camera during our live podcast at PAX Prime earlier this year, and while it made me a little nervous I was pleased that it didn’t stop me from trying something new.

In fact, it was about two days after posting the livecast video and mentioning that I was writing for RiftJunkies now that a comment arrived in my email. It said, “RiftJunkies must be really fucking desperate to hire a fat chick. No one cares what you say.” I wrote back a carefully manufactured “lol, wutever” response, but truth be told I was momentarily devastated. There it was, the reaction I had been dreading all along. No one cares, old fat lady. Go home.

(This was particularly exacerbated by the fact that the dude who sent this email then proceeded to follow me around the internet for a while posting the same thing whenever he felt like it, as though I might forget my status as useless unattractive woman and start thinking that my opinion mattered.)

I put it aside and tried to keep pluggin’ on until I saw this great tweet by Very Lemonade which I included at the start of this post. Then I got really, really angry.

Hey dude who wrote me and all other dudes who have done the same thing to other women (and there are many of them): fuck you. Fuck you for implying that women have to reach some standard of penis-pleasing to write about video games, of all things. Fuck you for not attacking me for what I say or what I do, or for any metric to which I can respond. Fuck you for being an asshole.

There are professions and hobbies where physical appearance is a critical element of doing a good job (model being the obvious one) and enjoying and writing about video games is so far from that, it’s laughable. Asshole Dudes, you might think you’re chasing icky girls out of your hobbies by following them around demanding sexual gratification in some way, and sadly in some cases you’re probably right. In other cases though.. cases like mine.. you’re just making us more determined to be involved in our hobbies, if for no other reason than saving women in the future from having to put up with the same bullshit.

How to Raid More Seriously as a Guild, or Life After Casual

A couple of weeks ago I got into a discussion with someone who was struggling with running a casual guild and yet wanting said guild to perform more professionally in raids. I’ve seen similar discussions going on quite a bit lately, particularly in the wake of Pandaria. So how do you convince your guild to focus more on raids without becoming a shouty jerk?

As someone who built a guild from a couple of low level characters hanging out in Stormwind to a fairly capable 25-man heroic raid team, I have some definite opinions on the matter. Here’s my advice.

Reconcile your vision with reality

Perhaps no word in the MMO gamer’s vocabulary has been more up for debate than “casual”. The dictionary defines it as “without serious intention”, and without veering too much into an unwinnable argument I think that jibes with what most MMO players mean when they say the word, whether the intention is in regards to time or effort.

Do you want your guild to raid “without serious intention”? There’s nothing wrong with that. Lots of guilds have a primary goal of hanging out, and any bosses they kill are just bonus. But if you want your guild to focus more and thereby accomplish more with their raid time.. well, that’s probably antithetical to a lack of serious intent. Being on time, being flasked, making sure the guild has raid food — all those things require effort. They require being less casual.

Now, this certainly is not to say that you need to start implementing crazy mandatory attendance rules or performance standards! Think about the casual elements of your guild that you enjoy and value. Is it bringing people who are not always optimal, but are nice? Maybe it’s being flexible with that guy who can only show up at the last minute, or not worrying about specs. The good news is that you don’t have to change any of those things that you enjoy! In fact, I’d advise against it. Don’t throw out your guild’s identity for a little more raid success.

By this point you might be thinking, “Okay fine Liore! I’ll stop calling my guild “casual”! So what?” Well, I’m glad you asked.

Reconcile your guild with your vision

When you call your guild “casual”, most people immediately think of some variation of “lack of seriousness”. This is particularly true when that term is coming from the guild leadership, who are responsible for setting the vision and timbre of the guild. It will potentially confuse new members who thought they were joining a casual raid guild but are now getting some social pressure to show up with flasks and buff food.

One of the biggest problems that a guild can encounter, in my opinion, is discordance between what the members expect from a guild and what they actually get. I’ve read literally hundreds of posts on official forums written by people who thought they were joining a progression guild but nothing ever dies, or vice versa. Clearly communicating your expectations is a fundamental way to ensure a good match between you and your members.

So: want your guildies to stop treating raids so casually? Stop telling them that you’re casual. In my case, I switched to the similar-yet-different “casualcore” which was a nice balance between relaxed and serious, but there are many different ways to communicate a more considered attitude towards raiding.

Start right now, today, by being totally transparent with your goals and desires. Waiting until after the raid to grumble in officer chat about the lack of preparation (and man, I have been there) is just going to create a bad vibe for everyone. Instead, consider sharing something like, “We’re still the same loveable guild we always were, but if we want to kill some bosses then we’re gonna have to show up on time, and I’m going to expect that from now on for people who want to raid.”

There is absolutely the possibility that your guild will completely reject your motivation to kill bosses as something that they’re not interested in. If the vast majority of your guild rejects it, then at least you’ll know not to ever expect a higher level of attention to raids and you can stop worrying about it.

The “too long, didn’t read” version of this all is: Sort out your own priorities, and then communicate them effectively to your guild. That includes making expectations clear and using the right language when you talk about your guild. If you want to be less lackadaisical about right nights, then stop pretending you don’t care. There is, in fact, life after casual.

Cat Context Podcast: Sleep Is Clearly Not An Option

After playing video games for 24 hours for Extra Life you’d think myself and That Angry Dwarf would want to go to bed, but no, we had to podcast first! The well-slept Arolaide was also in the house and shared her expertise on Guild Wars 2 crafting, dye collection, and the gem market. We also discussed the joys of gun collecting in Borderlands 2, the terrors of The Walking Dead, and the masochism of I Wanna Be The Guy Gaiden. Also for some reason we all started playing different Assassin’s Creed titles in the last 24 hours.

It’s the regular team this week: myself, Arolaide, and That Angry Dwarf. We are also on the cusp of audio quality nirvana, except this week my mic was screwed. Sorry. :(

Some links you might be interested in after listening:

* Good With Beer is a Guild Wars 2 Chef helper that searches on both ingredient and recipe.
* The Dyealogue is a searchable and filterable catalogue of dyes in Guild Wars 2, with color swatches at a glance.
* Free Music Archive page for our theme, in THE crowd by The Years


(Don’t forget to leave 5 stars!)

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