Mass Effect – An Amazing Space Opera With Some Narrative and Cinematic Choppiness

mass-effect

     I am a huge fan of science fiction. That has most likely been made pretty obvious though, given the amount of times a sci. fi. film has made my “Top 5 Films” of the year, the videogames I’ve reviewed thus far and my favorite shows (which also tend to be sci. fi.). “Mass Effect” is an amazing Space Opera that before I upgraded my computer, I’d only played bits and pieces at friends’ houses. Doing a run through on my own, gave me an even greater appreciation for this game and also made the flaws it have more apparent too.

    The series was created by Bioware and easily their best game since “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.” Another Western RPG that this game develops in play style and types of choices further.

   So without further ado I’ll get into the review, first with a basic overview of the story:

       It is the future and thanks to ancient Prothean technology called Mass Relays, The Alliance (humanity) has joined the Galactic World at the Citadel. There is lots of tension though as the First Contact War of Humans against Turians (one of the council races) wasn’t that long ago leading to mistrust on both sides. Commander Shepard is the first to discover an ancient threat though as the rogue Specter Saren is using the robotic Geth to track down Prothean technology and to destroy humanity.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

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The World – The world is the best part of this series. This is a rich universe full of different factions from the Citadel, The Alliance, Cerberus, the Quarians, the Protheans, The Geth and the Reapers to name a few. Each as a unique drive that drives the story and Shepard’s relationship with them.

The Species – There are a ton of Species but I’m going to focus on the big ones. You have the ancient Asari who are biotics (telepaths) the Turians who are the militaristic reptilians, the Salarians who are the brains, the Quarians who are the survivors and travelers who were kicked out by their creations…the Geth. There are also the Krogans who were used by the Citadel to fight a greater threat known as the Rachni but eventually the Citadel Races put the Krogans down to stop them from becoming the next big threat.

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The Lore – The lore is beautiful and amazing! We get to learn how the Prothean’s were wiped out by the Reapers (Who have returned again via Soveriegn to continue the cycle of destruction of organic life) and within the lore we have reason to care because of the characters we meet.

The Characters – The characters are the driving factor, just as they were in “KOTOR,” Bioware knows characters. Most of the villains were sympathetic and the heroes were all given their own levels of complexity. An RPG is the art of interactive storytelling and this game put me in the world and got me to care about these characters.

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Saren – Saren is the overall villain who makes a deal with Sovereign in order to save organics from the Reapers as he sees their survival in their subjugation. I felt bad for the guy as you get why he hates people (most are racist in this Universe and the First Contact War was against his people). He is still receptive though and I was able to save him even though Sovereign resurrected his body for the final fight.

Matriarch Benezia – Marina Sirtis (Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation) plays the Matriarch who originally worked with Sovereign to influence him but soon found that he and the ship were controlling her as all they have her do blows up in her face. She is tragic in this way as she is a strong character who became so broken by the Reapers. She is an Asari.

Captain Kirrahe – This guy is one of my favorite minor characters! He’s part of an infiltration team and helps you take out Saren’s Krogan army. He has an epic war speech and trusts you. I had nothing but respect for this character.

Captain Anderson – Anderson is fantastic and is the smart military man who is anti-politics. He is your Captain until you are promoted and get the Normandy (your ship). He is a constant ally as the council and Alliance Ambassador are always trying to control you (more so Udina the Ambassador rather than the Council…until the end).

Joker – Joker is a lot of fun. He is the anti-authority pilot who has trouble walking and has a major chip on his shoulder but comes around to liking you when you show how much you care. He was a great character and a memorable pilot.

Wrex – Wrex is a Krogan mercenary who is a lot of fun! He’s a tank and he and Tali were my mains until I finally did the quest that gave me Liara. After that she was my Biotic support and I became the tank. Wrex is cynical and fun and really cares deeply about his people. He is also blunt too and it makes his interactions with the other characters fun. There was no way  I was going to let Ashley kill this guy.

Garrus – Garrus is so much fun! He’s a C-Sec beat cop who doesn’t like the rules. You help him take out a serial killing mad scientist and it is great seeing him get revenge. He was the guy I enjoyed talking to the most. He is a Turian.

Tali – Tali is the tech. and Quarian and was the one person who stayed on my squad the entire time. She’s super expressive and brilliant and it was fascinating seeing how her pilgrimage and proving herself to her father (one of the fleet Admirals on the Flotilla) was a main drive. She was one of my favorite characters.

Liara – Liara is Benezia’s daughter and a scholar who studies the Protheans. She is socially awkward and it is wonderful. She like Tali is one of my favorite characters and her melds with you help you understand the Reaper threat.

Alien Relations – The relation between the different species is handled really well…from the Council distrusting humans, to the tension between Turians and humans, and the other species and the Krogans. This is a world that feels lived in and real.

Okay: Kaiden – Kaidan is a jerk until he opens up that he was a biotic experiment. He still isn’t the easiest to get to know but it was still a hard choice to save him or Ashley. He was a fellow soldier and in the game I did everything I could to try and save both before I had to make the choice for good.

Ashley – Ashley had a rough life and is a bit of a racist against aliens. I liked her openness on her family life but a relationship wasn’t going to happen, even though the game seemed to really want to make it happen. She was still a good friend just one that had a lot of growing up to do and thankfully we do see her learn over the course of the game.

Paragon v Renegade  – You act like a Paladin or Jerk and there isn’t really a middle ground. Bioware tends to do this and I’m not the biggest fan. I like the grey choices and this game didn’t have many of those.

The Cons: Ambassador Udina – Udina is a jerk and it was an easy choice putting Anderson on the Council over him. Udina turns on you the moment he gets power from the Council and is a complete tool. There is nothing likeable about him.

Choppy Cinematics – There are a few choppy cinematics…especially in early appearances of Saren, it feels unfinished in that way though the final fight with the fleet destroying Sovereign is fantastic.

The Mako – The Mako sucks as a vehicle. I got adept at using it eventually but it still was so hard to control and the worst gameplay. Some vehicle sections go on a bit too long as well.

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 The Path I Took With Kengin Smith – Kengin is the name I tend to choose in RPGs or as a gamer tag. It was inspired by a fictional character I created in a series I’m working on so of course I chose that name this time. I chose soldier as my starting type since I tend to choose soldier or Paladin in RPGs. Overall I played as a Paragon, with only a few times going Renegade, I saved the Rachni Queen, saved Wrex and talked him down from going against us to save the Krogans, I let Kaidan die to save Ashley and turned down a relationship with her when I realized it was turning into a relationship and just wanted to stay friends. I chose Anderson for the Council and saved the Council too. For a first playthrough I did zero of the romance options. Curious to see how these choices play out further down the line…they were fun choices to make.

      This is a game that is well worth your time if you are a fan of Western RPGs and Science Fiction. The creators in Bioware clearly cared about the subject matter and it was so much fun. I hadn’t binged a game for some time and this game had me pulled in enough that I couldn’t stop playing. I like the fact that I can transfer over the choices I made into the future games and I can’t wait to return to this world again, as I have already payed some of “Mass Effect 2” and “Mass Effect 3” in the past (though only parts, haven’t played from beginning to end). I do wish Shepard could be more than just a human as the different species are a lot more interesting than humanity in any sci. fi. that has more than humans in it. Still, “Andromeda” will get that chance.

Final Score: 8.2 / 10

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“Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” Retrospect – Good Ideas and Characters Killed by a Cliffhanger

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     “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” is a good show at the end of the day. It is a show with a lot of missed potential, especially in how it handled it’s ending and some of the mythology, but what it does right it does really well. This is something that can’t be said for some shows that got canceled, like “Helix” where they clearly had no idea where they were going. This show at least looks like it was going somewhere, it just never got the chance to complete the thoughts and the writers clearly assumed they had more time than they did.

    Without further ado, here is what I thought worked and didn’t work about the show.

The Pros: Jesse – Jesse was a really cool character, as we see she worked with Machines in the past and only turned on them and didn’t trust them after they kept her from communicating directly with John Connor and when the T-1001 killed members of her crew. Her story is a tragedy and I hope she is still out there somewhere fighting Skynet in this universe.

Agent Ellison – Ellison was my favorite character on the show. He was a man of faith who taught John Henry (an A.I. using the body of a Terminator who’d hunted him) morals and in the end almost develop a friendship. He is a father figure to both him and Savannah and the kindest character as we see him help the Connors and get the FBI off their trail as his investigation leads to him believing in what Sarah Connor was saying.

Catherine Weaver – Catherine Weaver is the T-1001 that killed the crew on the sub and turns things on it’s head when she offers John the chance for an alliance when she is the one with the power. She is a fascinating character as she disregards life for the big picture and her drive is to create an A.I. who will look after the 3rd Faction and find some peace with humanity too. To this end she created John Henry through Project Babylon. Eventually she travels with John into the future too.

John Henry – John Henry is a powerful A.I. who is a child and who is friends with Savannah and Ellison. He is good at his core and is innocence. This is one reason I’m curious why he jumped to the future…is that where his brother Skynet is located? His drive before the end was to find and meet up with his brother.

Cameron – Cameron’s arc is dealing with her feelings for John and making her own way. At times it looks like she is a member of the 3rd Faction, for example when Allison is used as her template to get close to John…but she also turns down Catherine Weaver’s offer. In this we see that she can lie, have sensation but at the core does what is in the best interest of John Connor. She is his protector, the way the T-800 was in “Terminator 2.” Summer Glau does an amazing job.

Sarah Connor – Lena Heady does an amazing job as Sarah Connor! Her Sarah Connor is raw and dealing with trying to raise a child knowing the end is coming and knowing he’s destined for a future she doesn’t fully understand. To this end we see her mess up a lot, but always come through for John…in the end she is even able to let go as she lets John Time Travel as she knows she can’t take any more unknowns.

John Connor – John Connor goes from a teen running from his future to a guy embracing it after he has lost so much and realizes that the only thing he can count on is himself and the choices he makes. He becomes a good leader in this and we see him put his life on the line countless times for others and able to work with anyone be they Terminator or human.

The 3rd Faction – The 3rd Faction fascinates me. They want to fight Skynet but also be respected too as they attempt to make their own life. Cameron is a part of them and Catherine Weaver is one of their leaders…John Henry is their attempt to have full freedom and agency too since it is a learning A.I. that is seeking to be human and more, while Skynet is like a virus infecting computer systems and seeking control.

The Cons: The Cliffhanger – John Connor and Weaver travel to the future, Ellison and Sarah Connor stay behind. John Connor meets his Dad and Derek, and what time are we in exactly?

Riley – Riley was a plot device who eventually became a character and died. When she did become a character she was someone going against what she was being trained to do, and that made her interesting…but her being a post-apocalyptic refugee was never fully explored. How does someone feral come back to being human? The show never tackled that.

Derek Reese – The guy was a dick who I couldn’t stand for most of the time and the fact that he might have killed the woman he loves damns him in my book. He was forgiven for killing his best friend in the future, Jesse deserves the same…especially since everything she did was in self-defense. Did not miss this character when he died as that single episode destroyed what good will he’d managed to build up.

Unanswered Questions – There are a lot of unanswered questions. Where was Skynet during all of the events that they sent killers? Where was John Henry’s brother? What future did Catherine and John travel too? What does the 3rd Faction want?

     There was a lot that worked with this series, which is why I won’t pan it. It’s a fun adventure and a good character series even if there were some characters like Derek Reese or Riley who I never felt fully worked and only really served their function in the story by dying. No show should have characters that exist only for that purpose but this one did and that is part of what brought it down. If you like “Terminator 2” you will probably like this show, it captures a lot of what made that film good in how it handles characters, Skynet and choice.

Final Score: 8.1 / 10

K-PAX (2001): The Power of an Outsider

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  “K-PAX” is a good film. It’s not a favorite film as at times it was a little confusing and it could sometimes be slow, but it has some great character development, fascinating situations and the acting is really good. It is definitely a sci. fi. worth watching and the premise itself is very intriguing.

     The film was directed by Iain Softley, written by Charles Leavitt and produced by Robert Colesberry, Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin and is based off the book of the same name by Gene Brewer.

     The story involves a man named Prot (Kevin Spacey) who believes himself to be an alien from the world of K-Pax. The story unfolds as he is taken into an asylum where he is treated by Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges). Prot changes the people in the asylum and Mark has he provides insights some of which he would only know if he was alien as Mark seeks to discover the traumatic event that Prot refuses to speak about that drives the story forward.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – Edward Shearmur did a fantastic job giving the soundtrack a sci. fi. and introspective feel. I liked how it helped us see the world through Prot’s eyes and showed us just how alien the world felt to him.

The Cinematography – John Mathieson did a wonderful job on the cinematography. Everything feels like it is a surreal dream, which I think is purposeful since so much of the film is from Prot’s perspective and how he makes others change their perspective. There are lots of moments of stark contrast but also soft scenes that contrast the use of dark and light.

The Members of the Asylum – The Asylum is a fascinating place as the people there aren’t bad. Mental illness is not presented in a negative light which was great as it humanized the flawed people. There is Bess who leaves at the end, a man who thinks everything stinks, the man who is afraid of things that can kill him and the one who Prot puts in charge and gives tasks too. All of them have a humanity to them and a stark way of expressing themselves contrasted with the Doctors and Prot who are all very reserved.

Prot – Prot is a great character. He is an alien from K-PAX (the film establishes this based on people’s reaction to when he is Robert Porter again) and we get the story of how he came to Earth. It was to save Robert’s life as Robert was his friend whose family was murdered by a killer. All of this we learn over time through the eyes of Mark Powell who is the Doctor treating Prot. It’s a sad story and we see how kind Prot is in how he wants everyone to heal and to live. All the actions he does at the Asylum help the inmates to feel joy and to get out of their routine. When he leaves it is felt by all and Kevin Spacey does a masterful job in the role.

Mark Powell – Jeff Bridges is the Doctor who ends up believing Prot while at the same time seeking out the story of his host. He learns about the tragedy of Robert Porter and takes care of Porter after. He is also alienated from his family and obsessed with his work until Prot reminds him that he only has so long to live so should make the choices in life that build relationships with those you care about, not destroy or alienate them. At the end we see he understands this as he cares for the catatonic Robert Porter.

The Message – The message is to remember to connect with others and to make choices that bring about healing in yourself and those around you. Everything Prot does is to this end and we see that his saving Robert’s life has given him happiness even if he can’t express it at the end. We only have so much time alive, so make the most of all relationships.

The Ending  – Prot leaves at the end in a ray of light leaving Robert Porter’s body who is alive now and catatonic. The inmates whisper about it and it is very mysterious and reminded me a lot of “The Green Mile.” I enjoyed the ending too as Mark’s last act is reestablishing his relationship once more with his son.

The Cons: The Other Doctors – The other Doctors are pretty bland don’t feel all that fleshed out. They don’t really have much power as agents either as everything they do is a reaction to Prot or Mark which I disliked since there quite a few of them that appeared throughout the film consistently…but we learned nothing about them or their motivations.

Mark’s Family – Mark’s family has the same problem as the Doctors. I had no idea what they wanted besides time with Mark and they felt like they were needed so that Prot’s point would be stronger about relationships mattering, but I didn’t care about them. I knew and cared about Robert’s family than I did them since Robert’s backstory of working at a slaughterhouse and the dreams he shared with Prot were much more compelling.

Pacing – The pacing was very slow which at times was good for the introspective moments but there were many times I had to make sure I knew what was going on as it was too slow to fully register a sequence of events that had just occurred. This film could have been much faster, had more character actions and it would have been better for it. The only really fast moment were when the members of the Asylum reacted and when Prot panics when Mark’s kids are playing in the water and he thinks they’re going to drown.

“K-PAX” is a movie worth seeing. The ideas are good, the main characters are great and Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges are truly phenomenal. Just know that the minor characters who aren’t inmates in the Asylum are really bland and that the pacing doesn’t help. These are the reasons why that even though I liked the film, I cannot consider it a favorite or great overall. It is a good film though and there is a lot of like in it, even with the problems it has.

Final Score: 8.2 / 10

Carnivale – Season 1, Episode 4 – “Black Blizzard” – Power and Responsibility

Carnivale Black Blizzard     “Black Blizzard” is the episode of “Carnivale” that establishes a great world but also leaves questions open. Characters make choices or choose not to make choices and we are hinted at that this will have lasting consequences later. The main choice makers of this episode are Samson, Sofie, Justin Crowe, Ben and Jonesy.

The episode was written by William Schmidt and directed by Peter Medak.

The premise is Sofie goes into town to hook up and Lodz takes Ben out to train his abilities while Samson is entertaining a prostitute and leaves Jonesy when one of his workers visits, In all cases a giant dust storm hits keeping them trapped in their locations and having to make a choice.

Here is the assessment of the episode:

The Pros: The Tone – The tone and feel of having to make a choice is really strong in this episode and the dust storm facilitates that drama really well. We learn more about characters…both the good and the bad about them, mostly the bad as fears override their better natures.

Professor Lodz – Brings Ben out to train him and we learn he gave up his sight to see the future, for what little power he has he was willing to sacrifice so much. He is able to convince Ben to stop the storm briefly, but when Ben gives into to fear and denies his power they are back where they started. He hasn’t given up yet though, since he knows trouble is coming in Babylon.

Ben – Doesn’t want the power and when he uses it, denies it. We see someone who wants to be normal more than anything else and wants to remain invisible. This is a shame since he could make such a difference but at this point cannot see beyond himself and he chooses that place.

Samson – Samson is revealed to be quite prideful and selfish. I still find the character compelling and if acts differently later may like him again, but he uses the prostitute he was entertaining profession against her when one his workers hooks up with her. He is shown to be quite low and wants to shame her because of how small he feels inside thinking they had something special…when they did, but he blows it with his small mindedness. She tells him at the end, not to come by again.

Jonesy – Is left in charge and protects them all from the storm really well, but uses the key to see the Manager but finds no one there. He doesn’t trust Samson after that and throws the keys at him. The mysterious Management still remains mysterious.

Sofie – Sofie goes into town and hooks up when given the chance. She feels nothing during it and regrets it later when she finds out the guy was married (she feels used) and that her mom nearly chocked on the dust without her there. She grows from the experience and we see just how human she is.

Pastor Crowe – Is told by his fellow pastor that he needs to go back to his old church or face termination. He says me must stay and we see he cares for the children and poor. Mysteriously his church gets burned and the children die in the fire. At the end he is devastated and I suspect it was the men who warned him they were going to tear down the neighborhood, his sister who says it happens in a blank voice or one of the pastors. How this changes things with him remains to be seen since he believes God wanted him to build the church and minister to the poor.

Okay: Samson’s motivation – We don’t really get why Samson was so cruel beyond jealousy, this was a shame as he is a dwarf and recognizing him facing prejudice towards him because of this would have gone a long way beyond him just looking like a prick.

This is a must see episode and nearly perfect. It gives us drama, dilemmas and we learn more about characters and their motivations. This is what makes a series great and why I am looking forward to where the series goes if this level of quality continues.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10