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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Contact (1997): Better Use of Characters But Better Point in the Book

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    We continue Sci. Fi. Movie Week with the before the last film we’ll be covering. That film we’ll be covering is “Contact.” “Contact” is an interesting film to review. I liked it, though the director putting it in Carl Sagan’s honor while presenting a message at the end that contradicted the point the book and Sagan’s work felt like it missed the point. First off, Carl Sagan is one of my favorite people…but wasn’t that good of a fiction writer. Contact the novel was very detached so it was hard to get invested in the interesting things that were happening. The film is very different from that and you care about the main characters…though I think Sagan’s point in the book comes out much stronger versus the film where the message is a bit muddled and not entirely clear in it’s execution.

     The film was directed by Robert Zemeckis who was also one of the producers and written by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg. The other producer was Steve Starkey. The story was by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, which I am glad about as it’s Sagan’s story so at least his core points were able to get through than if he hadn’t been a part of the process.

     The premise of “Contact” is that Ellie (Jodie Foster) is seeking alien life in the Universe but is having to fight for it every step of the way as funding for SETI gets pulled by her boss Drumlin. She finds away around it as she gets funding to use some government radio telescopes and right when she is about to lose it an alien signal is heard and contact made. From here the story unfolds as there is a rush to interpret the message as religious and political factions seek to use it to their gain. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is clear and captures the sense of wonder and personal trials of the characters really well. It reminds me of “Apollo 13.” Don Burgess truly did an amazing job on this film.

Theodore Arroway – David Morse is back and fantastic (really liked his performance in the “Green Mile”) and in this he’s great as Ellie’s father who inspires her to look towards finding life in space and becoming a scientist…and whose death makes it hard for her to be in relationships as she was not able to save him. I wish we’d seen more of his character as he did not get enough screen time.

Palmer Ross – Matthew McConaughey plays Ellie’s love and the other side of the coin in the debate between religion and science. His arguments aren’t great but his coming from a place of emotion and connection (reason he doesn’t support her going on the mission is fear of losing her) are a nice contrast to Ellie’s fear of connecting to people. He is the person who connects to people easily and it’s because of the language and emphasis on religion. He goes from religious to agnostic religious as he trusts Ellie’s experience of meeting the aliens. Ellie’s arc goes in the other direction.

Kent Clark – William Fichtner is good as a blind SETI scientist who is one of Ellie’s major support folks and is the one fighting at the front lines for her for the first half of the movie. He kind of disappears later, which is a shame as he’s a great neurotic scientist who adds character to every scene he’s in.

Ellie Arroway – Jodie Foster is great in this as she’s a character who has trouble connecting to others because of the loss of her father but over the course of making contact with the aliens is able to heal from that and to understand the perspective of faith a little more. She’s an active character and her flashbacks lend to her present as we see how rich her relationship was with her dad.

First Contact – Ellie meets the aliens after the first machine gets destroyed by a religious fanatic, killing the original pilot but a secret base gives her the chance to finally go. The machine creates a wormhole and she talks to an alien who takes the form of her father and tells her that they do this will all species but not all species make it here. It’s a cool scene and the world they are in feels alien and unreal the entire time. The feel of the aliens is very true to the book.

The Cons: The Antagonists – There is a religious fanatic, militaristic government official and Ellie’s boss who are just one dimensional villains. This is where the problem in the book “Contact” really comes out as these simple caricatures only disprove the points they try and make which makes Ellie look good even if she’s acting from a place without evidence. I really didn’t like that. James Woods is even one of the folks but how they were written cannot save this film and it’s one of the biggest reasons I can’t consider this film great or a favorite. They are used to prop up the directors point and because they are unfair antagonists Ellie looks noble in all her actions no matter how stupid said actions may be. Not going to list their names since they don’t function as characters, just plot devices to advance Ellie’s plot and the director’s point.

Who Needs Evidence – At the end after Ellie has visited the aliens, everyone things she was lying because there was only static and the pod just fell through the machine. Rather than seeking evidence to prove what she experienced and prove intelligence in the universe she falls back on the faith argument which completely ruins her point and why she doesn’t believe in God and is an agnostic. This really annoyed me as Sagan was writing from his own perspective of skepticism and agnosticism in his novel and the director completely missed that point. Experience is good and should be valued but that wasn’t the point of Sagan’s book or his shows and work.

     This is a movie worth seeing, and it is a good. The main issues I have though is how the scientific process gets ignored in the end when so much of Jodie’s arc is fighting for that and helping others to recognize that what she found is based in the scientific process. The acting is good though and is the greatest thing that makes it better than the book, where the detachment from the characters really made it hard to care about them. If you want a movie that captures wonder, check it out. The cinematography does a good job at capturing that, even if it does get a bit sidetracked at the end. Glad this movie got made and grateful that it was made in honor of Carl Sagan, one of the greatest scientists who has lived.

Final Score: 8.4 / 10. Solidly good and actors and cinematography elevate a script that has issues in it’s point and execution.

Star Trek Original Pilot: The Cage – Before there was Captain Kirk

The Cage

“The Cage,” what an interesting animal. It encapsules so much of the good and bad of Star Trek traditionally so well. First, the premise though. Captain Pike is made prisoner by aliens who control illusion in order to create a slave race with the captain of the last ship that had crashed on their world. It is from here that I’ll explore what happens in the pros and cons.

The Pros – The sense of adventure and sense of wonder. The set is dated but the actors and special effects make it a real world. There are consequences on the world and it is an adventure for Pike and his crew members when they first beam down and later as the mystery of the Talosians (the large headed aliens right out of 60’s sci. fi.). The mystery unfolds within the realm of the rules it lays down in the episode.

Egalitarianism and Equality – Humans are free and against slavery (though their is a con later in relation to how hypocritical said humans are). They also made a point of having both men and women leading even if Captain Pike was uncomfortable with women being on the bridge (this changes by the end since they save him from the Talosians).

Okay – The crew. No one really stands out. Pike and Spock are okay at driving the plot forward but they aren’t able to carry it. Pike’s character’s bitterness doesn’t feel real considering how he looks. He’s a middle aged guy but not old. His bitterness and tiredness at being captain rings false and the Doctor’s offering to comfort him with alcohol comes off as fake.

The Cons – Sexism and hypocrisy – Though the women have a fair amount of agency they are always their as a choice for Pike, especially when the aliens have chosen him for the express purpose to choose a mate. All the women want him even as he talks down to them or imagines an Orion slave girl (The famous green skinned dancing alien) who had actually expressed interest in before. The Federation may not enslave humans but other aliens are fair games if others are the ones doing the selling. They justify this by having Pike’s friend say in the memory, “They like being taken advantage of.” If that isn’t the worst kind of sexism than I don’t know what is. It is in the first introduction of Star Trek and you can find it in different variations throughout the series, it is the biggest problem the series has besides it’s ignorance of LBGTQ folks in relation to the future and certain episodes and they way they deal with race…again with the hypocrisy expressed by the writers in this egalitarian future.

The Episode is still one I’d recommend though know about the sexism going in and the fact that it is slow at times. As egalitarian as Gene Roddenberry’s vision was, he was still a pretty sexist guy and it came out in his work a lot in The Original Series and later in The Next Generation.

Would rate this episode as 6.5 / 10.