PC Gamer

What I love about the Mass Effect series is that feeling of being in command of my own starship. Wandering the decks of the Normandy, talking to the crew as I decide what exciting space adventure to have next, I ve never felt more like Kirk or Picard. But while this sense of ownership and freedom is present in all three games, it s only the original Mass Effect that makes me feel like I m really exploring space. The Mako has a bad reputation, but I ve always had a soft spot for it. When I land on those alien worlds, bouncing around on the surface, I feel like I m exploring an uncharted cosmos, rather than just triggering missions on the galaxy map

OK, so most of the planets are barren and rocky, but that doesn t mean there isn t anything to see. Some of the vistas are beautiful, their burning blue suns, ancient pyramids, mystical monoliths, and horizon-dwarfing moons all reminding you that you are very far from home. The universe could be a lot more detailed and vibrant, but it s an enjoyable aside to the main story. You don t have to explore all these planets to finish the game, but there are some interesting rewards for doing so.

My favourite secret is on Eletania in the Attican Beta cluster. If you have the trinket from the Asari Consort mission, you ll be able to activate an alien ruin on the surface of the planet. This gives Shepard a vision in which he s a primitive human on Earth thousands of years ago, being observed by a strange creature made of shining silver that flies without wings . The implication here is that the Protheans were studying humans long before we developed space travel. They could never have guessed that an ancestor of one of those cavemen would, thousands of generations later, become a key player in the destruction of the Reapers and avenge the Prothean extinction.

On the planet Ontarom in the Kepler Verge you find a herd of four-legged, two-armed alien cows, one of which the game labels as shifty looking cow. Turn your back on it and you ll notice you start losing credits. You can kill it, but it ll respawn and you won t get your credits back. It s this kind of incident that makes space exploration fun for me, even if they are few and far between. For every neat Easter egg there are ten caves filled with Geth, slavers or other space-jerks.

Another memorable moment is flying to the Moon and seeing the Earth looming over you. In the Mass Effect universe a trip to the Moon is probably like taking a bus two stops down the road, but for us it s a distance we can understand, which hammers home the point that, wow, I m in space. Just don t look at the sprite for too long or you ll realise that it s the wrong way around. Some Mass Effect novel probably retcons this, saying that the Earth was flipped with magical space-lasers to stop the reversal of the Gulf Stream or something. Hey, why am I not writing these spin-off books? That s gold.

On the planet Ontarom in the Kepler Verge you find a herd of four-legged, two-armed alien cows.

Playing Mass Effect again, I realise how much more control I have compared to the sequels. When I finished it the first time and moved on to Mass Effect 2, I missed being able to manage my inventory and mod my armour. The newer games are definitely slicker to play, but the RPG elements were either sidelined or heavily simplified. Combat is dramatically worse in the original, but I never felt like I could customise Shepard or his party to the same satisfying degree again. Being able to mix and match armour upgrades depending on the type of enemy you re about to face is really handy. For example, installing the shock absorber mod to stop those pesky biotics from knocking you on your arse.

Although the original game is still fun, some things haven t aged that well. Those slow, boring elevator rides between areas are as deeply tedious as they were before, but I did enjoy the way BioWare poked fun at it in Mass Effect 2: Ever miss those talks we had on the elevator? asks Garrus. No, replies Tali, curtly. Brilliant.

It s not as handsome as Mass Effect 3, but I still love the way it looks. The cinematic noise filter gives the visuals grit and texture. This is not the gleaming, perfect future we re used to seeing in games. It s understated, stylish and lived-in, taking its cues from classic 60s and 70s science fiction films such as 2001, Alien, Silent Running and Solaris. It does a great job of drawing you into its mythology, and it s one of the few games that I m totally invested in—yeah, even after the ending of Mass Effect 3. I liked that before they caved in to angry internet pressure and released the Wayne s World-style mega happy ending as DLC.

In each game the interior of the Normandy has a different feel. In the original, which is my favourite of the three, it s much darker and more atmospheric than Cerberus s orange-tinged refit, and the less said about Mass Effect 3 s messy corridors the better. But the layout is always vaguely the same, and the ship has become one of my favourite videogame places. The fact that it s my ship only makes it more special. Seeing it destroyed by the Collectors at the beginning of the second game was a sad moment, and cleverly made veterans of the original even more determined to exact revenge upon the insectoid cads.

Mass Effect is regarded by most as an RPG, but I think of it more like a totally competent third-person shooter saved by being attached to a brilliantly dramatic space opera. I really care about these characters, and this bond only gets stronger as I repeatedly save the galaxy alongside them in the next two games. It s not quite a masterpiece of storytelling, but it is confidently written, well acted, and set in a rich, fleshed-out universe. A new game is already in the works at BioWare Montreal, and I m not sure what direction they ll take it in, but the first game still holds up on PC if you feel like reliving the trilogy.

PC Gamer
This article was originally published on August 25, 2014, but to celebrate BioWare's 20th anniversary we're reminiscing again about the characters we love (and don't). Warning! The following article contains MASSIVE SPOILERS for the Mass Effect, Baldur's Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, and Dragon Age series.
We've been reminiscing about our favourite, and least favourite, BioWare companions. Interesting buddies, and sometimes enemies, have been a staple of BioWare games since Baldur's Gate, and the studio is famous for creating people you actually care about. So I decided to ask the entire PC Gamer team who among the vast pantheon of BioWare NPCs they hate, and who they love. Some of the answers may surprise you. Especially Chris Thursten's.

Andy Kelly


Minsc (Baldur's Gate)

One of BioWare's most beloved characters, Minsc is a massive, tattooed ranger who wields a two-handed sword and travels with his faithful companion, Boo, who he says is a 'miniature giant space hamster'—but is probably just a regular hamster. Minsc typifies that anarchic sense of humour that pervaded the Baldur's Gate games, and his eccentric battle cries ( Go for the eyes, Boo! GO FOR THE EYES! ) are the stuff of RPG legend.

It wasn't until Baldur's Gate II, when BioWare realised just how much fans loved him, that his character was given more dialogue and depth. He became more sympathetic after the cruel death of his partner, Dynaheir, at the hands of evil sorcer Irenicus. Minsc is not as rich or nuanced as many of BioWare's more recent creations, but he makes up for it with sheer personality.


Tali (Mass Effect)

People love Tali, and I don't know why. She's just so goddamn earnest, telling endless, boring stories about the her pilgrimage, droning on and on about quarian tradition and how hard life on the flotilla is. The only interesting thing about her character is that she wears a mask, and even that's just a cheap way of making her seem mysterious.

I genuinely cared about the majority of the cast in Mass Effect, but I avoided Tali at every opportunity. She has a loyal following, including former PC Gamer writer Rich McCormick, who replayed 25 hours of Mass Effect 3 just to prevent her death, but I really don't understand the love for her. One of the dullest characters in BioWare history.

Chris Thursten


Ashley Williams (Mass Effect)

I know, I know. Ashley the space racist. Ashley who only survived Mass Effect 1 because she's not as boring as Kaidan. I've heard every argument against Ash in the last couple of years - often the same argument, over and over - but she's still one of my favourite BioWare characters. She's a rare example of a love interest for a male protagonist that doesn't really need anything from him. Ashley's background is defined by stable, positive relationships - with her sisters, her parents, her religion.

Her motivating crisis is a smear on her family name that she's had to struggle with to get where she is in the Alliance military, a struggle that she's already largely overcome by the time she meets Shepard. It's a sore spot, but also a point of pride. In a series largely defined by people that Shepard 'fixes', Ashley demands to be understood on her own terms. I respect that. As for the space racism: well, yeah, she says some unfortunate things. But it's not who the character is. If you bring her with you when you encounter the Terra Firma rally on the Citadel, she'll angrily condemn their leader for using political pragmatism to disguise the racist element of his party. People tend to forget that about her.


Sebastian Vael (Dragon Age)

I struggled with this one, because there aren't really any BioWare characters I truly don't like. Jacob Taylor is boring, yeah, but his arc pays off in Mass Effect 3. I'm a bit tired of the 'quirky little sister' template (Imoen, Tali, Merrill) but all of those characters have their moments. So I'm picking Sebastian, the launch-day DLC character for Dragon Age II who more or less totally fails to get on with any of the other characters in the game. Despite its faults, DA II portrays its companions as a diverse but closely-knit circle of friends: a revolutionary cell that grows out of natural affections and affiliations.

Sebastian, the Chantry-dwelling, revenge-chasing former dilettante doesn't fit into that family. He's too posh to slum it with Varric or Isabela, too straight-laced to indulge in the anger that motivates Anders or Fenris. He shows a bit of fire in the game's final act, but by that point I was too invested in

literally everybody else

to side with him. He's that guy you see in the hallway at work that you have nothing in common with but you feel obligated to talk to anyway; he's your friend's boring boyfriend from university; he's the person you invite to your house party while secretly hoping that they don't show up.

Tom Senior


Alistair (Dragon Age)

Dragon Age is a very serious game. You're juggling issues of lineage that'll decide the fate of the entire realm with the threat of impending genocide at the hands of an ancient evil. A little laughter goes a long way, and Alistair shines as the self-aware bastard contender for the throne. A great comic vocal performance and a bottomless bucket of quips instantly earned him a permanent role in my party, but his capacity of sudden seriousness gave him an interesting edge. At heart he's a nervous hero forced into a position of remarkable pressure, which makes him enormously sympathetic, especially in the final act when the kingship is decided.

The kicker is that he's probably not good King material. I ended up accidentally exiling him from the kingdom while attempting to put someone more decisive in place. The fact that I still feel bad about that shows how much I came to like the poor man. I hope he's running a thriving tavern somewhere, entertaining his regulars with some of the finest one-liners in Ferelden.


Samara (Mass Effect)

Samara has a fascinating backstory. She's been hunting one of her three vampire daughters across the universe for hundreds of years, and now enforces the pious rules of her order with lethal force. This is great for driving plot, especially when her laws clash with the local customs of the planet you're exploring, but her personality has been entirely subsumed by the code.

Her outlook and actions are bound to a list of rules that she can never break, and she'll tell you that relentlessly during your observation deck chats during Mass Effect 2. She's a boring space paladin. You're interacting with dogma, rather than a person, which means there can be no evolution to your friendship with her. She could kill a dozen enemies in seconds with her mind, but ended up leaving her to her cross-legged meditation in the observation bay. I think we both preferred it that way.

Samuel Roberts


Varric (Dragon Age)

Varric wins out for me because he's the closest your main character gets to an actual best buddy in a BioWare title (other than maybe Garrus in Mass Effect). He's just good to have around, and also has the interesting distinction of being one of Dragon Age II's narrators, so his perception of Hawke is oddly important to me as a player. I love that he frequently refers to his crossbow, Bianca, in third person a la Jayne's gun Vera in Firefly (but slightly less silly), and that he's technically spent years in Kirkwall's pub, The Hanged Man, by the end of Dragon Age II.

Controversially, I think Dragon Age II might have my favourite set of companions—or possibly tying with Mass Effect 2. I must point out, though, that picking one BioWare companion I love is nearly impossible. I have a list of twelve names here that I'll spare you from, but the thought of Varric being around again in Inquisition is pretty exciting to me.


James Vega (Mass Effect)

James Vega is an easy target for least likeable BioWare companion he's not that bad, and I wouldn't say I hate him by any stretch. I think it's because I got it into my head that he was a cipher for Call of Duty players picking up Mass Effect for the first time with the third instalment, and couldn't handle sci-fi unless they had a way in via standard soldier guy.

That was a bit too harsh, and I think Freddie Prinze Jr does a fine job with the character's performance, but aside from beating him up in the shuttle bay of the Normandy, I can't recall enjoying his company that much. I just don't need someone being that grumpy on my Normandy. I would have put up a sign, politely asking that anybody trying to brood sexily on my ship has to get off at the next civilised star port. I've been saving the party sequence from the DLC Mass Effect 3: Citadel until I'm finally ready to say goodbye to Mass Effect, and I'm told Vega's attendance is mandatory. Aww.

Phil Savage


Garrus (Mass Effect)

Characters my character has loved in BioWare games: Aerie, L'iara, Thane and Alistair. But the character


loved was never a romantic possibly. Well, technically he was in Mass Effect 3. What I mean to say is that he was never a romantic possibility for


Shepard. Like Sam with DA2's Varric, Garrus filled the role of best pal. By Mass Effect 2, he's reinvented himself in Shepard's image, and that leads to a common understanding between the two. He's got his shit together, even when he hasn't.

Many have criticised Mass Effect 3's actual ending. The truth is it was a game filled with endings, and many of them were note perfect. Garrus's ending takes place before the final battle, shooting cans with Shepard at the top of the Citadel's Presidium. It's a scene laced with humour, rivalry, sadness and, yes, friendship. The best way to remember BioWare's best companion.


Khalid (Baldur's Gate)

Poor Khalid. You didn't really deserve to die every time I played Baldur's Gate. You were, I guess, fine. Adequate. Non-offensively present. My disdain for your life is really down to the way the first BG handled party members. Many of them were paired up—their inseparable buddy being a requirement to them joining your adventure.

If you wanted Jaheira, you had to take Khalid, and, in a game filled with interesting characters and variables, I really didn't want to waste one of my five companion slots on the cowardly complaining of an effete fighter. And so you were sent to your certain death; one of the few ways you could part these pairings without pissing their partner off. It was an inelegant solution, but a necessary one. BioWare, it seems, agreed, and in Baldur's Gate 2 they removed such dependencies. They, like me, killed Khalid off.

Ben Griffin


Thane Krios (Mass Effect)

Everything about Thane is fascinating. He's a Drell, a reptilian species rescued from their dying planet by the Hanar. Unfortunately Drell aren't suited to their new world's humidity, and many develop a respiratory disease called Kepral's Syndrome. Thane has it, and he agrees to Shepard's suicide mission as a gesture of penance. He's an assassin, you see, and thanks to his photographic memory—an adaptation to an environment where Drell must remember the location of resources across vast distances—Thane involuntarily relives his kills in vivid detail.

This weighs heavily on his conscience, and it's not unusual to catch him praying in his private quarters. I never feel more badass than rocking up to the Citadel with Thane. I remember him once commenting on the 14 flaws in C-Sec security that a skilled assassin could exploit, and how eight of them were there ten years ago.


Kaiden Alenko

Who? Ohhh yeah, that guy. That's the reaction Kaidan Alenko usually garners, for me the only forgettable companion in the Mass Effect games. Just look at his boring face. In a galaxy featuring psychic purple jellies, bright blue seductresses, and monotone elephant men, here's this...dude. His backstory is dull—a biotic born into a military family—and his conversations with the captain are unremarkable. I guess he's just too similar to male Shepard, his role already served.

I play Mass Effect to interact with strange new beings, not hobnob with brown-haired white guys. Literally everyone I work with is a brown-haired white guy. In the first Mass Effect he shares an interesting conflict with Ashley, her a pro-human xenophobe and him an equal rights advocate, and as Shepard you can persuade him to be either less or more sympathetic to alien races. It's an important subject to explore, but Kaiden feels superfluous to it. Ashley gets the job done.

Tim Clark


Liara T'Soni (Mass Effect)

Lovely Liara. It's testament to the skill of BioWare's writers that she isn't reduced to just being the drippy, peace-loving, science-y one. I mean, she's all those things, but she's also more complex. Old by human standards, but a child in terms of Asari lifespan, she's naive and hopeful, but at the same time proud of her people and conflicted about her relationship with her mother.

She wants the best for the universe but fears the worst. I ended up taking Liara on most missions, partly because I liked having an all-girl Charlies Angels-style squad, but also because her enthusiasm and curiosity invariably added nuance and emotion to the plot lines that was otherwise lost with the more workaday companions. Her arc, leading up the excellent Lair Of The Shadow Broker DLC, is also some of the most interesting stuff in the series. Damnit, Liara, it was always you. You made me want to be a better Shepard.


Thane Krios (Mass Effect)

Look, I wouldn't say I hate Thane pity, maybe it's more that I can't think about him without feeling the intense embarrassment that only comes with a truly disastrous one-night stand. After Liara was sidelined for Mass Effect 2 my Fem Shep couldn't be expected to live like a space nun, could she? So, reasoning that she was an experimental girl of the galaxy, I decided to bunk up with Thane. Largely to cheer him up because, hoo boy, badass assassins have rarely been more depressing.

Whether it's moping over his dead wife, praying for forgiveness after whacking some schmuck, or musing on what a terrible dad he is, Thane is just a big green cloud of glum. (Bonus bad times: he's also slowly dying of Kepral's Syndrome, the specifics of which I forget and have no desire to Google.) After the sex he's awkwardly grateful. Which, honestly, is a sure sign you've made a terrible romantic mistake. Ugh.

Evan Lahti


HK-47 (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic)

For all the well-rounded, nonarchetypal, and sensitive characters BioWare has thrown at us, I delight in the silliest, most murderous, and one-dimensional partner they've written. HK-47 is more bloodthirsty than Jack or fellow assassin Thane, and most reliable source of bad advice in BioWare games.

He's essentially a bad-ass, malicious one-liner dispenser ("Observation: We can begin by slaughtering the inhabitants of this building, master. Would that be impressive?"), but he also shows us a dark side of droids not seen in the Star Wars I grew up with--compared to the placative C-3PO, HK-47 shows zero concern for the needs of humans. The Star Wars wiki is a fine source of HK-47


, most of them containing meatbag as a perjorative.


Miranda Lawson (Mass Effect)

Miranda is the closest to furniture that a BioWare character has ever been. What do we remember about her, other than her skintight bodysuit and the way Mass Effect 2's camera suggestively frames her hips? Her loyalty missions were among the least interesting, and her fluctuating relationship with Cerberus, which could've been a great opportunity for genuine betrayal in the series, never made me feel uneasy.

Tyler Wilde


Mordin Solus (Mass Effect)

Mordin is great for the following reasons: One, he's a scientist, and science is neat. Two, he blinks upwards. Three, he speaks in sentence fragments, and it is a proven fact that omitting pronouns is super endearing. Four, he is the very model of a scientist salarian. Five, he gives practical sex advice and totally doesn't judge. Six, he has a cool thing around his neck.

My cynical side says Mordin was designed to be quoted by fans more than be an interesting character, but he's a very interesting character. His practical, logical morality is a bit Data-like, but unlike The Enterprise's android, he's emotional. He's just so sure of his pragmatism that he can stay upbeat despite the weight of his actions—and then he's not. It breaks my heart when he yells I made a mistake! in Mass Effect 3. Even if he was still talking about variables and potential outcomes, there's regret and hope there, too.


Jack (Mass Effect)

Jack has lived a ridiculously shitty life. She's been experimented on, tortured, and used—and tragically, all that abuse turned her into a boring character who sucks. She's that garden variety violent psychopath who's always wiping something off her lip with the back of her hand (saliva? blood?) after saying shit. She's mad, and she should be, but her conflict with Shepard isn't interesting. It's just—she's mad. She's really mad, and that's about it.

Her grisly past means she doesn't have any interesting space culture to talk about, either—it's just a story about how Cerberus is bad and we shouldn't like them. That insane chest belt costume from Mass Effect 2 didn't help, either, and neither did the equally-stupid Biker Mice From Mars-inspired look in Mass Effect 3.

Cory Banks


Aveline (Dragon Age)

For most of my time in Kirkwall (after a long absence, I'm only just now finishing the game), Guard Captain Aveline was merely an interesting character: stoic, hard-nosed, a fine example of how DA2's rivalry system can work. She often didn't agree with my actions, but our mutual goals united us. We're not friends, but we're companions.

Her companion quest is what turned me around. In most BioWare games, your goal with companions is to make them like you more—and most likely, fall in love with you enough that they'll join you in an awkward, unromantic sex cinematic. Aveline's quest is different: she has a crush on a subordinate guardsman, and wants your help to get his attention. The captain of the guard is awful at flirting, however, which leads to an amusing series of scenes where you entertain Aveline's future boyfriend while she works up the nerve to talk to him.

It works because it's not really about you, but about the character who is supposed to be your friend, and it's one of the most realistic character moments in a game that's supposed to be all about character. Now, not only is Aveline the best tank I can bring to a fight, but she's also an actual friend.


Yoshimo (Baldur's Gate II)

I'll never forgive BioWare for Yoshimo. When I first met him in the game's starting dungeon, he was a welcome help to the party—good in a fight, great with a lockpick, and the only pure-class thief players get in the game. I kept him around in the team because I needed him, but also because I liked him. But then it turned out that he was Jon Irenicus' puppet, and was forced to betray me to save his life. Not that it helped, because I had to kill him. It's a very Joss Whedon move, to make me kill a character I love, and while that might sound like praise for BioWare, it doesn't make me any less angry about it.

Wes Fenlon


Niftu Cal (Mass Effect)

Over the years, BioWare has written tons of interesting companions who journey and grow along with you. Characters with depth and humanity. In Mass Effect, those characters are often aliens with detailed and unique physiologies. But how many of them are biotic gods? Only one. Only Niftu Cal, the funniest throwaway character BioWare ever created.


Carth Onasi (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic)

It takes Knights of the Old Republic all of five minutes to pair you up with the most self-righteous soldier in the galaxy. There I was, walking through the streets of Taris, just trying to help out the local alien races by relieving them of their credits. That money was just weighing them down! And then here's Carth, lecturing me. So what if I goaded someone into a fight and killed them, just for the fun of it?

What gives you the right to guilt me, Carth?

I loved to hate Carth in Knights of the Old Republic, sneering at his




and that smug, holier-than-thou voice. He was an uncool Han Solo. Even playing as the most honest light side Jedi warrior, Carth was too bland for my tastes. I grew to hate him so much, I kept him around just so I could ignore every piece of sage advice and insult him at every opportunity. Carth's voice immediately made me angry. I'd recognize it anywhere, so as soon as he showed up disguised as Kaidan in Mass Effect, I knew that he'd be off the squad. Ashley may be a xenophobe, but she's better than the most annoying man in the universe.
PC Gamer

The big choices about who to side with, the gang of companions who open up the more you talk to them, the romances—so many of the things we think of as quintessential BioWare began in Baldur s Gate 2. It seemed like BioWare had seen what Obsidian had achieved with the Infinity Engine in Planescape: Torment the year before and stepped up their game in response.

Pillars of Eternity feels like Obsidian returning the compliment, picking up the ball and throwing it back. It s a blend of the two studio s house styles, with deep philosophical questions and the consequences of past lives making it a close cousin to Planescape, and the lack of romance options an Obsidian trademark. Meanwhile, Caed Nua is their take on the strongholds of Baldur s Gate 2 and navigating the factions of Defiance Bay resembles the Athkatla section of that game.

But of all the things to keep from the games that inspired it, pausable real-time combat is the most baffling. Planescape seemed to go out of its way to have as few as possible of those moments where the story grinds to a halt while the Dungeon Master puts everyone s miniature on the board and says roll for initiative. Even when the Infinity Engine was new, its pausable real-time combat felt like a clunky compromise necessitated by the peculiarities of the era.

They were strange days

Timothy Cain, producer, lead programmer, and one of the designers of the original Fallout, gave a talk at GDC in 2012, a post-mortem of that classic, turn-based RPG. Halfway through that talk he paused, queued up the next slide and said the word Diablo with a sigh. "Fun game," he went on to clarify, "lots of fun." And then the bitterness crept into his voice: "Thorn in my side."

Saying Diablo streamlined the RPG is like saying bullets streamlined arrows. It was fast and frantic and so pure it was almost grotesque. Sometimes, Diablo said, you just want to click skeletons to bits and take their stuff. This was the late 1990s, and real-time strategy games had already beaten up their turn-based ancestors and taken their lunch money, presumably while they were waiting for someone to click the End Turn button so they could retaliate. It seemed obvious at the time that Blizzard was going to do the same thing to turn-based RPGs, making them seem clunky and old-fashioned—at least in the eyes of people trying to market them.

Fighting a gila monitor in Wasteland 2.

"I had to go to lots of meetings with marketing and administration," Timothy Cain goes on to say in his GDC talk. "They wanted Fallout to be multiplayer and real-time." But Cain stood his ground. Fallout had already been in development for over two years, and he argued the cost of changing it wouldn t be worthwhile. In the end they let him make his game the way he wanted to, and it s better for it. The blackly comic tone of Fallout is well-served by gruesome text descriptions of each called shot s results, whether to the eyes or the crotch, and there s a rising tension you only experience when one by one your characters fail to take down a Super Mutant spinning up a chaingun and you re forced to end the turn and pray you survive once the bullets start flying.

In September of 1998 Interplay brought out Fallout 2, with the same turn-based combat system. And then three months later they published Bioware s Baldur s Gate and ushered in the era of pausable real-time combat. Baldur s Gate was no Diablo, and giving you control of a party of up to six heroes rather than a single protagonist meant a fully real-time system wouldn t have been feasible. To compete with the hot new thing in RPGs the designers looked back, drawing on 1992 s Darklands for inspiration.

In Darklands you controlled a party of four in 15th century Germany, but it was a version of Germany in which the beliefs of the time were true. Dragons were real, and praying to saints could result in miracles. High fantasy games cross the street to walk on the other side when they see realism heading toward them, but the relatively low fantasy Darklands was at least a nodding acquaintance with the concept, and in theory real-time combat is the more realistic option.

The path of most resistance

While fighting gangs of thieves in Darklands streets you pressed spacebar to pause and then gave orders individually, telling your alchemist to fire his crossbow while the other characters formed a defensive line and then tried to envelop the enemy. In practice every battle descended into a chaotic scrum. Characters sent round the back to flank would get distracted and attack the first enemy they saw, while Gretchen the Holy would bump into one of her allies then turn around and head off in entirely the wrong direction through the side streets of Hamburg.

Still, that was only 1992 and early days. Surely, six years later—especially given the hectic rate of technological advancement that characterized game design in the 1990s—things would have improved significantly. But, three levels deep in the guts of the Nashkel Mines in Baldur s Gate, Minsc the ranger was meandering into the darkness because he d collided with Branwen the cleric in the narrow tunnels, inevitably blundering into a trap.

Bad pathfinding isn t unique to games with pausable real-time combat, but it is exacerbated by it. It s easier to ignore when short-lived enemies are the only ones who get stuck on crates, or when you re controlling just the one character who sometimes gets confused and tries to take the long way round. When it s your entire team turning into bumbling lummoxes the moment you press spacebar to send them into action it s impossible to ignore. They stop feeling like they re under your control: the game may as well be playing itself.

Pathfinding isn t the only problem pausable real-time combat highlights. Behind the scenes, most of these games are still giving characters turns. Even if those turns are overlapping and often simultaneous, there s still a noticeable pause between actions. In Knights of the Old Republic your Jedi will leap into the fray, flipping through the air and landing among enemies with lightsabers spinning like blenders of death. Then they stop and just sort of bob on the spot for a few seconds, like a Mortal Kombat fighter waiting for the next round to start. Gun-toting characters behave just as weirdly, snapping off a few shots then standing out in the open until an invisible hourglass fills up and they can act again.

In turn-based combat your imagination overrides the abstractions. You know that while one of your XCOM squaddies is racing for cover the enemy isn t holding their fire and the rest of the squad aren t patiently waiting their turn; in your head the firefight never stops. But Knights of the Old Republic s sudden switches between slick attack animations and characters awkwardly bouncing on the spot like they re holding drinks on the edges of the dancefloor is much harder for the imagination to paper over. It just looks silly.

To minimize the amount of time characters in Dragon Age bob like idiots when it s not their turn the attack animations are extended into dizzying combos so that even your wizard s default attack involves whirling a staff and whizzing off multiple blasts while striking dramatic poses. To reduce the amount of pathfinding calculations by the second game the rogue s backstab ability somehow involved teleporting behind enemies so you didn t actually have to walk round them. In Dragon Age: Inquisition the amount of whizz-bang special effects hurtling across the screen every time an ability is used can almost distract you from what s going on, though the longer you play the more the clunkiness behind the curtain becomes apparent.

A leaping attack in Dragon Age 2.

By contrast the Mass Effect games remove those hidden turns, giving you the responsiveness of an actual real-time game. When you look down the scope of your M-98 Widow Anti-Material Rifle, take a breath, and then place a round in the head of an advancing Collector, you re doing it while the battle smoothly carries on around you. When you do pause to give orders they re carried out instantly as well, your squadmates launching Incinerate or Singularity in devastating synchronization. By Mass Effect 3 the system was so polished they could scrap the ability to pause altogether for the multiplayer mode and still have something that was surprisingly fun. The multiplayer mode of Dragon Age: Inquisition didn t hold up nearly as well.

Pillars of Eternity makes its own tweaks, of course. Its engagement mechanic punishes running around like a headless chicken, there s an option to play in slow motion rather than stuttering stop-start, and of course the spell effects look a lot more impressive (although that means if you pause at the wrong time half your party will be obscured by bursts of light and flame). But it still has characters who get confused by having to walk all the way round an ogre to get somewhere, or wait until an oil slick has been summoned to run right through it, or blithely stroll straight into traps they ve already detected. Wasteland 2, another Kickstarter-funded resurrection of old-fashioned RPGs, modernized the combat of the early Fallout games with a healthy dose of XCOM, and was better for it. But while Pillars of Eternity preserves a lot of things about old games that are worth keeping, its preservation of pausable real-time combat feels like a step in the wrong direction—one that leads back into the darkness of the Nashkel Mines, where I never want to place foot again.

But if anyone finds Minsc the ranger in there, say hi for me.

PC Gamer

Every time I step onto the Normandy s bridge I am reminded that space isn t just a vacuum, it s a stage for galactic drama. The Mass Effect series combines the best elements of classic space opera adventure with an RPG structure that encourages both playful and serious challenges to traditional science fiction. I get the cool ship right away, but it s up to me to do something meaningful with it. That s a big part of what makes Mass Effect one of the grandest—and most personal—sci-fi epics in any medium.

Over the course of three games the series transforms from a stylish and varied RPG into a more straightforward third-person shooter, but Mass Effect s story builds on its ambitious beginning to embrace a wide cast of characters who pull you into their lives and grab your attention. Of course genre monuments like the original Star Wars are also brilliant at this, but what Mass Effect does so well is to take a passive viewer and drop him or her right into the left seat of the Millenium Falcon. Now I m at the controls.

But the game also works as a heady meditation on politics, culture, and the nature of the humanity s (possible) position in the universe. It s likely outer space is—and will be—a realm that s at best deeply ambivalent to our presence and at worst, actively hostile. If and when we ever reach the stars, we ll be one of the smallest fish in the biggest pond there is. If we re lucky.

With that in mind, for the latest entry in the If you like series, I ve picked out some art, films, and books that accept these cosmic challenges but also speak to the more personal moments that Mass Effect stages so well.

Art of John Harris: Beyond the Horizon, directed by Alex Freidin-Goss

I first encountered John Harris work on the cover of a book many of you are probably familiar with, the 1985 novel Ender s Game. In that piece, we see an elegant and dangerous-looking starfighter streaking toward a distant horizon broken by a mysterious red planet. Like so much of his work in science fiction art, Harris Ender s Game illustration suggests an incredibly vast universe that human beings nevertheless feel driven to explore, understand, and even conquer. And like Mass Effect, the scale of it all never seems to push away or destroy the importance of the individual. Someone s piloting all those ships, after all.

I ve included the short documentary above not only because it provides a wonderfully choreographed tour of some Harris best work, but also because of the insight he shares. In it he speaks eloquently about his creative process and the way the attempt to imagine outer space affects how we see both ourselves and the wider world. The film is one of the best arguments for the power and purpose of science fiction that I ve ever come across.

It s worth finding a quiet moment to enjoy, preferably in full-screen.

Marvel s Operation Galactic Storm crossover series

The avengers - Operation: galactic storm Vol. 1

The Avengers—and Marvel—are a big deal these days. And they deserve to be. Part of the reason for that is the great run various Marvel series went on during the early 1990s. This was an epic time to be reading Marvel if you were a fan of the superheroes-in-space schtick that so many comics seem to explore from time to time. Because of the film adaptations, we re all getting to know the Infinity Gauntlet storyline a bit better, but there s another crossover series from that period that s just as ambitious but maybe less well-known—Operation Galactic Storm.

The 19-part series deals with a conflict that flares up between two well-known space empires in the Marvel universe, the Kree and Shi'ar. As in the Mass Effect series, humans are just one culture among countless others in the cosmos. The Kree and Shi'ar barely notice when their war threatens the stability of Earth s solar system. Naturally the Avengers decide something has to be done, cosmic odds be damned, and the story takes off from there. With strange and deadly aliens, a doomsday device, and even a suicide mission, there s a lot that Mass Effect fans will find appealing.

You can catch all the main parts of the story in two crossover collections here and here.

Europa Report, directed by Sebasti n Cordero

The easiest movie comparisons to make with the epic, swashbuckling scope of Mass Effect are the ones we all know about—the best of the Star Wars and Star Trek films. Of course television, with its multi-season format also works as a good analogy to the dozens of hours you can invest in the Mass Effect storyline over its three entries. You can take your pick among popular favorites like Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, or Babylon 5.

But there s another category of space film that s seen a resurgence lately that also pairs nicely with the personal tone of something like Mass Effect. It s a style that attempts a narrower, more modest view of space exploration that traces its origins to Stanley Kubrick s 2001: A Space odyssey far more than it does to something like Star Wars. I ve included a trailer above for a recent example of this type of film in Europa Report. Other films that take this approach include the excellent Moon directed by Duncan Jones as well as Christopher Nolan s divisive recent picture, Interstellar.

As its title suggest, Europa Report depicts a journey to the icy Jupiter moon in search of possible signs of life. Even as the film s hard-science fiction approach to its story highlights the impressive technology needed for such a mission, it doesn t lose sight of the cost to its crew. Films like Europa Report aren t grand in the exact same way as Mass Effect, but they demonstrate the human dimension of space flight in a way that gets at some of the best moments from the series.

Space operas in the 21st century

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Although it s one of the oldest types of science fiction literature, space opera remains one of the most active and popular categories of sci-fi writing today. It s really the DNA behind most of what works so well in Mass Effect. But as we see in the introduction to a massive recent anthology dedicated to the concept— The Space Opera Renaissance—it can be tough to pin down an exact definition. It s enough for me to say that space opera stories are set primarily or totally in outer space and always have a rich sense of drama that engages readers on both a galactic and personal level. Sounds like Mass Effect to me.

There are countless examples to pick from, but I ve chosen two authors who both have a supremely confident interpretation of the subgenre. One is Ann Leckie s Hugo and Nebula Award winning Ancillary Justice. The novel—part one of a trilogy—deals with issues of gender, artificial intelligence, and imperial war and is written in a style that demands a good amount of self-reflection on the part of the reader, even as the story takes you on a ride.

Another space opera worth checking out is David Drake s RCN series. I ve always enjoyed the exacting and authentic approach to military culture that his writing invariably includes, and the RCN novels don t disappoint. Inspired by Patrick O Brian s Aubrey/Maturin naval books, Drake gives us a similar pair of unlikely companions for his take on the space opera. You can jump into any of Drake s entries in the series and find a rich tapestry of characters and events, but the first book—With the Lightnings—is a great place to start.

For more instalments of If you like... , check out Patrick s recommendations for SkyrimFallout 3, and Deus Ex fans. 

PC Gamer

A Reddit user has posted what he claims is a survey from last month that, if legitimate, seems to shed a lot of light on what's coming in Mass Effect 4. The game will be "far removed by time and space" from the events of the first Mass Effect trilogy, according to the post, with players leading an expedition searching for a new home for humanity.

I am compelled to emphasize the "if legitimate" part of the previous paragraph, because all of this is entirely unverified. It sounds believable, and you may recall that something similar happened back in 2012, when a survey outed a number of details about Dragon Age: Inquisition. But that would also make this a very effective camouflage for jerk-around nonsense. Bottom line: reader beware.

If you're still following me down this rabbit hole, here's what's purportedly coming: Mass Effect 4 will take place in the Helius Cluster, a clump of hundreds of solar systems in the Andromeda galaxy (which, to clarify, isn't the one we live in) that will be more than four times larger than the space encompassed by Mass Effect 3. As "pathfinders," players must collect resources, build colonies, and deal will all manner of alien races, some friendly and some not so much. As the game progresses, players will also encounter the Remnant, a mysterious, vanished alien race whose lost technology "holds the key to gaining power in this region of the galaxy." Naturally, you won't be the only one gunning for it.

Each crew member will have a unique personality and abilities, as well as loyalty missions that will unlock new skill trees. It will also be possible to recruit mercenaries into AI-controlled "strike teams" that can be deployed on randomly-generated missions, like colony defense and artifact retrieval. Strike team missions can be handled directly by the player as well, either solo or in conjunction with up to three others in cooperative multiplayer mode—and speaking of multiplayer, there will also be a new "Horde Mode," in which teams of up to four players take on increasingly difficult waves of enemies to earn experience and multiplayer-specific weapons, characters, mods, and equipment.

Dialog will also have an increased importance in the new game. "The next Mass Effect adds deeper control over your conversations through a greater ability to interrupt and change the course of the conversation as it is happening. During certain conversations, you will be able to take action based choices, such as the option to pull out your gun and force someone to open a door instead of convincing them to do it through conversational guile," the post states. "Action based choices give you more options for how you approach dialogue with characters in the game and can lead to more extreme outcomes on the story as it evolves around the decisions you make when interacting with a huge cast of NPC characters."

Other topics mentioned in the survey include planetary exploration in the Mako, optional "Elite Remnant Vault Raids," battles against Khet outposts, and seamless transitions from interstellar flight to surface exploration. It's quite a lot to take in, and it all sounds very Mass Effect-ish, which doesn't mean anything in and of itself; after all, if I was bored and looking to mess with people, making the (fake) new game sound a lot like the one that went before it just makes sense.

So what do you think? It sounds good, but also quite like the sort of stuff you might make up to sound just convincing enough. With E3 looming increasingly large on the calendar, we'll likely know soon enough.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun - contact@rockpapershotgun.com (Cara Ellison)

The first time I ever wrote anything about games, it was because I was still brokenhearted about a relationship that had dissolved years ago. PC Gamer edited the 4000 word essay into a six pager about Dota in 2012 and it is still one of the best things I have ever written. But wherever I go, whatever I do, games participate in a meaningful way in many of the relationships I see. Welcome to a special edition of S.EXE: the love letters edition. Brace yourself, you are in for chop. Here are seven stories about falling in love next to a loading screen.

… [visit site to read more]

Nov 15, 2014
PC Gamer
Well, maybe suggested you shave off that silly moustache...
Critical paths

Every Saturday, Richard Cobbett digs into the world of story and writing in games - some old, some new.

So, this is Dorian, and if you don't already know, he's one of the new companions in Bioware's Dragon Age Inquisition - a mage, a Tevinter, a man who knows how to rock a lion tamer's moustache, and the designated Team Snarky Guy for the titular Inquisition. Of course, what he's most known far right now is being Bioware's first 'fully gay' party character. That's not my words, by the way, but his writer, David Gaider. (Prior to this, party members have been either straight or bisexual, though there have been exclusive opportunities for both genders with supporting characters - notably Traynor and Cortez in Mass Effect 3. There was also Juhani in Knights of the Old Republic, but she's a complicated case due to both canon and cut-content.)

I don't want to reduce the character down to just his sexuality, because as you'd expect from both Gaider and Bioware, it's not particularly what defines him - nationality, magic, friends, family all play a far larger role  in his conversations and snarking, as you'd expect for a world where nobody particularly cares who you sleep with as long as it doesn't create a terrible god-baby. Sometimes not even then.

Though it's still polite to work up to it. It's a cosmopolitan world, not an uncivilised one!

It's interesting to see the implementation though, and some of the details that Gaider makes a point of adding - not least that he's introduced with a young and admirable man, Felix, who he's clearly enamoured with on multiple personal levels, but is genuinely surprised at the suggestion that anything might have been going on between them - at both the idea, and that he'd be impolite enough to abuse his former master's hospitality so. At the same time though, his personal quest does go more or less exactly where you'd expect - his father who once tried to change him, and the attempted reconciliation between the two that probably deserves a tinkling bit of music and an "It Gets Better" type slogan appearing for good measure.

This feels both appropriate and unfortunate; appropriate because it's what's expected, and unfortunate for exactly that reason. It's a tricky problem for any writer, addressing the elephant in the room while still pointing out that there's other stuff in that room, and one that often goes wrong - the second X-Men film's infamously ham-fisted "Have you tried not being a mutant?" line springing to mind.

(It's also somewhat notable given the evolution of Traynor's story in Mass Effect 3, which the writer originally had following similar lines in focusing on her sexuality, before being given a polite dope-slap by colleagues and managers to not be so specific and reworking her story as a fish out of water tale that would ultimately lead to gaming's funniest joke about a toothbrush. Again, Citadel is fantastic.)

What matters though isn't really the execution, but the willingness to try. Bioware is a fascinating study into sexuality both for what they've gotten right, and what they've gotten wrong over the years. Mass Effect 2 for instance dropped a major clanger when BioWare co-founder Dr Ray Muzyka declaring Commander Shepard to be straight due to being 'a defined character with certain approaches and worldviews'. This isn't in itself an issue, and it's perfectly fine for any developer to give their characters whatever sexuality they choose. It did however jar severely with the multiple Asari relationships on offer for a Shepherdess (and really, it'll take more than a codex entry for them to not be outright blue-skinned space babes) and the bonus romance with her PA, Kelly Chambers for an unattached Shepard at the end.

And let's not forget it had other reasons worth a good eye-roll too...

With each game though, Bioware has gone out of its way to Do Better, and not always by heading down the obvious path. Dragon Age 2 for instance infamously made all of its romanceable characters (the entire party save for Varric and Aveline) bisexual so that any player would be able to get with anyone they wanted. Dragon Age Inquisition and Mass Effect 3 reverses that approach, deciding that sexuality is an important part of the characters and that it can be as jarring for everyone you meet to be an option as to be politely refused. Some characters are still bisexual. Most now have their preferences, with Dragon Age expanding on gender to factor in species as well. Qunari especially seem limited in who they can give the horn.

This doesn't however mean that Bioware is stepping back from the trickier issues. One of the new secondary characters is a transgender man in a Qunari run mercenary group, who hotly denies any suggestion of simply 'passing'. Like Dorian, the implementation of the scene is a little on-the-nose, mostly by having his boss make a point of adding that his people are cool with that so that there can be an unspoken "Don't say you're less tolerant than the Qunari?" It works though, largely because the character in question gets plenty of screen time before that point to reinforce that they've neither earned what they got because or despite of this, but because they're tough. It's also interesting that this very PC scene is immediately followed by the entire group, male and female, cheerily singing a rowdy drinking song with lines like "No man can beat the Chargers, cause we'll hit you where it hurts. Unless you know a tavern with loose cards and looser skirts!" in a pretty clear statement of "And now, relax..." It's a game, not a sociology passion play.

"Yeah, we put aside our dumb, outdated prejudices. To focus on the bloody gingers."

The fact that Bioware's push for inclusiveness and increasingly not defining characters by their sexuality first makes for better and more well-rounded games though isn't the real reason we should be glad that they do it. The big advantage is that in doing it, it demonstrates to the rest of the world that it can be done. Lest we forget, in the last few years Bioware has been taken to task by Fox News for simply showing a few seconds of alien buttocks on screen, been inundated with letters about LGBT content in its games, and even had to fight its own fans over expectations and entitlement. This is not a small amount of pressure, and the path of least resistance is to crack, especially in the US where fears over sex trump those of violence any day of the week. Instead, Bioware repeatedly doubles down on diversity, which is all the more notable when put next to its capitulation over the Mass Effect 3 ending. That was simply a matter of spaceships and explosions. Whatever. This however is something very close to its creative heart, and is treated as such.

Dragon Age 1. The only question was which was funnier - the music or the underwear.

The result of this is that smaller, more vulnerable companies get to see directly that even if someone does make a flap, it doesn't actually mean a damn thing, as well as being able to point to an increasing range of high profile examples of different character types, sexualities and storylines. By and large, things are only controversial once, provided they're wide enough spread to draw attention. Being big enough to have the spotlight and willing to take that hit for the industry as a whole, even if it is primarily because they think it's worth taking for their own games, makes Bioware a very important company. It's not that if they do it, everyone else has to do it, as some people fear. It's that if they do it, other people who want to do it can, or at least, have the tools to make a powerful argument in its favour to the powers that be. 

It's for everyone's good. Really. The more taboos are broken, the more uncharted ground explored, the more exciting the possibilities we get to see. And before anyone starts throwing around letters like SJW, there's a side for you too. Where for instance was Fox News when, say, The Witcher 2 was doing graphic sex scenes like this one? Nowhere, that's where, because that battle was done, over, and deemed boring right from the second that the world did not in fact end. May Bioware sign itself up for many more such fights in the future, because they're in all our interests. In success, hurrah, fantastic. In stumbling, they show how much further we still have to go, and how even the best of intentions doesn't always pay off as you might think. Either way though, I'm grateful they keep trying, and setting an example worth following.

That said, if they ever do a Towers of Hanoi puzzle again, I'm nuking 'em from space.

PC Gamer

When Mass Effect fan Jackie sought BioWare Montreal's help in proposing to her partner, the studio pulled out all the stops. A small team made up of level designer Colin Campbell, writer Ann Lemay, and QA analyst Barrett Rodych put together a completely new level loaded with subtle references to their relationship, then studio manager Marie-Ren e Brisebois cooked up a fake contest as a way to bring them into the studio to play it.

A letter sent to Jackie and her partner, Amy, informed them they'd won "A Day With Our Devs" contest at PAX East, and that part of the prize included playing a new Mass Effect level in order to provide feedback to the developers. Lemay, Rodych and other employees made the whole thing look legit by watching and taking notes as she played. 

"I was really nervous, even having gone through the level 20 times on my own making sure all the doors were working and all the message boxes were working," Rodych said. "But I would do it again in a heartbeat."

The final room contained a single console and Jackie and Amy's names for one another painted on a wall in 50-foot high graffiti. When Amy activated the console, a message popped up stating, "Dear Amy, Jackie would like to ask you something. Love, all of us at BioWare."

Jackie then took out the ring and proposed. "When she got to that room, everyone around was riveted and hoping she d say yes," Brisebois said, and of course, she did. "It was a beautiful sight to see. No matter how grumpy you are, when you see a thing like that you can t help but smile and maybe even tear up a bit."

A happy story with a happy ending—isn't that nice? Well done, BioWare.

PC Gamer

The beginning of BlizzCon is obviously the big news of the day, but it was also N7 Day, the annual 24-hour celebration of all things Mass Effect. BioWare held a live Mass Effect developer roundtable on Twitch, which you can catch up with here if you missed it, and also released more than a half-dozen pieces of concept art for the next game in the series.

The images don't nail down any particular aspect of the game beyond what we'd expect: spectacular technology and alien landscapes that look like they'll be a blast to explore. It's great to see the Mako too, even though we've known of its return for awhile now.

There's no word on when we'll get to see the actual, real next Mass Effect in action, but for now I take comfort in knowing that things are happening. It won't be the same without ol' Shep, but looking at this art, I think I could get used to it.

Mass Effect 4 concept art

PC Gamer

BioWare has announced that the lead writer of the next Mass Effect game—fingers still crossed for M4ss Effect—is Chris Schlerf, perhaps better known to the gaming world at large as the writer of Halo 4.

Schlerf joined BioWare in November 2013, and managed to keep his work on Mass Effect a secret until today's announcement. "Every day is a revelation and every day I get to play in a new corner of the universe," Schlerf said, reinforcing the idea that Mass Effect 4 will be entirely separate from the original trilogy. "To be able to look three steps ahead to, Where does this take us and how does it add to the way we look at the Mass Effect trilogy? You couldn t ask for a better playground."

"As a writer, I write for characters," he continued. "To me, it s always about what makes my characters tick and what stories I can tell through those characters that will actually engage people about their own lives. It provides a mirror to that player s experience [so that they are] not just sitting back in an armchair."

The announcement also revealed a number of other lead developers on the game, including Senior Development Director Chris Wynn, Producer Fabrice Condominas, Lead Designer Ian Frazier, Art Director Joel MacMillan, Creative Director Mac Walters, Producer Mike Gamble, and BioWare Montreal Studio Director Yanick Roy. BioWare's Montreal studio is leading the development of the project.

BioWare will reveal more about the game during a Mass Effect developer roundtable that will be broadcast live on Twitch at 10 am PST/1 pm EST.


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