All posts by Matthias Scheler

The Best Part of the Mass Effect Trilogy

After reading a very good article about what Mass Effect 4 should be I remembered that I wanted to write a review about my favourite part of BioWare‘s Mass Effect Trilogy. I already had a draft posting on this topic which, despite containing over 1,600 words, wasn’t even half finished. So let me try again, this time a bit more focused. Be aware that this post contains massive spoilers regarding the story of all three games.

Mass Effect, the first game, has the advantage that the story and the characters are still new and fresh. And it plays that card well. What begins as a tedious exercise in galactic politics, turns into a large scale exploration and finally ends in a desperate fight for the survival of the galatic civilisation. Mass Effect also introduces a lot of iconic characters like Garrus, Liara or Tali. The exciting story is what really sets this game apart, particularly the awesome space battle at the end of the game. It reminds me of the final showdown in Return of the Jedi which happens to be one of my favourite movies.

But Mass Effect also has a bunch of weaknesses. The combat system is somehow unwieldy. Your characters are too slow for free movement in combat and taking cover doesn’t work very well. At the beginning combat is also very difficult, particularly with a power (instead of weapon) focused class. But once you level up your powers and get good equipment it becomes almost too easy. The game also applies classic role play game mechanics a bit uninspired. There are e.g. a large number of weapons available but they only vary in stats like damage per shot or fire rate. And at some point in the game you  inevitably have the maximum possible amount of money and the best possible equipment (bought in a shop) and looting becomes futile. Galactic exploration can also be a bit dull at times as most planets lack detail and feature only standard building layouts.

The second part, Mass Effect 2, improves a lot on the first part. Combat in particular works much better. While your characters are still a bit slow the cover mechanics work this time. You can now win every fight with a mixture of the right tactics and good aiming. The role play mechanics have been modernised. While they are admittedly a bit too simplistic (e.g. no weapon customisation) they feel much less tedious compared to the first part. You find less loot but it is usually much more exciting. A new weapon will look and feel completely different from the weapons that you already have. And the best weapon is not determined by numbers but by what works well for you. Galactic exploring is also much more fun because each mini mission you find is different. No more looking for buildings on a square standard planet map like in the first part.

The story telling is still on a very high level. While the main plot is more straightforward and predictable there are a lot of interesting side missions. Most squad members have a recruitment and loyalty mission which gives an in-depth introduction into each of these characters. The game also features the best adversary of the whole trilogy: Harbinger. You never face it directly, but it taunts you frequently and attacks you relentlessly by possessing its pawns.

But let’s not forget about the Suicide Mission, the grand finale of the game. It starts with a mind blowing space battle and ends in three exiting and unique combat sequences. You get a decent boss battle and there is an epic cutscene after winning the game. During the whole mission Commander Shepard’s decisions make a huge difference. If you didn’t prepare well you will take losses before the real fight even starts. And if you pick the wrong squad mate for an assignment you will get somebody killed. As a result it feels really good if you did your job well and get your whole crew out alive.

The finale game of the trilogy, Mass Effect 3, tries to be bigger and better but only partly succeeds. The combat system is better than ever. Characters can move quickly and dodge which finally allows for free movement in battle. And new enemies, which hunt you down and try to kill you in close combat, make quick movement necessary for survival. But there are also enemies with a lot of fire power which you cannot fight in the open. You have to adapt to the situation quickly to prevail.

BioWare also found a good balance for the role playing elements. Weapons (of which there is a huge variety now) can be modified to increase their strength or improve their handling. Powers have multiple evolutions that you can choose from and can be combined in a lot of ways to create explosions or other effects to increase their effectiveness. Picking the right build, squad members and equipment becomes more important than ever to maximise the combat strength of your party.

The main problem of the third part is the story. While there are epic sub plots, like dealing with the Genophage or ending the conflict between the Quarian and the Geth, the main story leaves a lot to be desired. BioWare had to invent a magic dooms day weapon called the Crucible to give Commander Shepard a fighting chance against the Reapers. This would probably have been more convincing if the Crucible’s existence had been hinted at in the first two parts. But it seems that the story writers didn’t plan that far ahead. The other problem is that the main story is very depressing. It is full of ominous hints that Shepard will die … all the time … and not particularly subtle. And Shepard doesn’t even get a good death. Instead of going down with guns blazing she is already half dead by the time she has to sacrifice herself because an annoying brat says so. The fact that the game play of the final mission is rather dull and none of your previous decisions really matter almost becomes a minor detail at this point.

So which is the best part? You can probably make out my favourite based on the above review.

A Secure Replacement for WhatsApp

For a while I used the WhatsApp instant messenger as a replacement for SMS. The application had a nicer user interface than Android’s SMS application (and probably still has). The WhatsApp service also allowed me to avoid the ridiculous fees that mobile providers charge for text messages, particular to other countries. But I didn’t enjoy it for long.

A lot of sources reported how poor the security of this service was. Messages weren’t encrypted during transfer and the authentication was very weak. An attacker only had to know your phone number to get access to your messages and even send faked messages which would appear to originate from your account. But WhatsApp Inc., the company behind the WhatsApp service, didn’t try to fix these shortcomings. They instead send lawyers after the people who had reported and demonstrated these security holes. At that point of time I deleted my WhatsApp account.

To make matters worse WhatsApp Inc. have been purchased by Facebook during the past week. A company who failed to protect the privacy of their customers has been bought by a company who considers privacy an obstacle to good business.

But this could be a blessing in disguise. It raised the awareness for (the lack of) security and privacy protection in most instant messaging services. Based on this excellent review of the security of instant messaging services that are currently available on mobile platforms I tried out surespot encrypted messenger. It turns out that surespot fulfils all my requirements:

  1. It is available for both Android and iOS (my wife has an iPhone).
  2. It uses modern, strong, end-to-end encryption to protect your privacy.
  3. It uses push notifications which is required for reliable operation under iOS.
  4. You don’t have to provide any personal information to create an account. You simply pick an account name and a password.
  5. The client doesn’t transfer your contacts to the surespot servers. It only uses your contact information to send out invites on your explicit request.
  6. The user interface is decent.

It seems that I finally found the messaging solution that I was looking for. And if you value your privacy as well you might want to take a look at the surespot encrypted messenger, too.

Game of the Month: Dragon Age II

As I had really enjoyed playing BioWare‘s Dragon Age: Origins I was of course interested in Dragon Age II, the second game of the series. But as the game received very mixed reviews I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to play it. In the end I decided to give it a try to be able to form my own opinion.

Dragon Age II doesn’t continue the story of the first part. It tells a new story taking place in the same fantasy world during the same era. Hawke, her  siblings and their mother have to flee from Lothering during the invasion of the Dark Spawn (which the player has to stop in the first part). By the skin of their teeth they manage to reach the city-state of Kirkwall where their mother’s family lives. But after their arrival they learn that their uncle lost the family’s fortune. As the city is already overrun with refugees Hawke has to enter into indentured servitude for a year to pay for their entrance. The game tells the story of Hawke rising to fame and fortune against all the odds. But she also gets drawn into the escalating conflict between Mages and Templars that threatens the peace in Kirkwall.

One of the most frequent complaints about Dragon Age II is the combat system. I personally noticed that combat is faster and that console players finally have the ability to properly pause a fight and issue commands to all four characters. In particular the latter counts as a big improvement in my opinion. Another complaint is the small setting. The game only features a relatively small number of areas which each get (re)used for multiple missions during the course of the story. Some maps (e.g. the standard cave) even get recycled for a lot of different locations. The game designers try to hide this with crude tricks like moving the entrance around or closing parts of the maps depending on the mission. Overall the world and therefore the game lacks the epic proportions of the first part. Players also complained that BioWare dumbed the game down. They definitely simplified the role play system. And while I’m alright with some of their changes like the removal of non-combat skills I’m not very happy with other aspects, in particular the restrictive weapon class system. But there are also big improvements in Dragon Age II which I appreciated very much. The main character is fully (and excellently) voiced which makes the game feel like an interactive fantasy movie. The animation of the characters is also much more exciting. Mages now swing their staffs in artistic moves depending on the type of spell that they are casting. Or a rogue’s dodge is now a spectacular backflip instead of an enemy attack which simply misses for no obvious reason. The stories and the characters are also more complex. There is no obvious good and evil side in the conflict between the Mages and the Templars. There are heroes and villains in both fractions. Hawke’s companions are also multifaceted. In particular the potential romantic interests all have a troubled past and issues that Hawke has to deal with.

I definitely enjoyed playing Dragon Age II. While I agree that the game has flaws (in particular the excessive reuse of maps) it excels over its predecessor in e.g. story telling and graphics. I also suspect that some of the fans didn’t enjoy the blurred lines between good and evil. But in my opinion this is something which makes it even more worthwhile to play this game.

For the next part BioWare have promised the fans to learn from their mistakes in Dragon Age II. If they keep their promise and deliver story telling of this quality with the epic proportions of Dragon Age: Origins then Dragon Age: Inquisition will become a remarkable game. I’m definitely looking forward to it.