(Archived video available here; pretty run-of-the-mill gameplay)
In this part, I will finish the prologue mission. Last time, we discovered that the beacon had been moved from this platform to another one. We therefore set off to look for our goal, and in doing so we completely neglect to offer Nihlus the courtesy we did show towards Corporal Jenkins; abnegation in the face of urgent duty? emergent anthropocentrism? a distrust for spectres? simple oversight by the developers? No matter, for there is gameplay at hand! The next section is a shooting gallery, presumably there to teach players how take, use and switch cover, as well as moving your teammates around (which can only be done by accessing the HUD, effectively pausing the game and breaking the flow of the action); in addition to the regular geth troopers we have met until now, we are also facing a couple of geth destroyers: highly mobile units whose job is to rush you and flush you out of cover. Once all the enemies have been dispatched, Shepard will reach a console and activate the train that will take us to the next section.
After a brief cutscene, where we learn that Saren has dastardly decided to wipe the entire colony in order to cover his tracks, we regain control of our squad, and realize that our task consists of defusing four charges before they blow – and a good thing the geth left the first one right by the landing platform, so we could spot it! Had they hidden them, our quest would most likely have ended right there. This segment isn’t particularly trying: the 5 minutes timer is very generous, and the charges are marked on the map, but I don’t like it much for two reasons: it appears to be the forefather of the worst possible objective type you can get in Mass Effect 3 multiplayer, and then there is this guy here:
The geth sniper is, at this stage of the game, capable of one-shotting a character. Given that Shepard dying is a failure condition, I am of the opinion that this should not happen. Though there is a “tell”, and it can be seen in the screenshot above, at this early stage of the game, players are most likely still too busy learning the interface to notice it, especially in a timed mission such as this one. The other enemy unit introduced in this segment is the geth shock trooper, a rather tough unit that is quite capable of pinning you down. In this confrontation, our fellow sentinel Kaidan Alenko has gone down (as shown in the screenshot above). Unlike Shepard, death is not a permanent condition for our squadmates, and they will get up at the end of the present engagement. In this particular case, disabling the charges is not enough, we also need to approach the beacon and deal with the last enemy forces there before we can regain the services of our fallen comrade.
Before approaching the beacon, I highlight a bit of clunky design: our obvious goal is in front of us, but we have to veer off to the left and right in order to aquire some inventory upgrades, rooting through a big, empty map for them; there is nothing wrong with hiding the occasional high-powered piece of equipment or easter egg in out-of-the-way places, but systematically forcing players to search for trivial equipment is not a good way to entince them into exploring the map: it gets rather annoying rather quickly, because the payoff is rarely worth the effort.
There is a somewhat hidden cutscene here as well, with no visual prompt to trigger it; once we have wondered at the amount of devastation left by the ship, we finally approach the beacon, and predictably trigger another cutscene.
This is, in my opinion, mostly very well executed. It is pretty clear that the vision we got is really important to the economy of the plot, perhaps even central to it – as it indeed is. The vision itself is appropriately mysterious, cryptic even to a frame-by-frame analysis, yet charged with a powerful sense of doom. There is, as expected, plenty of foreshadowing here, and we might in fact recognize some of the structures we have been shown rather soon, though that’s perhaps the province of the very observant players, or those re-playing the game. The one thing I disagree with is the action causing Shepard to be the one experiencing the vision; Shepard pushing a potential (and in fact, someone he barely even knows) love interest to safety (if Shepard is female, it is Kaidan Alenko that will get shoved) scores him points in gallantry, but at the cost of turning this central episode, this hub along which the plot spins, into little more than a random event: if we had not intervened, would Ashley/Kaidan be the main protagonist of the game? We all know how important a role chance plays in the real world, and one of the reasons we play games, especially role-playing games, is to escape that helplessness we feel in front of an uncaring world; we want to be the heroes, we want to be anointed for that role; this scene robs us of that payoff, in order to set another step in the ladder that will eventually lead us to wooing the heart of our love interest. Personally, I don’t think this trade-off is worth it, and I would rather have had Shepard purposefully approach the beacon, while using a different situation to let us play the knight in shining armour.
Be that as it may, the beacon explodes after delivering its images, and we (the players) are transported inside Saren’s ship, where we witness another cutscene, probably important for the plot, but unlike the previous scene this one is rather poorly executed. From the opening shot of an ample, blue cleavage to the need for adding subtitles to Saren’s rage, this is scene feels jarringly out of place, heavy handed and full of ham.
One neat detail, the light inside the room changes from a soothing blue into a pulsating red as Saren begins raging… which could beg the question, is the shift in the light the consequence of Saren’s rage, or its cause?
Shepard meanwhile wakes up on the Normandy some 15 hours later, is cleared by doctor Chakwas and debriefed by Anderson, who seems to know quite a bit about Saren, a legendary spectre with a strong dislike for humans. It seems our next task will be to convince the almighty council that Saren has gone rogue and that his spectre status must be rescinded… a tall order indeed.
With the Normandy closing in on the Citadel, it is fair to predict that we are in for a lot of plot hooks, lore, dialogue and, of course, side-quests.