To play or not to play Mass Effect 1.VI – Exploring the Wards

The arms of the Citadel from within the Wards

(Archived video available here).

In this part, we will explore the Wards, move the plot forward a little, and pick two new squadmates up. We will also scan eight of the remaining nine keepers – the last one is available now, but to reach it would make this already long segment even longer, and so we will wait a little before reaching it.

We are now ready to move onwards and explore the Wards, and two options are open to us: pursue Harkin in Chora’s Den in order to track Garrus down, or head over to C-Sec and look for the mercenary hired by the Shadow Broker. Either option is valid, but the latter moves the action forward in Chora’s Den and locks us out of meeting Harkin, so we will go there instead. After going through a pretty uneventful section (containing only a keeper at the moment, and serving for a couple of quests in the future, but otherwise eminently skippable), we reach the main body of the Wards, hug a right, and we are almost upon Chora’s Den. It is here that the most convincing argument for actually heading over to C-Sec first pops up, in the form of an infamously difficult encounter with a pair of assassins – which can be skipped by opting for the alternative plot progression. Beside the problem of having a tough fight right after a long stretch of non-action gameplay, the two assassins pack a punch both at long and short ranges, and are happy to sit behind cover and regenerate their shields if left alone. Turn the corner too early, and they will shred your party with carnage and their melee attacks. This time, I won by being super aggressive, spamming my powers right away and hoping that would open a window large enough for me to take them down.

Ashley: Hmm.

Chora’s Den fulfills a couple of functions. First, it shows the game is not afraid of being edgy, of going to dark places and of exploring adult themes; though I applaud this kind of brazeness in a game, I personally find it a bit tastelessly plastered here; the fact that the overwhelming majority of the dancers are asaris (all but one, in fact) also somewhat blunts the edge: having more human dancers would certainly leave a stronger impact on players, for better or for worse. The second function is to show how not all is perfect and pristine on the Citadel: there are still seedy places to be found here, and Chora’s Den stands in for the underbelly of the Citadel. This aspect is not really explored in detail, but giving players a glimpse is important, because it adds depth to the mental picture of the Citadel players are building at this point of the game – adding complexity is really important, because the gargantuan size of the Citadel is something that the game wants (and needs) to impress on the player, but cannot do so just by showing the player around (more on this later).

As for things to do here, first we meet General Septimus, as requested by the Consort. We go the Paragon way and convince him to pick himself up and act like the general he is.

General Septimus: Thanks, Commander. You know… you might make a good general yourself one day.

To show us his gratitude, he helps us with completing the quest we undertook for the Elcor in the embassy – by admitting his foul play in the matter, no less; Septimus offers a nice counterpoint to the stiff Executor Pallin; Turians too can be petty and play dirty; however, when reminded of his duty, Septimus is not afraid to raise to the occasion and does not shy away from his responsibilities.

With that done, we can approach Harkin and ask him about Garrus. Harkin is unpleasant enough for a male Shepard, but he is a lot sleazier for a female character, resorting to demeaning, sexualizing commentary. He is written quite well, as an old, bitter, low kind of character. He provides a contrast to the humans in (para-) military roles encountered until now (Anderson, Kaidan, Ashley), who have all been outstanding in following rules and regulations; he reminds players that not only spectres and aliens can be bad or unpleasant. Before telling us where Garrus (that damn hothead) might be, he lets us in on his version of Anderson’s history with Saren: Anderson was in fact the first human spectre, and “blew it”; the whole thing was then hushed. It is interesting to hear this tale from another human who “blew it”, repeatedly in fact, while being a trailblazer in a position of authority – in Harkin’s case of course, the hushing included him keeping his position: a commentary on the burden of owning one’s responsibility? or a reminder that there are degrees of importance, and that not all are to be judged equally when it comes to politics? In the meantime, we have gotten our next lead – Doctor Michel’s clinic, and we can leave from here, though we will be back soon.

Since the clinic is on the other side of the map, we can take this chance to do some exploring. First, we visit the markets: this is the first area in which what the game is supposed to show, and what it can show really clash: a threadbare area, with a couple of stalls, and a few stationary characters are hardly what you would expect here, but it is what the game can afford to show us. A seemingly harmless encounter here will have repercussions throughout the whole trilogy, albeit of the comedic kind. For now, an authograph seems to be enough…

Conrad Verner: Thanks, I really appreciate it. My wife is going to be so impressed!

We then meet a store clerk whose name might as well be Lord Foreshadow, with his mentioning of two colonies which will become of some interest to us quite soon. Here as well, another comedic tradition throughout the series sees its inception, in the form of the dissatisfied customer looking for a refund. It is interesting that these comedic moments are all placed in this particular location, as if the writers were trying to distract the players, making them pay less attention to the fact the game is not managing to re-create the scope it should in this particular area.

Moving on, we meet the reporter Emily Wong in the concourse, and agree to share with her the results of our investigation. We then move on to have a look at Flux, an establishment which seems to serve as a counterpoint to the seedier Chora’s Den. Here we pick up a quest that will send us back there, and we also discover something is wrong with one of the Quasar machines here – the first hook into yet another quest. As meeting Garrus will change the conditions at Chora’s Den, we backtrack there to have a talk with Jenna, but nothing we can say will convince her; on the way out, however, we meet someone who appears to be her handler. It seems C-Sec has this thing firmly in hand, but we will nonetheless pursue the issue further ourselves.

Our next stop is a cutscene in which Shepard and company finally come to terms with the size of the Citadel. I appreciate its place and its function – again, it is difficult for a game to show this kind of size while retaining the focus of the story, not to mention the technical limitations involved! The following titles will both try to address this problem in their own different ways, but the issue is most pressing here: this is the game that introduces the setting, and therefore it falls squarely on its shoulders to impress players with how vast and important the Citadel is. However, I think this cutscene mostly fails, and it does so because it tries to make too many points. The staggering size of the citadel gets mixed in with the realization the galaxy Shepard and the others live in is bigger than they thought, which then leads to questioning humanity’s place, and a little romance by-play gets thrown in as well. It is too much to keep the pace and the flow focused, and as a result the characters come off as naïve tourists/outsiders failing to grasp what is in front of them, trying to come to terms to it by joking around, diminishing the impact for the player. All the points are worth being explored of course, but perhaps separating them would have served them better.

Be that as it may, we finally reach the clinic, and we are greeted with a hostage situation. Garrus cold bloodedly shoots the man holding the good doctor, and we are left with cleaning up the mess. I like this fight because it does a good job of showing how the environment can be used: there’s a fire containment system that can be blown up to cause poison damage to the enemies next to it, and one of the crates can be destroyed to remove its cover. Doctor Michel reveals what it is that made Saren betray the Shadow Broker: a Quarian that has information that could link him to the geth, and who was seeking the help of the Shadow Broker in exchange for that information. Fist, the owner of Chora’s Den was the closest contact, but he has now passed on to Saren’s side. Garrus, who has been trying to take Saren down for quite some time now, is understandably excited about this new lead, and asks us to join forces. We accept Garrus, who has the potential of becoming one of the most thrustworthy squadmates in the trilogy, among our ranks.

At this point, we could head to Chora’s Den and advance the plot, but there is still a mercenary in C-Sec we could look for, and since it is a Krogan (a race of massive, and massively violent, individuals with quite a backstory), a detour to see if we can pick him up as well is worth our time. At this stage, we could begin switching squadmates around, but for now we will stick with our human companions for a little while longer, though I will attempt to rotate all available squadmates and give them some screen time. Down to C-Sec we head, meeting nice-guy Officer Lang along the way, and in between exploring the place (to pick up some codex scans and a couple of keepers) we are introduced to Wrex.

Wrex: We’re both warriors, Shepard. Out of respect, I’ll give you a fair warning. I’m going to kill Fist.

Wrex is more of a Renegade type, but some conflict is always welcome when it includes frank exchanges of points of view, so we add him as well to our growing squad. Before heading out, we still have a meeting with Chellik, Jenna’s handler. In this exchange we meet our first dialogue check which we cannot complete for lack of paragon points. Instead, we will trade our services for her extraction from her dangerous position, by pretending to be anonymous buyers for some illegal mods. I have to say, after having most people in the Wards recognizing us, using us to go underground might not be the best scheme ever concoted by the good Turian.