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What is wrong with television executives? Especially in the States. These guys are supposed to be trained in business, marketing and a little bit in the entertainment business. And yet a great many shows have been hobbled by poor programming and promotion – only to be cancelled because there was no apparent audience according to the “ratings.”

Have these guys just never actually looked at the possibility that showing a programme inconsistently and out of order could be at fault, and not the show itself?

Think I’m talking about Firefly? No. I’m talking about Judd Apatow’s follow-up series from Freaks and Geeks – Undeclared.

Hampered by many of the same clumsy and unprofessional mistakes caused by programming, Undeclared – like it’s spiritual predecessor, Freaks and Geeks – made TIME’s top ten television shows of 2001. It was universally acclaimed and hit a chord with its audience.

That is, when they were able to catch it. The show was shown at odd occasions, and often out of sequence. A pivotal episode never screened, and generally everything was done to ensure that it would die in ratings limbo.

Which is a shame. Because it is a DAMN good series. Thanks to my brother providing me with the complete DVD set for Christmas, I have had the chance to once again see why Judd Apatow and his friends are some of the funniest and coolest people in America.

Undeclared takes place in a modern day campus where freshman Steven Karp has started his life at College. (Or as we in the Antipodes like to call them, University.)

Finding himself sharing a dorm suite with a sarcastic business type, a flaky music major and a suave British acting major – ex-geek Steven sets about befriending his room mates in the hopes of a new start.

And that’s pretty much the initial set-up for this comedy. Much like Freaks and Geeks, the series is about the characters. Each episode follows from the last, but focuses more on the people and how they related to each other.

Unlike Freaks, Undeclared is a half-hour format and is purely a comedy. This means that the jokes often come hard and fast. But in true Apatow fashion, each character has layers to their personality – even the most comical ones.

The result is a remarkably honest and familiar telling of life in University. Even though it is set in America, I found several episodes mirrored my own University experiences – the excitement, nervousness and horror. The characters are hilarious, while managing to be likeable. Even the arch-nemesis figures are painted with depth and believability. They are not simple people to hate, there is a likable side to them.

Featuring many Freaks and Geeks alumni, the show proves how Apatow has the wisdom and eye for picking people who he isn’t afraid to let loose. Like Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared’s true genius comes from the rare synchronicty of all the people working on the project – not just one man.

A great crew, talented and eager cast who never seem to try to upstage each other – but rather give everyone room to shine… it was a delight to watch this show. And a shame to know that it never got continued.

I’ve studied how polling works, and you simply cannot rely so heavily on ratings alone. Fox’s exec should have been asking why the ratings were low. If no programming gaffs had been made, then they may have had a case. But any idiot should know that a series being shown out of sequence loses its audience. Most choosing to wait for re-runs, by which point the series is usually canned.

I do wonder how Undeclared would have done if it had been allowed to run in sequence as intended…

If you haven’t seen it yet – GET IT! This is pure gold. And if you loved Freaks, you ought to love Undeclared too.

Conan

Currently Reading:
Currently Playing: Exalted: Nexus of the Sun
Mood: Buzzing from lots of Undeclared!

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Introduction

An ancient threat returns. One final hope emerges.

How many times have we heard that or something similar? The usual theme of computer RPGs arises again in Mass Effect, a game that manages to plunder every sci-fi cliche under the sun and produce a truly compelling and enjoyable gaming experience. However it is not without faults.

Mass Effect enjoys quite a pedigree. Designed by Bioware, it draws upon the design themes of their two previous hit RPGs, Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) and Jade Empire. Many of the people associated with the development of these games have also been involved in Mass Effect’s development, so it should be no surprise that it is a sort of evolution of these two games.

Story

Derivative to the point of robbing every space opera and sci-fi since the early 70s for ideas, Mass Effect still manages to make a compelling and vibrant universe from its pillaged resources.

The main plot itself is very much a celebration of all things space opera, with homages and sly asides abounding. After discovering an ancient alien observation post on Mars, humanity unlocked the technology required to travel to the stars. They end up discovering a millennia old galactic civilisaton that has an uneasy peace. As the young race in the galaxy, humanity is struggling to gain political advantage within this civilisation.

Along comes Saren, a Spectre – a sort of James Bond meets the Texas Rangers-type agent for the Council that rules over this galactic peace. He has gone rogue and allied himself with a long lost race of sentient machines. You, as human Commander (insert name here) Shepard quickly learns that Saren is up to something far greater than it initially appears, and thus begins a quest to stop Saren – at any costs.

Naturally there is more to the story. Players choose Shepard’s gender and appearance, then his/her history and known psychological profile. This is important to note because the story changes based on how these permutations link together. Often they are subtle changes, but sometimes there are some big twists.

Every NPC you meet will react to you based on these choices, and some quests are only available to certain histories. The rationale behind Shepard’s main quest, and how s/he can react towards Saren during a face off are also dictated by these seemingly simple decisions.

For example, taking a Spacer character ends up involving Shepard in a conversation with his family via commlink when a particular NPC shows up and claims to know his mother.

Choose Colonist, however, and this never happens. Instead, it is revealed that your character survived a brutal raid, and Shepard has to face the horrors of what happened there when s/he meets another survivor from the same raid, who was tortured and abused by alien slavers.

This is where Mass Effect’s story shines – your decisions have many, often subtle, effects on the flow of the story. While mechanically there seem to be only one or two directions, the permutations are much wider – effected by which characters from your squad of six accompany you, what your past history is, and what choices you made over the course of the game. This kind of story development is amazing.

Gameplay

KOTOR and Jade Empire both involved the player creating a character, often based off a template, and then wandering around locations talking with Non-Player Characters (NPCs) and getting into the occasional fight. Not much has changed with this formula, but Mass Effect does provide a few twists.

Drawing more on the idea of having active combat over turn-based, most of the fighting is similar to a third person shooter, with some clear inspiration from recent gaming hit, Gears of War.

You gain experience from fights, completing quests and achieving various other little victories. When your character gains enough experience, s/he levels up, allowing you to allocate talent points to each character’s various abilities. While it initially appears that talent points don’t have a major effect on your shooting ability – they end up improving the chance of hitting an enemy rather than firing wild, and provide special abilities that can be utilised by hitting the right bumper.

Combat can be fast and furious, and firefights are often over quicker than in many shooter games. While it is possible to button-mash your way through most fights, the combat system is designed more around creating a personal style of combat rather than figuring out the “winning” combination. After three playthroughs, I have had three very different combat play experiences. Take something like a Soldier or Vanguard, you are often running ahead of your squad firing wildly at your enemies while occasionally stopping to call up special abilities to help finish them off.

Play as an Adept and you find yourself hanging back in the fight, constantly attacking with mysterious biotic powers which have opponents flying around the battlefield crashing into each other. Take engineer and you hack into Synthetic opponents to cause them to go on a rampage attacking other enemies, or neurally shocking organic opponents to knock them out – leaving them vulnerable for your squad mates to pick off.

But this is not without flaws. Squad control is virtually non-existent, and often the squad member’s AI is woefully inadequate. The number of times you or another squad member is caught in friendly fire because the third member of your party didn’t think to walk *around* friendly targets before opening fire happens often enough to be a little annoying.

Sometimes squadmates will randomly draw weapons they are not skilled in rather than using the preferred weapon, causing you to hit the left bumper, pause the game and reselect the proper weapon.

Yet the enemy AI is pretty good. Enemies take cover, they co-ordinate attacks and for the most part show a great deal of smarts. However some do just charge into melee against oncoming gunfire. *sigh*

Another great aspect of the game is the addition of the conversation wheel. Unlike previous Bioware games, where you had a drop down menu of dialogue to choose from whenever talking with major NPCs; Mass Effect has a wheel with six “slots” for dialogue. Usually a short precis of what you intend is presented, then when you select it Shepard will speak his/her own dialogue that captures the intent.

For example, you select “I don’t trust you” and Shepard might say “That is all well and good, but your actions aren’t exactly matching with what you are claiming to me at the moment.” Or, depending on where on the wheel the slot is (there are fixed “types” of intent) Shep might say “That’s crap. I’m keeping my eye on you.”

The other beauty is that because the wheel keeps choices to the point, it pops up mid conversation, allowing you to select an option without seriously breaking up the flow of conversation – making for a much more cinematic feel to the dialogue sequences. The choice of giving the PC a voice and actions means that you genuinely feel like you are part of a great sci-fi film.

But again there are little flaws. The wheel is not utilised enough in the way it was intended. There are occasions where it simply is just another way of conversing with characters. Also, there are times where you only have two or three options, which boil down to “be nice, be neutral, be an a**hole.” But when the wheel is fully utilised in conversation, you get some genuinely memorable sequences – such as the conversations with Wrex; the face off with Saren; a dramatic decision making segment on the world of Virmire.

It is at these points that Mass Effect elevates itself above its normal gameplay and really shows what kind of game the developers truly had in mind when creating it. It’s just a shame that large parts of the game don’t reach this level.

Visuals

Visually, Mass Effect is one of the most amazing games on the market. Many of the story locations are truly memorable and stunning to see, and the detailing on the characters is second to none.

This game sometimes shows exactly what a next-gen console is capable of. But it isn’t without some gripes.

Firstly, many of the minor NPCs suffer from what I call “Oblivion-syndrome.” Apart from some very rare examples, the world is full of ugly human males that look like the hillbillys from Deliverance. Women tend to be attractive, although they too suffer from a number of weird drag-queen like characters.

HAIR. I know it is hard to do natural looking hair, and when you have this many NPCs wandering around you can’t afford to be too fancy. But some characters look like they have plastic molds of hair slapped on their heads like some dire space version of Polly Pocket! While some characters, like Ashley and your Female Shepard, are fine – a lot of women look ridiculous. In particular there are two sisters you talk to in a casino sequence who look like they are naturally bald and have some weird red hat slapped on their heads.

Having said that – the aliens are all uniformly impressive. The amount of detail on the Salarians, Turians and Krogan in particular are brilliant. While they initially might look similar, you soon notice that each character has differences. Different Salarians have different skull shapes, the Turians all have different head spines and tattoos.

And the detail of scales, slime and even alien irises are impressive. Which brings me to another great feature of the visuals – the eyes. This is likely the first game I have seen where the characters have eyes that seem to show a depth, a reality to them. This carries over to the impressive detail of movement. Eyes “track” and “scan” like real people. Nobody stares all the time like some fish, their eyes move around rapidly and in short random fashion – like real eyes. Facial expressions change, the eyes shift naturally when characters talk rather than just have a randomly moving mouth.

This is most evident in Krogan squadmate Wrex – whose complex facial movements are stunning to behold. He looks almost alive and real. That is something that Bioware can be truly proud of how they have managed to do this.

Negatives

However there is a down side to all this brilliance. By trying to have too much, Mass Effect ends up almost having too little. Odd decisions, a buggy graphics engine, a main plot that’s too short and repetitive sidequests that are too long help to drag this game down.

During development the story goes that Bioware realised that they didn’t have all the resources to be able to do everything that they wanted with the game. It was decided that rather than cut an entire element out of the game, each area took a cut, the reasoning being that they could have everything they wanted and build up from there in later developments – but to be able to meet all promises and show what they had in mind.

Unfortunately this ends up making a game that is full of different elements, but master of none. Squad control was virtually removed in favour of an anemic system that doesn’t quite work anymore. The side worlds that you can visit – of which there are dozens – are all the same world with different textures and slightly different mountain layout. The Mako – a vehicle you drive around in sidequests – is not upgradeable, which is frustrating when opponents do scale with your level.

Graphically, the game suffers from the worst framerate issues I have ever seen in a console game. Frame rate stutters to a near standstill just by moving the camera around too quickly at random points. Texture load up happens mid scene – and in some cases doesn’t load up until the sequence is nearly over.

There are random loading times as the game streams info off the disc and this happens at virtually random points in the game.

In the aim to have some 50+ sidequests, most end up being simply collect missions with no pay off – a tour around the galaxy to find text boxes.

The codex, an intergalactic tome of information accessible from the menu, has vast swathes of spoken dialogue that repeats what is already written on the screen. I found myself wondering why this was kept – as the spoken dialogue would have used data and resources that could have been better put to use elsewhere.

Some of the writing is atrocious. While the main story is brilliant and full of great moments, it does suffer from some ill-planned sequences. One level – Noveria – is weak as it ends its sequence with a bit of an anticlimactic departure with no real denouement.

One of the areas most let down is the inter-relationships of your team. Jade Empire excelled at creating the illusion that the various characters were interacting and talking. Being able to stop and talk with characters at any point in the game allowed the player to develop and foster believeable friendships – and often there are moments where the characters talk to each other about their lives. Most popular was the romance subplots – where players could interact with romanceable characters and build a lasting relationship that was referred to during the game.

Mass Effect has seriously taken a step back in this regard. Characters only quip when riding elevators in one location of the game – one world, where you rarely use elevators either. Also, these dialogue moments are in a lower range so any loud sound effects nearly drown the characters out.

Characters rarely talk to each other at any other point. On only a few occasions near the end of the game does this change. Worst though is that most of the romances in Mass Effect feel like they were written by a thirteen year old sitting in his maths class. The dialogue is often stilted and unnatural. Where Jade Empire made the player interact and build a relationship with the romanceable characters, Mass Effect virtually starts with “I would like to shag you sometime” and kind of stays on that tangent.

The only exception I noticed was the Female Shepard and Kaiden romance, where Kaiden takes time to build a rapport with your character.

All this leads to a rather tasteful, but seemingly pointless, sex scene near the end of the game. It’s kind of sad that the pay off for building a relationship is just to get to see some blurred out butt and a potential “blink-and-you’ll miss it” nipple shot.

Worst yet, the relationship does not exist outside of its limited storyline segments. Whenever you are on location or talking to the character outside of your ship – it’s as if the relationship does not exist. Again, I found Jade Empire handled this much more effectively.

My final comment is about the choices of romanceable characters. It has been stated that Bioware chose to only have three characters so that they could focus all their attention on making those characters interesting and do the romances justice. I would say that Bioware can comfortably say… mission aborted. While the characters have some depth, their storylines are clumsily handled. Furthermore, Bioware have limited the range of romances available. Sorry to all you gay guys out there. The military don’t mind lesbian sex with alien women, but normal male-male fraternisation is a no-no. Bioware are likely unaware of the fact that by not having a male-male option in a supposedly “mature” R13 game – even one that is as tame as Jade Empire’s – they are saying something about gay relationships by not saying anything.

I will discuss this further at the end of the review, as I don’t feel it is something that should effect the overall score – considering a great many players will be heterosexual.

Positives

So that’s a lot of negative commentary about the game. Yet with even all these little faults, Mass Effect is an amazing game. When it gets the forumla right, it does so amazingly.

Despite the graphical issues, these happen only occasionally, and for most of the game it’s pure graphic gold. The expressive faces, the lush locations and stunning cut-scenes (all done with in-engine graphics) are awe inspiring.

The storyline is engaging and suitably dramatic. The game’s conclusion is simply one of the most satisfying finales I have played in a long time, and keeps the player involved with the outcome right up to the final frame. Despite claims of not many big choices, it is clear after three runs through the game that your decisions throughout the game have a number of subtle and interesting effects on the direction the story takes – and this keeps on going to the last frame.

The fact that the game saves your character and choices suggests that these decisions will also carry over to the next game! I’m keen to see how that works out.

Most of the characters are very interesting, and you really make a connection to a lot of them. While they don’t quite have the engaging appeal of Jade Empire’s classics (who can ever forget Henpecked Hou, Sagacious Zu and Black Whirlwind…) there are some great characters on show here.

Summing up

While Mass Effect has bugs and issues – it is still one of the best games of the year. It has laid a foundation that Bioware can build up from. With the promise of regular downloadable content for the game there is room to improve where the game has faults. What is there is impressive, and I suspect that as the amount of additional game content is created, the game has room to become closer to the vision that Bioware wants the game to be.

In a way its imperfections help to show what makes Mass Effect so great. It is a stunning achievement of a game that breaks the mold for RPGs and manages to be engaging and enjoyable despite its flaws. Even with my various gripes, it still is a game I want to just keep playing over and over. I haven’t even covered all the aspects of the game. This is an epic game that ultimately is worth the price of admission. Warts and all.

A Note about Romances

I want to bring this up as an aside more than a direct critique. As a gay gamer, I find that it is a rough life finding satisfying computer games with romances in them. A lot of developers don’t seem to grasp how media can affect the way people perceive themselves.

When you create a sandbox game with customisability – particularly a game like Mass Effect which wants you to out yourself in the shoes of the character and tell your own story through your actions and choices – there is a certain message being sent to gamers with the choices allowed.

By denying players the opportunity to romance a male character, there is a sense of disconnect for a gay gamer. It sends the message that it is not okay to want to romance a male character.

This negative message is further reinforced by allowing a lesbian love affair. Claiming “she’s an alien who is asexual” loses its validity when said asexual alien is rendered as a beautiful woman with clear female traits, and refers to herself as female.

I don’t think Bioware did this maliciously, but it is a serious concern. Jade Empire had a gay romance, and there was very little hoo-hah from the “moral” crowd against it. The precedent has been set. To not include a gay romance in a supposedly mature game is a step backwards, in my opinion.

Bioware is limiting players and is implying (even in unintentionally) that it does not approve of male-male relationships.

Some would argue that market forces dictate. But given that the gay market is a multi-billion dollar a year industry – and that there are a marked number of “gaymers” out there – it seems bad business sense to not try and tap into that market.

To argue that conservative gamers would boycott the game loses effectiveness when one looks at The Sims. It is a huge money spinner that not only has gay relationships, but gay marriage and simulated gay sex! And it isn’t even R-rated. The PS2, PSP, PC and Mac versions allow for gay relationships. Only the DS version is non-gay friendly. But then it also doesn’t have any sexual connotations at all.

So I feel the need to express my disappointment in Bioware’s failure to show support for a market that they initially won over with games like Jade Empire – which allowed gay relationships.

For me, this was a big let down that genuinely spoiled my enjoyment of the game. It is not sufficient to argue “that’s the way the world is.” As a producer of media, and making the claim that I can make the story I want, Bioware has failed me.

To that end, Mass Effect is not supportive of gay gamers – and that is a shame.

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