Happy belated Valentine's!
Also, Happy Mass Effect 3 demo day! I was going to put this out on time, but I was distracted by dinner home-cooked by Andrey, the Dashing Boyfriend. So, in honour of the biggest breakup/engagement day of the year, I will meditate on romance in the Mass Effect universe: who you get to love, In part 2, we talk pros and cons, and where the game fails and succeeds, and why good romance is so damn hard to write. This might take a while, so don't touch that dial!
(If you don't know what Mass Effect is, do yourself a favour and get it for PC or console RIGHT NOW. I'll wait. Play both of the ones released so far and don't you dare show your face until you're done.)
Welcome back. So! Mass Effect currently has two installments; appropriately, they are entitled Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2. I'm not going to include the extra stories and supplements in too much detail because the most important stuff happens in those two games. I will note that the one prejudice in this review, apart from the usual ones, will be a strong favoritism for Paragon Sheps, because neither I nor Andrey could handle the nastiness and stupidity that a proper Renegade playthrough sometimes requires.
As a reminder, and for those who were silly enough not to play the game, the plot involves the usual human-savior-of-the-galaxy-of-bullheaded-aliens device. However, a richly developed world and excellent design details keep it from feeling like so many retreads of the One Dude Against Everything stereotype. MaleShep's voiceacting and lines tend towards the cowboyish, at times, but even occasionally wobbly voiceacting on the masculine version of the character can't keep the interesting subplots, difficult ethical choices, and rich character development from shining through. That rich character development does fail sometimes, so without further ado, it's time to cut up some hearts and talk about love in the 22nd century AD. Cue the porn music.
Romances in the First Game:
Kaidan Alenko: When EB learned that a male romance option was in the works, they stripped it, fearing fan backlash from boi luv. However, everything but the sex scene is still there in the game code. And let me tell you, when they made this character UN-GAY, they stripped his personality. A dorky hick trying his hardest to be a manly man, even his attractive facial features can't make the hetero romance option for female Shepard (femShep from now on) an interesting person. A shame, really, because the bi orientation and some other cut dialogues would have given him at least a bit more personality than a cardboard promo cutout. They don't even reward players with better combat skills if you drag him out with you. I have yet to meet a single fan who actually liked this boring-ass sidekick.
Ashley Wilson: The human female romance option for MaleShep is really not much better. A tomboy with a prickly personality and a tendency towards bitchy girrrrrrl drama, Ashley's only redeeming features are a half-hearted attempt to develop her character with a love for poetry and her shapely ass. Since shapely asses in gaming are about as unique as 'B' for the Back button, the first is not much of a sale. Still, she sort of fits MaleShep's tendency to be an ignorant cowboy, and she is nothing if not gutsy--even if she has grandpa issues. At least she's less of a slack-jawed, 'hurr hurr, alien boobies' xenophone than Kaidan. She's okay in battle, but both the other romance option and other characters are much better.
Liara T'soni: This adorable blue alien chick has to be one of the cutest romance options in a recent game. As an Asari (not an Atari, though you can play with her console too, hurr hurr) she represents the 'other' box on the orientation check list. In fact, if you as MaleShep try to romance both girls, Liara will be fine with it--it's Ashley who will force you to choose and probably stomp off in a huff. Both MaleShep and FemShep can romance her, and it's a good thing. Shy, geeky, scholarly, but good with a Singularity, Liara is not only a fine lookin' gal with nicer booty than Ashley and a softer personality, she's an excellent combat choice. Her sex scene is also marginally better than Ashley's, though they're mostly identical.
The first game also forces you to sacrifice either Ashley or Kaidan and there's no way of getting out of it. Her bitchiness made Ashley the first to get it in the neck, but after one or two playthroughs more, it was boring, ignorant Kaidan that we voted off the island, every time.
The game ends with the usual promises of danger and suggestions of a happy ending, and at some point in there, Shep gets some tail. All seems well until...Mass Effect 2!
Mass Effect 2: The Search for More Luvz
Bioware, the company that developed Mass Effect, got a fair bit of flack for its lack of options in the first game. The second game sought to remedy that by letting you romance ALL THE THINGS, to alter a quote from the delightful Hyperbole and a Half. That said, with a better plot, more complex characters, and a large increase in the size and complexity of the universe, even the most annoying characters are rendered tolerable.
Romance options from the first game, surprisingly, didn't really carry over in plot, although even failing to sleep with your true love won't keep them from being counted as your one and only (assuming you imported a save game). If you see Ashley/Kaidan, whichever of them you were forced to let survive, they will be snotty because you're working for The Bad Guys. If you romanced one of them, they will still be snotty, but you'll get an apology note later. If you didn't sleep with them, well, no apology for you!
Liara's character will be talked about in some detail, because fans loved her so much that a major download providing both plot advancement and 'special time' with her was added to the otherwise lackluster short quest in-game.
As for the new faces in town, going in order of appearance is probably easiest. We'll talk about what happens if you try to have your cake and eat it too by cheating on your old significant other with the new peeps in a few minutes, but first, let's look at your new honeys.
Jacob Taylor: A big, attractive black man who's got the personality of a Labrador Retriever. He's about as smart, from outward appearances, but he's a Nobel Laureate compared to Kaidan. Still, he's sweet-natured, good in combat, and actually fun to talk to. If you want a quiet, pleasant male romance option, well, your FemShep is in luck. A lot of fans disliked or just didn't care about Jacob, but there's no getting around the fact that he's a pretty nice guy, and easy enough on the eyes. His personal story is pretty neat, too.
Miranda Lawson: This smokin' hot Aussie is the new Ashley, but Ashley 2.0 is a lot smarter and easier to put up with, even in spite of daddy issues (which, to be fair, is something even Liara suffers from, even though all Asari are female). Unfortunately, she is MaleShep only. Her faults do include a bitchy streak. She's somewhat witty, knows how to handle a gun, and has some talent with biotics, though she's no Asari...or Jack. We'll talk about Jack in a few minutes...
Garrus Vakarian: I would be lying if I said this wasn't one of my favorite characters and probably my romance choice. This fan favorite from the previous game is a tall, handsome (...you know, for a raptor) Turian who gets all scarred up about ten minutes after you meet him. He's got a few of Batman's traits without the psychological trauma, and the development from an earnest young officer to a vigilante in the slums of Omega is actually well-portrayed. The only disdvantage to romancing him is the difficulty in making Turian and human physiology, uh, compatible. The adorable and annoying Mordin, the hilarious scientist, warns FemShep that 'chafing' is a possible side effect and that she shouldn't consume any Turian fluids due to possible allergic reactions. Uhhh...yeah, that sort of takes the fun out of kissing, and god help you if you go bareback. At least he's a gentleman and witty, as well as an amazing shot. However, there are no bromance options for MaleShep, so the gents are once again left out.
Tali Zorah Vas Neema (later Vas Normandy): Everyone's favorite Unseen Babe from the first game shows up as a naive (but no longer jailbait) new crewmember and romance option. This was another fan request, and I have to admit, Tali is pretty darn cute. She's smart, an excellent shot and useful engineer, and she's brave: basically, a sexy Muslim alien Darth Vader. That works better than it sounds, I promise. You don't get to see her face, though, which had a lot of the same fans who wanted her in this one crying out with the rage of a thousand wilted boners. Still, she's cute and really sweet-natured, and MaleShep could do a lot worse...
Jack: ...Jack...is...Jack. A psychotic badgirrrrrrl with mad control of the Force--I mean, biotics, this tattoo-covered scantily-clad bald chick is everything your mother warned you about at the same time. That sounds kind of sexy until you add serious childhood trauma, a foul mouth, emotional issues, constant hostility, dozens of murders, and, oh yeah, the ability to kill you if you left up the toilet seat again. A lot of fans love her, but this (surprisingly) male-only romance option was just too psycho for both my tastes and Andrey's. Although her character is a reference to the main protagonist in Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, she is nothing like old Jean Valjean. Don't make eye-contact and don't try to be nice; letting her whine at you leads to romance or nothin'. This girl does not take to being friendzoned. Ever. Even after The Big Fight, you will be greeted with a big old 'FUCK OFF' if you end up in her area of the ship.
Thane Krios: This zen assassin with a fatal disease and a heart of gold is an interesting character, but a better buddy than a romance option. He's fascinating to talk to, though his character development is forced. He does give some neat information about other worlds in the Mass Effect universe, though. However, loving him--FemShep has this dubious privilege--involves a lot of talking about his dead wife, his disobedient son, and the fact that you can't replace her or live up to how lovely she was. I'll pass.
Liara T'soni: Liara is only really a romance option if you romanced her in the first game. In the second, she shows up as a more vicious, pale, anxious version of herself, trying to track down The Shadow Broker for revenge. She was disappointing at best on first appearance, and doesn't seem to want to deal with Shepherd when he/she comes to say hello, even if she loved the character before. She whines about how long ago it was and how hurt she was, and it's more annoying than you'd think. (You'd think she'd clue into your resurrection, even though she saved your sorry, dead, space-freezerburned ass from the old exploded Normandy, whether or not you were seeing each other.)
Either way, talk about a loyal friend. However, the download--which still allows you to hang out with her and take down a corrupt politico--shows her developing a case of badassery that seems forced and incongruous. Still, she gets her sense of humour back, and if you are smart enough to see through her whining and womanese, you can get her to chill out and take you back. Invite her back to the Normandy, and sexytimes will likely commence. Even if you actually ditched her, you can talk about your new romance and she will be universally very accepting of the new partner. However, Bioware warned players that they would, in effect, get their asses beat if they ditched a lover from ME1 for a new flame in ME2, so we'll see how sincere she is about no hard feelings in ME3.
There are also some bonus options who, since you can't actually have sex with them, don't count against your romance from the first game. If you want the fun without the sad shot of your ex's picture facedown on your desk (fixable, if you break up with your fling before going through the Omega 4 relay), you can try one of these ladies. As a bonus, they're romanceable by both MaleShep and FemShep.
Kelly Chambers: A cute, sweet, efficient secretary who likes to flirt, is warm and caring, and will do a sexy dance in an Asari stripper suit at the end of the game if you play your cards right. A cutie, and your best option.
Samara: This paladin has a heartbreaking backstory, and won't actually put out when you fall in love, because her code forbids a partner and commitment. Shame, really, because this cougar is an interesting lady to talk to and quite pretty. However, there are some issues there, partly related to her daughter, Morinth.
Morinth: A succubus from outer space with goth affectations, a taste for danger, and a need to kill and hurt that makes even Jack look borderline cuddly. Kind of. Well, not really, but Jack has a conscience somewhere. Morinth isn't actually very well-developed, considering all the hype about how badassed she is, and as a 'bonus', if your Renegade Shep romances her after killing her mother (this is what you have to do), she will suck your soul out and you die. Bummer.
Well, that's the cast...in Part 2, we'll talk about some obvious and less obvious problems, try to make a few guesses at what will blow up in Mass Effect 3, and explain why both dating and breaking up are really hard to do.
See you tomorrow!