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Meet the community still obsessing over Mass Effect 2 10 years later

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Is Mass Effect 2 the series’ golden goose or its ugly duckling? As the game passes its 10th anniversary this year, the debate rages on. Many space cadets recall their time with the game through a lens of utmost fondness, while others contend its status as the most detached and defunct entry in BioWare’s illustrious trilogy (Andromeda, for all its pluses and minuses, is usually not part of the same discussion).

Regardless, a decade after its release, folks from all walks of life cling to Mass Effect 2 and the events surrounding it like a vice grip, continuing to invest time, effort, and money in the maintenance of their interest long after BioWare announced its plans to discontinue the series indefinitely.

Space dress-up

Cosplayer Felicia “spacelioncosplay” Neely cites the characters and “epic story” as the elements of Mass Effect she initially gravitated toward. “BioWare has the ability to write these wonderfully complex and thought-provoking characters that surprise us with their relatability, inspire us with their actions, and sometimes divide us and break our hearts in the end,” she tells me. “You cannot help but fall more in love with them during each replay—especially Garrus, hey!”

It was these components that convinced Neely to cultivate her passion for costuming in the first place. “I was beginning to feel like maybe cosplay was a phase for me rather than a passion,” she explained. Then she played Mass Effect 2.

“The beautiful aesthetic of the clothing and armor lit a fire inside me like no series ever had,” she adds. “There was such a wide range of textures and materials and finishes on each character’s outfit—I had to make something from it! I have always loved the asari: beautiful, deadly, powerful. To me, Aria T’Loak is easily the most badass asari around, so it was an easy choice for me when I decided that I wanted to bring The Pirate Queen of Omega to life.”

This was no easy task: Neely had to begin by taking hundreds of screenshots in order to assess exactly how an Aria T’Loak costume would even look. She also watched scenes that displayed the clothing from different angles in order to gain an understanding of how the materials moved and looked in different lighting. Once she had a solid plan, she began the patterning process, referencing real-world articles of clothing while creating all of her own components from scratch.

Naturally, getting body paint to capture an accurate blue asari skin tone proved challenging. “I ended up using pax paint—a combination of a medical-grade adhesive and non-toxic acrylic paint that gives the paint enough elasticity to stick to your skin without flaking or cracking,” she tells me. The painting process alone takes two hours, because the paint needs to be applied in thin layers to achieve the correct look. “On my chest, neck, and face, I used a combination of Ben Nye creme colors, Kryolan Aquacolor, eyeshadows, and lipsticks for contouring,” she said.

Neely explains that this is only one small section of what was ultimately an odyssey. The countless hours of work were worth it, though, for a “final product that I was really proud of and felt great in.”

Going for speed

Fabian “tentaclepie” Sundberg has also invested a remarkable amount of time pursuing his passion for Mass Effect 2. Since 2014 alone, he has pumped about 350 hours into speedrunning the game, and he currently holds three speedrunning records on player-run leaderboards.

After playing through the first two games in the series ahead of Mass Effect 3’s highly anticipated launch, Sundberg said he was struck by the drastic improvements to combat, animation, and character writing he found in the second installment. “I liked the game so much I skipped school to play,” he explains in a recent interview with Ars Technica.

Sundberg has had a huge and direct influence on Mass Effect 2’s speedrunning community, discovering “skips” that effectively break the game’s intended flow to allow for faster play times. In one particular case, Sundberg spent over 10 hours trying to find a consistent method for a new skip that involved lining up a certain angle to get past a slow-loading elevator section. He could get it to work sometimes, but there was no rhyme or reason to the success or failure; it seemed random.

“I couldn’t find anything until I had the dumb idea that I should just aim into the sun,” he explains. “Bam. Worked 99 percent of the time.”

While this is the only substantial skip Sundberg says he found himself, he makes use of techniques uncovered by fellow speedrunners like Emilio and Strife in improving his own performance. “I [just] focused on getting better times and grinding it out.”

The mod squad

Sundberg notes that speedrunners used to have to sit through 10 minutes of cutscenes at the beginning of the game, until a load remover was eventually added by modders about two years ago. One such modder, Mgamerz, has played a particularly significant role in the Mass Effect 2 modding community since the release of Mass Effect 3 spawned a new wave of mods for the previous game.

Similarly to Sundberg, Mgamerz first experienced Mass Effect 2 about a week before the trilogy’s highly anticipated denouement. Mgamerz remembers Mass Effect 2 drastically improving on its predecessor, which was excellent at its narrative core but ultimately pretty dated. He also recalls failing to complete some of the second game’s side quests ahead of its iconic suicide mission, resulting in the deaths of many crew members and a particularly dramatic transition to Mass Effect 3.

Enlarge / Modding Mass Effect 2 allows you to see it from otherwise impossible perspectives.

“I don’t play through the games like most people, since I dig around in the internals often,” Mgamerz explains. However, he’s sure to play through the series in its entirety every couple of years, primarily to look for new mechanics and items to mod. For example, he sometimes studies how conversation stages are choreographed by wrenching the camera away from its intended position.

Although Mgamerz experiments with all three Mass Effect games, he maintains that the series’ second episode is a bit of an anomaly. “Mass Effect 2 is a great game as a whole,” he explains, “but not 100 percent in line with the plot of the other two games.”

Let’s talk about it

Kenneth Shepard—who co-hosts the Normandy FM podcast—can definitely identify with that sentiment. “It was N7 Day 2018 when I jokingly tweeted out that I wanted to make a Mass Effect podcast going over the minutiae of basically everything,” he tells me. “An episode per mission or group of missions to discuss things as large as the major choices in each game to the smaller details you can’t really dedicate time to in any other format.”

Shepard explains that he had never been as excited for a game as he was for Mass Effect 2. After it eventually launched, it usurped the original as his favorite game of all time—although this exact process repeated itself when the trilogy’s final chapter arrived two years later.

But he also said there are issues with Mass Effect 2 that are often glossed over when viewed via nostalgia-tinted glasses. “Mass Effect 2 is a hard game to talk about because the mainstream consciousness has dubbed it the best game in the series, and it’s difficult to get people to consider any alternative,” Shepard said. “It’s aged [more] poorly than any other game in the series in how it frames Shepard as a self-insert character. For all its touting of player choice and expression, ME2 makes calculated decisions to exclude queer people, men especially, and most people just skip over that.“

The logo the Normandy FM podcast used during its discussion of all four <em>Mass Effect</em> games

The logo the Normandy FM podcast used during its discussion of all four Mass Effect games

“It’s a deeply heteronormative game that treats male intimacy as a thing that doesn’t exist in its universe and female intimacy as a thing that only exists in secret between Shepard and her secretary,” he continued.

Shepherd thinks these omissions were less noticeable when the game was released in 2010, a time when mainstream game developers were far less inclined to champion diversity. “I think the way it established some extremely poor values in a universe about diversity and inclusivity has been forgotten because everyone is still in awe of the admittedly excellent suicide mission. I love each of the Mass Effect games, but especially after replaying and dissecting them on the show, the ways in which it felt like [Mass Effect 2] was actively trying to push me out has stuck with me more than a lot of its strong suits in the long run.”

Shepard still holds the series as a whole in high esteem, though, and notes how many guests he’s been able to find who have a similar investment and critical eye for Mass Effect. “It’s also been great having people reach out and follow the show telling us how much they appreciate that something like it exists,” he adds. “There’s a lot of passion for this series that has lived on over the years, and a willingness to be critical of a thing we all love.”

“None of us are doing this to tear the game down,” he continues. “We do it because we want them to be better. It’s a small community, but it’s encouraging to see people care enough about what you’re doing to listen every week.”

Even among some of Mass Effect 2’s most devoted fans, opinions vary on how the game holds up. Neely maintains that it’s one of her favorite games of all time, whereas Shepard acknowledges that although he loves each of the Mass Effect games, Mass Effect 2 is his least favorite. Mgamerz said he mainly returns to investigate the experimental ways he can tinker with the code under the hood, whereas Sundberg said that he rarely plays it for the story anymore, instead opting to speedrun it out of pure love for the game without a desire for repeating the skippable cutscenes.

Regardless, these four players are representative of the significant place Mass Effect 2 continues to hold in the hearts of millions, even 10 years later. That the game is played, remembered, and continues to serve as the root and cause of myriad passions pursued by its fans just highlights the void left vacant by BioWare’s lack of concrete plans for the future of the series.

Listing image by @photosnxs

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Review: More remix than adaptation, Foundation is top-notch storytelling

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Isaac Asimov’s hugely influential Foundation series of science fiction novels is notoriously difficult to adapt to the screen. The author himself admitted that he wrote strictly for the printed page, and he always refused invitations to adapt his work for film or TV. But Asimov was more than happy to let others adapt his work to a new medium, and he was wise enough to expect that there would—and should—be significant departures from the print version.

That’s just what showrunner David S. Goyer (Dark Knight trilogy, Da Vinci’s Demons) has done with Foundation, Apple TV+’s visually stunning, eminently bingeable new series. Goyer describes it as more of a remix than a direct adaptation, and to my taste, it is a smashing success in storytelling. This series respects Asimov’s sweeping visionary ideas without lapsing into slavish reverence and over-pontification. That said, how much you like Goyer’s vision might depend on how much of a stickler you are about remaining faithful to the source material.

(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)

The fundamental narrative arc of the series remains intact. It’s a story that takes place across multiple planets over 1,000 years, with a huge cast of characters. Mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris, Chernobyl, Carnival Row) has developed a controversial theory of “psychohistory” that essentially applies math to sociology to make predictions about the future of the Galactic Empire, which rules every living person in the Milky Way. Seldon’s calculations predict the fall of the empire, ushering in a Dark Ages that will last 30,000 years, after which a second empire will emerge.

The collapse of the empire is inevitable, but Seldon has a plan to reduce the Dark Ages to a mere 1,000 years through the establishment of a Foundation to preserve all human knowledge so that civilization need not rebuild itself entirely from scratch. He is aided by his adoptive son and right-hand man, Raych Foss (Alfred Enoch, who played Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter franchise) and his new protege, Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell, Voyagers), a math prodigy who travels to the capital to work with Seldon.

Seldon’s predictions make him a dangerous traitor in the eyes of the empire’s rulers. As he himself notes, those in power fear and despise change, and yet change is constant—and inevitable. Instead of executing him and creating a martyr, the rulers exile Seldon to the remote planet of Terminus at the edge of the galaxy, along with the members of the new Foundation, where they begin compiling the Encyclopedia Galactica.

Eventually, there is a threat from a neighboring outer planet, ultimately resolved by the warden of Terminus, Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey, Fighting with my Family). And the Foundation members learn that Seldon’s plan was far more ambitious and complex than they realized. He told them just enough to set events in motion, since the tenets of psychohistory include an uncertainty principle of sociology, whereby if the collective population learns too much about its predicted fateful actions, those actions will soon become unpredictable. The clash between Seldon and the empire has often been described as a thousand-year game of chess, but there’s an element of rolling the dice and trusting in probabilities for the long game as well.

Perhaps the biggest change from the books is the replacement of the Empire’s ruling committee with a trio of clones called the Cleons. Brother Day (Lee Pace, Halt and Catch Fire, Pushing Daisies) is the primary ruler, with Brother Dusk (Terrance Mann, Sense8) serving in an advisory/legacy role. Meanwhile, Brother Dawn (played as a child by Cooper Carter and as a teenager by Cassian Bilton) is being groomed to take over as the new Brother Day. This gives more of a human face to the rulers, with complex emotions and interpersonal relationships, and all the actors are perfectly cast. I personally would watch Lee Pace read the phone book, and he has much meatier fare to work with here. Technically, they are all perfect incarnations of the same man, at different ages, and this is both the source of their strength as a team and of their conflicts. (Dusk has gained valuable wisdom, if the younger, strong-willed Day could bring himself to listen.)

We knew from the trailers that Salvor Hardin, warden of Terminus, had been gender-swapped, but the character has also been completely reimagined. The Salvor of the books is a shrewd politician (the latest in a long line) who deftly navigates a fraught political environment as the Foundation plants roots on Terminus. In the series, Salvor is a young woman who is still figuring out who she is and what role she’s meant to play in Seldon’s great plan. She shares many of the same traits as Book Salvor, but they are not yet fully developed. She also has a love interest in intergalactic space junker Hugo Krast (Daniel MacPherson, A Wrinkle in Time), and a secret connection in the grand scheme of things that we shall refrain from revealing here.

Asimov’s original trilogy was (to my college self) an enjoyably brisk read, even if the prose got a bit dry and cerebral at times. Goyer has preserved that same tight pacing in the TV series, deftly weaving in character backstories to flesh them out, setting up relationships and the inevitable conflicts between those characters, and inventing some pretty big dramatic moments out of whole cloth to keep the story humming along and viewers hooked. The story jumps between settings and time periods quite a lot, but the writers have done an excellent job sign-posting those jumps, especially in the earlier episodes, to ensure viewers are sufficiently oriented to follow along. (No need for elaborate timeline charts here, as with The Witcher and Dark, although that may change with subsequent seasons.)

The actors all deliver strong, powerful performances from the aforementioned leads on down, and the cinematography and costume and production design are exceptional. Apple TV+ is deeply invested in this series, and it shows. If I had one tiny quibble, it would be that Goyer had so much ground to cover to set up this first season that the big ideas sometimes feel more ornamental than central. I’d love to see the ensuing seasons (assuming they transpire) take a few more breaths here and there to bring those elements front and center more often. I’m confident this writing team could do so without bogging down everything else that works so well.

In short, this is a terrific first ten episodes—Goyer envisions some 80 episodes, should Apple TV+ give him the chance—with no maddening cliffhanger. The finale resolves several plot lines and sets up a few others, leaving viewers both satisfied and eager for more. I think Asimov himself would be pleased with Foundation, particularly since his daughter Robyn is an executive producer on the series and signed off on Goyer’s vision.

The first two episodes of Foundation are now available for streaming on Apple TV+. New episodes will drop every Friday until the S1 finale on November 19, 2021.

Listing image by YouTube/Apple TV+

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Death Stranding Director’s Cut review: More fun, just as divisive

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Death Stranding‘s release in 2019 was probably the most anticipated game of Hideo Kojima’s career.

The Metal Gear director had arguably become the premiere auteur in video games. He had a reputation for convention-bucking design, meta-humor, and unapologetic cinematic influences. But this project was the first child of his acrimonious divorce with Konami, and no one had a clue what he might do next.

Death Stranding was appropriately weird, whatever it was. The first teaser showed crab exoskeletons crawling over a lifeless beach, tar handprints imprinted on the sand, a naked, weeping Norman Reedus (Senior Gaming Editor Kyle Orland noted in our original review on PS4, Death Stranding is Hideo Kojima unleashed. So what could possibly be left for a Death Stranding Director’s Cut? It turns out, quite a lot—just maybe not by that name.

Death Stranding Director’s Cut [PS5]

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A Hideo Kojima game, still

Yes, Death Stranding has finally hit PS5, and it’s as uncompromising now as it was two years ago—even if it doesn’t much resemble a director’s cut in the typical film sense. Unlike Ghost of Tsushima Director’s Cut (Sony’s other recent PS5 re-release buoyed by extended content), Death Stranding‘s doesn’t have a full-blown expansion bolted on to its older foundations to help flesh out its story.

Kojima doesn’t agree with its naming convention, either, which won’t faze anyone who follows his daily film, book, and music recommendations on social media. In a recent tweet, he offered a more fitting name for this release (“Director’s Plus”), confirming that there wasn’t a collection of cutting-room-floor scenes inserted back into the original’s ambitious, unwieldy script.

If you skipped Death Stranding when it was on PS4 or PC, Director’s Cut is the one to play. It offers fresh goodies for players to mess around with and a couple of fun, if bite-sized, new mission areas which blatantly call back to Metal Gear, among other things. As a bells-and-whistles port, Director’s Cut does a good job of expanding on its delivery-man-in-the-post-apocalypse-simulator premise, bolstered by the exclusive DLC of its release and tweaked further to take full advantage of the PS5’s suite of exclusive features.

These extras don’t necessarily push things far outside the grueling moment-to-moment revolutions of the game’s underlying systems—and in some instances, they even intensify the game. But what stands out more to me than the advertised toys is how KojiPro has gone back and seemingly re-finessed what was previously there, going so far as to smooth out some of the prickly rough edges that divided players on release. Though subtle, these revisions offer the best argument for playing (or replaying) this version. That said, I’ve loved Kojima’s work since 1998, so if you weren’t already on board for Death Stranding‘s wild ride, my digging into what’s new here may not change your mind.

For everyone else, you’ll find plenty of Kojima goodness. Director’s Cut leans into Metal Gear‘s inclination to turn on a dime from theatrical gravitas to left-field absurdity, something that was curbed a bit in the original Death Stranding. Now you’re free to run for your life past umbilical-corded monsters to building ramps for daredevil jumping over chasms, or you can use a cargo catapult as a remote-controlled mortar to bombard terrorists in POV with a load of parcels—y’know, normal stuff for any software carrying the “A Hideo Kojima Game” label.

There’s more here for diligent players, too. You can uncover additional equipment types designed for more efficient hauls across Death Stranding‘s desolate landscape, a genuinely unexpected shift that goes a long way toward making Director’s Cut as inviting for newcomers as it ever will be. There are also actual changes to the game world itself, though you’d likely never notice them without comparing this version with the PS4’s. Regardless of whatever you choose to do, though, you’re playing in Kojima’s sandbox. Hope you like his pitch.

Reconnecting the world?

If you’ve never touched Death Stranding, it’s a good example of what happens with a celebrity creative calls up all his buddies to make something crazy. Joining Reedus, several of its characters are played by actors or directors Kojima deeply admires, including Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal, Casino Royale), Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color), Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water), and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives), and Wonder Woman herself, Lindsay Wagner, though she was mostly let off the hook for voice work alongside Del Toro and Refn. A number of other friends appear as survivors in the world: Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Kong: Skull Island), Geoff Keighley, Junji Ito, Famitsu Weekly editor Hirokazu Hamamura, Remedy head and Max Payne face model Sam Lake—the list goes on.

Its plot sounds equally insane. After a future America is devastated by a mysterious cataclysm, invisible ghosts from a post-limbo otherworld permeate the land of the living. These ghosts (BTs, an abbreviation for “Beached Things”) cause voidouts (massive explosions that annihilate entire cities) when they come into contact with a human. Meanwhile, any corpse will transform into a BT itself if not incinerated. Following the disaster, the country is in shambles, and survivors from sea to shining sea to permanently hunker down in underground shelters. They want to avoid BTs and the storms of instant-aging “timefall” the monsters bring in their wake.

Sam Porter Bridges (Reedus), a porter from the organization Bridges (one of Kojima’s tamer name choices) is different. He can come back from the dead, for one. He also has an affliction that allows him to sense nearby BTs, and he is partnered with the baby from the game’s first teaser, BB, who lives in a pod on Sam’s chest and operates as a living spectral radar to make BTs visible. With these gifts, Sam is tasked by Bridges with the unenviable job of saving what’s left of America and reintegrating the now-disparate “strands” of society through an interconnected successor to the internet.

As such, you deliver cargo to people in need on a coast-to-coast journey while also bringing more nodes into the so-called Chiral Network. In a clever touch, outposts throughout the country indirectly connect you with other players on their own expeditions, allowing anyone “in-network” to share items, traversal equipment, vehicles, and (if they feel like lending a hand) lost deliveries, transported asynchronously in from others’ games.

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Apple turns post-lawsuit tables on Epic, will block Fortnite on iOS

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Enlarge / A Fortnite loading screen displayed on an iPhone in 2018, when Apple and Epic weren’t at each other’s legal throats.

Weeks after Epic’s apparent “win” against Apple in the Epic Games v. Apple case, Apple issued a letter denying Epic’s request to have its developer license agreement reinstated until all legal options are exhausted. This effectively bans Fortnite and any other software from the game maker from returning to Apple’s App Store for years.

Epic was handed an initial victory when the US District Court for Northern California issued an injunction on September 10 ordering Apple to open up in-game payment options for all developers. At the time, the injunction was something of a moral victory for Epic—allowing the developer to keep its in-game payment systems in its free-to-play Fortnite intact while avoiding paying Apple a 30 percent fee that had previously covered all in-app transactions.

But now Epic has faced a significant reversal of fortune.

In a letter sent on September 21 to Epic’s legal counsel, Apple’s lawyers said the company refused to reinstate Epic’s account until the courts issue a final, non-appealable verdict. Epic CEO Tim Sweeney revealed Apple’s decision in series of tweets posted on September 22. Sweeney claims the appeals process for the case could take as long as five years.

Apple’s revocation of Epic’s developer license—required to develop and distribute games to the App Store—was “valid, lawful, and enforceable,” Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers said in her ruling. This leaves the decision whether to allow Epic back into the App Store up to Apple.

Apple’s legal team also cited Epic’s alleged “duplicitous” conduct. Apple is referring to the move that sparked the case—Epic adding code into iOS’s version of Fortnite that enable users to buy items directly from the company.

The letter pointed to a tweet Sweeney had posted earlier this month. In the tweet, Sweeney said he “wouldn’t trade an alternative payment system away to get Fortnite back on iOS.” Sweeney said his words were taken out of context.

Sweeney tweeted an email he wrote to Apple’s legal counsel on September 16, stating that, while Epic was appealing the court’s decision, the developer had paid Apple the court-ordered $6 million in damages required by the September 10 ruling. He said that his company had disabled the server-side software required for in-game payments for players who still had Fortnite installed on their iOS devices. He also alleged that Apple lied about its intentions to work with Epic to bring the developer back to the App Store.

“Apple lied,” Sweeney said. “Apple spent a year telling the world, the court, and the press they’d ‘welcome Epic’s return to the App Store if they agree to play by the same rules as everyone else.’ Epic agreed, and now Apple has reneged in another abuse of its monopoly power over a billion users.”

While the September 10 ruling went in Apple’s favor, the company was not granted everything it sought in its legal defense. Judge Gonzalez Rogers gave Apple a victory in ruling it had not violated antitrust law, though the company lost the ability to prevent developers from including and advertising their own in-game app purchase payment systems. That ruling could lead to greater repercussions for Apple from other game makers or subscription service providers in the future.

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