Saturday, March 31, 2012

Marvel Legends: Doctor Doom

As you may know, I'm a sucker for a well-characterised villain, and when it comes to well-characterised villains, or rather super-villains, there are few better than Victor von Doom, arch enemy of the Fantastic Four and especially its leader, Reed Richards. A perfectionist with a monstrous ego, he craves power - power which he has demonstrated to be able to competently wield for the good of society in the case of his homeland of Latveria but which he believes he should wield heedless of the choice of others. Perhaps he is right, because when Latveria has been under the rule of Doom it has generally prospered, but the rest of the world isn't so willing. On the one occasion in which he did successfully conquer Doom found himself bored and frustrated by the tedium and minutiae of administration, as he constantly desires challenge and, in a sense, adventure. Hence his repeated clashes with the Fantastic Four. Much like Marvel's other great villain, Magneto, he comes from an oppressed minority, in this case the travelling Gypsies of Eastern Europe, and their harsh treatment has greatly motivated his desire for a just and prosperous society. Coupled with the accident which caused him to hide his body from the world and the loss of his mother to the demon Mephisto and we get a character who wants what's right but really has a bone to pick with the world. In another parallel with Magneto, he too recently found it advantageous to join his erstwhile enemies, and became a member of the Fantastic Four when they expanded into the Future Foundation. This has lately provided the opportunity for a lot of good character interaction between Doom and his opponents, although it's not the first time he's formed an alliance with the Fantastic Four in pursuit of the common good.
This brings us to the figure. Like the other Toybiz Marvel Legends figures I've encountered, this is a very detailed toy which is sure to please enthusiasts of the character. One of the fortunate things about Doom is that he wears armour over his limbs, so there's no need to disguise or worry about joints for the articulation of the figure. Nonetheless he's not quite as poseable as Magneto or the other figures I have, Captain America and Red Skull, but I can make him to an extent looking like he's haughtily crossing his arms so I think that's still pretty good. The cloth of his tunic is very detailed, as are his belt and mask. His hood and cloak are completely removeable and indeed easy to take off. His face mask is removeable too; this figure utilises Jack Kirby's original conception of the character in which he greatly exaggerates his own disfigurement; he actually only has one scar across his right cheek, which is still too much of a marring for the perfectionist Doom. I believe there's some kind of Fantastic Four combo pack in which Doom's face is completely ravaged but I kind of think I prefer this version; it's more subtle. The mask has its own set of eyes sculpted on so you don't have to worry about the face and the mask not matching up; it's maybe a bit of a cop out on ToyBiz's part but I think it works nonetheless.
The other accessories with which Doom is equipped are a Luger in a holster at his belt, which I can only really associate with the laser pistol he uses occasionally in Marvel vs Capcom 3, and a turret stand presumably from Castle Doom in Latveria. Like Magneto's stand it can be hooked onto the wall if for some reason you want your action figures to hang from the wall and it too is very nicely detailed. There's a prominent crest featuring the sombre visage of Cynthia von Doom, his mother, she of the character backstory. This way you can have Doom so that he's brooding or plotting or, depending on how you like your villain, speculating hopefully on the future of Latveria and the world, probably while concocting a zany scheme which will bring the ire of the Fantastic Four.
The paint on the figure's a game of halves. In principle, in a perfect world, the paint scheme itself is extremely impressive. The armour's given a wash so that it looks a bit battle-worn and not excessively polished and shiny. The texture on the tunic is very strong, with lighter highlights on the folds. The cape, while of course darker, has this too, along with gold on the clasps. However that being said, it's not a perfect world, and on my Doom there are a few slightly sloppy bits on the face, the pistol and in one spot on the skirt of the tunic. They're hardly dealbreakers, however. Doom's face under the mask is extremely detailed, with individual teeth and haughtily cocked eyebrows. One other nice detail is that behind his cape, on his back and sticking out from his tunic are the two little booster jets that let him fly. They really didn't miss a trick with these figures. His joints are a little stiff but he has been sitting in a plastic clamshell for ten years so I can't really begrudge him that. If I'm going to make any particular criticism it's that on his arms and legs the armour's not especially detailed. It gets the job done, but it lacks some of the ridges on the gauntlets and feet with which Doom is normally depicted.
As I mentioned earlier he's pretty poseable. The cape and tunic skirt obstruct some potentially wilder positions but he's advertised as having twenty-seven points of articulation, which isn't too bad. He's got ball jointed shoulders, hips and neck, swivelling upper arms, wrists, waist and upper legs and hinged fingers, toes, knees, elbows and feet. He's not quite at the level of Magneto because he doesn't have the hinged chest, double-jointed elbows, knees and shoulders, swivel ankles or hinged wrists which are kind of commonplace, but this is due to his unique design with the tunic and armour. It's not really a great loss. You can still pose him pretty well; some of the articulation on the really heavily jointed ToyBiz figures is kind of extraneous to be honest. He's certainly not up there with the insane levels of a toy like Face-Off Cap, who has individually poseable fingers. As I say, it's more than compensated for by the wealth of accessories and the level of detail.
It's also worth noting that like all ToyBiz figures from this era Doom comes with a complementary comic showcasing the character at his finest. In this case it's a reprint of Fantastic Four Vol 1 #247, written and illustrated by John Byrne and originally published in 1982. In support of my brief discussion of the character above it's a famous story in which Doom enlists the help of the Fantastic Four to assist him in overthrowing Zorba, the very monarch the Fantastic Four helped into power to replace the apparently-tyrannical Doom. Upon arrival they discover that Zorba's actually a good deal more unpleasant in power than Doom ever was. It marks the first appearance also of Kristoff Vernard, Doom's ward and heir apparent. I think the ending's a bit rushed but it has some interesting character moments, such as when Sue Storm the Invisible Woman notices what a dangerously competent and charismatic natural leader Doom is when he's put in charge, and when Doom remarks that the only freedom he denied his subjects is "the freedom to commit evil." It really colours Doom in an ambiguous way, culminating in his murder of the defeated tyrant Zorba.
In case you're wondering, the chase figure for this is a Doombot. As far as I'm aware the only difference is that under the mask it has a metallic, mechanical robot face rather than Von Doom's own appearance. I've heard from a couple of places that ToyBiz's original plan was to release the figure with the mask on, so that you wouldn't be able to tell if you were getting Von Doom himself or a Doombot. This was meant to mimic the recurring situation in the comics in which the Fantastic Four or whichever heroes are present, thinking they have defeated Von Doom himself, discover that it was only a robot duplicate: it was often difficult to discover which armoured, green-clothed baddie in the area was the real Doctor Doom. The Doombots were therefore going to be the main production and Von Doom would be the rare chase variant. One source I've read claim that the complaints of overly-entitled fans dashed this plan. Personally I think I'm more willing to believe another account I've heard, which was that simply common sense ruled the day - people want Von Doom himself, not a robot duplicate, and making it impossible to tell was either cruel or a money-grubbing endeavour in itself: how many figures would you have to buy until you found a real Von Doom? I know I'm the kind of slightly obsessive-compulsive person who wouldn't have been satisfied with a Doombot even though they look identical with the mask on. As intellectually clever as I think the idea is of emulating the comic scenario with the distribution of the figures, it makes no business sense. You'd either be seen as greedy, encouraging multiple purchases of the same toy, or it would backfire and people would stay away for fear of getting the one they didn't want. Buying an action figure shouldn't be a gamble, and it makes sense to me that his face is visible.
It's probably worth mentioning that once Hasbro took over the Marvel Legends franchise they produced their own version of Doom which a quick Google Image Search will swiftly reveal. While this certainly has some better or at least more accurate detailing around the legs and feet and has a perhaps slightly more standard face plate design (without attached eyes) the level of detail on the tunic and cape is significantly less and compared to this Doom the cloth looks overly smooth, shiny, plastic-like and ultimate cheap. I've avoided Hasbro Marvel Legends because their paint jobs and level of detailing are simply not up to the standard of the earlier ToyBiz figures. Despite lacking a torso hinge the ToyBiz figure is also superior in terms of articulation to the Hasbro Doom. The addition of the cracking Latveria turret stand and a nice showcase comic compared to getting a build-a-figure piece for some guy I've never heard of means that this figure, the ToyBiz one, peps the Hasbro Doom to the post completely. The thing I like about the good ToyBiz Marvel Legends, and this Doctor Doom figure in particular, is that the level of detailing in both the sculpting and the paint are combined with good accessories and articulation to produce figures which comfortably exist in the worlds of both collectable statue and toy. I see that a lot of people online think the Hasbro Doom is better but I can honestly say that when it comes to ToyBiz Doom vs Hasbro Doom, unless you like cheap-looking stuff the ToyBiz Doom has got to win the day. Maybe some kind of hybrid of the articulation and paintwork of ToyBiz Doom with some of the better details and design choices of Hasbro Doom would create some kind of ultimate Doctor Doom figure but until that day comes this one is my pick.
One last remark I'll make about the figure is that it has some very nice detailing on his head, especially the rivets of the mask and the many layers of the neck armour. Overall, like all the Toybiz figures I've encountered, I must say I'm impressed with this figure. There are quite a few floating around on eBay and they're not too expensive, all things considered. I'd definitely recommend this to anyone who's a fan of the monarch of Latveria. Your shelf will assuredly look a bit more snazzy with a touch of Doom.

UPDATE in 2015
This is really late but I've meant to write this down for ages and I only just got around to thinking this would be the best way to do it. You see how up there I said that a Doom figure with the paintwork of ToyBiz plus the design of Hasbro would be good? Well in 2013 Hasbro released a re-issue of their 2007 Doom figure (the one I didn't have and thought looked cheap) with an updated paint job closer to that of ToyBiz Doom. This solved the main problem with the Hasbro figure and I bought it. It's a good one, and a fitting take on the character in my opinion. It's probably not too hard to find these days so if you want Doom, get the 2013 re-issue with the better paintwork from Hasbro if you can't find or don't want the ToyBiz one. There was a variant in Doom's white Future Foundation outfit from the Hickman run on FF but I could never find it in Australia and it's incredibly expensive online. Nonetheless, Hasbro did well by Doom in the 2013 re-issue so I guess that proves I have the power of accidental prophecy.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Marvel Legends Face-Off: Captain America vs Red Skull

Let's continue our sporadic sojourn through 2000s Action Figure history. As I stated in my Magneto review, Marvel set the standard for awesome action figures in the early 2000s with ToyBiz's Marvel Legends line. These were, in a way unprecedented for their time, colourful, characterful representations of much-loved comic personas given the attention they deserved. Although the ToyBiz line had its ups and downs, it produced a wealth of strong figures and set a high bar. One of ToyBiz's last endeavours before business was handed over to Hasbro, whose efforts have met with more mixed reception, was the Face-Off line. Really, it makes sense: package a classic Marvel hero with their archenemy and fun is pretty much bound to happen at some point. One item from the first wave was the set I'm looking at here, featuring Captain America versus his long time nemesis Johann Shmidt, the Red Skull. This is one of the oldest oppositions in superhero comic history: both Cap and Red Skull debuted in 1941, and the arch-enemy situation was only narrowly pepped by the appearance of guys like Joker and Luthor a year earlier.
Often the best archenemies are always caught in a dualistic quandary of opposites; many heroes and villains are of course great despite not being mirrors of their foes, but a truly great "archenemy" relationship usually has a good foundation in dualism. For Batman and Joker, it's order and chaos. For Superman and Luthor, it was traditionally brawn and brains. For Cap and Skull, the opposition is clear: one represents a utopian dream and the other a fascistic nightmare. Cap is famously loyal to one thing: the usefully nebulous concept of the "American Dream". He fights for freedom, justice, peace and opportunity. He is the incarnation of what America is supposed to represent, although not necessarily what it is. Cap's a guy who's both a thinker and a doer: he wants a better world, and he's fought for it many times. Red Skull, with his classic villain origins as a Nazi leader, is a harbinger of the evils of power for its own sake, of unreasoning hatred and the wilful propagation of misery and terror. Among the supervillain ranks he's a total monster. Their rivalry is a very traditional one, a classic struggle of good against evil. Steve Rogers is, even in his least heroic moments, fundamentally a good man, and Schmidt is never anything less than a completely unsympathetic abomination.
What also makes Cap interesting alongside his utopian ideals are his moments of doubt. He often finds himself struggling to be the representation of a dream in an increasingly cynical time, and to be the heroic avatar of a country with as many problems as any and with whose government he is often at odds. What's engaging about the Skull, alternately, is that in many ways he's uncomplicated, a figure of pure malice who is a fitting contrast to ambiguous villains like Magneto and Doctor Doom. Unlike cynicism or the weariness of the human spirit, Red Skull is someone Captain America can physically confront. Hell bent on causing havoc for no greater reason than sadism and power-lust, he puts himself in the unfortunate position of being the guy Cap gets to beat up at the end of the day. For what is a man compared to the evils that afflict society? For the same reason, that's why I like Captain America, even though I'm not American. I think we all aspire to the notion of a truly free society, a perfectly functioning democracy and ultimately the right to dream of such things. A lot of people who don't really know comics make the mistake of seeing Captain America as some kind of apple-pie-munching right-wing patriot nut job or a stooge of the US government but he's neither of those things, just a man who still dares to dream of, and is willing to fight for, a better world.
Anyway, that's enough of me waxing lyrical about comic characters. Let's talk action figures.
Face-Off Captain America is not the first representation of Steve Rogers produced by ToyBiz. The original version was the very first toy in the first wave of Marvel Legends. While it's gone down as a classic because of how high it set the standard from the off, it has some obvious shortcomings as the first attempt in comparison to Face-Off Cap. It's generally less detailed. The most notable element of this is that the scales on his armour are just a transfer, one which I daresay would wear down or peel off with too much use. On this one, Face-Off Cap, the scales are fully sculpted onto the figure. I believe this is because Face-Off Cap is actually based on the Toybiz Ultimate Captain America, which was an intermediary. A completely new sculpt, it represented Steve Rogers' Ultimate Universe counterpart, who lacks the wings and the swashbuckler boots and stuff. As such Face-Off Cap is basically an Ultimate Cap with new bits again. His head in particular is extremely detailed, and thankfully it doesn't use the face sculpt of Ultimate Cap. While he maybe looks a bit purse-mouthed the quality's nonetheless very high. This Cap also has the utility belt, which is bedecked with pouches and a water canteen for carrying all of Cap's useful crime fighting utilities as well as snacks and so on I imagine. This is another benefit of the figure being "reverse engineered" as it were from Ultimate Cap. The cuffs of the gloves are kind of big and the boots are too; it's really a very comic-oriented depiction, perhaps a little displaced from what you might consider "realistic" if such a term is indeed even remotely applicable to action figures of comic book characters.
The paint's good as usual, with a wash so that it's perhaps a little less bright blue and red than some depictions of Cap. Mostly it's been done with a good amount of care, although there are occasional places on the chest where the stripes are, on the back of the head and on the lower arms where it's not perfect. The white paint on the arms actually seems to have been a bit caked on which makes them a touch difficult to move. It's very good on the belt, though. The buckle and all the buttons on the pouches are done neatly in silver. Overall it's an impressive job. There are a few other sculpting elements worth mentioning, such as the creases on the pants. Cap's a big guy, and he's got an incredibly chunky back with extremely muscled shoulders and neck. This can make him look a little hunched unless you bend his upper torso all the way back but once that's done it's not really an issue. I feel like he was originally sculpted to be in a crouching pose, ready to spring into combat with dastardly Nazis and such so I guess that explains it. The wings and ears are nicely detailed too, I must say. It really is a great sculpt, and the Ultimate body has both been used effectively for its benefits and altered in a way which I think gives us a definitive Mainstream Universe Captain America.
Cap of course comes with his mighty shield, which is removable. This too is appropriately detailed and well painted. It bears two elastic bands so that Cap can wear it on his back as he often does. It also has a sort of clip hinged in the boss of the shield as it were so that it can be clipped onto his wrist but thus far I haven't really managed to do that effectively. I normally just loop one thing of elastic over his arm and one in his hand, and that seems to more or less do the trick anyway. One thing which I think is kind of a shame is that there isn't a way to position the shield so that Cap's holding it on the edge as if swinging for a throw. His fingers are all hinged though so I guess if you wanted to use some blu tac or something to try to make it work you could.
This gets us onto the last issue, the articulation. Cap is certainly the most articulated toy I've ever encountered, and I think he's up there with the most articulated individuals in the range. Let's see what we've got here: ball and socket shoulders, ball-jointed hips and head, double jointed elbows and knees, a hinged torso, ankle joints, toes and wrists, swivel waist, upper and lower arms, and thighs and ankles, and to top it all off, the piece de resistance: individually hinged fingers. Cap can be balling his hands into a fist, he can be pointing, he can be flipping you the bird or giving you the finger, he can be signing V for Victory or blessing someone in a Renaissance painting, he can be drinking a cup of tea like a gentleman, the works. It really is impressive.
I've got to say that this really is the definitive Cap figure. Combining the detail of the Ultimate Cap with the timeless, classic look of the Mainstream Universe, with a good paint job and serious articulation and you've got one well-assembled Avenger. I'd definitely recommend him, because I don't think we're going to see a better representation any time soon.
With that in order, let's move on to the dastardly Red Skull. While still a decent figure in his own right, Red Skull is definitely the lesser item in the set. One reason for this is that he's just not as articulated. The main reason in my view, however, is the design. It's fair to say that Red Skull doesn't really have a definitive outfit like many heroes and villains. Indeed in most of the comics I've read featuring the Skull, which have been in the run, ongoing as of my writing this, by Ed Brubaker, he's usually just been in a suit. If there's any really distinctive outfit it might be a Nazi uniform, obviously a hard sell for an action figure which, no matter its "collector's item" status, is by a company which sells stuff also to kids. The only other one I can think of is the rather dull green baggy jumpsuit thing he wore in the Seventies. In this version they've opted to have the Skull in the outfit he's wearing on the cover of the included comic, Captain America Volume 4 #32. The thing is, as far as I can determine, beyond this cover by Dave Johnson the Skull has never worn the outfit in which he's depicted in the toy.
It's somewhat similar, I admit, to what he's wearing inside the comic as drawn by Scot Eaton. In the story, the Skull's stolen a SHIELD exo-suit so that he can get the physical edge over Cap. The thing is, it's much more understated, somewhat chunkier, and completely black. For some reason this "cover version" of the suit is red and blue, and not only is it not especially intimidating-looking it's a bit too similar in colour to Cap. It has spiky pads on the backs of the hands and on the elbows. It looks kind of like a weird carnival outfit or something, not any kind of armour or indeed really like anything the Skull would wear. It's too ostentatious. If it was all black I think it'd be better. The other really weird thing is that the Skull comes with a sword. It's from the cover too, although as illustrated it's somewhat more like a dagger. In the body of the comic itself it's absolutely nowhere to be seen. It feels like it's included since Cap gets his shield so Skull needs some accessory too. I don't know why he couldn't have a had a gun or something, which I think would be more his style.
The compensation for this is that it completely trumps its predecessor. Like Cap, Face-Off Red Skull is not ToyBiz's first go at the character. Despite being originally portrayed in a conspicuously nonspecific military uniform including cap and pistol, the original ToyBiz Red Skull is a downright ugly sculpt and apparently has very little opportunity for posing. I think if they'd managed to blend the design of the original Red Skull with the detailing and articulation of this Red Skull they would have had the perfect representation of Cap's archenemy but sadly it was not to be. In this way I can say that despite the rather bizarre choice of design the sculpt is nontheless very nice. The outfit's extremely detailed, especially on the chest and arms. There are also realistic creases and folds on the pants and boots much like Cap. The face too is a good sculpt; it's a less exaggerated and thus more intimidating realisation of Schmidt's eponymous visage. His eyes are glowing yellow and he appears to be shouting in rage which is also applicable to this monstrosity of a villain. He really does look rather psychotic.
Red Skull's not as articulated as Cap but he's still got all the expected trimmings. We're talking ball-jointed shoulders and hips, double-jointed elbows and knees, a swivel waist, neck, lower arms and ankles, and hinged wrists, fingers, ankle joints, toes and torso. As such he's perhaps not as almost over-articulated as some more popular characters like Cap and Magneto but he's certainly sufficiently articulated for the task at hand, which may be one of his many past times of laughing maniacally, running away from Captain America, running at Captain America, and striking malefic poses. While his hand doesn't grip the sword amazingly tightly it still stays in place. Amusingly enough it stays in place the best when wedged along the length of the blade into his mouth.
So that's Red Skull for you. Not great, but he gets the job done. As I say, the real let down is the rather confusing choice of costume for the character.
What else do you get with this pack? One thing is a stand. I cannot for the life of me figure out how this thing is meant to work. It has clear plastic poles with hinges and plugs on the end. Cap and Skull have little slots in their backs for these to fit into, but I can't figure out why. When they're put in a likely position Cap and Red Skull overbalance the poles and cause the whole thing to fall over. It only helps them stand up when completely bent perpendicular at the lower hinge so I can't discern what the upper hinge is for. When this is in place they're both so far out that they can't really be positioned so that they're fighting. It also has a slot for a card insert which comes in the back of the back to form a backdrop for the figures and which I dare not remove for fear of tearing it. It depicts a bunch of HYDRA agents running around in an aircraft hangar, and so seems more appropriate for inclusion in the chase variant of this pack which depicts an unmasked Steve Rogers fighting Baron Strucker. It's a nice enough stand I guess, with some empty bullet casings and stuff on, but it's fairly unremarkable.
The next included element is some unique card for some kind of Marvel collectible card game I neither know nor care about. The last element is the ubiquitous included comic, which as mentioned earlier is Issue 32 of Volume 4 of Captain America, by Robert Kirkman, recently of The Walking Dead fame. It basically features Cap having a big fight with Red Skull. A house gets knocked down, Cap thinks Diamondback has just been killed by Skull but she hasn't, and SHIELD turns up at the end for a sort of Inspector Gadget moment where all the good guys laugh while Red Skull is dragged off fuming into the sunset. That's about it; I'd hardly call it a landmark issue. I'm not sure why they didn't pick a better comic and use it to depict Red Skull in a better costume but that's a mystery to me.
I guess the thing I have to emphasise is that this pack is really worth it for Cap. The Captain America figure is extremely good, the best Mainstream universe Captain America figure in this scale and probably in general, and any Cap enthusiast will surely enjoy it. That being said it only includes a decent but rather uninspiring Red Skull, a fairly mediocre comic and a very strange stand. I'm glad I bought it because I really wanted the Cap figure but the relatively unspectacular nature of the additional elements may make some people struggle to justify the cost. I say that because this set is very rare even though it's a late ToyBiz item, and you'll be struggling to find it on eBay for less than a hundred bucks even before shipping. If you want a Cap figure and you're happy with it maybe being a bit used then try to find a separate one because as I say the Captain America is definitely worth it. The other bits may not leave you with the same feeling but at least you'll have Cap confidently bringing the American Dream to your shelf or display case.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Mass Effect

Having dealt with Bethesda Softworks in my Skyrim review, it's now time for me to assassinate the other golden boy of modern video game role-playing, BioWare. The first time I played Mass Effect was on PC and I hated it. I was bored by both the story and the gameplay but I daresay my frustrations were compounded by technical issues on the machine I was using to play the game. When I eventually got an Xbox I decided it was time to give Mass Effect another go. It didn't annoy me as much this time around and I managed to slog my way through to the end but it didn't change my opinion that it has to be one of the most astonishingly overrated games of recent years.
As I said in my Skyrim review, big titles like this receive huge amounts of irresponsible praise. It is irresponsible in the sense that it lets the developers get away with too much. People simply love these games far more than they deserve, so the problem is really with people and not with games themselves, but it's nonetheless necessary to point out the flaws and take a moderated view not blinded by fanboyism. Of course, moderate discourse has become impossible in the age of the internet - you'd better love Mass Effect or else you're a troll. Well sadly I don't love Mass Effect. It's at best a decent game, maybe a little above average, but so much of it is cliché, generic, stock and unoriginal that I simply can't understand why it is treated with such disturbing reverence by so many people.
The much-touted story of Mass Effect is the source of a great deal of this adoration. You play as Commander Shepard, a person whose sex, appearance and past history is up to your choice, and get sent on a mission to save the galaxy from the evil Geth machine-people and their masters, the Reapers, who want to destroy all life. On the way you visit planets, accumulate a crack team of buddies from the main alien races and discover all sorts of mysteries and intrigues from around the stars. The story is okay, I'll admit. It didn't exactly blow my mind but it's decent. There's a reasonable amount of detail to the setting and some of the characters are fairly interesting. It's just not that fresh. Godlike aliens who want to kill everybody is as old as Lovecraft, aliens who are also spaceships goes back at least as far as Athur Clarke and machine people are hardly new. Just look at Terminator or something. If the Reapers reminded me of anything, actually, it was the Necrons from Warhammer 40,000. The point is it's really just an assemblage of pretty old science fiction tropes bundled together to push the right buttons. Mass Appeal would probably be an equally appropriate title. You can tell there's meant to be something in there for the Star Wars fan, the Trekkie, the Firefly enthusiast, the Battlestar Galactica fan, pretty much anyone. I've heard some people defend this and Dragon Age by saying that BioWare's current mission is to make the most generic science fiction and fantasy franchises of all time or something and I guess if that really is their intention then mission accomplished.
Some of the characters are good, particularly the aliens. My personal favourites were Garrus and Tali. Wrex too is interesting but the difficulty of keeping him alive in the Virmire mission was a frustration. Ashley and Kaiden, the two human characters, are deeply boring and when it came to the point where you're forced to sacrifice one or the other for the good of the mission I found myself challenged to decide which one of them I disliked the least. In the end even though I disliked Ashley more for being small-minded, bigoted, sycophantic and dull, I reasoned that saving her meant saving the Salarians who were with her, and I liked them. Kaiden was just one man, and I reasoned that by letting him get blown up I was really just putting him out of his misery due to those nasty incurable headaches he got from his biotic implants. So really in the end I found my conscience reasonably clear, but I wonder what it says of a game where the alien characters are far more interesting than the humans. I liked Garrus because much like my Shepard he was pretty no-nonsense and had the good old "if you want something done you'd better do it yourself" attitude due to being surrounded by idiots and bureaucrats. Tali was kind of endearing because of her quest and because her race, the Quarians, had a fairly interesting backstory. The one companion character I've neglected to mention was Liara, the Asari archaeologist "girl" you rescue. She kind of annoyed me; I tried to have a decent chat with all of the buddies between missions and she always came on way too strong. "Romantic" options are a big part of Mass Effect, allegedly, but since my Shepard was a man and Ashley was really annoying my only option was the far too intense Liara. You really get herded towards Liara's romantic plotline but I'd decided that my Shepard, being a jaded veteran whose job took up most of his personality, had a terrible anathema to romance or affection of any kind and had to shut down Liara's advances as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Indeed the only character I could fathom my Shepard possibly wanting to take things further with was Tali and that wasn't an option.
So there is the story and there are the characters of Mass Effect. Pretty standard really, with a huge dollop of escapism and the potential for wish fulfilment that I'm sure is what has accounted for a lot of its popularity among the geeky masses. Now it's time to talk about the gameplay. I hear you bleating that Mass Effect isn't about the gameplay, but blow that for a game of soldiers because it's a damn game so I'm going to review it as a game. It's not just a space opera movie with occasional thumbstick-twiddling. It's a game, and no manner of close-ups and allegedly "cinematic" use of shots is going to change that. The gameplay, frankly, is a bit arsey at times. Third person shooters have never really been my thing but I think part of that is because when you get right down to it the whole idea of third person shooting is a bit stupid. First person is good for ranged style gameplay and third person is good for action and close-quarters combat. Mass Effect uses the ever-frustrating "glue yourself to cover" style of shooting mechanics and while on Normal difficulty things are generally manageable enough I occasionally found myself having difficulty figuring out what the hell was going on, usually because Shepard's health was going down the drain due to being hit by a grenade because he wasn't in cover properly or something. You're generally just a bit slow as well and I was often begging for Shepard to run faster around the place, especially during fetch-quest type bits before action sequences. During combat you can give your buddies orders but that doesn't stop them regularly throwing themselves at the enemy and getting rapidly killed. Garrus in particular seemed to have the survival instincts of a mosquito and paper armour. One thing that really irritated me was the lack of a good party system. When you make planetfall you go out into the fray with two buddies while the rest stay behind twiddling their thumbs on the ship. I had six people in my crack team and I wanted all of them! It would have been way more fun taking down the bad guys with a group of seven rather than three, and simpler too of course, but obviously with more options and versatility. The annoying thing is Garrus and Wrex often had the best context-specific dialogue so I usually took them with me so I never really had a chance to see the rest in action. Maybe this is to encourage you to replay the game but screw that, it's not that good. I realise a memory issue might be a reason for only having a small team but dammit, I wanted all six of my buddies to be running around with me and it was always annoying that I couldn't.
Again while they occasionally have some decent storytelling behind them most of the sidequests are very repetitive. You land on a planet, drive around a confined and often difficult-to-navigate area of terrain, you find a base of Geth or other dastardly foes, you kill them, and then you get some dialogue. The spaceship boarding operations added some variety but the fact that all the ships are identical killed this somewhat too. It was easy to get stuck on planets trying to get to your destination with borderline-impassable mountains in the way and the fact that you can operate only in predefined spaces on the ground rather than anywhere your feet could conceivably go in real life is regularly frustrating. This was compounded by the Mako, your vehicle for ground driving sections. Plenty of people complain about the Mako, and the fact of the matter is that it really is rubbish. The guns are very inaccurate and the controls border on the absurd. The left thumbstick (on the Xbox) drives the Mako with a push forward and turns it with left and right. That's all fair enough. The right thumbstick adjusts your view so you can look around. Unfortunately for some reason they decided that pushing the left stick forward shouldn't mean it makes the Mako drive in the direction its front is facing but rather that it should make the Mako drive in whatever direction is "in front" according to the camera. So you can be pushing forward to drive along, spot a big Geth nasty to your left, turn the camera left for a snipe with the cannon, and then suddenly the Mako's driving on a new trajectory, usually off a cliff or into a wall. There are effectively two separate, potentially conflicting methods of steering and it's incredibly off-putting. The gameplay, or at least the combat, is definitely not the worthwhile part of the game, and the story is not good enough to completely compensate for it in my eyes. A bit of half-decent character development or an occasional mildly-interesting plot revelation often feels hardly worth the half hour of punishment you usually have to suffer in the action sequences required to achieve said goals.
The problem I feel is that there's too much delineation between the combat and dialogue sections of the game. Every action sequence feels like just an obstruction between the story bits, which are the better part of the game, and since most gameplay segments basically involving hiding behind cover and taking pot-shots at enemies on the other side of the room, and then rinse-and-repeating for multiple rooms in a row, things can get practically like a rail shooter at times. The repetition starts to grate after a while but the more story you get the more it feels like interactive fiction rather than a game. I honestly feel like Mass Effect is a fundamentally hollow experience where the unspectacular gameplay is never sufficiently payed off with a plot that's particularly original or challenging.
What else is there worth mentioning? The graphics are decent of course, but I'd be surprised if they weren't in the current generation. Character customisation is okay I guess. The physical customisation certainly encourages your character to be a bit too "Hollywood" in my opinion but maybe that's meant to reinforce the game's pretensions of cinema. Powers and abilities are all right but a bit tricky to manage on a controller and the role-playing elements don't force you down one path or the other. I was glad that 'Paragon' and 'Renegade' progression was not mutually exclusive because I wanted to cultivate a believable character of rationality around my Shepard. I've got to say that I don't think the music's particularly good at all. It's unmemorable and strives a little too hard to be futuristic. The best is probably the galaxy map theme.
Overall Mass Effect is an adequate game. It's worth playing for a reasonably long and detailed story. That being said the combat gameplay is pretty mediocre, the vehicle sections are extremely off-putting and the plot is really quite unoriginal. It's mild entertainment and nothing more. The only explanation I can give for this game's popularity and success is that modern video game players just don't know any better. Ignorance cultivates the kind of hysteria which surrounds games like this. Modern geekdom is a culture of sheep where growing need for accessibility has promoted ultimately shallow experiences as better than what they are. The depth of backstory is of course impressive but as I've stated if you've read any science fiction from even fifty years ago or more not much is going to surprise you. Maybe they're relying on people who haven't, which wouldn't surprise me in today's moron culture. Overhyped and overrated, to me personally it is an emblem of how uncritical and easily satisfied we have become as a culture. Some decently-written characters and pretty graphics aren't enough to make a game great or even especially good in my eyes. This has been a generation of overrated games in general where mediocrity is lauded as genius but I could give a few examples of games from recent years that I think do things better. Red Dead Redemption has better third person combat. BioShock has a storyline with more depth. Fallout: New Vegas has better role-playing. Mass Effect's main strength is, as I've said, it's fairly decent characterisation, coupled with some pretty respectable voice acting, but it's not a game-maker for me. I guess the thing is if you want escapism by being a space hero or you're after a generic tribute to space opera and mass-market sci fi then sure, Mass Effect is fine, but please don't act as if it's one of the best games of all time. It's not.
Oh actually one other thing that was good were the planet descriptions. This is going to sound super nerdy of me but genuinely one of my favourite bits in the game was reading all the different geological, atmospheric, mineralogical and historical details and curiosities they'd invented for the planets. I'm quite serious. I find that kind of stuff interesting.