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Oh boy. Buckle your seatbelt, dear reader. This is gonna get… massive?

I bought my 360 back in 2007 to play Mass Effect. I was blown away by the character creator demos, was becoming a fan of Bioware thanks to KOTOR and Jade Empire, and was just primed and ready to go. What followed from there is probably one of the all around best video game franchises of all time, and certainly the most consistent set of games Bioware has ever created. Mass Effect 2 is probably one of the greatest games of all time. Unfortunately, they had some trouble sticking the landing and bringing the trilogy, which was ambitious as all get out, to a satisfying close (for most people). Bioware has always been a responsive company (some would say reactive or reactionary) and they were quick to try and fix issues. I think that history will be kind to Mass Effect 3 and I know I’ve softened on its narrative issues after a few years and playthroughs.

I’m not sure what history will make of Mass Effect: Andromeda. All I know is that I have a fucking lot to say about this game and I know that I’m gonna miss and leave out tons anyway. Good and bad as it is a very mixed bag and because I played Horizon: Zero Dawn just before, I was inevitably let down here. So it’ll probably wind up being mostly bad as I catalogue and process the laundry list of complaints I have about it. This game is the definition of death by a thousand cuts. For a lot of players who picked it up at launch, Bioware will never be able to recover that critical first impression even as they scramble to fix glaring issues that by all rights should not have been present at the launch of such an expensive and anticipated game, one which also had a five year development cycle. But having said all that, I still found a lot to enjoy. Major missions are very satisfying and there are many memorable moments in the game. While Andromeda mostly gets by on those bits where it does the familiar very well, I do look forward to playing it again once it’s been patched a bit more.

I will break this review into sections for ease of reading and so that you, reader, can focus on elements you maybe care most about. Most people play Bioware games for the story, and I’ll start there, but please don’t ignore the section on Technical Issues because I promise you that some of that shit will rob you of enjoyment and it’s best to be forewarned about them. Also note that I won’t really be discussing Multiplayer as a I barely got into that (it’s been a buggy mess with major connection issues) and it’s not the reason I play Mass Effect or Bioware games anyway.

It may go without saying but there will be spoilers to follow…

MASSIVE SPOILERS (hehe)

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And first a little preamble:

I played this game on the Xbox 360 using ported saves from Dragon Age: Origins and Awakenings. I played a male custom Hawke with focus on two-handed weapons.

I will try to keep the spoilers to a minimum in the bulk of this review. There are, however, story elements and other shit I would like to comment on but will relegate these to the end with clear labeling for those readers out there who either haven’t beaten this game or simply don’t care about being spoiled.

This is going to be a long, complex review. Bear with me as I break it into easily digestible and clearly delineated portions. I do this not only to organize my thoughts but to make them more appetizing to your brain. Your brain thanks me, as should you.

Some negative shit to get out of the way:

There’s currently a debate raging about whether or not Bioware rushed this game. I think it’s pretty fucking indisputable that they did. There are corners cut everywhere, it seems. While this is a very discouraging turn of events and Bioware needs to seriously rethink some shit in light of not only the state of this game as released but in that people are largely calling them out on it. The stuff you’ve heard about reused maps for dungeons (there are seriously only a handful of reiterated environments used over and over again) is ridiculous and true. The fact is, some of this is acceptable given the more intimate world of DA2. This doesn’t mean Bioware couldn’t have whipped up five or six unique caves or whatever. That they didn’t is laziness. That they didn’t script the game such that you didn’t constantly have to revisit the same places is just piss-poor design and the only apparent explanation is that this game was rushed.

Like all Bioware games, there are glitches. My play-through was devoid of many of the ones I’ve heard about. That said, having your touted porting saves system not work properly is kind of a big deal. That there are literally entire side-quests that don’t work is also ridiculous. Get your fucking shit together, Bioware.

Above all else, what fails this game is its lack of scope and depth when compared to Dragon Age: Origins. This doesn’t so much apply to the characters, dialogue, and story as it does to the environments, overall plot development, and gameplay mechanics.

Ferelden was a huge place, Kirkwall and surrounding environs is about the size of Orzammar and the Deep Roads, only you play an entire 40+ hour game in and around that one area. This is bullshit.

The plot is more intimate, which isn’t a bad thing, but it really shits the bed in the 3rd act when you’re basically completing main plot quests and then returning to your house to wait for fucking letters before being able to push the plot forward. That the first two Acts of the game move things in a much more confident, cohesive manner is more evidence that the game was rushed.

Finally, everyone saying that DA2 is dumbed down or otherwise reduced from its predecessor are unequivocally correct. The only thing that doesn’t get the axe are the skill trees, which are actually rather nice and offer the same scope that the first game had (although some characters are very limited, which is a major problem considering some story elements later on which I won’t get into here). What suffers, though, is the fact that you’re mashing the A-button through 90% of every fight since abilities are slow to cool down. That fights are absurdly long at times due to enemies which spawn out of the ether in waves doesn’t help things. There’s a real arcade beat-em-up feel to a lot of DA2. That they kept the tactics system in is pretty much an affectation at this point, though it may be more interesting and rewarding to use in harder difficulties (to be fair to Bioware, most of their games are much more sound on the gameplay level at harder difficulties).

Following the “let’s make RPGs more fun to play” design philosophy that was successfully implemented in Mass Effect 2, Bioware has really dropped the ball in terms of giving more conventional RPG gamers who flock to Dragon Age the kind of shit they want. We want inventory management and highly-customizable party members. What they had in Dragon Age: Origins was not broken. Now we get party members who are custom-tailored to one or two combat roles, lack much flexibility in terms of gear, and so on. The hilarious thing about trying to keep players out of their inventory screen is that they decided to fill their game with the following:

-Gear that Hawke can’t use and so is unusable. This is mostly class-specific gear which in Origins would have been equippable by others in the party.

-“Junk” items that are like loot, for selling, but are not worth much and simply clog an inventory that they unwisely decided should be limited unless you purchase backpacks. This works better in a game where managing one’s inventory is more than afterthought, Bioware.

-Generic accessory items that all have the same name but you must go into your inventory to look at because this is the only way to see what stats they possess. How counter-intuitive is this? Pretty fucking much the definition.

The game seriously feels like they got the people who made Mass Effect to come in and take over halfway through. Meanwhile, the guys who made Mass Effect 2 by pioneering some of the same design changes that are either poorly implemented in DA2 or are crude bastardizations of what is seen in the game’s scifi sibling, must have been unavailable to give advice. I bet they were either playing World of Warcraft or out getting the badass vacation they deserve after ME2.

While in some ways, perhaps many ways, it’s an obvious step backward for the fledgling franchise, I am here to say that it isn’t ALL bad news. No, this wouldn’t be Bioware if they didn’t release a game that, while deeply flawed, is still worth the price and a couple of playthroughs.

So now on to what actually works:

The art design change is the most immediately striking one. It was the right decision. I do miss some elements of the look and feel of Origins but the race retcons and other changes are welcome ones. Darkspawn look better, though I miss the Gurlocks, and Qunari really should have looked like this all the fuck along. Beyond that, the graphics and art of DA2 is all win. Of course, the women are still walking pairs of tits, but what I really mean here is that there’s a sort of wonderful mania in how stylized this game is compared to the first. Everything pops more but still feels like the same world.

The most successful element is, though, the characters. Bioware excels at writing amazing characters that are sometimes, on paper, bundles of cliches and archetypes we’ve seen 100 times before yet always managing to be interesting. In DA2, everything is a bit more tentative, a bit darker, than its predecessor. Characters you like will do shit you don’t, and you will have a hard time siding with them. They are all in all more their own people in this game than maybe any previous Bioware game. And that is saying something. Each of the characters is rich, interesting, and funny or at least entertaining in their own way (especially when bouncing off each other). The best ones are as complex and full-dimensioned as anything in a tv show, movie, or novel. The game is also fucking, fucking, fucking hilarious. If you thought some of the witty repartee in previous Bioware games was comedy gold, you haven’t seen anything. Almost every single exchange in DA2 has a quotable line. In essence, Bioware went with a looser handle on the formality and linguistic trappings of a fantasy game and it really works here. So on the level of characters and humor and dialogue, Bioware has again hit it out of the park.

Which brings me to Hawke. He may be the best part of the game. I played him as a sarcastic but ultimately loyal and steadfast hero. Sort of like a fantasy Mal Reynolds. It works, it practically fucking sings. I think the choice to make Hawke more of a personality than the Warden was a good one. This is one Mass Effect inspired design choice that I have no problem with for this series. The little things, like having Hawke’s family members alter to look like him (however you make him) and how involuntary dialogue is affected by your previous choices, are what really flesh this guy out. That his personal arc is so much more about family and making a way in the world also gives the player more freedom to make him relatable and flawed, like a real human being. Characters like the Warden and Shepard are so stuck in the middle of plot-as-character-motivation that they are not afforded as much room to breathe and have life as Hawke is.

The story uses the unreliable narrator relating events to another character device. It works mostly because Varric is awesome and the game isn’t afraid to comment on its own narrative structure from time to time mostly with hilarious results. For the most part, the in-game plot is well paced with quests and characters popping back up when you least expect them. There’s fewer of the “some random dude needs help” when you receive letters (like Mass Effect 2’s email system) and see them again later after a few years have passed. The central conflict of the game is built up over its entire length, finally spilling out into the streets for the last hour. One of the great things Dragon Age 2 manages to do as good or better than its predecessor is include the secondary characters, party members mostly, in the big events of the game. Largely this is a story about losing everything and building it back up again. This applies mostly to family, as Hawke replaces those he loses with the friends he picks up along the way. Of course, this is just one way to play it out and I’m very curious about others…

So what’s the fuckin’ verdict?

Dragon Age 2 is a deeply flawed game that needed more time in the oven. I hope that Bioware learns from the design missteps they have made here and either return some of the lost elements or at least find a better way to keep the series fresh for the inevitable third installment.

In spite of the many issues, the game works best on exactly the level it should. It has great characters, a mostly well-told story, and a lot of freedom of choice in shaping things. Even if you balk at the glitches, the mechanics, or Flemeth’s hot new bod, you will stick around hour after hour for the entertainment value and satisfaction offered by the people in Hawke’s world, Hawke himself, and yes even the central conflicts of the smaller-scale plot.

I will play through this game again. To try a different class. To try a different romance. To try different choices. This is what Bioware does, this is how they get you. I wish they had taken the time and brain cells to make DA2 the sequel it should have been and hope they are paying attention for the next iteration. But even saying that, I’m only hours away from starting my second playthrough as a sincere, heroic female dagger-slinger.

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Spoilburg! Right ahead!

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Well what is left to say about a game which has the first chunk of its credits set to a fucking Florence and the Machine song? Quite a bit really. Most of it is good and I won’t get into it here. I don’t want this to turn into 1000 pages of me rehashing the cool shit that happens in this game, the funny conversations, etc. There are other places on the internets for this. I would rather spend the time dishing fully candid on stuff that is confusing, stupid, or doesn’t work.

The first and most obvious thing is fucking Anders. Whoever’s idea it was to have the game’s only healer spec’d character commit a ridiculous act of terrorism was probably under the impression that the class/skill choices would be less stupidly restricted. That said, forcing the player to choose between Anders and Sebastian is pretty frustrating but also a bold move. What Anders does is pretty well unforgivable unless your Hawke is a ruthless mage supporter or sociopathic monster. That said, I and many other players will resist their instincts and find some way to keep Anders in the picture if only because he’s the fucking healer. Other Bioware games might have included a way to stop Anders from taking this course of action but I bet they knew that many would want the “compromise” option and so they found a way to effectively remove it from the game. It’s ballsy but I’ll have to play through some more to decide if it’s a good move.

What definitely ISN’T a good move is having both Orsino and Meredith end up crazy fucktards in the end. What’s the point of helping Orsino if he just uses blood magic anyway? In a game where one of the chief threats is fucking painfully overused, one more big blood magic bonanza was a bad, bad idea. Especially since you wind up fighting Meredith anyway creating two long battles that aren’t hard on your skills so much as your thumbs. I get that the idea is that mages are dangerous especially when desperate but did they really have to make every single fucking one an abomination, evil apostate, Tevinter slaver, or goddamn blood mage? And I do mean every single fucking one. It’s absurd, really.

I have to say, it was nice to see party members from Origins pop up again. That said, it’s a bit depressing that Leliana bailed on the Warden to become a fucking church assassin. Gah. That reminds me, they mention at the end of the game that Hawke has gone missing much like the Warden. That the Warden is missing is a bit confusing but I’m sure they’re trying to set something up for Dragon Age 3. I’m a little pissed that the game just ends with a bit of setup for a sequel, though. There’s a feeling of satisfaction that gets sucked out of the ending when the Seeker talks to Leliana. They should have saved that shit for after the credits. Varric’s vague confirmation that everyone bailed on Hawke eventually is also a big shiny dropped ball when compared to the more specific character epilogues given in Origins. I’m really not allowed to know what happened to Merrill? Fenris? Did Sebastian ever manage to hunt down Anders with his big ass army?

Phew. That’s enough of that. I did enjoy Dragon Age 2 though it is a bit of a disappointment. If you read through this spoilery bit then you know what some of my biggest “wtf” reactions are. The game had a lot of good ones as well as these bad ones, and that I suppose, is its indelible, if lop-sided charm.

An example of the distinctive, stylized art direction.

To get it out of the way, I play Dragon Age on the Xbox 360 and have never really been interested in fanboy babble about how superior the PC version is except to defend the virtues of the console version when the game first came out. Now that’s a more difficult position to take due to the necessary differences between consoles and PC platforms (rapidly dwindling that they are) which lead to things like updates, patches, mods, fan-made content, etc. At the end of the day, while I must bow to the circumstantial superiority of a more malleable platform, I will be buying and playing Dragon Age 2 on the Xbox because my PC is old as fuck and would laugh in my face if I tried to play this on it. Then it would die for spite.

Anyway, about the fucking demo.

Dragon Age 2 has been anticipated/feared for a long time because of the many changes Bioware decided to unleash on what was a surprisingly awesome update of a tried and true WRPG formula. Dragon Age Origins was a game that went from being nowhere near my radar (not a fan of Neverwinter Nights, figured it was an original IP more of the same) to being one of my favorite games since buying a 360. In my opinion, Bioware should probably not have fucked with it so much but it’s their prerogative and breaking down the RPG elements of Mass Effect for its sequel didn’t ruin that game so the guys have earned my trust.

I guess that if Mass Effect 2 is the rock-n-roll version of Mass Effect then it should follow that DA2 be some kind of twisted Cradle of Filth version of Enya’s DAO. Forgive me for saying that, but take a look at the bizarre art direction for this sequel and you’ll see what I mean. It isn’t a problem so much as something that will take some getting used to, like a girlfriend’s radically different new haircut after years of ponytails and butterfly clips. Some people are going to look at this and feel ambivalence if not outrage, but at least they’ve seen it coming for a long while now and have already made their peace with the changes (or not). That Bioware has made some vague statements about the origin of the game’s look and its relation to the fact that they’re using a “character relaying something that happened in the past tense” narrative device may offer some hope that there will be a return to form in later iterations of the series. Somehow I fucking doubt that, though.

I mean, how does Flemeth come back from this new design? She looks hawt and somewhat like Alexstracza the Lifebinder from World of Warcraft. And Isabella? The plucky pirate/duelist you can flirt with and learn shit from in DAO? Now she’s basically a Pirates of the Caribbean character with huge, huge tits (like every other woman in the game apparently, Jesus Bioware!).

So the art direction is now darker, more fucked up, and sexier. Okay then.

Now. What of GAMEPLAY!?

That is where Dragon Age 2’s new-fangled approach had remained untested. Yeah, we all heard how they were going to mirror Mass Effect’s approach to character creation and dialogue choices, thereby trying to update the successful-if-out-moded DAO approach. Now we’re seeing it in action.

I can’t really speak to the character creation because that portion is locked. You can see what options are available, however, and it looks to be very much like what you could do with both ME games. Since that works just fine, I see no reason to complain about it here though I wish Bioware would have stuck to featuring all three races (and maybe Qunari!) as playable. Streamlining the protagonist means more narrative force, probably, but I figure Bioware knows the trade-off they’re making here. Removing playable races means removing options and options are one of DAO‘s great strengths. But really, as long as the story is good and Hawke is more than just Shepard-in-a-fantasy game, I don’t see why we can’t give Bioware the benefit of the doubt here either.

Where people are going to have real grievance is in the parts of the game spent killing various evil beings, dastardly humanoids, and monsters from the abyss. I can tell you that the combat is quicker-paced, very “beat ’em up” in flavor, but still retains a streamlined version of the Dragon Age/Mass Effect brand of tactical interrupts and button tagging. Through most of the demo, you can basically just mow through shit tapping the A-button but eventually you’ll fight a Darkspawn Ogre that will give you some serious trouble if you don’t bring some brain in with the brawn. That one fight sold me on the idea that DA2 is not going to be some stupid version of DAO but a leaner, meaner reiteration of a successful gaming formula. This is definitely the Mass Effect 2 treatment in terms of abandoning even the hallmarked elements of an RPG in favor of keeping players in the action and out of the menus.

Now playing  Warrior is weird. You zip around the battlefield like a DBZ fighter delivering single-button combos (weak move, Bioware) to enemies while throwing out the odd special strike triggered by the other buttons. This is not much different from DAO in some ways, but feels like a beat ’em up more than an RPG. It works a lot better for the Mage class, which has been made much, much more cool as compared to the DAO version. If enemies get up in your shit, you can smack ’em around with your torture-device-for-a-staff. You can also shoot generic bursts of magical energy as a ranged attack. The spell effects are greatly improved, flow better, and are just all-around cool. Contrary to my usual approach, I may very well play a Mage first-time through DA2. When I was playing the Warrior, I was less than impressed with the combat which I thought was more tedious than it had to be (up until the “boss” fight). Playing the Mage turned that around and gave me a sense of what this game could be in terms of flipping some expectations and comfort-level with previous mechanics.

Bioware is making a gamble here, which should be appreciated. They aren’t simply paring their successful WRPG down to attract a new audience or borrow from the success of ME2, although these strategies are definitely part of the picture. They could have pounded out barely-improved versions of DA for as long as their talented writing staff could find stories to build them around. Instead, they are playing a little jazz with their own meter and doing the kind of thing that most big, successful game publishers never bother to do. I mean, look no further than the best-selling gaming franchise Call of Duty for an example of the same basic approach recycled once a year, every year. Like it’s a fucking sports game or something. Bioware is in a position where they have been successful enough to secure the ability to take some big chances with their own beloved franchises. I say more power to ’em. I’m not in love with what they’ve done to Dragon Age after playing the demo, but I suspect the spark is there and may immolate once the game launches.

Enjoy the demo, folks.

See Part 1 here.

See Part 2 here.

Aside from Shepard and the main villains Saren and Benezia, the casting of the squad mates Shepard collects is the most important in the film. This is the core ensemble with whom a lot of quality drama can be created. Or they can be one-dimensional non-characters basically around to look cool and represent a concept, as in something like Clash of the Titans. It would be a mistake to not let these characters come out, since they are all pretty interesting (or can be tweaked) and all the fans have their favorites. You have to give these guys stuff to do in the movie, too. Even if you don’t make them all combatants in the film version, so their presence in action scenes is limited and you can keep the main group tighter, but they need to be around all the same. How prominent you make these characters will make a lot of difference in how you might want to structure the plot, too. They should all have their part to play and I will discuss this further.

Let’s start with Staff Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko. He is the first squad member you get and is in the game right from the beginning. In the movie, he should be with Shepard on Eden Prime obviously, but should also figure prominently as Shepard’s right-hand man (maybe acting XO if Pressly is left out). Kaidan is a voice of reason and has an interesting past which can introduce the concept of Biotics to the audience. Because Kaidan can die in the game, it’s possible he will die in the movie and making him an adviser and “good friend” of Shepard strengthens the impact.

I’m assuming Kaidan Alenko is supposed to be Greek but it sounds like a Star Wars name so I’m not sure. He has a distinctive voice but as long as they don’t stray too far from this with the actor they choose, there’s probably a lot of people who could play him. My personal choice is

Mark Ruffalo who definitely has the right kind of voice and has very rarely been able to do roles like this. The guy might seem to be too “serious actor” for something like this but he recently signed on to play Bruce Banner in The Avengers to replace Edward Norton so I think if the script is good and it’s a quality production, he is not outside of the realm of possibility. Just depends on when they want to get this movie off the ground because Marvel probably has him on a short leash for the next two years but if they squeeze in filming for Mass Effect before it starts on The Avengers, or wait until after, they could conceivably get him. An alternate choice would be Adrian Grenier (Entourage) who could be a really good catch for a movie like this. It’d be interesting in a meta way to see how much like Vince Chase the guy really is.

or this guy?

The main thing is that Kaidan isn’t much of a badass and would likely provide some of the objections to Shepard’s “renegade” behavior. Even though he ends up working with a Specter and thus a bit outside of the normal military hierarchy, Kaidan is a “company man” with a lot of loyalty so it would put some juice into his character to have his loyalty for the Alliance vs. Shepard tested. He doesn’t mind working with aliens, though, and is kind of the “goody-two-shoes” of the group in general. He contrasts very nicely with Garrus and this should be used.

Ashley_Character_BoxGunnery Chief Ashley Williams who is rescued and then recruited on Eden Prime during the initial run-in with Saren and the Geth. She has a great introduction scene in the game and this should remain intact as much as possible. Williams is a young soldier who partially resembles some of the gung-ho tunnel-vision exhibited by modern soldiers seen in interviews from Iraq and Afghanistan in real life. I think this should be played down a bit and have Williams’ chief characteristics be her reliability and checkered military legacy (her dad was a pariah in the Turian War) balance with her inherent distrust for aliens, especially Turians. Williams can also get pretty sarcastic and is kind of a tough bitch all around. She’s the Normandy’s Lt. Vasquez, kind of. She’s like Kaidan in that she’s a company girl and since she’s known Shepard only a little while and is sort of younger (it seems) than either Shepard or Kaidan, she’s quite a bit more stiff and formal at first. This should be carried over into the film, having her loosen up more and more and get into what Shepard is trying to accomplish. Because she is a potential love-interest, having a Shepard who runs things a bit more loosely and tries to encourage Ashley to open up will drive that. It will also pack a punch if she’s who ends up dying later on, as opposed to Kaidan. Shepard is the kind of soldier who Ashley aspires to be and she is very impressed by him, which is the impetus of her affections. To maintain a respectable love triangle in the film, they will have to play this against the circumstantial closeness that develops between Liara and Shepard, especially since Liara is an alien.

My only real choice to play Ashley would be Mila Kunis. The problem here is that she might be too pretty and they didn’t do a very good job of grunging her up for Book of Eli and that movie could be considered strong indication about whether or not Mila Kunis could handle this role. I’m a bit on the fence about it, but Ashley sounds so much like her and looks like her a bit too. The only way Mila Kunis should be cast is if she’s willing to undergo some boot camp style training along with other cast-members to toughen her up. Have her hang out with some of the tough ladies in the armed forces, even. Let a bit of that sauce rub off on her chicken. But alternatively, if you’d like a beautiful woman who has already proven capable of playing tough-girl a bit, try Erica Carera (Eureka). In fact, she looks really good in SWAT armor so… Too bad I’ve never watched Eureka and can’t comment much on her acting. To be honest, I wouldn’t hate Anna Paquin (X-Men trilogy, True Blood, The Squid and the Whale, The 25th Hour) in this role either.

But here’s the aforementioned SWAT armor pic of Erica Carera…

 

Definitely gives you an idea of what she’d look like in armor.

Ashley is a stubborn character but somewhat like Kaidan, she’s pretty loyal to the human military. That said, I think she might be a bit more willing to bend the rules and go along with Shepard without objection with ruthless actions like killing someone who could always be let go. Ashley’s also religious which informs her black and white view of morality while also giving her an interesting dimension to play off of in a conversation given how the setting will affect the “big questions”. I don’t think they should overdo the religion thing, the game certainly doesn’t, but it can be present for a nice bit of characterization and also to give religious audience members a character to root for along these lines (not that they need this, it’s just nice).

The rest of the team are aliens, two of which are going to be primarily voice-acted. I have some ideas on how to pull this off in an interesting way for one of them, where the other would probably just be a standard actor in suit with separate voice actor. Before I talk about them, I will focus on the two characters who can more easily be played by people in costume (with lots and lots of makeup).

Liara133

Liara T’Soli is a blue alien chick with tentacle things for hair. Somehow, the Asari are still kind of attractive and it doesn’t hurt that they all look like human females. She’s a scientist who specializes in the Proteans, the ancient aliens who everybody thinks left behind all the technology including the Mass Accelerators which allow intelligent species to get around and make galactic civilizations 50,000 years later. Because she’s an alien, she’s also capable of doing this kind of mind-meld thing to help Shepard figure out just WTF is going on in the flashes of memory and impression he gets from the Protean relic Saren was after on Eden Prime. Liara is immature because she’s a young member of her species, barely an adult, but she’s also calm and compassionate. She’s a bit awkward and naive, but cares a lot about Shepard. Not allowing her to be a love interest, probably the one who gets a piece of Shepard in the end, misses a huge opportunity to anchor her character as well as make a comment on the human competition vs. cooperation theme which should be running through the movie. That Shepard, the first human Specter and prominent officer in the Alliance Military, should hook up with an Asari is significant. The groundwork for a romance between these two characters is all there in the game. As Liara interprets Shepard’s visions and they talk about this, they also talk about themselves and end up getting close.

Summer_Glau-summer-glau-12Liara’s a bit of an odd duck and often points out how bad she is at social interactions. To make this endearing to audiences, you need someone who can pull off strange but cute. Who better than Summer Glau (Firefly, Serenity, Dollhouse, The Sarah Connor Chronicles). She’s a very geek-safe choice and would most likely be willing to handle the make-up. Liara is also young, requiring a relatively youthful actress to bring out that quality of earnest naivete that sorta makes Liara either appealing or annoying depending on who you ask. For potential sequels, you need an actress who can also be tough but still maintain a sensitive core.

Because I think Liara should be a serious contender as Shepard’s love interest, we need an actress who can make her innocence and quirkiness attractive. Liara should bring out some of Shepard’s protectiveness and also provide an escape from his usual environment. She represents something exotic, unfamiliar, and exciting whereas Ashley is a bit more like the women Shepard probably usually meets. Ashley also represents the familiar and a good love triangle should hinge on some conflict, in this case mostly familiar vs. strange. Giving Shepard and Liara some stakes also further personalizes the subtext of anthrocentrism vs. interspecies cooperation.

The other reason to cast Summer Glau is that she has action chops. I’m not sure if it’s necessary to make Liara a combatant and I might even advise against it depending on the scale they go for in the movie’s firefights. The thing is, she can do it even if the movie only calls her to do it once, for the showdown with Benezia for instance. A strong alternative to Summer Glau is Keira Knightley who is an accomplished actress. If she was willing to do the extensive make-up, I think she’d be a good fit.

You need a soft-featured, oval face. Liara looks almost Scandinavian.

Although it will require a lot of make-up and special prosthetics, you can get away with casting an actor to play Garrus Valkarian in a suit. Garrus has a distinctive voice, but I think an approximation can be good enough without having to cast the voice actor. I say this because I think Doug Jones (Hellboy, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, Pan’s Labyrinth) would be the best option for Garrus as he’s done a lot of this kind of work in other films and has proven to be one of the best at portraying other-worldly creatures. Doug can also do decent voicework and many don’t realize he did the voice of Abe Sapien in Hellboy 2 as well as filling the suit (they used Frasier’s brother in the first movie). The key to Garrus’ voice is to capture the dry, sarcastic intonation. Garrus talks like he’s in a Western, not necessarily in his lingo but in his cadence. It’s subtle, but should be carried over.

can totally pull off:

Garrus_Vakarian

Garrus looks up to Shepard but also wants him to bend the rules maybe more than Shepard would want to on his own. Garrus leaves C-SEC (an inter-species police force) because of the bureaucracy and red-tape. He wants to be Dirty Harry and fuck criminals up on his own terms. He’s also important because he’s a member of the same species as Saren and so represents that Turians aren’t all human-hating bastards. Garrus is the team’s sniper and a lot of inspiration can be drawn from SWAT-style police for his character’s movements. This requires a strong physical actor, which Doug Jones is. The guy is damn near uncanny. And so skinny you can build almost any kind of humanoid body-type around him.

Ultimately, Garrus isn’t the most important character on the team in Mass Effect but he factors in a lot more for Mass Effect 2. In the first movie, he is there to help flesh Shepard out a bit because he is representative of some of Shepard’s own choices, such as when to ignore the Council. Garrus is the voice of self-reliance and job-done-at-any cost in the group. This is how he is best used in the movie.

These last two team-members are voice-actor only, unless you get people who like to do mocap and the industry is definitely going that way with Avatar, Where the Wild Things Are, and guys like Andy Serkis who mocaps apes great and small.

The other female alien is Tali’Zora whose face you never see. She’s very humanoid but CG or prosthetics will be necessary to give her the reverse-jointed legs and raptor-like hands and feet.

2198111-feros_tali_omnitool_versus_exogeni

You can put pretty much anyone in the suit, either an actress or stuntwoman… it doesn’t much matter as long as you have the right voice. I don’t see a reason why they shouldn’t cast Liz Sroka to reprise her role. Tali is the junior member of the team, picked up for her knowledge of Geth. She is the Kaylee Frye (Firefly‘s hot engineering nympho) of the Normandy. She is sweet and earnest and is a big engineering and technology geek (not much of a nympho). Aside from some exposition and maybe a little backstory re: Quarians and Geth as well as Tali’s pilgrimage, Tali is also kind of a minor character except for her possession of evidence linking Saren to Benezia which opens up the post-Citadel leg of the chase. Tali should also provide intel in conversations about Geth, of which there should be a few in the movie. Making her the Scotty of the crew gives her a bit more to do than be an exposition-bot or a plot device. It would be smart to give her a scene or two with Shepard that can establish her awed regard for him (which eventually becomes a crush in Mass Effect 2). At this point, Tali is a young woman who’s sort of lost out in the universe and is basically adopted by Shepard. It isn’t until the sequel that she gets to come into her own a bit more.

The final character, Urdnot Wrex, presents the most significant challenge in terms of portraying a life-like alien in the main cast. Wrex is a Krogan, a race of huge warriors that look like hump-backed humanoid sharks. It will be a combination of puppetry, CG-enhanced performance capture, and guy-in-suit that makes this work. My idea for how to do this properly follows along the lines of what Spike Jonze did with the wild things in Where the Wild Things Are. Have a big guy in a suit do the physical presence of Wrex, perhaps use some puppetry and CG to enhance the finer movements, but do the facial acting with performance capture. Paired with Steven Barr reprising the voice-acting, you’ve got your Wrex. He will definitely be an audience favorite just as he was in the game if done right.

Wrex is a fucking badass. He gets to have badass one-liners and war-stories and basically fuck everything up. He needs to be used in this movie.

Wrex is an old Krogan, kind of a seen-it-all type. He also has a deep but undeveloped sense of responsibility to his race, and even some real vision. This doesn’t come into play until the second game, and may not in a filmic version (though that would be a waste), but it is essential to his character and how I think he should be used in the movie. He shouldn’t be much of an exposition-bot because his personal stuff doesn’t have to factor into the plot of the film very much, but his gruff demeanor, sense of humor, and easy camaraderie and respect for Shepard provide a good balance with the more plot-centric team-members. He’s kind of Shepard’s Chewie, really.

And seriously, guys… Steve Barr needs to do the voice. If I don’t see THIS scene in the movie, I’ll murder someone.

STAY TUNED FOR PART 4 OF THIS SERIES WHERE I WILL DISCUSS HOW TO ADAPT THE PLOT OF A BRANCHING, EPISODIC VIDEOGAME INTO A NARRATIVELY COMPACT FILM!

See Part 1 here.

Now what about the supporting cast? This is both easy and tricky. A chunk of the cast was voiced by actors who could easily reprise their roles in a live-action film. Other characters are going to be guys in suits or voice actors over CG creations and I have some further ideas about this below, but many need to be cast basically from the ground up and I will talk about this too.

Captain Anderson

Joker

The two big ones are Keith David and Seth Green who did the voices for Captain Anderson and Joker respectively. So it seems easy, just cast these guys. However, it’s trickier than that because you have to schedule them and I think it’s usually more demanding to show up on set than it is to do voice recording at whatever point in production. Having said that, I wouldn’t be surprised if these guys were able and willing to show up especially since they aren’t core cast. It would be much harder to get the right people for the star-studded (kind of, haha) second game/film.

Admiral Hackett is voiced by Lance Henriksen but is a side-character you don’t really need and since he never shows up for face-time in the game, just drop him and give whatever lines of dialogue you need to keep from him over to Anderson or Udina. Aside from that, the only other “celebrity” you need to worry about is Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troy from Star Trek: The Next Generation) who played Matriarch Benezia, basically Saren’s right-hand gal who should probably be in the movie if only to give us more villainy. But why not have Marina Sirtis play her? With a little make-up and de-aging magic, you can turn this:

marina-sirtis-02

into this:

Matriarch Benezia is supposed to be like 1000 years old or something and seems a bit aged compared to other Asari you see in the game. Marina Sirtis should be able to pull this off no problem and why not? It’d be nice for Star Trek: TNG geeks to see her in a fucking movie again anyway. Legendary Pictures: it is a good thing to have science fiction geeks on your side with this movie, even ones who didn’t play Mass Effect. In a pinch, it wouldn’t hurt to get Claudia Black (Farscape and one of the Stargate series, as well as extensive voicework) to do it.

Anyway, it’s like there are tiers of obviousness in casting the supporting characters. The first tier is the live actors they used to do voice work. The next tier is finding actors who I think can ably represent some combination of the look, voice, and nuances of the other characters. Some of the next bit of speculation will be pretty obvious to fans of the game(s) but I’ll justify my choices.

Let’s start with Saren, the villain throughout the game. He should obviously be in the movie, and by virtue of compressing the narrative, will probably be much more established than he is in the game. One of the criticisms of Mass Effect is that it lacks face-time with the villain. Saren isn’t a bad villain, necessarily, but his pathos is largely boring old anti-human sentiment. I think they could have done a better job of tying his feelings to memories of the human-Turian war and this should absolutely be conveyed in the movie. In addition, Saren is a guy who’s being manipulated by a force he doesn’t understand but thinks he’s in control of or can make a deal with. He believes he’s saving the galaxy by working with Sovereign and the Reapers but he hates humans so he goes after them first. To get this right, you need a guy who’s got a great voice and doesn’t mind being in heavy make-up throughout production. You pretty much need Hugo Weaving.

“Your species must know its place.”

For the uninitiated, Saren who is a lizardlike alien called a Turian, looks like this:

me-saren1

In the game we know that Anderson and Saren crossed paths before. There’s a prequel novelization that doesn’t really need to be addressed by the film except to add a couple more shades of implication to the proceedings. Yes, Anderson tells us that Saren hates humans and was thought dead after their incident together (which also caused Anderson to lose candidacy as the first human Specter). When Saren shows up, a couple of decades after whatever happened between he and Anderson, he’s actually been partially fused with Geth technology, including an eye and an arm. This is a cool little detail that is never directly addressed in the game, implying that Saren was recovered to be Sovereign’s agent. This should stay subtle in the movie, a little clue for clever audiences to pick out. That said, the game never dwells overmuch on Saren’s dealings with the Geth and the movie kind of has to get into this a bit more or its too much like the principal villain appears from nowhere with thin reasoning aside from acting as a placeholder until the narrative reveals the true threat. Adapting this game to film does present the opportunity to patch some storyline weaknesses, so why not? My suggestion is to avoid a flashback and borrow from Star Trek 2010 by showing some of what happened with Saren, and maybe Anderson, before getting on to the present and Shepard’s story.

So in summary: cast a guy like Hugo Weaving and flesh Saren out a bit more in terms of his motives and backstory. I’d also like them to use a certain version of Saren’s demise too, but more on this later.

Before I get into the most important members of the support cast, Shepard’s core team of allies, I want to deal with the rest of the minor, but key characters now that I’ve handled the villains. Let’s start with Udina, the human representative to the Citadel Council. In the game, he’s a pretty straightforward callous politician/bureaucrat who isn’t very sympathetic or easy to deal with for straight shooters and military men. You can retain him as an ally or alienate him in the game and it’s pretty obvious to me that they’ll cast him as the “chief of police” type in the movie, a guy who basically gets in the way but has his comeuppance at the end when Shepard nominates Anderson to take the Council seat. To cast him, you basically need an ethnic guy. Udina seems Indian to me, but it’s inconclusive (I am ignorant?). This is a guy who isn’t important enough to cast by appearance or voice. You just need a distinguished older gent with some ethnic flavor. Udina is a powerful man and is part of the multicultural, largely unified “human nation” implied by the game.

My suggestion is Ben Kingsley, mostly because he does these kinds of roles well and also can be very charming. To make the most out of the character, you need an actor who can do something with very little, and Kingsley excels in small rolls like this and is often willing to do them in far worse pedigreed production, like say Bloodrayne. Plus the guy is half-Indian so he has an interesting look. Most of all, I’d believe him as an annoyingly bureaucratic and anthrocentrist galactic politician.

If you don’t know who Ben Kingsley is, gtfo my blog.

On board the Normandy are two crew-members who are important enough without being part of the core team that some attention should be paid to their casting. They could be left out altogether, I imagine. Have Liara replace Dr. Chakwas maybe. But there should be a few non-core characters floating around the ship and because Chakwas reappears in Mass Effect 2 you might as well have her be a full, if minor character. You only really need 2 or 3 scenes with her in them and her principle role is to bring out some characterization from Shepard.

But supposing they cast Dr. Chakwas, I like the idea of getting someone like Sigourney Weaver for a fun but small role. I’m sure if they got her, they’d bone the role up. That said, it’s intensely unlikely so I think we have to abandon that sort of idea. Carolyn Seymour was the voice actor, and she has also been a screen actor, but my personal choice is another Star Trek alum, none other than Voyager‘s Captain Janeway, played by Kate Mulgrew who I saw most recently on The Black Donnelys. Besides some geek cred for Star Trek, Bioware obviously likes her and used her in Dragon Age: Origins as well.

The other Normandy crew-member who probably needs an actor is Navigator Pressly who becomes the new XO when Shepard takes the ship over. He should only really have a few lines but might be able to speak up for the anthrocentrist attitude in crew meetings or something. I think the ideological conflict between cooperation and “humans first” is important and runs thick in the subtext of Mass Effect. It shouldn’t be some huge statement about real world racial/political issues, but it should be there in broad strokes to add depth to the stakes for Shepard. He isn’t just trying to save the galaxy from Geth and whatever else, he’s also gotta represent for humanity because the elder species don’t take us seriously. It falls to him to decide how and when to approach it unilaterally, and when to cooperate with the Citadel Council, his own crew, etc. The movie should put Shepard in situations where he can’t always be consistent, and sometimes must put humanity first. Ultimately, though, there needs to be at least a temptation to act in humanity’s interests first and various characters should reinforce this thread. Pressly could be dropped from the movie or he could act as a bit of a mouthpiece for these ideas, spiritually linked to Ashley Williams and Udina as being anthrocentrists to various degrees.

The only guy for this role is Michael Hogan (played Sol Tigh on BSG, mofos). I know Bioware snagged him for Mass Effect 2 in a pretty cheap role as a cop on the Citadel who you barely interact with. I’m pretty sure the character modelers based Pressly on Hogan, probably being Battlestar Galactica fans. At any rate, he is perfect for this even if it might be a bit distracting to see him administrating the bridge of a starship once again. Fuck it, I say: bring on the Hogan! If they beef up his suspicion of aliens a bit, imagine the surly half-insults and insinuations!

Yeah, I know it sounds like I want Pressly to be Tigh 2.0 but so what? He’s a minor character, it’s not like we need much more than Tigh 2.0 and casting this way is the best way to go if you’re going to keep Pressly and/or make him a more meaningful character.

I do want to point out that Pressly could easily be a background character, present but not really more than just a guy in a suit. If you go with what I’m saying about anthrocentrism, this can easily be shouldered by Ashley Williams and Udina. So he isn’t totally necessary to have around, but it does flesh out the existing Normandy crew a bit and keeps them all from being anonymous red-shirts. Mass Effect 2 wisely had half your crew members performing different roles on the ship, it might be good to retcon Mass Effect in a similar fashion. Have Garrus hanging out in the gun batteries, Wrex playing grease monkey with the Mako, Ashley maintaining small arms, Liara hanging out in the medbay, Kaidan in a flight chair beside Joker and Tali in engineering. This will put them in the background of scenes taking place aboard the ship and will show that they do more than stand around waiting for Shepard to talk to them. Or, if the script doesn’t pause much to take in the environment of the ship, you might never have to show much of what goes on but I think this would be a mistake since the Normandy is kind of a character in its own right.

Such a great ship design, how can you not milk this in a movie?

There aren’t many other potentially important minor characters that feel like I should be casting for them. I might change my mind later, but it seems to me that the only other part of casting to deal with is the core team. Six characters, six opportunities to royally fuck up.

STAY TUNED FOR PART 3 OF THIS SERIES, I WILL BE PICKING UP WHERE I LEFT OFF BY DISCUSSING THE CORE TEAM MEMBERS.

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