Reflecting on My Mass Effect Experience (Part 1 of 2)–The Dungeons & Dragons Parallel

I’ve been reflecting back on the ending of Mass Effect 3 (and the trilogy as a whole) since finishing the game back in June. I couldn’t get the game out of my head for weeks afterward. More specifically, I couldn’t get the story out of my head, and I think it’s because I feel such a strong sense of ownership of the narrative that I helped create over the past five years. It’s that sense of ownership that makes me realize what a marvel the Mass Effect series is, both from a technical and a storytelling standpoint. In my personal experience, the Mass Effect series is the first series of video games that has truly managed to capture what is was like to play through a Dungeons & Dragons campaign to completion. For that reason alone, the Mass Effect games are my favorite video RPGs of all time.

People like roleplaying games for a lot of different reasons, but the main reason I love them is because I love creating a narrative for my character within the framework that the person running the campaign (the DM) creates. In a good tabletop game, I am presented with the rules, the setting, the lore, and maybe even some recent events that serve as the launching pad for the campaign. I create a character within that framework, fill in some backstory, and decide which traits I am going to emphasize in order to play the character in a way that fits the narrative I’m creating for them. Over the course of the campaign, my actions have an impact on the story, and the relationships I form with other characters (both player characters and non-player characters) all contribute to my character’s overall story. While the person running the game has a larger story to tell and had a measure of control over that story and its outcome, I am creating my own character’s narrative within that larger story.

It’s the dynamic that I just described that many video game RPGs fail to really execute on. Many games allow you to create your own character, some with a lot more customizability than the Mass Effect series. But it’s the ability to let the player tell their own story while still maintaining a strong connection to the overarching narrative the most games fail at. Most are too restrictive, offering the player no real room to create their own narrative. Those games may let the player customize the look of the character, but everything else about the game is very scripted. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have games like the Elder Scrolls (which I am a huge fan of, by the way). The Elder Scrolls games feel at time to me like a D&D campaign with no one running it. They are a giant sandbox where you can create many narratives for your own character in the world, but you often feel disconnected from the story the developers set out to tell. I played through the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion twice (over 150 hours), once sticking almost strictly to the main storyline, and another time ignoring it completely. I loved the world and the myriad of things I could do within it, but the main story was never compelling enough to keep me connected to it.

Mass Effect managed to keep the balance between my story and the larger story over the course of three games. It wasn’t perfect–there were times where the game almost became too restrictive, especially in Mass Effect 2, where I really disliked how the developers handled some of the storylines. But even when I felt the games faltered, it was mostly with the larger story. I was still allowed to play my character the in a way that was consistent with the narrative I had created. That held true right through the end of the trilogy, when I was able to end my character’s story in the way I had been envisioning it since early in the second game. That made for an incredibly satisfying end to the series for me, and one of the most cherished gaming experiences I’ve ever had.

In my next post I’ll get a little spoilery, as I want to talk about the story of my Commander Shepard.


Co-Op Critics Podcast: Mass Effect 3

And we’re back! We recently re-posted the discussion Dan and I had on Mass Effect 1&2, and we’re here to finish the job with a spoilerific Mass Effect 3 gabfest.

Be aware, this is absolutely a spoiler-filled discussion that delves into the endings of Mass Effect 3, as well as the recently-released “Extended Cut” DLC.

You can listen to the episode in the player on our sidebar, or you can download it here:

Mass Effect 3 Trailers:

For more on the Mass Effect series, head over to

Send comments to OR leave us a voicemail at 860-698-0468. Check out for all things Secret Identity.


Back from the Dead: Co-Op Critics: Mass Effect 1&2

Almost a year to the day of our last post, we’re back–with a repeat. All kidding aside, when Dan and I first started Co-Op critics last year, we certainly intended to have more frequent episodes than the couple we’ve put out so far. However, life got in the way, and it took one of our favorite franchises ever to bring the Co-Op Critics back together.

Today we re-posted our April 2011 episode where we talked about Mass Effect 1&2. On Monday, BRAND NEW content will debut, as our episode on Mass Effect 3 will go live. We hope this is the beginning of more regular episodes (at least one very other month), but time will tell. Games we may talk about in the future include Battlefield 3, Minecraft and the upcoming cold Stream DLC for Left 4 Dead 2.

You can listen to the ME 1&2 epiosde in the player above, or download it here:

Here are the show notes for this episode:

Co-Op Critics is Secret Identity’s gaming-centric podcast that takes an in-depth look at a game or series of games each episode. In this episode (origianlly posted in April 2011), Brian and Dan Evans discuss the first two installments of the Mass Effect series. Next week’s episode will focus on Mass Effect 3.

For your reference, here are some links to trailers and articles that are discussed in this episode:

Mass Effect 1 Trailer 

Brian’s Interview with Mass Effect writer Drew Kapyshyn (scroll down to the bottom of the page)

Brian’s Interview with Mass Effect 2 writer Mac Walters & artist Omar Francia on the ME: Redemption comic: 

Mass Effect 2 Trailer:

Mass Effect 3 Trailer:

For more on the Mass Effect series, head over to

Send comments to OR leave us a voicemail at 860-698-0468 . Check out for all things Secret Identity.

FIFA 12 Proves the iPad Is a Legit Gaming Console

by Brian LeTendre

“Hardcore” gamers like to eschew claims that mobile devices, particularly Apple’s iOS devices, are legitimate gaming platforms. What a lot of gamers don’t realize though, is that developers absolutely consider these devices gaming platforms, and they are working harder than ever to create content for these platforms that will be able to stand toe to toe with other platforms that gamers consider more “hardcore.”

IGN posted a video this week of EA’s FIFA developers showing off a version of the upcoming FIFA 12 for iPad. This year’s iteration of the game will allow players to use other iOS devices (iPhones and iPod Touches) as controllers for the iPad game. The video also demonstrated how the game looked on a big screen, using the iPad’s HDMI connector.

In other words, the devs demonstrated how they can turn the iPad into a traditional console via the software they are developing. This has already been done with other games and apps on a smaller scale. But, it’s easy to imagine that if FIFA 12 will have this capability, other EA games will end up having it too.

I’m not suggestion that my iPad/iPhone combo will replace my current consoles, but when you look at how consoles are trying to incorporate some of the best parts of mobile tech, and mobile tech is starting to provide console-type experiences, the lines between the two are starting to blur. Personally, I for one can’t wait to see more games with this functionality, because it pretty much means I’ll have a portable console made up of devices that I already carry around with me on a regular basis.

And that’s perhaps the most interesting thing about what’s happening right now with iOS devices and gaming. It’s like a spy movie, where the assassin gets past event security because he’s broken down his weapon into multiple pieces and then assembles it once he’s inside.  Apple has basically snuck a new game console into iOS users homes piece by piece. First the iPod, then the iPhone, and finally the iPad. Then they bring them all together to form the console.

Crazy stuff, and I can’t wait to see what’s coming down the road.  One thing’s for sure–I’ll be buying FIFA 12 on iPad on day one.


Capcom Feeling the Heat Over RE: Mercenaires

by Brian LeTendre
Waves were made recently when Capcom revealed that the new Resident Evil: Mercenaries for the Nintendo 3DS handled game save data in a rather restrictive way. The game data saved to the cartridge can never be reset by the user.  Not only can the original purchaser never start over from scratch in terms of data, but anyone purchasing the game second hand will not be able to delete the game progress of the previous owner.

Capcom has not explained the reasoning behind their decision to not include the functionality in RE: Mercenaries, but they claim that their intention was not to negatively affect secondhand game sales.

1Up reported that GameFly is not renting the game, and that some GameStop locations will not be accepting the game for trade-in.

Capcom is pretty much being vilified in the games press right now for what is perceived as another attempt to stop consumers from being able to trade or resell their games. It’s no secret that publishers hate the used games market, primarily because they don’t directly profit from it.

So here’s my question: Why shouldn’t Capcom and other publishers try to kill the used games market? Their fears about the used games market are completely valid. Used games cost publishers sales, period. If I were running a publishing company, I would want to destroy the used market. As a publisher, I make money when people buy new games, so I want to make sure anyone who wants to play my game has to buy it new, and make me money.

I am exactly the type of consumer that publishers should worry about. I play a lot of games, and I buy at least half of them used. For every new release that I am even remotely interested in playing, I make a choice—either I will buy the game new, or I will wait and pick up a used copy in a couple of months, unless the price for a new copy drops significantly.

Just from my own buying habits, I can’t blame publishers for wanting to do something about used games. I just don’t think that killing the used market is the answer to publishers selling more new games. In my opinion, the answer is as clear as day—lower your prices. $60 for a new game is a flat out ridiculous price.  In my mind, $40 is the magic price point. I know I’d buy a lot more new games at $39.99 than at $59.99. In fact, I picked up Crysis 2 when it dropped to $39.99 new. There’s a lot of games I’d pick up at that price point.

Another possible solution that publishers have yet to embrace is a tiered pricing system for console games. Asking $60 for the next Elder Scrolls game is one thing. Asking $60 for the Green Lantern movie tie-in game is shameful. There’s no reason that there can’t be a tiered pricing system that is widely embraced by publishers. It would result in more sales for games that don’t have the resources to be a AAA experience. Put the Green Lantern game out at $25 and sell a million copies, as opposed to the 75,000 copies you’ll sell at $60.

Again, the tiered pricing answer is how I think publishers could impact the used market, but I’m sure there are other ways as well.  What I do know is that punishing the consumer in an effort to curb used games sales is not the correct answer. It just turns consumers against the publishers that are trying to get them to buy new games. Hopefully Capcom heard that message loud and clear, but only time will tell.


Hardcore No More?

by Brian LeTendre

Something strange is happening to me. Maybe I got bit by a radioactive spider, perhaps I’ve consumed too many artificial sweeteners or colored dyes–I don’t know. But something is going on, because my tastes in video games are rapidly changing, and the change is leading me to ask myself:

Am I not a hardcore gamer anymore?

Over the past four years, I have been a console-dedicated gamer of the RPG and FPS variety. Modern Warfare, Battlefield Bad Company, Left for Dead, Dragon Age, Mass Effect–these were my games of choice. I’ve spent countless hours unlocking everything from chainmail armor to red dot scopes, and for the most part, I’ve loved every minute of it.

Recently however, I’ve not found myself craving 40+ hour RPGs, or multiplayer shooters that require the dedication of a professional sports player.

Lately I’ve been getting my gaming fix with bite-sized, mobile games that feature simple mechanics and aren’t bogged down with elaborate storylines and overly detailed game worlds. These games allow me to come and go as I please, and don’t pounish me for not spending enough time with them. They’re like ‘friends with benefits,’ as opposed to a more committed relationship.

To answer my own question, of course this doesn’t mean that I’m not a hardcore gamer anymore. That’s a stupid term anyway, mostly used by gaming snobs to put themselves above someone else. In fact, this recent change in my tastes isn’t so much a radical departure, as it is a return to my roots. The games I’m enjoying now are the same types of games that I grew up with. I was an Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 kid. I grew up in arcades and roller rinks. I didn’t care about the lore behind why Mario cared so much about Princess Peach, I just wanted to break bricks and stomp on mushrooms until my limited lives ran out.

I think what’s changed is with the explosion of smartphones and tablets, that type of gaming is back in full-force. It started because of the infancy of the technology–there was only so much developers could do when they first got their hands on the tech. We’re already seeing that evolve, as many mobile developers have been able to craft much deeper experiences on those platforms–MMOs, level-based shooters and more. But the marketplace is also filled with smaller, simpler experiences that have struck a chord with mainstream consumers, and that means they are here to stay. For a gamer like me, that means I get to enjoy the renaissance, and get back in touch with my gaming roots.

I know I’ll be picking up the next Mass Effect, and I’ll probably grab at least two or three shooters this holiday season, but much of my limited gaming time will continue to be spent with smaller games that remind me of why I fell in love with the hobby in the first place.

And that’s just fine by me.


The Year with No New Games–Part 3: Once You’ve Popped, You Can’t Stop

by Kim Wong

If you’ve ever played an Xbox 360 or Xbox Live Arcade game, you’ll know the sound. That addictive little pop that draws the gamer into a positive reinforcement loop that some call ruinous, while others acclaim as purpose-creating. It’s the sound of achievements unlocking, and it played a huge role in derailing my quest to complete 29 downloadable and retail games in 12 months.

Let’s take a look at that original gaming schedule again:

January 2011: Vanquish, Super Meat Boy, Battlefield: Bad Company 2-Vietnam
February: Alan Wake, Splosion Man, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
March: Dead Space, Halo Wars, Wolfenstein
April: Singularity, Conan
May: Metro 2033, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
June: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, LEGO Rock Band, The Beatles Rock Band
July: Fable II, Penny Arcade Adventures 1 and 2
August: Alpha Protocol, Modern Warfare 2 (Veteran difficulty)
September: Mass Effect, Call of Duty 4 (Veteran difficulty)
October: Saints Row 2, Prince of Persia
November: Bully: Scholarship Edition, The Secret of Monkey Island
December: Grand Theft Auto IV, Trials HD

Of those 29 games, I only managed to complete Vanquish and Battlefield: Bad Company 2-Vietnam. I unlocked all achievements in Battlefield: Bad Company 2-Vietnam, while I only have one achievement left in Vanquish. But it’s not the actual pursuit of achievements in the games on the schedule that derailed this project. Rather, it’s the pursuit of achievements in games that I had previously completed and hadn’t thought about until I started this project. Let’s take a look at some of what I’ve accomplished in 2011:

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance: started in October 2007, last previously played in June 2009, completed to 100% January 2011
Aegis Wing: started in November 2007, last previously played in February 2009, completed to 100% in January 2011
Gears of War: started in May 2008, last previously played in March 2009, completed on Insane in co-op in January 2011
Magic: The Gathering-Duels of the Planeswalkers: started in June 2009, last played in November 2009, completed to 100% in February 2011
Halo 3: started in October 2007, last played in July 2010, completed to 100% in February 2011
Alien Hominid HD: started and last played in April 2009, completed to 100% in February 2011
Ticket to Ride: started in June 2008, last played in June 2009, completed to 100% in February 2011

While attempting to complete games from my backlog, I actually dug deeper than intended and exhumed games that I had originally considered completed to my satisfaction. Instead, I tried to achievement 100% completion on as many as possible. More than anything else, this pursuit of 100% completion derailed my project. And I couldn’t be happier for it. An explanation next time.

The Year with No New Games–Part 2: Making a List, Checking it Twice

by Kim Wong
Let’s take a moment and take a look at that original gaming schedule from the first article:
January 2011: Vanquish, Super Meat Boy, Battlefield: Bad Company 2-Vietnam
February: Alan Wake, Splosion Man, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
March: Dead Space, Halo Wars, Wolfenstein
April: Singularity, Conan
May: Metro 2033, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
June: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, LEGO Rock Band, The Beatles Rock Band
July: Fable II, Penny Arcade Adventures 1 and 2
August: Alpha Protocol, Modern Warfare 2 (Veteran difficulty)
September: Mass Effect, Call of Duty 4 (Veteran difficulty)
October: Saints Row 2, Prince of Persia
November: Bully: Scholarship Edition, The Secret of Monkey Island
December: Grand Theft Auto IV, Trials HD
In 12 months, I had aimed to complete 19 full retail games, 2 ports of classic retail games (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and The Secret of Monkey Island), 3 games that are nearly impossible to master (Super Meat Boy, Splosion Man, and Trials HD), 2 games that I wanted to master on higher difficulties (Call of Duty 4 and Modern Warfare 2), a downloadable multiplayer expansion (BF:BC2-Vietnam), and 2 downloadable RPGs. This would have been a tall task if I didn’t work full time, went to graduate school part time, and weren’t a husband and a father of a toddler. With those obligations in hand, I probably should have scaled back the scope of this project. So how did I create this schedule?
There was purpose to this madness, and it’s easier to explain if viewed in chunks.
I had dedicated January to March to atmospheric third person shooters. Vanquish, Alan Wake, Dead Space, and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West each presented a different take on how to pace third person games and give the player a different experience. Dead Space was also timed for March to be near the release of Dead Space 2, so I could at least understand the chatter about how the sequel would compare to the original. Super Meat Boy and Splosion Man were going to be compared as two takes on the modern sadistic puzzle platformer. Wolfenstein would have laid the transition to the next segment.
From April to May, the goal was to experience two first person shooters that created rich worlds for the players to explore. Singularity has been compared to BioShock in various reviews, while Metro 2033 tries to strike the middle between open world shooters like the STALKER series and Half-Life 2. Conan would have provided the mindless hack and slash, while Castlevania: Symphony of the Night would have segued to the next segment of the year.
What’s better than to immerse yourself in a full role-playing game during the summer? From June to September, I would have taken on three of the biggest role-playing games of this generation, two downloadable role-playing games, and one that’s become an underground hit. The Rock Band games would have been a palate cleanser from heavy role-playing games. The two Call of Duty games would have been also interesting contrasts to how Alpha Protocol and Mass Effect handled the mechanics of shooting. Because Modern Warfare 2 lacks infinitely respawning enemies, I scheduled it before Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
The year would have ended on the great open world games of this generation, from the satirical Saints Row 2 to the beginning of Rockstar’s evolution in open world gaming design this generation with Bully: Scholarship Edition. Theoretically, I would have followed Grand Theft Auto IV with Red Dead Redemption in January 2012.
Each segment of the year focused on a theme and would have provided potential for comparison and contrast. Over the course of a year, I would also have played some of the best games of this console generation, and I would be able to participate in more conversations. But this didn’t come to pass, and the reasons for this will explored in the next article. 

The Year with No New Games–Part 1: Mining the Backlog

by Kim Wong

In early December last year, I knocked over one of my piles of shame. Everybody has one, whether it’s made of foods to try, books to read, movies to watch, places to visit, or in my case, Xbox 360 games to play. (There’s a separate pile of Nintendo DS games, but that’s a story for another time.) What made my pile particularly shameful was the fact that I had bought each game with the full intention of playing them, but there they sat in their shrinkwrapped packaging, hidden away from the sun and sight. The nature of being a gamer, faced with great new games to play released every month, made the idea of balancing the new with the old impossible. It was at that point that I resolved that I would buy no new games until I had played to my satisfaction every game in that pile.

For context, here is the pile, broken down by category:

Shooters: Alan Wake, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 – Vietnam, Dead Space, Metro 2033, Singularity, Vanquish, Wolfenstein,

Role-playing games: Alpha Protocol, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Fable II, Lost Odyssey, Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episodes 1 and 2

Rhythm: The Beatles Rock Band, LEGO Rock Band, Rock Band 3

Platformers: Splosion Man, Super Meat Boy, Trials HD

Action/Adventure: Brutal Legend, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Conan, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, Prince of Persia (2008), The Secret of Monkey Island

Open World: Bully, Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption, The Saboteur, Saints Row 2
Strategy: Halo Wars

Driving: Burnout Paradise

As always, classification can be a tricky proposition. The heart of the matter was that there were thirty-six games in total, each a good game in its own way, unplayed and shoved further down the pile each time I get a new game.

My original was ambitious. I had aimed to complete at least one retail and one downloadable game a month, which would have cleared most of the backlog. Here’s the original plan:

January 2011: Vanquish, Super Meat Boy, Battlefield: Bad Company 2-Vietnam
February: Alan Wake, Splosion Man, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
March: Dead Space, Halo Wars, Wolfenstein
April: Singularity, Conan
May: Metro 2033, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
June: The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, LEGO Rock Band, The Beatles Rock Band
July: Fable II, Penny Arcade Adventures 1 and 2
August: Prince of Persia, Alpha Protocol
September: Mass Effect, Modern Warfare 2 (Veteran difficulty)
October: Saints Row 2, Call of Duty 4 (Veteran difficulty)
November: Bully: Scholarship Edition, The Secret of Monkey Island
December: Grand Theft Auto IV, Trials HD

While drafting this schedule, I clearly neglected a couple of essential factors, like work, family, and sleep. Here are the games from this I’ve completed thus far: Vanquish, Battlefield: Bad Company 2-Vietnam.

The aim of this column is to explore what happened to derail my quest so badly, some of the lessons I’ve learned about being a full time dad and part time gamer, the gaming communities I’ve encountered, and how I can salvage the rest of this year to complete some more games.

Please Welcome Kim Wong to Co-Op Critics!

With our second podcast segment in the can, we are now finally starting to generate some content for our little corner of the universe here at the Co-Op Critics blog.  Our good friend Kim Wong is going to be writing some articles and reviews with Dan and I on the blog here, and he’s got a great series of articles to kick things off.  Stay tuned later this week for Kim’s series on his decision to attack his pile of shame and buy no new games in 2011.