So we’re on Horizon and we’ve met Joe Colonist, the nameless dolt who is our stand-in for the human colonies. We still have two other characters to “meet”. First up…
ASSUMING DIRECT CONTROL
Harbinger is the name of the Reaper who is controlling the Collectors. Occasionally he shouts “ASSUMING DIRECT CONTROL” and jumps into the body of one of the Collectors so he can face you on the battlefield. He throws some cheeseball combat taunts out. Stuff like, “This hurts you, Shepard.” Then you kick his ass and go back to what you were doing. He only takes control of the low-level mooks. He doesn’t ever try to drive one of the larger foes that actually have a chance of killing you.
This is a truly stunning level of perfect wrongness. There are so many layers of faulty decisions here that it’s like peeling an onion made entirely of bad ideas…
- Space-Cthulhu should be above pedestrian concerns like direct combat with firearms.
- But if he needs to be somehow involved in a gunfight, he should have his own form and not just jump into the body of a lowly mook.
- But if he does jump into a fight, he shouldn’t get his ass handed to him repeatedly.
- But if he does get his ass kicked over and over, he shouldn’t keep saying the same four swaggering tough-guy combat taunts.
- But if he does, we should at least maintain the illusion that Shepard is an insect beneath his notice, and not somebody he knows by name.
- But if he does know Shepard by name, then the story should be selling the idea that Shepard and company find him the least bit intimidating. They should react to his presence in terror or dismay. Sure, it would be ludo-narrative dissonance to have the player character afraid of someone that isn’t actually a serious threat, combat-wise. But that ship has already sailed. We’re already having shooty time with a Reaper. I’m just trying to rescue our villain before this story turns him into a comical punching bag.
If the protagonists aren’t even going to react to Harbinger, then why is he here in the first place? Harbinger comes off like some kind of overcompensating tryhard, and Shepard just smacks him down without a word. It’s as if this Reaper is just another unworthy mook beneath his notice. This is exactly backwards! This whole thing is so perfectly wrong: If you were to add anything, or take anything away, it would be an improvement.
This humanizes the Reapers in the worst possible way. It makes them seem small-minded, petty, and weak. His one-liners aren’t even good:
“This hurts you!”
“My attacks will tear you apart!”
The idea that a Reaper that’s millions of years old would behave like a 14 year old kid getting schooled in Counter-Strike is so bad it’s almost hilarious. I can’t believe this idea came from BioWare.
“But Shamus! Harbinger is actually dangerous on higher skill levels!”
If you say so. Although, “Playing on max difficulty will partly fix one of the half-dozen things wrong with our villain” seems like a bad trade-off to me. I’ll point out that the Mass Effect 1 conversation with Sovereign works just fine regardless of what you do in the options menu.
A lot of his taunts don’t even sound like they’re trying to sound Reaper-ish. Several of them could be read by any loser Blue Suns merc and they wouldn’t sound out of place. This flaw should be glaringly obvious to everyone involved. Not just to the writers, but to anyone working on the team. And it’s something that would have been trivial to fix. Just… how did it get this bad?
On top of it all, Harbinger is a dumbass. His Collector plan is doomed to fail even without Shepard opposing him. Later he has the heroes cornered on the Collector ship and he can’t stop Shepard from walking out. He finally scores a win over Shepard late in the game, but only because Shepard suddenly comes down with a legendary case of cutscene stupidity. (We’ll talk more about these sections in detail when we get to them.) There’s nothing in Harbinger’s behavior that suggests any degree of cunning, forethought, patience, or competence.
Harbinger looks even worse when we try to view Mass Effect 2 in the context of the other two games:
Looking back to Mass Effect 1, Harbinger is evidently such a loser that Sovereign didn’t ask for his help when it attacked the Citadel at the end of Mass Effect 1.
Looking forward to Mass Effect 3, we know the Reaper invasion fleet will be here just a few months after the events of Mass Effect 2. (Sooner, if we take the premise of The Arrival DLC into account.) The supposedly ageless and patient Reaper launched this short-sighted attack against a single Human. That rash and needless attack provoked a response that blew up his Prothean ant farm. If Harbinger had just sat still for a few months it would have been effortless to round up all the humans they wanted.
Not only did this writer fail to create a compelling villain for their story, they took the imposing machine-god villains established by the previous game and turned them into pathetic and mildly comical losers.
And speaking of ruining things from the previous game…
The Virmire Survivor
You run into either Kaiden or Ashley here, depending on who survived Virmire. You’d think Ashley might remark on the fact that this is the second time you’ve shown up to save her life during an alien assault on a Human colony. It was a pretty big moment in her life and led to her friendship with Shepard. She ought to be experiencing some intense déjà vu, here. But no.
Kaiden and Ashley both have the same dialog for some reason, even though these two characters have very different personalities. They begin the conversation claiming you’re a “god”, then throw a teenage tantrum because you didn’t call them in the last two years while you were dead, and then act like you’re a supervillain for working for Cerberus. Then they storm off. It’s probably the most frustrating conversation in the game, because both sides are wrong. Kashley is incredibly unreasonable to the point of being irrational and childish, and your answers are dumb, bordering on idiotic. And to top it all off, the dialog wheel lies to you about what you’re going to say.
Here’s the dialog between Male Shepard and Ashley:
Shepard? I remember that name. You’re some kind of big Alliance Hero.
Ashley enters the scene from behind a crate(?) and looks in awe at Shepard. The somber Vigil theme plays.
Commander Shepard, Captain of the Normandy. The first Human Spectre. (She looks at him warmly, smiling.) Savior of the Citadel. (To Joe Colonist.) You’re in the presence of a GOD, Delan. Back from the dead!
(To Ashley. Disgusted.) All the people we lost and you get left behind. Figures. Screw this. I’m done with you Alliance types!
(Steps forward, offers Shepard a handshake.) I thought you were dead, Commander. We all did.
(Top of wheel, paragon-ish.) It’s been too long, Ash. How have you been?
(Suddenly offended.) That’s it? You show up after two years and act like nothing’s happened?
Every single spoken line above is wrong or jarring in some way, and I could probably spend an entire entry dissecting the whole scene a line at a time. But I don’t want to detract from the Main Wrong Thing by focusing on all the smaller blunders. The main problem is the incredible damage it does to the Kashley character. The rest of the game seems aware of how important the characters are to our connection to this universe. So why is this character handled so poorly? Like Liara, it feels like the author abruptly re-wrote the character for no reason. This isn’t even in service of the story.
This is conversation is such a disaster that we can’t even turn to authorial intent for help. Even from outside the story, I can’t tell what the writer is trying to accomplish. Why does Ash go from “awe and admiration” to “offended and pissed off” when Shepard greets her? Is this slam-cut mood change intentional? Is the writer trying to say Ashley is irrational and emotionally unstable, or did they just skip the point in the conversation where her mood-change is depicted? What is the audience supposed to be feeling, here? Are we supposed to be angry at her? Hurt? Indignant?
The dialog wheel doesn’t tell you ahead of time, but Shepard’s responses inevitably mention Cerberus, which makes Ashley even more outraged. They argue for a few lines. Ashley seems to worry that Cerberus is mind-controlling you, even though she doesn’t actually know about the rebuilding process and so doesn’t have a really good reason to suspect that. (And literally nobody else in the story is worried about that, even the ones who do know about how extensive Shepard’s rebuilding was.)
No matter what you choose, she acts like Shepard is a monster and says, “You turned your back on everything we stood for.” (After you saved half the colony. Which you can’t actually point out.) She spends the whole exchange insinuating Shepard is either a liar or brainwashed. When she ends the conversation, she doesn’t say she’s going to check on the victims everyone here is supposed to care about, but instead she says she’s going to report to the Alliance, “To see if they believe you.”
Really, writer? “I’m gonna tell mom!” That’s how you’re going to end the conversation with one of the core characters from the last game?
Some players were willing to go with the premise of working for Cerberus, and some players hated the concept. But this conversation fails for both groups. The writer threw you some excuses at the start of the game to justify the Cerberus alliance, but you can’t offer those excuses back to the game when Kashley asks about it. But you also can’t agree with her, either. You’re obliged to debate her and then prevented from saying anything substantive or asking reasonable questions. Instead you select the dialog optionThere are other choices, but I have no idea what they say. I’ve never chosen them and I’ve never heard anyone comment on them. Everyone goes straight for disavowing Cerberus. that says, “I’m not working for Cerberus”, and then Shepard says the opposite and fails to follow up with a good reason. And then Kashley acts like this is a horrifying betrayal.
The writer keeps telling us conflicting things about Cerberus:
1) Cerberus is so evil that working with them for any reason – even to save the lives of thousands of innocent civilians – is simply unacceptable. It’s a betrayal of basic values and decency.
2) Cerberus is so benign that Joker and Chakwas left their prestigious careers with the Alliance to join Cerberus, and it doesn’t seem like a big deal to either of them. They’re not deeply conflicted, or worried about what people might say, or expressing anything suggesting that this decision would be viewed as scandalous.
Having conflicting viewpoints can work, if you’re willing to spend the time on it. It’s a good way to make the world feel large and complex. “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” is a real argument we have in the real world. Except, the author refuses to address any of this. None of it is reflected in dialog or even acknowledged by the characters.
Why is Kashley the only person to think that working with Cerberus is beyond the pale? What does she know that Joker doesn’t? We have this massive difference in opinion on the nature of Cerberus. Based on the Cerberus activity we see in the games, I actually agree with Kashley. But everyone else disagrees. You can’t tell Kashley about what you’re trying to accomplish and how you’ve been trapped in this course of action, and you can’t ask Joker what he thinks of all the horrible things Cerberus has done. Kashley doesn’t explain why her view of Cerberus is so radically different from that of Joker and Chakwas. You can’t confront Miranda or TIM about the evils of Cerberus. None of the pro-Cerberus people will name even a single thing that Cerberus has done that’s good.
The game’s entire presentation of Cerberus seems to change from scene to scene without anyone noticing or commenting. This is so wrong it’s disturbing. If feels like the writer is gaslighting us. “What? I never said Cerberus was evil. Maybe you imagined it?”
I think the author of this scene felt they needed a way to justify Kashly not re-joining the crew, and so they contrived this juvenile argument. But no argument was needed. It would have been out of character for Kashley to abandon their post and fly off with you, leaving behind the colonists, equipment, and duties that had been entrusted to themThis is ignoring the really odd idea that the Alliance would send just ONE person. Shit guys, send a squad at least. How short-handed are you? Kashley needs to sleep SOMETIME..
All we needed to hear was, “I can’t abandon my post. These people need me here now more than ever, and going AWOL won’t help your cause or this colony. (Tearful hug.) Good luck out there, Shepard.” Boom. Done. Kashley stays behind. No stupid conversation, no railroading dialog, no breaking character. You could follow that comment up with Kashley saying something about checking up on their friends – meaning the remaining survivors you just saved. That would give Kashley a way to demonstrate concern for the colonists, it would give us at least some approximation of third-hand concern for them, and it would provide a graceful way to end the conversation without making it sound like Kashley is running off to pout.
And if all of that wasn’t wrong enough, the game plays the Vigil theme from Mass Effect 1 during this conversation. The writer is going to use the music of somber revelations from the first game as the soundtrack for an angry argument?! This is ludicrous and tone-deaf. We’re hearing the most distinctive track from Mass Effect 1 while talking with someone who is acting completely out of character. It actually amplifies the dissonance.
Based on how the theme was used last time, it might be appropriate to use this music…
- When investigating Prothean ruins.
- During a profound and revelatory conversation regarding the Reapers or the ancient past.
- In the “calm before the storm” moments leading into a finale.
Playing this music for Kashley is like playing the Star Wars Cantina music when we meet the Ewoks. Even if you think it matches the mood, a proper musical score is more than just a collection of tempos. Individual pieces of music come to mean things. They have their own context. It’s not a magic button the clumsy writer can push to cause emotions to happen.
 There are other choices, but I have no idea what they say. I’ve never chosen them and I’ve never heard anyone comment on them. Everyone goes straight for disavowing Cerberus.
 This is ignoring the really odd idea that the Alliance would send just ONE person. Shit guys, send a squad at least. How short-handed are you? Kashley needs to sleep SOMETIME.
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