Sunday, January 9, 2011

Review: Lair of the Shadow Broker

Through the storm there cruises a ship chasing shadows, fleeing sunset’s mustard light. Beneath it, so far that soil seems impossible, flat sheet of cloud lie calm, layers upon layers of slate, skyward ocean undisturbed. Alien, this ship, broad at her stern, tail like the flared gills of a cod looming over reef, hungry. Needles on her spine rend the churning storm, take lightning as punishment, absorb each strike, using this pain as fuel.

Screams rattle the hull, whether those of wind or crew, and the prow, hanging empty like a mouth without mandibles, gasps at the air ahead. Here, Commander Shepard will meet the Shadow Broker. Here, countless workplace health and safety violations make paperwork a nightmare. Here, I’ve really jumped the gun, left myself right in the eye of the storm.

Yes, a bloody terrible metaphor; but also, a necessary truth. Really, I just couldn’t start a review about Lair of the Shadow Broker without a mention of the sanity-impairing visuals that Bioware packaged with story and sound. Like Overlord, most of what there is to see stirs some kind of feeling deep inside me. Whether awe, fear, or curiosity, there’s always a primal, sort of desperate edge to what you experience while playing through this expansion. Lair of the Shadow Broker is just one of those things that you sit there and experience, legs crossed and bladder aching, until it comes to an end of its own accord.

Really, the only – minor – issue I took with Lair of the Shadow Broker is that I ended up a little confused when I tried to start my detective work. I paid 800 Microsoft Points and then waited about an hour for my download to finish, only to find myself unable to immediately begin my hunt. Unacceptable. I’m a twenty-year old white male. I can barely handle waiting for my Footy Franks to microwave.

To trigger the mission, you need to go to Illium and talk to Liara T’Soni. At least, that’s what the prompt on the galaxy map told me I needed to do. Really, to get anywhere, you need to talk to Liara. Simple enough. After all, she’ll just keep staring if no one asks her what a squidjob is, so talking to her is a natural enough way to react. However, you need to choose a specific dialogue choice to head out on another adventure with tentacled Smurfette. Granted, once I actually succeeded in getting the mission underway, I definitely felt like a massive tool; but, that wasn’t until after I realised I needed to ask Liara about the Shadow Broker, yet again.

Yes, the man behind Commander Shepard, the great paragon of virtue, couldn’t detect the start of this great mystery, let alone the end. And, after the action started, that fact worried me even less than all the dead spiders in the light fittings.

Immediately after the mission loads, and you gain control of Commander Shepard, it’s all about finding evidence. Like the Hammerhead segments in Overlord, the starting moments of Lair of the Shadow Broker provide yet another nice break from setting people on fire and shooting (presumably) smelly monsters in the face. If you’re not the type of person that likes using tweezers to put bits of Blu Tak into individually labelled jars, there’s not much need to worry. Commander Shepard will soon get their chance to pummel mercenaries to death with their own fists, loot the dead, and hack bank accounts for quick money. Don’t take too long rifling through pockets, though, lest you keep the seething hordes of enemy soldiers waiting.

That’s definitely no understatement, either. Lair of the Shadow Broker is the most difficult piece of Mass Effect 2 downloadable content so far; the moment I put a bullet through one of their skulls, I had near-countless mercenaries swarming over me with suicidal abandon.

No mere grunts and lowly gunslingers, here: there were numerous Engineers, Sentinels, and Vanguards attacking, all using vastly annoying combined abilities to disrupt my ability to advance, take cover, and retreat. Even the grunts, normally stupid enough to hide behind canisters of toxic gas or radioactive material, seemed smarter than normal. Before each advance, they’d throw flashbang grenades down, hoping to flush me out of cover. Every time I made a push, they’d try and use their flashbangs again, this time to leave me blind in the open. Rather than becoming tedious, this became more fun in itself, a game within a game. Me, trying to pick off one or two foes distracted by a friendly combat drone’s silent and steady approach. Me, taking cover after their friends realise combat drones can’t really do much but glide around like an old helium balloon. Albeit a helium balloon that has a constantly discharging tesla coil strapped to it.

Just when all the fighting starts to feel little strained, there’s another break from the action. Now, Shepard gets another chance to take a vehicle for a spin. No, the Hammerhead’s staying aboard the Normandy, this time around. Instead, you get to commandeer one of the ridiculous looking hover taxis you see flying around places like Illium, the Citadel, and Omega. Maybe it’s because hover taxis don’t have guided missiles like the Hammerhead, but I wasn’t paying too much attention to the sky road in front me. I am aware that my driving probably killed more people than the combined forces of evil in Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, and Knights of the Old Republic. Really, though, it’s just difficult to concentrate on driving when there’s so much to look at. Ducking and weaving through tunnels and cultural hubs while watching neon signs reflected in my new hover car’s shiny exterior. Above and all around, the sky felt not so much above Illium but a part of it, crammed with floating billboards and traffic, the flotsam of this languid city’s life. Shorter buildings peaked a hundred meters below me, the true skyscrapers towering a kilometre or so above.

This is where the scenery really caught my attention, which it held captive for the rest of my journey. Really, I found myself wishing I could buy some kind of camera attachment for my armour, so I could take photos for my cabin aboard the Normandy. Illium had a lot to offer me, and when it came time to leave, I found myself wanting to stay where I’d finished up, to further explore the view. Time, however, apparently didn’t want to play by my rules. Soon, the Normandy jumped from Illium to Hagalaz, some backwater world whose surface is ravaged by one massive storm. Shortly after scanning it from space, EDI pointed out that Hagalaz is a second-rate garden world; capable of supporting human life, but definitely less than ideal, and just not worth the hassle of setting up a colony.

If you found a way to weather the storm, though, the perfect place to hide. After choosing our plan of attack, we jumped into a shuttle, and used it to board. Standing atop that ship, instead of watching it on approach, certainly gave me some perspective, especially once the fighting started. We were always heading towards the aft of the ship, with the stern never appearing larger, never seeming to get any closer. Like Overlord, I’ll still remember Lair of the Shadow Broker years after I’ve written this review, possibly even after my consciousness is installed in my new cybernetic body. Perhaps it’s a sad comment on the way I live – although that’s all about opinion, anyway – but I don’t think I can ever forget exactly what I saw and felt aboard that ship.

Enemies would attack in massive waves as I attempted to push forward. Shooting lightning rods could thin their numbers. Biotic attacks launched their miserable victims up, out of the ship’s artificial gravity, into the storm’s waiting grip. Lightning, jagged wire, would fork down and skewer them, repeatedly, incinerating them as the ship surged forward, their limp bodies smashed to pieces on the colossal engine shroud. Perhaps it’s just because these were merely worthless peons being wasted: I laughed. I laughed like a Hyena with a stutter, unable to control my mirth. For this, I will surely suffer some sort of horrible divine punishment, but, it’s just unbelievably funny watching lighting strike the same guy about seven times before he finally splatters everywhere.

Breaching the hull allows access to the inner sanctum, where you’ll encounter numerous enemies, and some discomforting truths. Lair of the Shadow Broker may not be quite so devastating as Overlord; but it certainly provides enough reward to be worth the extra cost of 800 Microsoft Points. Aside from the huge number of credits to be earned, about 90 000, there are several upgrades just waiting to be accessed, alongside hilarious videos featuring such classics as an angry Krogan punching a reporter.

Even with all the nifty bonuses this mission awards upon completion, your old companion Liara T’Soni offers the greatest reward of all. That reward is her mere presence, and the different ways that you may choose to either help or hinder her understanding of you. While the overall, and unavoidable, goal of the mission is to help her discover the Shadow Broker’s true nature, there are several other things that Liara may be after, depending on your shared past. Word must get around, because any choices you’ve made up until this point are apparently public knowledge. Whether you’ve remained a close personal friend and nothing more, or whether you’ve taken her love and spurned it, Liara will undoubtedly have some remark to offer. You might agree with her judgement, accept fault for your actions, or throw Liara’s comments right back in her pale blue face.

Whatever the case, your choices here fit together with all those you’ve made in previous Mass Effect games, tailoring your specific experience, getting you ready for whatever may come in Mass Effect 3.

Lair of the Shadow Broker, like Overlord and Kasumi – Stolen Memory, leaves you with an astonishing amount of magnificent scenery to gawk, and tells a fascinating and dark story that perfectly fits Mass Effect 2’s gritty Christopher-Nolan-Makes-Batman-Now feel. At 800 Microsoft Points, Lair of the Shadow Broker is the most expensive single piece of Mass Effect 2 downloadable content there is. Really, though, that doesn’t matter. People should buy their way into this story. They should buy their way into all three stories. Skip the Firepower and Aegis packs if you really must limit your experience to save about five dollars, and instead focus entirely upon the story-oriented content. Your journey though Mass Effect 2 will become so much more beautiful and enjoyable for your choice.