Lair of the Shadowbroker

September 12, 2010

Lair of the Shadowbroker could not have arrived at a more perfect time for me.  I dodged some sort of incompatibility fiasco that occurred immediately after release, preventing everyone who downloaded it on the 7th from playing it at all.  But apart from that saving grace, its release date was aligned at precisely the right moment in my current play-through.

I’m at that stage in the campaign where my team is at the apex of it’s power.  All crew members are levelled up heavily.  I’ve completed all but Tali’s loyalty mission, and I’m just about to go in search of the Reaper IFF, which marks the beginning of the end of the game.

As I write, I am in fact only half way through the DLC, but feel compelled to record how surprised and impressed with it I am so far, whilst the joy from last night’s session still lingers in my mind.

What excites me most about Shadowbroker is that it hints quite strongly at a general advancement the writers have made since their last effort.  There’s more dialogue than one might expect on your typical ME2 mission, but more than that there is a palpable sense of maturity in what’s being said.  This is much more like a good episode of Battlestar Galactica than a bad episode of Star Trek.

The improvement is most striking during Liara’s dialogue.  Though I romanced Liara in ME1 with my male Shephard, I never found her attractive or interesting in the slightest, and ultimately only bedded her because I couldn’t stand Ashley Williams, the only alternative.  Here, she has undergone a metamorphosis.  No longer a dull, spineless archaeologist, she is ruthless, combative, determined, positively zesty.

One section sees you and Liara in a high speed chase, flying (literally flying) through a maze of skyscrapers and tunnels in a taxi.  The mechanics of the chase itself are entirely unremarkable.  In fact, the controls felt basic and sluggish, and there was no sense of real speed, even with the throttle at max and turbo boost on.

But it’s a handy conveyor belt for some hilarity between the two characters, Liara taking every opportunity to nag at Shephard about floating mines ahead, Shephard trying to maintain focus.  Think Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith escaping from the alien mothership in Independence Day.  Don’t think Ewan Macgregor and Hayden Christensen in Attack of the Clones.  Oh sorry did I just trigger a terrible flashback?

I return to writing a couple of days later, having completed the mission and brought about an end (of sorts) to the Shadowbroker’s dynasty.  The finale is truly exhilarating, taking place on a colossal cruise ship (the titular lair) with a whopping stern reminiscent of Dark Helmet’s battleship Spaceball One.  An array of conducting panels (easily mistaken for solar cells at first) combine to form one massive lightning rod, channeling harmful electricity from the stormy atmosphere of a distant alien world.

In a manner akin to the final stage of the original Mass Effect, the first phase of Shephard’s assault takes place on the outside of the ship’s hull.  The electric storm is a jaw dropping sight and the perfect backdrop to a series of skirmishes against the Shadowbroker’s minions.  Your squad members quickly note the unique tactical challenge posed by the environment: the aforementioned lightning rod is but a conduit which discharges lightning bolts on to smaller energy sinks dotted about the hull.

Shoot one of these capacitors and the energy built up inside explodes outward, wreaking havoc upon anyone unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity in a far more dramatic way than the more common exploding crates.  The effect these hazards have is to quicken the pace of the mission.  Combat zones occur every 30 seconds as you advance, but you won’t be bogged down for long.  Enemy squads are rapidly dispersed with clever use of the electrical explosions, and Liara’s abilities add to the formidable arsenal you can unleash.  Combat in ME is rarely as much fun.

And all of this culminates in a boss battle which is probably the best designed of any in the game, prior DLC packs included.  It’s broken up into several neat phases, much like a boss encounter in World of Warcraft, and Liara chips in with clever advice to compliment the on-screen indicators.

You’re required to adapt to changes in the Shadowbroker’s armour, so it’s not brainless, and at the same time it doesn’t bog you down with a huge shield bar to reduce.  Like the rest of the combat in the mission, it progresses quickly and smoothly and doesn’t frustrate.  Bioware have found a balanced and sophisticated template for these encounters, no doubt something to look forward to in ME3.

And that’s really the main takeaway from Lair of the Shadowbroker.  Either someone at Bioware is cracking the whip hard, or they’re all on steroids, because they have clearly ratcheted up the quality control.  I can only lick my lips in anticipation of what they will be able to achieve in the next year or two as they develop the final chapter of the trilogy.

The stakes are high: the threat of the Reapers having been hyped to such an extent that I can’t see how our hero can possibly succeed.  With the smoky smell of an oncoming apocalypse in the air, can Bioware finally confound critics and convince even the most skeptical that a computer game story can go toe-to-toe with that of a renowned TV series or movie?  I contend that they can.

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