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Countdown To Mass Eff3ct, pt 7: The Prize; Five Squadmates That Deserve A Second Chance


Folks, humanity has been counting down the days, and we’ve finally reached that inevitable moment: the Reapers are on the horizon, and will invade the planet Earth this March. Mass Effect 3 will be upon us, and all of the galaxy’s Shepards – both male and female- will begin their journey to conclude the current gen’s most definitive RPG franchise. This blog series will pay tribute to the franchise as we brace ourselves for the upcoming finale by chronicling my own journey and experiences with the Mass Effect series. We’ll continue this series with a look at the five squadmates (including one honorary one) that we love to hate. With a second opinion, readers will hopefully be able to see these characters in a new light. DUE TO THE NATURE OF THE REVIEW, SPOILERS MAY BE PRESENT.

 

 

5) ASHLEY WILLIAMS


"Just because I can drill you between the eyes from a hundred meters, doesn't mean I can't like sensitive stuff! But don't spread it around."

Description: This misunderstood character is an Alliance soldier with a storied family history of military involvement. You first meet Ashley Williams on Eden Prime during the invasion of Geth forces. Depending on your playthrough, she may have sacrificed herself to guard the nuke on Virmire. If she survived, you'll meet her again on Horizon.

Consensus: Ashley Williams is a whiny, racist, and annoying brat with a personality that grates on your nerves whenever she's in your squad.

Merits: Ashley Williams is devoted the Alliance, and as a result, she is a soldier that respects rank and the commands you dole out, no matter how deeply she disagrees. She's an excellent soldier to use in combat, a confident and uncompromising woman with the experience to prove it, and has a compelling backstory that's often overlooked.

Flaws: Ashley Williams is very distrustful of other alien races, and as a result, a turn-off to players who identify with Shepard's alien crewmates. She also has an unhealthy obsession with reciting poetry. Ashley also has the tendency to come off as self-righteous. Combined with her tongue-in-cheek and unapologetic persnality, Ashley is commonly-cited as a character players intentionally killed off during their playthroughs. I must confess that even I am guilty of this habit.

The Real Story: Ashley Williams is only racist in the sense that she's wary of aliens, due in no small part to the shame her family incurred during the Battle of Shanxi: her grandfather infamously made history as the first human to surrender to an alien during the First Contact War. This permanently affected how her superiors treated her, in spite of all the talent and skills she possessed, and drives her personal work ethic; a "Williams," has to be better than the best, after all. While it doesn't excuse her occasionally misguided views of aliens, it does provide the necessary context the player needs to understand why Ashley doesn't trust the Council or believe Humans should focus primarily on coexistence politically. She however, as your experiences with her in the first Mass Effect show, clearly has no problem with cooperation when the occasion calls for it, dismissing the Terra Firma party's extremist views as anti-alien rhetoric that completely misses the point of the sacrifices Alliance soldiers made for Humanity. After Virmire, Ashley transforms as a character, aiding Shepard in the Battle of the Citadel to not only stop the Reapers, but also to reclaim the honor that her family had once lost.

In retrospect, Ashley's tough demeanor is clearly a façade that she uses because of the pressures she faces in the Alliance and as a role model to her sisters. There are times when she displays a compassionate side, such as when she recounts Nirali Bhatia's service in the 212 to her husband Samesh Bhatia, and as a Romance interest, with witty and introspective dialogue that never ceases to catch the audience's interest. Her love of poetry is an interesting quirk that helps distinguish her from the typical female soldier trope, and the way her experiences in space inform her personal beliefs is touching. Give her a chance, and she'll melt your heart.


4) KAIDAN ALENKO


"I'm not afraid to die. I guess I just want to be remembered by more than a few trinkets in a ruin somewhere."

Description: Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko is an Alliance marine and biotic who was one of the many people experimented on with controversial neural implants. As an initial squadmate alongside Shepard and Corporal Jenkins in the Eden Prime mission, Kaidan assists Shepard throughout the entire campaign. Depending on your playthrough, he might even sacrifice his life to protect the nuke on Virmire. If he survives, he appears on Horizon instead of Ashley Williams.

Consensus: Kaidan is a needlessly whiny, bland, and forgettable character who's completely self righteous.

Merits: Kaidan is a Sentinel, and possesses very useful biotic abilities; he's also loyal to Shepard and the Alliance, and serves as an excellent counterpoint to Ashley Williams. He's one of the moral centers of your crew on the SSV Normandy, always reminding Shepard not to take the easy road when it comes to important decisions. Kaidan is also an expert at keeping his emotions from interfering with his duty, and with others when appropriate. He in fact is excellent at assessing the status of the crew.

Flaws: Kaidan is notorious for being cited as the Mass Effect equivalent of Carth Onasi, who coincidentally, is also voiced by the same actor. While not as polarizing as Ashley Williams, his complaints about various political issues make him a character most critics tend to avoid. His insecurities relationship-wise are also factors that can make romancing him somewhat of a grind to players. Players often avoid sacrificing him as often as Ashley purely because he, to most critics of his character I've spoken with, see him as the lesser of two evils.

The Real Story: Kaidan Alenko is a character that is essential to building an understanding of many of the events occurring in the Mass Effect universe. Once you get past his extremely guarded personality, you're introduced to a character with the most intricate and detailed history in the first Mass Effect; Tali is a close second. In addition to suffering from the unstable L2 implants that can cause excruciating migraines, Kaidan also has a brutal history of personal struggle, due in no small part to his experiences in BAaT with Vyrnnus, an uncompromising Turian instructor with an unrelenting hatred of Humans. Yet, in spite of the mental abuse he suffered, Kaidan never chose to judge Turians or other races with blanket statements; instead, he judges each person as an individual first: "they're jerks and saints, just like us."

Kaidan's trust issues also originated from the connection he developed with Rahna, which was severed after the unexpected death of Vyrnnus. It's clear, based on his conviction to the things he values both personally and professionally, that if he's going to invest in a relationship, he isn't going to do so lightly. Thus, his concerns often reflect his desire to preserve the things he cares about most. Players then see the occasionally melodramatic character soften up and admit what he's been hiding all along; his love for Shepard: "The galaxy will just keep going. Everything, even the Reapers, will come around again... This is what will never happen again. Us."


3) JACK (SUBJECT ZERO)

"I figure every time someone dies and it's not me, my chances for survival go up. Simple."

Description: Jack, commonly referred to as Subject Zero in Cerberus dossiers, is a powerful biotic that players later rescue from the prison ship Purgatory. She assists Shepard in the fight against the Collectors, and may or may not survive, depending on various conditions.

Consensus: A nearly plagiarized version of the character Jack, from the Chronicles of Riddick series, with a penchant for reckless and foul-mouthed behavior.

Merits: Insanely powerful biotic; adds the necessary sass and conflict to Mass Effect 2's roster of characters. Her impulsive personality has merit, considering her history with Cerberus.

Flaws: She looks like Jack, except with tattoos; a relentlessly off-putting and brutal person. She's also considered to be an unrealistic and stereotypical caricature by some critics; I suspect her clothing style plays a factor in this. There's also little, if any, true character development - unless you're romancing her - that critics also cite as a complaint. Her remorseless personality also makes it easy for players to kill her off in the Suicide Mission.

The Real Story: Love her or hate her, Jack is merely the product of the environment in which she was raised. As a survivor of the harrowing experiments Cerberus did on her and other children at the Teltin facility, Jack has a history of emotional and physical abuse, neglect, and betrayal that fuels her immense distrust of people. She has a void filled with pain that she's only been able to express through violence, and as a result, has extreme difficulty establishing lasting relationships with other people, especially Miranda, the Cerberus "cheerleader" who in essence symbolizes the only concrete way she can vent against the infamous organization and its leader.

As a tragic anti hero, Jack's exploits are tantalizing and outlandish. Unlike the archetypical heroine, she's followed her instincts, and has a provocative backstory, filled with deeds we've always fantasized about despite our moral convictions. She's fearless on the surface, with tattoos for each of these influential moments; they reflect a woman who has experienced far more than her sometimes immature character suggests, let alone should be able to digest psychologically. While easily provoked and just as quick to do the same, players will learn that much of her actions mask a hidden personal motive.

The torment Jack wrestles with, in addition to her fears of being hurt again, paint a portrait of a person that has the certainty of another's death as the only promising comfort - and solution - to the problems she's faced. Her assertive and forceful personality also reveals a woman who has painfully learned that trust isn't always as simple as we'd like it to be. In some cases, it's a negotiation, especially when it becomes intimate: "You don't have to know someone to sleep with them. You just have to know where to put it." While a banal statement, it nonetheless rings true if Shepard's interest in her is shallow and purely material. Those who resist Jack's initial advances however, will prove to Jack that Shepard's compassion exceeds below-the-belt private liaisons.

Most importantly, Jack is an example of a character that doesn't have to be liked to be compelling. She's a polemic that challenges our own notions of taste and decency, qualities that reflect a character that lives and breathes rather than confines us emotionally. Even by the end of Mass Effect 2, she retains key idiosyncracies that define her: she's still conflicted, angry, and dissociative. Yet, she's a person who's given you her trust if you've earned it, and that's a bond worth fighting for.


2) CONRAD VERNER


"You wanna see how far I'll go? I learned how to shove guns in people's faces from... Commander Shepard?"

Description: Conrad Verner actually isn't a squadmate in any way, shape, or fashion, unless you count the fact that he routinely tries to impersonate you after your death. You meet him in the first entry of Mass Effect, and if he doesn't end up getting killed trying to prove you wrong, you'll meet this honorary Spectre on Illium. He's expected to appear later in Mass Effect 3 as well if he hasn't killed himself in some suicidal mission (see what I did there, hehe?).

Consensus: Conrad Verner is one creepy guy. No seriously, he is.

Merits: He's a relatively earnest and good-natured man, as well as Shepard's own personal mascot. That's about it so far.

Flaws: He's probably more annoying than the Fan you had in Oblivion, except he doesn't follow you around and isn't invincible. He's also not a squadmate.

The Real Story: Verner, while misguided, is possibly one of the funniest NPC's I've ever met. While he probably will never play a significant role in the narrative of Mass Effect 3, he nonetheless remains a person that epitomizes the light-hearted side of the series. Conrad's a constant reminder, for those that entertain him, of the importance of our roles as Shepard. One could even interpret Conrad as the incarnation of everything we love about Shepard, if not our nostalgia.

In real life, we'll never be Spectres slaying Geth and Reapers. We, like Conrad Verner, will never romance Asari babes or any other alien races. Fans won't get a chance to trek fascinating and exotic worlds while building life-changing bonds with people that comprise a spectrum of personalities, beliefs, and philosophies, and we certainly will never get to punch a certain annoying tabloid-esque reporter in the face twice - and possibly, a third time. However, we can live out these experiences through Shepard, as our choices and own personal quirks characterize the savior of the galaxy. It's a powerful, unifying emotional response, if you consider all of the real life events gamers participate in just to express ourselves through the digital medium. Thus Conrad, in essence, is a character that symbolizes the imagination and wonder, however naïve, we experience when we role play as Shepard. Yeah, I just blew your mind, didn't I?

Conrad Verner, in all his ludicrous antics, is a character we have a duty to love and respect, given what and who he represents. Sure, he wears fake armor and is gullible to the point of embarrassment; however, Conrad reflects one inescapable truth: Conrad may be nothing without us, but as an inspiration and reflection of the unending adoration we have for our imagined heroes, Shepard would be nothing without him.

 

1) JACOB TAYLOR

"I want it. I want you. Before we win, lose, whatever. I love you."

Description: Jacob Taylor is a biotic and former Alliance marine, that later resigned after the Geth attack on Eden Prime. He has an extensive and well-decorated history as a hero who prevented a Batarian terrorist attack on the Citadel. Eventually joining Cerberus, he was a member of the cell responsible for the Lazarus Project. Jacob later assisted Shepard in the defeat of the Collectors and may or may not have survived, depending on your playthrough.

Consensus: Jacob Taylor is a terrible, annoying, and bland squadmate that is notoriously ridiculed for having the worst Romantic monologue in the Mass Effect franchise. He's also the least popular - by countless polls - of Mass Effect's characters.

Merits: Jacob's a decent, well-balanced squadmate that requires time and skill to master. His passive ability is essential to balancing out his uneven health, and when combined with a fully-evolved Barrier, turns him into a tank that can take the punishment enemies dish out easily. Character-wise, Jacob is a relatively stable character that has an interesting backstory.

Flaws: The Priiize. No seriously, his rather standoffish demeanor and lack of a character gimmick make him the most polarizing character in the series thus far. A limited and shoddy weapon arsenal - in spite of him specializing in other firearms in Galaxy - also makes him a character most avoid playing with.

The Real Story: It's obviously not a secret that Jacob is criminally underwritten in some aspects as a character. While players learn about his experience with Batarians briefly, Jacob's story really isn't fleshed out in that aspect. Jacob's time as a Corsair isn't developed either; his experiences on Eden Prime are also something that lack exposition. Topping this off, apart from the infamous line, is Jacob's romance with Shepard, which many players feel was poorly handled as well - especially in terms of how FemShep interacts with him. He also isn't much of a talker, which adds to the overall distaste for him. Aside from this, other motivations for dislike of Jacob tend to be baseless and irrational - such as his supposed physical resemblance to Kanye West.

In spite of his weaknesses, I have to say that Jacob still remains an intriguing character; certainly not the most fascinating, but convincing. The biggest detriment to his reception perhaps is that his lack of a serious character flaw causes him to be overshadowed by the game's more notorious characters. I mean, we have the perfectly-engineered woman with an existential dilemma; the young and crazed biotic with a potent grudge against Cerberus; there's the perfect Krogan, born with the weight of his race on his hump; and then there's the Asari Justicar with a dark and violent secret she wishes to bury... literally. These characters don't even comprise half of the crew, with stories just as gritty. Thus, it's inevitable that players will gravitate elsewhere. Yet, I'd argue that the Mass Effect franchise needs characters like Jacob, who don't kowtow to our desires and remain composed in the midst of conflict.

One of the most striking characteristics about Jacob is his stern professionalism, which I feel reflects the extensive service history that he has, as well as his maturity. It's also a breath of fresh air, when you consider the amount of conflict and melodrama Shepard will experience with other characters. While he's not afraid to offer his own cautionary advice and opinions of things he disapproves of, Jacob is also one who doesn't allow his personal thoughts or feelings to taint his mindset or distract him when on-duty. His behavior nonetheless displays his commitment to Shepard. As we later discover once his concerns about his father are resolved, Jacob is also one who isn't afraid to bury the past and move on. We even catch chance moments of wit and introspection that reveal, in all his slights, his occasionally cynical side: "Good deeds are like pissing yourself in dark pants; warm feeling but nobody notices."

Continuing, Jacob's not guarded and hesitant to express his feelings because of arrogance or obnoxiousness. His past relationship with Miranda - a failure, based on his refusal to discuss it - undoubtedly contributes to this, as well as the problems he experienced while serving in the Alliance. Yet, it also makes the romantic relationship he develops with FemShep especially meaningful; the player knows that by choosing to be intimate with you, Jacob's taking a chance that goes against his normal convictions. Players even get the normally withdrawn individual to confess his love for Shepard during the prelude to their romance scene. Contrary to the meme, Shepard becomes more than a "prize" to be discovered, and players see Jacob finally relinquish his doubts and evolve as a person willing to risk it all in spite of his uncertainty. Even as a mere friend, Jacob changes and begins to think optimistically, instead of always dwelling on the negatives of a situation: "If we live, we'll get loud, spill some drinks on the Citadel." It's not as much consolation, but it's definitely a promise I look forward to keeping.

Ultimately, players will eventually recognize his worth to the fiction of the series, and perhaps it will begin with the third entry. Jacob may be widely-vilified, but he's also widely-quoted, which illustrates his relevance, in spite of what all the naysayers would claim. Regardless of whether you entertain him or not, Jacob succeeds as a character in the franchise, and as a nearly unshakable man of integrity and honor, he epitomizes what a good friend should be.


THE VERDICT:

What defines a good character? Is it their personality alone; how attractive they are; their personal growth or lack thereof? Or is it how extensive their history is? These are all questions that writers of fiction in myriad narrative formats have debated since time immemorial. What perhaps is most important is that we, when evaluating the merits and flaws of these figures, must take the time to move beyond simplistic responses as "I like/dislike this person." Those remarks reveal nothing to us, and there are many a great character one can probably find that they did/n't like, hero and villain included.

In closing, this was a moment to reflect on these individuals and consider them, as integral aspects of the narrative of Mass Effect, on more than simply unfounded opinion. While it's never a bad trait to have characters one identifies with strongly, we must remember that these figures are good because they are successful at conveying some aspect of the human condition, and in some cases, granting us the necessary perspective to understand others. Often, the realest and most compelling characters are those we don't identify with or feel satisfied by. So, let's use the examples I've presented as a way to appreciate the unfamiliar in exciting and new ways, especially with Mass Effect. There's more to come in this journey.

 

ANY CHARACTERS THAT YOU DON'T LIKE IN THE SERIES? FEEL FREE TO MENTION THEM!

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