Yes, I'm talking about Mass Effect 3 again. Not the game itself, but the supporting applications. There are two of them: the ME3 Datapad app, and a full-on iOS game called Mass Effect: Infiltrator.
I'm sure every hardcore fanboy is shuddering in horror at the whole idea of people gaining ground in the game without touching a real controller. I'm a bit queasy about that myself. But after seeing it implemented, I like the concept a lot and hope other games look at including this kind of add-on.
Whatever we may think about the content here, the technological hurdles they're clearing by supporting an integrated experience like this are impressive and could lead to greater things.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen something like this. The film Tron Legacy had a similar iOS companion that was kind of interesting in its own right, so I decided to give this one a spin. I loaded it up and skipped past the marketing stuff; images, videos, and a feed from the official Twitter (labeled Alliance News). Interesting to some, I guess, but not why I was there.
The Codex section is well thought out. It gives you some basics, then reveals more as you go, so it's not Spoiler City. And I will not lie: I had an immersive little frisson run up my spine loading the Codex while playing the main game and reading it on the iPad instead of on my television. Geeky tingles on that one.
But I knew where the action was. I headed to the "Galaxy at War" section and started maneuvering my fleets to support Garvug and Cyone. I've been playing this for several days now with little trouble other than the horrible performance on my iPad (which is apparently a common problem) but today I was struck with an interesting new thought: This feels a heck of a lot like Farmville.
Farmville is a Facebook game. It's a part of their suite of timewasters designed to encourage users to show up more often, stay there longer, and to interact with each other. You spend your time planning, cultivating, and harvesting crops, and then investing the resultant XP and virtual coin on improving your farm. If you don't play Farmville, your only experience of it is an unending flood of invites/requests/announcements from anyone on your Friends list who plays. And that is the source of most people's profound irritation with it. Between the simple play and the way it spams everyone and everything in sight, most gamers find it embodies the worst the casual gamesphere has to offer.
The base game mechanic in the Datapad app seems almost identical. You start with two fleets that you can send to various places in the Mass Effect universe. Once a fleet is assigned to a mission, you wait a requisite time and then you get a certain Readiness percentage and some credits to buy upgrades to your fleets. Then launch the fleets again ad infinitum. Your initial fleets must be made of tinfoil; there's a chance that any given fleet will be declared damaged or disabled at the end of any given mission, and you have to wait for it to be fixed before you can send it out again. But once you've upgraded your shields, it's pretty much just a question of keeping them busy.
The min-max strategies are similar. In Farmville, you start small with a balance of crops designed to gain you the most XP for a given amount of time so that you can upgrade your farm to grow the more lucrative crops. In the Datapad you first concentrate on getting upgrade credits and improving your fleets. Then once you're topped up, you switch to strategies that gain you more Readiness percentage.
When you start the games, you should point your fleets at the symbols with two rings around them and be patient. The missions take longer, but earn more cash to upgrade stats and buy more fleets. For example: Garvug gives you 75 coin, and Omega gives just over a thousand. When you factor in time, the short missions don't pay off. In a given six hours, I can finish Garvug 5 times for a total of 375 coins, or Omega once for that thousand. Not only that, but since you're doing fewer numbers of missions, the damage rate (must be somewhere around 30% at the start of the game) doesn't bite you so hard. It can only happen once per mission.
When you're topped up on stats and have bought all the fleets the game allows, upgrade credits are useless. I started spamming the short missions and gaining bigger Readiness percentages. Once you are fully upgraded, you gain 1.3% for Garvug (no rings) and 1.67% for Omega (two rings) per completed mission. Then factor time into it. Garvug takes about an hour, Omega is over five. So for a given unit of time (six hours) I get 5 Garvug missions completed at 1.3% each for a total of 6.5% gained, or one Omega mission at 1.67%. So point all your fleets at the symbols with no rings and keep it running all day. Then just before I go to bed I set off a last round of the big missions, and they're done when I wake for a slow buildup of cash to buy the Advanced upgrades, which are ridiculously expensive.
At least my percentages don't rot like the crops in Farmville if I get busy at work and have to let it sit for a while. And the app runs in the background, so you can give your orders then get right back to Angry Birds or whatever.
In the Mail section, you receive really short email messages from the various other characters you interact with in the main game. It's an interesting addition, but I haven't seen any real jaw-dropping revelations in there. I've finished the game, but not with the profile that this is attached to, so this is new territory. I can say the text is different than the dialog in the game. As I play through again, I hope for more here. It shines all over Farmville in one respect — it may be in my hair all the time, but at least the app doesn't spam my corporeal friends/family every two minutes with requests for them to do something or with cute little status updates about crap they don't care about.
There are some definite pros here. It's free. Just having the Codex available on my handheld while I'm playing is quite handy when I'm trying to remember who So-and-So was two planets ago. And it lets me keep "playing", even when I have to spend all my time on this project at work. I have maxed all the stats available to the fleets in the app and I'm keeping the percentage points coming, just to see how many they'll let me add.
If you're one of those who can't be bothered with all that math and scheduling, then maybe, like Farmville, the app's best use would be to bring others in to share. Try having your significant other looking at the Codex and keeping this running while you're playing the main game.
Mass Effect: Infiltrator
This is a lot more interesting from a hardcore standpoint. It's a competent touch-screen shooter. I'm a Cerebrus operative (not Tron, despite all the glowing blue lines on my face), and I'm off on some mission, though they haven't yet explained to me why they sent me here to bother all these Geth. I haven't gotten very far yet, for a couple of reasons.
The controls are, um... interesting. Trying to fake dual-stick navigation on a touch screen is an imprecise science at best. If you have some Flings, I strongly recommend you get them out. I was so bad, I called my elder son over to try it and see if it was just me. It wasn't — not completely. Though I do have to say he did a heck of a lot better than I did.
Even with my character's habit of staring at walls at the wrong moment, I enjoyed it. Once you figure out how to keep Sparky's head down (he has an adversarial relationship with the available cover), the whole thing flows. The biotics show up in the second area, and that works really well.
Each completed area (called a "checkpoint" in game) gives you money for upgrades and a chance to earn a yellow thingy labeled Intel. That's our Scooby-snack. You can either trade them in for upgrade credits, or upload them to the Galaxy at War thing and add to your Readiness percentages.
When my son left, I played those same two areas over several times, trying to negotiate some sort of compromise with the camera, and I did improve. I'll definitely keep trying.
It isn't free like the other app, but it's not going to break the bank at $6.99. And it has potential interest in it's own right as a game. At least you're actually making things dead in this one, so the percentages don't seem seem quite so cheaply gained. My son was intrigued enough that he's going to come over tomorrow after work and play it a little longer.
[Editor's Note: This story originally claimed that sound on the iOS app only worked via headphones. That claim was incorrect and has been removed.]