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I am well known amongst my friends and acquaintances as the resident Mass Effect fanatic.  I've played through the same seven times with six different characters; earned every achievement; gave my original copy to a friend in order to justify getting the limited edition; bought both novels, an art book, the soundtrack, and a t-shirt; and was ridiculously excited that I got to meet Jack Wall, the game's composer, after the Video Games Live show in Boston last year.

(I even got tempted by the Mass Effect-themed avatar clothing recently released on the Live marketplace, before I remembered that I once advocated on Twitter that anybody that actually bought avatar clothing needed to be punched in the face.)

I cannot even fathom the sheer number of hours I've sunk into that game — whether it was experiencing its wonder for the first time, reading forum posts and FAQs in order to figure out the best character build for me, or slogging through the game on Insanity difficulty with a level 1 weakling.

Even though the game has its flaws — which, having spent so much time with the game, I am all too aware of — I was always able to look past them and appreciate the experience of the game's nuanced story, intriguing conversation mechanic, and yes, fun combat system.

Which is why these next few words are so hard for me to write — Mass Effect's latest DLC, Pinnacle Station, is wildly disappointing.

 


At first, I was quite excited when Pinnacle Station arrived this past week, absolutely out of nowhere. (When I suddenly realized that it was available, my exact tweet was "WAIT HOLY SHIT WHAT MASS EFFECT DLC IS OUT????")

Bioware had been incredibly mum on the details of the new mission pre-release, and had even sparked some controversy back in late June when they teased some details, missed their deadline, and basically said "Well, screw you guys" when there was the predictable backlash from disappointed fans.

Let's be honest here — in a universe as expandable as Mass Effect's, the fact that there had only been one DLC pack made in the two years since the game's release — compared, of course, to the five packs made available for Fallout 3 in less than 10 months — was disappointing enough.  You can hardly blame the game's devoted fans for getting upset at being jerked around regarding an expansion to the game they love.

Unfortunately, Pinnacle Station was not worth the effort of getting all riled up in the first place.  Instead of full-on quests like Fallout 3's expansions, this DLC pack is nothing more than a bunch of standalone shooting gallery-style missions — which, taken on its own, is not enough to condemn it, but the fact that all four of the available gametypes are pretty broken is the icing on this spoiled cake.

(Note: I played through Pinnacle Station using my level 60 Infiltrator, and my opinions here are based off of that experience.)

The first gametype I'll discuss is Time Trial, where the goal is to kill all the preset enemies in the shortest amount of time.  At the beginning of each mission, an initial group of enemies spawns close to the starting location: when they are all dead, a new group spawns somewhere else in the level, and it's rinse and repeat from there.

While there's nothing inherently wrong with a mission type like this, aside from it being completely uninspired, the problem with Pinnacle Station's implementation of it is that the best time — which you must beat in order to complete the meager story portion of the pack — does not scale with difficulty level.  (This is sort of thing is true for all of the gametypes, and brings up different issues with each — I'll go into more detail later.)

It's a plain fact of Mass Effect life that enemies on Insanity difficulty, which I usually play on, take longer to kill than those on Normal difficulty — and since the established times to beat were set for Normal and did not scale upwards, beating them on any other difficulty is impossible.

This sort of missed detail shows that not enough thought was put into the initial design, and unfortunately, there are many more of them.

Next, I'll talk about the Hunt gametype.  The goal here is to kill as many enemies as possible before time runs out, but each kill adds time to the clock.  It's a good idea in theory, but horribly unbalanced in practice.


On the wide-open Subterranean level, I found a defensible position where enemies were spawning pretty regularly on both sides of me.  After about ten minutes, I had racked up 150 kills with seven minutes remaining on the clock, and finally let them kill me out of boredom.  (The score to beat on that level?  35.).  

Whereas, on the other two Hunt levels — much more sprawling, convoluted arenas with lots of things to get in the way — I could barely reach 25 kills before time ran out, simply because the enemies here were too few and far between!  

This was especially maddening once I realized that the more kills you got, the less time was added to the clock — by the time I was hitting that 25-kill threshold, successful takedowns only added 1 measly second.  I had to adjust the difficulty again, this time down to Hardcore (where, inexplicably, there were more enemies — wouldn't you expect the *harder* difficulty to have more?).

 

The third gametype, Capture, has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever (and I say that without hyperbole).  A pale imitation of Gears of War's Nexus, there are 3 to 4 capture points spread around each level, and Shepard must secure each one in order to complete the mission.

Here's the problem – the only requirement to securing each point is to stand in it for a few seconds.  You don't need to keep enemies out to hold the point during capture, you don't need to gather your whole squad in the capture area, and you don't need to keep the points clear afterwards to hold the point – all you have to do is stand in each point for a few seconds.

It's stultifyingly boring — and, to add insult to injury, the capture points don't even show up on the map.  This means you have to meander around each level in order to find where they all are, and if you don't do it fast enough, you might actually have to play the level more than once.  Ugh.

Finally, there is the Survival gametype — the best of the bunch, for what it's worth.  Here, we finally get the chance to appreciate the best of Mass Effect's combat system — instead of the frenetic killing of the other missions, here you can actually utilize cover and crowd control abilities and think tactically for a change.


But, as is typical for Pinnacle Station, it still manages to be subpar — mainly because there is no variety in the endless waves of enemies that get sent at you.  In the three standard missions, you fight nothing but Geth:  Troopers, Shock Troopers, Rocket Troopers, and Destroyers.  That's it — there are no Juggernauts, Primes, Armatures, or Colossi to be found, or any of the games' many organic enemies — and I cannot fathom the reason as to why the enemy catalog is so restricted.

Thus, the fight for survival is in fact incredibly banal, and it's usually a relief when one of the Geth can sneak up behind you and mercifully end the exercise.

As far as the setting and story go, they are nothing to write home about.  Instead of wasting time detailing it, I'll simply say that nothing particularly interesting happens outside of Shepard eventually winning a "retirement home" in a bet with the Admiral Ahern, the station's commander.

There are two notable gameplay benefits at your new digs:  a "grenade locker" that fully replenishes your grenades (that SHOULD have been included in the game in the first place), and the ability to use an arms convoy contact to buy random items.

They're both nice additions, the convoy in particular — as it finally gave me something to do with the 9999999 credits I'd been carrying around for months and nabbed me some rare items, like Quarian Colossus X armor (which is usually impossible to find).

Before I bring this review to a close, there's one more inexplicable design decision I want to discuss: the fact that the only audio backdrop to the missions is the incredibly grating voice of Ahern repeating the same six or seven stupid, cliched phrases over and over and over and over and over again.

Yes, Admiral…I understand that there are no awards for most times shot, I'm going to feel that tomorrow, and that looked like it must have hurt.  NOW SHUT THE FUCK UP!!!!!!

"Best bet"?  Don't make me laugh.
In the end, Pinnacle Station is a underthought, unbalanced, and badly designed mess with almost no attention to detail that pales in comparison to Bring Down The Sky, the previous DLC pack.  Thankfully, it appears that Bioware outsourced the development to a smaller dev house, which means that the people responsible for this debacle fortunately have nothing to do with the development of Mass Effect 2.

But, when you get right down to it, Pinnacle Station *is* more Mass Effect, and I'm already thinking of what might be different when I take my assault-rifling Adept through the missions — so it wasn't a complete waste of my 400 Microsoft points.  

Pretty damned close, though.

Final Score:  Disliked It.