Blog 366: End Sequences

I completed Mass Effect yesterday, and with the power of Pinnacle Station managed to reach a curb-stomping level 57.

It’s hard to say where a game’s “end sequence” really begins. I think the only definition I can apply is “when you realise that shit just got real.” It’s when you’ve just uncovered the bad guy’s last secret and you’re now on the all-out assault on his base. An assault from which you cannot return, naturally.

I love dramatic finales, so I’m going to consider some for this blog. Spoilers for Mass Effect, Unreal II, Deus Ex and Sonic 3 & Knuckles may ensue, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I’ll begin with Mass Effect, since that’s the most fresh in my mind. The end sequence here could count as one of two places — you could say it’s as early as the Council locking down the Normandy, but that’s unsatisfying because you still have the freedom to tromp around the universe as you please once you escape the Citadel. But it does lock down the “main quest”; rather than your four planet options that you can visit as you please, there is only one mission before you.

I’d prefer to say as soon as you click “Land” on the Ilos pop-up, because once you hit that there’s no going back. Not to mention it’s introduced with the whole find-another-landing-zone intensity, where the lip-synching starts to break down (everyone is shouting, but they don’t look like they’re shouting).

But the dramatic intensity is broken because, before you get to the serious business, you have to wander around the Prothean ruins for ten minutes or so. I think the true end sequence begins as you finally get into the bunker.

It starts slow, of course it does. You’re driving down a huge corridor with massive plant roots and mysterious stasis pods sticking out everywhere — you look left and right down big gaps and see even more. Perhaps most telling is the fact that you get the main menu music here, that soft and ambient synth; something you’ve been introduced to before you’ve even started playing the game, and here it is again to mark the finale.

If you want to be really crazy, you could, I suppose, call even that not the end sequence. You could push it back to the big reveal with Vigil — yes, he’s not the big bad guy telling you all his own plans, but he does tell you everything. Ties up all the loose ends in readiness for pulling the plug.

There’s one more point before you are, beyond all doubt, taking part in the finale. Once you reach the Conduit, and the what’s-going-on-outside-the-Citadel cinematics start chopping in. Sovereign is tearing shit up and the Council poop themselves, and you have thirty seconds to get blasted across the universe.

I love the storming-the-Citadel (gosh, I like massively dashed compound words today) stuff. It’s the quintessential gauntlet that must be run before you can win — you’ve got the best weapons and mods in the game, your team are all buffed up, and you’ve got hordes of the strongest enemies to beat down on your way up a giant tower. As if that wasn’t enough Mass Effect lays it on thick with some serious set-pieces: Sovereign tearing shit up above you (taking advantage of Unreal Engine 3’s massive draw distances to have appropriately large-scale claws), the Geth troop ship you need to unlock the rockets to kill, debris flying everywhere… All that drama, big stuff you really appreciate having 5.1 speakers and a quad-core for.

The actual end-boss fight is a bit of a dud after all that. Saren commits suicide, because really, nobody is daft enough not to max-out charm or intimidate. Then robo-Saren is  a combination of all the most annoying features from the most annoying enemies throughout the game — at least as a Soldier I can withstand that shit.

Unreal II has a similar idea, though as a linear game it’s much easier to say when the end sequence begins — it’s when the Atlantis gets shot down, when Aida downloads the burst transmission. I actually couldn’t believe they killed everyone when I first played that game. I kept thinking “no, they got out alive, they must have got out alive, they can’t have killed–“. Sheesh.

The difference is that Unreal II doesn’t have an end boss; for it, like Deus Ex, the entire last level is the boss. The gauntlet only includes a few enormous and delightful Tosc to fire singularities at you, and instead opts for playing with the gravity. You’ve got to make awkward jumps while dodging one-shot death (not to mention delivering it yourself without falling into your own projectiles). Occasionally frustrating (it’s never nice to die when you’re all hyped-up on a finale run), but still a thunderous end-sequence. And after all those hazards, the ending is a real tear-jerker — basically your only consolation is that you lived. At least with Mass Effect you saved the universe. Okay, you saved the universe from the Tosc, but everyone you loved still died.

Deus Ex‘s finale begins when you go to Area 51. Even though shit got real when you talked to Page on the communicator down in the Ocean Lab, you knowing his location and all that, the missile base mission is only a little aside. When you hit Area 51, the music goes up a dramatic notch — let’s face it, you’re exploring the still-burning ruins of a military base that just got fuckin’ nuked. How much more dramatic can you get?

Then you find the final chapter of “Jacob’s Shadow” in the comm building, a book that basically follows you through the entire game. I don’t know why, but that last chapter always gets me going. It’s like shit just got real.

The thing that always gets me about the innards of Area 51 is the infolinking. Morgan Everett, Tracer Tong and Helios all start fighting over you, and every objective that takes you closer to an ending makes Page get more and more desperate. It’s an open-ended puzzle level, where combat becomes basically useless as the UCs pump out replacement enemies until you can lock them down. I always do every little thing I can before committing to an ending, provoking the maximum response from the puppeteers. I imagine it would be pretty annoying being any of them, all tuned in and seeing me trolling each in turn, the very fate of the world resting on my decisions.

Helios: I will be destroyed if the reactors become unstable, and without me there will be chaos.

Of course I couldn’t let this go by without mentioning Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Shit gets real in the Hidden Palace Zone — yes, we knew what Robotnik’s plan was all along, but Knuckles didn’t, so when Robuttnik blasts his way in that counts as the bad-guy-reveals-all speech and Knux counts as… us, the (until that point) ignorant player. Yes, yes, complain all you want, there are still three (four) levels to go.

But what levels! Sky Sanctuary starts with possibly the best piece of Sonic game cinematography ever — the Death Egg pulling out of the clouds, spewing Egg-Robos everywhere, water pouring off it, that ear-piercing synth lead. Sky Sanctuary has always been close to my heart, since it combines two of my favourite settings — ancient ruins and floating islands.

Not to mention you’ve got to fight Metal Sonic all the way up, pulling back to the whole running-the-gauntlet thing. The strange thing about this gauntlet is that it ends and then you’ve got two whole stages left to go. Then there’s the true end sequence, Doomsday Zone. It’s a different kind of gauntlet, always haunted by the shadow of not-collecting-enough-rings-and-falling-to-your-death, an intense car-chase as you crash face-first through an asteroid field.

That feeling of running the gauntlet is what I tried to go for in This Wreckage. Shit gets real as you finally meet your antagonist and he explains everything (naturally). Then as the cave collapses around you (timer and dust being implemented in Version Gamma), you’ve got to tear through hordes of constructs, mercenary Giants and Daemons and forgotten creatures of the underground. The chase element is Fallen Stones V, who leads you on through the complex and back to the surface as you. Then you do make it to the surface, where we get a very small lull to collect ourselves before the giant free-for-all in the temple compound. Complete with bad-guy chat, á la Deus Ex.

I love finales. Playing a game all the way through is great, but there’s nothing like an intense end sequence to really put the icing on the cake. It’s the time when you get to throw caution to the wind and pull out the big guns, the huge set-pieces. Because the finale is your reward for everything else. This is what you were made for.

Ye-e-e-es.

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