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2011 in Video Games [GO]
Jan 5th, 2012 by Dan

HAY GUSY! ZELDA GAMES ARE 25!

So maybe I wasn't playing video games at birth nor was this blog running 25 years ago, but this is my 25th year too!

2011 was an odd year in games for me. It started out like any other, filled with joy and happiness, and then it was all wrenched away halfway through, thanks to that burglary, until I was able to start replenishing my stores and getting the ball rolling again for the second half.

This list, unlike last year, will cover the games I played most this year, even if they came out several years ago :cough: Team Fortress 2 :cough:. I think it’s better to reflect upon what I put the most game time into, even if it wasn’t new.

Resident Evil 5 – 2011’s 2009 Game of the Year has to go to Capcom’s co-op survival horror epic. I remember the Giant Bomb guys pimping this game super hard, but I ignored them over and over again for nearly two years because I’m not much of a scary games guy. Then the steam sale happened and I wanted something co-op to play with Min and Lee, so I buckled. This game was so good, guys. According to Raptr, I played 57 hours of this guy just cruising through all the levels, S-Ranking each one, finding all the emblems and upgrading all the weapons, and getting every achievement for the first time on a full-sized game. Then I came back and played it all again with David. RE5 may be some of the best bang I got for my buck in 2011.

Batman: Arkham Asylum – I think it’s hilarious that I played both Batman games this year. Make no mistake, Batman: AA is the better game. Tighter story focus, less wandering and rambling around, and that sharp, crunchy combat system that we all love. It almost literally hurts to watch Batman punch people in the face in this game. Lots of fun, even for a guy who doesn’t really like Batman.

Red Dead Redemption – Man, every game that I played in January came out in another year. RDR has a lot of those Rockstar quirks that I hate (incorrigible supporting cast, homicidal ludonarrative dissonance, etc.), but it also has one of the best realized characters in recent video games in its portrayal of John Marston. Horseback riding is fun, lassoing fools is fun, and the story is frustrating (because of the asshole supporting cast), but also solid most of the time. The only thing that really annoyed me was breaking horses every fucking time. Why? It’s not like it was fun to do…

Magicka – 2011’s Game Most Likely to Make You Strangle Your Friends. Ask Min how many times I killed him by striking him with lightning. I never took this game seriously and mostly tried to speed cast lightning. Fun, but the polish wasn’t there. Buggy as all hell. Not to mention that lightning bolt was the only spell worth using…or maybe it was the only spell I knew?

Ghost Trick – I used this game to try and improve/practice my Spanish. It’s lots of fun, quirky, weird, neat, but I never finished it. I thought it wasn’t taken in the burglary, but I’m having trouble finding it now. I want to finish it soon…Pick it up if you have a DS. It’s quirky and fun.

Costume Quest – Picked this up on sale and played it for a few hours. It’s definitely got that Double Fine humor, but it couldn’t hold my interest.

Pixeljunk Shooter 2 – I don’t know why some of the magic was gone with this one. Maybe the new fluids weren’t as innovative or neat? The fluid mechanics remain super awesome and the game is plenty fun on its own, but even more fun with a partner to troll.

Face Raiders – Shooting at Min’s face is the best thing I did with my 3DS before it was stolen.

Pokemon White (Black) – I got David to try a new Pokemon game with this and I’m super proud of that. Gen V brought a lot of really interesting changes to a game that most people feel is flat and unchanging. I had a lot of fun playing it until the momentum was killed with the burglary. When Grey inevitably gets announced I’ll probably buy it.

Game Dev Story – When this finally hit the Android marketplace I was ecstatic. Then I played it and realized it was a competent, but not overwhelming sim. Worth a few bucks.

Borderlands – Another co-op game for Min, Lee, and I to play. Lots of fun even though the story is stupid as hell. Brings out the loot whore in all of us.

Planescape: Torment – Talk about old! Didn’t get anywhere close to finishing this. It seems interesting, but never captures my interest enough to play it for longer than 20 mins.

Portal 2 – This is, bar none, the greatest example of story and comedy narrative laid out in video game form. Portal 2 has just brilliant writing and pacing. Everything from Wheatley to the history of Aperture Science to the origins of GLaDOS is perfectly realized. Then you have the game itself…Portal 2 is not a bad game at all. It’s just not as hard or interesting, with respect to puzzles, as Portal. This was a result of narrowing the possible solution space (story-justified by the decay of the facility, but still) in such a way that it was mostly obvious where portals needed to go, removing that aspect of figuring things out. It’s still probably the best game of this year, but I wish it they hadn’t pared it down as much as they did.

Pro Yakyu Spirits 2011 (Professional Baseball Spirits 2011) – I had a fun, challenging season going with my 2011 Hiroshima Carp before that jerk (those jerks?) came and stole my copy of a Japanese baseball game (in Japanese, mind you!). What were they gonna do with a game in Japanese featuring teams they weren’t even familiar with?! PYS 2011 was a huge step forward from 2010. Home runs may have been a little easier to hit (ok, a LOT easier to hit), but 2011 looked sharper and had enough new, interesting features (the player development was cool) that I was super stoked…until it was all taken away from me. Assholes.

L.A. Noire – I got about 1/5 of the way through the game before someone stole it. I still remember the forensics guy asking me if it was any good. Here’s the thing about L.A. Noire: It’s an adventure game skinned with GTA. Getting anywhere in LA is unsatisfying because driving is a bummer (and property/car damage lowers your rank), the devolution of most cases into shootouts feels a little artificial, and, worst of all, most of the chases (car and foot) let you see how the sausage is made. What I mean is, you can tell that you can’t catch up to a perp before a certain point and you can also see where the game just makes a perp crash or fall intentionally to just let you catch up. The face modeling stuff is super cool (and eerie if you watch Mad Men) and works pretty well minus one or two people. A tremendous achievement, but ultimately a mediocre game.

Call of Duty: Black Ops and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – I’m combining these because I don’t have much I want to say about either. The shooting is good, but the missions are kind of lame. I can see where this might be fun, but it’s also not for me.

inFamous – This was my free mea culpa game from Sony after the big hack fiasco. Decent open world game, but it suffers from being an open world game, in my eyes. The electric powers were fun, but the story was stupid. I don’t regret beating this game or getting it for free. Skating on the rails and then getting hit by a train is awesome.

Shadows of the Damned – I wish I’d taken the time to actually beat this game. It plays exactly like a Resident Evil game, has a super cool aesthetic, kickass soundtrack, and some of the funniest, most Japanese characters I’ve ever seen (come on, Garcia Fucking Hotspur is the greatest character name of the year!). Maybe I’ll beat it in 2012.

Hot Springs Story – From the devs what brought you Game Dev Story we have Hot Springs Story. See the entry above. It’s equally meh to me. I think I just don’t like playing games on my phone.

Torchlight – Gave me my Diablo fix a whole year before I’ll ever see Diablo III (I bet D3 is still not out in 2012). It’s fun and addictive, but it can get a little repetitive after a while. Good for loot whores/junkies.

Jikkyou Powerful Pro Yakyu 2011 – I got this expecting to have as much fun with it as I did back when it was the only Pawapuro/Konami-style baseball game I could play. In a post (Dan Mesa) PYS world, the simplifications of the engine don’t quite work for me. I need the extra systems that PYS layers on top.

Team Fortress 2TF2 has always been good. The addition of large-scale achievements made it even better, but the real tipping point for me was Strange Weapons. Once I learned that there were weapons which tracked the number of kills you had on them…well I couldn’t go back. This year probably saw the most TF2 playing from me since its launch. This game is barely recognizable to what it looked like in 2007. It’s free to play now. It’s got so many new maps and weapons and hats. It’s still the best competitive shooter a person could play right now.

Cahterine – Some people don’t get Catherine. They think the block puzzles are annoying and frustrating and find the whole thing to be stupid, too anime-y, and a waste of time. While Catherine makes a turn right near the end that mucks with its interpretation, it’s still one of the most interesting, adult experiences out there, which isn’t to say that it’s got nudity (none) or sex (none on screen), but, rather, that it deals with a lot of grown-up problems. Vincent’s life is in a rut, he’s being pushed into committing to a woman he’s afraid to commit to, and then he finds an escape in Catherine. I have yet to play a more interesting or convincing game about growing up, taking responsibility, and becoming a man. Catherine forced me to take a hard look at myself, my life, the incidences of cheating that have been in it, and just think about it all. A lot of games don’t do that.

Yakuza 4 – Got maybe two hours in before it was stolen.

Dragon Age II – Man, a lot of people have a lot of beef with Dragon Age 2 and I don’t really get it. Maybe it’s because I came to the game knowing all the complaints that everyone had before I got there, but it’s really not that bad. It “suffers” from the Mass Effect 2-ization of Bioware’s properties, but that’s not all bad. Dragon Age: Origins was bloated, over-long, and caused most people to quit right at the cusp of its climax. The way I see it, there were two things that were glaringly wrong with the game mechanics. First was the way that enemy reinforcements just seemed to pop in out of nowhere, artificially extending every fight and turning them into hyper-frustrating affairs. Keeping things limited to the enemies on-screen would have been vastly preferred. The second big miss was the lack of polish/variety of locations. It was very clear that this game was rushed to market because there were maybe three or four map styles recycled to cover a lot of locations. The minimaps weren’t properly reflecting when doors were shut and it was painfully apparent how much recycling happened. These are not sins worth crucifying the game for. The way that it focuses exclusively on Kirkwall and Hawke’s family is actually a good thing. Rather than be as sprawling as DA:O, it allows for a more personal story. Every relationship in this game is way cooler/most interesting than the ones in DA:O and, arguably, any of the ones in ME2. DA2 gets a lot of shit, but it’s a great game.

Bastion – Considering how much everyone just loves this game I really wish I’d given it a little more time this year. I barely played it, but the narrator was cool and the game seemed neat. I’ve got to beat this in 2012

Deus Ex: Human Revolution – I bought this game to get the pre-order items it came with for TF2. I don’t regret doing so. Played about an hour or two of the game. Haven’t felt compelled to go back yet.

Gears of War 2 – This is the year that Min and I beat GoW1 & 2. It took a long time, but we still managed it. These games are really fun in co-op. Easily among the most fun we had in couch co-op this year.

Gears of War 3 – My GOTY comes down to this or Portal 2. I know I’m way late to the GoW train, but god damn these games are razor sharp. Shooting in this game just feels so right, you know? It’s about as polished and good as a third person shooter can possibly be. Fighting the final boss for two hours because I turned on no ammo drops will be memorable for a long time in a way that I don’t often make memories in video games any more. Thank you, Epic, for this amazing game.

The Binding of Isaac – The second I heard that the dude from Super Meat Boy, Edmund McMillen, was coming out with a new game, I knew that I would be buying it and that it would be tons of fun. You’ll remember from last year that SMB was the best game I played. The Binding of Isaac is not quite the best of this year, but it is a more realized game than it has any right to be. I mean, the game was $5 at launch, for Christ’s sake, and it featured a free content patch at Halloween. Isaac took 55 hours of my time this year, assuming every one was counted by Raptr, and I anticipate it taking more before I’m done with it. This game is the best $5 you can spend this year.

Galaga Legions DX – Coming off the awesomeness that was Pac-Man CE DX I expected big things from this game. It’s nowhere near as fun, but maybe that’s because Pac-Man is a way more fun game than Galaga ever was.

Batman: Arkham City – I’m pretty sure you already know that I think this game was a major step back from Arkham Asylum. I really don’t think the open world aspects did this game any favors. It’s still got that super-crunchy, razor sharp battle system, but it’s also marred by too many poorly dressed women constantly being called b***hes. This is a game that aggressively pushed me away from it and I was more than happy to be done with it when I was despite being the best thing to happen to brawlers in ages.

Dungeon Defenders – Tower defense made even more fun by allowing us to run around in the environments. I didn’t put in anywhere near as many hours as Min did, but it was fun while I played it.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception – Man, Uncharted 2 was fantastic, wasn’t it? Try this new one! It’s a lot like the old one, but with a little less charisma. A little less je ne sais quoi. Despite featuring my favorite video game characters of the modern era, Uncharted 3 was lacking in weird ways that the appearance of the The Last of Us trailer makes clear. Focus was diverted. Glad that we got three of these, but I wish it was as much a step forward as the second one was.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Remember how I wrote that article where I outlined everything I hated about this game? Since I wrote it I played another hour or two and said, “Nope. I don’t want to play this.” Will I ever go back? God, I hope not. It was worth spending $60 to drive in the point that I don’t like Bethesda open world RPGs. Here’s a note to Future Dan: Don’t buy any more Bethesda games, you moron.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – This poor game is being victimized by the launch of The Old Republic. Had TOR not come out there’s not a doubt in my mind that I would be playing the most charming Zelda game since Wind Waker non-stop. Skyward Sword plays sharply and is tons of fun.

Star Wars: The Old Republic – My life has been sucked into this game in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. I can’t believe that there was a time where I was actively thinking about avoiding this game and staying away from MMOs altogether. Bioware did something fantastic here by adding story to a genre that typically lacked it. This game has already rocketed up the charts for total time played and I predict that it will never be usurped based on how much I truly love playing it. I haven’t even finished one story and I’ve still got seven more to go.

Skyrim First Impressions [GO]
Nov 18th, 2011 by Dan

Elder Scrolls V Skyrim 03

It's definitely a very pretty game (Photo courtesy nxcuso)

Well, guys, I finally did it. After all the hype and all the insistence of my friends, I plopped down $60 and bought me Skyrim. Mind you, I found Fallout 3 to be dull most of the time and marginally entertaining at other times and I never had even the slightest interest in playing Oblivion, but here I was, buying into the hype.

Within the first hour of playing Skyrim I ran into every single thing I hated about Fallout and every reason I didn’t want to play Oblivion. I will enumerate these things below:

1. The fucking fantasy accents. I really hate how people insist that everyone in fantasy media have some sort of European accent.

2. Combat/Movement is floaty, disconnected-feeling, and not fun. The NPC animation is kind of janky. I dunno. Nothing has any of that tim rogers-style friction. My actions don’t pop and I feel like a bull just barreling through the world with zero finesse. It’s clumsy and awkward to me (at least at the moment)

3. Halfway through the first quest I became so encumbered that I had to clear out my inventory or walk at a glacial pace.

4. Not long after that I came across a lore book. Instead of easing me in to the world of Skyrim, this book contained 35 (not exaggerating that much) terms – be they races, countries, concepts, or things – that had no explanation or basis for someone like me to understand. It read something like this to me, “And then Fulanito found a jibbertijab and took it to Fluttergamon so that he could take his place as the leader of the Roobawoo people.” It’s incomprehensible. I literally could not parse more than a handful of sentences and this book was meant to set up the whole Dragonborn thing.

5. Conversations were super boring! “Let us both stand completely still and talk about Whiterun. If I move my vocal chords shut down.”

6. There were arbitrary rules about stealing stuff in the first house I was at. Dude will literally empty his pockets and give everything on him to me, I can take all his food, pick up gold coins from his table and keep them, but if I take his boots that are under the table…no, that’s stealing.

7. Last bad thing: the interface on PC is shit. It’s built for a controller.

I know it sounds like I hate this game. Despite all of these things immediately reminding me why I didn’t want to play Skyrim, I didn’t feel that exasperated with the game until this morning when I was thinking about it. Here’s what I did like:

– This game is really pretty. Normally that’s not that much of a factor for me, but it actually felt like a real place that I was wandering about.

– During the opening dragon attack sequence I accidentally ventured too far ahead and stood directly in the path of the dragon’s fire attack. I’m pretty sure this means I’m fireproof. Fighting dragons is gonna be a joke.

– Some of the systems do actually intrigue me. The skill progression system seems cool as does the fact that some dude apparently just yells at people to kill them. That sounds like an awesome ability to have.

– I can dual wield fireballs. I shoot streams of fire from both hands…and then my mana runs out and I back away from my assailants in circles until I can shoot them some more.

– Further along that point, I like that you build up weapon skills/abilities by use. You have the proficiency to use everything kind of poorly. It’s up to you to progress down whichever path you want.

– I’m absolutely looking forward to slaughtering as many elves as possible. My character is this ugly lizard man who I’m role playing as having utter contempt for every other race he encounters…especially elves. Can’t wait to meet some elves.

– Everyone is super ugly. Makes sense. I like that.

– I’m super excited to just wander around and see what I run into/come across. That sense of, “Oh, hey, there’s something really close by that I should just check out…” from Fallout 3 definitely persists and feels fun. Can’t go wrong with that.

Skyrim has me cautiously optimistic to play it. Maybe I’ll be able to move past the things I dislike about Bethesda games and actually enjoy the game that everyone else universally loves.

Morality, Maturity, Treading Water, and Missed Opportunities: A Mass Effect 2 Review [Game Overview]
Feb 23rd, 2010 by Dan

It's not this bad, but we've still got a long way to go.

…like many mechanisms of this kind your choices tend to come down to being an omnibenevolent supercherub or the Goddamned devil.

-Jerry “Tycho” Holkins

WARNING: SPOILERS

A member of your crew was double-crossed before he joined you. Eleven of his friends died as a result of that treachery and he wants revenge on the killer. Do you: A) Indulge his obsession and allow him to murder in cold blood when his target least expects it or, B) Convince him that his obsessive revenge will not bring him the closure he desires by obstructing his revenge attempt.

Why don't you just William Tell the shot?

Here's another question: if you weren't gonna let him go through with it, why would you wait until he's got crosshairs on the both of you to confront him on it?

Later on a member of your crew who has been hunting a serial killer for hundreds of years asks you to help her bring said criminal to justice. The killer is a genetic aberration in her species who kills everyone she mates with (her species can mate with any species) and derives both power and an almost narcotic effect from her murders. There’s also the extra angle that this killer is the daughter of your party member, a woman who birthed three such monsters and had the other two locked away in isolation for the simple crime of their genes. Do you A) side with your crew and murder this killer to end her spree or B) side with the killer and kill your crewmate, ultimately gaining this serial killer as a party member and allowing her to escape free after your mission.

Before I decide, Samara, if I were an ice cream flavor, what flavor would I be?

Kind of reminds me of Dragonball

One of these two represents an actual moral choice worth thinking about while the other is noticeably less complex and, consequently, far less interesting. It may not be as obvious a choice as mass murder a crowd or buy them all ice cream, but it’s still pretty basic when you look at it. Will revenge really give Garrus closure? Does letting Sidonis live with his guilt represent a greater punishment? These are things we’ve confronted plenty of times before in these games. “Murder or mercy” is the bread and butter of the morality system, but it’s been seven years since Knights of the Old Republic and we need to up the ante here a little (Yes, I’m aware that morality systems have existed long before KoTOR. Giant Bomb lists 168 of them). In fact, Dragon Age: Origins, another Bioware game that came out in 2009, featured a system that puts this game’s choices to shame.

Perhaps it’s because DA:O was in development since 2004 (that’s five years to its release in 2009) while Mass Effect 2 has only a scant three years under its belt, but almost everything about the “morality system” in Dragon Age far exceeds what’s available to the player in ME2. To start with, Dragon Age dispenses with the notion of good/evil points. Your actions don’t move a light side/dark side meter up or down, they simply have consequences. More importantly, those consequences are pretty brutal no matter which outcome you select. Not to digress too far, but my character in DA:O was a Casteless Dwarf, something akin to the burakumin of Japan, and her sister was a concubine for one of the noble families elevated in status because she produced a son (dwarves in this universe inherit caste from the same-sex parent). When I returned to the dwarf homeland, there was a bitter power struggle going on and it was up to me to choose to help who I thought should continue the disputed royal line. The obvious heir was a brutal man rumored to be the one who poisoned the his brother (and rightful heir to the throne) in the first place, but he was in favor of reform of the caste system and contact with the outside world. He was also my sister’s husband. The other candidate was in favor of a strong assembly (the legislative body) and, while he was a traditionalist, he was well-respected and, more importantly, not rumored to be a murderer. It then became a question of supporting a despotic butcher who would work to improve equality at the expense of representation (and also keep my family at a higher status) or a more traditional ruler who would rule without bloodshed, but keep my caste down and stay isolationist (not to mention assure that my sister’s place in society would be compromised). In the end I chose to side with my family, but I almost immediately regretted it when the man I chose ordered the execution of his rival immediately following his appointment. Not long after, the assembly was also dissolved. I made a hard choice that had no real good results for everyone and that’s ultimately what real life is about: grey areas.

It's called legal emancipation. You're probably also a legal adult after a few hundred years in Asari space.

Nothing like a little matricide/filicide to get the crew loyal to you

Back to the question of whether or not to kill Morinth or Samara, here is another interesting moral decision. Samara made irresponsible choices and had not one Ardat-Yakshi (that’s what it’s called) offspring, but three. Morinth’s crimes, at this point, were many, but her only choices in life were to live as a prisoner or to run and live as a hunted criminal. Even then, if you’re like me you’re thinking that this really isn’t that much of a decision. It amounts to supporting a serial killer or supporting an irresponsible mother looking to bring her daughter to justice. No matter how bad I feel for Morinth’s predicament, I, personally, couldn’t support her because she’s a sociopath and a murderer. That’s the real rub with the Mass Effect universe. Despite how good it is, despite how great the narrative is, and despite how much I love the games, its decisions are a constant disappointment boiling down to, in most cases, “murder or mercy”. Dragon Age constantly forced me to choose between “murder and murder”. Kill one person who had good and bad qualities or kill another with the same qualities. I’m not saying that all real decisions in games have to revolve around murder, there were some legitimately tough choices to make in the first Mass Effect (that still ultimately boiled down to “m or m” on a grand scale), like whether or not to kill a terrorist or let him walk free (his hostages will die if you kill him) or whether or not to spare the Racchni or commit xenocide, but even they skirted around the much more important decision of whether or not to utilize the cure for the Krogan genophage. Your only option is to destroy it. (SIDEBAR: The Krogan people were forcibly infected with a genetic rewrite that causes 0.999 of all Krogran pregnancies to end in stillbirth (SIDEBAR: The Krogan reproduce very rapidly and are quite aggressive)).

This is a tremendous missed opportunity. Sure, the genophage is addressed in ME2 since it’s a central part of the Krogan species’ identity, but even then the decisions you make are irrelevant. If you destroy the work done to correct the genophage (again), the scientist in your team claims that it doesn’t matter anyway, since he could easily duplicate all of the results if he had to. Saving it or destroying it seems to have no real impact on the world of the game. Granted, I don’t need to control my destiny to such a fine level in the games I play, but when Bioware goes out of its way to explicitly claim that my decisions have a large, direct impact on the world, I begin to expect my decisions to make a difference. Even the major choices I made in the first game seem to only have cosmetic effects on the second. I might get a non-story-relevant message from a character stunned to learn that I was still alive or thanking me for saving them back then, but then there’s this one side quest that played out the exact same way no matter what I decided in Mass Effect, except that the character model talking to me and the spoken dialog were slightly different.

Yes, I realize that decisions having a real effect make the world exponentially more complicated, but you shouldn’t promise what you can’t deliver.

“[Mature] really has two meanings when we apply it to media. One is ‘not appropriate for children’ and the other is ‘exploring subject matter in a sophisticated fashion. Ironically, the word mature when applied to games tends to have a very childish connotation.”

In late September of 2009 a Mass Effect 2 trailer highlighting Subject Zero was put out as part of the ME2 hype machine.

Needless to say, I became very concerned. It definitely did not fit in with the Bioware aesthetic and it felt like it was trying too hard to be edgy. This was the “maturity” that I’m always up in arms about and I was pretty worried that Bioware was going to take a serious misstep with their “dark second chapter”. After playing the whole game through, I’m confident in saying that Subject Zero and the characters in this “edgy” game were more or less about what you’d expect from Bioware in that they are decidedly not two-dimensional and are actually interesting. That’s not to say that Bioware didn’t make a few mistakes with its decision to go darker for this second game (they even redid their logo in blood red…it’s almost funny).

She likes to throw around plenty of hardcore language too.

Nothing screams combat-ready like minimal chest support.

Subject Zero (AKA Jack) may have a “seriously abused child” story that fleshes her out and makes her character actually make sense, but that doesn’t mean that they made no mistakes with Jack. Her outfit, if you could even call it that, is absolutely ridiculous. It feels like a grab for the adolescent attention span by making her dress in what amounts to a pair of pants, some belts, and tattoos (if it wasn’t so blatantly sexual, it could be a Nomura design). When will game designers learn that dressing women in this way is not cool or interesting? All they’re doing is enforcing the stereotype and furthering the divide between gamer and non-gamer. Who could possibly see the way that Jack is dressed and think it was designed for anyone older than a 13-year-old male?

The dress code is pretty informal

Actually, yes...Cerberus has a pretty liberal dress code.

The other Bioware attempts at making the game more dark, serious, and mature seem to have been carried out much better than Subject Zero. Every planet or space station that is explored is appropriately seedy and grimy. Gone are the sterile, clean blues of the Mass Effect Citadel. In its place we have reds-orange slums, planets so dominated by commerce that slavery is legal, prison ships, and war-torn wastelands. Running into the formerly na├»ve and innocent Liara T’Soni from the first game is jarring and depressing when you see how she has become ruthless, cold, and calculated in her efforts to bring down the Shadow Broker. Even Shepard has changed in the eyes of the galactic community thanks to his involvement with the shady Cerberus terrorist organization.

I think it's the hexagons that really get me goin...

Male gaze does not equal maturity

Mass Effect 2 also benefits from the complex social situations set up by the lore itself. Credit is definitely well deserved for those responsible for the universe’s depth and background. Alien cultures are fleshed out and the interaction between them, humanity, and themselves feels genuine and interesting. In fact, aside from the fact that humanity seems like a brilliant race able to work wonders that others cannot (no doubt an extension of that same “white is might” mentality that is subconsciously behind Avatar, Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves, etc.), I find that we’re treated appropriately for an up-and-coming species that is rapidly stepping on so many toes. Actually, let’s take my parenthetical a little further: why is humanity a special species here? Why are we the only ones to accurately see the threat of Saren and The Collectors? in a galactic community featuring multiple sentient species, it hardly seems probable that the only one that is like the current Western world is humanity. Then again, why would aliens be anything like us, culturally? Why would future humanity continue to be so dominated by white men? These questions are kind of wandering around, so let me just say that having a token non-western cast that ensured inclusiveness might have seemed pander-y anyway. Next paragraph!

While we’re talking about tropes, I also find myself wondering about the impact that the trilogy structure on the story of ME2. The first game had a story that revolved around mind control, domination, and indoctrination that culminated in a plot twist about the real enemy and the insidious nature of the greatest scientific technologies that sentient life depended on. It had weight and purpose and things happened. ME2 seems to drag along, treading water the whole way. Your crew’s various backgrounds and backstories take center stage, but at the expense of anything that legitimately moves the plot forward save for two things: 1. You learn that The Collectors are genetically modified Protheans being manipulated by the Reapers and 2. You learn that a human-inspired Reaper is in the works (and you destroy it). All that says is that the Reapers have decided that humanity is its only legitimate threat and worthy of being adopted into their strange genetic-mechanical history, but that ultimately means nothing. Not one thing that happens in this chapter of the trilogy can compare to the Reaper bombshell of the first game. In terms of story, ME2 is just ME1.5 (or ME1.125).

Mechanics is where ME2 takes major strides away from ME1, but in a direction that is both welcome and distressing. Mass Effect was a serviceable third-person shooter with a super-clunky inventory and interface and unfun vehicle sections. It sounds harsh, but it really wasn’t all that bad for a freshman effort by an RPG company to make a shooter (notice the caveats!) and it was helped along by its strong narrative and much stronger conversation systems. ME2 brings what some might call a pretty good shooter to the table along with all the baggage that such a thing merits. Gone are many of the RPG elements of the first game (weapon skill, a glut of powers and passive skills, statistic-determined shot accuracy, and ammo types) and in are oversimplified options and a streamlined story structure to go with it. In a sense, Bioware did something right by avoiding pairing the slow, deliberate pace of the first game with the new, frenetic shooter engine, but at the cost of the weight of the narrative.

As I said before, the story is nothing to write home about and I attribute that mostly to the new mission structure that the game is hampered with. Each little action section takes place in an instanced area outside of the normal exploratory zones, lasts 20-30 minutes, finishes up whatever relevant story points are specific to that mission only, and then dumps the player out to a Mission Complete summary of their exploits as presented to the Illusive Man. I’m not sure what it is about the clear separation of action spaces and non-action spaces that peeves me so much, but I imagine it has everything to do with the way that the story parts were just as integrated with the action throughout most of Mass Effect. One sidequest in the original had me engaged in a firefight in the same exact place I’d just bought armor from half an hour ago. ME2 has rooms that the player can only access to start up their missions when said mission is available. There were very few locked doors in the first game. If I see one in ME2, I know a sidequest will take me there later. The zones in ME2 are merely hubs with shops and non-combat quests.

I do like the sun in the background...

Jarring and non-immersive.

Combat quests are bizarrely chosen as the main mode of exposition in the game, which I’d normally be ok with, except that their focus is so laser-focused on whichever crew member’s backstory it is revealing that the third member of your party is often ignored. I couldn’t help but wonder why the game didn’t take advantage of my entire three-man squad in these story interaction moments since it’s always been my favorite part of Bioware games. For example, on Samara’s conversation-heavy loyalty quest, your third companion might as well not be there and he/she/it actually seems to disappear once it begins with no real explanation. He/she/it was there before we went into the apartment to investigate the murder, but then I didn’t see him/her/it again until after the mission. The lack of companion interaction is simply inexcusable after the shining examples set forth in the first game and Dragon Age: Origins. At any given quiet moment in DA:O, two of the companions following the Grey Warden can spontaneously burst into conversation about something. These talks are multi-topic connected affairs that have a complete arc to them throughout your travels. Mass Effect relegated these mostly to elevator rides around different places where they were there to help deal with the dead time in their concealed loading screens. Aside from one moment that I had to trigger in the Citadel by having two specific party members with me, there was not one bit of witty banter or conversation between my companions. I know this is supposed to be the “dark, serious second chapter”, but lighten up guys. We don’t have to spend our entire mission in steely, concentrated silence. A quip here or there would be more than welcome.

We can’t talk about things removed from the game without mentioning the Single Worst Thing About Mass Effect 1, the Mako tank. It handled poorly, was used for boring exploration, and was completely out of place with the rest of the game. It was like it was the 90s again and every game needed a vehicle section (game designer protip: we REALLY don’t need vehicle sections shoehorned into our games). Worst of all, it was associated with planetary exploration, a boring slog through the terrain of each planet to look for mineral resources and other artifacts that existed to provide money and experience. One correct lesson was learned and the Mako was excised from the game. The designers didn’t quite understand that a lot of the Mako hatred stemmed from planet resource mining, so they retained mineral mining in a different form. If you were the commander of an interplanetary space ship and you needed to mine resources from a planet, would you want to manually scan the planets yourself before sending down a probe to retrieve the resources? No, of course not. You’d have your engineering and mining teams handle all of that busy work while you managed other parts of the ship. As the player, I’m ostensibly Commander Shepard. There’s no reason why I have to tell the probes whrere to go. I don’t want to and it bores the hell out of me. If one aspect of your game (upgrades) is inexorably tied to a cripplingly boring aspect of your game (planetary scanning), then I think you need to reevaluate the way that you’re handling that first aspect

For my final nitpick of the game, I’d like to say that a PC version of a game should always have scroll wheel functionality if your interface allows for scrolling. Why do I have to click on a down button to scroll text? When are we living, the stone age?

By now I’ve realized that it looks like I really don’t like this game. I’ve got a lot of negative things to say about it precisely because I feel like it missed so many opportunities to be really great instead of just great. I wasn’t kidding when I said that the shooter mechanics were a leap forward. Everything from shooting enemies to throwing around biotic powers just feels crunchier. There’s no sweeter feeling than launching a ball of biotic push energy at a curve and watching it impact with a target and launch him off a platform. No. Sweeter. Feeling.

The game also offers just enough variety in its loyalty missions to keep them from becoming too stale. Most of them are combat affairs, but some, like Thane and Samara’s, feature no combat at all while others, like Jack or Tali, have combat interrupted by long conversations of narrative sequences which connect the player with the characters a bit more. Even Grunt’s straight arena setting is punctuated by a battle with a thresher maw whose mechanics are not seen again anywhere else in the game.

Despite the lack of real story, the game does also feature the best characterization I’ve seen in a while for a “dirty dozen”-style narrative structure. Team member depth varies widely (Zaeed has no dialog tree associated with him at all while Jack, Miranda, and Thane all feature long backstories and conversation trees), but each member does have a defined arc that is sometimes unique, funny, or tragic (or all three). Even non-party member crewmates have dialog allotted to them in more meaningful ways that the prior crew of the Normandy. This is all in the service of motivating the player to save them, which is another great narrative choice by Bioware.

SHORT DIGRESSION WHOSE PURPOSE WILL BE APPARENT SOON…

Whenever we want to talk about ludonarrative dissonance, Final Fantasy VII will inevitably come up. In the late game there is a meteor set to strike the earth after a fixed time period…except it isn’t. The player can spend millions of hours racing and breeding chocobos while staying in inns (which should technically be advancing time by a full day) instead of progressing the story. There is no point where the meteor strikes because Cloud was too busy hanging out at the Golden Saucer playing a stupid snowboarding game. The narrative is at the player’s mercy.

Every person who plays Mass Effect 2 will have his crew (minus combat party members) abducted by The Collectors in the endgame. Most players probably think they can continue to fool around and expect to save the crew before they are killed. I completed all the sidequests expecting that I wouldn’t be able to return to them and in the interest of boosting my level higher. When I finally reached my crew in the endgame, all but one (or two…it’s not many) had been murdered. Granted, that one will always survive no matter how long you take breeding chocobos (aka: scanning minerals), but the rest of your crew is permadead, leaving your ship empty in the open-ended postgame.

There’s not enough of this in video games. If you’re telling me to hurry and do something, I’d better damn well have to hurry, because otherwise I feel cheated when I see the man behind the curtain. JRPGs may be the biggest offender in this dissonance, but it’s not alone. Consider the heavily scripted shooter where I can spot the “actors” up ahead standing stationary until I get close enough to trigger the event that kills them. I can stand for an eternity watching my comrades stand in an exposed corridor with shooters at the end, but they’ll never die until I get close. Counter that with Dead Rising and its brutal time system. If you wait until 1600 on Day 2 to save this one person, guess what? He won’t be there. The zombies killed him. If you don’t complete the next story objective before the timer runs out, the rest of the game is closed off to you. Events will no longer transpire in that way and you’d better reload your save. That makes perfect sense for a game where haste and time management are issues. When someone tells you to do something quickly, they mean it. I don’t like to be blatantly lied to. Mass Effect 2 is honest in that respect.

I guess that’s really all I have to say about Mass Effect 2. It’s a fine game that you should own, but it also brings up a lot of issues about game design that I hope Bioware confronts for the concluding chapter of the saga.

Evil Shepard can look pretty rough by the end of the game...

Evil Shepard will put the screws to you too if you don't play ME2

Dragon Questing V Part I [GO]
Jun 30th, 2009 by Dan

Like I said I might do before, here’s a rundown of a game I’m playing to try and encourage me to make significant progress. Unfortunately, even if there were commercial DS capture devices available, I don’t really have the cash to spare for them anyway, so we’ll start our look in with words and I might snap some ugly iPhone shots if I really want to hurt your eyes. As a final warning, I’m going to be getting into plot points. Leave if you don’t want to read SPOILERS

This game hammers home the theme of family pretty heavily and it makes me wonder what might have been going on in Yuji Horii’s life to inspire him to create this deeply touching game. DQV opens with a fairly standard black background name entry screen as you choose the name of your hero. The next scene is of a throne room. There’s only one conclusion you can draw at this point, the guy pacing in front of the throne is the king. He seems stressed and he’s pacing. His name is Pankraz. Sancho shows up and summons Pankraz down to see his wife, Madalena. Her son lies on the bed beside her and they deliberate over a name. Pankraz thinks Madason would be a brilliant name for the boy, because he’s not very creative and thinks that since he’s Madalena’s son, he should apparently be saddled with what sounds like a woman’s name. Madalena thinks that perhaps he should be named Dan. Pankraz reluctantly agrees and holds Dan up, Lion King-style, to proclaim that his son will henceforth be known as Dan. Crisis: Madalena begins to cough; something is wrong with her. The screen irises on Pankraz and the new baby boy. Dan begins to cry.

Cue heroic music and iconic Dragon Quest logo over a castle in the sky.

If you’re only just now getting to DQV, as I am, this opening is awfully remniscent of Fallout 3. Consider the identical elements: you are born in the opening scene, there is a name decision to be made, and some sort of tragic accident seems to befall your mother. I think there’s a pretty strong reason for both of these games to begin almost identically and it stems from simple human behavior. There are fairly established notions of the kind of relationship that a single parent, especially a single father has with his offspring. It’s either the whole abusive, resentful, alcoholic view, which would be useless in this case, or the close, caring setup that we get in both of these games. What it says to the player is: these men are your only strength left in this world. You’d better try to do right by them. In Fallout 3, your motivations are driven by your need to find your father and, once you do and he is killed, to continue his life’s work to restore water to the Capital Wastelands.

DQV does things a little differently. Immediately following the title splash, you see yourself in what looks like a bed in a ship. You can tell that it is you in the bed, because the man in the wild purple robes is the very same one portrayed on the Toriyama-drawn boxart. You tell your father that you dreamed he was a king and he laughs it off. As you walk around the ship, you learn a two things:

1. Your dad, Pankraz, is the man
2. You guys travel. A lot.

The ship lands in Littlehaven and you’re told to go play. At this point, you’re level 1 and you’re just supposed to go wander around and hit up the world map. Here’s where I’ll leave my observations for today and we’ll talk some more about stuff next time.

(NOTE: I’d be remiss in not mentioning that this feature was at least partially inspired by the ABDN DQV review by Tim Rogers)

Fallout 3 Vegas? [GO]
Apr 21st, 2009 by Dan

Fallout has a new game coming, but it’s not Fallout 4 nor is it a DLC pack as we’ve become accustomed to receiving. No, it seems that instead we’ll have a brand new game taking place in Vegas being developed by Obsidian Entertainment instead of Bethesda Softworks.

It’s not a sequel, it’s just a sidestory taking place in a geographically different part of the post-apocalyptic USA. Unfortunately, to me, it seems like it’s probably a waste of time and money. There was a time, many years ago, when I was excited for a game that Obsidian was producing. It was KOTOR II and after playing KOTOR I knew the game would be great. Turned out that Obsidian was rushed and Obsidian didn’t quite do as well as Bioware in creating the new game. No, I’m not excited about this new project. Not until I see it happen and work…

PC: Fallout 3
Nov 2nd, 2008 by Dan

Been playing Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic first-person RPG epic Fallout 3 this weekend and I’m quite pleased with it so far. Here are some quick thoughts about random things that stick out:

The game is very buggy. Apparently this was a problem with Oblivion too. I’ve gotten a few hard freezes that I was able to start mostly avoiding just by updating my graphics card drivers, but still…I shouldn’t be having this much problem playing a game that’s been approved for final release.

That being said, the game is tons of fun. VATS is a great system and I love targeting individual body parts. I’d say my absolute highlight moment goes like this:

I spots three raiders in the distance. I’m accidentally spotted by one of them as I tries to sneak in for an attack, so what do I do? I throw down a frag mine and start running backwards. The two who were close to each other approach in just the right direction, so one of them steps on the mine first and is blown to absolute pieces. The other is heavily damaged, but pushes through the smoke…only to have VATS activated on him. I target his head with my hunting rifle, get a hit, and instantly decapitate the bugger. Feeling quite smug with myself I celebrate a bit until the third guy tosses a grenade at me, giving me a concussion and nearly killing me. I shoot him dead too…good times.

I think the other main gripe I have with Fallout 3 is that it was designed primarily for consoles. Who can blame Bethesda for this? It makes absolute sense to release your game on as many platforms as possible and it’s insanely easy to port to each. Unfortunately, this leaves the PC player with an incredibly awkward interface to muddle through. Why do I have to access my Pip-Boy 3000 with a button and then manually swap to the Map screen? Any real computer game would allow me to do that, but would also have a binding that would automatically take me to my map screen. It’s only frustrating in very specific occasions, but I hate how clunky it seems on the PC. With a controller it would be quite nice, but they should have kept the functions more open for those of us playing the game on a real platform.

In case you were wondering, no, I didn’t blow up Megaton. You sick bastard.

One final note: a search string for “Does Crono love Marle” apparently lead to either my site or my host’s site. The answer is yes. Yes he does love her.

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