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Batman: Arkham City Review [GO]
Oct 27th, 2011 by Dan

Batman Arkham City

The Joker looks pretty gnarly in this game. (Picture used courtesy gamesweasel)

There may be spoilers ahead. Tread carefully.

Growing up in Florida confers all kinds of benefits to the aquatic athlete that you almost take for granted. Outdoor swimming, for one. I never swam indoors once during my years as a high school swimmer. Sure, things got cold in the winter, but we just heated our pools up a little and tried not to hang out on the pool deck.

We also had the ability to have practice on the beach once a month. Our beach swims were tiring slogs and I really loathed them. We’d start at one point of the beach, Coach would yell (she always yelled) out a stopping point about a mile up the shore, and we’d get swimming and run back. The change of pace was always lost on me. I only dug it for the volleyball game afterward, really. It all just seemed muddled and unfocused and like a waste of a Saturday morning. In the pool we had lanes, regimented practice sets, and direction. I may not have had as much fun watching the same landmark go by for two hours, but I always felt like I was getting something out of it.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going here…

Why does the myth of the open world game persist? Diluting your narrative does not make it sharper or more impactful. Arkham City was swinging for the fences with its story. I don’t see how you can refute that, given how it ends, but the path to get there is just…not as fun.

Rocksteady Studios had a certifiably great game on their hands with Arkham Asylum. Reviewers familiar with the comics loved the game because it allowed players to feel like they were Batman. Does futzing around the city completing side quests unrelated to the main story make you feel more or less than Batman? I like the sidequests, but they were so disconnected and brief feeling that I actually didn’t like doing them. Does that make sense? The way they’re not integrated detracts from their execution.

I’m gonna tie in the beginning: It’s like swimming in the ocean versus swimming in a pool. I may have more freedom, but the bucking waves and the looseness of the experience means I derive less use from it. The very fact that I preferred the volleyball game, our sidequest, so to speak, to the practice itself further strengthens the metaphor. The main story is not as satisfying as it could be.

Batman is focused and doesn’t fuck around. He gets things done. He wrecks fools who get in his way. Batman doesn’t futz around looking for Riddler trophies when helicopters are destroying the city. It’s that annoying ludonarrative dissonance thing rearing its ugly head again. In fact, I was just talking about this in the comments section of a blog post on Ambient Challenge about Red Dead Redemption. What it came down to was that I think the only modern game to be intelligent about this while reveling in its stupidity is Dead Rising.

How reviled was the clock of Dead Rising? I’ll tell you what, I loved it. I never bucked against it. You know what a time limit creates? Tension. It also limits freedom. I bet that’s what people were griping about. In Dead Rising things happen at certain times. If you’re not there, you miss it and the story is over. In Arkham City you have X hours until Protocol 10 is enacted. I’m 99% sure that you can just bullshit around until those X hours are done and nothing happens. Hours don’t “pass” until you hit certain story markers. By trying to be everything to every player, Arkham City loses out on the immediacy of Arkham Asylum. You could just hang out in AA and look for Riddler trophies, but the sense of momentum remained. In between story missions in AC momentum dies.

Rocksteady should be justifiably happy with their gliding mechanics. They’re truly brilliant and lots of fun. If you told me that the developers weren’t thinking about Super Mario World when they created the “dive bomb into gliding” mechanic, I would call you a liar. There’s no way that’s not true. It just works and I can see why they’d want to show off just flying around the city looking for stuff. I just wish (for Arkham Asylum too) that they left the side mission stuff off until after the game.

“Batman, you’ve saved the day!”

“Thanks, I’m gonna go home and take a –”

“Oh no! Batman, there are side quests and Riddler trophies to find! Go back into the city!”

“Dammit…”

Much better. What it doesn’t do is keep you playing the “main mission” long enough to prevent selling the game used the same week. If you’re distracted, it takes longer, I guess, but with the new DLC paradigm, do developers really have to keep trying to shoehorn in sidequests when there are pressing matters to attend to! They might claim that gamers resent being corralled down a narrow path and told what to do. I made this point in my FF XIII review, but choice is an illusion in 99% of the games out there. Many of them are far more linear than you care to believe. Instead of trying to have everything and executing to a passable degree on all fronts, why not segregate a game like I’m advocating? I think it makes more sense if you want a cohesive experience.

Arkham City remains much better executed when it comes to their combat mechanics. Just like the last game, fighting as Batman feels like controlling a superhero. He bounces between targets, has an almost psychic notion of who’s attacking him from where, and, when executed well, he never gets touched. Completing a fight like that makes you feel like a real man. It’s all crunch contact and smooth transition. Batman is a dream to control.

Well, almost. I can’t say I understand why they still feel the need to have a button dedicated to running. We have analog sticks, for Christ’s sake! When we want to run, we will hold said stick in the furthest possible position. Devoting a button to running is a 16-bit contrivance. I hate having Batman move like he’s on a determined, if not leisurely stroll if I’m not holding a button down. It’s downright ridiculous.

If it sounds like I don’t love Arkham City it’s because, well, I don’t love Arkham City. The game itself should be an absolute joy to play. Instead it’s just fun. Now, fun is fine, mind you, but fun is not greatness. I like playing Arkham City, I just wish it stuck to its lanes a little more.

Dead Rising 2 Impressions [GO]
Sep 30th, 2010 by Dan

Dead Rising 2

He hasn't covered wars (you know), but he can do mean things with duct tape.

Dead Rising, how I’ve missed you. You first charmed my heart in Willamette, Colorado along with Frank West’s camera, your punishing save system, immense difficulty, and utter insanity. Within the first two minutes of actual gameplay, you can bet that I died. I fell in love right there.

Oh, Dead Rising. Now you’ve returned with Case Zero and Dead Rising 2. Both reminded me how much I hated the photography mechanic in Dead Rising and how sweet it was to duct tape shit together to make über weapons. Yes, I fell back in love the second I took a drill, combined it with a bucket, and created little helmets of death to put on the wandering undead.

Dead Rising 2 Screenshot 5

My iPhone makes me want to do this too sometimes.

The game is just as difficult as its always been, only now the survivors are less stupid. Be prepared to experience a game that is inherently Japanese, despite its Canadian origins. Keiji Inafune’s stamp is felt all over this game, and not just because Katey mentions playing Mega Man within the first 45 minutes. It’s the punishing systems in place, the madcap insanity of the characters, and the utter insanity behind the premise and presentation that make this game so great.

Dead Rising 2 for PS3

El Kabong!

Bullet points:

– The voice acting is subtly Canadian, eh. It’s not a problem, but it’s jarring at times. Fortune City is in Nevada, not Ontario. Voice talent may come cheaper in Canada, but we can tell here in the states.

– Dead Rising 1 felt like a Japanese interpretation of what an American shopping mall might be like, so a lot of the things seemed a bit off. DR2 does a much more realistic job of capturing this new version of Vegas. There’s still some stuff that feels slightly off, but it feels like there’s less of an East/West disconnect, at least in my mind. Maybe it’s psychological because I know the game was made by Canadians.

– Combo weapons are amazing. I used a 2×4 and a lawnmower to make a portable lawnmower to be used in maiming all kinds of zombies. It was brilliant. The “wolverine gloves” made with boxing gloves and a bowie knife also deserves grand mention. Super fun. I can’t wait to combine a car battery with a goblin head to make a Blanka mask that electrocutes zombies around it.

– I like some of the new characters, but others aren’t anywhere near as endearing. Sullivan seems a little too obviously like the bad guy. TK feels a little like a stereotype. Rebecca Chang is ok so far, but my favorites are Stacey and Chuck. Both of them have great chemistry with each other and Katey and they seem to be the most heart of the cast.

– Thank god answering the transceiver is instantaneous now. Seriously, thanks.

– The achievements seem easier this time around. There are still some toughies (rescuing all 50 survivors), but it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been.

– I kind of like that shooting is so janky in this game, even if it’s frustrating when I needto shoot

– This game has perfect crunch to it. Hitting enemies with a sledgehammer feels appropriately brutal. Using a sword to slice through them feels exactly as smooth as it should. Most every bit of contact in this game feels perfect. The outlier: bullets. They lack oomph and are obnoxious.

Dead Rising 2, New Challengers for SSFIV?, and Liara’s Return [Game Overview]
Jul 23rd, 2010 by Dan

Dead Rising 2 is coming. It’s on the cusp of releasing this summer and I can’t wait. While the official date has been pushed back to late September, those interested in getting their zombie killing on will be able to pick up Dead Rising 2: Case Zero next month. Case Zero is meant to bridge the five-year story gap between the events of Dead Rising 1 and 2 and introduce us to our new guy, Chuck Green. It’ll be tough getting used to Chuck after the iconic Frank West (who’s covered wars, you know), but if the game is anywhere near as good as Dead Rising, I think we’ve got a good thing on our hands here.

INDESTRUCTIBLE!

After being coy about not wanting to release a Super Street Fighter IV arcade cabinet in Japan, Capcom wisely gave up the guise and announced that it would see an arcade release. What they didn’t initially tell us was that there would be two new characters thrown in the mix.

What this means for console owners, I’m not sure, but all the same, I’m starting to get hyped about getting two new fighters.

Liara Returns!

Mass Effect 2 was lacking one thing for me: Liara T’Soni fighting alongside Commander Shepard. It was like the game just wanted to tease me by showing me a new, fierce, Benezia-like Liara, but didn’t want to follow through and let me actually take her fight to the Shadow Broker with her.

Lucky for me, Bioware is looking to remedy that with their next set of ME2 DLC, Lair of the Shadow Broker. I’ll finally get to kick some ass with Liara on my side. Hopefully they put in flags pertaining to the main character’s relationship with Liara in ME1 as well. Time will tell…

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 naïve 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

Best Video Games of the Decade [Game Overview]
Dec 30th, 2009 by Dan

You may notice some games that are missing from this list and are on every other list. Well, I didn’t play everything because I didn’t have the time or the money, so that accounts for some of the big misses like Pyschonauts or Resident Evil 4. Other games are deliberately omitted :cough: HALO :cough:

This list is also way long, but I didn’t want to limit myself to an arbitrary number like 10 or 20, so here it is:

Half-Life 2 (2004, 2006 – Episode 1, 2007 – Episode 2)

There are two divergent paths for shooters in the aughts. Halo and Half-Life. In the first corner you’ve got everything on the consoles since then: Regenerating health, aim assist, silly physics, and general jackassery. In the better corner you’ve got everything that’s come out of Half-Life and the Source engine: more realistic weaponry, realistic physics, and a much better legacy. Say what you will about the future of shooters and the PC market being antiquated, but this is a damn good shooter. I’d call it the best I’ve ever played. Valve has completely mastered the art of environmental storytelling and player manipulation. They can make you look where they want you to look and feel what they want you to feel all without ever wresting control from the player or relying on cutscenes. This game has brilliant pacing and amazing characters that you actually care about. Who’s ever heard of an NPC sidekick that you don’t hate? H-L 2 and its episodes are among the greatest gaming experiences I’ve ever had.

Rock Band 2 (2008)

Ok, so rhythm games are kind of saturated now, but Rock Band 2 is the pinnacle (only because The Beatles: Rock Band doesn’t let players bring their dlc in) of music gaming. It hits at just the right sweet spot, four players, and its filled with music from all kinds of genres. Better yet, the interface and note tracking isn’t sloppy like that other franchise and it’s a fantastic way to get people together for a fun time and even grow as a person. It’s probably the game I’ve played the most since 2008 and a ridiculously fun time.

Left 4 Dead (2008) and Left 4 Dead 2 (2009)

There are a lot of Valve games on this list. The Left 4 Dead series is on it because it has done cooperative, first-person multiplayer right in a way I’ve yet to see done better elsewhere. Everything about these games is top notch, tons of fun, and worth returning to time and time again. Beyond the mechanics, the games also feature great environmental storytelling and fantastic voice acting putting it at the top of my list for the best games of the past two years. Zombies may be getting old, but this series will always feel fresh.

Braid (2008)

Jonathan Blow didn’t revolutionize video gaming when he released Braid last summer. What he did do was bring indie games (and XBL games, in general) firmly into the spotlight for consideration. A self-funded and self-made game, Braid proved that one man (and one hired artist) could still create a top-notch, professional caliber game. Braid is deep and complex and tons of fun to play, especially when you’ve figured out a tricky puzzle.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (2005)

OBJECTION! This game should be higher on the list. Overruled, this list has no numerical ordering.

The Japanese sensation that brought visual novels and a resurgence in adventure games to America may have a niche audience and play real loose with the legal system of the real world, but it’s tons of fun. Just think quirky anime and you’ll get the idea of what playing this game is like. It just feels right to present a damning piece of evidence while Phoenix screams OBJECTION!

Shadow of the Colossus (2005)

I have yet to beat Shadow of the Colossus, but I absolutely love what I’ve played so far. Ueda is among the genius game designers in how well he understands presentation. The game world feels absolutely empty, as it should. All you come across, as the player, are the giant Colossi and man, they are wild. Each one is a dungeon/level to itself and the player is tasked with taking them down to save his love. But what have these giants done to you? Each one I take down makes me feel sad inside and a little empty. I usually find myself thinking What have I done? What did he ever do to me? The best art makes you think.

Final Fantasy XII (2006)

I had my choice of any Final Fantasy game between 9 and 12 for this spot, but I really couldn’t go with anything but the best. X was definitely a close second, but there are just so many things that XII did right in its evolution of the series that I couldn’t pick anything else. Maybe it’s because I’m in love with the world of Ivalice, but everything about this game just grabs me in a way I hadn’t been grabbed since VI. Maybe it was because I wasn’t being assaulted by too many belt buckles and leather by Nomura. It was probably because the story was mature, the characters way less annoying than before, and the battle system was finally revamped and moved into the 21st century. In any case, the best FF game of the decade.

Portal (2007)

Portal really does everything right. The game gets you acquainted with its mechanics quickly, gets you doing neat things with them right away, and then finishes up with a climactic and cool boss fight all comfortably within the span of 5-8 hours, if you’re slow. With mechanics and dialogue that are beyond brilliant, the only thing that could make this great game better would be to give it a hilarious end credit song penned by Jonathan Coulton. Oh wait, you’ve gone and done that already, haven’t you Valve? Bravo.

Burnout Paradise (2008)

Realistic racing games are kind of boring to me. Until Burnout Paradise, I would have said that I only enjoyed Mario Kart games, and those were starting to wear on me too. Then Criterion put out the first open-world racing game (that I can think of). Burnout Paradise would be tons of fun if all we had to do was run into walls and other cars. The fact that the game is so easy to get online and play (and purchasable as a digital download on the PSN) is brilliant and makes for tons of fun.

Mass Effect (2007)

Shepard. Wrex. It’s brilliant. It really is. Hard science fiction is always tons of fun to me, but when you go and flesh out this world to the nth degree, you’ve got me drooling already. Add in characters I genuinely cared about and enjoyed having in my party and a morality system that was finally free of cheap moral choices and I’d say that Bioware had a genuine hit on their hands. I anxiously await the sequel in January.

Eternal Darkness (2002)

I’m really not a big scary games guy. It’s simple: I’m too jumpy and I’ve got an overactive imagination. Those things don’t combine to make a pleasant gaming experience. Now you want me to play a game that’s actively trying to mess with my head to freak me the hell out? I’d normally say “No thanks,” but I was eventually convinced to try this Lovecraftian horror game and I found myself loving it. The plot is interesting and the characters are neat, but the insanity effects are what stick with me to this day. I can still see that image of Alex lying dead in a bathtub filled with her own blood when I think about it and it still gives me the chills.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009)

You know what? I really loved the old-school Mario games. Those 3D ones are way too easy. This game does it right. What makes it even more awesome is that you can play it with four dudes, making it both infinitely harder and easier while also making it more fun and frustrating. Use the multiplayer mode at your own risk, it may start fights.

Rhythm Heaven (2009)

Scratch-O, HA! The Rhythm Heaven (Paradise in Europe) series is loosely based on the bizarre Wario world, which is totally obvious after three minutes of play, which is great, because that series is brilliant (if stale by now) too. This game features simple rhythm mini-games, but man are they fun AND catchy. As I write this I’ve got the Moai statue song stuck in my head. Go play this.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004, Subsistence – 2006)

I love this game. MGS 2 may be the biggest practical joke (and most significant of the four), but this is undoubtedly the best. The epic cycle of the Metal Gear universe is made clear in this game that does its best to subvert war in every way possible. I do truly find it significant that in a Cold War game focused on stealth action, you can make it through from start to finish without killing one person. Well, almost. Metal Gear Solid 3 is almost heartbreaking when you play it non-violently and the ending still has a strong effect on me to this day. Definitely Kojima’s finest work.

World of Warcraft (2004)

I would give anything to get the time I spent playing this game back, but I definitely can’t deny how truly great it is. We’re talking about a bona fide phenomenon here. The absolute refinement of social engineering to such a degree that escape is nearly futile. Blizzard has truly outdone itself with this one.

Team Fortress 2 (2007)

What a surprise, more Valve. The Orange Box was a groundbreaking offering in value and Team Fortress 2 continues to be a huge part of that. I bought this game at launch back in 2007. Since then they have added achievements for nearly every class, new weapons for nearly every class, new game types and maps, hats, and an item crafting system. I’ve never seen so much free support for a game in my life. It’s no reason that Valve is my favorite developer of all time. They really know how to treat their customers and put out a great game.

The Sims 2 (2004)

Yes, I did create Sims of my friends and family. You’d better believe I killed some of them, turned one into a vampire, another into a werewolf, one into a zombie, and bargained with death to revive another. The Sims certainly don’t feel as relevant as they did at the start of this decade, but man were they a success and tons of fun. Sure, I should feel a little guilty that I spent so much time in what amounts to a digital dollhouse, but I really don’t. It was fun.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008)

If you don’t think that this is the best in the series, you’re wrong and you’re clinging to the past. Tons of characters, great level design, fantastic music, and all the right refinements to the battle system are what makes this great. The fact that I can listen to Snake Eater or the Love Theme from Mother 3 is just icing on the cake.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2003)

I know most of you saw that Spaceworld Zelda trailer and expected another realistic LoZ on the Gamecube. When you saw that it would look cartoony did you A) Claim that you would never play it or B) Realize that maybe you should give it a chance. If you were an ‘A’ person, you’re too impulsive and need to lighten up a bit, because you missed out on the best Zelda game since Majora’s Mask (another one that most people hate). Celda, as it became known, was a great retelling of the Zelda story and actually kind of explained the world somewhat. It was also really fun to sail around and hunt for treasure.
MLB Power Pros 2008 (2008…obviously)
For some reason I really can’t get into the next-gen baseball games. The pitching and hitting just don’t make sense to me and I’m overall just not that fond of it. Lucky for me, the Japanese are still keeping it real with their Pawapuro and Pro Spirits line of games. I wish I actually had gone and picked up the 2009 editions in Japan, but I’m sure these will come out in the states again someday.
Mother 3 (2006)
Masterpiece. Shigesato Itoi really outdid himself with this game. It’s dark and serious, but also lighthearted and funny. It’s a game that has actual authorial control and, therefore, is a game that is actually art. Itoi’s fingerprints are all over the scenario and the little quirks. It’s no wonder that anyone who’s played a game in this series instantly falls in love with it.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009)
I really credit Amy Henning most for the great decisions behind Uncharted 2, a game whose characters are so fully realized that they’re almost real people. It’s not that surprising to me that hearing Nolan North voice other characters makes me wonder why Nathan Drake is moonlighting as a voice actor. Everything about this game is just fun and every aspect of it was polished and enhanced from the previous version. The showcase came for this generation.
Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002, The Frozen Throne – 2003)
WCIII was the last great RTS I played. I don’t expect to play anything better until StarCraft II comes out later next year (if it comes out). While the story seems mostly lifted from StarCraft, it’s still quite good and an innovation in the way that RTS stories are told and plotted. It also lead right into the most successful game of this decade, WoW.
Dead Rising (2006)
The first game I ever bought for my Xbox 360 and the best (non-L4D-related-) zombie game I’ve ever played. Trust me, I’ve covered wars, you know.
Street Fighter IV (2009)
When you’re reviving the most loved fighting game franchise in history, a lot can go wrong. Do you stray too far from the original and innovate too much or do you go back, reevaluate what was good, and make incremental changes? Sure, the latter is a bit more cowardly, but I love Capcom more for it. I’ve never been much of a fighting game guy, but the instant familiarity of SFIV made it the perfect game to try and break into and I really got into it. My twitter became a repository for my win percentage after each day of play and I devoted hours upon hours of time into developing my Cammy playstyle. In the end, I’m still pretty bad at the game, but I also have tons of fun with it and I’m awaiting Super Street Fighter IV in 2010
Sid Meier’s Civilization IV (2005)
The best series I’ve ever played, bar none. I mean, the number of hours I’ve sunk into Civilization has to dwarf any other game, I’m sure of it. The number of days and nights spent completely developing one civilization is ridiculous. My favorite part of this fourth incarnation was the loose competition Eric and I developed as we would send each other save files intended to compare winning scores against each other. One more turn syndrome got its start here and this is a game that I find myself returning to at least once every year.
Persona 4 (2008)
Remember the days when I was posting every episode of the Giant Bomb Endurance Run on this blog? That series motivated me to finally finish this fantastic RPG and to really get into its characters and events. I’m especially proud of the review I wrote because it feels like my first foray into New Games Journalism, but this game is great for more reasons than that. A fine return to the world of hard RPGs that should be on every person’s queue to play.
Blame Uncharted 2 [Game Overview]
Oct 16th, 2009 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

I really meant to get this done last night when I got home from Eric’s, but I started playing Uncharted 2 instead (I’m so close to the ending!). I’ll probably review the game when I finish it and I’ve had a chance to really think about the game.

Other than that, I have a few bits and pieces of news for you, mostly having to do with, you guessed it, Left 4 Dead 2.

This week featured a reveal of the huge achievement set, which also revealed two campaigns, one set in a refinery and one set in a shopping mall. The achievements look really cool and I can’t wait to try and get the one where the player is required to finish a campaign on Realistic mode. That will be a tough one, I’m sure.

As for the campaigns, centering around a mall is a great idea, since it’s kind of a zombie movie staple. I told Eric that if Rochelle (who is a reporter) doesn’t make some sort of Frank West (from Dead Rising) comment about how she’s “covered wars, y’know,” I’m going to be super upset.

The refinery has potential to feature some really creepy zombie encounters, especially since it’s supposed to be filled about waist high with water. When Valve released the Crash Course expansion campaign for Left 4 Dead, they added in the ability for zombies to crawl under objects very quickly and I can’t imagine facing zombies hiding in the water and springing out to attack me.

Another interesting discovery was that one of the common uncommon, the infected CEDA, will have bile bombs on them, which seem to be boomer vomit that you can throw and attract a zombie horde attack. There’s an achievement for attacking a tank with this, but I see it being a really cool way to handle some of the encounters, kill special infected (probably overkill), and, most importantly, grief other players who are annoying the heck out of me.

Those of us who pre-ordered will also be getting our hands on the L4D2 demo on 27 October, much sooner than I’m sure most expected. The general release demo will launch on 3 November and the game itself will launch on 17 November.

Last in the news about Left 4 Dead, the L4D2 boycott has officially ended because the boycotters “got what they were looking for from Valve with the release of Crash Course.” The boycott was the stupidest thing ever, so I’m glad that the crowd, realizing that L4D2 was gonna be sweet, decided to end it under whatever pretenses they could.

That’s all for this week, but I’ll be sure to have more varied news next week.

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