SIDEBAR
»
S
I
D
E
B
A
R
«
What I’ve Been Playing/Watching/Reading [GO/IB/FB/BT]
Jun 1st, 2011 by Dan

Totoro(rororo)

Here’s another breakdown of the media I’ve been consuming:

Video Games:

I haven’t talked about these for a long while, so I’m just gonna go over recent history, post-robbery.

L.A. Noire – Just beat it last night. I think that the game premise shows a lot of potential, but the true masterpiece will be any game that piggybacks off of this one. Why did they feel the need to open world this? It only creates dissonance between the character as portrayed and the character they want him to be. Also: interrogations are neat, but very tough.

StarCraft, Mass Effect, and Portal (all part 2) – Been meaning to fix some choices that my Paragon Shepard made in ME2 before ME3, so I was getting some of that done. Portal 2 multiplayer with Eric was lots of fun. Now I can’t wait for the new “test” this summer. I hope they’re a lot harder. Played SC2 with Min and Simon. We did alright as long as I wasn’t goofing off trying to Hellion rush the enemy. Turns out those flamethrower cars don’t have AA. Fancy that.

Movies:

Bridesmaids – Super hilarious. Kristen Wiig is one of my favorite comedic actors and it’s great to see her find success. I hope this means good things for female-led comedies (no more Heigl, please! (unless she’s in an Apatow movie)). Worth watching.

My Neighbor Totoro – How did I get to be 25 without seeing this movie? The landmark Studio Ghibli feature was heartwarming and fun and just awesome. A sincere movie that is hard not to love.

Love and Other Drugs – I constantly recommend films to friends, but I don’t often watch their recs if I know they’re not gonna be very good. Since that’s kind of hypocritical of me I took this recommendation despite knowing in advance that the movie wasn’t very good. Guess what, it isn’t, but I also knew it had a lot of Anne Hathaway’s boobs in it, so I guess I win anyway.

Animal Kingdom – Australian gangster film. Well done, but not quite as interesting as I was hoping it would be. Gotta love the accents, but creepy uncles are always weird…and creepy.

TV:

Tremé – Season 2 started and I fell about six weeks behind. Watched the first episode last night. I still love these characters, but without the urgency of post-Katrina I have even less of an idea of what the characters are doing now. I kind of like it a little more, but that may just be familiarity. The show also continues to impress with its strong music.

The Office – I’m about two episodes in and Ricky Gervais is proving to be the absolute worst boss possible. Micheal Scott has nothing on how cringeworthy Gervais’ David Brent is. Martin Freeman’s Tim is also meaner than Jim in the US The Office, but I think I like his early character more. I’m interested in seeing this through, it’s only about six hours, after all, and I like succinct series.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – The opposite of succinct. Don’t think I’ve mentioned that I started watching this show at all. I’m about four episodes into season 2. S1 was pretty good, but we’ve advanced much further in television since then. It’s so very 90s and I think that Joss Whedon is a better writer now than he was then. S2 opened with an unbearable episode with Buffy being super emo, but it moved on to be as enjoyable as S1. I’m not 100% on board with this show like other people might be, but it’s been solid.

Mad Men – I’m 2/3 of the way through the first season and I’m really enjoying it. So far I’ve been most impressed by the superb acting. Don Draper and the rest of the cast are all so nuanced and interesting that I can’t help but silence the annoyance at the period-appropriate mistreatment of women and the job-appropriate philandering. Fantastic show so far.

Parks and Recreation – What a stellar third season. I wish NBC hadn’t given us two straight weeks of two episodes because then I’d still have P&R for a little bit longer. This is, without a doubt, the finest comedy on television right now. I can’t wait until it’s on Netflix Instant so that I can watch it with Min and Tiffany (that’s right, watch it two more times!).

Community – A season of ups and downs ends on some solid up episodes. Throw in the promise of a reduced role for Chevy Chase (thank you Dan Harmon, he was getting old) and I’m pretty hyped for this show (not as hyped as I am for S4 of Parks and Rec).

Glee – What a weak season. No, seriously, it was super weak. The magic and fire of season 1 has been lost, no doubt thanks to how successful this show has been. Risks are gone, the music is much more poppy and less classic/Broadway, and the writers keep pushing the angsty relationships of the characters to the forefront as if anyone cares. Guess what, Ryan Murphy, we don’t care about Finn and Rachel! We really don’t. Every time I want to quit this show they manage to do one number that keeps me hooked, but this season hasn’t made me want to buy any recordings. Original songs? No thanks. What was up with the finale? Where was the spectacle? There were barely any numbers in it! I’ll probably watch next year, but you’re on notice, Glee.

Books:

The Hunger Games – Think Koshun Takami’s Battle Royale, but Young Adult. Dystopian future with annual deathmatches between 24 teenagers. Brutal, but with a heart. The series is being built up to be the next big thing and I think it’s worth it. A quick, snappy read with enough violence in it to hide the fact that it’s kind of a book for girls. Fight your sexism on this and give it a try. You might enjoy it.

The Last Best League – A book about the Cape Cod baseball league as the last real talent pool before kids start their professional career. I’m a little biased against New England and their overenthusiastic love of themselves and everything they do, so I don’t get into the flowery fellating of the region. Still, I like a good non-fiction baseball drama. Still early in it, should be interesting.

A Visit From the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel lived up to the hype I’d seen. The book is not an easy read, every chapter is from a new perspective, with different styles (including one that is a powerpoint printout) and different characters (they all tie into one person, in particular, but some have characters who are never mentioned again), but it’s an interesting look at the way time changes everyone and everything and the way that the world itself is changing as we hurdle onward in time. Definitely a good book.

2010 in Video Games [GO]
Jan 5th, 2011 by Dan

The Super Potato Exterior in Akihabara

Super Potato in Akihabara

As is typical of me, I played a ton of video games this year. Here’s a listing of what I played along with a few short (or long) words on each game. For the most part, this list is restricted to games released in 2010 unless I did not play them until this year. It’s also mostly in chronological order, with some skips here and there.

Mother 3: Definitely did not come out in 2010. I reviewed it already, but let me say that there is significant beauty to this game. Affecting and heartwrenching, this is easily among the best games I played this year. Do not play this on an emulator because the music-timing of the battles is deliciously fun and the time lag of emulation makes that impossible to experience.

Mass Effect 2: The first AAA game of the year. My review trended toward disappointing, mostly due to the way that story was handled in this iteration compared to part 1. Still, an undeniably great game whose heist-story mechanics and plot are unique and interesting in the gaming landscape. I can’t wait for part three in November.

Heavy Rain: Almost as exciting as actually doing the chores your imaginary wife forces you to do in real life. The execution just missed with this one and its plot twist was asinine and felt cheap. If you’re allowed to hear the thoughts of the protagonists, but you fail to provide a logical reason as to why that person is lying to us (himself?), you’ve lost me.

Pro Yakyu Spirits 2010 (Professional Baseball Spirits 2010): My baseball game of the year. I love taking the Carp to the Japan Series each year. I spent countless hours developing my franchise. This game was worth every dollar I spent importing it.

Final Fantasy XIII: Thoroughly disappointing. Expect more from me on this (edits from the future!), but SqueEnix really dropped the ball something fierce here. A game that suffered from complete lack of creative direction. Final Fantasy XIII is the head of the snake eating its own tail that has become SqueEnix.

Yakuza (1, 2, )3: Did not put that much time into this one, but I did play its prequels to completion. Fiercely Japanese in design, I just haven’t found the time to get deep into this gem. I’m sure it’s actually pretty great.

Mega Man 10: It lacked some of MM9’s magic (partially by being easier), but still a razor sharp example of why the Blue Bomber captured our hearts in the first place. Pump Man’s power, while heavily reminiscent of Leaf Man, is deliciously fun to play with. Using it again Solar Man was also tons of fun for me.

Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilve: It was fun to go back to the best two games in the series. The Pokewalker was stupid, but I have high hopes for Black & White. These games are easily dismissed as rehashes, but they’re still white-hot proof that JRPG design doesn’t have to be needlessly complex to be addictive and elegant.

Alien Swarm: Valve gave me this game for free. I played it maybe twice. Decent fun, but I’d rather play Left 4 Dead 2.

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey: Never beat this game. SMT continues to be ridiculously tough and legitimately mature in their presentation of mankind’s eternal struggles against its darker tendencies. Maybe it’s the first-person dungeon crawling, but something about this game prevents me from ever picking it up most days.

Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse: I’m lumping all five episodes into one entity. I find TellTale adventure games to be workmanlike in quality. With the exception of the last two or three episodes of Tales of Monkey Island, they lack the extra oomph that could make them truly great. That said, The Devil’s Playhouse was the most hilarious Sam & Max iteration yet. From Sam & Max’s insistence on pronouncing General Skun’kape as skunk-ape to their episode-wide fight over what to call the menacing Sam clones (Samulacra or Doggleganger?), these games were absolute riots. Now if only TellTale could figure out how to make them great games as well…

Monster Hunter Tri: One gaming session. The sword swipes pack so much friction it’s beautiful. Despite this, never picked it up again. Got a sick black classic controller out of it. Now if only I played Wii more often…

Super Street Fighter IV: Played the hell out of last year’s iteration. Opted to play other games since it was structurally similar to vanilla Street Fighter IV. Kind of wish I’d played it a lot more this year.

Green Day: Rock Band: Played it once, exported the tracks to Rock Band 2/3, never felt the need to boot it up again. Despite only 1 hour of playtime, unlocked an achievement. Fixing the ‘D’ rank that came as a result on Giant Bomb is the only reason I will ever boot this up again.

Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies: Practically perfect in almost every way that a JRPG should be. I understand why the story was left more generic than years past, but the lack of an interesting narrative is what kept me from finishing.

DeathSpank: Played the demo once. Bought it on PC to support Ron Gilbert. Might actually play it one day. It seemed funny.

Comic Jumper: Hilarious in a juvenile way, I slogged through the repetitive, mediocre gameplay just to see more of this game. I think Min “played” this the right way. He watched me beat it and got to enjoy the presentation without having to touch a controller.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty: Am I the only person who hates what they did at the end of this story? Sure, it has legitimately far-reaching consequences for the sequel, but I think they’re also legitimately less interesting. Still, as perfectly constructed a game as they come. I fell out of playing it, but it definitely feels like I could pick it up at any time and have fun with it.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game: A loving tribute to River City Ransom wrapped up in a franchise that I really enjoy. Sounds like a recipe for success to me. Loads of fun, but, like most middling brawlers, starts to wear on you toward the end as there’s not enough variety introduced in later levels.

Worms: Reloaded: Love Worms. Loaded this up once and never did it again. I’ve hated all Worms interfaces since Worms 2, mostly because they obfuscate and hide customization options more and more as they transition toward console friendliness. I wish they’d put more effort into their PC version.

Dead Rising 2: Case Zero, Dead Rising 2, and Dead Rising 2: Case West: I’ll lump these all together since they are mostly the same game spread out into chunks. The prologue and epilogue (Zero and West, respectively) are just small and feature-gimped enough that they lack the oomph of the full retail release. Dead Rising 2 itself was everything I wanted it to be. A more robust co-op system would be all it needed to be top tier, but I still had loads of fun with it. As a bonus, Min and Dead Rising 2 taught me how to play Texas Hold ‘Em this year.

Civilization V: You probably saw my review where I hated on the terrible AI. I haven’t played since they patched/fixed it, but if they did it right, this game could totally fall back within my good graces. I do sincerely love this game, it’s just not what I hoped it would be and, in its present form, not as good as IV.

Rock Band 3: Harmonix went and made a perfect Rock Band game. Now all I’ve got to do is get my hands on a pro-guitar and I might actually learn something practical from a game that lets me indulge in all my favorite music.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale: Ever wanted to run a JRPG item shop? This indie game translated from Japan is charming and fun, but I haven’t had the time to devote myself to it yet in 2010.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West: So good until the end. Can a stupid ending mar an otherwise good game? Yeah, kinda. I still loved it for the great acting (weird to say, right?), but stupid ending + sub-Uncharted 2 traversal-style gameplay mires this one in the mediocre bin. The fighting system could also have used a little less frame-lock in its animations (is that what this is called?). Can’t count how many times I died because I was stuck in a seconds-long super attack aimed at the air.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn: Unparalleled artistic vision ties this game together. I haven’t put too much time in, but it seems super easy. I want to play with a friend to get the most out of this. What do you say, Min?

Super Meat Boy: Juxtaposing Kirby and Super Meat Boy is wrong on so many levels. One is like chamber music. Beautiful, complex, but not so complex it’s tough to listen to. The other is kick-you-in-the-teeth, bite off a squirrel head, make you a man heavy metal. Super Meat Boy is so deliciously crunchy in every way that it might be the best game game on this list. Where Starcraft II is perfect with a Beatles-type polish, Super Meat Boy is The Clash; unabashedly punk rock. I love this game. It’s so addictive and fun.

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX: Did I say Super Meat Boy was perfect? Pac-Man CE DX (PMCEDX) is video gaming distilled to its primal essence. Eat a whole train of 30 ghosts and I dare you not to feel primitive fun stir deep within you. Words cannot express how great this game is in bite-sized chunks.

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge: Is it cheating to count a re-release? This is probably the greatest adventure game ever now with a commentary track recorded by the big three: Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman, and Tim Schafer.

Poker Night at the Inventory: Strong Bad is unbelievably annoying, but banter between Max, Heavy Weapons Guy, and Tycho are always a joy. The second half of this year’s poker lessons were learned here. Now if only I could get straight flush and four-of-a-kind hands so that I can 100% the achievements in this game!

Back to the Future: The Game: The voice acting and atmosphere in this game are both spot on. Unfortunately I hit a game breaking bug and had to start over. That sucked.

Limbo: First played this on 31 December, so it still counts. Deeply atmospheric, but darkly disturbing and difficult for me to stomach more than once a day. I want to go more into that in another post. Unfortunately for the game, I think the controls are a touch floaty, which I mostly find frustrating because I need to beat it dying fewer than 5 times for an achievement.

And that was 2010 in video games (for me). I missed some huge ones (Super Mario Galaxy 2, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, Call of Duty: Black Ops), but I think I got a good spread in there. Here’s to another great year in gaming for 2011.

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…

Daniel Floyd Returns! [Embedded Reporter/GO]
May 10th, 2010 by Dan

I put up a Daniel Floyd video early in this site’s life, so it always makes me happy to put his stuff up when he does something new.

His argument in the video is pretty sound and it makes me wish I touched more on morality meters in my Mass Effect 2 review. Oh well.

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

Been Busy! [Uncat]
Feb 18th, 2010 by Dan

I'm just as shocked that I didn't get my stuff done too, but work has been nuts

Sorry to keep delaying posts, but the rest of this week is super busy thanks to the recent blizzard, so I probably won’t have anything until next week. Don’t worry, the ME2 review should be about as epic as the Brütal Legend one to make up for the lack of posts.

Behind [Uncat]
Feb 16th, 2010 by Dan

3.14159 is all I know off the top of my head.

Blame Joker. It's totally not my fault.

I’m a little behind on my Mass Effect 2 review thanks to travel and having to finish that second playthrough. It’ll be up later tonight or Thursday and I might have something for WMQ tomorrow.

Mass Effect 2 Video Review [Embedded Reporter]
Feb 1st, 2010 by Dan

If you’re a real Giant Bomb fan, stick around to the end, Shepard.

Mass Effect 2 Impressions [Game Overview]
Jan 28th, 2010 by Dan

A little known series called Mass Effect just released its second iteration on the series this Tuesday. Since none of the major outlets seem to be covering it, I figured I’d give some impressions. Note that the screenshots were taken in windowed mode because my stupid computer didn’t want to actually capture images in fullscreen. Thanks computer!

I'm like a king overlooking his people

The bridge and CIC haven't changed too much, just got a new paint job...

So far the game is great. I’m loving all the dialog and the way that the shooting mechanics and powers all intermingle. It’s kind of a bummer that killing dudes doesn’t give me XP (only completing missions does), but I have a sneaking suspicion that it has to do with the way they balanced the game.

Since there’s an achievement for beating the game on Insanity (it’s actually insane that I care since I’ve got the PC version and that doesn’t even report achievements to anyone!), I decided to start my first playthrough on the highest difficulty level. It was cool that I didn’t have to beat the game once to unlock it in an effort to artificially extend my time with the game. Thanks for that Bioware!

Unfortunately, I seem to have made a LOT more work for myself by choosing to do this. Like Mass Effect, the chief way in which Insanity differs from easier difficulty levels is all in the enemy shields. There are three shield types in ME2, armor, barriers, and (bog-standard) shields representing the three main class types in the game, soldiers, biotics (adepts), and engineers. When an enemy has one of these shields up, it is invulnerable to certain powers. For example, an enemy with a barrier up cannot be thrown, pulled, or effectively singularitied. Instead I’ve got to use warp to lower its shields and allow myself to really use the fun stuff. Armor can be melted off with fire and shields can be overloaded by engineering-types. On easier difficulty levels, only the hardcore enemies have shields of any kind. On Insanity, every enemy has at least one shield type, mini-bosses have two, and bosses have two to three. It’s almost a grind, but it’s also fun to have to use powers and specific weapon types in concert to try and whittle down these barriers to the really fun stuff.

I also have a sneaking suspicion that there are more enemies in waves on Insanity, which is why they just went and got rid of kill XP instead of giving them even more shields (the Mass Effect 1 solution). The glut of enemies has proven lethal plenty of times as most major battles play out the same way for me the first time.

1. Walk into a room
2. Don’t take cover fast enough, lose my shields quick
3. Shotgun guy comes around the corner and kills me
4. Get into cover faster
5. Advance too fast, get flanked, get dead
6. Restart, clear the first wave, advance to fast, get killed
7. Repeat until I manage to not get blown up by the giant robot that they unleash upon me as the last part of the battle because dying means I have to START OVER

It’s tough, but it’s also a lot of fun and it’s at least taught me how to play the game better.

Even more fun is my crew. So far my crew is composed of the two I started with, Miranda and Jacob, one DLC recruit, Zaeed, and three actual recruits, Jack, Dr. Mordin, and Archangel (using the in-game nickname for him to avoid identity spoilers). Of these, the only real disappointment is Zaeed. Unlike Shale in Dragon Age, there was next to no effort put into his characterization. You can’t enter into dialog trees with him and his loyalty quest is unlocked from the get-go. He’s powerful, but boring.

The other crewmen are way more interesting and the backstories I’ve unlocked so far seem to be hinting at some interesting missions coming in the future. It seems like they interact with each other less than in ME and far less than Dragon Age, which is a bummer, but maybe I just need to put more time in.

One other oddity is that when they realized that they were hiring Yvonne Strahovski to play Miranda, they decided to make her character model look like her. It definitely looks like her, but it might be a little too far into the uncanny valley land, because it sometimes wigs me out.

Backtalk

I don't normally allow such disrespect aboard my ship, but for Yvonne Strah-I mean Miranda Lawson, I'm sure we can bend the rules a little.

The character modelers did a fantastic job capturing Strahovski’s face (see reference below), but it can also be jarring when you look at her realistic features and then talk to an alien or another human whose face is not quite so clearly modeled after a real person.

Yvonne Strahovski

For reference, this is Yvonne Strahovski

Another interesting character design choice is the ship’s computer, EDI. Now it may be saying more about me than the designers when I say this, but there’s something seriously wrong, in a Freudian sense, about the way that they chose to animate and represent EDI…

EDI

Tricia Helfer always seems to wind up playing AI-characters

Especially when she’s in a restrictive or angry mode and they change her color scheme to represent that. Hey, maybe it’s just me being juvenile, but it’s distracting.

Mad EDI

I'm just sayin', man...maybe you should see someone about these character designs.

Another small gripe has to do with the planet scanning mechanic in this game. Believe me, I’d much rather scan planets than drive the Mako around, but my gripe has more to do with the way that the planetary side missions are found. Instead of giving me a tutorial on how to find those missions, I get all sorts of on-screen instructions about how to find minerals and resources.

Scanning a planet

Way to put on-screen tutorial information for the half of this that is entirely intuitive...

That part is obvious. Having to figure out how to find an anomaly mission should not be so hard. EA and Bioware either need to start offering a manual online with Steam games (I couldn’t find one) or offer better resources for learning how to play the game. It’s pretty insane that I had to use Google to figure out how to find my side missions.

In case you’re wondering how, a white line will appear in the radar indicating which direction you should move to find the anomaly. When you’re close, a white dot will appear on the planet. Fire a probe and voila!

If it seems like I’m being nitpicky, it’s indicative of how much I enjoy the game and how it’s only the little things that bug me. I’m having tons of fun using singularity to create mini-black holes and then using warp with Miranda to pound my captured enemies and decimate their HP and setting them on fire with Dr. Mordin to finish them off. The game leaves me wanting to sink more hours in each day I play it and already has me excited for my renegade playthrough. Look for more impressions as they come.

Mass Effect 2 [Embedded Reporter]
Jan 25th, 2010 by Dan

Coming out tomorrow! I can’t wait!

»  Substance:WordPress   »  Style:Ahren Ahimsa