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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

Summer of Arcade, 1 G$ in Losses, Twisted Shadows, and More![Game Overview]
Jul 17th, 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.

There’s been a lot of news this week, so let’s get right down to it.

The Xbox Live Summer of Arcade schedule has been announced and it looks like there are some great games coming soon.

22 July – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time Re-Shelled – A 3D update of the classic arcade and SNES beat-em-up, this game could be fun, but then again, the 3D models just look so uninspired compared to the cartoon and their pixelated counterparts.

29 July – Marvel vs. Capcom 2 – The most famous of the Capcom vs. series, MvC2 was one of the worst kept secrets in video gaming. We’re all excited to see it arrive soon, even if the game makes absolutely no sense and is hectic as hell.

5 August – Splosion Man – Don’t know much about this platformer other than that 1up.com kind of likes it.

12 August – Trials HD – Some motorcycle racing platformer. :yawn:

19 August – Shadow Complex – Epic’s latest project was surprisingly not Gears of War related. This Metroidvania-style game has a lot of promise and a great pedigree. Will it deliver?

English Downloads

The English have figured out something before we did:

Music game downloads are becoming a significant share of music sales.

They’re looking into counting them on the downloads chart to try and track them a little better. I applaud their practical thinking.

My national pride (the 4th wasn’t that long ago) requires me to say, “Hey, at least we figured out dentistry first!” Sorry UK, nothing personal.

Trailer Time!

Some great trailers and videos about Mass Effect 2 and Uncharted 2.

40 Novels?!

While we’re in the vicinity of Bioware coverage, why not mention this alarming statistic about The Old Republic, Bioware’s upcoming (in 201X) MMO.

The good folks at Bioware claim that TOR will be as long as 10 KOTORs. Now, Knights of the Old Republic was a plenty long game, but the scope we’re talking here is, wait for it, forty (40!) novels worth of dialogue that’s ALL SPOKEN. That’s going to be a lot of audio.

L4D2 and Nerds

Has a week gone by since L4D2’s announcement that I haven’t talked about it?

EA and Valve have decided to show off the new game, specifically a campaign called “Swamp Fever,” at next week’s San Diego Comic-Con. This means I may have more news next week to post about. Good on you Valve and EA

Everything Old is New Again

Much has been said of the recent resurgence of the fighting and adventure game genres. The most recent Giant Bomb Bomcast (Downloadable Here) made a joke about how we were back in the 90s with the punchline being something like “All we need is for Starcraft and Diablo to come out again.”

Well Starcraft II is scheduled for a late 2009 launch, but analysts are starting to get skeptical (quite frankly, so am I), especially given statements by Blizzard itself. They want about four to six months to beta test the new game, but we’re already at a point where only five months remain before 2010.

My prediction: mid-2010.

Two Million?! USO!

Dragon Quest IX went and had two million pre-orders set for the game before launch. Guess what, it sold about two million. Lines weren’t as ridiculous as they were in prior years, but it was still something of an event.

I started reading an article on Kotaku about the launch and it didn’t quite feel like it was by Brian Ashcraft as my RSS reader said it was. It sounded more like…well, I watched a video on the story (good read) and pretty much knew by then that it was Tim Rogers. It’s worth reading and it provides a look at what a modern Dragon Quest launch is like in Japan now that players can just pre-order their games at local convenience stores.

UFC…yawn…

UFC president Dana White says “EA doesn’t give a fuck about mixed martial arts.” That makes two of us…

The real point of the story is that White tried to pitch the ridiculously well-selling UFC Undisputed 2009 to EA a few years ago, before MMA was big, and he was turned down. Now he says that if any fighter signs to be in EA’s upcoming MMA title (creatively entitled MMA), they can kiss the UFC goodbye.

This now makes for two (three, counting this one) more paragraphs about UFC than I ever want to see on this blog again, so I will close with Penny Arcade’s accurate rendition of every UFC match ever.

VIDEO GAME BREAK!

SOUR / 日々の音色 (Hibi no Neiro) MV from Magico Nakamura on Vimeo.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Get ready to say “That’s ridiculous.”

Modern Warfare 2, the sequel to Call of Duty 4, has a special edition coming out that includes functioning night vision goggles. The less said about how ridiculous that is, the better.

Club Nintendo Rewards

If you were a Platinum member of Club Nintendo last year, you can earn yourself a Punch-Out Wii download that will allow you to box Doc Louis, your personal trainer. It’s kind of crazy, but also way cool.

1 Beellion Dollars

You know how EA has that pesky monopoly on football games due to an exclusive deal with the NFL?

Well, according to an economist, that deal has cost gamers about $926 million due to lack of competition allowing EA to raise their prices.

EA thinks this is ridiculous and I kind of agree. Guess what, Mr. Economist? If 2K still had access to NFL licenses, they probably would have sold their game for $60 too.

Looks Neat and Shadowy

That dude, Michel Gagne, who’s famous for leaving Disney and making his own cartoons has got a game in the works and it looks beautiful. Watch:

The game is called Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet and it looks quite good and retro-tough. All of the footage is in-game, apparently, so it also looks pretty kicking.

Grand Slam: World Series Game 1
Oct 23rd, 2008 by Dan

We’ve reached the home stretch for the baseball season, so those of you who get bored of reading about baseball should only have a few more days left.

Game 1 did not go quite as well as I’d hoped, with the Rays losing to the Phillies 2-3 in a game that was well-pitched by both sides, just a little better by Hamels. Kazmir’s loss was sealed more or less early in the game after an Utley 2-run blast in the first and a Carlos Ruiz infield RBI that brought in Shane Victorino. He didn’t allow anything else, but the damage was done.

Which brings me to my next point: Kazmir in the post season is not as great as he is in the regular season. He’s given up too many homers and the Rays can’t necessarily deal with this against the Phillies. We’ll see what happens tonight!

Unrelated Note: I’m so pumped for the KOTOR MMO!!!

Game Overview/Food For Thought: Odds and Ends
Oct 21st, 2008 by Dan

I tell ya, it’s been a good long while since I’ve had to write a post that’s not really about baseball and it’s got me rather at a loss of what to do. Instead of focusing on one topic today, instead let’s look at a variety of things going on that I care about:

Peter Molyneux has got a problem. You see, he’s one of the movers and shakers in video game design and his ideas have more or less shaped the industry as a whole. For example, while you can argue that Ultima or Fallout did it first, Peter and his boys at Lionhead popularized the whole good vs. evil aesthetic that so pervades the medium right now with his landmark title Black & White. You can’t really argue that his game made it cool for the visual look of a character to change dynamically with alignment that Bioware eventually used in their epics Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect.

The problem though, comes when you realize that Peter is more of an ideas man. Black & White sold tons of copies, but was generally tepidly received or remembered due to its feel as more of a sandbox game or a tech demo. Its unfocused nature. The idea was gold, the game wasn’t there. Fable was promised to be an epic story where things you did from day 1, like planting a tree, would radically change the future. It didn’t. The list of things promised for Fable that weren’t delivered was so long that it became a media point to say that what Peter says doesn’t necessarily get into the game, no matter how enthusiastic and brilliant he may sound saying it.

Today I’ll be picking up my pre-order of Fable 2. Will it satisfy or will it fall short of his promises? You can be sure that I’ll let you know here once I have a solid conclusion.

Also on the table for today: I tried adding some Just Bunches to my Honey Bunches of Oats and I’d have to say the result was stellar. The addition of more bunches really makes the cereal better without overpowering the other elements. A great idea, but not one I’ll be repeating by buying another box of Just Bunches in the future.

Little Big Planet, if you hadn’t already heard, was delayed until next week due to a controversial music track included in the game. The game had, I should say, a track in which passages of the Qur’an were recited in the background. Muslims claim that it is offensive to include passages in the Qur’an in art, so Sony decided to push back the game’s release date and Media Molecule, the game devs, removed the track from the discs. Some say that Muslims need to learn to chill out if they want to be respected in the global, free world, others say that they’re in the right to ask that their religious texts not be used. I agree more with the former, but I also understand why Sony did what they did and I do think that they at least made a good business decision, since they get pretty good sales in the Middle East.

Game Overview: Post 16-Bit, Pre-Current Gen All-Stars
Jun 13th, 2008 by Dan

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

Due to some poor life decisions, I find myself stranded for five weeks without any video games. What’s a guy to do, right? Well, rather than just giving you some of the headlines from the week’s video game news in lieu of what I was planning to be gameplay impressions, reviews, and the like, I’ve instead started a five week “All-Stars” feature. Each week we’re going to look at a video game era and spotlight my top three games from that era. Each of these games will also receive a place setting at the prestigious “Table of Honor” feature that I’m working on. Here’s the weekly plan:

Week 1: 8-bit Console Era
Week 2: 16-bit Console Era
Week 3: Post-16-bit Console Era, Pre-Current Generation
Week 4: Pre-Current Generation PC Games
Week 5: Current Generation

Yeah, the categories are broad, particularly weeks three and four, but it’s how I want to do them, so get off my back!

The 16-bit era may have refined the gameplay of each generation prior to it, true modern game design didn’t officially begin until the release of the post-16-bit consoles with their 3-D capable processors. We’ll just pretend that Star Fox didn’t exist on the SNES for the sake of this point, but even if we do allow it, the 3-D effects in Star Fox, or on any system prior to the SNES, were primitive at best. The first real 3-D game with any influence on modern 3-D games was the launch title of the Nintendo 64, Super Mario 64. Everything from camera control to hub world design has been more or less ripped from this first, pioneering game to just about any other 3-D platformer and the conventions set forth by SM64 were even adopted by genres as distinctly different as RPGs.

Also debuting with the Nintendo 64 was analog control on the home console. Mario was able to walk or run dynamically based on how much pressure was applied to the control stick, and other companies took notice. Within a year or so, the Sony Playstation had its own dual analog stick control (two makes it better!), which initially seemed like a rip off, but was brilliant in conception as the second control stick allowed for the natural progression of the camera buttons into the camera stick. Dual analog controls led to the current incarnations of the console first-person shooter and the genre’s best attempt at mimicking the pinpoint precision of mouse and keyboard FPS control. Voice acting became prominent as developers moved away from cartridge media (some more begrudgingly than others :cough: Nintendo :cough:) onto the more spacious disc-based CDs and DVDs. In fact, games and gaming matured into the more cinematic experience we now enjoy based on the power increases this generation.

Surprisingly enough, the company that had been synonymous with the video game, Nintendo, faded into virtual obscurity with the Playstation replacing it as the industry leader. Late in this time period, we saw also saw the launch of the Microsoft Xbox and as we laughed at the bulky design, gigantic controllers, and relative lack of games available, save Halo (which I will go on record as saying I don’t really care for), Microsoft cooly and stealthy maneuvered into first place in terms of HD systems with its next console launch.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves with that last point, so let’s get back to the list. Our third place game takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…you meatbag. A blast from the past in taking place a whole 4,000 years before A New Hope, it’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

#3 Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Lucasarts knows one thing is constant about its fanbase: they will consume just about any piece of Star Wars-related media that they throw out there and that attention to detail is commonly expressed through the many mediocre video games that the company puts out. While the series has actually enjoyed a number of stellar titles, the prequel video game blitz had been taking its toll on consumers as the property was overexposed and not with a bevy of AAA titles.

Enter BioWare, a company you wouldn’t typically associate with the sci-fi genre (back then). They were best know, at this point, for Neverwinter Nights, a D&D-based dungeon crawling RPG, and Baldur’s Gate, another D&D based fantasy RPG. These are very highly regarded titles to this date, as old as they are, but I know many of us couldn’t help but wonder about how Knights of the Old Republic would turn out.

Not being a company to stray from what they do well, KotOR’s battle system is essentially a turn-based RPG based on, what do you know?, the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The interesting part about the engine is that it defaults to a game that is very much not turn-based. You can input commands for the character to carry out in their next “turn”, but the turns were relatively seamlessly hidden from the player, making it appear that the non-queued actions were being carried out on the fly. Couple this interesting and actually well-orchestrated battle mechanic with the ability to wield a one-handed or two-handed lightsaber or dual-wield one-handed lightsabers, throw in a couple of force powers, including that evil lightning thing that the Emperor does, and you had fanboys frothing at the mouth to get their hands on this game.

Which brings us to the story, which was, rather unlike the Lucas-penned prequels, nothing short of amazing. As mentioned before, our story begins 4,000 before A New Hope and two mega-powerful Sith Lords, Darth Revan and Darth Malak, were wreaking havoc on the Republic, as Sith Lords are wont to do. The Republic is able to decommission Revan, thanks to the powerful Jedi Knight Bastila Shan, but Malak was still out there terrorizing systems with vast resources at his disposal of a mysterious source.

So what does this have to do with you, the Player Character? First, you have to decide on a couple of things: your name, gender, appearance, you know, the basics, then you’re plopped right onto a Republic ship of some sort that Malak is assaulting to get his hands on Bastila. You meet up with Carh Onasi, Bastila escapes on to the surface somewhere, and you and Carth head down to the planet yourselves to look for her, starting your adventure. The greatest part about this narrative though is that you can partially control its direction. Many of the quests and sidequests have multiple solutions based on decisions that will affect your alignment. What’s this alignment deal? It’s the core of the Star Wars existence, Light Side and Dark Side. Basically, your decisions will net you Light or Dark points that will determine which force abilities your character eventually has available to him/her. Helping people out generally nets you Light points. Helping someone out, getting your reward, then killing all of the parties involved and looting their corpses usually nets you Dark side points. While the game lets you officially decide on your ending in a dialog tree near the finale, these actions that your character undertakes will affect the way your avatar is displayed on screen and the way that characters interact with the player character. Someone like the hilarious and very evil droid HK-47 will applaud the taking of innocent life, guilty life, uninvolved life, etc., but a goody two shoes like Bastila or Carth will be a quite the buzz kill as they criticize the mass murders you may choose to commit.

Speaking of characters, the batch in this game are about as good an ensemble cast as you can find. Sure, Mission Vao, T3-M4, and Juhani aren’t that interesting, but the rest of the cast delivers it strong, with HK-47’s performance making him the stand-out character in the entire Star Wars Universe for me (followed by the eminent Grand Admiral Thrawn (AKA Mitth’raw’nuruodo) and the super-cool Mara Jade and Talon Karrde (can you tell I love Zahn’s Expanded Universe books?)).

“Definition: Love is making a shot to the knees of a target 120 kilometers away using an Aratech sniper rifle with a tri-light scope…Love is knowing your target, putting them in your targeting reticule, and together, achieving a singular purpose against statistically long odds.”

-HK-47

Yeah, he’s that awesome.

All of this great characterization and gameplay would be for naught if BioWare hadn’t come up with an equally awesome plot for our beloved player character to run through. The tale relies very heavily on the plot twist that SPOILER ALERTyou are Darth Revan/SPOILER ALERT and that the battle where you were supposedly killed resulted in you simply being captured and the Jedi Order reprogramming your mind. This overarching story of the Star Forge combined with the mini-sagas taking place on each planet make for an excellent narrative structure that BioWare continues to implement in its other AAA sci-fi epic Mass Effect.

KotOR is probably the best Star Wars game I’ve ever played and among the top-notch RPGs I’ve ever played (rare for a Western RPG!). If you’ve never played it, you can pick it up for either the original Xbox or just play a slightly enhanced version for the PC or Mac. What are you waiting for? Go play it or I’ll send HK-47 after you!

Here’s some great HK-47 video, but beware, they contains spoilers (also, the second is from KotOR 2)

This next game will probably be the most controversial entry among all of the games I’ve elevated to this position. I’ll give you a few hints:

1. Its unveiling followed a proof of concept video shown at a prior trade show that was considered to be much cooler than the final product

2. Regardless of your opinion on this iteration in the series, it’s generally accepted that this game blows

3. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker VariousSee More The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker Various at IGN.com

#2 The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

I’m sure a good chunk of the Zelda fans out there are wondering “Why Wind Waker? Doesn’t Twilight Princess qualify for this era?”

Yes, Twilight Princess does qualify for this era. Unfortunately, I think it’s uninspired and it suffers from lack of cohesive focus. When I played TP I felt like I was going through the motions to complete what was supposed to be an awesome game. It was definitely a more mature story and arguably slightly more interesting in execution, but it just felt lifeless and like Nintendo was just cranking out a mature LoZ title just to appease the fans after Wind Waker. Miyamoto genuinely thought that Wind Waker was a great game and I think he was seriously affected by the US fan backlash over what he felt was where the Zelda series should live. It kind of reminds me of Metal Gear Solid 2. Taken from a rather biased article written by Jeremy Parish of 1up.com, I found this quote:

“Kojima supposedly once said of Metal Gear Solid 2, ‘This is my Metal Gear. If it is to be destroyed, I will do it my way.'”

Parish admits directly after the statement that this quotation is probably apocryphal, but the general idea is still there. In Japan Kojima didn’t bother to hide that Raiden was the main character because he knew they wouldn’t mind him so much. In the states, Raiden does not have a very good reputation and a lot of gamers were upset about being duped.

This bait-and-switch happened to a much lesser degree with Wind Waker. Back in Spaceworld 2000, the aforementioned proof-of-concept video was shown.

This is what people began to expect from the next Zelda game. Miyamoto, perhaps remembering that Zelda was based on his childhood adventures in the countryside, seemed to want to bring Zelda back to its more innocent roots. The art style of WW is strongly reminiscent of A Link to the Past and the atmosphere is much less serious at times than that of Ocarina of Time (which is also amazing, but just doesn’t make the list, I like this one more).

The moral of the story: don’t make Miyamoto do what he doesn’t want to do. Otherwise you end up with a soulless game like TP instead of WW.

Speaking of WW, the game starts off by tying back to the Ocarina of Time, but this is definitely not the Hyrule that you once knew. In fact, it’s not even really Hyrule at all. The people of this world live on islands within the Great Sea. After your sister is kidnapped for looking too much like Zelda, you set out with some pirates to save her. Along the way you get a boat, explore dungeons, etc. Typical Zelda fare.

SPOILERS

The story does get good though, as you eventually discover that the pirate captain you’ve been gallivanting with on occasion is actually the reincarnation of Princess Zelda, holder of the Triforce of Wisdom! You, naturally are the reincarnation of Dan (what? I always rename Link), so you’ve got the Triforce of Courage. This leaves the Triforce of Power, which, as always, is in the possession of the evil Ganondorf. You discover your true identities underwater in the game’s surprise twist. It’s unclear precisely what happened, but at some point the threat of Ganondorf was so great that the only way to defeat him was to call forth the Great Sea to submerge Hyrule and Ganondorf once and for all. The King of Hyrule, AKA the ship you’ve been sailing around in the whole game, was still alive, but sealed beneath the waves while Ganondorf had mysteriously escaped. Once you fully recover the Triforce of Courage, you confront Ganondorf, who extracts the Triforces from Zelda, Dan, and himself, and claims that whomever touches the Triforce will get a wish granted, his being the restoration of Ganondorf-controlled Hyrule. Before he can make a wish, the King of Hyrule touches it and wishes that Hyrule and Ganondorf be washed away and for Link and Zelda to escape. Link and Zelda turn Ganondorf to stone to keep him from escaping, water pours into the previously sealed-off Hyrule, and the great kingdom is erased from history.

/SPOILERS

Aside from being my favorite LoZ game story, I think that the Great Sea is my favorite LoZ overworld. Sure, it’s a little dull sometimes to sail around the map with the whole vast expanse of blue, but it’s also calming and fun at the same time. You see, you set the wind direction and you just put up your sails and move. Every little quadrant of the map features at least one, but typically more secrets and challenges and the whole island design allowed pre-Mario Galaxy development because each island could be specifically tailored to challenge different aspects of your arsenal of equipment and moves.

Sailing is fun, the story is fun, the gameplay is fun (but WAY too easy) and, at the end of the day, isn’t that what really matters?

I remember seeing this sucker in the movie theaters:

This Japanese commercial emphasizes the stark contrast between how Zelda is marketed in the East and West. Our commercial has that dark and edgy look while the Japanese one is more whimsical in presentation:

The top game on my list for this era is one that I actually finished fairly recently. While some may argue that there might be bias because it’s the most recent of these games that I’ve played, those people are wrong. What is this game? Here’s the only hint you’ll get: within this game you will experience pain, fear, end, fury, sorrow, and joy. The one that doesn’t make much sense is probably the giveaway that I’m talking about Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Subsistence).

#1 Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

I’ve already waxed quite poetically about the game and story of MGS3 in my review, so if you skipped that guy to avoid spoilers, don’t bother reading it now, but that’s a good chunk of the validation for why this game sits at the #1 spot.

Still, I figure I should expand a bit about what makes this game so great. More than any other Metal Gear game to date (that I’ve played), Metal Gear Solid 3 absolutely embodies the tagline of “Tactical Stealth Action.” As you slink through the Russian jungle to achieve your mission, you really do feel like this is how it would theoretically be done. Naked Snake is also a great character. He hasn’t seen as much action as Solid at this point in his life, so he’s more naive and pure. Seeing him develop into the persona of Big Boss is truly moving as you see why both Naked and Solid end up making the decisions they later make in life after growing tired of the endless manipulations of governments.

The game succeeds on all fronts and truly deserves to stand out as the best this era ever produced.

Here’s a parody video highlighting one of the other characters as the actual protagonist:

Yet another parody movie regarding the end of the game:

Oh man, what a great Japanese commercial:

So that’s that for the Post 16-bit, Pre-Current Gen top three. Keep tuning in this week to see what didn’t quite make the list, but was still awesome!

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