Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Review

I have spent over 130 hours playing the Mass Effect series, and I truly think that this story is one of the best science fiction epics of all time, or at least the best story within a video game. Throughout the series, you face increasingly critical situations where you are the last hope for not only humanity, but all the races of the galaxy as you try to find some way of defeating an artificial race of giant aliens bent on destroying all sentient life in the galaxy: the Reapers. I use the word “you” instead of “John Shepard,” because Mass Effect 3 can bring your own morality into question as the game encourages you to consider the consequences of each decision. While each game in the Mass Effect series has delivered amazing stories, the third installment brings to a close the story you have crafted from the beginning. Mass Effect 3 delivers the extraordinary tale of one man (or woman if you prefer) bearing the burden of the entire galaxy while giving the player a fantastic action shooter with the perfect balance of RPG elements. This game is by far the best game of the series, of the year, and one of my personal favorites of this past decade.

Since this is the third installment of the series, most of the battle systems and RPG elements are familiar. However, these elements have been tweaked and improved upon as well. The weapons and armor have different upgrades and customizations that improve damage, accuracy, etc. While the biotic powers have more branches of ability choices to provide more options to fit any play style. As an Engineer, I relied more on my biotic powers than weapons. I had abilities that let me create a combat drone or combat turret in a blink that supplemented my arsenal, yet I still carried around a lightweight assault rifle and a pistol because it suited me. The combat is as exhilarating as ever and still drives the narrative through communicator conversation and small talk with your team. However the enemies generally keep you from sitting still for very long. The AI forces you to think and change tactics every time a new enemy is introduced, or when they change their approach. Instead of feeling like a pause in the story to fight off some bad guys, you’re given a good challenge that makes all your customization and upgrading worth the investment.

The story is one that is almost is too big to fit in this game. There are some aspects of the story and gameplay that can go unnoticed if the player has not completed the  first and second Mass Effect games. So much of the buildup and drama come from the previous games and how your decisions affect what happens in ME3. There were many times where I actually sat the controller down and thought for a minute because I was considering the implications of my decision and what it meant going forward. Instead of making a decision based on how it would better my score in the game, I was considering the implications of saving a race from extinction or stopping a war to wipe out a species. By the time I was finished, I was truly sad to see this story end. Through my many hours of talking to the characters and learning more about them, I had invested time and emotion into these characters as if they were real. By the end of the game, I was attached to these characters, feeling sad when saying solemn goodbyes and knowing that that a nod of respect from one of my crew members could be their last. While your paragon(good) and renegade(bad) score still affect your options in conversation, they combine together to give you a reputation score that is the sum of your choices. This is a good choice on Biowares’ part, as in a way, it subconsciously drives home the idea that your game experience is the sum of your decisions, both good and bad. In my play through of each game, I was mostly paragon, but there were some choices in which I went with the renegade option because my conscience actually played a role in my decisions. I actively chose based off my own morality and character, instead of going paragon across the board. This is the best example of how the game delivers truly great narrative and character development through not only character interaction and dialogue choices, but also putting the player in the “hot seat” and making them decide how the story plays out. That’s why you really develop a relationship with your crew and have an emotional investment by the time you’re done… because you spent so much time personally crafting each relationship through every dialogue choice and action you made.

Throughout the game, the story presses the conviction that the galaxy is on the teetering edge of destruction. As Shepard, you are tasked to unite the galaxy in the war against the reapers. However, sometimes you really don’t feel like you’re saving the galaxy. Often, I felt like an errand boy doing favors for various ambassadors to get the help I needed. But every time I did a favor or solved someone’s’ problem, I found one more favor that must be done in order to get aid. This-temporarily-turned into a cycle of “favors for favors” between politicians while I frequently received increasingly grave reports of how bad the situation on earth was. Fortunately these favors put me in the middle of battles and discussion that shaped the fate of the galaxy. Every set piece and large conflict made me shed a tear or stare in awe as I watched the results of my choices. One of the main hubs in the game, The Citadel, constantly changes as the war continues, and you constantly find new quests and tasks to complete. Sometimes I found side missions simply by standing and listening to a conversation that I triggered by walking near someone. This applies even to non-quest related conversation. Sometimes you walk by and hear a conversation take place, and each time you come back and walk by them you hear another part of the conversation: another part of the story. Every little event or story or conversation drives home the grim times that you are in. Even the scanning you do in reaper controlled systems-inconsequential as it may be-shows off the state of the galaxy while giving you an opportunity to net experience points and credits. Not only does Bioware do a great job of introducing new characters and flesh them out, they bring old characters back like Garrus and Liara and provide even more reason for you to like the characters and care about them. As I keep mentioning, every little detail drive home the story and theme throughout the game and its major (and minor) set pieces.

Throughout this review I haven’t spoke much to Mass Effect 3’s flaws. That’s because what few flaws it has are quite small and inconsequential in comparison to the mountain of successes Bioware has. Throughout my play through, I did notice some frames per second lag or a few texture rendering problems. However, as I look at these problems I tend to think that this isn’t a flaw or bug that Bioware didn’t fix. I think it is proof that games are getting almost too large for current technology to keep up. I noticed similar things in games like Batman: Arkham City, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Each game was quite large in scope, magnitude, and size on a disc. Mass Effect 3 comes in a two disc format for the 360, and I think through playing the game, it shows how much the developers are really pushing these machines to their limit. I can’t say the PS3 is having the same problem, but the 360 is definitely being pushed to its technical limits through games like ME3. On another point, I think the dialogue circle is something that should be revised. Generally you figure out after the first few conversations that the top right option is the paragon or “good guy” option, the bottom right one is the renegade or “jerk” option, the middle is somehow “riding the fence”, and everything on the left is informational. Sometimes the placement of the dialogue choice doesn’t actually reflect the sentiment of what is said. It’s not necessarily a flaw in the design of the wheel or something that really affects gameplay, but it is displaying the fact that even though Bioware has given us control over the story and conversation in an innovative way, there is still room for improvement. Bioware has done a fantastic job with this game in so many areas and it isn’t perfect. But it comes as close as any other game has to being the best it could be.

The multiplayer side of Mass Effect 3 is quite interesting and fun. It gives the generic wave defense “Horde Mode” gameplay a new twist by using weapons and biotics fighting the various enemies from the ME Universe. For something that could have been tacked on to satisfy the publisher, Bioware did a good job in creating a fleshed out multiplayer experience, while tying it into the story of the game. As more and more systems are invaded by the reapers, your Galactic Readiness is measured (in the single player story) by the recourses you acquire through quests and the various areas fighting off the reaper invasion. The more your readiness is increased, the better off you are and at 100% readiness you unlock different endings.  Here’s where the multiplayer comes in. You are in those key areas and your squad has to defend against the enemy waves to finish the mission. By doing so your overall Galactic Readiness increases as does you characters’ level letting you put more skills into your biotic powers and giving you credits to buy “Equipment Packs”, the games way of getting upgrades and new weapons. While the packs contain different upgrades, items, and boosts and is incredibly useful, it is woefully random. You could be using a sniper rifle and an assault rifle, and get packs with only 2 or 3 useful items or upgrades that can be applied to your weapons, essentially making your purchase worth half or less of what you were originally intended. I’m not to comfy with the idea of using Microsoft points or in game credits to purchase these packs, but I like even less that these packs aren’t guaranteed at all to give you anything that could be really useful. Usually you get a few useful things like med packs or shield regenerators, but when you really want a new scope for you sniper and get an extended clip for a shotgun, that can be more that a little annoying. The gameplay itself is quite good and fun to play around with for a few hours, especially when you want to get the 100% to get a different ending in the game. However I wouldn’t expect to be playing any more than a few weeks.
While there has been some heated discussion about the ending, I tend to like it overall. While the “multiple” endings were really just the same ending tweaked with a few different cinematic scenes and color changes, The ending is good and made me think about the choices I had made up to that point and was as riveting as the events that led up to this point. I agree that there should be more different endings that would be based on your overall score and the decisions from all three games, but I can only imagine how difficult that would be, and how many different “endings” that would make. In the end the ending is what the artists have given us and as fans we either like or dislike it. Personally, I am okay with the ending, but not enthusiastic about seeing the same ending tweaked a little to make it “different.”

Verdict: This game has brought me many emotional highs and lows that I never thought I would experience in a video game. Pleasantly surprised, I am still awed by the amazing story they conveyed so well through every aspect of this game, from mechanics and action, to conversation and relationships with each character. And I still stand by the ending Bioware has given us. Even with its flaws, I appreciate the fact that it made me think and really ask myself questions I otherwise wouldn’t consider if the game hadn’t been so amazing. If you like a good story, like Deus Ex(and Human Revolution), and are willing to invest the time in the series, then I say give this game a try. The only real problem is that I can’t really recommend this game without giving a caveat that anyone who is interested should play Mass Effect 1&2 first to really appreciate the full experience this series has to offer. Even so, this game should serve as a barometer for how this medium can convey a moving story and create a world as fantastic as Star Wars or Lord of The Rings. This is truly one of the closest things to a “perfect game” that I have been able to find since I started playing them.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Dear Esther Video Review

For this month's video review, the Colonel and myself dive into the critically acclaimed Dear Esther, a quirky PC title that has the community abuzz. It seems the Colonel has been deeply moved by the experience, so much so that his parts are an homage to the game, but I remain unconvinced.

Find out what the verdict is on this Half Life 2 mod turned indie game!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Asura's Wrath Review

Before San Diego Comic Con 2011, I had never heard of Asura or his wrath. Luckily, Capcom deemed this game worthy of sinking some funds into, and I was drawn to their colorful booth at the back of the exposition hall. A screaming chamber, lines of demo machines, and the draw of a free hat were more than enough to get me playing. I found myself enamored with the art style, controls, and gameplay almost immediately. Were my initial impressions of the game accurate, or was I simply dazzled by marketing shenanigans?

Have you ever watched anime? An intro comes on, with a short bump to and from commercial, ending on a freeze frame with “TO BE CONTINUED…” written at the bottom? Maybe tons of yelling and having deep conversations while fighting? Then you’ve played Asura’s Wrath.

I am being 100% serious when I say Asura’s Wrath is the most anime game of all time. For God’s sake, the game is even broken up into episodes and the art style is reminiscent of shows like Dragon Ball Z or Fist of the North Star. If you enjoy anime you need not even read the rest of this review, just go and pick it up—this game was made for you. 

This reminiscence to anime is both a boon and a curse, as Asura’s Wrath oftentimes feels like less of a game and more like an interactive series. Quick-time events and long, sweeping cut scenes drive the plot with quick five- to ten-minute breaks for a fight or two in each episode. Though I would usually grow weary of the low play time, the breaks between episodes cut the large periods of non-play well and make it feel less like the PS3 movie that is Metal Gear Solid 4. Whereas MGS4’s cut scenes felt oppressive and boring, Asura’s Wrath feels more like watching something entertaining, but getting to interact with it. The episode system helps this cause immensely. Each episode is a small, easily digestible part of the story with parts of action, bits of narrative, and each has a nearly self-contained story arc that fits into the larger narrative.

Speaking of narrative, if a game is too cut scene heavy, it must have a good story, right? I have a feeling this point may be polarizing, as Asura’s Wrath’s plot is not for everyone. I quite enjoy the story—it is simple, emotion driven, and does not get bogged down in details. Asura is a demigod who was betrayed by his comrades. After framing him for murder, killing his wife, and kidnapping his daughter, he is unceremoniously thrown from a space station and left to collide with the earth and die. He then claws his way out of the underworld to exact his revenge and quench his wrath by killing his betrayers and getting his daughter back. He is essentially a mix of Kratos from God of War and Liam Neeson in Taken thrown into a scenario Tarantino could have made up. The actions, characters, decisions, and battles are all incredibly over-the-top and quirky, and that’s not a style for everyone. It’s not unlike Bayonetta, come to think of it—a game whose fans are as rabid as its detractors. If you can enjoy the game for what it is and try not to take it too seriously, the story is quite engrossing.

Come to think of it, Asura’s Wrath has gameplay partially similar to Bayonetta as well. The game features three distinct kinds of battle—brawling, shooting, and quick-time. Given an arena in which to fight, Asura takes down baddies with a combination of physical attacks, specials, and counters in a similar style to God of War or Devil May Cry. The combat is smooth and fluid and the only real problem I found with it is not being able to press the counter buttons quickly enough, though that mas more to do with my lazy thumbs than the developers. Shooting is regrettably less polished. Asura’s Wrath is a beautiful game, but one that keeps the screen very busy at all times. This crucial fact makes the on-rails shooting sections significantly more difficult as your eyes do not automatically focus in on enemies. By loading up the screen with backgrounds that are too loud, or icons that are not needed, aiming becomes quite difficult, which puts a larger emphasis on blindfire than strategy.

I found myself constantly firing and homing in at random in nearly every shooting scenario. It was fun, but definitely not as fun as I would like it to be. The quick-time events are some of the best I’ve seen in a game, as the button layouts were consistent and joystick motions made sense. The game allows you enough time to press the buttons, but not too much so as to decrease the sense of urgency. Overall, the gameplay is quite fun, there’s just not nearly enough of it, as it comprises less than 50% of the time spent engaged in the title.

One egregious error on the developers’ part was the addition of a True Ending feature. Normally, I am one to go for absolute completion, so I was drawn to this as a new challenge. Three hours of time sunk fulfilling the requirements, which were bloody difficult, and I was treated to getting to play the final chapter again. Okay, but surely I fight something new right?

Nope. Same boss, same enemies same everything except the last two minutes. The last two minutes completely unravels the “non-true” ending’s neatly tied up exposition and perfectly acceptable ending by tacking on a cliff hanger.

Can I level with you, CyberConnect2 and Capcom? I get what you’re trying to do, I really do. It’s a new game and you want to expand it into a series. You care about it and want more people to fall in love and be enthralled with it. If I had to wager, I’d say CyberConnect2 had the idea for this ending since Capcom has been a spoiled brat about sequels as of late. But no matter. If you are going to have a cliff hanger, don’t do it in two minutes at the end of a game, and don’t make me work three hours for those two minutes. It’s just embarrassing. Do you see other, respected developers doing something like this? No, because they sell based on their merits, and I understand Capcom is more than a little psychotic—I mean who really leaves out Megaman from Marvel vs. Capcom—but this is just unacceptable. Hidden endings are a fun bonus for the game and can definitely be used to make fans want a sequel, but that’s only by integrating it into the story such that the gamer feels rewarded with the true ending, not cheated. Shame on you, CyberConnect2.

Verdict: Asura’s Wrath is an incredibly fun game to play, for the half of the game you get to play. The other half is driven by a wild plot that borrows heavily from the school of “if I scream louder and yell about my feelings, I will win” school of anime thinking, but it’s quite enjoyable as long as you do not take it seriously. If you skip the true ending, you’ll be pleased as punch with this quirky shooter/platformer. If you like Devil May Cry, God of War, or any anime, this is the game for you for this month.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Soul Calibur V Review

Soul Calibur consistently proves to be the only fighting game series in which I possess any amount of skill. Since the first game’s release on Dreamcast, Mitsurugi and I have been inseparable, conquering the forces of the demon sword for our joint ronin-esque domination. Would the fifth game allow me to continue my warpath through the AI-led fields of destruction, or did the developers, Project Soul, deem fit to present me with a game in which I laid down my arms and walked away from the series I love?

First of all, let me address a pet peeve of mine with the Soul Calibur series—the addition and removal of interesting features. Since Soul Calibur III, every time a new, exciting feature is added, it is promptly ruined in the next game, and then reinstated in the following one.  In the second game, I allowed to play as one of three cameo characters and had a small additional campaign to build an army. In the third game, the cameos were gone, replaced by a very powerful creation tool, but the extra campaigns were enhanced. The fourth game saw the crippling of the creation tool and special modes, but the rise of Star Wars extra players. The fifth installment’s character creation is on par with the third, but only has one guest character—Ezio from Assassin’s Creed. Unfortunately, it also has no optional questlines or story-driven challenge modes.

This seesawing of extra features is absolutely maddening! I can guarantee that Soul Calibur VI will feature a new quest mode, but no character creation mode. Why are these two attributes seemingly mutually exclusive? Is it impossible to create a Soul Calibur game in which I have the ability to dive deep into challenges, progressing a flimsy storyline for my personal amusement, in addition to pummeling my opponents with someone I’ve created to look like Ronald McDonald, while also playing as a character from a well-known series? I know you can do it, Project Soul; I believe in you! 

The story has had a major overhaul. Instead of having a few general stories that anyone can be inserted into—or different text progressions as pretenses for fights, Project Soul did something gutsy—stuck to one story. That’s right, Soul Calibur V only has one story. Patroklus, son of Sophitia, is a holy warrior looking for the monster that took his sister Pyrrah. The two end up deeply entwined in the fate of the sacred sword Soul Calibur and its evil counterpart, Soul Edge. Along the way, a few new characters are introduced, mild plot twists happen, and you become engaged in Patroklus’s story. You cannot play as Kilik, Ivy, Cervantes, Mitsurugi, or any previous character in the story mode. At least the protagonist eases the limited cameo pain by resembling a character from another series.

This decision may be unwelcomed by some, but all in all, I think Project Soul made the right choice here. Though you cannot play through the story with any other characters, that gives the developers the opportunity to tell an engaging story, and not one based on travelling from arena to arena just to fight. I must admit I was a bit disappointed Mitsurugi’s blade would not be saving the day again, but I enjoyed the plot driven narrative with a cohesive, tight storyline more than text explanations and broad voiceovers. A bit of still image plot progression, but it’s slightly better than just a paragraph over a random background.

Another fairly major change is the addition of Critical Edge moves. Like in Street Fighter, Tekken, or really any other fighter series ever, you can build up to a Critical Edge move by either being bashed or thrashing your opponent. Once the meter is full you can unleash a devastating combo on your opponent, oftentimes dropping their health by more than 25%. This addition gives an advantage to more classic fighting gamers, as using super moves has been common for quite some time, but it is new to the Soul Calibur series. Soul Calibur IV had the option of one hit kills, but your control over when you could use them was minimal at best. Allowing players to choose when and where to use these overwhelmingly powerful moves adds a new vector of strategy to an already strategic fighting game.

The rest of Soul Calibur remains virtually unchanged. Characters movesets have been updated, as have the graphics and animation, but that’s to be expected. This series has always been one of the most beautiful fighting games around, and this one is no exception. Large arenas with high definition backgrounds and fantastic colors, lighting, and shading effects make this one of the most eye-catching fighters around. The character creation mode is very nearly identical to the one seen in Soul Calibur III, but with the addition of more costumes and movesets. And, as can be expected from Soul Calibur, the gameplay is still as fluid and fast paced as ever.

Verdict: If you enjoy fighting games, Soul Calibur V is one of the best. What it lacks in narrative variety, it makes up for in a more focused story experience, and its multiplayer, character creation, and gameplay are tough to beat. Soul Calibur V doesn’t change much, but it is certainly not a direct copy/paste from Soul Calibur IV, and it deserves your money. Play this game if you like the Soul Calibur series, or really any fighting game, and you’re looking for something gorgeous and slick with which to pass the time.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Double Fine Adventure Backed By Fans Directly

Has anyone ever wondered what buying a video game would be like without a publisher as a middle man? What if you and 1 million other people could simply give money to Bungie and in return, receive the next Halo? Tim Schafer and the team at Double Fine Productions decided to test the theory out with its’ new Double Fine Adventure. Using Kickstarter, Tim Schafer posted a video asking for $400,000 to make a point-and-click adventure game and film the process, allowing fans to observe what the game development process is like from beginning to end. Kickstarter is a website connecting various independent projects, from indie films to small game development teams, to backers, or people who invest money in the project with the guarantee that the backer will receive the finished product. While Schafer asked for $400,000, Double Fines’ Kickstarter project has currently raised a phenomenal $2,000,000 to fund this new game. Backing this Project nets you a copy of the game and video documentary once the game is finished later this year. However, by donating more money, you also get additional value in the form of signed posters, colorful concept art books and even dinner with Tim Schafer and/or Ron Gilbert. The best thing about donating is that by becoming a backer you can interact with the development team and have an active part in the creation of the game through discussion forums and a beta open only to the backers of Double Fine Adventure.

How much more amazing can this get? Double Fine made a brilliant move by putting their fate in the hands of their fans and the fans came through by exceeding all expectations and displaying their faith in Double Fine to make a quality game. Not only that, but now that Double Fine has more financial room to work with, Tim Schafer recently announced that they will be able to port the game to Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS devices, and Android Phones. Additionally they will be able to translate the game into multiple languages and include voice acting in the English version of the game. Not much else has been announced about the game itself, but Schafer has said that he is waiting until 2-Player Productions, the film crew who is shooting the documentary, can begin filming so that they can keep the backers in the loop on everything that is happening. The Kickstarter project closes on March 14, meaning that you have until then to become a backer and participate in a unique experience that may not happen very often with such a famous studio.

 While the Double Fine Adventure is a brilliant idea and I am ecstatic that it has succeeded so far, I am unconvinced that this is a business model that can be applied in more conventional development cycles. I think Double Fine is in a unique position, and was able to use that to their advantage. Being a reputable game company with two adventure game veterans-Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert- the company has a good record in producing quality product. Also, most of the games that have come out of Double Fine lately have been smaller, XBLA titles that allow the company to take more risk. I don’t think you will see Gearbox doing this for Borderlands 2, but for new indie developers or smaller companies, websites like Kickstarter might be the route to take if they want to avoid dealing with Microsoft or Sony just to get their game into the hands of more customers. Now while other game developers always talk about how they listen to their fans and really take in the fan feedback, this project will set a new standard in how the street between the Dev team and their customers can go both ways. The amount of transparency in this project is unprecedented, but it can also cause problems. Listening to the over 70,000 backers of the project will take some effort on the part of Double Fine, and it could go wrong with trolls and twelve year olds screaming “THIS SUCKS!” But I think this is the best step in the right direction in making conversation between the development companies and their fans a two way street. This is going to be a great game that fans (excuse me, I mean “Backers”) will be able to directly influence and watch as it is developed; And I can’t wait until I get my copy in the fall. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Assassin's Creed III Reveal Trailer

The first images were only released last week and already there is a trailer and leaked screenshots for the next Assassin's Creed game. It seems you take control of a Native American assassin in the midst of the Revolutionary War. New weapons include the bow and arrow and tomahawk, and the ability to run on and climb trees seems to be confirmed in the trailer. The screenshots alone have me giggling with excitement. I cannot begin to tell how how anxious I am to play in this particular era, one filled with rich history, rife with controversy, and full of significance for Americans. This game could easily lead into one about the war of 1812 as well, and maybe Nic Cage could show up to steal something.

Who am I kidding, I just want to scalp the British while chillaxin' with G-Wash starting October 30th.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Valve Console

Rumored Hardware Prototype from Steam Employee Greg Coomer's Twitter

Yep, you read that title correctly. Rumors are currently circulating that Valve is working on its own console to bring Steam to the living room of gamers. Currently known as the "Steam Box", this console could bring the great services of Steam such as driver and software updates, the massive communities, and of course game purchasing (including those always addictive Steam deals). This console is said to be a kind of "bridge" between console and PC gaming, bringing the innovative usage of games with PCs such as editing and modding while utilizing the cheap(er) hardware and portability of consoles. This console would also open up the possibility of game developers releasing their software with reduced startup cost since the need for a devkkit console is not needed. Additionally, licensing fees are either non-applicable or greatly reduced from the console counterpart. The above image was taken from the Twitter account of Valve employee Greg Coomer. He has only stated he was working on a tiny PC for his job, but with these rumors floating about and other intriguing tweets, it is not difficult to see this being a prototype. Valve has also used this PC in a few demos to press, though, so take this with a grain of salt as nothing is official yet.

According to The Verge, the console is said to be based on Alienware's X-51 (which looks more like a console as it is, don't you think?). This would be Valve's first break into the world of gaming hardware, and could add an interesting, new opponent to the everlasting console wars. To go with this console, Valve filed for a controller patent three years ago. The controller has snap-on customization, allowing a gamer to change out d-pads, joystick toggles, and/or buttons depending on the game and gamer's personal style. Employees of Valve have remained very tight lipped for comment on this rumor and may wait until this year's Game Developer's Conference to reveal any concrete details. Though knowing Valve this'll probably be delayed until at least E3. Yes I know, it's a bit insulting to say Valve would delay anything of an important nature to gaming, but if the shoe fits, do as the Romans do, I say.
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