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They are a group of six friends evenly split among men and women. Haven't seen this formula before! (Photo courtesy Screened.com)
I’ll get into it more later, but despite it being pretty standard fare for a sitcom, Happy Endings is actually hilarious and kind of awesome. I blew through season 1 this weekend (half on Netflix, then I bought the entire season on DVD).
Just catching any TV is impressive considering that I haven’t watched a second of it since Mass Effect 3 came out. Now that I’ve beaten that I had a chance to catch up on all the TV I’d missed.
The Descendants – Picked up the movie at Best Buy this weekend too. Great flick. I think Tiffany liked it despite its Oscar film plot meanderings.
Community – Oh god, so glad it’s back! So glad! This week’s episode was pretty solid work for Community. Everyone showed up and was great. Even the Britta stuff was hilarious. I loved that she was a wizard with domestic stuff and wedding planning. Then of course she Brittas the entire thing by getting too drunk with Jeff.
Archer – Space! Pretty excellent episode of Archer. Can’t wait for the finale next week
New Girl – “Did you just Fredo kiss me?” The singing part was kind of “eh”. “Are those cannons on your back”. After watching a lot of Happy Endings later on in the weekend, I think that New Girl is a less good version of that. Bummer. Still, it’s coming into its own and I dig it. Max Greenfield’s Schmidt is hilarious.
Parks and Recreation – The Ron stuff was great. I guess I’m pretty tired of the Ann and Tom stuff too.
Bob’s Burgers – Kristen Schaal and Eugene Mirman are HILARIOUS! Footloose warehouse dancing is great! “No more lick foot”. “If guys had uteruses they’d be called duderuses” Great episode.
Justified – The show knows how to make things seem real bad. “I found the gun.” “Did you touch it?” “What am I, an asshole?” I think Winona’s great! Is she gone for good? Good to see Ava returning to prominence. I like her too. Boyd’s got a real firebrand preacher streak and that’s always fun to see. This season is about to get more real quick and I love it!
Up All Night – Maya Rudolph is great. Spitting the scotch back out was pretty hilarious. The stinger with “gift” and “seed” was the best part. I kept wanting to use that as a line, but it’s so gross.
Happy Endings – Not too bad. Wow. Extra Hot Great turned me on to this show and I spent all weekend watching as much of it as I could. I thought it was pretty hilarious. It’s got a modern Friends vibe, but with the jokes pace of a Community, 30 Rock, or Arrested Development. Just BAM! BAM! BAM! Jokes, jokes, jokes. I really enjoyed it. If you know me I hope you don’t mind me making you watch it.
Just listen to more Rhythm Heaven music, guys!
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Ok, Martin Vanger is dead already. Why does this book still have like 100 pages left?!
Mass Effect 3 – Finally finished this sci-fi epic and…I loved it. Naysayers out there will tell you that the ending is terrible. They’re kind of right, but that doesn’t mean the game isn’t fantastic.
Ghost Trick – This is another one like Dragon Tattoo that I’m getting closer and closer to beating and I just need to put time in to finish.
Mass Effect 2 – Coming back to this after 3 is rough. Combat is slower, the engine is not optimized for PC, it’s trying too hard to be edgy…Still good, but I like 3 and 1 better.
Shepard and Joker get to have pretty awkard bonding time in this game... (Photo courtesy gamesweasel)
I’m about 66-75% through the game so I don’t think I can claim first impressions anymore. Here’s what I think:
NOTE: I’m planning on avoiding story spoilers, but if you want to know absolutely nothing, don’t read this.
- Remember the interface and flow of Mass Effect 2′s combat? It’s back! It’s pretty much identical, but Bioware says it runs a little faster.
- Oh, they brought back grenades that act like bouncy grenades. The spinfusor style from ME1 is gone, but those never operated that well anyway.
- I might be wrong, but it feels like there are fewer long conversation wheels in the early game. Best to keep things brisk in the early going.
- The more defined mission style of ME2 returns for another go. ME had you stumble into more free form environments that may or may not have missions. It was a less directed than 2. What 3 does that I like is eliminate the debriefing summary screens. I always felt they killed the flow of any mission and felt more game-y than not.
- Remember how your crew used to let you enter into a conversation wheel with them all the time even if they didn’t have anything new to say? That system is gone. Instead your crewmates talk in the not-cutscene field when they’re just making one-sided comments about a mission. They enter the conversation system if they have a dramatic bonding moment. This sounds worse than it is, but it’s pretty awesome. Instead of loading the conversation and learning they had nothing new to say, it allows you to know at a glance they’re not gonna say anything new.
- Which isn’t to say they say less. If you talk to your crewmates after every mission I guarantee that 98% of them will have something new to say. Some kind of comment or joke. It’s awesome. What’s even more awesome is that the crew speaks to each other. You can walk into Liara’s room and hear her on the intercom with Javik or see Garrus and James shooting the breeze and bragging in the mess. It’s a much more organic system, but I feel bad for people like :cough: Eric :cough: who lost anyone who would normally be on your crew. They’ve all got hilarious/interesting things to say.
- Speaking of which, Javik has been more than worth the money, in my opinion. The fresh Prothean perspective he brings to every mission and the conversations/comments he makes are all pretty well thought out and interesting. I’m glad I have the version that comes with him, but I’d recommend buying the DLC if you didn’t get him.
- Look for the Blasto advertisement wall in the Apartments of the Presidium Commons. You won’t be sorry if you spend five or six minutes listening to the whole thing.
- Disregard what you might have heard elsewhere: the story and choices you make in ME3 are amazing. I don’t see first time players getting much out of it, but people who have been there since the beginning will totally love how things come together. If your crew mostly survived ME2 you’ll also love spotting your mates on various missions. The ME3 world is a crazy place. Everything’s in disarray thanks to the Reaper attack. More than once I’ve found myself amazed at how fucked everything seems. There’s a sense of despair that pervades and I love it. Super effective use of mood and place.
- I like how the new enemy types gel with the combat system. There are a new classes of enemies with different vulnerabilities and the factions all feel unique.
- Can’t not mention the multiplayer! Not being able to pause is less of a concern than I thought it would be mostly because you’re only managing one person versus three. A solid team makes for a fun wave-based shooter. Combining powers for a biotic blast is always super fun.
- OH! Forgot to talk about the new encumbrance system. Instead of having set weapon profiles for classes, Shepard now has a weight limit associated with each class. Carrying more (or heavier) guns adds to your encumbrance rating, which slows your power recharge speed. The fewer you carry naturally boosts your recharge speed. It’s a neat system.
- Also cool is the War Readiness readout. It gives fun/interesting little things to read about your war assets and how they’re contributing to the effort against the Reapers. Very cool stuff.
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.
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.
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…
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
…like many mechanisms of this kind your choices tend to come down to being an omnibenevolent supercherub or the Goddamned devil.
-Jerry “Tycho” Holkins
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.
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.
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.
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.”
-Eric Caponi of Bethesda Softworks
“[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).
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?
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.
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.
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 will put the screws to you too if you don't play ME2
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!
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
With the release of Super Street Fighter IV rapidly approaching and the convenient timing of CES, Capcom has started its marketing blitz in earnest these past few days. The most recent trailer highlights the new features in the game, including new costumes, rival battles, and, most excitingly, new Ultra Combos.
I haven’t seen the full gamut of the new costumes, but there’s no way that you can argue that Mecha-Zangief is not the most awesome of the ones showcased. A close second is Shadaloo Cammy decked out in Vega’s costume (here at IBNttT we call Dictator by his true name).
One of the other great things about the trailer is the part showing the “ink” cutscenes that comprised the intro of the first game. The Juri vs. Chun Li fight looks like it’ll be interesting to watch.
The true spotlight goes to the new Ultra Combos. Knowing when to expect one Ultra from each character is hard enough, but now I’m gonna have to remember both UCs for everyone and try and figure out how to dodge them all. Most terrifying to me is Zangief’s air-Ultra, which will probably snag me many times, since I tend to jump to avoid his UC as is. Another bummer is Ken’s ability to have real range on his Ultra. I loved being able to just back away one character length and be safe from his shoryuken. Other trailers I’ve seen make it seem like players will have to declare which UC they’re using, so at least it won’t be too bad to judge what’s coming.
I know what you’re all thinking. How can Grunt ever live up to the awesomeness that was Wrex? I think we’re going to have to accept that he’s just not going to be cool enough and leave it at that. Instead of having everyone’s favorite Krogan in my party, I’ll probably side with some of the other aliens, but maybe one of the humans will make the coolness cut this time. Who knows? I can’t wait until 26 January, I’m hurrying my replay on the PC to prepare for the end of this month.
You may notice some games that are missing from this list and are on every other list. Well, I didn’t play everything because I didn’t have the time or the money, so that accounts for some of the big misses like Pyschonauts or Resident Evil 4. Other games are deliberately omitted :cough: HALO :cough:
This list is also way long, but I didn’t want to limit myself to an arbitrary number like 10 or 20, so here it is:
Half-Life 2 (2004, 2006 – Episode 1, 2007 – Episode 2)
There are two divergent paths for shooters in the aughts. Halo and Half-Life. In the first corner you’ve got everything on the consoles since then: Regenerating health, aim assist, silly physics, and general jackassery. In the better corner you’ve got everything that’s come out of Half-Life and the Source engine: more realistic weaponry, realistic physics, and a much better legacy. Say what you will about the future of shooters and the PC market being antiquated, but this is a damn good shooter. I’d call it the best I’ve ever played. Valve has completely mastered the art of environmental storytelling and player manipulation. They can make you look where they want you to look and feel what they want you to feel all without ever wresting control from the player or relying on cutscenes. This game has brilliant pacing and amazing characters that you actually care about. Who’s ever heard of an NPC sidekick that you don’t hate? H-L 2 and its episodes are among the greatest gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
Rock Band 2 (2008)
Ok, so rhythm games are kind of saturated now, but Rock Band 2 is the pinnacle (only because The Beatles: Rock Band doesn’t let players bring their dlc in) of music gaming. It hits at just the right sweet spot, four players, and its filled with music from all kinds of genres. Better yet, the interface and note tracking isn’t sloppy like that other franchise and it’s a fantastic way to get people together for a fun time and even grow as a person. It’s probably the game I’ve played the most since 2008 and a ridiculously fun time.
Left 4 Dead (2008) and Left 4 Dead 2 (2009)
There are a lot of Valve games on this list. The Left 4 Dead series is on it because it has done cooperative, first-person multiplayer right in a way I’ve yet to see done better elsewhere. Everything about these games is top notch, tons of fun, and worth returning to time and time again. Beyond the mechanics, the games also feature great environmental storytelling and fantastic voice acting putting it at the top of my list for the best games of the past two years. Zombies may be getting old, but this series will always feel fresh.
Jonathan Blow didn’t revolutionize video gaming when he released Braid last summer. What he did do was bring indie games (and XBL games, in general) firmly into the spotlight for consideration. A self-funded and self-made game, Braid proved that one man (and one hired artist) could still create a top-notch, professional caliber game. Braid is deep and complex and tons of fun to play, especially when you’ve figured out a tricky puzzle.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (2005)
OBJECTION! This game should be higher on the list. Overruled, this list has no numerical ordering.
The Japanese sensation that brought visual novels and a resurgence in adventure games to America may have a niche audience and play real loose with the legal system of the real world, but it’s tons of fun. Just think quirky anime and you’ll get the idea of what playing this game is like. It just feels right to present a damning piece of evidence while Phoenix screams OBJECTION!
Shadow of the Colossus (2005)
I have yet to beat Shadow of the Colossus, but I absolutely love what I’ve played so far. Ueda is among the genius game designers in how well he understands presentation. The game world feels absolutely empty, as it should. All you come across, as the player, are the giant Colossi and man, they are wild. Each one is a dungeon/level to itself and the player is tasked with taking them down to save his love. But what have these giants done to you? Each one I take down makes me feel sad inside and a little empty. I usually find myself thinking What have I done? What did he ever do to me? The best art makes you think.
Final Fantasy XII (2006)
I had my choice of any Final Fantasy game between 9 and 12 for this spot, but I really couldn’t go with anything but the best. X was definitely a close second, but there are just so many things that XII did right in its evolution of the series that I couldn’t pick anything else. Maybe it’s because I’m in love with the world of Ivalice, but everything about this game just grabs me in a way I hadn’t been grabbed since VI. Maybe it was because I wasn’t being assaulted by too many belt buckles and leather by Nomura. It was probably because the story was mature, the characters way less annoying than before, and the battle system was finally revamped and moved into the 21st century. In any case, the best FF game of the decade.
Portal really does everything right. The game gets you acquainted with its mechanics quickly, gets you doing neat things with them right away, and then finishes up with a climactic and cool boss fight all comfortably within the span of 5-8 hours, if you’re slow. With mechanics and dialogue that are beyond brilliant, the only thing that could make this great game better would be to give it a hilarious end credit song penned by Jonathan Coulton. Oh wait, you’ve gone and done that already, haven’t you Valve? Bravo.
Burnout Paradise (2008)
Realistic racing games are kind of boring to me. Until Burnout Paradise, I would have said that I only enjoyed Mario Kart games, and those were starting to wear on me too. Then Criterion put out the first open-world racing game (that I can think of). Burnout Paradise would be tons of fun if all we had to do was run into walls and other cars. The fact that the game is so easy to get online and play (and purchasable as a digital download on the PSN) is brilliant and makes for tons of fun.
Mass Effect (2007)
Shepard. Wrex. It’s brilliant. It really is. Hard science fiction is always tons of fun to me, but when you go and flesh out this world to the nth degree, you’ve got me drooling already. Add in characters I genuinely cared about and enjoyed having in my party and a morality system that was finally free of cheap moral choices and I’d say that Bioware had a genuine hit on their hands. I anxiously await the sequel in January.
Eternal Darkness (2002)
I’m really not a big scary games guy. It’s simple: I’m too jumpy and I’ve got an overactive imagination. Those things don’t combine to make a pleasant gaming experience. Now you want me to play a game that’s actively trying to mess with my head to freak me the hell out? I’d normally say “No thanks,” but I was eventually convinced to try this Lovecraftian horror game and I found myself loving it. The plot is interesting and the characters are neat, but the insanity effects are what stick with me to this day. I can still see that image of Alex lying dead in a bathtub filled with her own blood when I think about it and it still gives me the chills.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009)
You know what? I really loved the old-school Mario games. Those 3D ones are way too easy. This game does it right. What makes it even more awesome is that you can play it with four dudes, making it both infinitely harder and easier while also making it more fun and frustrating. Use the multiplayer mode at your own risk, it may start fights.
Rhythm Heaven (2009)
Scratch-O, HA! The Rhythm Heaven (Paradise in Europe) series is loosely based on the bizarre Wario world, which is totally obvious after three minutes of play, which is great, because that series is brilliant (if stale by now) too. This game features simple rhythm mini-games, but man are they fun AND catchy. As I write this I’ve got the Moai statue song stuck in my head. Go play this.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004, Subsistence – 2006)
I love this game. MGS 2 may be the biggest practical joke (and most significant of the four), but this is undoubtedly the best. The epic cycle of the Metal Gear universe is made clear in this game that does its best to subvert war in every way possible. I do truly find it significant that in a Cold War game focused on stealth action, you can make it through from start to finish without killing one person. Well, almost. Metal Gear Solid 3 is almost heartbreaking when you play it non-violently and the ending still has a strong effect on me to this day. Definitely Kojima’s finest work.
World of Warcraft (2004)
I would give anything to get the time I spent playing this game back, but I definitely can’t deny how truly great it is. We’re talking about a bona fide phenomenon here. The absolute refinement of social engineering to such a degree that escape is nearly futile. Blizzard has truly outdone itself with this one.
Team Fortress 2 (2007)
What a surprise, more Valve. The Orange Box was a groundbreaking offering in value and Team Fortress 2 continues to be a huge part of that. I bought this game at launch back in 2007. Since then they have added achievements for nearly every class, new weapons for nearly every class, new game types and maps, hats, and an item crafting system. I’ve never seen so much free support for a game in my life. It’s no reason that Valve is my favorite developer of all time. They really know how to treat their customers and put out a great game.
The Sims 2 (2004)
Yes, I did create Sims of my friends and family. You’d better believe I killed some of them, turned one into a vampire, another into a werewolf, one into a zombie, and bargained with death to revive another. The Sims certainly don’t feel as relevant as they did at the start of this decade, but man were they a success and tons of fun. Sure, I should feel a little guilty that I spent so much time in what amounts to a digital dollhouse, but I really don’t. It was fun.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008)
If you don’t think that this is the best in the series, you’re wrong and you’re clinging to the past. Tons of characters, great level design, fantastic music, and all the right refinements to the battle system are what makes this great. The fact that I can listen to Snake Eater or the Love Theme from Mother 3 is just icing on the cake.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2003)
Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.
I was originally just going to post another video and not write anything, but then I realized that there was Left 4 Dead 2 news this week and I couldn’t let another week go by without mentioning the game (did you know I’m excited about its release?).
Obvious, but nice to hear…
When releases are imminent, people get impatient and want to know what’s coming next. When asked about Harmonix’s plans for next year, the question revolved around whether it would be another iteration in the Rock Band series or another band-style game like The Beatles: Rock Band. In typical PR fashion, Harmonix reps said that both were in the works and both might see the light of day next year. Way to be specific guys! You mean you’re working on another project that would capitalize on the success of your previous projects? Where do they get some of these questions?
I answer my own question with the excitement I feel in hearing about new games in the franchise.
I’m like Tiresias!
Ok, so I didn’t really predict these things and I heard them from the rumor mill, but I was right about all the WoW rumors I reported on last week. Go me!
Starcraft II News Bundle
Blizzcon was last weekend and, naturally, we have a lot of Starcraft II news to report on (we also have plenty of Diablo III and WoW stuff to say, but I don’t really care about those games, so…). The biggest news, for me, involved the new Battle.Net and the innovations behind creating one of the most interesting backends for games since Steam.
Rather like Steam, the goal of the new Battle.Net is to integrate Blizzard’s multiple properties and keep players connected. An instant messaging client will be a part of this new service and it will allow you to see what people on your friends list are doing in other Blizzard games, including World of Warcraft, allowing you to chat from within the game with people playing Starcraft or Diablo. The WoW achievements are also due for a slight upgrade to sync with the more general Blizzard achievement system that’s being created so that every character doesn’t have to go out and earn achievements on its own.
Another interesting innovation has to come from Activision. The aforementioned monetization of the service will make its debut as a Custom Maps marketplace. No more will players play free mods like Defense of the Ancients and love them. Now they’ll be forced to buy certain custom maps to enjoy their non-core gameplay.
In non-B.Net-related news, it was announced that the new voice for Sarah Kerrigan will be Tricia Helfer, whose last work was the little known project Battlestar Galactica. The former Cylon will be taking up the mantle of Queen of Blades for the foreseeable future, which is pretty awesome. She’s really got the commanding, scary voice down when she was Six on BSG.
Last, but not least, Blizzard has announced that Starcraft II can be played offline. Not the multiplayer, mind you, which requires an internet connection, even if played locally, but the single-player. You’ll be able to opt out of logging in, but you’ll lose out on all of the B.Net goodies. Your choice.
Did you really expect anything different?
Wii Sports Resort has crossed the million sales mark in Japan…and America…and Europe. It’s only been a few weeks, but man, that’s incredible. Way to go Nintendo!
If you love Mass Effect as much as I do, then you’re probably super excited to see the latest DLC, called Pinnacle Station, added to the game.
In what will probably be the last DLC pack for the series, you can now head to a space station and battle against the clock to set records, etc. and earn achievement points. Combat is nice, but it’s not really the focus of Mass Effect, is it?
Glad to see more content added to the universe! Can’t wait for ME2.
Another ban story
Out in Venezuela they don’t like objectionable content hitting the eyes of their children. Despite the violent and damn near despotic and tyrannical things that come out of the mouth of Hugo Chavez, the government is concerned with the sale of toy weapons and violent video games.
Should this ban pass, Venezuelans would have no access to toy weapons, which can be used to fake robberies, etc., nor would their people be subject to the corrupting forces of video games. Way to go guys, you’re really focusing on what matters.
You asked for it! Well, I did…
And here’s your weekly L4D2 news! Valve will make playable the creepy fair level, now called Dark Carnival, at PAX next week! Yeah, I wrote the previous 800 words just to talk about a playable level. What can I say? I love L4D2!
If that’s not enough, you can check out some sweet concept art at Kotaku.
Let’s close with another recent obsession of mine, The Beatles: Rock Band!
Just about every serious adult (and employed) gamer has one thing in common, regardless of his/her tastes: the pile of shame. It sounds a lot worse than it is, because it’s definitely not a stack of Barbie Horse Adventure games or anything, it’s a stack of games that have all received critical acclaim or come highly recommended, but that the gamer has no time to get around to playing, mainly because of other releases or just being too busy.
The perfect time for burning through this back catalog is usually the summer. Releases have slowed down in anticipation for the upcoming holiday season and developers have only just started getting over E3 preparations, limiting their ability to release in the summer anyway. Plenty of other people are taking this time to burn through their backlog, but I find myself unable to focus on the rather considerable stack of games I have in lieu of achievement hunting or just purchasing new games.
It’s a serious problem when I’m in Best Buy seriously considering buying Resident Evil 5, the latest in a series of games that I never play because I hate horror video games, instead of just going home and playing Dragon Quest V or Suikoden Tierkreis, both games I’ve never played and own, or finishing the remakes that I’d started like the DS Chrono Trigger or GBA Final Fantasy VI. I keep having to resist buying Gears of War 2, even though I’ve yet to finish Fallout 3, play the Uncharted 2 Beta at all, or milk the remaining content out of Left 4 Dead or Mass Effect. Then again, should I really be all that surprised? People love the brand new and the allure of buying a new copy of Ghostbusters, despite its middling reviews, is just a part of human nature.
The main problem with my “problem” is that I don’t really have the cash to throw around to just be buying all sorts of new games. You may have applauded my self-control in resisting RE5 and GoW2, but the real deterrent is that I just couldn’t afford to buy them. I’ve flirted with the notion of starting some kind of retro-gaming feature to motivate me to both clear my backlog and give me new, interesting (video game related) writing topics. Honestly, if I could take easy screenshots or capture video more easily, I might be more likely to try and do something like that, but it loses some of its allure to have it be text-only.
This may or may not still happen. I’m going to do some research into cheap video capture mechanics and if I can manage it, then we might see me start to clear through my backlog with accompanying screens or movies. If not, well then this winding, aimless post is just me whining about having games that I don’t want to play because I want shiny new ones.
Guess what guys?
Shepard isn’t dead.
Words cannot describe how excited I am for this game. Mass Effect was one of the greatest games on the 360 based on its epic story alone. Bioware rarely disappoints and I’m psyched for this one.
EDIT: GT still has busted html. What’s going on there?