Tag Archives: Mass Effect

Maybe 2012 Hasn’t Been That Bad

Long time no post, eh?

Maybe I was being dramatic back at E3. Maybe, when I thought this year was so crap that I was considering getting out of games altogether, it was an overreaction. The fact that my list of GOTY contenders contained only a couple of entries as far into the year as May spoke for itself, but a few months later, 2012 hasn’t turned out so badly. New blood in the form of new hardware is sorely needed, don’t get me wrong, but it’s been far from the death knell of the whole industry.

I’m still struggling to see where ten games that are truly worth celebrating are coming from, to be honest, but the absence of big, big games to get excited about – Halo 4 being my one exception – has forced me to expand my horizons, giving B-tier games that might not otherwise get a look in a chance.

I think the disappearance of the B-tier game as all but the biggest and safest developers fail has been a problem, and as a result I’m keen to champion them. Look at how many minor classics, sleeper hits and brave experiments we had last generation that could never happen this time around. I’m talking about games like Beyond Good & Evil, Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy, Freedom Fighters, Stranger’s Wrath, Breakdown. Some weren’t hits, sure, but those who played them enjoyed them, and one commercially failed experiment wasn’t enough to torpedo a developer.

Well, those games do exist, albeit in reduced numbers, if you care to look.

The Darksiders series is one. It was a new property, backed by a new and enthusiastic developer, that was fun and ambitious in scope. That’s why I keenly bought into Darksiders II and thoroughly enjoyed myself with it. Sleeping Dogs as well, which had a tumultuous gestation but turned out to be a critical and, from the looks of things, commercial success. Both were fun and would have been overlooked, had they stumbled into the big hitters that have no doubt shifted production to future hardware.

The consoles’ archaic hardware hasn’t stopped the progress of the PC, of course, and anecdotally I’ve seen a lot of bored console gamers investing in gaming PCs, which can be had for only a little more than the likely price of the next-gen consoles. This boost in the market has helped consoles as well, leading me to enjoy fantastic 360 versions of games that are traditionally PC fodder: XCOM: Enemy Unknown and The Witcher 2. Both likely candidates for my eventual GOTY list and worlds apart from the corridor-based man-shooters we’ve been told are all that’s being made nowadays.

Small developers, too. We’re starting to get some of the spoils of the Kickstarter boom in indie games and genre revivals, with FTL: Faster Than Light being another that I’ve fallen slightly in love with. Terry Kavanagh’s Super Hexagon has sucked an ungodly amount of my time and been responsible for more than one premature battery depletion on my phone. Great console downloads like Journey and Trials Evolution. The list goes on.

In fact, the two biggest disappointments of the year have been arguably its two biggest games from established names so far: Mass Effect 3 and Diablo III. Both had prominent PR disasters – the reception to the ending, which I actually defended in the name of artistic integrity, and Error 37 respectively – and should maybe be taken as evidence that those who are gnashing their teeth over the state of the games industry need to broaden their horizons. Look beyond the chart and the PR machine at where the buzz is, because passionate gamers are rarely wrong.

Come the end of the year, 2012 likely won’t be one that’ll be looked back on with any great nostalgia. The death knell of the industry, though? Perhaps we were hasty.

The Witcher 2 and Playing a Character

RPGs have been in what you could charitably call a transitional generation, somewhere between when Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest dominated and a place where role-playing and all that it entails is less a genre in itself and more a set of conventions to be adopted by others. I don’t like it, but it’s true.

Two elements that actual RPGs have been pioneering this gen, though, have been morality and branching. They go hand-in-hand to a certain extent, but for me they’ve become an integral part of the role-playing experience, mainly because they actually entail playing a role. Previously even silent protagonists have been stretching the definition of roles, being that you’re along for the ride and doing nothing to put your mark on the character.

The Witcher 2

I’ve been playing The Witcher 2 over the last couple of weeks, now that I can play the incredible Xbox 360 port – seriously, there must have been some actual witchcraft involved there – and it puts to shame most games in their attempts to get these new mechanics right. It shouldn’t be so, because this is the RPG where you’re actually playing a defined character with an established personality and back story, but by casting you as a protagonist who is by default a neutral outsider in all conflicts, CD Projekt Red has its cake and eats it, as Geralt, and therefore the player, can do what he likes without breaking character.

Morality in games has only recently become fashionable, and it’s often depressingly childish in how binary it is. Mass Effect is another offender, where your character genuinely starts to look scarred and glow with an eerie red light if you decide not to take the recklessly moral ‘Paragon’ route. The morality in that game is literally reduced to a number, your responses adding a +1 to your Paragon/Renegade bar depending on whether you prefer the recklessly idealistic absolute moral code of ‘good’ Shepard or the cackling villain of the ‘bad’ route, wherein you have to wonder about a galactic society that lets such an unhinged individual be in charge of the fate of everything. The series actually rewards you for picking one extreme over another, suggesting that Shepard is deliberately set up to be either Mary Sue or space Hitler. Continue reading The Witcher 2 and Playing a Character

Best of 2010 #2: Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2I know for a fact that many of the first game’s most ardent fans will disagree vehemently with this, but for my money Mass Effect 2 will stand as one of the primary examples of how to improve on a game for its sequel. It may have jettisoned some of the RPG ideals of the first game, but I found its attempts at streamlining perfect, creating a brilliant action-RPG – emphasis on the ‘action’ – with one of the best open-ended stories in recent history. The important thing is that what the first game did best – creating a wonderfully vibrant and believable sci-fi universe – was preserved and expanded.

There’s a slim line between streamlining and dumbing down, and I think Mass Effect 2 is an example of it done right. While it was now more limited in being able to explore hundreds of largely redundant rooms on the Citadel, for instance, what was there was more detailed, more populated, and felt more like a real galactic capital. You couldn’t land on every planet any more, but the ones with missions were more unique and often looked beautiful, rather than constructed from a handful of set assets.

One area where I’ll give the first game a slight edge is in its story, as I liked the mystery around Saren and Sovereign more than this game’s Cerberus and Collectors, but the execution of this game’s finale was leagues ahead of anything in that game. The wanton way in which it would kill supporting characters, even making it possible for Shepard himself to not survive for Mass Effect 3, was extremely brave, the knowledge that it was possible for everyone to make it back alive – managing that was one of my proudest gaming achievements, definitely – made any deaths really hit home. It forced you to delve into everyone’s back story, which also made you care and caused every loss to hurt.

Mass Effect 2 is yet more proof, then, that Western developers are now the ones to watch when it comes to RPGs. BioWare had the courage to massively overhaul what was already a minor classic, and in doing so created what must go down as one of the generation’s best games. Bring on Mass Effect 3.

Mass Effect 2: How You Do a Sequel

My history with Mass Effect is fairly chequered, and although it had its bright spots, it took a fair bit of discipline on my part to force my way through it. I put together a post about it a couple of weeks back when I finally did it in preparation for the sequel.

Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, I had no such issues with. It’s a massive improvement in pretty much every area and a must-play.

Visually, it advances the series in both performance and overall quality. A few minor glitches aside, it runs relatively smoothly and still manages to throw around some impressive character models, all animated to an extremely high standard. Maybe it’s the West Wing influence now that Martin Sheen’s on board, but gone are the endless conversations between two characters who are rooted the spot, in favour of digital people who move around and emote, even walking from place to place during their chats. They act, in other words, and BioWare seems to realise that there’s more to this than good facial animation.

Mass Effect 2

Throw in an abundance of new background detail, from the often-amusing adverts and wandering civilians on the Citadel – be sure to check out the Salarian game seller, extolling the virtues of that new human game, Solitaire – to the vagrants on the Blade Runner-esque Omega, as well as wonderfully aggressive use of ambient sound that demands to be experienced in 5.1, and what was a vibrant world hamstrung by technical issues is able to fulfil its potential. The worlds look designed rather than generated now, and all look distinct – the planet with the supernova sun that forces you to fight in the shadows was a personal highlight.

It’s a lesson in streamlining when it comes to the gameplay, and although I’m sure that some, particularly in the PC community, will bemoan the ‘dumbing down’, it keeps stuff like inventory management and juggling upgrades – unwieldy in the first game, to say the least – from getting in the way. In fact, it’s almost been turned into a straightforward squad-based shooter, but it doesn’t bother me, because the important aspects like dialogue trees and exploration are largely untouched. The combat and micromanagement were obstacles and now they’re not, which makes it a net improvement. That’s not to say that I buy the kludgy explanation for why ammunition technology has regressed in the universe, though.

Ultimately, what best illustrates my feelings on Mass Effect 2 is that while I found my interest – or, rather, my patience – with the first game running out by the end of the 18 hours that it took me, I loved every minute of the 26 hours that I spent with Mass Effect 2, and will gladly pop back in for more when some substantial DLC arrives. It’s probably one of my favourite games of the generation so far and has set the bar incredibly high for any game that wants to be the best of 2010.

Mass Effect: A Flawed Gem

It’s been a struggle for me to get through Mass Effect, but I recently managed it at my third attempt. One spell on Christmas Day 2007, another attempt in early 2009, and then a final, successful run at it at the end of the year, finishing it at 8pm on the last day of the year. Even though I came away from it eager to play the sequel and with a thirst for more on the game’s universe – I’m reading Mass Effect: Revelation at the moment, which is up there with the Halo novels as great sci-fi literature – I still have some massive reservations about the game.

Mass Effect

Generally speaking, it’s a bit of a kludgy mess. Graphically it’s nothing all that special and yet has a poor, frequently awful, frame rate. There’s very little guidance, instead dropping you immediately into one of the game’s more intense action sequences. Item management? Don’t even think about it; I didn’t brave that menu until I was warned about running out of space, at which point I had to scroll down a gigantic list of items that couldn’t be sorted. Dialogue trees work well but are sometimes marred by that frequent gaming pitfall of giving you a ‘choice’ between sweetness and light or pure evil.

The dialogue and writing are very good, but really, would it have killed the characters to move occasionally while speaking? Or even – God forbid – have your party of three break from their V formation when conversing? One thing that entertainment media has known at least since The West Wing is that people standing still and talking is boring to watch, especially when it’s two human characters in an identikit corridor who look vaguely like melting mannequins. Look at Captain Anderson and his perpetual look of mild surprise.

Like I said, I did ultimately come away with a positive impression of the game, just because BioWare created such a good universe here, and from what I’ve heard, Mass Effect 2 is a significant improvement in every area, so I’m very much on board with that one. It just escapes me how such a fundamentally flawed game can get such unanimously superb scores. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to like a game so much and yet had to fight so hard to do so. It’s good, for sure, but full marks? You must be joking.