Thursday, July 8, 2010

Video Game Review - Mass Effect 2

*Warning: Major Spoilers for the first Mass Effect follow, and minor spoilers for Mass Effect 2.*

Mass Effect 2 is the follow up to the original Mass Effect, which was TOTALLY NOT LIKE STARGATE AT ALL. At the end of the first game, you find out that Saren's ship, Sovereign, was actually a Reaper. It tries to use The Citadel to summon an army of Reapers to destroy the universe, and you stop it. Depending on your actions though, the Council may be alive or dead. Thus, the game I am reviewing is the follow up to my experience in Mass Effect, and may be different from yours.

This is because one of the best features of the game allows you to import your character from Mass Effect one, and pick up right where you left off. The game uses over 400 "hooks" to detect what choices you made in the first game, and changes the sequel based on that. Really well too. It really felt like I was picking up where I left off, not starting a new game.

Now, at the beginning of the game, you die. That's a problem. Luckily, you don't stay dead for long. Well you do. Two years, actually. During those two years, everyone from the first game (who survived) has gone separate ways. Luckily, a group called Cerberus, a human supremacy group who "looks out for the human race in a galaxy of aliens" knows only you can stop the Reapers from DESTROYING THE UNIVERSE! So they start a secret project to bring you back known as "Project Lazarus". It's a biblical reference. There's actually a couple of those.

The game plays similarly to the first game, if you took everything that was good about the first game, and made it better, and took out the bad parts. They dropped the overheating mechanic, and introduced "thermal clips" (read: ammo). They removed all the annoying micromanagement of armor the first game had. They removed the terrible vehicle sections.

They kept the gripping story, the over the shoulder shooting style, and they made it a whole lot better. The characters are better. Even the returning ones. Oh, and yeah, there are returning ones.

The plot twist about 2/3rds of the way through the game is just as good and shocking as the last one, and the last boss battle actually felt like a boss battle. Unlike fighting Saren. Which was very... Eh.

The armor mechanic has been replaced by an upgrades mechanic. If you go to a certain area of the new-and-improved Normandy, you can upgrade guns, items, biotics, and other such things. To upgrade you need to orbit various planets and scan them for minerals... Which is really dull.

Now, my criticism. For one thing, the characters are still in the uncanny valley, especially the character Jacob. Secondly, the big dramatic choice at the end did not feel the same as the choice between Ashley and Aiden, because... Well... There's a way you can make sure everyone lives. Admittedly, two of my crewmen did die, but it still felt like it didn't have the same pull knowing that if I do it right, everyone CAN live.


All jokes aside, this game is great. Really and truly fantastic. One of the best games released this year, and it's definitely worth a look. And the final shot of the game is a big cliffhanger setting up for Mass Effect 3. Fall 2011!

Buy this game if:
You liked the first Mass Effect.

Don't buy this game if:
You don't like dark and gritty sci-fi epics.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Case Against Realism

Realism. It's a bit of a buzzword in the games industry right now. Realism means that a game is going to try to be as realistic as possible. There are two main ways that realism comes into effect. Graphics, and gameplay. Well you know what? I don't necessarily think that realism is what games need right now. We've finally reached a point where we can successfully make "Realistic" games, and what do we get? An endless wave of generic brown shooters.

Well you know what? Realism isn't needed. In fact, in my opinion, the importance we place on "realism" is one of the biggest hindrances in the genre right now on the way to crossing the threshold into art.


The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker was released in December of 2002 in Japan. It featured a highly stylized cel-shaded artistic style. The game was extremely dividing among critics and fans alike, many people hating it and calling the graphics "kiddy" and "cartoony" while others, such as myself, found it to be a gorgeous way of bypassing the limited technology available at the time.

The bright colors and smooth animations were well done, and the ocean looked excellent being a beautiful shade of blue.

Now let me compare that to a game released the next year with a more "realistic" art style. Knights of the Old Republic.

This game, released by Bioware, while completely BRILLIANT and featuring writing on par or superior to the original Star Wars trilogy, was more limited by technology.

Now, I love KOTOR. I love Wind Waker. Both are fantastic games. But looking at the two of them, one of them looks superior. Because of the style of Wind Waker, years later it's still a very good looking game, whereas KOTOR, while one of my all-time favorite games, hasn't held up nearly as well, even though it's a year younger.

The reason for this is a principle called "The Uncanny Valley".

The uncanny valley is a term that originated in robotics, and has since been applied to CGI images, be it movies, or video games. The idea is that there's a certain point where something looks real enough that it looks human, but because we know how humans are supposed to look instinctively from seeing them so much, we can tell it's not real. The result is something unsettling. The deeper into the uncanny valley you go, the more unsettling it is, until finally it's broken, and you can no longer tell it's not real. That's something that hasn't happened yet, I might add. Technology is getting close with movies like Avatar, and games like Heavy Rain, but it's not quite there yet. Some people actually theorize that the uncanny valley can NEVER be broken because of how the human mind perceives things. I personally think that uncanny valley will be broken within the next five to ten years, but it's very difficult to say for sure.

Which brings me to the way to avoid this. Stylization. If something, like Wind Waker, looks stylized enough that we automatically know it's not human, and isn't supposed to look human, we subconsciously get over the fact that it's trying to trick us, and can accept what the characters look like more easily.

Tl;dr, stylized things look better because they aren't supposed to look real, and realism is trying to. A failing.


Let me take two big name First Person Shooters, both of which I've mentioned before. Team Fortress 2, and Modern Warfare 2.

Modern Warfare 2, released last year, and sold well. In fact, if you're a mammal living in North America as of right now, you statistically own 2.3 copies of the game. The game features extremely realistic and brutal combat set in Iraq, among other places. Bobby Kotick made a billion dollars.

You know that swimming pool filled with money Scrooge McDuck has? Yeah, Bobby Kotick put one into his house last January.

But I digress.

The point, is that this game featured more "realistic" gameplay. It has real guns as weapons, and you're fighting the real people we're fighting in a war right now. It's very gritty, bloody, and serious.

Team Fortress 2, on the other hand, made by Valve, is one of my all time favorite games, and the only FPS I actually play. It's zany. Let me list some of the weapons this game has.

A Sandvich.

An automated turret gun.

A jar of pee.

A sniper rifle that shoots rockets.

A sword that can decapitate people, earning you more health.

A magic wrench that turns people to gold.

A gun that heals people.


A baseball bat. And a baseball.

A can of soda.

In other words, it's anything but realistic. It features a graphical style that looks like old WWII propaganda posters, the game has a wicked sense of humor and doesn't take itself too seriously. The "story" of the game is only very loosely there, and in fact has only really been revealed via the hysterical TF2 Blog. Here goes.

Zephaniah Mann had two suns, Redmond and Blutarch who fought over everything. When he died, he left his company, Mann Co. to Barnabas Hale, a good friend, and told his sons to work out the land he owned between themselves. They ended up just hiring mercanaries to fight over the things though. After a hundred or so years of that though, they were both almost dead, so they hired a guy to build them both "Not Dyin' Machines" which would keep them alive until they could get the property they both felt they rightfully deserved.

We play the mercenaries. If you are red, you kill blus. If you are blu, you kill reds. You want to gain territory/company intelligence, depending on the game.

But the really great aspect, are the characters, who they've introduced through their "Meet the Class" series of videos.

*Warning some violence and blood in video. Highly stylized and exaggerated though.*

The game is anything but realistic, but it is incredibly fun.

The point is, realism does not equal good.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not against realism in games. But it's certainly not needed. There is a lot to be done before "realism" is perfected. And once it is... What's the point? I don't understand why realism should be so important. You know what's realistic? Real life. When I play games, I don't want realism all the time. Sometimes I just want to have fun.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Video Game Review - Mass Effect

Mass Effect is an action RPG released in 2007 by Bioware.

Mass Effect is a Sci-Fi epic that puts you into the shoes of Commander [Insert Name Here] Shepard, a sort of space commando. A hundred odd years from now, humanity finds ruins on mars that give us advanced technology to use relays left behind by an ancient race known as the Protheans, to explore the galaxy. What? No, it's not like Stargate at all!

I kid, I kid. A few years later than that Humanity meets another race of species known as Turians, and after a short war of misunderstanding, we find out that many races of the universe are piggybacking off an ancient Prothean space station known as the Citadel, and have built an interplanetary government.

30 years later...

At the start of the game you're on a simple mission to check in on a colony known as Eden Prime. Nothing out of the ordinary. You go there, check in on it, and the game ends. One star.

Only kidding! No, of course things on this mission aren't what they seem. In fact, a Turian who was assigned to your ship tells you he's part of a secret government organization (a really poorly kept secret, I might add) called the Spectres. Think of them as alien spy-commandos. He's seeing if you have what it takes to be the first Human Spectre, which would be a big step forward towards Humanity being accepted among the stars. An ancient Prothean beacon was found on the planet, and naturally you've been sent to pick up this extremely valuable object of near-unlimited knowledge from a completely undefended farming colony.

You can probably see where this is going.


Well, Evil McBadguy in this game is a rogue Spectre known as Saren who's brought an army of robots to DESTROY ZE UNIVERESE. He betrays the guy testing you, tries to blow up the planet, and before you know it through crazy antics you've ended up having a cache of Prothean knowledge transmitted into your head and then explode. The beacon I mean, not your head.

Although I tease, the story is nothing short of jaw-droppingly awesome. Of course, this is expected from the people who made a Star Wars game that has a storyline as good or better than the original trilogy.

Let me start off by saying that this is choice done right in games. You have two types of "points" given for your actions in the game, which you choose through dialogue wheels. "Paragon", or "Renegade". Paragon is the kind of person who has highest morals, and will not compromise those morals for anything. Ever. Renegade is the kind of guy who will get the job done no matter what. Whether that means mowing down civilians, or even worse, he will make sure nothing stands between him and the mission.

Now, notice that, unlike KOTOR, neither of these options are "Good" or "Bad". There's much more gray area. Let me give you an example. You're working for the police on the Citadel, and there's a guy who's selling illegal weapon mods to people. He's using a ton of grunts to make sure he's harder to track. You're told to go buy the mods from one of the grunts, to investigate them. Don't arrest him. Don't tip him off.

What do you do? Do you let the criminal you have now go free to get his boss later? Do you arrest this guy, thus tipping off his boss? Even further than that, should you take the law into your own hands and kill this criminal so he can't hurt anyone else? Which is the right answer? Which is the good answer? Is it ok to let a thief walk free to catch a murderer? How can you decide that? That's the kind of question that Mass Effect makes you think about. That's the kind of thing that makes games art.

Another key component is your companions. In your adventures through space, you meet a lot of interesting characters who'll join you on your quest to save the universe. They all have unique personalities, and unlike KOTOR (I'm looking at you Canderous.) there aren't any of them that I actually hate. You can talk to them and build relationships with them depending on what you do and say. You can even make googly eyes at some of the characters of the opposite gender, if you catch my drift. (An option I opted out from, my Commander Shepard being more of the guy who would punch you, than kiss you.)

All of the aliens are both cool looking, and have interesting history behind them, whether it be the Warrior race of Krogan, who are afflicted with a sterility plague, causing the race to slowly die out due to the fact that they can't reproduce, or the single-gendered Asari, who live for thousands of years, or even the nerdy yet awesome Salarians, they all look awesome, sound awesome, and are just generally awesome.

The combat is the best out of the Bioware games I've played, but then, Neverwinter Knights 2 and KOTOR's combat sucked, so that's not really saying much. It's your standard Third-Person Shooter over the shoulder style shoot-em-up. One interesting thing is the lack of an ammo meter, instead opting to give you an "accuracy meter" that decreases as you fire, and an indicator of how hot your weapon is. Should it get too hot, you have to let it cool down, which can be life-or-death during a gun fight. The combat is good, but not remarkable. Also, you can use forc- I mean, "biotic" powers.

Ok, now this is the part where I get nitpicky. First of all, while it's true the aliens look utterly breathtaking, the humans are deep in the uncanny valley. I promise you'll be spending a lot of time staring at their teeth and wondering why they are quite so far apart, or staring at their hair and wishing they would go get a haircut.

Also, while you're given the ability to create Commander Shepard however you want him/her to look, it's pretty much impossible to make him/her look like anything that could be called even remotely good. You're given about 7 hairstyles to pick from, and all of them are almost exactly the same. You can mess with sliders to change how his/her face is shaped, but it you can't rotate the camera until after you leave character creation, so basically you're guessing there. For example, I spent about 20 minutes tweaking every last detail of my Shepard, only to get him into the game and see that his eyebrows stuck out about two inches from the rest of his face, at which point I promptly went back to the main menu and started over.

The galaxy is massive, and you can explore dozens of planets, but most of them are empty and bare, and have nothing to do besides a few repetitive side missions which take you through tedious vehicle segments. The vehicle controls are easy to use, in the same sense that it's "easy" to stop a moving train with your face. And most the time that you're in the vehicles you'll be wishing you were trying to stop a train with your face because it might be less painful than driving slowly up a vertical cliff face, only to get two inches from the top, fall, and have to do it all over again.

It's almost as tedious as the elevators. OH THE ELEVATORS.

Ok. This is an open message to all game developers out there. I don't care if it's Nintendo, with your Metroid Prime doors that don't open, Bioware with these elevators, or any other number of other developers out there. Let me be plain.


Hmm. I feel better now.

Also, a slight note is that because the slider you have in the game doesn't say the full thing Shepard is going to say, it can sometimes be confusing exactly what will happen if you click something. For example, if a guy tells me to come with him, and I say no, maybe I didn't mean I should tell him to go to a certain place of extreme heat that is frequented by demons. Maybe I didn't mean to draw my gun and tell him I'd send him there myself. Maybe I just meant, no, but thank you for the offer, now can we all hold hand, pick flowers, and sing about friendship together?

Which brings me to the voice acting. Now, while 99.9% of the voice actors were pretty darn good, including the generic people on the street, and there were some awesome people listed in the cast, there was one big oversight in my opinion.

Shepard himself. The guy has no emotional range, He's either grumpy (neutral), less grumpy (paragon), or I'm going to shoot your face off and wear it like a mask psychopathic (renegade). I just didn't like the voice.

For all my nitpicking thought, I still LOVED the game. It wasn't perfect, but it still gave me a good ~20 hours of enjoyment, and the last 3 or so of those were sheer game storytelling nirvana. Nerdvana, if you will.

Speaking of the last 3 hours, the twist at the marker for when you have 3 hours left was one of the best I've ever seen. No, I didn't forget to add in a game there, we're talking Rosebud was the name of the sled, Bruce Willis a ghost the whole time, Snape kills Dumbledore megatwist awesomeness here. And around that same time, let me just say that there was a choice you had to make that was amazing. It wasn't a question of right and wrong. There was no right answer. But there were consequences. Major consequences.

So overall, it's a great game. Definately worth picking up, and definately worth playing through, because the good far outweighs the bad.

Buy this game if: You love epic storytelling on a grand scale, a unique universe, great characters, and some funny moments, and are willing to cope with a few annoying pieces to a great game.

Don't buy this game if:
You have an irrational fear of elevators. You'll be spending a lot of time in them.