Archive for January, 2011

Under the Microscope with Mass Effect

I love Mass Effect! It’s more like a mild obsession. Why? Simply put: Mass Effect is just the real deal, period. It has everything an iconic video game needs: an outstanding story, rich characters depth and development, snappy fun gameplay mechanics, and it’s a visual high mark. What really grabs me is that it’s not your typical high sci-fi tale. Actually, the scientific aspects help ground the game to a reality that couldn’t be too far off. And that’s what makes it that much more appealing. Yes, ME does borrow many elements from other notable franchises, but who hasn’t? Besides, the presentation is outstanding and the story easily stands on its own.

I packed away eight solid playthroughs in the first Mass Effect. It was wasily one of my most favorite gaming experiences ever. The story was epic, the level design was amazing, the combat was well-paced; everything just flowed smoothly. Even the flaws paled in regard to the overall experience. Sure, the bases of the side missions were the exact same design, but each missions had different objectives that altered the gameplay. And the proceeding DLC proved that, Bioware were really capable of giving up some great maps (see the Bring Down the Sky DLC). With Mass Effect 2 right around the corner, I was on edge.

Mass Effect 2 wasn’t quiet as….epic. I realize the aim of ME2 was not to be a carbon copy of the first. However, I still had more than a few misgivings that didn’t sit well with me completely. I know this will sound like a rant from some cranky, close-minded gamer complaining over minor details. But I do believe the series will be better if a few of these points are tweaked:

     

  • Too Much Filler: I have no problem with the focus of the series taking a turn. What I do have a problem with is slogging through a game with a top-heavy roster of characters. 12 characters, seriously?! This would’ve been relatively awesome had the majority of them served any real purpose. Sure, Thane, Kasumi, Moridin, Zaeed, etc. were pretty cool on the surface; but there was no real character depth or development for them. They just felt like minor pieces in a much more important story. I wasn’t able to develop the same emotional attachment as I did with the original Normandy crew. Even some of their respective side-missions felt lifeless and unconvincing. This could’ve been a stronger game had they locked the team down to a more manageable size with a mix of old and new members (preferably Legion, Jack, Miranda with Tali, Garrus). This would’ve allowed more time for deeper character development and interactions. For example, they could’ve expanded on the story with Tali’s missions and further more when Legion entered the picture. Or they could’ve built in a more involved story between Jack and Miranda. This would’ve opened up richer storylines (and more succinct experience) instead of the generic one-off, personal missions that resolved themselves at the end.

  • Shoddy Level Design: This is one of the biggest disappointments of the sequel. One of the biggest complaints from the original were the monotonous levels of the side planets. The main planet such as Ilos, Feros, etc. were spacious, open and seamless. Unfortunately, the levels here are relatively small and stilted. The maps feel like very narrow restrictive corridors for the most part. Another drawback is the horrible loading screens. I would have much preferred repeated dialogue between of mix of character than the bland, tip-riddled loading screen between sections. This also took away from the seamless feeling the original worlds in ME. Take Noveria for example, entering the complex, using the Mako to traverse the sub-zero winter landscape, and ultimately moving to Peak 15 for a crucial battle all happened (seemingly) in-game, no loading screen break-ups. There’s no map within ME2 with that sort of polish. Even vising the Citadel was a heartbreaker, a former lush open environment to essentially a room with a few hallways. Poor form Bioware, poor form indeed. In the future, at least give us the option for the bits of dialogue. The loading screen and confined maps were just a huge step back. And bring back the sprawling large maps.

  • Misdirection: This is more a subjective tick, but it has merit. In short, I felt that some of the themes and perspective derived in the original take a different turn in the sequel. Is it only me, but in the first ME Cerberus elicited the aura of being a highly clandestine, Illuminati-esque organization no one really knew anything about or if they even truly existed. But in ME 2, it’s a complete 180. Not only is Cerberus well-known with a public emblem, they seem to have an active recruitment drive. They went from being the NSA to being the FBI. The same would be said for the Shadowbroker as well. For being such a shrouded entity in the first, the Shadowbroker’s presence was very apparent in Liara’s DLC. I was expecting a bit more engagement here, especially since he was connected to one of the decision points in the original. And while we’re on the issue of decision points, I really hope they serve a bigger role in Mass Effect 3. But I could be speaking prematurely as mentioned earlier.

The junior RPG nerd in me would like a return to the inventory management from ME1. But I understand the streamlined approach, it makes the game more accessible to more potential gamers. And quite honestly, the no-frills approach works. As a personal request though, I do hope there’s an option that allows for more inventory control.

All those issues aside, ME2 is a phenomenal gaming experience. Even though the presentation isn’t as grandiose, it’s a blast to play. And in the end, that’s really all we can ask for as gamers. In my opinion, Mass Effect is more about the overall experience. It has the rich stories and characters, lush open worlds, and significant battles. it was a the full package, flaws and all. Whereas Mass Effect 2, it’s more about the gameplay being padded through with some mildly entertaining bit characters. Ideally, if they could transfer the gameplay elements of ME2 into the original ME; then Mass Effect 3 will be a smash hit. Regardless of what happens, I’ll definitely be there day one, and so should you.

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2010: Gaming on the Shoestring

Yea, I know I’ve been absent for a few months, but circumstances changed and had to put the blog on the back burner. In any case, I felt the need to drag this back up since this is the end of the year. Overall, it’s been a hell of year: Had a job, lost a job, found another job, moved to the city I love immensely, made some new friends, and then some. I can’t help but be grateful and thankful for all the opportunities, trails & tribulations that I’ve been put through. Now that things seem relatively stable, I’m looking to hit 2011 full speed, guns blazing.

It’s been yet another great year in gaming. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to play everything I wanted. But I have played my fair share of games. And with that, let’s jump into this year of gaming.

Best Game of the Year:

     

  • Alan Wake: For a game that’s been in developmental hell for the better part of a decade, this title surely didn’t disappoint and was worth the wait. If you’re looking for a horror title with more of a psychological bent, you can’t go wrong with this title. Kudos to Remedy for creating a game that doesn’t cater to the lowest denominator from a gameplay & presentation perspective.
  • Runner-up #1: Mass Effect 2 – I have a whole post that I’m gonna dedicate to this game so I’ll keep my recap brief. I wasn’t too keen on some of the streamlined elements. And the story didn’t retain the “epic-ness” of the original. But the gameplay was 1000 times better. So much so, I carried over all seven of my previous Mass Effect save games. If that doesn’t define a great title, I don’t know what does. The only reason I picked Alan Wake over this was due to Wake being a breath of fresh air among a sea of cookie-cutter titles.
  • Runner-up #2: Heavy Rain – This little gem comes from David Cage who also gave us a personal favorite of mine: Indigo Prophecy. Even though sales surpassed expectation, it still struggled to make a huge impact. I believe a lot of that has to do with the unconventional gameplay. Like Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain plays more like a heavy interactive movie than the standard, run-n-gun video game. The overall experience and story takes precedence over everything else; but it’s well worth every minute. I wish more games took this approach. But as sales indicate, these type of games aren’t cash-cows. If games could convey even a quarter of the emotion and passion found here, video games would be in a much better place. If you have a PS3, you owe it to yourself to buy this game. Or go out and buy a PS3 for this game.
  • Worst Game of the Year:

  • Splatterhouse: I was so heart-broken over how this game turned out. Given the nature of the game, this classic remake should’ve been a slam dunk. But that wasn’t that case. The ridiculously long load times, the spastic camera, the lazy visuals, the questionable AI, and other flaws couldn’t save this game than being anything more than a cheap thrill with its hidden nudie pictures A real heart-breaker considering how much I loved the original games. There is a slight silver lining here. If gamers actually endure the tedious levels, they’ll gradually unlock the original three games.
  • Runner-up: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II – This can be listed more as the biggest disappointment of the year. The first game was stellar with its surprisingly fresh and warm story befitting of the Star Wars universe. But more importantly, it succeeded in capturing Star Wars gameplay the way I always envisioned: Jedi & Sith doing ridiculously, amazing stunts with their force powers. Also, it has some wicked sword saber-play. But the sequel dropped the ball completely. Seems Lucasarts took the easy route this time relying on the generic clone-drone. Major characters from the first game appear only briefly or are completely forgotten. This is was what ultimately killed the game. It completely lacks all the original charm and sincerity, with no real plot or character development anywhere. The biggest insult is that the proceeding DLC on Endor is barely an hour long, but has more depth and potential than the entire game. I know the Star Wars nerds are up in arms about the controversial material. But who cares? It sure as hell would have made for a better story and more enthralling adventure than ther lifeless romp we’re given here.
  • Sleeper Game of the Year:

  • Metro 2033: A4 (the group who did work on the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series) did themselves a disservice by not providing a demo for the console gamers. With a demo and a stronger marketing push, they probably would’ve moved some major units. Some compare it to a more story driven Fallout type of game. Personally, I’d say it’s more reminiscent of Half-Life. Regardless, if you’re looking for a solid FPS, look no further. Despite the lack of demo and abysmal promotion, the PC sales have been strong, so strong that a sequel is well underway. Let’s just hope console gamers get with the program next time.
  • Runner-up: Take your pick of these great games that were either ignored or just flat-out forgotten: Dante’s Inferno, Vanquish, & Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
  • Diamond in the Rough :

  • Alpha Protocol: Just to clarify, this award goes to that one game that could have been a top ten contender or classic with a bit more polish. Anyway, there was a small amount of hype around this game. The trailers indicated it would be a hardcore, action packed, spy thriller. But then it sort of just disappeared from sight upon release…and with good reason. The game wasn’t broken but it did have some flaws that were hard to ignore. But the game wasn’t that bad IMO. It presented players with a nice mix of dialogue options that altered the course of the game. And it had a fair variety of combat options from stealth, hand-to-hand combat, and guns. I’ll be the first to admit it wasn’t the most seamless experience, but the game wasn’t that bad IMO. And it was judged a bit harshly. With the right amount of polish, this could’ve been stellar. But then again I also enjoyed The Bourne Conspiracy which was equally panned. Take from that what you will. Then again maybe I’m a bit too forgiving with some games. 🙂
  • Biggest Surprise of the Year:

  • Castlevania: Lords of Shadow: The big surprise here is that no one really bought this game. For one, it’s freaking Castlevania. And two, it was backed by Hideo Kojima himself. This should’ve been flying off the shelves. Instead, it struggled in sales just barely cracking one million units. Outside of Fallout: New Vegas, there weren’t any other titles to contend. And it was released a full month before Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood & Call of Duty: Black Ops, so what gives? Kojima accomplished a major achievement here by breathing new life in the series with new gaming elements (notably, by going 3D). This actually would be one of my top 3 games of the year had I not played it’s earlier predecessor this year, Dante’s Inferno. If you enjoyed God of War, Devil May Cry, or Castlevania in general, there’s no reason this shouldn’t be in your library. GO BUY THIS GAME!
  • Runner-Up: Super Meat Boy – This game just stays in the forefront of the gaming world. In my objective opinion, the game is awesome in all it’s retro goodness. But personally, it drives me F’ckin insane! This platforming masterpiece should definitely appeal to the old schoolers like me. But the degree of difficulty will turn off a fair share of other gamers. Playing this game brings me back to my childhood where I threw massive shit-fit, controller breaking tantrums over similar games (old school Megaman games especially). That’s not a place I need to revisit. SMB is how I view spicy food: good to have every now and then, but nothing I’d have regularly. That aside, it is a great game that every gamer needs to check out at least once.
  • Wall of Shame:
    Admittedly, I haven’t played all this year’s major titles. Here are some those titles:

  • Red Dead Redemption: Here’s the saddest part of this story. I’ve bought every bit of add-on DLC but I haven’t even taken the plastic off the game. How sad is that?
  • Starcraft 2: Admittedly, RTS just aren’t my cup of tea. I do enjoy the Civilization series, but the rest….not so much. All the hoop-la around this title, left me a bit baffled and slightly perturbed that I wasn’t able to jump on the bandwagon.
  • Red Steel 2
  • Yakuza 3
  • Skate 3
  • Lost Planet 2
  • Crackdown 2: Again, sitting in plastic but haven’t had time to crack it open.
  • Naughty Bear
  • Dead Rising 2: Another game sitting in my growing video game backlog.
  • Gran Turismo 5
  • Kane & Lynch 2: Another one waiting in the wings.
  • Personal Top Ten Games of 2010:
    Here are my personal favorite titles from 2010. I realize the list may seem incomplete since I’ve missed some of 2010’s major AAA titles; but it’s my list nonetheless:

     

1. Alan Wake
2. Mass Effect 2
3. Heavy Rain
4. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
5. Metro 2033
6. God of War 3
7. Alpha Protocol
8. Dante’s Inferno
9. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
10. Metroid: Other M

2010 was a great year in gaming, especially for interactive gaming with the launch of Playstation Move and Xbox Kinect. And 2011 is shaping up to be another stellar year, Dead Space 2 in a few weeks, Epic’s new IP: Bulletstorm, Uncharted 3, Duex Ex, Portal 2, a new Elder Scrolls, to name a few. But the grand prize of all of them…Duke Nukem Forever! Now, let’s see if it actually comes out this time.

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