They Were Warned

Over the weekend, I finished up my play through of Mass Effect 3. Being a blockbuster franchise, I’ll be dispensing with the description of what it is. Now, the real trick in reviewing Mass Effect 3 is that, based on murmurings that I’ve heard round the Internet, the game may be vastly different to different players. Given such, anything I say about the plot should probably be taken as just one view into a multifaceted work. And finally, before I finish my disclaimers, I should say that there’s going to be plot talk about the two predecessor games and some about this final one. You’ve been warned.

For me, Mass Effect 3 began with Shepard under house arrest on Earth, after the events of the Mass Effect 2: Arrival DLC mission pack. The Reapers have finally invaded and decided to hit Earth first and hard. Honestly, given that the only person in the galaxy to kill a Reaper was a human, this seems a fair way to get started. With the fight on Earth hopeless, Shepard is sent off world to find some way, any way to fight back against the seemingly unstoppable Reaper threat.

After locating the plans for a MacGuffin capable of defeating the Reapers, Shepard instantly launches into a galaxy spanning campaign to recruit allies to both build it and hold back the Reapers advances to give time for said MacGuffin to be built. This section of the game is where it really shines. Unlike many other “save the world” or “save the universe” games, Mass Effect 3 manages to give the struggle real weight. People who matter die and decisions have real consequences. Most notably, the game often forces you to choose between having the best possible force now and trying to ensure a stable post-Reaper galaxy with the caveat that winning with anything less than everything (or even with everything) isn’t assured.

From a gameplay perspective, Mass Effect 3 follows very closely on Mass Effect 2‘s model. Nothing of great substance has changed, though weapon modifications are back from the original Mass Effect. Of course, the gameplay in Mass Effect 2 was extremely solid, so this isn’t a major issue. Given the nature of the story, however, there seemed to be less diversity in enemy opponents this time around. I wonder if that might make certain classes weaker this time around than previous.

My main irritation with the game was the available endings. I didn’t dislike the choices themselves–I’ve written a large analysis of them elsewhere on the site–what I didn’t like is that I was forced to make a choice and then was not shown the implications of that choice. This same problem appeared in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, though I would argue it is worse here.

Nevertheless, the sheer strength of the story in the mid-game largely makes up for the lack of denouement, at least to me. It is rare that a game can make me feel real emotion about it’s characters, but Mass Effect 3 did. It may also be the only game in which a forced loss didn’t feel like it can from stupidity being the only option.

Mass Effect 3: 1

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Last night, I finished up Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning. Amalur is a third-person, action-RPG hybrid in a fantasy setting.

As the game begins, the player’s character’s corpse is being wheeled through an unknown dungeon to be disposed of. After a bit of character creation goodness, said character wakes up in the center of a pile of corpses and then has to fight her way out of the collapsing “Well of Souls”– a magitech device which is apparently responsible for her recent resurrection.  During the escape, bits of the backstory are dropped in–a great war between the elves and the mortal races, etc. Once free of the well, the main character is largely set free into a large open world to explore.

Relatively early into the game, I began to draw comparisons between Amalur and Fable. Both are 3rd person, action-RPG hybrids in fantasy settings. Furthermore, both games have a three-treed ability system of magicy-ness, fightery-ness, and thievy. It has been long enough since I played the original Fable that I would have difficulty making a reasonable comparison, but compared to the latter two Fable games, Amalur is far better. The world in Amalur is bigger; the enemies are more diverse; and the NPCs are less like setpieces and more like legitimate characters in their own right.

My main complaint about the game is that it seems poorly balanced. I pursued a “balanced” approach through the game–evenly splitting my abilities between the three ability types. Although my “fighter” type abilities scaled well over most of the game (due primarily to the continual, ready access to newer and better equipment), the “mage” and “thief” abilities didn’t scale nearly as well. In a sense, though, that doesn’t really matter. Aside from the period of time while I was running around the map with no armor and all my abilities disabled (I was farming for skill trainers), I was never in any particular fear of losing fights. The game itself was surprisingly easy.

Summed up: Amalur is the game that I wish the later Fable games had been. It managed to be both wide-open with lots of options and yet still managed to feel connected and consistent.

Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning: 1

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On Fidelity

Originally Published 6 January 2012

Earlier this week, I finished up my playthrough of Catherine. The game itself is somewhat difficult to place into a genre, which is one of the things that made this review difficult.

The premise of the game is that you play as Vincent. Vincent has a dead-end job, but it’s enough to pay the bills; and a long-term girlfriend. The girlfriend–Katherine–has started hinting that she wants their relationship to move forward with the presumption that it is toward marriage. On the same day that she starts dropping these hints, he ends up having a one-night stand with another girl. The rest of the story is about his trying to come to terms with both his betrayal and what he wants to do with his life.

At the same time that Vincent is having this life crisis, he has begun to have terrible nightmares. In these nightmares (which he can’t remember after waking), he is forced to climb a wall or die. Every night, the complexity and danger of the wall increases.

These two ongoing parts of the game intertwine into one strangely coherent narrative on what the best way to move forward in life is. Vincent’s daytime problems are addressed by interacting with other characters, sending text messages, and trying to figure out his situation. The nighttime problems show up as a sliding block puzzle that is both simple and surprisingly deep. The puzzle game aspect was interesting enough that, even when I didn’t need to do the puzzles (due to having cleared them previously with a high enough score), I still did because they were fun.

Overall, I found Catherine to be very compelling. It was a game in which adult themes–love, fidelity, and finding a place–are address in a relatively adult and realistic way. Finding non-indie games that address these themes is rare enough; finding one that addresses them well was a great surprise.

Catherine: 1

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Kim’s Ending is the Best

This was originally published as part of a game roundup on 28 February 2011.

I played Scott Pilgrim: The Video Game on the 360. This made me nostalgic for The Simpsons Arcade Game which is a fond memory from my youth. I thought it played very well, but the game was a bit unstable. I suspect that Adobe Flash is to blame for this. Regardless, it was solid and I’d recommend it.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game: 1

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Communism: Now with more Psychic Powers

This was originally published as part of a game roundup on 28 February 2011.

Although I have been a longtime player of the Command & Conquer series (I had the original C&C for DOS), I had never gotten around to playing Red Alert 2 until just recently. I had obtained it back in college with a set of “Laptop Games” which I bought in order to get the expansion to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. Considering that the game is over a decade old, it has aged very well and was still full of the old C&C charm.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2: 1 (but you don’t really need me to tell you this)

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Meet the New Vegas, Same as the Old Vegas

This was originally published as part of a game roundup on 28 February 2011.

Fallout: New Vegas feels a lot like a total conversion mod of Fallout 3, mostly because it kindof is. I thought that New Vegas did manage to give somewhat more freedom to the PC by giving real choice about endings and removing any “invincible” or “essential” NPCs (something that Fallout 3 had many, many of). Those choices gave the game a greater sense of weight than I thought Fallout 3 had. Of course, many of the engine bugs from Fallout 3 persist, but I’ve long since forgiven them.

Fallout: New Vegas: 1

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It’s amazing what you can get Flash to do these days…

This was originally published as part of a game roundup on 28 February 2011.

I actually got Machinarium as part of the Humble Indy Bundle a while back, but only recently got around to playing it. Despite it being an adventure game very much like Monkey Island above, it manage to feel somewhat less arbitrary and had an internal hint system that made it feel like I wasn’t cheating just because I couldn’t figure out which object to rub against which other object. Also, the fact that it manages to tell such a compelling story without any dialog was rather impressive to me.

Machinarium: 1

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They call it Psychonauts because they only go into crazy minds.

Originally Published 8 July 2010

Last night, I finished Psychonauts. I know this review may not be timely, but I’d never played it until Steam had it for $2 a while back. For those left unaware, Psychonauts is a platformer released in 2005 for the PC, XBox and PS2. It was a critical success, but didn’t have a great deal of commercial success.

The game itself centers around Razputin–usually shortened to just Raz–a young psychic adept who runs away from his life in the circus to go to a summer camp where other young psychics are trained in how to use their powers. Most of the game takes on a similar quirky sort of humor.

Gameplay itself comes in two forms: the real world and the various mental worlds of camp residents. For the most part the two sections play identicaly. The main difference is that the real world has far fewer enemies and a large abundance of collectables (like most modern platfomers) whereas the mental worlds tend to be more enemy infested and have a completely different set of collectables. All of these collectables are used ultimately to raise your character’s level and thereby upgrade your abilities. The abilities themselves come in the sort of standard psychic toolbox: pyrokinesis, telekinesis, mind bullets, levitation, etc.

Surprisingly, the game actually holds up rather well given its age. Since most of the characters in the game are deliberately rendered highly stylistically, there is less of a realization that you’re playing a game that is as old as it is. A sort of “cartoony” vibe is everywhere and helps to gloss over what would otherwise be outdated graphics. The voice acting is also very solid (Raz is voiced by Invader Zim’s voice actor) which helps. Also, the plot manages to hold together despite its silliness to create a believable world–something that games which go toward off-beat routes have the risk of losing.

My main complaints about the game are, unfortunately, the last two areas. At the end of the game, there is a final “real” world and a final “mental” world. Both of these are far less polished than the rest of the game. Rough jumping puzzles abound in these areas. To make matters worse, in the earlier levels, the game always was kind to leave you with something like “recovery points”. If you managed to get high up in one of the jumping puzzles, the game would periodically add things that would let you skip the rest of the puzzle to get back to your starting location if you fell. In the last two areas, the game–for whatever reason–refuses to provide any. Several times, I fell down through minutes worth of puzzle only to have to climb the entire thing again. I’m not sure if they were aiming for an increase in (fake) difficulty or what. Of course, these were also the areas where all of the foibles of the control system became obvious. As an example, I beat all of the final bosses without losing more than 2 lives between them. On the other hand, I went through two complete stacks of lives (10 lives per stack) in the final platforming areas.

Despite the end game being a bit less satisfying, I think this game is still worth the time I spent playing it. It is rare to find a game with such a bizarre sense of humor that still manages to mostly be fun.

Psychonauts: 1

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Walk in the Rain

Originally Posted 24 June 2010

Last night, I defeated Heavy Rain. By defeated, I mean that I earned the platinum trophy and am thus completely done with the game. If you’ve been living under a rock, you might not be aware that Heavy Rain is an “interactive thriller” for the PS3 (currently an exclusive title) made by the people who made Indigo Prophecy. Because Heavy Rain is heavily story driven, you would be wise to expect unmasked possible spoilers below.

Much like its predecessor, Heavy Rain is mostly composed of quick-time events with interspersed exploration scenes and a heavy emphasis on narrative. This time, our four-man band consists of Ethan, the downtrodden father; Madison, the nightmare-addled reporter; Scott, the private dick; and Norman, FBI profiler. The story begins with a very shiny prologue with lots of bloom lighting and a virtual guarantee that something horrible is going to happen to transform the idyllic life of Ethan into the dark and gritty version seen on the game’s box art. Honestly, I was spent most of the prologue trying to figure out how many and which of his family members would die. After the inevitable death in the prologue, we pick up with Ethan two years later.

Within minutes of beginning the game proper, Ethan’s son is kidnapped by the Origami Killer and he is thrust into a series of “trials” in order to save his son. Coincidentally with this, Scott and Norm are seperately attempting to hunt down the Origami Killer. Madison is added on a bit later as a romantic foil and makeshift medic for Ethan.

As I said above, the gameplay comes in two main varieties: exploration and QTE. The exploration areas usually consist of puzzles and tend to be a bit more subdued. Unfortunately, the controls for the exploration areas are a bit klunky. The game uses a sort of “driving” paradigm where you point with the right control stick and move in that direction using R2. Unfortunately, the turns are rather lousy, so the game doesn’t quite respond as expected. This isn’t enough to cause many problems, but it can be annoying. The QTEs make up the bread and butter of the gameplay, however. Despite what might otherwise seem like a relatively restricted set of actions, the game actually manages to mix up the QTE options somewhat. In addition to using all 8 of the available buttons (X, O, Square, Triangle, R1, R2, L1, L2), they also make good use of the sixaxis controller by including rotations (especially in driving scenes) and more complex analog stick manipulations to denote fine actions. Also, unlike its predecessor, the game seems to have relatively few unwinnable QTEs. I believe there is only one QTE that I was never able to complete successfully in the entirety of the game.

I found the story to be relatively compelling if somewhat short. My first pass from beginning to end took less than a day and I was able to get the platinum trophy in under four days. Playing through the last bits of the game so many times in such a short period (one of the trophies is “Get All Endings”), did lead me to discover that the game is severely lacking on replayability. QTEs in general are fixed and don’t change from playthrough to playthrough. Puzzle layouts and hidden items also don’t change, so the second lizard will always have the key no matter how many times you play through the level. At the same time, playing through a second time does allow you to see more subtle things that show off characters’ true motivations. For instance, some animations that originally seemed just like “idle animations” gain new significance when viewed with full knowledge of the game’s plot.

I was a bit disappointed with some of the voice acting/writing. Most of the children that show up in the game have very strange or perhaps stilted dialog and the voice actors chosen have strange delivery. This occasionally happens to the adult characters as well, but is slightly less noticable. I attribute this most likely to the game’s dialog having been originally written in French and then translated into English later. This may explain their constant use of the word “wasteland” to describe certain kinds of deserted areas within an urban area–a usage which I’d not heard before.

There are also some loose ends that I felt the game didn’t properly address in any of the endings. Mostly, there is some background characterization at the beginning of the game which is supposed to muddy the waters in your search for the killer. Some of it ends up getting resolved, but some is simply dropped on the floor once the real killer is revealed. At the same time some characters (Madison and Norman especially) have internal struggles that you seem to be set up to try to help them through, but player actions seem to have little effect on the outcome.

Overall, there is a lot to like here. Indigo Prophecy is a good bellweather for whether or not you’ll like this game (surprise, surprise). Without that bit of data to provide help, I’d recommend it for general fans of mystery and old-style adventure games.

Heavy Rain: 1

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I don’t really see what we’re prototyping here

Originally Published 9 June 2010

Late on Monday, I finished up Prototype. The game itself is an open-world platformer similar in style to Infamous. The player takes on the role of Alex Mercer–an amnesiac who wakes up in a morgue–trying to figure out what happened to him and why nearly everyone in Manhattan is trying to kill him.

The game makes use of a relatively standard platformer upgrade system. Completing sidequests, killing enemies, and finding various collectables earn you EP which can be used to buy new powers. Completing main quest missions unlocks new powers for purchase in addition to the standard EP rewards.

Mercer’s powers proper are based entirely on him manipulating his body in strange ways–growing claws, turning his fists into giant mauls, etc. To that end, the standard way of regaining health is to grab a person and “consume” them. Doing so involves Mercer character physically absorbing (and thereby killing) the person absorbed. This consumption mechanic ends up being key to gameplay in several forms. Firstly, Mercer can switch between two disguises: his standard “Mercer” form and the form of the last person that he consumed. Since Mercer is often pitted against military personnel, consuming a military person and using their form provides substantial benefit.

Further, the consume mechanic also has an influence on the plot due to its non-gameplay powers. Most notably, Mercer gains the knowledge and memories of the people he consumes. Due to this, the main plot of the game is often concerned with finding people who know Mercer’s history and essentially eating them. This mechanic also drives the major subquest called the “Web of Intrigue” which is concerned with finding random people on the streets of Manhattan and eating them so as to find out more information about the game’s backstory and the ongoing operations of the military in the city.

The consume mechanic also bends back yet again into the upgrade system. Most powers can simply be purchased using EP, but some can only be obtained by consuming people with certain knowledge. All of the skills of this form are related to using things other than the powers inherent to Mercer–driving military vehicles, being more efficient with guns, etc. In addition, all of the people with the requisite knowledge are military personnel sequestered inside of the various bases constructed around Manhattan. This leads to a sort of minigame wherein you must find the base commander, consume him, sneak into the base under a false identity, and then find and consume the person (or people) inside with the appropriate knowledge. This is honestly one of the most interesting parts of the game because it pulls together many of the game’s more novel elements.

Gameplay wise, Mercer moves about the city mostly by running up buildings and then gliding around. Unfortunately, the building climbing is infuriatingly impercise at low speeds or over narrow objects. There are several collectables situated at the top of antennas atop tall buildings that I collected before I obtained the ability to fly helicopters. Had I known about this, I would have simply waited rather than becoming frustrated. This poor control also becomes troublesome in the various “movement” sidequests. One in particular (Point to Point) took me hours to do successfully.

The combat is also rather weak. Mercer is somewhat fragile and prone to be knocked over. Additionally, he has little in the way on inherent ranged attacks. This led to me using combat vehicles whenever possible due to the fact that they have seperate health bars and have damage output well in excess of what the player can nominally do with weapons. For instance, the tank can take down a helicopter in a single show whereas Mercer on foot only has a shot if there is something large nearby that can be thrown at the heli.

Overall, I found the game fun despite its weaknesses. I also enjoyed the story enough to keep moving through it without feeling compelled to simply get it beaten. I wish that I, as a player, had more impact on the outcome of the game. Given the open world nature of it, such things seem almost the norm, but Prototype gives a fixed plot influenced only by the player’s progress.

Prototype: 1

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