Games I’ve played

I noticed that I hadn’t done a “what I’m playing” post in a while. So here are some quick observations for some of the games I’ve finished recently. These are not in lieu of proper reviews, something I’d really like to get around to writing, but just a handful of observations I made while playing the game. I’d really like to get back to some game talk.

Bioshock 2

I made the big mistake of stopping my playthrough of the first Bioshock about 30 minutes before the end (in favor of Halo 3). I went back to finish the game prior to Bioshock 2’s release. It didn’t have the emotional impact it could have had, because at that point I had sort of forgotten what I was fighting for. I didn’t let that happen with Bioshock 2.

I thought Bioshock 2 was a great sequel (prequel) in the sense that while some of the changes were drastic (being a Big Daddy being the most drastic) the majority were not. They were simply tweaks to the original. So in that regard, it was comforting to know how to do what. It was very easy to drop back into the mindset of playing the original (even if it had been three years for most). That is a sign of a good sequel.

The act (and weight) of being a Big Daddy gives you a sense of power you didn’t get in the first game while you were fighting them. The heft of the drill arm and the weight of your footfalls make this a completely different experience. That being said, I still never felt all-powerful.

This is something I’d like to expound on further, but I love that we finally got to see Rapture in its Utopian State. Both the original Bioshock and Bioshock 2 are set in the dystopian version of Rapture, after it has fallen. We are told (through the story) that it was once a beautiful, fantastical place. Bioshock 2 finally gives us a glimpse at that utopia. I wanted more.

Bioshock 2 get a Buttonmashing Mash of Approval™

Book Cover

Splinter Cell Conviction

I’m an old-school Splinter Cell fan. I played the first iteration on the Gamecube through completion. I really got into the character of Sam Fisher and I took his methods seriously. I liked hiding bodies. I liked hiding in the shadows. I liked shooting the Ring Airfoil Projectiles that knocked the bad guys unconscious instead of exploding their brain parts. I felt more in the game and in the character. When a bad guy had to be taken down permanently I acted with extreme prejudice. But I liked having my options.

Conviction, on the other hand, was different. Still rather enjoyable, but different. What’s the point of hiding the unconscious guard’s body when everyone in a two mile radius is going to end up dead anyway? I guess it was time for a change in mindset. That’s fine. Conviction was satisfying in other ways. Particularly the mark and execute. Sure, sometimes it amounted to nothing more than the Win Button, but I’m okay with that. I earned my chance to use it and I’m going to use it. It’s put to exceptionally good use in a stretch of the game where you need to evacuate the premise in a timely fashion. It literally became the Win Button for an extended period of time.

The game as a whole wasn’t particularly difficult and, in the end, perhaps a little shallow, but Conviction was a pretty fun game.

Mass Effect 2

I have a lot to say about Mass Effect 2. The short and sweet would be to say that it is a great game that I love. That leaves a thread that is too much to get into here, but I had a couple moments in the game that I wanted to mention.

The first isn’t a specific moment, but a culmination of little details that really made Mass Effect 2 personal. I don’t remember who I read that mentioned this, but one of the great things about Mass Effect 2 was that even though the over-arching story is the same for everyone, the little details, the little experiences were different for everyone. Sure, my choice to kill Wrex in the first Mass Effect changed the story lines and the way I was received by the Krogans in Mass Effect 2, but it didn’t kill my chances to gain the loyalty of Grunt. Little flourishes like this may simply be either-or branches in the story but they went a long way in personalizing the story for me and probably only me.

The second moment was the Geth story line. (This part has minor spoilers) During the mission to acquire the IFF (Identify Friend/Foe) device of the Reapers, you are aided by what appears to be a rogue Geth sniper, which is damaged/injured in the final battle scene. You take the deactivated Geth with you on-board the Normandy and you’re given the choice to activate it or hand it over to Cerberus. (I should mention at this point that the Geth are my favorite “race” in the Mass Effect universe and I feel a certain affinity toward them.) That inevitably led me to keep and activate the damaged Geth. At which point I had the most meaningful story line in the game. As the reactivated Geth relayed to me the nature of the Geth, the schism that occurred between the “logical” Geth and the corrupted Geth that followed and aided Saren, I felt an immediate connection to his/her/its story. When it finally told me to refer to it as “Legion,” I was immediately impacted. This intersection of technological mythology and familiar Biblical reference made him/her/it feel real to me, more real than any of the “living” characters. From that point forward, Legion accompanied me on almost every mission thereafter and has firmly taken the place of “my favorite character in the Mass Effect Universe”™

So that’s what I’ve played recently. Up next is what I’m actually playing.

Weekend Gaming

Having finished Mass Effect 2 and still awaiting the arrival of Crackdown 2, I’m a little in limbo as to what to play next. I picked up NCAA 11 and will probably get a few games in on that, but that is a snack game, something I can pick up whenever. I think I’ll go back to Resident Evil 5 for a little. I’ve got a hankering for some more Mercenaries and some more unlocking. I love being the master of unlocking!

Of course, if Crackdown 2 shows up I’ll drop everything and go orb hunting. I’m fairweather like that.

What are you playing this weekend?

The BioWare Effect

In my opinion, no company is sacred. A proven track record of good products is likely to attract me to a day one purchase but it only takes a single misstep to lose that trust. I’m not asking for spectacular games, just games that don’t make me regret paying full price. BioWare gets a lot of credit in the industry. Too much credit if you ask me, but they make solid games. The key word here being “solid”. Yet they can’t help but meddle with their own success. I’m often stunned that BioWare gets a pass for design decisions and gameplay mechanics that would push a game down as “mediocre” in most reviewers eyes. Only BioWare could get away with massively slashing a sequel down to bare bones simplicity and be considered genius for it.

When it comes to party-based RPG’s, BioWare is the master. Of this there is no doubt. That kind of system is so complex and difficult to manage that rising above mediocrity is a huge barrier to overcome. Yet I remember Might of Magic VI, the Mandate of Heaven, which essentially rebooted the RPG genre and made BioWare’s accomplishments possible. What happened to 3DO and the Might and Magic series? If you don’t remember or weren’t around the answer is simple. They became victims of their own success.

I think BioWare is working overtime not to become victims of their own success, but they don’t seem to stop and ask what works and what doesn’t. When I first heard about Dragon Age I had this picture of Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) ported into a fantasy setting. That’s not a bad thing. Aside from being the long awaited Star Wars RPG that many gamers had been waiting for, what really set KOTOR apart was that it was great in every way. However, it’s greatest triumph was its least appreciated feature. The controls of KOTOR were incredibly easy to grasp and use. There was complexity there, but you didn’t have to use it. Directing my characters in combat was a piece of cake. Navigating the many menus and statistics was easy. Quite an accomplishment considering I was also playing this on the XBox. The brilliance of KOTOR was that, like any RPG, it was essentially spreadsheet gaming without throwing the spreadsheet in your face. You were able to enjoy the story, the combat, the RPG tropes (new equipment, levelling, etc.) because the interface never got in your way.

Dragon Age is a lot like KOTOR in that it’s a party-based RPG, you can control the individual characters, and you can pause (sort of) combat to issue orders. Unfortunately, the spreadsheet is in your face. The difficulty settings in Dragon Age are “Easy”, “Normal”, and “Hard”. The translation of these difficulties is “Cakewalk”, “Pointless Micromanagement”, and “You don’t play games for fun, do you?”. I started Dragon Age on the “Normal” difficulty, only to find that I spent every battle carefully watching everyone’s health and mana. There are these great battle animations that play out, far superior to even the thrilling battles of KOTOR. I was completely missing the battle and instead carefully monitoring everyone’s status like Lt. Gorman in Aliens.

You can futz with “tactics” if you want. This is where the game really breaks down into pointless minutia though. I don’t want to get into that level of detail in the middle of battle. I want my archer to shoot arrows, my mage to rain mystic death, and my warriors to wade in with big swords and their swinging cods. Furthermore, the “tactics” I’ve selected and the actions of their characters on screen seem to line up only loosely. This is always my complaint about real-time battle systems. Look, either I’m in control or I’m not. If I have to take individual control of each character then let me just pause the entire battle while I adjust each person individually instead of the “switch-pause” tango you have me doing.

My impression is that Dragon Age is adequate graphics, decent story, horrid gameplay mechanics. I finally just put the game on easy so I could get through missions. I’m trying to decide which is worse now. The utter insipidness of the game on easy, or the ridiculous micro-management of normal. Neither mode is hard, but neither is particularly fun either. That’s what really surprises me. Once I peeled away the combat system I find the rest of the game is, well, good. Just not super great. Not “A+++, Perfect 10, 99.5%” or whatever reviewers are doing to fellate BioWare right now.

Which leads to Mass Effect. At least it doesn’t pretend you’re in control of your squadmates. You can direct them to use powers or have them switch weapons, and that works well enough. Sure, it’s a radial menu, which seems to be BioWare’s addiction lately. At least Mass Effect and its sequel don’t have radial menus that open up other radial menus (ARGH!!!! I’m looking at you Dragon Age!) Mass Effect had a neat system going, but it probably was too complex and usually poorly presented. I want to sell off some armor, when I go to the store I can’t see what the armor looks like. I get a colored box that the armor might have come in. Which one was that? Was it the black kickass armor I want to keep or the green camo crap that was worthless? Actually, that was Mass Effect’s other problem. Too much crap. You’d think it was a loot drop grind the way they kept picking up the same worthless pistol or upgrades. There was actually a point in the game, on the first playthrough no less, that if you meticulously sold everything that you didn’t need then you would never lack for money in the game.

Mass Effect 2 keeps “simplifying things”, but to what end? I think they’ve cut too deep. The game feels oddly generic. It’s all about the story now, but this just displays how mediocre writing in videogames still is. It’s not a bad story, it’s just not great. I think it would actually be more interesting if I didn’t have everyone telling me how awesome I am all the time. Hey, I get it, the guy effectively saved all sentient life before. They don’t even talk about that though. It’s a never-ending praise parade of how awesome it is to see me in action. How over the top is Mass Effect 3 going to be? Women spontaneously ripping their clothes off when Shepard walks into a room? They’re not far from it now.

In a lot of ways I think that is what gets BioWare it’s legendary reputation in the gaming media. They provide the ultimate in geek wish fulfillment. You’re not just a Jedi in KOTOR, you’re a secret amnesiac badass who brought worlds to their knees. In Dragon Age you are the last and only hope to keep the world from literally going to hell. In Mass Effect you’re the only individual in the entire universe that can save the entire universe. The Campbellian theme of the “Hero’s Journey” is tossed right out the window. We start at the end of the journey and proceed from there.

Mass Effect 2 First Impressions

Mass Effect 2 14

Since I’d rather be playing Mass Effect 2 more than typing about it, I’m going to make this somewhat short. So on to some bullet points:

  • First things first: I am loving Mass Effect 2. It’s taken most everything that was good from Mass Effect and made it better. And no elevators!
  • I love the look and feel. Mass Effect 2 really has a look of a mature next generation game.
  • The role playing game elements have been streamlined and become almost transparent. This is both good and bad. I like the streamlined skill set (simplified compared to the first game). I’m not a huge fan that they’ve largely removed the loot aspects of the game. No more weapon variety or modifications or armor. All of these have been streamlined, again, with a reduced number of weapons that are almost completely devoid of “stats”. You no longer see how much damage the weapon does or what modifications adds to the weapon. Now you’re just told if it’s “effective against shields” or “weak against synthetics.” Everything is available to everyone (that can use it) and upgradeable through your science officer. I’m getting used to it, but I liked being able to “min/max” my equipment and distribute new stuff to each of one of my guys.
  • The lack of planet exploration has been replaced by a scanning mini-game. It’s tedious, but I suffered through hours at a time of mining in EVE online, so this is practically Sonic mining. I don’t mind it.
  • I love the little details, the nods to the first game and the decisions I made. These little touches are a like Little Debbie snacks. Zingers. Raspberry Zingers, specifically.
  • I have just started “gaining” the trust and loyalty of my teammates and I can see that this process of gaining people’s loyalties become contrived. So far so good, but it is potentially on thin ice.

So this won’t qualify as a full review, but I can wholeheartedly recommend Mass Effect 2 to the Buttonmashing masses.

In My Hands