Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Unsolicited Game Reviews - Mass Effect (PC)

Up front summary: If you're at all interested in FPS RPGs I highly recommend it. It's not a new genre, doesn't have a new setting or even a new story type, but Bioware has created a very compelling game despite all of it and I had a lot of fun playing.

Disclaimer: The judgments in this review are 100% applicable to me alone. If you are not me, applicability may and likely will vary. I also reserve the right to make up words as I need to explain what I'm thinking.

The good (in no particular order):

The quality of the writing and voice acting is very good. At times it's excellent, and it makes the overall experience that much better for it. Not nearly enough games devote enough time and resources to this, and that's a shame. If the popularity of Gears of War is any indication, it appears that anything better-written than the translation of Zero Wing qualifies as good enough statistically.

The graphics are fantastic. I played it at 1280x1024 and had most of the options turned on and didn't run into much in the way of bad visuals at all. There were also no slowdowns/frame rate drops when lots of things were moving and shooting at the same time. The facial animation is very cool, and at one point in a later mission when you're running out of exploding ruins, the way that they animated the main character stopping from fatigue after a long sprint was a 'wow' moment for me.

The story is exceptionally well done. Saving the galaxy wasn't a new idea 10 years ago, but the way it's put together is believable and more than entertaining enough to keep you playing. The ending is quite satisfying, if a bit over the top in places.

The game is polished overall. Like most gamers I know, I didn't read the manual ahead of time and tried to figure it out as I went. I was still able to get a good grasp of the interface and the controls fairly quickly. You can also see that a great deal of attention was paid to the interface, the inventory/skills screens, to the difficulty ramping, and to things like keeping the enemies at around your skill level so that no matter what order you complete the missions in the enemies remain dangerous but not out of your league.

The action is a lot of fun in places. I played it twice on Normal difficulty and I found that so long as I used cover when my shields were low I could take on the majority of the combat situations without tremendous difficulty. Vehicle fights were also very well done, and there was just enough that I never really got tired of it.

Finally, the game length was just enough that I felt I got my money's worth through the single-player campaign. I did just about every side quest offered and spent much longer than I should have getting lost in some areas and I still finished the game in about 35 hours. My second run-through didn't take half as long because I skipped all the side quests and just stuck to the main story. To the advertising that claims 100 hours, I don't see how that's possible. My 35 hours also includes time when I left the game unpaused to go and make food or tea or even watch football games. Regardless, I got the game length I wanted, so it goes in the "good" section.

The bad (some nitpicking, some real)

Even after applying the 1.01 patch the game suffered from occasional lock-ups, occasionally in combat, most often in elevators. By the end I got into the habit of quick-saving just before going into elevators just in case. It's always frustrating to have to re-do stretches of gameplay you've just completed, but it wasn't frequent enough to be a deal-breaker for me.

Graphics. I know I said they're fantastic and they are, but there are some areas where it's clear that they cut corners, I assume because the game was ported from the 360. One example is staircases. Mass Effect staircases are very clearly flat ramps covered with a single texture shaded to look like stairs. I admit that it's a total nitpick and maybe this just stood out more with the visual effects maxed out, I don't know. I also don't know that I've ever played a game where footsteps on stairs were handled completely realistically, but this just stood out to me as a curious shortcut, perhaps because it sits in the context of obvious visual polish elsewhere. It's also not lost on me that if my biggest complaint with the visuals in any game is a freaking staircase, it's not a legitimate complaint unless the game is about staircases, so let's move on.

Controls. The mako was occasionally difficult to control, making very severe turns when you don't want to, and occasionally some issues while crossing jagged terrain. That it let you climb surfaces steeper than 45 degrees made up for it, though. Take that, physics!

And that's about it. Overall, I found Mass Effect a bargain for my gaming dollar (I got a sealed copy in trade for my used copy of The World Ends With You) and I recommend it to anyone even peripherally interested in the idea of a sci-fi FPS RPG.

For me, though, the reason I know Mass Effect is well done is that when I finished it I felt a little sad because it was over, I was enjoying it that much. I also immediately started the game over again, another rarity.

FWC's Tips for people inspired to play after reading this pseudo-glowing review:

• To make things the easiest for me, I always chose (when I could) to have Ashley and Tali in my squad. Ashley is pure combat and Tali is pure tech, meaning that fights were rarely very difficult and Tali should be able to help you unlock/decrypt every container/probe in the game.
• After starting a new game, go to the Options menu and turn off auto-leveling. This allows you to max out your squadmates' abilities in things complimentary to your skills.
• Decryption is a high-priority skill to have, as there's at least one item on every planet you need a high Decryption skill to open. As long as one member of your party has a skill, you'll all be able to use it. I chose to level up Tali's Decryption skill.
• Re: Money. For the first 2/3 of the game you really don't need to buy anything except licenses at vendors, because you'll generally find better stuff in combat than you'll get in a store. By the time you start to find level 5 and better equipment/weapons, you'll be able to sell your stuff for more money than you'll be able to use. You can't have more than 10 million in credits anyway, and I spent most of the second time through maxed out. You'll need to buy the high-end spectre gear, though.
• Easy XP: You get a lot less experience killing stuff in the mako than if you're on foot. To use this to your advantage, use the mako to bring enemies to near death, then jump out and finish them off on foot. I did this and it made gaining levels very easy.
• Use appropriate ammo. Anything that gives a bonus against synthetics is good to use for most of the game. The rest of the time, anti-organic stuff is best, especially in missions where you're fighting mercenaries. Makes battles go much faster.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Love/Hate Relationships and Me

I love sports. I enjoy playing them. I enjoy sitting on a couch with friends and unhealthy snacks and beverages shouting at images of my team on TV when I know very well they can't hear me. Sports appeal to both the high-minded strategist and the knuckle-dragging neanderthal in me (It's a skinny neanderthal that got beat up a lot at caveman school, but he's there nonetheless).

My history playing sports is a documentary entitled The Triumph of Hope Over Experience. I'm not particularly fast or tall or big, but I have the love, and according to the advertising, that's enough, right? I also have a mile-wide competitive streak which is capable of overriding higher brain function, along with a poor emotional memory.

Writing it down like this, there's no way this ends well. Nonetheless, stories.

Summer, 2007. A handful of guys in my engineering class were playing touch football at the university. We played 3 on 3 football with one guy playing QB for both teams. On one play, I was lined up against Earl Grant, a great guy who was on the university volleyball team and was the closest thing to a good athlete we had in our class. At the snap of the ball I got behind Earl, made him turn in the wrong direction and then took off running upfield. I was two full steps ahead of him and was feeling very proud of myself. The QB saw that I was open and threw the ball really high and far enough downfield that I was the only one who could catch it. I saw the ball and my mind started trying to figure out what kind of end zone celebration I was going to do after I scored.

We were playing on the university practice field. They have all kinds of equipment they use, including full blocking sleds, which are iron monstrosities roughly the size, weight and shape of a farm tractor. It's the off-season, and the university stores the sled out near the end of the field, minus the padding or anything that could be damaged or stolen. But back to me.

I have a full stride going, watching the ball come down from the clouds. I'm smiling, thinking of how much I'll enjoy telling people I managed to score a touchdown against Earl. I heard the beginnings of shouts, and before I could process what they were saying I ran headlong into the sled.

Specifically, I ran headlong into a piece of 4" box channel (think of a hollow square steel tube). I first hit it just below my center of gravity along my left leg, and it carved a strip out of my inner thigh, connecting solidly just to the left of my will to live. My body flipped over top of the sled where I was able to break my fall by slamming face-first into the grass behind it. My momentum carried my lower body fully over my head to where I ultimately ended up lying on my back, skidding to a stop. From a distance it looked like a very bad front handspring, and the end landing was described afterward as though I was "trying to make a dirt angel". The whole scene was truly Super Dave Osborne-worthy.

When my head first hit the ground I heard (felt?) a few distinct crunches in my neck and was very afraid. After both the world and I came to a stop there was a precedent-setting moment where I decided to be smart about things and see if I could move my fingers and toes. Luckily they responded, and by then the guys had run up and were asking if I was all right.

Once they saw that the Ed-shaped mess of arms and legs and moans of pain was alive and had managed to sit up under my own power, the laughing started. Apparently it was the funniest thing they'd ever seen and for a week or two afterward (particularly while I was still walking gingerly) I earned the nickname Flip, which lent itself to a cool explanation, at least.

So while football is easily where the most damage was done, that doesn't mean that other sports haven't managed to bring injury and incident. Here's a shortlist:

• Broke a thumb knuckle knocking down a pass.
• Twisted ankles and knees all over the place.
• There's a reason t-shirts have been made that say "Give blood. Play hockey." I'm a guy that ordinarily knows better than to go into corners. Wayne Gretzky said the best advice he was ever given about playing hockey was that "Corners are for bus stops. And stamps." He played for decades.
• Screening goaltenders and blocking shots is another path to useful for people that have more love than ability. It is useful, but it's not the path to a long and healthy career.
• Raquets hurt. Avoid them. Also, slowing your momentum before you get to side walls is a good thing to remember, for those like me that need such advice.
• Think you couldn't get hurt playing badminton? Think again. I dove to return a shot ago (which finally inspired this blog post) and managed to land on my side, on top of my raquet arm. I cracked a rib doing this, and damned if I can figure out entirely how.
• This isn't really a sport, but when you're playing in a tournament against a competitive sister in law who isn't paying attention, there's plenty of opportunity for near-death experiences.

Clearly the closest I should come to sports is either as a spectator or playing in fantasy leagues, though people who have seen my fantasy league tendencies know that that tends to be the death-knell for the careers of the players I choose. That's why I play video games. It keeps my motor skills intact, and I'm a fan of that. It's also a public service for athletes who spend their lives training for a chance to play as a pro only to have their career cut down because I drafted them in the first few rounds.

That kind of altruism can't be denied. I play video games for the greater good.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Simple things.

I am forced to admit, very simple things make me happy. Here are two of them.

Enjoy, faithful.

Instant Rim Shot and The Sad Trombone.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Hit-And-Run Post #4

Here's a game that kinda hurts my brain to think about, but I'm pretty sure I'll buy it when it comes out, Zero Wing text and all. Super Paper Mario's got *nothing* on this.

Ladies and Gentlemen, courtesy of a link to Destructoid, meet Fez.

Second, I've never seen a video game get rickrolled before. I've seen it now.

Meet Ric Doom.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hit-and-Run post #3: Non-music gaming update

Contrary to Mrs. Addicted's testimony, I do other things besides playing Guitar Hero games, despite the lopsided representation on this blog. Here's updates on some of them.

I recently finished reading Blink, a gift given by a friend of mine a while ago. Very highly recommended, it describes the two centres for decision-making in the brain, one of which is your front brain is able to slowly and logically reason things out. The other acts with minimal information and makes decisions that get interpreted as instinct. This book is an in-depth analysis of that part of the brain and what split-second decision making is good for.

I'm in the middle of another gift, a copy of Wicked, the story of the background of the characters featured in the Wizard of Oz. I expected something that would tie in the Wizard of Oz movie which it does very loosely, and possibly the musical, which it doesn't even slightly. Nonetheless, I'm a little over halfway through and I think I'm enjoying it. The subject material really forces you to re-assess what normal is in the context of a story, and I like it for and despite that. Because I have very little to connect it to, save for Hollow Chocolate Bunnies Of The Apocalypse (I'm not making that title up, it's a phenomenal book that I highly recommend), it's hard to preperly categorize it, but I'd recommend it to anyone looking for some fiction that's decidedly different with a feeling of realness to it.

Thanks to my schedule these past couple of years I've had a lot of trouble playing games that require an investment of an hour or longer at a stretch, especially if it's a single-player game. I haven't yet made appreciable headway in Zelda: Twilight Princess, and am doing my best in Fire Emblem on the Wii, which thankfully is both turn-based and equipped with a save feature that you can use after any and every turn. It's a good game and I highly recommend it if you like turn-based RPGs.

I've been helping out Mrs. Addicted when she gets really frustrated playing Super Mario Galaxy, and I find that while it's a little disorienting (by design, I figure), it really is a lot of fun. I copied her savegame file to another slot so I could take it up when I want to play but the Mrs. isn't around and I don't want to start the game from the beginning.

On the DS I did manage to finish Puzzle Quest, promptly handed it to the wife's maid of honour (yes, the wife's maid of honour, I had my own, too. Kinda.) and promptly apologized. It took her a few days to understand why I apologized, but she was nice enough to accept it then.

I still don't have a functioning left trigger on my DS, so I'm restricted to a couple of games that don't need it like Brain Age and Picross. They're challenging but not always entertaining any more (I love logic puzzles more than most, but 20x20 grids in Picross where you have to guess to make progress isn't always the thrill ride the brochure makes it out to be). Meh, helps me get some reading done between now and the new DS which I'm hoping we can get before August.

One last thing on DS gaming. Get a copy of Professor Leyton and The Mysterious Village. If you like puzzles at all, GET THIS GAME. It won't cost you $40 to get new and it's a game that actually features good animation and voice acting, making it worthy of a purchase for that novelty alone, even if the content were centred around cake (which it thankfully doesn't). I played about 15 minutes of it on a friend's cartridge and told him I'd buy it off of him when he was done.

Other gaming:
At one of our recent nerd coven gaming meetings, I had the chance to play a card game called Fluxx. It's not a deep game, but the fact that the rules of the game are actually contained on the cards and depending on what gets played/discarded, it becomes a sort of Calvinball card game. I picked up a copy because this kind of game suits me just fine, but Mrs. Addicted found she enjoyed watching me play more than actually playing, so I'm on the lookout for more people interested in this kind of weirdness.

Oky, this is kinda long for a hit-and-run post, but I feel a little guilty for not updating very often, so I'm making up for it by giving what, four posts today? One of them even managed not to talk about Guitar Hero. Until now, that is.

Hit-and-run post #2: Guitar Hero III update #2

I knew I shouldn't have posted that first hit-and-run GH3 update.

I whined and complained about The Metal in my previous post, but then realized when company was over today that I hadn't actually tried it in a few weeks. I figured what the heck, I'll flail about on it for a bit and then see what happens. As for the retirement announcement, I've only retired from doing work on the songs, I have no issue with taking a random stab at them now and again to see if I've magically become good enough to complete them.

In Quick Play I figured what the heck, let's give it a whirl and put in on Expert.

...and promptly beat it.

I tried a couple of songs in the next set, specifically Knights of Cydonia and 3s and 7s, and beat them both. I couldn't believe it. I figured I'd push my luck at that point and see if I could manage Cult of Personality, but no go there. At any rate, I figured it was nice to beat them, but it didn't count unless they were on my profile. A little later in the day I tried them again on my profile and beat The Metal and 3 other songs in succession. I know that at the end of the day, even if I beat every song in the game I'm still inferior as a player to a 9-year-old kid, and regardless, these skills amount to pushing buttons on a toy. I harbour no illusions here. That being said, I'm still pretty proud of this. I even took a picture of the screen to show that I have 7 unfinished songs left on Expert, which includes the wussed-out guitar battle with Slash and the unattempted guitar battle with Lou, neither of which I'm interested in. This leaves me with five unfinished songs in Expert difficulty, and after trying a couple of them tonight, I may just finish here. I'll keep you posted either way. (:

Here's the screenshot. Yes, I know, my parents are very proud.

UPDATE: It's been pointed out to me that I have 41/42 songs complete in Hard difficulty, and the one remaining song is the ending guitar battle with Lou, which I haven't attempted in a while, but haven't ever managed to win. I am cool with this despite my OCD leanings when it comes to beating video games.

Enter: Rock Band

There's a weekly nerd meeting that Mrs. Addicted and I attend. At these meetings we indulge in all manner of nerdery, mostly video gaming, some movies, TV shows and the like. Ever since Rock Band was finally delivered to the place where our host had it pre-ordered, it's been the game of choice for our group. It had all the difficulty of Guitar Hero, but with an actual chance to interact with your fellow gamers. Okay, it really just lets more than two people play at once, and you're really playing near more than with, but let's not split hairs, here.

Before Rock Band launched, I may have (even in an earlier post) said that I was skeptical as to whether any game with a $200 price tag would sell.

I was wrong.

In fact, it was Rock Band that made me realize that I wasn't really having fun playing the last few sets in Expert mode on Guitar Hero.

It helps if you have a nerd coven that can split the cost of a video game eight ways, I might not've had a chance to play it otherwise, and I'm sure that the rest of the group is forever grateful for the opportunity to hear me attempt to sing not only Iron Maiden's love ballad Run To The Hills, but even to sing Rush's country/western classic Tom Sawyer.

I'd describe it in detail, but in an effort to retain my flagging readership, I'll just say I have a theatre voice. I performed on stage in musical theatre for several years a while ago, and if you think (like I did) that a theatre voice and actual training would translate well to Rock Band, you are sorely mistaken. In our meetings they give me a guitar and leave me on it for several very good reasons, two of which are mentioned above.

Rock Band is one of the first games that actually can help you learn a transferrable skill. Guitar Hero requires more than a little suspension of disbelief when it comes to helping what Mrs. Addict would call basement-dwelling CHUD to believe they're rock stars. Rock Band has a drum kit that is many times over more sadistic than it looks at first glance. Medium difficulty is the litmus test for weeding out the truly dedicated to the "instrument", and if you can manage some of the stuff that I've seen on Hard and Expert difficulties, then I'd recommend getting a kit for real, because you're not that far off, in my opinion.

On top of it all, it's fun. It's very cool to have four of your friends thrashing away on different instruments and to see the four different sections of the screen all going at once. It's fun to be able to trade instruments and see the same song completely differently.

My favourite mechanic has got to be the one thing that would make Expert difficulty on Guitar Hero do-able and a lot less of a chore. Star power builds up for each instrument the same as in GH, but if one of you fails out on your instrument, the entire song doesn't stop. Someone with enough star power can activate it and bring that player back into the song, and in that way it keeps one person with a brutal solo from being able to bring down the band. You can actually fail twice in a song and be saved by other band members, which is a very useful thing, keeping the entire band from having to do GHIII-esque work to get past certain areas.

In all, wanting to learn the drum part alone has tempted Mrs. Addicted and I to pick up a 360 should room present itself for one in our budget in the coming months. I'll keep you posted on that, but don't count on a post for it until closer to the end of the year.

Hit-and-run post #1: Guitar Hero III update

To all and sundry: I have retired from Guitar Hero III.

This doesn't mean that I've quit playing by any stretch, but I have stopped trying to finish songs I've never finished before.There are 9 songs I haven't finished successfully in Expert difficulty, not counting three guitar battles, which seemed gimmicky anyway.

I spent an hour playing and in practice mode trying to play the ludicrously hard bridge in The Metal, also known as the ending credit music from the movie Tenacious D. Two attempts at the song after this garnered one failure at the expected 50% and another failure at 94%. I noticed after that failure that I had at some point stopped having fun.

I'm confident that I can do it, provided I'm willing to spend as much time as I need to develop the muscle-memory required for this one song. On quick-play mode I tried a few other songs and ran into the same difficulty, that being that there is a stupidly difficult chord sequence or hammer-on sequence each time that you can learn if you're willing to spend the required time to teach your fingers to perform that one sequence, which won't help you with the next song. Ultimately, I'm far enough behind in my unplayed games library that spending hours on hours not having fun with this one simply isn't worth it.

That's not to say that I've stopped playing it, I happen to enjoy the music, particularly the Blue Oyster Cult song Cities on Flame With Rock And Roll, and when company comes over I'm more than happy to play with them. I've just stopped trying to finish every song on my own, and for someone who's willing to farm in caves, that's saying something. It also hasn't stopped me from looking on the Internets for a remotely cheap copy of GH I and II for the PS2 so that we can play all the songs that were in the first two games. But I digress.

I partly blame Rock Band, but that's another entry, coming soon.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Love-Hate Relationships

I need to tell you about a game I traded for recently that I kinda regret. In exchange for a copy of Trauma Center for the DS shipped to the east coast, I got a copy of Puzzle Quest.

Short Review: This is a stupid game.

Every time I try to come up with a positive description of this game what I come up with makes it sound even worse. It's technically an RPG where the combat mechanic is that ubiquitous web-based flash game that involves matching coloured gems. You know the one, Bejewelled or Bepuzzled or BeWTFAmIDoingStillPlayingThisGame, I can't remember the exact title off the top of my head. When you're not doing this, Puzzle Quest is every hack-n-slash RPG ever. There's a kingdom, multiple kingdoms, in fact, each with a perfectly good army that requires you to be their collective savior single-handed. All of the dialogue is full of alarmist language, but evidently the situation is not so dire that the merchants don't charge you an arm and a leg for the tools/armour/weapons that you need to spend time saving up your cash to buy in order to progress through the game. The story has been done before and the combat is exactly the same every time, save for an ability to change gem colour or to use "spells" that allow you to take extra turns.

It's like this game was genetically engineered to kill me through sleep deprivation. I've played this game past midnight on three work nights this week, and on public transit to and from work and on breaks. Two pints of tasty cider were the only things preventing me from doing it again yesterday.

It's really weird, because it's not like any other game addiction I've had before. Most addictions make me think about the game a lot and the game addiction du jour tends to dominate my conversations, as people unfortunate enough to talk to me in mid-fix discover. With Guitar Hero I couldn't shut up about it for weeks, same for a lot of other titles. With this one, I don't even think about it. I don't long to play it when I'm busy and I certainly don't have dreams anything like the fretboard from hell visions one gets when going to bed right after spending an hour losing guitar battles with Slash on Expert.

I just find myself instinctively reaching for the DS whenever I get a minute of free time, and it's honestly kind of creepy. I skimmed a GameFAQs....FAQ for this game and one of the first things it says is that this game hates you. After playing for a week, I agree completely. You can be dominating a Bejeweled combat against a monster when suddenly the random replacement gems that fall for your "opponent" create an auto-complete sequence that not only levels the playing field again but in fact causes you to suddenly lose through no action of your own. This will happen often enough that you will discover a real-life ability called Spike Rage that makes you want to snap your DS in half, throw it against a wall and go do something productive. It's not even that it's prohibitively hard, it's that it feels like the game decides that you shouldn't win a particular fight and there is nothing you can do at that point.

Maybe that's it. The ultra-sadistic gameplay mechanics result in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome where you start to love something that treats you so badly. Or at least find yourself subconsciously deciding to play it the second there's a hint of free time available, because every time you think about it with your conscious brain you're almost embarrassed to play it.

Regardless, that's the latest crisis. Back to your daily lives.