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.