Archive for Reviews

Choose Your Own Effect

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , on February 11, 2009 by zolthanite

I started up Mass Effect completely enamored and thrilled to be alive.  By the end of the game, I wasn’t nearly as high on space life, but it was still a good game.  However, the hype machine and the players gushing “incited me to rage” as it were.  This is saying something because this and Bioshock were the first games I had ever taken on solo on a 360 before, as I didn’t own one at the time because of my pure hatred of everything Microsoft (I still don’t have a Gold membership to XBL.  I’ll let someone else pay for that).  It also didn’t help that I was playing this on a 40+” CRT TV that was fuzzing out on the edges, preventing me from reading any relevant info like the number of grenades I had.  So, onward and upward.

Legitimate Reviews:

Kotaku: Honestly, I can’t call this a review because it only addresses the dialogue system at length.  Don’t get me wrong, the dialogue system AND the quality of your choices is the best I have ever seen outside of Black Isle Studios, and I commend them for it.  But there’s a reason why.

Zero Punctuation: Yahztee basically shares my biggest issues with the game and doesn’t elaborate on them at all, instead opting to talk about the skull-crushing amount of text.  I expect a game to, you know, be a game.  The actual “game” portions of the experience are half-assed and half-baked, which was disappointing to me.

Personal Thoughts

To understand where I’m coming from, two things to note:

  1. I love to read.  No really.  I don’t get a chance to do it often, but I’ve plowed through the entire Harry Potter series, the memoirs of Joseph Wilson and Alan Greenspan, and read The Long Halloween and The Dark Knight Returns purely to see where the origins of the latest Batman came from.  I’m equal opportunity, and a lack of books is barely replaced with obsessively  reading news sites and blogs.
  2. The first Mass Effect novel came out a few months before the game came out, with the author for the book serving as lead writer for the game.  

Unlike the Metal Gears, where the plot is fairly complicated so there’s a lot of exposition and cutscenes, Mass Effect has a simple plot with a lot of atmosphere to understand.  Playing Mass Effect is a a weird experience for someone who reads books regularly (especially sci-fi) because, for the most part, it feels like I’m having a 400-page book being read to me all of the time.  What was weird was I felt this way before I found out the novel actually existed.  Most of the dialogue you don’t need, but then you lack basic context for what is going on in the world around you and why you should care (The best example is Wrex, because the Krogan genophage is a key event you really need to know about, but I don’t remember how much of that comes up without taking the time to talk to him between missions).  The key climactic moments in the game were beautifully done, however, and Mass Effect does a much better at interactive storytelling than the Metal Gear Solid series.  But what absolutely kills it is the game itself.  The load screens, interfaces, everything that make it a game, felt so ham-handed and unsatisfying it eventually broke the enjoyment I had for what was otherwise a great game.

Instead of releasing a series of novels (There’s currently two out, but I don’t know where the second falls chronologically), Mass Effect really should have been broken into two games.  The first game would effectively “create” Shepard up until the point where the player actually becomes a member of SPECTRE, whereas the second would focus on the “Saren Conflict” and the DLC missions.  The sheer variety in deciding your character’s backstory at the very beginning implies there is a lot more room to have those details fleshed out in the course of a CRPG-like campaign, which would really give a shot of player attachment right into the arm.  The other bonus, possibly the more important one, is that in serving as a soldier, you are effectively experiencing the world at large directly, without the need for plot-driving set pieces for the epic story.  

Unlike  Metal Gear, which has an already-supplied world (Modern politics) with a few footnotes for molding the planet, Mass Effect starts you fresh.  So from a narrator’s perspective, you have to understand the entire world around you before you can create an effective story in that world.  Otherwise, the sheer magnitude of scope is burdensome on the storyteller, and crushing to the reader.  The Simarillion could never be ingrained into the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Mass Effect is determined to do just that through the creative use of optional dialogue and logs.

Added bonus if BioWare had a way to import the story and choices from Part I into Part II.  That would be incredibly sexy.

My Prior Review

So after I  finished the game, I made this post on my local gaming community forum.  Like I said “incited rage”.  As an added note to this, I hear the PC port made a much better use of the controls, which seems to be standard for them given the existence of Jade Empire Special Edition.  Shamus Young also made two Stolen Pixels comics, one of which I’m adding to the appropriate places in my otherwise link-free rant.  

I have no clue about the problems I had with loading though, which I surprisingly didn’t seem to address.  The short of it is, the middle of the galaxy map and the Normandy were two areas where there shouldn’t be load times, because they are extremely small, localized areas.  The loading hiccups every time I went to the lower bay for supplies and selecting systems to travel to drove me absolutely insane.  Surprisingly, I didn’t hate the elevators at all.:

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My initial impression after about 5 hours was “Oh my god. A non-JRPG that I actually enjoy. Sweet Jesus this will be great”. I just finished the game after about 20 hours of playing, much to [my brother’s] dismay as the 360 is the only point of entertainment in the house.

Seriously guys, put your pants back on. Yes it’s a great game, but for the love of god it isn’t [Extreme statement better left unsaid].

Things that are well done:
– Graphics, even on my non HD TV
– Dialogue
– Storyline progression
– Character development

That being said, Mass Effect seems more like a game that was designed to tell a story, not be a quality video game, and that is the single reason why I don’t think this is “Game of the fuckin’ year!!!111” or any of the other extreme awards designed for it. It’s a good game, don’t get me wrong, but in the end I really feel like I spent $50k on a Mustang or Vette as opposed to a 7-series BMW or a high-end Mercedes. Sure the exterior is completely sexy, and way more extravagant than the subtle Germans, and will make most people wet their pants. But the love of the whole isn’t there and I’m stuck with substandard internal systems and lacking all of the random things I never knew I needed like programmable seat positioning and auto-adjusting wipers and headlamps.

Miscellaneous
—————-

The Mako exploration, after a certain point, is the exploration equivalent of grind. I began to hate doing any of the non-storyline planets with the Mako purely because I hate trying to figure out how to climb out of a series of sheer wall faces because of the general ambiguity of the planet surfaces when you need to get from point A to point B on some of the planets. If there was more squad combat, throughout the game, on the level of the last mission as opposed to a series of short confrontations where I end up one-shotted by rockets on occassion, and less Mako nonsense, the game would have been way better.

The autosave feature is fairly silly. It only triggers in the most extreme situations, but for things that are pre-cutscene initiatives, that really should be able to function during the scene itself without locking down the whole system. But this, along with the random “loading” is a fairly minor gripe compared to the two things that really annoy me.

I don’t get why the galaxy map has to load at each system junction like that. It’s kind of annoying, because there’s nothing graphically crazy going on, it’s just dropping another tier of detail.

Controls
———-
The control system is decent, but it could have been way better. For starters, controlling anything more than my Infiltrator’s own biotic powers is completely not worth the effort. On top of that, the fact battle has to pause to use the abilities kinda kills the fun of doing the real-time fire fights. For the way the combat was designed, they should have used a PSO-like system that would turn RB into a shift button of sorts, remapping at least two of the color buttons custom abilities.

Grenades are completely annoying, as they are not only weird to come by, but the button to use them is completely inconvenient. The fact you have to reach over to use them makes them extremely hard to aim well, and I would imagine a liability at times. It would have been much better to map the button to X when your weapon is drawn, as the button is completely unused otherwise. That way I might actually be able to lead running targets and hit things. You know, in case I don’t need to shoot to kill.

Menus and Inventory
———————–
What the fuck.

Seriously, this is an RPG. A RP fucking G. If you’re not spending your time in dialogue or combat, you have to mess with your inventory and menus. And this game is written as if the concept is completely novel. I can’t sort anything by any parameter, as it would seem like the only thing it cares about is tier. Shit, even the NES RPGs had manual sorting abilities.

Want to sell enough Cryorounds so you have just enough to cover a weapon or two per character for situational use? Tough shit, you have to sort through every single tier of mod, weapon, armor, ad amplifiers, starting from tier 1, because the sell menu won’t let me sort by mods so could at least lessen the amount of garbage I have to travel through.

Want to go to the shop in the Normandy and buy gear for your squad? Tough shit! Unless you’ve memorized the details on your squad’s weapons and armor, you have exactly zero way of knowing what anything your crew is wearing because they are not part of your team. Instead, you have to go to the locker, and figure it out. And god help you if you forgot what weapons and armor your crew is skilled in, because then you have to check your squad menu. Which you can only do when you are deployed.

And why the hell is the “Non-human armors”, “Unique items”, and “Standard items” subsets for shop items accessible only through the initial dialogue? Why isn’t it a sub menu in the shopping screen itself? Why do I have to cancel out of everything, reinitiate the dialogue sequence, and let the game reload inventories just because I want to see everything the guy has to offer? 

—–

What really chaps my ass is that for all of the attention to detail, to subtle eye motions when Shepard is making a decision, the blinking, and responses and acting in every single aspect of what this game is, they didn’t put anywhere near the same amount of work in the actual interface of the game. The stuff I have issue with is completely textbook stuff that has been done in so many damn games before it it’s not even funny, and they boned it.

This game isn’t a 9.5 or a 9. This is a solid 8. It’s an amazingly epic story, but it is a fairly simple one by RPG standards, and the ending is way better than Bioshock (Seriously, that was completely anti-climactic and completely contrived). But Bioshock is still the better of the two games, even if given the choice I would end up playing this again over Bioshock.

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Return of the Snake

Posted in Games with tags , , , , on February 5, 2009 by zolthanite

As part of my epic “All of these games point to something very unsettling with the industry”, I need to actually review the games in question (Metal Gear Solid 4, Mass Effect, Fallout 3, and Grand Theft Auto 4).  I’ll also need to bring myself to complete Fallout 3, which is painful on a level I cannot even begin to describe, but I digress.

To be at least semi-impartial on this, I’ll link to alternative reviews which basically mirror anything critical I would be saying anyway, with caveats.  Then I’ll get into my complaints, which are mostly there because no one seems to notice the problem of reviewing a game out of context.  It’s like quoting Bible verses and forgetting that the interpretation is largely dependent on the context in which is was written, and some things just don’t translate well into the 21st century.

Legitimate Reviews

Kotaku’s Review : Basically spot on.  My only major issue, and it is major with a capital J, is that it treats MGS4 as a game that is supposed to be entertaining through interaction.  Hence, the subject of my gripe.  Also to note is I have no interest in MGS Online, so I didn’t bother touching it.

There are only two other things to note:

  • Metal Gear has always had a history of fighter-pilot controls for motion and combat which always feel just awkward enough that you never perform an action without some kind of thought.  This game is no exception, and those damn PS3 analog should buttons don’t help with that at all.
  • Metal Gear is a serious game series with a serious plot that does not take itself seriously.  I say this not because it’s bad (It’s not), but Kojima has always used Fourth Wall Breaking and nonsensical dialogue as a comedic device/gameplay and tutorial mechanism (Seriously, the game would be much too tense otherwise).  Characters, while conversing with each other, frequently refer to the controller, button, and console you are playing the games on without a second thought.  It is completely jarring, especially since one of the Metal Gear Solid 1 encounters uses information stored on your memory card about other games AND requires you to use the Player 2 port on the system you’re playing on, and a few people would be upset enough about it to rant because it happens so rarely and so blatantly in the series as a whole.  So it’s here.

Personal Thoughts

The biggest issue, and I mean absolutely huge, is that Metal Gear Solid 4 requires you do two very important things:

  1. Forget you’re playing a video game.  You’re not.  You’re in an interactive novel with the dialogue choices replaced by gunplay and stealth.  If you’ve played H-games, Phoenix Wright, or Trauma Center, this makes perfect sense.
  2. Follow the Metal Gear Postulate.  This is, without a doubt, a fanservice game.  Playing MGS4 because everyone says it’s great is like reading (Return of the King/Order of the Phoenix/Children of the Mind/favorite book series where you only read the last book) first.  If you start a series at MGS4, you’re screwed.

What is the Metal Gear Postulate?  Countless mathematicians agonized over it in great detail, but I have recently discovered a simplified proof by Yamako et al. which is much easier to impart to the masses, without knowledge of continuity theory.  It is as follows:

Theorem 2.4.1 (Metal Gear Postulate): Assume you are playing a Metal Gear Solid game for the first time.  Assume, also, that the controls and fourth-wall breaking are perfectly okay to you.  Then, if the following formula holds:

x + 1 >= M

… with high probability you will enjoy the game, where ‘x’ is the number of prior Metal Gear games played in the storyline, and M is the chronological cardinality of the current game you are playing

Simply put, if you are playing Metal Gear Solid 4, and you have skipped over more than one of the other Metal Gear games (This includes the Metal Gear on NES, but not Metal Gear 2 for the MSX or Snake’s Revenge which was utter crap), you run the risk of being hopelessly lost.  The story line for Metal Gear is very convoluted, although very distinct, among each of the MGS games.  You probably be unable to piece together why anything is happening anywhere, what these characters are, and what the hell is going on in the semi-alternate universe Kojima has constructed.  The flashbacks will make no sense at all.  You can piece together the backstory of up to one game without too much issue, but that’s about it.

You also miss out on some seriously awesome fan service moments that require you to have played through the first Metal Gear Solid.

In short, know your history.  Otherwise, the game won’t be enjoyable.  But it’s a sequel.  You wouldn’t really play a sequel without skimming the cliff notes to the previous games… right?

Coincidentally, the Metal Gear Postulate can be extended to the following corollary:

Corollary to 2.4.1: The Metal Gear series must be played in approximate order in order to enjoy Metal Gear Solid 4.

The proof is an exercise left to the reader.