Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mass Effect (Bioware, 2007)

By the time I finished 3D Dot Game Heroes the worst of the freezing New England winter cold had passed, and my eagerness to do more with my new PC motivated me to brave the chilly basement once more. I'd been scouring through my Steam library trying to decide what game to tackle next, and I narrowed it down to either The Witcher or Mass Effect. It was a tough call because I was looking forward to both, but since I had just finished a medieval fantasy adventure (yes, I realize that you can't really equate The Witcher to 3D Dot Game Heroes, but it's still true), Mass effect won out. So, I fired up the space heater and loaded up the game that would be my... Wow, is this really my 10th review already?

The first time I ever heard of Mass Effect was during the whole Fox News scandal. If you're not familiar with the story, they had an "expert" come on the network to warn parents about the hardcore pornography contained in the game. During the show, this "expert" was asked if she had ever actually played the game, and she admitted that she hadn't, but she'd heard it was bad from somebody. This story immediately spread across gaming sites online, along with the fact that she had a book of her own on Amazon. Suddenly, her book's listing started receiving hundreds of bad reviews from upset gamers, several pointing out that they hadn't actually read the book, but heard that it was bad from somebody. It got so bad that she actually went back on the air and apologized for blatantly lying on the show, and admitted that after seeing a video of the game's questionable content, it wasn't any worse than what gets shown on network TV.

Well, all of that fun aside, I soon forgot all about the game as it was only for systems that I didn't own at the time. It wasn't until last year when Mass Effect 3 was nearing launch that friends of mine started talking about the series. By the time it was released I was really looking forward to it, so I purchased all three of the games in the series.

As I mentioned in my Space Quest review, I've been a sci-fi junkie for as long as I can remember, and this game caters to sci-fi fans in a big way. Many games have delivered solid science fiction experiences before and established detailed worlds, but Mass Effect goes beyond that and pays tribute to the genre as a whole. There are no blatant rip-off moments, but the game is filled with subtle nods to the classics, Star Wars, Star Trek, Blade Runner, Firefly, Aliens, etc. The experience is consistently both new and familiar.

The music is a cross between blockbuster movie worthy epic orchestral score and retro 80's sci-fi synth score. Imagine Blade Runner, Tron, or the first Terminator, I can't think of any other games I've ever played with that style music before. It brought a nostalgic smile to my face every time those saw waves cut through the string section.

You start the game by creating your character. Beyond customizing an avatar and choosing stats, you also get to assemble a back story from several pieces to create the type of person you want to play as. Similarly to Bioware's earlier game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, you always play with two selectable NPC companions. So, instead of trying to strategize the optimum build for the game, I'd recommend just building the type of character that you think would be the most fun to play, and then choosing companions later who's stats compliment your choices.

The game is a comfortable balance between Action Shooter and Role Playing. I was actually quite surprised by how strong the RPG elements were, in many ways up to KotOR standards. I've been told that the sequels focus more on the action and less on the RPG side, but I still have yet to play those so I can't confirm that. But, I can say that the balance in this game felt nice. You could spend hours wandering around a space colony, doing favors for random NPCs and uncovering mysteries, with the occasional shootout to break things up a bit. Then, you could spend hours shooting your way through hidden bases on distant planets, trying to take action on the information you learned earlier. I never felt lost, but I never felt like the answers were being spoon fed to me. It's a good way to feel in a game.

The story unfolds like a blockbuster movie. It sucked me in and held my attention throughout the game. The characters are dynamic with distinct personalities and well written back stories. I don't want to reveal any spoilers here, but let's just say that the main story provides plenty of twists and turns along the way. Also similar to KotOR, you are often provided with choices that greatly effect the outcome of the game. Sometimes these choices effect what missions will be available to you, and sometimes even what companions you will be able to have helping you out during future missions.

Some of those choices also lead to the source of the game's major controversy. In addition to the main story, the side stories, the side missions, and the exploration / collectibles throughout the game, there are the romance options. These are all completely optional as some gamers just don't want romance getting in the way of blasting aliens, but if you want, your character can form romantic relationships with some of the other crew members. This starts out by simply choosing the right tone of questioning during the dialog sections between missions. Later, the dialog choices start to get more intimate and the characters start to develop feelings for each other. This eventually culminates in a love scene late in the game, the scene that launched the whole FOX News scandal. As mentioned in the author's apology, it's tamer than a lot of what you see on network TV, and finally seeing it after years of hearing about it, I had to laugh at how little it takes to whip some people in to such a tantrum. These were probably included to add replay value, as you can only start a relationship with one crew member per play through. Which crew members you can try this with depends on how you create your character at the beginning of the game, and if you try to string more than one along at the same time, they will eventually corner you and make you choose between them like it's middle school or something.

The action sections play like a high quality shooter. You have up to 4 weapons of your own, each one upgradable, along with other skills which provide the sci-fi equivalent to magic in the game. Your companions each have their own weapons or skills to help out in battle. Left alone, they will fight however they think is best, but you can also give them direct orders. Overall it has a nice squad combat feel to it. Any companions killed in a fight will be revived when the battle is over, so it never feels like an escort mission. The guns use a heat up / cool down system which prevents you from simply spamming bullets throughout the missions, but also keeps you from having to scavenge for ammo for you favorite gun mid mission like you would in other shooter games such as Borderlands or Halo. It lets each shot feel like it matters as you make your way through some pretty intense fire fights, but frees you from playing resource management.

Then there are the vehicle sections. Some levels have sections where you drive around in a small tank to better explore some of the larger areas, or take out some of the larger enemies. Because of the feel of the action sequences, I initially expected these to drive like the vehicles in Halo or Borderlands, but sadly this was not the case. In those games, you aim the camera/gun with the mouse or right stick, and then when you move forward the vehicle will turn itself to point the way you are looking. In Mass Effect, the vehicles drive more like real vehicles. You steer them with the left stick or A and D keys while the gun can aim independently of the direction you are going. This seems like a good idea in theory, and it probably works out ok with an analog stick, but playing with a keyboard and mouse made a mess of this. The digital control of the A and D keys were constantly overcorrecting, causing me do drive in a zig zag pattern a lot of the time because I just couldn't get the thing to point in the right direction.

That brings up another gripe I have with this game, and with a lot of PC games. This game was first released on consoles. Consoles use gamepads. To release a game on a console, a lot of time and effort has to go into designing and implementing a control scheme that works well on a gamepad. All of this time, effort, and money has already been spent. So, when porting these console games to PC, a platform which also has a gamepad, why do so many developers strip out the gamepad support and force you to only control the game one way? Sure, if they required a gamepad to play the game it would be a mess, but so often they simply yank the gamepad support for no reason other than thinking that PC gamers don't deserve it. Mass Effect doesn't support the gamepad. I'll admit that the mouse is better for aiming during the action sections, but it really would have been nice to lean back in my chair and use a gamepad for a lot of the rest of the game.

That rant aide, I really have very few gripes about the game. It's a very solid gaming experience, and one of the examples many use to express the opinion that games are beginning to surpass movies and TV shows as a story telling medium. I'm looking forward to playing through the sequels now, and I highly recommend that anybody who hasn't played this game yet should check it out unless you just plain don't like science fiction or something. Yes, this is a great game.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cut the Rope (ZeptoLab, 2010)

Mobile games are a strange beast. Genres that thrive on consoles and PCs fall flat in the mobile market, and the unlikeliest of ideas can become a sensation. Some revile mobile games as the death of the hardcore gaming market, others revere them as a breath of fresh air desperately needed by an industry drowning in a sea of copycats and endless sequels. Whichever view you take on the subject, it's indisputable that it's a growing part of the video game landscape that is only increasing in both size and influence. Considering that only a decade ago most cell phones still struggled to play Snake in monochrome, yet today's high end smart phones have specs rivaling home computers, it's clear that mobile gaming is growing much faster than any other branch of the industry.

But what kinds of games are there? Well, at first they were mostly watered down versions of console or PC style games. Virtual D-Pads and well marked hot zone buttons tried their best to emulate gamepads, providing all of their limitations but none of their tactile benefits. Eventually, game designers started to figure out what could be done with a touch screen that couldn't be done any other way. Instead of working around the platform's weaknesses, these new games played to its strengths, while catering to a distinctly different gaming appetite.

One of the most popular new gaming experiences is the physics puzzle genre, with such hits as Angry Birds, Where's My Water?, and this review's subject of choice, Cut the Rope.

Some games have you questing to save a princess, some to defeat a great evil, and some to clear your name and avenge your family. In Cut the Rope, you quest to feed candy to a little green monster named Om Nom. It's a simple idea, but in much the same way that Tetris took the world by storm in the 80s, sometimes a simple idea is all you need. It also doesn't hurt that Om Nom is one of the cutest little game characters I've seen in quite a long time.

As the name implies, you feed the candy to Om Nom by cutting ropes, which is accomplished simply by swiping your finger across it on the touch screen. Cutting these ropes causes the candy to react to a surprisingly robust 2D physics system which you manipulate to move the candy to the welcoming open mouth of the always stationary Om Nom. The early levels ease you into the mechanics gradually. First, the candy is above Om Nom, and cutting the rope drops it into his mouth. Then it's held off to the side by two ropes, and cutting one of them lets it swing to the side. The levels get more interesting and complex as they go.

Getting the candy to Om Nom will get you to the next level, but to really master the puzzle you'll want to collect all of the stars. Each level has three stars distributed throughout. Unlike the star systems used in other games such as Angry Birds, the stars aren't awarded for scoring an arbitrary number of points, they are floating in the level in plain sight for you to form a careful strategy around. To collect these stars, you'll need to find a way to move the piece of candy into each of them, and then get the candy back to Om Nom. It sounds simple at first, but some of these puzzles will try your patience as you try to unlock their secrets and figure out their tricks.

There's more to do than just cutting ropes though. Throughout the game, new gadgets are constantly being introduced. Bubbles let the candy pieces float up into the air, whoopee cushions blow air to redirect the candy, elastic bands can propel the candy far across the board, magic hats can teleport the candy across the screen, and my favorite one, the gravity button, can actually reverse gravity from down to up and back. All of these are extremely useful since you can never directly control the candy itself.

I was surprised by how much variation there was in play style throughout the game too. Some levels have the patience of a chess match as you stare at the board and carefully work out what order to cut the ropes in. Some rely on precision aim and timing as you swing and drop the candy between moving contraptions. Some scroll multiple screen widths or heights allowing a limited sense of exploration uncommon to puzzle games. Still others are purely speed based as you rush the candy around the board trying to outrun candy hungry spiders or collect the timed stars before they disappear after a set number of seconds. The sequence of the levels also does a great job of keeping the game feeling fresh as you progress through the levels in a linear order.

The presentation is just oozing with charm. The 2D sprites are cartoonlike and everything is well animated giving the game a sense of life. The music and sound are simple, but carry the mood perfectly with a style that combines cartoon fun and classic gaming with a light orchestral bounce. However, the obvious star of the show is Om Nom himself. Even though he never moves from his spot on the board, he is constantly animating and emoting as he reacts to your performance. Get the candy close to him and he opens his mouth wide in excited anticipation. Take too long on a board and he hopefully points at his mouth to remind you of your destination. Drop the candy off the screen and he stares at you in pure disappointment that just begs you to try again. If you've ever had a pet, you should recognize the behavior of a hungry animal trying desperately to cute its way into a meal.

If you're trying for a perfect 3 star game then some of the levels will frustrate you. There are some that took days of trying to get past. Some require the precision timing and reflexes of the toughest action games, and others are pure brain stumpers that will have you scratching your head for hours until the "aha" moment finally arrives. It's definitely a mixed bag, but one that has a little something for everybody. There's even a free version with all of the early levels so you can see if it's for you before making the purchase. So if your looking for a clever well polished mobile game to keep you addicted while on the go, then this just might be the game for you!

Monday, March 11, 2013

3D Dot Game Heroes (From Software/Atlus 2009/2010)

As I mentioned in my introduction, I've grown up with videogames my whole life. We had an Atari 2600, an Odyssey 2, and a rotating door of old computers including a Commodor 64 and an early Tandy PC. There were always games around, but my ongoing love affair with gaming didn't really begin until I got my first Nintendo Entertainment System. The NES single-handedly took gaming from being a fading fad of the late 70s and turned it into an entertainment powerhouse that has done nothing but grow in the decades since. Regardless of what your platform of choice is these days, if you play videogames, you owe Nintendo a thank you card.

Part of the magic of the NES games was that you weren't playing in one screen, you weren't just scrolling in one direction, for the first time you could go wherever you wanted, and get lost exploring new worlds. Ok, Adventure and Pitfall II for the Atari 2600 were doing this long before, but it wasn't until the NES era that this was really polished into a mainstream pop culture phenomenon. One of the earliest games to really take advantage of this was The Legend of Zelda. If you're familiar with the later games of the series, it may surprise you how different the original felt. It had its own kind of magic, partially due to the charm of trying to reach so far beyond its primitive capabilities. Later 8-bit JRPGs such as Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest (or Dragon Warrior depending on where you lived), and of coarse the Ultima series, would take that formula and add in depth story telling and a world of unique characters to get to know.

As years went by and hardware improved and game design advanced, these types of games changed drastically, and improved in many ways unthinkable back in the 80s. Still, the old 8-bit adventures had a certain charm that was lost in the modern era. That was, until the release of 3D Dot Game Heroes.

3D Dot Game Heroes is an unashamed love letter to all that is wonderful about the late 80s and early 90s adventure RPGs I grew up with. When I first heard about it, I saw a screen shot and its 3D sprite art style instantly brought back memories. While there are more retro styled sprite games out right now than you can shake a nun-chuck at, this game took what was old, and made it new. Imagine if all of those pixelated sprites were actually highly accurate representations of 3D objects. This is what those objects would look like.

But, it's not just a case of a new game trying to look old. These 3D pixels are rendered in the most realistic style possible, making use of depth of field, lens flare, bloom effect, reflection mapping, realistic lighting and shadows, and just about every other technique you can think of to make these the most photorealistic looking sprite art creatures ever. Even so, the characters animate as if they were still sprites. The average NPC snaps between two poses just like the old two frame idle animations. The nostalgia is so thick that you can almost smell it. Even the music is a well balanced blend of NES style FM synthesis and SNES style sample playback.

For the most part, the gameplay borrows heavily from the original Legend of Zelda and similar games such as the Neutopia series. You primarily swing or stab in one of four directions with your sword which becomes comically oversized when your health is full. Dungeons are navigated one screen at a time as you struggle to collect X number of whatsits or whatever in order to stop a great evil and save the land. Familiar auxiliary items are collected throughout your quest including bombs, a boomerang, and a bow and arrow. The game also borrows from A Link to the Past with multi-level dungeons and what might as well be a hookshot.

The plethora of NPCs and towns could be right out of the classic JRPGs, including some blatant references such as the infamous Dragon Quest Poof Poof Girl. The towns are varied in appearance, offering the typical array from prosperous villages to desert camps to fishing towns. The NPCs hint at backstories, but their short canned dialog doesn't offer much detail, which of coarse is part of the retro charm. There are a few fetch/trading style side quests, and some great mini-games including a tower defense game and a breakout style game. There's also the expected shops for new weapons and items, and sometimes sword upgrades.

It's what's outside the towns that really brings this world to life. Treacherous deserts, forests, swamps, mountains, and the obligatory haunted graveyard provide an endless supply of obstacles that stand between you and your next dungeon. The world map is as blocky and repetitive as you would expect given the influences, but in a deliberate way that still manages to hold its charm while providing some inventive puzzles to slow down your progress.

Also slowing down your progress, pretty much everything! It's no secret that games have gotten much less challenging in the past couple of decades, and this one makes up for it. If you've never played a classic game before, this might be the most difficult game that you've ever played. You will die dozens of times as you slowly master the puzzles of each dungeon and face its boss. In classic fashion, the final dungeon has you facing off against all of the previous bosses in order, each one more difficult than before. There are a lot of frustrating sections in this game that will have you screaming and cursing at your console. I came close to rage quitting on more than one occasion, but something about it just kept drawing me back in. Don't take this as a negative though, the difficulty level makes each victory all the more satisfying. Completing this game left me with a well earned sense of accomplishment that I haven't gotten from a game in a quite a while.

What it really comes down to is that this game isn't for everybody, and isn't trying to be for everybody. If you like this game, you'll really like this game. Everybody else might just be left wondering what the point of it is. There are still plenty of secrets left to uncover in this world, but I think I'll wait for the day when PS3 games hit emulators with quick save before diving in again.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (Naughty Dog/Sony, 2007)

When I was only four I went to see a movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark. At that young age I wasn't familiar with the classic adventure serials that inspired it, so that film and it's lead character Indiana Jones represented to me a new type of adventure that captured my imagination.

Not long after graduating high school I played a game called Tomb Raider. At the time it was a rarity to find a 3rd person 3D platformer, and I was amazed to find that same swashbuckling adventure style presented in an interactive format. Lara Croft was fairly easy on the eyes too, even in those highly pixelated low poly count days.

Over a decade later Sony released the Playstation 3, and I started seeing ads for games in the Uncharted series. I immediately recognized once again that adventurous style, but I didn't have a PS3 until recently, so it has been waiting for years on my list of games to play someday. After finishing Brütal Legend "someday" finally arrived.

Nathan Drake picks up the torch long carried by Indy and Lara, and manages to make it his own. I had reservations going in that this might feel like a generic Tomb Raider clone, but while Uncharted borrows many of the elements that made that series great, it manages to add enough original flavoring to make it feel more like its own game, and not like just another copy cat.

One of the first things that grabbed me about this game was the quality of the cutscenes. I know that it's usually a bad sign when the cutscenes are the first thing highlighted, but in this case it's not due to lack of quality in gameplay, but in the incredible amount of quality that went into each cutscene. If these were strung together into a feature length film and released at theaters, it would easily stand up against the best of the genre, both animated and live action. Everything about these scenes it's done well. The acting (both the voice acting and the motion capture), the camera angles, the lighting, the music, it's all just dripping with Hollywood polish.

Cutscenes alone don't make a game, as many great storied lousy games have proven, but luckily Uncharted packs some great gameplay too. The first thing to know about it is that it's a shooting game. Sure, Tomb Raider games always have a lot of shooting in them, but Uncharted gives it a lot more focus, and makes it feel a lot better too. You'll spend a lot of time hiding behind corners and popping out from various hiding spots to try to take out bad guys, plus some good ole' run n' gun sections where you just get to let loose on a room full of enemies. You get hand guns, machine guns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers. Long story short, there is a lot of shooting in this game. This is great news for shooter fans, but some longtime fans of the genre may be turned off by this, especially if you're not expecting it. At first I was just trying to get through these sections to get on with the adventure, but after a while I started to realize what a big part of the game these sections were, and started approaching it like I would a Halo of Borderlands game. Once I started treating the shooting as the game, and not a distraction from it, I started to enjoy it a lot.

Platforming also plays a part in the game, but at nowhere near the level of a Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia, or Assassin's Creed game. While you will find yourself climbing up walls, leaping between ladders, and throwing yourself from one crumbling platform to the next, it's all done in a much more realistic manner. I'll admit that I'm probably not in shape enough to pull off this kind of stuff in real life, but I'd like to think that I could if I worked towards it, while I could never pull off the superhuman moves seen in other similar platformers. I was torn on how I felt about that. On the plus side, it makes Drake seem more human and easier to relate to, and also makes the environments more realistic. On the negative side, you won't be soaring through the air like a trapeze artist quite as much as you might be expecting. Deciding how much realism to put into gameplay mechanics is always a big consideration in game design, but given the added focus on shooting and the lessened focus on platforming compared to similar games, the balance works out and the mechanics in place suit the game well.

The controls felt well thought out, and more creative than I was expecting. Being so used to the XBox 360 controller, I was surprised that it used the R1 and L1 triggers for shooting instead of the R2 and L2 triggers. But it was easy to get used to, and considering the springiness of the analog R2 and L2 triggers on the Six-Axis gamepad, it was probably the better choice. What completely took me by surprise was the motion control. Many people don't remember, but the Sony Playstation 3 and the Nintendo Wii were both released the same weekend. Since Nintendo was making such a big deal about its revolutionary (or gimmicky, depending on who you ask) new controller, Sony decided to slip a little motion control into their gamepad as well. The problem was, hardly anybody actually used it, and most PS3 players don't even know that it's there. The makers of Uncharted certainly knew that it was there, and being a PS3 exclusive, they were able to squeeze in quite a few motion control tricks that enhance the gameplay, and make certain actions such as balancing on a log or shaking off some of the more grabby enemies feel much more intuitive than they would have using just the analog sticks.

The music is a top notch Hollywood style orchestral score. As with Brütal Legend, it was recorded at Skywalker Sound, which fittingly is where the scores for the Indiana Jones movies are recorded. It follows the mood of the action well, and always sets the appropriate tone as you move between the games many environments.

Speaking of environments, this game has a nice variety of them. Unlike the globetrotting adventures of some games of the genre, Uncharted takes place almost entirely on a single small island, but even in that it manages to throw a lot at you. There are jungles to slash through, ruins to explore, mansions to sneak around in, abandoned research facilities with secrets waiting to be unearthed, and my favorite, the jetski sequences! Usually the vehicle sequences in these games are weak points only thrown in to add a little variety and prevent the gameplay from becoming too monotonous, but these jetski sections where a blast to play. The physics felt fun, if slightly more forgiving than realistic, as you splashed around battling the current while avoiding obstacles and battling your foes. It also helps that in a game of constantly watching your ammo count, you get a rocket launcher with infinite ammo as you zip through rivers and lakes taking out the bad guys, sending them flying through the air with each blast.

These blasts pack more of a punch than I was expecting too. As I mentioned in my Brütal Legend review, I'm a metal fan. And, as a metal fan, I've been to my share of loud concerts in my time. Even though as a musician myself I am always concerned with protecting my hearing, I'm all too familiar with the ringing in my ears after a loud night. I don't know if this is the first game to do this (I would imagine that some of the more realistic FPS war games might as well), but it was the first game I ever played that made you go temporarily deaf after a nearby loud blast, with the muffled sound and unmistakable ring masking the world around you. Some people don't believe that the sound makes a big impact on gameplay, but when you stop hearing the world around you for a bit during a serious battle, you really do feel like you're missing something, and keeping up with half a dozen guys with guns shooting at you from behind cover is a lot more challenging when you can't hear them.

The plot of the story should get some mention too, as the game is very much story driven. I'm always hesitant to discuss the content of story in these reviews because I try hard to avoid spoilers. Some reviews will spend half the time just telling you what happens in the game, and I always try to skip past those parts while reading them because I'd rather learn this stuff when the designers intend for me to learn it. Anyway, as would be expected, the plot follows a formula well known to swashbuckling adventure movie fans. As you quest for an ancient legendary treasure, sometimes people betray each other, sometimes you have to ally yourself with your enemies, and everybody seems to have an ulterior motive. It's a game where you really do want to know what happens next, and this curiosity will motivate you through a few pretty challenging sections of the game. There was one spot in particular where I must have died a dozen times within a few seconds of restarting the section, but because of the plot significance of the action, it wasn't nearly frustrating as it could have been in any other game. Yes, there are some tough sections in this game, and you'll probably die a lot, but it never stops being fun, and that's what matters in a game.

So, if you're looking for a treasure hunting action adventure game that leans more towards shooting and less towards jumping than the genre standard, you can do much worse than Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.