“Review”: Mass Effect

Mass Effect is the best movie I’ve ever played.

Many would read that as insulting (still having the “interactive movies” in memory), and I would mean it as insulting due to lack of interactivity in many other cases, but this is only in a positive way. From camera angles during dialogue sessions and the dialogue itself to the scenery, level-design and art direction it all goes with a very movie-like feeling, but it never takes the power away from the player.

The Dessing

Story

The following section will contain spoilers, so skip it if you haven’t played the game.

The movie, considered as such, is perhaps not the best I’ve “seen” from a dramatic perspective, yet still very engaging. Act one starts out as a fetch-mission turned battleground, following to an investigation to convince the council (the board of the galaxy) to accept one of their top agents is the enemy, which then lets the player become such an agent. Act two then follows several clues of the enemy’s presence, cleaning up the chaos he’s caused. This ends up in a frontal assault on one of his bases, the big plot-twist and the first encounter with the enemy himself. Act three then starts with a chase with the enemy which leads to some surprising revelations and sort of goes full circle with act one as the citadel you’ve learned to be safe and out of harm’s way suddenly is the battle ground and the road up to the last boss (which I was surprised, and a little bit disappointed, to convince into suicide). It all ends with a massive save-the-world and I’m-so-heroic sequence.

Which, as you can hear, goes from a pretty interesting detective story to a pretty conventional save-the-world story. The marketing was talking about letting you choose to destroy it, as well, but with a sequel promising to use your save-files that sounds very unlikely. It does really have an interesting dramatic level where the acts goes into one another, but that really drops by the middle of the first and second acts. Oh, and the side-quests drops that interest close to a zero, as they’re more a “I want more XP”-thing then interesting drama.

Okey, spoilers are over, you can keep reading here.

World

For those who jumped the last paragraph, I mentioned the story to be pretty engaging, and a lot of that is thanks to its setting, scenery and characters. Mass Effects takes place in a futuristic future (now *that* must be the dumbest phrase I’ve ever written) where the humans during a trip to Mars found some spaced-out tech, reached for the stars and found a federation of alien species and joined them. Humans, still being new-comers to an order that’s existed for several hundreds or thousands of years, constantly have to prove themselves in the eyes of the others and work their butts off to do so. These species all have their histories, cultures, religions and such, all unlocked throughout the game in an in-game encyclopedia.

As the galaxy has a lot of planets, the scenery has to reflect this, but as a rule of thumb the main-plot planets are pretty linear but beautiful levels while the side-quests are what appears to be randomly generated rocks on a small squarish area with a few points-of-interests on. But it will be the main plot levels that will stay when you think about the game afterwards. I just have to mention, without spoiling anything, that the last level is just amazing in both scenery, feel and dramatic tension. If I’d allow myself to spoil, I would, but I won’t.

A note worth mentioning is the elevators. The elevators of Mass Effect is basically a cleverly hidden loading-screen, but thanks to being an elevator,the side-kicks may start to talk to one another or a radio message may announce things that may or may not be related to the player’s adventures in the galaxy (although often it is related). Some people have complained that the elevators take so long to get where they’re going, but it’s a great way of not showing a loading screen that ads depth and believability to the world.

Characters

The characters of the game is a step forward since Kotor and Jade Empire, although not with as much incentive to explore and “get to know them” as Kotor 2. They all become involved in the story before you get them in your party (unlike, say, Jolee Bindo in Kotor that just joined up in the middle of the jungle), and you can choose how far you want to follow their story-lines. But this story-line is pretty much given to you if you only play the game, and that’s what feels like a step back from Kotor 2’s characters (which, I know, was developed by Obsidian) which damanded you to get to understand them to really get their full story and character,which had quite a few depths. Mass Effects characters do have their histories, but they’re too quick to spill it out, and engaging in them gives no real reward in the end (the sex-scene is infamous by now, but what I mean is game-play related).

Aestethics

The aesthetics of the game is another part which makes it interesting in the noise of sci-fi universes, blending clean and futuristic designs with modern-age uses for them. Although this is typical for all science fiction, there is all too often a wish to make spaced-out things that doesn’t make sense, and although Mass Effect has a few of those (such as “Virtual Intelligence”, which is basically a computer terminal you talk to), next to everything feels like something you’d expect civilization to have a few hundred years down the road. The human designs also has an iconic mixture of squares and curved lines to really nail a unique visual style.

Game Mechanics

So, to the bones of the game, the Mechanics. I’m going to write several paragraphs on this, in order of Combat System, Leveling and Experience and the Morality System.

Combat System

Combat in Mass Effect is a combination of a Third Person squad-game and a RPG. You aim and shoot like a Third Person Shooter, direct squad mates like a squad game and you have a bunch of spells and weapon proficiencies depending on your class (“weapon”, “psyonic” and “tech” plus hybrids). This all builds a very direct combat where you’re very much an active part of a battle rather then just picking abilities and waiting. Here’s the nice bit, though: You direct and shoot like a shooter, but then damage is evaluated based on stats in the background. There’s no accuracy-modifyer or anything, but items still has stats to improve along the way, which makes a really fun blend of skills and stats.

On the downside, it’s a bit of a shame the game throws the same enemies at you the whole game instead of demanding more co-ordination and ability-usage towards the end, as you can pretty much carve through them like a hot knife through butter at the end, but it’s great fun to fight, something I’m rarely saying of either FPS:es or RPG:s. It’s also a tid bit confusing to know what ability does what and how they work in practice.

Dialogue system

When you start talking to an NPC, you enter the dialogue mode, where your character and the NPC stands and chat. As the NPC is about to say its last line before yours, your coming dialogue-options become visible. All options are shortened to the core of what they mean to make them easy to read and Shepard’s reading more interesting to hear. The options are also placed in a very logical manner – they all fit into a circle of six choices, three to the left and three to the right. The left-most side is reserved for investigation to get more information about things, the right side to bring the dialogue towards its conclusion. The upper choices leans towards Paragon, or are Charm-options, and the lower toward Renegade, or are Intimidate-options. Charm and Intimidate are two special kind of answers unlocked by the player’s skill-points put into them (more in the next paragraph about that system). Being very special, they are colored – charm in a light blue and intimidate in red. This order makes it very easy to start picking choices based on desired result instead of figuring out what the lines might mean. For instance, if I want to know more, I make sure to hover on the left. If I wanna be a good guy, I’m almost clicking the top-right before even reading it. This all makes for very fluid dialogue that only stops when you have to think (for, like, important decisions) or are away from keyboard (which happens a lot in these games). So even if a timer would make the dialogue more fluid, it would take away a lot of breaks (but could cause impulse-decisions, which are as close to the player’s True Character as it gets).

Leveling and Experience

Like all RPGs, you gain experience for killing enemies and completing missions. Enough experience gives you a level-up. We all know that stuff. When you level up, you gain a few “feat”-points which you can place in lanes, each representing a weapon, ability or other class-feature. These lanes improves stats and unlocks improved version of these abilities, and often another feat-tree. As I’m quick to compare to recent MMOs I’ve played, it gives a pretty shallow impression. In theory, it shouldn’t, but it felt like you could get pretty much everything you used maxed out and leave the rest be. This might be related to me playing a hybrid class and not understanding most of my spells, though, which filtered it out to what I did understand. Perhaps I change my mind after a few more play-throughs.

Morality system

The morality system of Mass Effect has one major difference from earlier games – getting “good” points doesn’t negate the “bad” points and vice versa. Although this sounds like a reasonable step on paper, it doesn’t quite work out in practice. As both meters are visible as something you can fill up, you’re initially tempted to balance it to fill them up evenly. You may later realize that it doesn’t matter, and just pick something as you find funny. Another difference is that the point of your morality doesn’t seem to have any gameplay-implications. The KotOR-games both gave you a penalty/bonus on your spells’ force-cost, all visible in a neat table-like form, but if there’s any such implications from Paragon/Renegade it’s implicit and as such not very much used as incentive. Either way the morality doesn’t feel like the central feature it was in kotor. But it does deserve credit for not using obvious “good” and “evil” terms, instead picking “be diplomatic” and “use brute force”.

User Interface

It’s worth noting on this segment that I’ve played the PC-port of the game. Thus some things may be different then the console-versions has.

The Heads-up Display of the UI is really nice, in a minimalistic way always showing me what I want and nothing more. I just wished I could hide the action-bar for weapons and abilities hidden when unused, as I paused and used stuff manually anyway. As with targeting, the PC version behaves a bit wierdly as it doesn’t always select what you look at but something behind or beside it, most likely a result from the console way of changing targets through a given order.

As with menues, the Galaxy map works greatly, and the world map works great with just one exception. When you hover an elevator or gateway to another part of the map (most notable in the citadel), it is displayed where it leads. Clicking on it takes you to the journal instead of the map the icon refers to. The quest journal is nice with all quest having a root-tree with every objective branching from it, but for some reason only down in one level. Several levels would be a great way to show parallel objectives on. Also, it often mention clusters and locations without a link to hint you in the right direction. With a game with so many systems with strange names and loading times for every system you enter, it would be a great time-saver to not needing to remember “[cluser x][system y]” for the quests you wanted to play.

Lastly, the encyclopedia makes the game world very believable. Perhaps because a lot of people takes a lot of unknown information from Wikipedia, which this has a lot of similarities to. I think it the encyclopedia could have gained even more believability to the game if you could search everything from the get-go. I believe this is a consequence of learning-curve and a wish to keep some exploration-awards, but for such an optional-to-use system as this I don’t understand that thinking. This is a bit be like me having to visit, say, France to browse France on wikipedia.

Conclusion

I’ll end the review the same way I started it. This is a game that combines the fun and interactivity from games with the dramatic interest and feel from movies. Which is a great combo. Give it a try if you like movies, RPGs, squad games or shooters, and you might get curious about the others. If you like all those… well, where’s your closest store?

New KotOR2 “review”

I made a “review” about both Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR, or just K because I’m going to write it a lot)-games almost a year ago, and said something along the lines with “the first has better atmosphere, the second has a few technical advantages” (that’s not a quote). After having played KotOR2 again one, and almost two, times more, I have really changed opinion about the game, so a new review feels like a good thing. And that I’ve learned a lot about game design since last year has it’s effects, as well.

K2 starts off five years after K1 ended in the player either saving or dooming the world. From such a starting-point, you have to wonder how you can have one starting point in what should be two completely different worlds. The developers, Obsidian Entertainment, decided to give you a character who was missing from the galaxy during K1, and starts the game outside of current galactic events. From a “make sense”-perspective, that’s a smart move, but from an interest curve-perspective, it makes the game start off with a lack of bang. And it takes a long time until the plot starts to have a real goal (about 10 of the game’s 30 hours, to be precise). From there the plot goes, but it never lets you just sit back and get the story – you have to earn it. By bringing the right companions to the right place and say the right things to them, you earn influence, which unlocks new topics and gives a better understanding of what’s going on. To get this influence you need to know how the characters are, which is not the easiest during the first play-through. Also, taking care of the game’s Jedi Masters (the goal of each planet is to find it’s Jedi Master) in the “good” or “evil” way hints you’d get other clues by taking them on in the other way. To be brief, the game won’t let you get what’s going on the first time you play, which explains my change of mind.

Although K1 pretty much invented it’s interface, the second polishes it a few steps further, making most things easier to find. Yet there are still some information I expect to find which is either impossible or difficult to find, such as my influence to my party-members – which is implicit – or a list of buffs and debuffs, which you reach by going to the menu, open your Quest Log, pressing X to open a menu and then Y three times. Apart from that, most is very well done. The party members unit frames have the basic information you need (lifebar, force bar, portrait and number of de/buffs), target frames also have said basic info (nameplate and health bar), it’s very un-cluttered and it fades out when it’s not needed.

Another one of the game’s features have suddenly given me an unexpected change of mind: Armour and visibility. Around the time when World of Warcraft was first released, I was of the opinion that what you wore should have visible feed back on your character, mostly because it was logical to be that way. When first playing WoW and noticing this, I was happy, of course. K1 and 2 also uses this system, and that’s why I’ve had a change of mind. Because the armor you can put on has good stats, but doesn’t look nearly as good as the character’s default-clothes. Which creates you think “should my character look good, or be good”. And I have to wonder why I have to think like such at all, especially with character creator tools becoming more and more powerful, and with the kotor-games upgrade system (more in a bit), you could easily separate the two and have characters that look good and are good. I could elaborate more about this another day, but let’s get back on topic.

Kotor’s upgrade system is pretty smart, I think. On your journey, you gather a bunch of items as well as components and chemicals. Most items can also be broken down into more components and chemicals (depending on the item and it’s worth). By using these building blocks, you can create new items. Components can create weapons, upgrades, computer spikes (used for hacking, or “slicing”, computers) and repair parts (used for repairing stuff, obviously) and chemicals can create stimulants, med-packs and such. Which means you can basically trade an item for another without running to a merchant and getting a bunch of credits you don’t use. More on the upgrades themselves: All weapons have different slots – a sword might have a hilt and blade, for instance – where some weapons can let you add upgrades to it, giving them increased stats. These upgrades can be created with said components and be swapped at will, making an upgradable item far more useful then a non-upgradeable. Different sorts of items have different kinds of slots, as well, with different available upgrades. The downside to this, though, is that you run into a incredible amount of items you’re unsure of what it is due to the loot-window’s lack of information on items (one interface fault I should’ve mentioned in the interface paragraph).

And I still believe the atmosphere to be a bit depressive, but considering the setting of the game, it’s fitting.

I’m not going to give a “one-sentence summary” this time. It felt a bit tacked-on, and was only there for quote-friendliness.

“Review”: Eternal Darkness

I’ve noticed, as I’ve written, that some of my reviews have been a bit unfocused and fell into what my history teacher used to call the “fact trap”. I’ll try to solve this by focusing on about three things, probably features of some sort, and quickly get to my opinion and arguements why I think that.

So, Eternal Darkness. Google it up for some general info, this review will focus on three things: The sanity system, the magic system and how you heal.

The sanity system, to start with, is a clever idea. As monsters see you, your sanity decreases. As you finishes monsters off, it goes back up. When your sanity is low, you start to get hallucinations of different sorts. If the meter is empty, you get damaged if monsters see you. This is a cool idea – the hallucinations can make you doubt if what you see before you is actually happening or not, making you suspicious to every action while playing. But it has a lot of oddities: Firstly, it decreases if the monsters see you, not the opposite (if I see monsters). Secondly, it takes on the health-bar if there’s no sanity meter (how can I get damaged by being seen by monsters?). Thirdly, it regains by killing monsters in a fatility-move fashion. This hardly sounds any sanity-giving to me, but I guess it’s because the devs want you to kill the monsters and not just run away. So the sanity gives a cool effect, but the way you gain and lose it is a bit wiered.

The magical system is the next thing I want to mention: While you play, you collect runes which you combine to create spells. Each spell needs a power-item (of 3, 5 and 7 points), an alignment (to one of the three major “gods” of the game) and runes to fill the power-items’ slots up. Now, this could be awesome, and I got really “oh, this is so cool” – until the downsides started falling down. You might think you can combine the runes however you want and be really creative with making spells up, which you can’t. You might think that the 5 and 7 pointers allow you to mix runes and make up even cooler spells, which you can’t – you just fill the other slots up with “paragon (power)” runes. And as you start to think the three alignments, which works like rock-paper-scissors, are a really cool way to get efficient spells, a fourth alignments turns up which beats them all. So this could be made really cool, which it now is not.

The third thing was healing. This kind of ties in with the magic system (one of the things that is cool about it). You can heal in two ways – one is using the “recover”-spell, the other is by being teleported by a monster into some place where you can heal. Now, the cool thing is that: One, your recover spell can, depending on alignment, heal health, sanity or mana (the last giving as much mana as it takes, though). And Two, at the place where you heal, you can only heal one of said three metes before you leave – and it tends to fill with monsters the more times you visit it. So this might be the thing I like the most in this game. ^^

Before I end this “review”, I must give this game some thumbs-up for the story: Not the intriuge itself (which I didn’t bother to play through), but how different cultures and civilizations are portraited and returned to. For instance: In one of the earlier missions, you play some French guy in the 8th century or so in a french church. In a later mission, you play as a monk in the 15th century in a cathedral – which turns out to be an expansion of the church we just visited. And towards the later missions of the game, you return to the same cathedral, but now It’s used as a war-hospitol during the first world war! Or, another example, one of the first missions takes you to Ankhor during the 11th century in a temple. About 7 or so missions later, you return to the tempel, but now it’s 1984 and the temple are barly ruins.

Sentance: A wanna-be-scary game which uses human history in a good way, but have a few features that could have been so much more.

“Review”: The KOTORs

As you might have spotted, I’m doing something a bit different this time – I’ve put two games to review in the same article. That might sound odd, but in this case it’s possible – the games are very similiar design-wise, yet I find the feeling of playing them vastly different from one another.

Let’s begin at the ground-level – KOTOR is an abbreviation for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, a series of two RPGs (made by different devs, so I’ll avoid typing them out not to step on some random google-user’s toes). As with any RPG (that I’ve played, which counts out the Final Fantasies), the story can be played like a good book – you play a bit now and then and think abouthow the story may progress when not playing – that in itself is a good opinion. But unlike books, you have a bit more power of the story’s progression – you can often choose from a pool of replies to most comments, which gives different results.

For instance, they may push you on the Light-Dark scale, which only real effect is making some spells more expensive and others cheaper. But I didn’t notice any reply-options changed based on where on the scale I was (played Kotor 1 twice – once as light, once as dark), not any change in how I was met by Sith/Dark Jedi or Republic/Jedi NPCs, no change in what missions I could pick up and – this might be the biggest one – no change in how the story progressed (you may choose your ending about 90% into the story in either case). And it was very rare to affect the scale by actions rather then statements. So the light/dark stuff isn’t that central, really.

Anyway, what pulls you into the game is the setting of the planets, the characters and the combat system. I could write a paragraph about all there of this, but I won’t – this post doesn’t have to get longer then it will already become.

Now, to my point: I liked Kotor 1 really much, but not the sequel – which I find odd, as they share the mechanics of the combat-system, feats and powers, interface and that stuff. What they don’t share is the settings and characters, and that’s what makes all the difference. The first tends to have a warm and charming feeling to it, while the other is more cold and dark. The characters in the first all seem to have the same common goal as you, while they mostly have some agenda of their own in the second; something that means I connect better to the former game’s characters then the latter’s.

To sum up. They are both fun games to play, but I would recommend just playing the first one. I won’t do any “sentance”-stuff below, this one will do.

“Review”: Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Next up on my review-list is a newer game then F-zero GX, but still not new enough to be smoking hot. I haven’t played this in awhile, which means I can only really comment on what I remember thinking about the game. Which means I won’t get into small details.

So, the newest Legend of Zelda. Actually, I could end the review right here, because I’ve already summed it up. It’s just another Zelda-game which doesn’t do too much differently from it’s other incarnations. The big pencil-strokes are very predictable: Ganondorf is evil, Zelda is your standard kidnapped princess, and you are the Hero who goes off and fixes the world, and meets a dark gnome who turns out to be the “Twilight Princess” the game’s named after. It’s the smaller strokes that impresses the more. The friend that turns out having lost her memory which you have to find things that are connected to her to make her regain it. The Zora prince who’s mother got executed and who’s health conditions are grave. The Gorons who refuse to face anyone as their leader have gone nuts which they see as dishonouring to them. The kids who chase the monkey deep into the forest to regain whatever-it-was. It’s the small stories that makes the game interesting from a story/world-perspective.

The gameplay, then. It’s Zelda. You run around finding dungeons where you got to solve puzzles in small rooms and do some light-weight fighting to beat down monsters and beat up a boss with a tool you’ve gotten in the same dungeon and barely ever use the tool again. Which means you’ll be dragging around twenty weapons where you only need a few of them. Items such as the boomerang, slingshot and bow all fill the same function and works the same, so only a few of them are actually needed. You get three kinds of bombs where it would be more handy to have one which you upgrade, and you get a handful of melee-weapons although you get your sword from the get-go. Why couldn’t they just make upgrades for the same item instead of making one similar?

But Zelda’s main focus doesn’t lie in it’s weapons, but in it’s dungeons, which are very well-designed, even if it’s not as good as Ocarina of Time. One main difference is that the bosses tends to be a lot further away from the entrance of the dungeon this time, without the kind of short-cut Wind Waker had, which means you have to run through big parts of the dungeon if you would fail a boss battle. Which you won’t do, either, because the difficulty on the bosses as been set really low. What makes me say that is a combination of using the same tricks as the older games, they don’t do too much to keep you busy avoiding stuff to let you focus on damaging them, and they don’t take a lot of damage before turning in. Something like three hits tends to be enough. And this goes through pretty much every monster there is, which doesn’t motivate you to find all those pieces of hearts for the sake of your very survival.

After all this criticism, it would be nice to end with something positive. The controllers are precise and makes it easy to play instead of cursing the controller – even though it’s stuck with some of the Wiimote’s teething troubles, like having troubles reacting to some movements. Some of the dungeons doesn’t feel like dungeons at all (such as the Yeti’s, the City in the Skies and the Temple of Time). I also like that the text-based dialog is left intact. Perhaps that’s because I’m used to reading the subtitles while watching movies which makes me feel so comfortable with it, perhaps it’s because I can understand one piece of dialogue before going on to the next and not missing anything, but it’s a strong move of not falling for the “we want all dialogue made by voice-actors”-movement.

Sentence: The newest Zelda on both good and bad.