Saturday, July 31, 2010

Questions From the Crowd Contest!

Welcome to the Questions From the Crowd contest! I'm planning on doing this weekly, if I can, and usually I hope to have a topic for you guys, kick start your brains.

Today, though, I'm leaving it wide-open! Ask me anything, be it personal, like how I came to make the blog, technical, like how I do the videos or writing, or professional, like what I think of a particular game or genre.

As far as I'm concerned, you can ask DarkPC or Abujaffer something, too. It's up to them whether they answer, though, I don't really tell them what to do. (I gave myself the title of Editor-In-Chief-- and actually act as an editor. I go through their posts, checking facts, spelling, and grammar, then give the thumbs-up and post it. I have very little to no influence on what they actually choose to write about.)

Anyway, ask me anything you want, as long as it has to do with video games (or similar nerdy past times-books, movies, desktop RPGs, computers.) or my blog. Feel free to go as specific or as broad as you want, but be warned I don't know everything about everything. Don't be afraid to ask several questions. I'll go over the entries, pick a few of them, the number depending on the number and quality of submissions (I'd like to do maybe 5 or so), and answer them after one of my posts early next week (I decided tomorrow was too soon, and I'm gone this week.)

Hope to see some good questions in the comments!

Starcraft II: Savior of a Genre?

Before I get started on today's post, including a sort-of scientific experiment, a couple of anecdotes, plenty of exaggerations, and one far-flung prediction, I want to announce a contest of sorts. That's all I'm telling you now, though. The details will be provided in a post to be done immediately after this one, so don't leave after you finish reading. (It'll be done well before you are with this, trust me.)

In case you've been living under a rock this week, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, came out. You may be asking me why anyone cares about a sequel to a game in a niche genre that came out 12 years ago, especially when it's being made by the same company that developed World of Warcraft, the world's premier MMO, and Diablo, the definitive dungeon crawler.

In which case I would respond: "Have you ever been to South Korea? Starcraft, all by itself, is just as big there as, say, pro Football here in the states." There is at least one TV channel devoted solely to Starcraft.

Of course, that's far from the only reason. It was a hit here too, and has been accorded classic status like nothing else in the genre. That last little point, "in the genre", and the phrase "niche genre" up above, demonstrate the basis of this article.

Starcraft is an RTS, which stands for Real-Time Strategy. Other notables include the Command & Conquer, Age of Empires, and the more recent Supreme Commander franchises. I would say that none of these, except for the original Starcraft, and maybe not it, have ever achieved the notoriety of something like Halo or God of War.

Starcraft cover

Consider the possible reasons for this. First, the RTS is an extremely cerebral sport. It's all about the strategy, the counters, and the build orders. Even the basic resource-collecting, base-building system is much, much more complicated than most genres. In a shooter like Halo, the basics are move, point, shoot, jump, and reload. In an RTS like Starcraft, the basics are hub builds workers, which harvest resources (usually of 2 or more kinds), to build training buildings, which build units, which take up supplies, which need more buildings. That's just the base-building aspect, and you are expected to learn all of this in the very first mission. I'm not kidding. "Build 10 marines" doesn't sound very hard, but if you've never played an RTS before, it could take some figuring out. You don't just jump into an RTS and excel, like you can with most other types of game. Luckily, the combat itself isn't nearly as complicated, and much closer to other types of games.

The second reason is that RTSes are generally PC games. This is because of the controls. RTSes have so many different commands and require such precise movements that it is very difficult to work well on a console. In a normal RTS, it's not unusual to use most or all of the number keys, ctrl, shift, alt, both mouse buttons, the mouse wheel, and half the letters on the keyboard regularly. This isn't an exaggeration, either. At least not much of one. RTSes thrive on hotkeys. (Hotkeys, for those of you who don't know, are keyboard shortcuts to accomplish actions. B to build, for example) Hotkeys are kind of impossible on a console controller, with the result that we have a greatly dumbed-down control scheme, which results in annoyed veterans and unsatisfied newcomers.

Therefore RTSes generally end up as PC-exclusives. Many console gamers consider PC gaming to be "dead", so they think that since RTSes (which most gamers at least recognize) are on the PC, it must be a dead genre, or at least not important or viable. This is based on a misconception. PC gaming is not dead. Steam, Valve's content delivery and update service, is thriving, and it's a relatively recent addition, becoming common with the release of Half-Life 2 in 2004. Just because you don't know any PC gamers does not mean they don't exist. (BTW, it's impossible for you not to know any PC gamers. I am a PC gamer!) Okay? Good. Let's continue.

Although these are possible reasons, are they enough for us to consider them "dead", or "niche"? First, let's give a statistical definition for these terms: No game in this genre is main-stream enough to acquire a end-of-year award nomination in any category without limitations. This means no system or genre awards. Now, let's check this. (If you want to know, I'm using Gamespot, and IGN. as they have the most comprehensive and easy-to-use awards. Citations at the end.)

***WARNING: Lots of statistics here, results of the Best of 2009 awards. If you don't care about the specifics, skip to the next group of asterisks and capital letters.

... Ok, one site down. Grand total of one nomination from Gamespot, and that one is in Strategy. RTS didn't even have its own category. The game was Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II. (Made by Relic Entertainment, who also developed the spectacular Homeworld space RTS... in 1999.) To its credit, it's a fairly well known name and got an 8.5 at that particular publication. Interestingly enough, the franchise also has an MMO to its credit: Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. For the purposes of this experiment, however, this nomination is disqualified for being specifically for the "strategy" genre.

Next, G4. As far as I can tell, there isn't a single one anywhere on the list. Of course, there wasn't a strategy or even PC category in this one either, at least that I could find. (If anyone find the official list on the G4 site and it has a PC category, I apologize for my inability to find it.)

Last stop: IGN. The aforementioned Halo Wars won the strategy genre award for the Xbox 360. Of note is the fact that the PS3 section didn't even have a strategy category. Might as well skip the Wii, but I didn't, and nothing there. Obviously the PC genre has a strategy category, and Empire: Total War wins it. The Total War series is one of the biggest modern RTS franchises, but it doesn't have base-building, instead focusing on the tactics and strategy of the combat itself, while also focusing more on realism. Also in this category is a repeat of Dawn of War II.
Empire: Total War also got nominations in Visual Excellence and, surprisingly, GotY, but, this being the PC category, none of these count. Worth mentioning, though. I give the DS and PSP categories a once-over, but nothing there. The only portable game I know of that could possible be called a RTS is Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, and that's being charitable. (I like the game, it's just pushing to call it an RTS)

Finally to the overall awards. Skipping most of the genre awards, I do stop by the strategy category to see no less than three, including the winning Halo Wars. The other two were also mentioned earlier, of course, those two being Empire: Total War and Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II. Nothing else in any of the other categories.

(Disclaimer: No, there's not more stuff about IGN's because I like them better. It's because there were more categories, and thus more nominations.)


So, in short, with the disqualifying of the console and genre awards, there are a grand total of zero nominations for an RTS game, so it qualifies for our definition of "dead". Note that if you took out either of these qualifications, it would have quite a few nominations. Only one victory in any category at all, though.

So, having covered the possible reasons the genre could be dead, and having come to the result that the genre is indeed dead, we bring ourselves to the obvious question: Will it stay that way? Or will Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty bring this tradition-heavy genre back to its glory days?

My first impulse is "Yes". Wings of Liberty will no doubt garner many nominations, if not awards. Personally, I think it's a shoe-in for best multiplayer and best PC game, and also for at least a nomination in sound and story. I also think it's in the running for overall GOTY--so far, anyway. (BTW, my top 5 so far: Mass Effect 2, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, Red Dead Redemption, and God of War III) We can also be reasonably sure that the Zerg and Protoss follow ups, Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void, respectively, will be similar in quality and critical acclaim.

We must ask ourselves, however, whether this will truly resurrect the genre as a whole, or just spawn bad copies that will fail to succeed and superficially impose the genre on the minds of gamers as a whole. At this point, there's no possible way to know. We can guess and predict, though, and that is the most important part of today's post.

Personally, I think it will. There are enough quality games of this genre lurking on the shelves and in the minds of today's gamers, and there is enough of a tradition and history to the genre that developers won't have to look far for inspiration. Many will try, but few will succeed. That's not rare, though. How often have you heard the term "clone" recently? (I'm looking at you, Darksiders, and you, Dante's Inferno. To be fair, though, the latter was actually a good game and brought a decent game of the style to the 360). I think in upcoming years, the term "Starcraft clone" may become nearly as prevalent as "Halo clone" or "Call of Duty clone". Enough of them will be original and polished enough to truly succeed, though, and someone will finally figure out how to do a truly amazing RTS on consoles. Though that last may be wishful thinking!

I may be wrong, though. I hope I'm not, but I may be. Perhaps one of you has the right idea. Think you do? Post it in the comments to preserve it, so you can point to it and say "Hey, I called it way back in 2010, and I can prove it! Look here!" Just keep in mind that I will do the same if I do turn out to be right, after all!


Friday, July 30, 2010

"Musings Update: Expansion and Polish"

Welcome to something that may or may not become a recurring column: Musings Update.
Basically, this post is here to tell you What's New here at Aldowyn's Musings.


If you've been following my twitter feed, @Aldowyn, you know that not only have I made a new twitter account expressly for the blog, @AldowynsMusings (Which you should follow ASAP, btw), you also know that I have been taking the blog and putting it on other sites. You can now find my blog on IGN, 1UP, and Gameinformer. Just search "Aldowyn". On 1UP and Gameinformer, you'll need to go to the blog tab. On IGN, you'll need to go to the people tab, and click on my profile, THEN go to the blog tab. (Also, I joined MyIGN, so friend me if you have! It's basically twitter, except only video games.)

I've even started a user group on the Escapist, here, so join that if you're an escapist.

There's a couple other things coming down the pipeline of my head, but I'm not sure if I'm going to do any of it and I don't want to bring your hopes up. Just keep spreading the word, and I'll be more likely to do something big.


This is a little more vague. You may have noticed that I actually have pictures and videos in my posts now. The main reason for this is to break up the text, but I may use them for other things in the future.

My posts are also a little bit more organized. There still aren't any subtitles or anything, but they should have a nice flow now, moving from topic to topic smoothly. I'm also going to attempt to put any game titles in italics.

Keep spreading the word! Tell your friends, follow me, @darkpctv, @abujafer, and @AldowynsMusings on twitter (make sure to RT whenever there's a new post up!), join the escapist group, do whatever! Thanks! See you tomorrow, for the first of at least two posts on Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The New Xbox & Kinect Pricing and Split/Second Review

Hi everyone! In 360 News:
$149.99 Retail on Nov. 4
Just Released on July 25 is the Kinect and 360 S Pricing. First, Kinect will drop on November 4 for $149.99 with a copy of Kinect Adventures. Secondly the Xbox 360 S drops on August 3 for a retail price of $199.99 and last but not least the Kinect Bundle, which includes the Kinect system and a 360 S, retail pricing was released and it will cost $299.99 when it drops on November 4. Also something we weren't told about Kinect at E3 was that Kinect has 4GB of Flash Memory built in. Peculiar? Yes. Also, keeping in Microsoft's tradition to release special console bundles for big games a Halo: Reach Console Bundle was announced on July 22 and priced at $399.99 on September 14, the same day the game drops. And in new game news Street Fighter X Tekken (for SF fans made by CapCom) and Tekken X Street Fighter (For Tekken Fans made by Namco) were announced at Comic-Con on July 14. Both games will be on the PS3 and the 360 a release date is TBD.
Now that the news is out of the way the review can begin!Today, I am reviewing Split/Second on of course the Xbox 360. Split/Second was Developed by BlackRock Studios and Released by Disney Interactive the same team that put out Pure, a ATV racing game. Price: $59.99 (Authors Note: I got it a Costco for $30 with a MFR. Discount) GamePlay: Fairly simple! Right Trigger: Accelerator Left Trigger: Brakes A: LVL 1 Power Play B: LVL 2 Power Play RS: Down Backwards Left, Right Sides (Power Plays will be explained in a bit.)Power Plays: Power Plays are parts of the race track that can be blown-up. e.g. Tram Car rigged with explosives.Online MP: The online MP so far out of the 3 modes available only 1 has online activity.Achievements: Split/Second has a grand total of 46 achievements for 1000 Gamerscore. Personally on my gamertag, I have been able to get 27 out of 46 for 430 Gamerscore.
Final Verdict: Split/Second is a fun game but would I pay $59.99? No. get the game at around $25 to $30.Split/Second gets 3.5 out of 5
7/29 Update: 1 Vs. 100 on XBL has been canceled by Microsoft Game Studios as it was a Beta.
Thank you for reading, I'll be back soon -DarkPC
Picture Credits go to,

Friday, July 23, 2010

WoW and MMOs: Why the Love?

One of the more controversials kinds of games today is the MMOG, or Massively Multiplayer Online Game. The prevailing kind is the MMORPG (If you can't figure that out, how in the world did you get here?). I'd debate the point, but I will admit that most of them do, superficially at least, have the trappings of an RPG. Of course, that's a pretty wide genre, containing anything from Mass Effect to Fallout 3 to Final Fantasy. My problem has stemmed from my very, very stunted firsthand experience with MMOs-- mostly limited to FTP (free to play) games. (I can almost guarantee you haven't heard of the one I've played the most.) Now, some of these are actually pretty good, but my biggest problem with them is that they almost completely dump the story in favor of grinding and PVP (Player vs. Player). See, I LIKE the story. It's often the main draw to a game for me, and it almost ALWAYS is in an RPG. I have issues with a game that thinks "story" is having you read a few paragraphs of incomprehensible text before telling you to go kill 10 rats.

The thing is, MMOs are almost their own genre. They WOULD be if they the standard trappings of one happened to include some kind of combat system, but as it is you can do just about anything-- despite what it looks like from the current market. (There is about ONE successful MMO that isn't fantasy, and EVE online is a whole other story.) My point is, THEIR point is that MMO thing at the beginning. That's what the entire game hinges on. In a way, you're not really role-playing your character, you're just being yourself without repercussions, in an arena where there is no penalty for failure and all the potential in the world to be a leader. There is nothing like gaining respect in an environment where the only thing you need is skill, reason, and maybe a bit of charisma -- not money, not experience, not even age. (If I had a level for every time someone said I was mature for my age...)

Imagine this scenario: You've been looking forward to this MMO that's been pretty highly anticipated. It comes out, you've preordered it, and you're all set to go. You manage to get ahead of most of the people in the starting areas, and eventually start a guild with the friends you almost inevitably made. The guild expands, and after about a year or so, you look around and all of a sudden you're the leader of the premiere guild on the server. You often end up leading your faction on raids against the enemy, and your guild is always the first to take down a new boss. You realize yours is a respected name, and people look up to you. Now, I haven't actually done this, but it would be pretty much my goal in life with an MMO. Of course this is far, far from the goal of many people. Lots of people are perfectly content with just BEING in this hypothetical guild, and more are just fine with being complete and total nobodies. My point is everyone has a role in the community, and you can interact with people in an environment unlike any other.

All this makes me willing to push through the ridiculous stories of some games and try to make a name for myself (I've done fairly well, occasionally), but eventually I get fed up with my lack of progress (levels, not social) and quit... or go play something else, which is the same thing. This is despite the fact that a large portion of the community is usually, to put it kindly, not very nice (in F2P games, anyway). Of course there were definitely nice people there, and once you graduate from noob-hood and become an equal member of the community, most people were bearable.

So imagine a game where there WAS a story, there WASN'T grinding, and the community WAS good. Sounds awesome, right?

Well, for the last, one of the fastest ways to get rid of the trolls is to make them have to pay. That INSTANTLY makes the community infinitely better. Of course, every game has their own community (like MP games on consoles, only more so). You can tell the difference between the different factions (Horde/Alliance) and even the servers have distinct communities, so it may take a bit of trial of error to find a community that fits you.

Grinding is simple, and a matter of how the game is structured. Somewhere along the line, if the production is at all competent, the decision has to be made whether to put grinding in the game or not. I can see why they would want grinding, but I have issues with a design that requires players to do something not fun to progress. Anyway, grinding is either there or it's not.

Story is a little harder. Most games HAVE a story, but it tends to be walls of text (Like mine, but with less spaces and more nonsense. Hopefully) that you get at the start and end of a quest. Many don't even have honest-to-goodness dialogue. (WoW's mission text feels like dialogue, and it usually at least makes sense.) Story gives you more of a motivation for what you're doing, and gives you something to think about other than "need to kill x more y to get z experience to get to level a". I've always thought that WoW didn't have much of a story. Kind of a stupid idea, considering the ridiculously detailed source material, but I did. I recently heard otherwise in an article I was reading. *FIND ARTICLE. XP on the Escapist?*
That recently having heard otherwise inspired me to try something I hadn't done in a while. In short, try WoW. I'd thought about it several times, mostly just to see what this huge giant thing that everyone talked about was like. I'd never really thought about the possibility that I might actually LIKE it, but now I was.

Part of what stopped me before was the requirement of a real name for registration and I didn't particularly want to do that. By now, though, I don't particularly care, as it's fairly accessible. So in I go... (BTW, I like the trial. You don't actually have to download the client, which is HUGE. It usually takes hours, but you can starting playing the WoW trial in minutes.)

I've played Warcraft III, and I've heard quite a bit about WoW through the years, so I know the factions, classes, and races pretty well. I decide for my trial to make a nice, generic character-- in other words, a Human Fighter. I go through the starting zone, studying the combat system in particular and reading all the text. The combat system passes inspection with flying colors and the story gets a "pass". It's nothing spectacular, but I wouldn't expect it to be. A lot of it comes up as "hey, these guys need help with this, go help them," but as you're a soldier, it doesn't seem too far-fetched. I don't remember exactly how I went from one zone to the next, but I had trouble with the second zone, and I decided I didn't like the class. (ended up as level 13, which is a fair trial of a class in a game where the level cap was originally 60.)

The next class I actually got interested in was an Orc Shaman. If you don't know the lore, Shamans are basically elementalists that use spirits instead of actual magic-- which is a big deal, lorewise, but not really gameplay wise. Silence still stops you from using your abilities, after all. I'm a fan of the shaman quests, and Durotar, the orc starting zone, seemed a lot more interesting than the human starting zone. I also REALLY liked the class, which is a damage-dealing class that can double as a healer. (In my dungeon runs later in my trial, I played as a healer. Did a fair job, too.) That combination tends to work real well soloing, and I eventually ended up as an awesome level 19.

One of the things that stuck out to me was the fact that, at least up to my level, there was NO grinding. There was always a quest to do, and chances are there was several you could do relatively easy. The number of quests was pretty good, enough to get you leveled up but not so many that you would spend forever doing all of them. This was a pleasant surprise, and bodes well for any future games I might play.

The people I met tended to be nice, surprisingly enough. There was a helpful mage that helped me kill an annoying boss as a fighter, and any time I rescued someone who bit off more than they could chew, I almost invariably got a "thank you." I didn't get much, if any exposure to the community as a whole though, due to the fact that trial accounts can't do ANYTHING. They can't chat outside of area chat, they can't invite to parties, and they can't even whisper someone without being whispered first. So I had to deal with whoever I happened to come across in my travels.

I particularly liked the dungeon system. Not only was there an automatic party finder, each player has a designated role and the game tells you which of the three (tank, damage, and healer) your class could fill. The dungeons themselves were nothing special, but I was usually too busy keeping up, messing with the loot system, and chatting with my party members to pay much attention to the layouts. The early dungeons weren't even particularly hard, and I got the hang of the whole healing thing. I've never liked being a healer, but I really liked healing as a shaman. More on the loot system: It's called "need before greed" and requires everyone to Need, Greed, or pass on every item above a particular quality. Then, the people who picked need are rolled for, and the highest roll wins the item. If no one needed it, then it goes to the people who picked greed. It's one of the best systems I've seen, as they are either random or based on damage contribution (really not fair in a role-based combat system.) I just wish they could find a way to automate who needed which item. It doesn't even seem hard to do.

The story (remember, the reason I'd actually tried WoW) wasn't anything spectacular, but I hadn't expected it to be. I mean, I did only get to level 19, and I was only in the first couple zones- and those in the middle of my side's territory. I'm sure it gets infinitely better later, when you're fighting more than bandits and wildlife.

The problem with a trial for any MMO, and WoW in particular, is the fact that it is IMPOSSIBLE to get to the good parts, the reason you are playing an MMO in the first place. There is no way you're going to find a good guild and contribute, even at low levels, let alone get to the PVP and high-level dungeons that are the best part of the game. You barely get enough to make an educated guess. Personally, I can definitely see the potential in WoW, but I also have a lot of secondhand (or thirdhand, even) knowledge of it, and MMOs in general. The problem is there's next to no way a newcomer could see any of this from a trial, and that's a shame, because there are things in MMOs that you can't even come close to in any other game. Or anything, really.

One last thing that I want to mention is the culture in WoW. It may just be me, someone VERY aware of what they were playing, but it seemed to me that the people were very aware that they were playing a game that pretty much spawned an entire new culture, and extremely proud of it. WoW is an MMO like no other I've ever seen or heard of, and it can be felt everywhere, from the dungeon system using the roles it practically created, to the achievement "Jenkins" that wants you to kill 15... somethings in 3 minutes. (If that last one didn't make sense, shame on you. It happens though, so watch this video and now you do!)

In closing, I give to you an invitation. If I ever do manage to get an MMO at launch (at this point, either SWTOR or Jumpgate Evolution, hopefully both) and get the opportunity to seriously play it, I will most assuredly be making a guild ASAP, and any of you that want to get to know me (or already do and just want to play with me, or any other reason you can think of) will be more than welcome to join it. The game, my character's name, and the guild name will all be on here, and I'll remind you guys of the standing offer when it comes out.

P.S. There we go! Finally figured out an easy way to get videos into the post. Should be MUCH easier on the eyes now. Oh, and it's pretty much all the trailers/intros for WoW (not sure if the Cataclysm one has been released.)

P.P.S If anyone knows how I can fit the whole Youtube video player in the column, please tell. As it is most of the options are cut off. You still see the whole video, though. I think.

P.P.P.S (lol, never done a 3rd one) Hey guys! I need your help! Right now, very, very few people read the blog, and even fewer regularly. I'd like to change that! So tell your friends, retweet my tweets, use the #AldowynsMusings hash tag, vote in the polls, comment, anything you can think of! :)

Mass Effect 2: Polished to (Near) Perfection

Those of you who know me at all know that the Mass Effect series are some of, if not my all-time favorite games. They combine my two favorite genres (story-telling RPGs and shooters) and are set in one of the most fleshed out universes I've ever seen (They didn't make that codex just out of thin air, you know), with one of my favorite premises and settings. I've discussed this before, but none of the other RPG/shooters quite manage to hit the right buttons like ME does. Thus, I'm sure (or I hope, anyway) that you've been awaiting my review/discussion/whatever on one of the best games of the year, Mass Effect 2. (I know at least one place where it's the GOTY so far... I know it's mine) That's what this post is.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (Thanks! Oh, and if you don't, I'm @aldowyn, and it's also on the sidebar) know that I recently finished ME2 on Insanity (the hardest difficulty). In case you're curious, it was my second playthrough, and I was playing as a Renegade Vanguard. (BTW, you know that really cool looking Vanguard move, Charge? The one where you charge through pretty much everything and slam into your enemy, knocking him down? Useless on Insanity, you get mowed down almost instantly by anyone else in the area.) This was no mean feat, and would (probably) have been blatantly impossible in the first one. More on that later. MOST of this will be based off of that playthrough, as the first one was several busy months ago.

Anyway, I'd just like to say now that I would especially enjoy comments on this one, as there have been several times where I've gotten pretty close to having a full-blown debate over it, and I'd rather enjoy having a nice big one with all sorts of people in it.
Mass Effect 2: Review

Mass Effect 1 was a really good game, but it definitely had issues. The combat and inventory systems were clunky, and it was one of the glitchier games I've played. It was a good start, but definitely a start.

Mass Effect 2 fixes almost everything anyone complained about-- almost too well. The inventory system was completely scrapped, in favor of a loadout system with the capability to upgrade each class of weapon (heavy pistol, SMG, shotgun, assault rifle, and sniper rifle), and different pieces of armor that you can wear. The ammo types from the first one were changed to abilities, which, however unrealistic, worked quite well for the combat and management. One addition to the combat that was especially welcome was heavy weapons, from a grenade launcher for taking out several small fry at once, to a mini-nuke launcher that I'm pretty sure could take out anything short of the final boss in one hit on anything other than the final difficulty. (I managed to unload one to aforementioned final boss' eye. Needless to say, it died.)
They also pruned the skills and leveling system. Now, each skill has only 4 tiers, successively more expensive and more powerful, and each character only has half a dozen or so, max. This contrasts sharply with the first, where you could spend around a dozen points on each of your many skills, unlocking abilities and new skills as you upgraded the skill. This new system is just as dynamic and customizable, but also much easier to make sense of and use.

Also scrapped was the Mako from the first game. Although I personally didn't mind the vehicle sections as much as some, they didn't seem to serve much purpose other than getting you to the next cookie-cutter location for the next mini-quest. These monotonous vehicle sections were essentially replaced by something even more monotonous-- scanning for minerals. It's made pretty much a requirement, as you need minerals for the upgrades I mentioned above- along with a few other things, such as upgrades for your ship, shielding, armor, etc. etc. It's incredibly boring, but I at least managed to find a system for doing it where it only took a minute or so per planet. You'll still be spending an hour or two of your game time scanning, though.

Mineral Scanning

The minigame from the first game is now completely gone, replaced with separate hacking and bypassing minigames. One, you have to match three sequences of code with the extra sequences scrolling up, and the other is almost like Memory. Both of them are fairly interesting, but easy if you know what you're doing-- even easier than the one in Mass Effect, which at least got semi-difficult by the end of the game. I'm not sure the new ones even scaled up, they were so easy. For me, anyway.

The combat system has also been revamped. Instead of the annoying cooldowns from the first game, we now have traditional ammo. It's hard to run out, though, and you can always switch to another gun. You can also bend biotic powers to get around cover and such by aiming slightly away from your enemy, and enemies are more likely to be resistant to your powers. For example,you can't use most powers on a shielded enemy, but you can use powers meant specifically to be used against shields-- like Overload. Some enemies have several tiers of defenses to be overcome before you get to their actual health-- at which point they become sitting ducks for your powers. Aside from all of this, the controls are just a lot tighter. The combat isn't based on the stats of your gun any more, which means that when you aim and pull the trigger, you hit where you aim. (They also got rid of the waving around with the Sniper Rifle, so I can actually hit stuff now. I love sniping in ME2) You now have to hit a button to enter and exit cover, as opposed to sticking to it when you get close, and you can vault over most cover by moving forwards and hitting the button. This can lead to complications, but they are caused more by the user than the controls. The combat feels much more visceral and hard-hitting -- in short, a lot more like a shooter.

There's one mission in particular that sums up all these improvements to gameplay and atmosphere. I was on a derelict ship, and it felt almost like a survival shooter, zombies, creepy music, everything. I was running flat-out, shotgunning enemies as I went, and every once in a while I would get mobbed and die. Then you run into a boss, which has a ranged attack and a ton of health. It steadily moves towards you, acting like a ticking clock spelling your death if you don't kill it as soon as you can. It's a really cool sequence, and I wish the game did that kind of thing more often.

That's not to say that the story is lacking. Bioware has delivered once again, with a new stock of amazing, deep characters and the remarkable story we've come to expect from one of the best developers out there. In fact, the writing is at least as good as I've seen. It does feel quite different, though, largely because of the focus on the characters in your squad. Most Bioware games have a pretty predictable layout: tutorial area, 3 or 4 areas that you can do in any order that are the meat of the game, some areas that advance the story and that you have to do in between the main areas, and the finale. The original Mass Effect followed this formula, but ME2 has completely obliterated it. Now, you have a short tutorial, and then are set to
gather your squad of nearly a dozen people and gain their loyalty. Mixed in this part are a couple of missions to remind you that the bad guys are still there and that stuff is still happening. (One of these was particularly awesome) Then, of course, you go off on the fabled "suicide mission" and kill everything.

One drawback of this is the flow of the game. There aren't really distinct chapters that each have their own boss and finale - or at least they don't feel very final since they happen about 20 times.

These chapters in earlier games also provided a platform for the signature Bioware "choices." Mass Effect had them, Dragon Age had them, even Knights of the Old Republic had them... but Mass Effect 2 doesn't. Well, it does, but apart from the final one, they are hidden in the unnecessary loyalty quests and don't feel as... well, epic as they did in the original game. They
are still there, and most of them seem to be setting up for ME3, but they just didn't feel right to me.

One problem I never noticed about Mass Effect was how black and white it is. This is probably for two reasons. One, it's not good and evil, it's Paragon and Renegade. (Goody-goody or get the job done.) Two, I recently played Dragon Age: Origins. To put it bluntly, Dragon Age: Origins was not black and white. It wasn't even close. Of course, that was the point. I realize now that if a game tells you that the top right of the conversation wheel is one way and the bottom right is another, it's not exactly going to be hard to figure out which choice is which side.Part of the reason the story doesn't flow as well is because this is the middle chapter. We're continuing from the first and leading up to the second. This is the one that can't stand alone as well. The entire game is partly one huge hiring and audition to get ready for the finale, only none of the characters know it yet. This was a suicide mission, and anyone who died is not going to be there next time, and you're not going to be able to replace them. (Note my prediction that ME3 won't
have as many new characters)

Another issue is the complete lack of a strong enemy for most of your missions. Apart from the few times you fight the bad guys, you're fighting mercenary groups. I probably killed 10 times more mercs than I did Collectors. Even with them, who are essentially playing the roles of the geth or the darkspawn, there's not really a big bad, like Saren or the Archdemon. Sure,
there's the general, but you kill him (or his avatar, whatever) repeatedly as you go through a game, and it's never explained who or what he actually is or what he represents. Your interaction with him is limited to a few battle catchphrases (so, so creepy) and a couple cutscenes. You never actually talk to him, thus demoting him to some random guy you have to kill, instead of an intelligent adversary.

Most of these "drawbacks" are nitpicks from a devout fan of the series and a hardcore story geek, though. They aren't going to affect your game, and they didn't even really affect my experience of it. It's just me literally looking for something wrong with the game. and those are always going to exist -- perfection is a goal to be strived for, not attained. All of (or most, anyway) of this ends up contributing to the final effect of a much more polished game. Mass Effect 2 IS, in most ways that matter, vastly superior to its predecessor, and a very strong contender for Game of the Year. In other words, if you haven't played it already, GO PLAY IT. Besides, then we can talk about it more. I can almost always talk about Mass Effect!

P.S. Sorry for the delay on this particular article (I finished the game over a week ago) and the drought this month, I've been kind of busy. Don't worry, though, I've got two more articles lined up for the next few days, and I'm working on a few other games. (Oblivion, Assassin's Creed, Halo 3, etc.) Oh, and I'll have an update on Dragon Age 2 by Monday. (Remember I said that, me.)

P.P.S I'm trying to put some more pictures and videos into my posts to break up the text, but I'm on my laptop so it's a little hard to do. I'll try to update with trailers and stuff ASAP.

*edit* DONE! Hope you like it better, this one was a pain! Quite sure how to do it from now on, though.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Dragon Age 2 Reveal

If you're anything like me, you were probably wondering about the lack of Bioware news at E3- other than SWTOR, anyway. We've heard before that Dragon Age and Mass Effect both have something coming out this next spring, and there was that teaser in the casing for Dragon Age: Awakening.

Wonder no more, for Dragon Age 2 has been announced! The official Dragon Age 2 site is UP. Very few details have been released as yet, but Gameinformer magazine has revealed that the game is the cover story in the August issue. They've only released a few details, but more will show before the August issue is released.

Gameinformer's August cover

Chief among the details that have been released is the reveal of the protagonist for the new game. Gone is the classic put-yourself-in-their-shoes protagonist of the first game, and in with Hawke.

Hawke is a human that was living in Lothering at the time of the Blight from the first game. He (or she) escapes the destruction of the town, and heads to the Free Marches of the north, ending up in a city named Kirkwall. This does mean that you won't be able to choose your race, but that had little to no effect on the gameplay in Origins, instead driving the origins stories.

Instead, Hawke will be the focus of the story. The game will span an entire decade, following Hawke's rise from penniless peasant to the "most important character in the world of Dragon Age". I'm sure there will be plenty of disasters to fight off, but it seems we won't have any Blights or Reapers in this one.

Also, Hawke will be fully voiced, ala Commander Shepard. This may not sound like much, but it makes a huge difference, and an essential one in a story where the main character is the story. It allows the main character to be their own character, instead of completely determined by the player (don't worry, there's still plenty of customization), and aid immersion incredibly.

About all else we have so far is a list of features from the official site, which I shall copy and paste to you verbatim:
  • Embark upon an all-new adventure that takes place across an entire decade and shapes itself around every decision you make.
  • Determine your rise to power from a destitute refugee to the revered champion of the land.
  • Think like a general and fight like a Spartan with dynamic new combat mechanics that put you right in the heart of battle whether you are a mage, rogue, or warrior.
  • Go deeper into the world of Dragon Age with an entirely new cinematic experience that grabs hold of you from the beginning and never lets go.
  • Discover a whole realm rendered in stunning detail with updated graphics and a new visual style.
It looks like Bioware is edging Dragon Age towards Mass Effect, with the main character being such a big deal (even bigger, here) and a renewed emphasis on action in combat, but have faith in Bioware. I'm sure they will keep Dragon Age the strategy-heavy RPG it has been up to now.
Otherwise, I'm looking forward to the upgraded graphics we've been promised, and it might kind of be nice to focus on my character instead of saving the world for a change!

Sadly, the promotional teaser or whatever in the packaging for Dragon Age: Awakening either wasn't talking about Dragon Age II, or it was delayed (not unlikely). It had said 2.01.2011, or February 1, 2011, but EA has said in a press release for the game that it is slated for a March release. Maybe they got it wrong, but I doubt it. At least, not wrong that way.

I'm a little curious as to why Bioware didn't reveal this at E3, but it looks like they may be doing exclusives. Gameinformer is the only place with any detail on Dragon Age 2, and there was a G4TV exclusive demo of The Old Republic during E3. Let's hope that they'll give the ME3 story to someone else, because I really want to hear about that!

I'll keep you posted on any new details that surface, probably as a footnote at the end of my regular posts. I'll also try to get a copy of the August issue of Gameinformer and fill you guys in on it. (Not a perfect substitute for getting it yourself, though)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Roger Ebert: Maybe video games CAN be art!

Yes, I know I already talked about this debate. Sorry, you're going to get a bit more. Just a bit though. Before I do so, you do need to go read my first post on this topic, way down in like April. (April 20, in fact.) It's very possible that it's still my best post yet.

Now, if you're still with me or have come back from reading that one. you have something else to read, assuming you haven't. Roger Ebert's concession, which is here.

If you noticed, he said that he personally still thinks video games can't be art, but admits the validity of one of the most common arguments--that he shouldn't be talking about something he has next to no experience in. I can agree with that, but he also says a whole bunch more. (He can be just a bit long-winded sometimes) Eventually he gets around to repeating his reason for video games not being art, that being they're not static. Video games are interactive, and the player controls it. Thus, it is no longer controlled by the creator, and thus is not art.

Ok, that makes sense. It has a problem, though. This assumes that the amount of interaction is infinite-- that the player can make anything they want happen. As we all know, this is far from the case. The creator personally creates everything in the game, controls how they interact, and finally determines how everything will come together to the endings that he decides. It is very, very finite, and it shall remain finite until at least true virtual reality is brought to the medium (At which point the playthroughs themselves will become art, but that's another story.), and if and when that happens I shall accept that those games are not art.

Also, somewhere in there, he gives a textbook definition of art.

This belongs more with my previous post more than with this one. In that one I argued for the capability of video games to elicit emotions, and that video games will be considered art by the masses when their main purpose is considered to tell a story, or make you feel a certain way. Almost directly supported by that definition over there.

Lastly, I want to comment a little bit on the poll he made and tweeted out to his followers, many of whom retweeted it in turn. I don't remember if I retweeted it, but I did participate. The poll asked "Which would you value more?" in between Huckleberry Finn and a great video game. (Obviously I voted for the game)
I just want to say this is flawed. To be fair, it should be simpler: in between a great book and a great video game. I would still vote for the game, but this one is a lot closer. If the vote was in between Harry Potter (one of my favorites, just so you know) and say, Modern Warfare, I would say Harry Potter. You may have noticed before, but I'm not the biggest FPS guy. They're fun, but they're just time-wasters, for me.

What do you guys think? I don't really have a specific question this time, but there is plenty to discuss, and I always like to discuss, so find your own question, opinion, or comment, and I shall respond.