Friday, March 31, 2017

Ed's Review: Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a bit of a mess.

The animations are often very bad, particularly when it comes to human (or near-human) faces, but the mess is hardly limited to just them. The game is riddled with bugs both minor and major (on my PS4 copy, for example, every single time I suffered a one-shot kill at the hands of a giant Fiend, I had to manually close and restart the game because the game wouldn't bring me to the reload screen), the UI is a mess, the research point economy is out of whack, and ease-of-life features that should have been obvious, like the ability to reconnect to EA's online services from inside the game rather than exiting to the main menu, are bafflingly absent. It's a game that obviously needed another few months of polishing and fine-tuning, and even with those touch-ups, it wouldn't have likely stood as one of Bioware's all-time best efforts.

Still, I liked it, and I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Andromeda tells the story of a group of explorers from the Milky Way who, between the events of the first two Mass Effect games, somehow built a bunch of huge ark ships, rounded up more than 100,000 people, and blasted off towards the Andromeda galaxy. They arrive more than six hundred years later to find that the worlds they had targeted for colonization have been devastated by some sort of cosmic energy cloud called the Scourge and a hostile alien species known as the Kett. You play one of the two Ryder twins, the son and daughter of Human Pathfinder Clancy Brown and part of the team he leads. Your mission: establish a new home for the Milky Way colonists, make contact with local species, fight back the Kett, and figure out what's going on with the mysterious Remnant technology scattered across the Heleus Cluster.

The story, at least initially, seems to have far lower stakes than that of the first Mass Effect trilogy, in which Commander Shepard discovered that Robot Alien Cthulhus were about to repeat their 50,000-year cycle of wiping out all advanced life in the galaxy for some unfathomable reason. (And when we actually got the reason, at the end of the third game, it was an unfathomably stupid one.) The residents of the various arks and the Nexus--a knockoff of the Milky Way's Citadel intended to act as a hub for the new colonial government--don't know anything about the Reapers and don't know that they may have narrowly dodged a cosmic bullet. They just know that something happened in Andromeda within the last six centuries, and the bright future they were promised is not immediately forthcoming.

It's an interesting setup that allows the game to avoid some of the bafflingly bad writing injected into it over time--and mind you, the ending of ME3 was the culmination of a lot of awful storytelling, we just didn't notice because Garrus was awesome--and lends itself to a more exploration-heavy gameplay experience similar in ways to the original Mass Effect. Unfortunately, this sense of charting new territory is undercut by both ludonarrative dissonance (roll your eyes if you think the term is too hipster, but it applies) between what you're told to be the state of the galaxy and what you observe, and the simpler fact that you're not the first human on any of these planets.

In the game's lore, the Nexus and its crew arrived more than a year you did. Humans, turians, asari, salarians, and krogan have already made contact with the local races, already set up bases and colonies everywhere you're going to go, and already established thriving economies. That's a bit annoying, but much more egregious are the massive gangs of pirates and bandits you will encounter with at least as much regularity as you do the Kett. I tried to keep an estimate of how many Milky Way bad guys my team killed over the course of the game, and lost track after several hundred. Given the limited population pool (120,000 or so colonists, most still in cryo sleep), how exactly is some random goon getting ahold of a bunch of prefabricated housing modules and a gang of dozens of armed and armored soldiers? Moreover, how are dozens of these random goons assembling their own armies?

This isn't a new problem for the series. The folks in charge of designing the game's combat don't want to concern themselves with what makes sense for the world, they just want fun and interesting bad guys for you to fight. And, to be sure, they succeed in that. The combat starts a bit slow, with a limited arsenal of powers and weapons, but opens up greatly as Ryder gains levels. The Profile system, which lets you switch between pre-made sets of three powers and some passive bonuses, at first seemed a bit pointless but gradually becomes invaluable. For mass combat, I'd switch to my hard-hitting Vanguard profile, throwing myself at enemies like a biotically-charged ping pong ball of death and sending foes flying with kinetic explosions; when I needed to hold a specific position for a bit, I'd switch to a more traditional Adept role, knocking bad guys out of cover and setting them up for powerful, explosive combos.

While the fighting is good fun, it's a bit disappointing how little control you have over your companions compared to previous games. While I can understand why Bioware moved to make them more autonomous than before, I miss being able to tell my cohorts when to hit with a specific power or switch from their rifle to their shotgun. The amount of customization available to you when crafting weapons also feels a bit wasted when you can build a massive new plasma cannon but can't hand it off to your krogan buddy.

The buddies are also a step below the companions of prior Bioware games. While none of them are egregiously bad, and most of them grew on me quite a bit with time, there are no obvious standouts like Garrus, or Tali, or Mordin, or--moving to the Dragon Age games--Alistair, Varric, or Dorian. Peebee, the asari archaeologist with serious commitment issues, seems to be the most divisive of the bunch--fans either seem to find her the most interesting and endearing member of the crew, or the most two-dimensional and annoying. (I fall closer to the latter, but eh, she's fine.) Personally, I ended up a fan of Drack, an extremely veteran krogan soldier who puts a slightly paternal spin on the series' usual "gruff, pragmatic warrior guy" stereotype. All of the companions have at least some interesting trait that sets them apart from their archetype, from Liam's reckless idealism to Vetra's big-sisterliness, with the possible exception of Cora, who falls into the thankless Bioware role of being the rules-oriented, boring one.

The character that I think will emerge as the most interesting and important, however, is Jaal, the last member of your crew to join and an important link to the Andromeda galaxy. He's well written and well acted, useful in combat, and has probably the strongest arc to his story. Once you get him, you should probably just take him along on every main story mission. I did, and I imagine a lot of the big revelations would have lost some impact if he hadn't been with me.

And the revelations are interesting and worth reaching, even if the game starts at a glacial, unfocused pace and takes its time hooking you in. The lengthy opening tutorial gives way to a potentially even lengthier tutorial on Eos, depending on your need to pursue sidequests. (My advice: come back later. Eventually, the planet's radiation hazards clear, and it becomes much less of a pain to get around.) The story does gradually pick up, however, and--aside from a few handwavy moments it doesn't give you time to think about--builds to a satisfying climax that sets up some very interesting ideas for the series to pick up on in the future.

Andromeda is very good, even if it's not great. If you're a fan of the original games, it's probably worth a shot--though be warned that it is a massive title that will take dozens of hours to complete. Like the original Mass Effect, it tells an interesting story competently, but lacks substantial polish and is very rough around some of its edges.

Ed's Totally Subjective Score: 7.5/10

And now, some random thoughts.

  • I stuck with the default names for the Ryders, and I'm glad I did. There are many times throughout the game where characters will refer to you as "Sara" or "Scott" if you've kept that as their names, and I don't imagine they do that otherwise. It's a small touch, but after three games of just being "Commander" or "Shepard," it's nice to have a first name.
  • Having started a New Game + as Scott Ryder, it's really noticeable how much better the male character's animations are than his sister's. Sara's always twisting at weird angles and making strange faces, but Scott seems like he's actually accustomed to being in a human body. Probably a side effect of them sharing animations, and Sara's rig being significantly smaller.
  • The animations that play as you move from planet to planet. They are very pretty, yes. They are also interminable. I don't care if they have to skip fixing game-breaking bugs, the very first thing Bioware needs to patch are those awful transitions. How did they get through QA?
  • Early on, characters mention that the Quarian ark is still on its way to Andromeda and is also bringing all the other races the devs couldn't be bothered making new models for. With complete seriousness: Bioware, before you end this series, I demand an elcor shipmate.
  • The multiplayer is much like Mass Effect 3's, which is good, because ME3's was fantastic. Unfortunately, EA doesn't seem to have made dedicated servers for PS4 users, and almost every session I've tried has been laggy to the point of near unplayability. This is a shame, because one of the first characters I unlocked was a female krogan gladiator, and I gave her bright pink and indigo armor and want to run around headbutting things with her.
  • Female Ryder is incredibly sarcastic. I haven't heard enough of her brother's voicework to have much to say about him, but man, Sara is hilariously snarky even when she's being serious. Her VA either did a really great job or a really bad one.
  • Brightly colored hair just seems really appropriate for a pair of 20-something twins who decided to jump galaxies.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Five Games From 2015 I Friggin' Loved

Welp, it's the end of the year.  Time to look back and reflect over the events and happenings of the previous 365 days.  Or, if you're the owner of a dusty, neglected old blog with nothing better to do today, time to write a list of video games you most enjoyed.

So, let's do that.

#5: Metal Gear Solid 5

So, I'm not a huge Metal Gear fan.  I played the hell out of MGS 1 as a kid, sure, and I suffered through the Raiden bait-and-switch of MGS 2, but I lost interest about halfway through 3 and never had any real interest in picking up any of the following prequels and spinoffs.  Hideo Kojima is certainly the definition of an auteur--one can immediately recognize his distinct vision and touch on a game--but his particular brand of quirkiness never really lined up with mine.  This is as true as ever of Metal Gear Solid 5.  The writing's awful, the characters are unlikable dicks who do stupid things and get angry for juvenile reasons, and the whole virus plot makes no goddamn sense.

And then there's Quiet.  Jesus Christ, Quiet.

Yet despite that, the actual gameplay if MGS 5 was pure fun.  I put dozens of hours into it, even after finishing the main story, just screwing around and looting resources for Mother Base.  I don't know how many times I raided that airport in Africa, but it never got old.  The sheer variety in ways you can approach the same objective kept it entertaining every single time.  Charge in guns blazing, executing guards as you go?  Sure. Sneak in, with Quiet sending down a barrage of tranquilized sniper rounds?  Abduct away!  Have your AI-equipped armored walker create a distraction in the middle of a parking lot while you swipe a few crates of precious metals?  That's good, too.

MGS 5 would probably be a lot closer to the top if it had come with a less Kojima story... but then, would the actual game still have been as good without him?  Who knows?  Well, we might eventually find out when and if Konami takes a break from making branded pachinko machines to crank out a Kojima-less Metal Gear sequel.  Time will tell.

#4: Pillars of Eternity

Once, when I was a little kid--maybe seven or eight--I ate a bowl of homemade potato soup at a friend's house.  It was amazing.  When I close my eyes, I can still think about how good that soup tasted, how it warmed my chest like a snug blanket of deliciousness, the combination of flavors and textures and just general amazingness.  In the two and a half decades since, I've searched high and low to find that potato soup's equal.  I've found plenty of very good ones, a few very bad ones, but none have been able to capture that absolute perfection--and perhaps none ever can.  Perhaps it wasn't actually as good as I think, and my memories are tainted by nostalgia and the naivete of youth.

If the original Baldur's Gate games are that potato soup, Pillars of Eternity is the closest I've ever come to recapturing it.  In many ways, the soup is even better than the one I remember, even if it's still not quite the same.  But that's fine.  Because goddamn it, I've got some amazing potato soup here, and whether it's an exact duplicate or not, it's still really freaking good.

That said, as much as I adored the game during the month I spent playing it... I can't remember much of the story.  It was really, really good.  The plot was compelling and well-written, the characters were (mostly) interesting and endearing, the sidequests avoided being filler fetch quests or grinds.  It's an Obsidian game.  Obsidian does game writing better than anyone in the business.  And yet, outside of a few specific story beats, I couldn't really give you much more than a general overview of the central plot.  I'd probably even get some stuff wrong.

And that's why the potato soup isn't higher on the list.

#3: Tales From the Borderlands

Hey, have you played Tales From the Borderlands?

No?

STOP READING THIS AND GO PLAY TALES FROM THE BORDERLANDS.

Unlike every other game on my list here, Tales isn't a grand epic that requires dozens of hours to get through.  It'll take you perhaps eight, tops.  And they will be eight of the best hours you ever spend.

Telltale Games created a brilliant template with The Walking Dead, a choose-your-own-adventure sort of game where you guided a guy named Lee and a little girl named Clementine through the perils and horrors of a zombie apocalypse.  They expanded the template with A Wolf Among Us (based on  Bill Willingham's brilliant and amazing Fables comic books) and A Game of Thrones, but with Tales, they may have hit their high water mark.  Everything about this game--the voice acting, the art style, the sharp writing and frequently hilarious dialogue--is heads and shoulders above Telltale's other work.  (Well, okay, except perhaps for the end of TWD.)

Seriously, even if you have no experience with the original Borderlands games (think Diablo as a first person shooter and a healthy splash of Mad Max), you should play this.  Now.  Literally right now.  Don't even finish this list.

Then come back and play the next two games, too.

#2: Fallout 4

I haven't been this hooked on a game since Bethesda's last game.

Look, don't get me wrong.  Bethesda's still not very good at writing.  The Institution's motivations and treatment of Synths make no sense.  It makes even less sense that people living on the Northeastern coast of the United States haven't figured out how to build walls without gaping holes in them.  The ending(s) are ludicrously railroaded (no pun intended) and universally disappointing.

But man, what this game does right, it does right.  While Bethesda may be garbage at actual writing, nobody does environmental storytelling better.  You'll constantly be wondering about the stories behind, say, the rotten skeleton trapped in a hole with nothing but a teddy bear, or why this particular vault dweller decided to barricade himself in his room and starve to death.  And the companions!  Nick Valentine, Hancock, Curie, even the formerly-awful and equally unkillable mayor of Little Lamplight, MacCready, are all engaging, entertaining, and well-crafted.  (Admittedly, I'm a huge sucker for noir, meaning Nick was always going to be my best friend by default.)

Crafting systems in games are always a huge draw for me, as well, and God knows I spent enough time modding weapons and building settlements in the dozens of hours I've spent with this game so far.  While perhaps not quite as deep as I'd hoped--most weapon mods are straight upgrades, rather than offering customization options to tailor a gun to your particular needs or tastes--it provides a great excuse to revisit explored areas in search of respawned caches of aluminum, adhesive, or ceramics.

Of course, the fact that areas respawn makes no freaking sense.  Nor does it make sense that bandits and raiders could outnumber normal civilians getting by on subsistence farming by a huge ratio, especially considering they're competing with roided-out super mutants for the same prey.  Or that a kid can survive in the fridge 30 feet off the road for two centuries without food and water, ghoul or not.  Or that people are still using bottlecaps as currency after two friggin' centuries.  Or that Jet, which was created some hundred and change years after the Great War in New Reno, can be found in pre-war ruins on the East Coast.  Or that... well.  You get the idea.

Basically, Fallout 4 is super fun... as long as you avoid the main plot and don't think about how little sense anything makes.  But man, if you can turn those parts of your brain off, it will take a month or more of your life away before you can blink.

#1: The Witcher 3

Welp.  I honestly don't know where to start.  No game I've ever seen has had the scope, the grandeur, and the beauty of The Witcher 3.  None have had characters as complex and likable and compelling as Geralt of Rivia.   None have built a world I, as a player, could simply enjoy inhabiting so much.  My favorite memories of The Witcher 3 aren't in cutscenes or battles, but in simply exploring, in cresting a hill while a gentle breeze rustles the grass around me, of tracking a dangerous monster through a grim and ominous swamp, of seeing a massive whale rise out of the waves close enough by to rock my little boat.

I don't know if I can arrange words in such a way as to adequately convey how blown away I was by this game.  The art is amazing--not just the graphics, but the character and creature designs, the architecture, the handcrafted scenery.  You want to see what lies beyond every hill, in the depths of every valley.  You want to search every ruin, explore every town.  There are hundred of map markers for each a area Geralt visits in the game, and finding them isn't a chore, it's a pleasure.

And then there's Gwent.  I'm on record as a guy who hates collectible card games being shoved into non-collectible card games, but I recant those views in regards to Gwent.  To my chagrin, I ignored the game for most of my journey--it wasn't until I was nearly through that I finally gave it a fair shot and realized how gorram fun it is.  And then I spent a dozen or so hours tracking down every last card I could still get.

And the writing?  Brilliant.  The characters are great--even Yennefer, who I initially viewed as the Veronica to Triss' Betty, grew on me by the end--and the themes of political intrigue and espionage interwoven through the narrative have more than a few shades of George R.R. Martin to them.

It didn't take much debate for me to place Geralt's final adventure at the top of my list.  If you only play one game on this list (and, you know, you actually have the ability to invest dozens of hours into an open-world RPG), make it The Witcher 3.  It's so good, it'll make you wear your girlfriend's pants and prank call a confused wizard.

BONUS:


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Thoughts on Season 3 of Arrow

It seems like the better The Flash got, the worse Arrow became.

Wait, let me back up here.  Hi.  I haven't written anything in awhile.  I'm Ed.  I'm a geek.  Sometimes, far too rarely, I feel compelled to write things down.  So let's talk about Arrow.

I only sat down to give The CW's Arrow a real shot (ha) about a month and a half ago.  I'd heard good things from friends and fellow geeks, but I've been very, very wary about anything coming out of DC Comics for the last several years.  I was born and raised a DC fan, coming into my geekiness around the same time that Knights were Falling and Doomsday and Clark Kent were punching each other so hard that buildings were shaking around them.  My dad, though not a particularly nerdy soul himself, had fond memories of his own childhood comic book days and encouraged my interest.  He'd return home from garage sales (this being the rural Midwest) with boxes full of old comics and trade paperbacks, almost always published by DC or Archie--and my deep-seated love of Archie is a whole 'nother subject--and I'd delve into this strange, colorful, violent, and often inexplicable world of superheroes and villains punching each other in dramatic fashion.

Around the same time, Batman: The Animated Series was kicking off.  B:TAS begot Superman: The Animated Series, Supes begot Justice League, and basically, throughout my childhood and into my burgeoning adult years, I had Bruce Timm's legendary version of the DC Universe keeping me company.  I also began to discover DC-oriented comics blogs like Dave's Long Box, the Absorbascon, and Chris Sims' Invincible Super-Blog.  These helped me finally understand some of the stories I'd been confused by in my youth and connect to aspects, characters, and bits of DC apocrypha I'd otherwise never have been exposed to.  I grew from a guy who liked comic books and superheroes to a dyed-in-the-wool DC Fanboy.

And then Christopher Nolan happened.  I enjoyed Batman: Begins quite a bit; I loved The Dark Knight and lauded Heath Ledger's performance (even if he still wasn't as good a Joker as Mark Hamill).  But by the time The Dark Knight Rises hit, DC's editorial staff seemed to have succumbed to the exact same madness that had, thirty years earlier, caused every comics writer in the industry to take a shot at recreating Alan Moore's Watchmen.  On the film side, it was obvious; Man of Steel's promotion (and eventual execution--no pun) made it clear that whoever was in charge of making these movies thought anything from DC that hit the silver screen needed to be dour, grim, dark, gritty, and absolutely humorless.  Sure, Green Lantern looked like it might be kind of fun (I won't lie, I had high hopes for Ryan Reynold's Kyle-Rayner-disguised-as-Hal-Jordan film), but its box office demise apparently sealed the deal at Warner Brothers: DC movies are totally serious business, man.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Let's Play ROTK X Part 6: A College Graduate in Today's World


It's November 20th, 200 A.D., and Lu Meng has finally run out of college tuition money.

But look at that Intelligence score!  From 42 to 68; not too shabby, in my opinion.  It's not quite up to our target of 70, but we've barely even begun to earn Tactics XP yet, so there's no real rush to get there.

It's been a long road to hoe, but we were just the Joe to hoe it.  Let's see how the world looks nowadays, after our long sequester.


In the Central Plains, Cao Cao and Yuan Shu are still gearing up for an inevitable war.  Liu Bei is still hanging out in Ru Nan, and Lu Bu is still sleeping on Liu Bei's bed and pissing in his sink and leaving his dirty underwear draped over Liu Bei's favorite sculptures.

Actually, it doesn't look like anything's changed at all.  Kinda weird.


In the southeast, Sun Ce (who is still alive, somehow) has expanded his territory a bit, and he's probably going to be coming into conflict with Liu Biao pretty soon.  Biao's an annoying bugger in the early game; he's not an important character, and he doesn't really have any great officers under his command, but he's got some prime real estate that provides him with enough money and manpower to make him tough to knock out.


And our Act I antagonist, Yuan Shu, is still just sitting there with his measly two cities.  I wonder if the game's scripting broke?  Sometimes, a particular officer moving to the wrong place or switching sides too early can cause the scripted events to stop happening.  This might actually be a good thing, because a lack of scripted events means Cao Cao won't get to automatically double his territory again when he goes to war with Yuan Shao.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Let's Play ROTK X Part 5: Lu Meng, Confidence Man


Enough dicking around with odd jobs and crime fighting.  It's time to make some real money!

... But first, we're going to need to do some more odd jobs and crime fighting.


First off, it's time to look into these Buy Product jobs people keep posting.

Each city has its own specialty product.  (Or its specialty is that it doesn't have a specialty, but you get what I mean.)  Hui Ji, if you'll remember, was all about its fish.  Other cities produce exceptional oil, silk, wheat, or what have you.  These Buy Product jobs task you with finding a city that specializes in a particular product, buying some, and bringing it back.

How do you find out a city's specialty?  Observe!

No, seriously, you go around and use the Observe command.  Sometimes, you'll find previously undiscovered characters, sometimes you'll get generic dialogue and gameplay tips, and sometimes people will enthusiastically tell you all about how City 17 is world renown for their headcrab exports.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Let's Play ROTK X Part 4: Captain Average Rises


Let's get ourselves a job we're more qualified for.

As a 17-year-old college student, our resume isn't exactly leaping off the page.  However, if there's one thing undergrads are fully capable of, it's throwing a damn party.  Let's join a festival!


"... you would join us."

Wait, we don't even have any responsibilities?  You're literally just paying us to attend?

Do go on.


So, we head to the farm...


And get ready to party!


Lu Meng, party scientist.


Two hundred bucks and a bump to our reputation.  This is the greatest job of all time.

Let's Play ROTK X Part 3: Men Shouting on Bridges


It occurs to me that if I'd bothered to show off the stats screen at the beginning, I could have avoided losing three weeks' tuition money to my private army.  C'est la vie.


Here's a list of Meng's skills.  Each row of skills cover different aspects of the game.

The first row are the Job skills; they all boost the results of things a character might have to do between fights, from improving the farmlands, researching new technology, patrolling for bad guys, or hiring soldiers.  Meng starts with Repair, Order, and Drill, meaning he's good at rebuilding walls, fighting crime, and teaching peasants to stick them with the pointy end.

The second row are Battle skills.  These are Leadership-based abilities to be used in combat.  Charge lets you push enemies around the map, Missile lets you use fire arrows, Unison lets you surround enemies and attack them at once, Settle removed negative status effects, Rally buffs morale, Surprise lets you attack non-adjacent enemies, and Distract... I'm not actually sure what Distract does.

Third row are the Strategy skills.  These are also used in battle, but are based off your Intelligence stat.  Blunder makes two adjacent enemy units fight eachother, Stun stuns, Entice (despite its vaguely sexy name) taunts enemies, Confuse confuses, Aero lets you change the wind's direction (useful if you play with fire), Geo lets you dig pits for enemies to fall into, and Maze... actually doesn't get any use in battle, but does let you build Mazes on the world map instead of Forts.

Fourth row: Duel skills!  If you're fighting someone one-on-one, these help you beat their heads in more efficiently.  I'm sure I'll cover dueling in more depth, since it's one of the few things Meng's decent at, so I'll go into more detail later.

Fifth row: Debate skills!  ROTK X introduced a duel-like system for the nerdier characters.  Typically used to resolve diplomatic actions, debates are abstractly represented by two men standing on a bridge and shouting at eachother until one of them falls off.  Yeah, I don't know.  More detail for this coming later, but suffice it to say, debating is bullshit.  At least until you get Plead and Insight.  And then it's bullshit in the other direction.

Finally, the sixth row covers reknown skills.  These are earned in various ways, and give nice bonuses that help specialize your character's role in the world.  Meng starts with Admiral, meaning that when he's fighting in a boat, he won't be constantly dragged around by the tide.  The skill I really want for him is Warlord, which is going to require 70 Intelligence and a metric butt-ton of Tactics XP.  I'd also like to pick up Doctor, since I think it will help him prolong his life--and even if it won't, it's a fun skill to have.

Whew.  Let's see what the rest of the screens have in store!