Tag: BioWare (page 2 of 6)

Game Review: Mass Effect 3

Endings are tricky things. It can be difficult to tie up loose ends, wrap up character arcs, and bring the lines of the plot to a satisfying conclusion. It’s as true for romantic comedies as it is for war stories, though the latter tends to be more harrowing and bittersweet in the end result. And make no mistake. Mass Effect 3 is a war story.

As an aside, I will maintain my usual policy of avoiding spoilers in the review, which is difficult in this case because the controversial ending of Mass Effect 3 has an effect on the game as a whole, but I can’t discuss it without spoiling things. I will do my best.

Courtesy BioWare

In the 6 months since the events of Mass Effect 2‘s Arrival DLC, Commander Shepard has been under house arrest on Earth. Finally brought before Alliance Command, it turns out they suddenly believe Shepard’s story about the Reapers. That’s because the Reapers invade Earth. The race of sentient murderous machines have begun a unilateral campaign of annihilation across the galaxy, and as much as Shepard would like to stay on Earth to fight, the Normandy is instead sent out to get help. And with an enemy as numerous and implacable as the Reapers, they’ll need all the help they can get.

The theme of war and an impending sense of doom hang over Mass Effect 3 like a dark shroud. The Reapers are everywhere. Even in the galaxy map, you can see them descending on system after system. Shepard has to deal with them as well as just about every friend and foe that’s been made over the course of the trilogy. This being the last game in the story, anybody who’s survived thus far is pretty much obligated to make an appearance. Thankfully, Mass Effect 3 continues the tradition of maintaining a coherent narrative in its character moments right down to incidental things like individual rescued colonists and well-meaning but overenthusiastic fans. It also looks even more polished and expressive than the previous titles, even if the pervasive lens flares get a bit irritating.

Courtesy BioWare
Actually it’s pretty mild in this shot.

The inventory and combat systems have been tweaked a bit, making things feel like a hybrid of both previous games. Shepard’s loadout is now based on weight rather than class, allowing you to customize your experience to some degree. You can load up an Infiltrator with a shotgun or a Vanguard with a sniper rifle, with the only price being an increased recharge time for your powers. Returning from the first Mass Effect are weapon mods, this time handled in their own interface rather than being buried somewhere in the general inventory system. Procurement, upgrades, and customization are all done in one place, with separate interfaces for each, making these decisions easy and actually interesting instead of the tedious chore they were in the first game.

As for combat, we continue to handle our differences in opinion in a succession of corridors full of chest-high walls. The reintroduction of grenades, however, encourages us to move around the battlefield and keep the pace and tension high. Enemies will also employ special tactics against you, such as setting up turrets, siphoning health from nearby friendlies, and approaching cautiously behind riot shields. Your powers remain satisfying to use in response, for both you and your squadmates. It bears mentioning, though, that having one button for taking cover and picking up items and using environmental highlights and just about everything else can be frustrating when you meant to take cover but wind up trying to hack a terminal while angry enemy warriors use your N7 logo as a bulls-eye.

Courtesy BioWare
“My momma says I’m pretty.”

The scanning mechanic of the previous game also makes a return, but it’s not quite as crap. The removal of resource-gathering, the reduced time to find a particular item, and the chance of getting chased down by angry Reapers actually makes it a bit fun to search for war assets. The purpose of scanning this time around is not to buy fancy upgrades but to bolster the war effort. Discovered assets and forged alliances can be viewed in the Normandy‘s war room, along with a ‘readiness rating’ that reflects participation in the multiplayer, iOS interactions, and possibly other aspects as well. The goal is to gather as much support and firepower as possible in order to, in theory, get the best ending.

While it’s to be expected that a war story is going to have all sorts of tragedy and noble death, it must be said that Mass Effect 3 does a great deal of it quite well. Despite some of the forced tragedy of the opening, some of the character moments are absolutely amazing. We get the feeling that things we’ve done in the previous games do, in fact, have lasting meaning. Characters we’ve come to know and love come out guns blazing, defending their ideals to the death and showing just how much influence one individual can have. These moments, combined with the smooth combat, improved world-map hunting, and some above-average dialog even by BioWare standards, had me absolutely adoring the Mass Effect 3 experience…

Courtesy BioWare
Wouldn’t be a story about Shepard without Garrus.

…right up until the ending. Which I will discuss tomorrow.

Stuff I Liked: The variety of weapons and the ability to try them out on Shepard no matter what your class. The diversity of the enemies that required tactical thinking to overcome. The revamped Normandy and the way crew members walked around it naturally instead of being stuck in one place constantly.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: The reduced number of conversation choices, while allowing things to move more quickly, felt a little off, as if choices were being made for me. The finicky use/cover button. So many lens flares. The occasional graphical glitch or clipping issue. And while I appreciated Kai Leng’s role as a villain, was it necessary to make him a space ninja?
Stuff I Loved: The tight focus on characters. The smartly-written dialog. The casual and progressive way in which the game handles same-sex relationships. The way every decision feels important, and the ways the game shows you the consequences of those decisions, until the ending begins.

Bottom Line: Mass Effect 3 is like going out to dinner with a bunch of old friends. You have some drinks, laugh about old times. The food is delicious and the company’s fantastic. It’s a deeply satisfying experience… and then, suddenly, your friends are gone, you’re stuck with the massive check, and something on your plate was undercooked and now you have food poisoning. The ending ruins what was otherwise a great gaming experience.

Tension Is Good

Courtesy BioWare

If you have any connection whatsoever to video games in general, you know Mass Effect 3 got released yesterday. Reviews are up all over the place, including this great one at the Escapist, along with the requisite whining from entitled gamers about how the DLC issue should have prompted a boycott and conversations about leaked ending footage, blah blah blah. For me it’s off to a good start, even if the character of Jason Vega is a little ridiculous, but what has my attention, not just as a gamer but as a writer, is how tense everything feels.

In the previous game, there was a lack of urgency save for the very last mission. You could putter around the galaxy doing whatever you liked and there was no consequence for it. I highly doubt Mass Effect 3 will punish me for going after side-quests or taking time to chat people up, but now I have a feeling for the stakes right from the beginning. The threat is not imminent or implied – it’s here, and needs to be dealt with now.

This feeling of tension is bleeding into the dialog. BioWare’s always been decent at characterization through conversation, and so far this game is living up to their other best titles. There have already been moments within the scant few hours I’ve played where characters have left things unsaid, conveying emotion far more deeply in the spaces between words than in the words themselves. While some of these moments are open to interpretation based on how you personally want to play the game, the fact that this depth and complexity exists at all in a modern AAA shooting game earns early top marks from me.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution did this, too. Being a man of few words, Adam didn’t always say exactly what was on his mind. Especially after the attack that lead him to becoming an augmented one-man assault force, he plays things close to his ballistic vest. The nature of the dialog bosses and the moment when he reaches what he believes to be his ultimate goal make great use of tension. It’s clear evidence that the right word, spoken or unspoken, can have just as much power as a well-placed bullet.

In games it’s very easy to let the dialog fill in expository gaps to get the player from one shooting gallery to the next. It’s far more difficult to make the player care about the pixelated people involved in the action. By showing instead of telling, by keeping this tension high and filling conversations with hesitation and uncertainty, the writers give the action that follows more weight. We don’t just want to survive the firefight or earn the rewards or teabag the bag guys. We want to find out what happens after, what the next conversation holds, if the guy gets the girl (or guy) who clearly wants to their feelings to be noticed even if they don’t say anything about them, if an issue is going to be dealt with or avoided… It’s the tension, not the shooting, that keeps the narrative moving. This isn’t just a good thing. It’s a great thing.

You can, and should, do this as well in your writing. By keeping conversations tight and holding back on exposition and explanation, you make your reader want to know more. The promise of answers, not necessarily the delivery, is what will compel them to keep reading. While some stories may dangle the carrot of satisfying answers in front of you until the end before slapping you with the stick of deus ex machina or some other form of bait-and-switch, good ones leave things unanswered entirely so readers keep thinking about the story after it’s done. Did Richard and Pixel live after The Cat Who Walks Through Walls? What happened after the end of Serenity? Did Cobb actually make it home at the end of Inception? What’s Coburn’s next move after the end of Double Dead? So on and so forth. These stories raise questions at the beginning and answer them at the end, with plenty of tension in the middle and enough left at the end to leave us wanting more.

If Mass Effect 3 can pull this off, I’ll be quite pleased. And if it doesn’t, you’ll be damn sure I’ll tell you about it.

DLC: Decidedly Lavish Crap

TARDIS USB Hub

Behold, Whovians. My USB hub involves Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. I can connect to SO many devices. Some of them aren’t even of human manufacture! Muahahaha…

…okay, it’s a silly USB hub shaped like a TARDIS. I don’t need it. But it makes my life easier and it’s really cool-looking, in my humble opinion.

The TARDIS hub is, in a way, a lot like a video game’s downloadable content, colloquially called DLC.

I’m a consumer in general, of media in particular. Be it through conditioning or simple instinctual inclination, I like little optional extras. I like having a car charger for my iPhone that also has an FM transmitter. I enjoy samples of wine before a meal. And if there’s art or music above and beyond what’s included with media I really dig, you can bet I’ll be finding ways to check it out. Heck, as I type this supplemental material to the Internet narrative comic phenomenon Homestuck is winging its way to my door. Well, not winging so much as rolling, as it’s coming USPS, but you get the idea.

But I know none of these things are necessary. My life will not be diminished if they were absent. Plenty of people get by without things like this. I’m just in a position where I can enjoy such optional extras.

DLC is a lot like that.

In recent years it’s become the practice of certain big software publishers to bundle their new releases with DLC that is only available to those who pre-order or buy new. The DLC in question usually becomes available later for an additional fee. In Dragon Age: Origins, the character of Shale was only included in the initial release of the game if it was purchased new. If you got a copy second hand, you’d be deprived of the bird-stomping golem unless you paid $15 US. This was due to a launch date developers were struggling to reach, causing them to cut Shale from the project until the date was pushed back.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is another example. Pre-orders of the game from certain vendors featured the Explosive Mission Pack. This includes a bonus mission involving an important character that has appeared throughout the Deus Ex storyline in both previous games. The reward for completing it is an interesting bit of continuity and a wickedly powerful weapon. If you didn’t pre-order the game, you can download the pack (as I did) for $3 US. It’s cool to have for story buffs and the like, but it’s no more necessary to that game than Shale is to Dragon Age: Origins. Don’t get me wrong, I love Shale; I just acknowledge that she isn’t an essential part of that game.

Courtesy BioWare

The reason I’ve decided to bring this up is the imminent Reaper invasion contained in discs and downloads around the world. Mass Effect 3 is coming, and some goofball on the Internet leaked its Day One DLC. Called “From Ashes”, it is included only with Collector’s Editions of the game and has a few neat points, which are outlined here. The biggest one is an additional character, a member of the Prothean race that has been part of the Mass Effect universe from the very beginning. From what I understand, this character is like Shale in that his content and very presence is entirely optional, and if you weren’t fortunate enough to pre-order a collector’s edition of the game, you can buy the DLC separately for $10 US. BioWare contends that the game is complete and “huge” even without this DLC.

Nonetheless, there is a LOT of uproar over this. Folks threatening boycott and saying that it’s EA’s marketing doing stuff like this that’s killing the industry and exploiting the consumer. I can see where they’re coming from. I don’t like the mentality of big business publishers when it comes to things like this, and as much as a lot of the backlash to “From Ashes” sounds like a bunch of entitled whining, this sort of behavior is a major shift from their previous Mass Effect title, which included a character and other enhancements as Day One DLC for free as long as you bought the game new.

This doesn’t change the fact that DLC is optional. Provided BioWare is honest about the completeness of the game without “From Ashes”, it seems to me that this Prothean character and the module’s other content falls under “nice to have” instead of “must have”. I’ve considered not buying the game myself as I don’t want to support toxic policies like this, but on the other hand I’ve been wanting to see for myself if BioWare can come back from its recent failures. If Mass Effect 3 turns out to be as lackluster as Star Wars: The Old Republic or as aimless and repetitive as Dragon Age 2, it’ll be the last time I buy anything from the company, unless it’s a copy of an older game I no longer have a disc for like Baldur’s Gate or something.

After giving it some thought, I’ll still be buying Mass Effect 3 but I will not be picking up “From Ashes” initially. Maybe if the game delivers on all of its promises and makes me forget all about BioWare’s unfortunate EA entanglements I’ll come back to it. But this really is like all other DLC and optional extras for consumers in general. Nobody’s entitled to it. It’s never guaranteed and while it’s nice to have, we can live perfectly fine without it. It is, at the end of the day, decidedly lavish crap.

Expansions in the Force

Courtesy LucasArts

Let’s face an honest truth. The universe George Lucas created back in 1977 is a better place than he originally imagined. With the exception of Empire Strikes Back, which was written & directed by guys that weren’t Lucas, the original trilogy established his galaxy far, far away and populated it with strange aliens, turbulent politics and an ancient battle between good and evil held in balance by a mysterious omnipresent energy field dubbed the Force. Have you noticed I haven’t said anything about the characters? That’s because they’re pretty standard adventure fare.

Think about it. Luke’s arc is so Campbellian in A New Hope one might think a copy of Hero With A Thousand Faces was stashed in Lucas’ trailer. The other characters are iconic, sure, but only because they’ve been in stories we’ve been telling for centuries. There’s nothing wrong with this, mind you, and I’d be the first to say that old stories are still worth telling as long as they’re told well.

That last bit’s the catch, isn’t it? We can look at the six feature films of Star Wars (and no I am NOT counting that CGI stuff) and see with clarity that while Lucas can dream up really neat settings, the population of those settings can get a bit dodgy at times. Hence fan fascination with the likes of Wedge Antilles.

Oh, you know Wedge. He was in all three movies. Blew up both Death Stars? Escaped Hoth? First Luke’s wingman and then Lando’s? That’s gotta ring a few bells.

It was after the first three movies were finished back in the 80s that people started looking to fill in some of the missing pieces of the Star Wars universe themselves, and Wedge was one of the characters that stood out. He was reliable, loyal, an ace pilot and cool under fire. So people started writing about him. To this day, the novels and comics featuring Wedge and Rogue Squadron are some of the highly regarded works of the so-called Expanded Universe.

What made Wedge worth writing about was the fact that he was a blank slate. Any writer could have filled that slate with him as a traditional adventurous hero, but he was depicted as a more rounded, seasoned warrior, a man who’d seen the far side of the galaxy and came back knowing he was fighting for the right cause. In a universe where characters with realistic emotions and concrete motivations could be few and far between, where some technology and concepts can best be described as ‘magic in space’, Wedge thrived.

The Expanded Universe came to include calculating and ruthless military foes like Grand Admiral Thrawn, questionably motivated fringe operators like Mara Jade and the Black Sun criminal empire, Rebel-affiliated black ops commandos like Kyle Katarn… they even fished Boba Fett out of the guts of a desert monster (explosives are apparently a good expectorate). But it was still all within the confines of Lucas’ original vision. The good guys won, the bad guys lost. The only shades of grey could exist between and after the films. And even then, you only had a handful of the iconic warrior-wizards with glowing laser swords to set Star Wars apart from a plethora of other sci-fi settings.

Enter the Old Republic.

Courtesy LucasArts & Dark Horse Comics

This is Ulic Qel-Droma. He’s one of the first characters introduced in the graphic novels that set the scene 4,000 years before the Battle of Yavin. Instead of following a Campbellian arc, however, Ulic is shown to be a headstrong and powerful warrior who’s heart tends to be in the right place but also leaps before he looks more often than not. His tale of pursuing justice only to fall to the Dark Side makes him, in essence, the Darth Vader of his time, and in my humble opinion is everything the six feature films should have been in terms of the development of such a character.

It’s pretty telling that when it comes to Star Wars gaming, the Old Republic time period has yielded some of the best storytelling thanks to a pair of RPGs produced by BioWare and Obsidian. Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel have become standards by which the likes of Mass Effect and Dragon Age are measured. People have been waiting to get their hands on a third game in the series, and instead BioWare has produced an MMO, which I’ve experienced a bit of first-hand.

While I still consider its gameplay safe and not terribly innovative, I keep thinking about the story. How do they keep things interesting? How does it change when more people are in the mix? And what role, exactly, are we playing in the unfolding events in the galaxy? Are we destined to be a teeming mass of Luke Skywalkers and Ulic Qel-Dromas all claiming to have stopped the same galactic threat? Or will players be more like Wedge Antilles, settling at a cantina and simply saying “Yes, I was there. I saw it happen” in the manner of a grizzled, battle-worn veteran?

I’d like to think it’ll be the latter. With so many MMOs giving no thought to the ramifications of millions of people killing the same NPC repeatedly, The Old Republic seems to be taking extreme care to make an individual player’s story a personal experience, rather than the same one everybody else is having. It gives context and meaning for the typically asinine goings-on in such a game in a way that belies the “been there, done that” feel of its mechanics. It gets away from some of the weaknesses of previous MMOs while polishing some of its mainstay aspects to a shine, just as the Old Republic setting does away with a lot of Lucas’ bullshit while maintaining the feel of his galaxy’s atmosphere, mood and themes, much as Wedge’s novels or earlier games did.

I can see why The Old Republic may not be for everybody. But the more I think about it, the more I may need to give it another shot.

First Impressions of Star Wars: The Old Republic

Courtesy LucasArts

I am a recovering Star Wars fanboy. I grew up on Star Wars. Before Star Trek grew into its Next Generation and into the myriad other permutations, there was A New Hope. From Alan Dean Foster to a variety of hacks, there’s been all sort of surrounding works with the series. Video games are no exception. They’re not all Dark Forces and TIE Fighter to be sure, but most folks in the know will point to BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic as perhaps the best RPG set in the universe.

I’m a fan of the Old Republic in general. I’m of the opinion that ancient fallen Jedi Ulic Qel-Droma is one of the most interesting characters in the whole Star Wars universe, but that’s a post for another time. Setting the stage thousands of years before Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are sent to Naboo cleans the slate and allows for expansion on history, culture and adventure within the galaxy Lucas created. It certainly offers more options than a galaxy where there are two, count them, two Jedi to speak of and the Empire’s in shambles until Grand Admiral Thrawn shows up.

This brings us to Star Wars: The Old Republic, a MMORPG created with LucasArts’ universe, BioWare’s storytelling chops and EA’s marketing monstrosity. I’ve had the opportunity to test it twice, and while I never got as far as double digits in terms of character levels and thus can’t speak to things like class balance or dungeon content, I can talk about the mechanics, the storytelling and the atmosphere of the universe and how well it’s captured.

Courtesy LucasArts
I couldn’t find where the game stashed the screenshots I took, so… have some concept art.

I will admit that I more than once felt the pull of the old familiar nostalgia trying to pull me in as I played. The music, the set pieces and even sound effects appeal to that eight-year-old that lingers in the back of my brain and tries to convince me that Star Wars never came close to being ruined at all and those other Transformer movies never happened because Optimus Prime is not that much of a callous, bloodthirsty douche. Tempted as I am to give that little jerk a wedgie for being so naive, I will admit that the design team is doing their job in evoking the feel of the Star Wars universe. I got a little bit of a nerdy charge when I recognized names like Naga Sadow, Marka Ragnos and Exar Kun… while my wife had to ask who they were and why it matters. Star Wars fans will be pleased by this, non-fans may feel a bit on the outside looking in.

The stories are perhaps the strongest part of The Old Republic, chalked up as mentioned previously to BioWare’s experience with such things. Within the household we experienced several and the consensus is that the Imperial Agent has the best story of the bunch. Most MMOs have you chasing down rats or collecting bits of twig for someone nailed to the ground, Old Republic flings you into an espionage yarn worthy of Alpha Protocol. With fully voiced NPCs, cinematic cutaways devoid of overpowered happenings and dialog choices that actually matter (eventually), there are times when the game feels more like a single-player RPG than an MMO. I was never in a group long enough to experience the way the game weighs the attitudes of multiple players against one another in conversation, but the idea does intrigue me from the standpoints of storytelling and mechanics.

It’s on the mechanical side of things, however, where I found my enthusiasm waning. Each class gets a set of particular skills with cooldown periods and linked mechanics (Sith Warriors with rage, Imperial Agents with cover and so on) that they can purchase new ranks of with each level they gain. Sound familiar? And while there’s no auto-attack and you must push a button to initiate an action, there’s no denying this is essentially WoW in space. The potential of the game is also undercut by the shortage of character creation options. While male characters can come in sizes from “barely out of their teens” to “hitting the Krispy Kreme once too often”, females are limited to four different sets of voluptuous curves with no real appreciable difference in frame, and all in rather tight outfits. It’s possible that this is due to beta constraints and higher levels will see these ladies in practical armor, but somehow I doubt it.

While I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that a new MMO has to be radically different to survive, I find myself having difficulty getting excited for Star Wars: The Old Republic. Yes, it brings me back to the sense of adventure and sweeping story that drew me into Star Wars in the first place, and the story beats do crack along rather well from what I’ve seen. While the gameplay isn’t necessarily bad by any definition, it also isn’t blowing me out of my seat. What The Old Republic is, in a word, is “safe”. It builds mostly off of the success it’s main competition and tries to draw in players with story and atmosphere. While those things are good, it will be difficult to sustain a player base on those things alone. When the goal of the game is the delivery of top-level dungeons and PvP matches, both endlessly repeatable, the story eventually has to peter out and the atmosphere becomes mere window-dressing. Players with a hankering for story will turn to one of BioWare’s single-player titles or a game like Skyrim while those craving good atmosphere would do well to try out smaller indie titles like Bastion if they’re in the mood for atmospheric gameplay with strong story elements, or Amnesia: the Dark Descent if they feel like crapping themselves.

Personally, I’m holding out for a Mass Effect MMO. Oh, and Guild Wars 2.

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