Sunday, January 31, 2010

Mass Effect 2: the binge

I technically finished Mass Effect 2 late last night, but was unhappy with the ending. So I went back and re-did the end sequence, and then went the other way on the very last choice, and now I'm agonizing over whether or not I should've made the choice I happened to make.

Anyway. I put 38 hours into my first playthrough, managed to get up to level 30, and I'm pretty sure I've seen about as much as I could see (given my character's parameters). I'm trying to figure out what to do for my second playthrough; do I want to import my dark side character from ME1? Do I want to re-use my fully-leveled light side ME2 character and play dark? Or do I start completely from scratch? Consider this: I've put almost 100 hours into the Mass effect franchise and I still haven't used an assault rifle.

You know what - I'm not in any shape to write a coherent review. I seriously binged over the last 3 days, and I'm a little Mass Fatigued.

Here's all you need to know about how I feel about it - I'm going to fire it up again anyway.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mass Effect 2: the first 5 hours

Let me say, right up front: I will do my absolute hardest to avoid spoilers. But let me also say that I'm almost positive that anyone who's reading this is either (a) a family member or (b) someone who's already playing the game themselves. If you fall into neither category, consider yourself warned.

And in any event, what I want to write about isn't really about the story, but rather the nuts and bolts of the gameplay. So let me get this out of the way: the opening 10 minutes of the game are as exciting, breathtaking and flat-out jaw-dropping as anything I've ever seen. And because the first game is now so fresh in my mind (having raced through it over the weekend), it was really easy for me to hit the ground running; the universe of the game isn't as intimidating as it might have been, and I feel like I understand my player's circumstances and the major players quite well. I'm not at all sure how someone who never played the first one would fare here.

But this is not what I want to talk about.

I also don't necessarily want to talk about the graphics, and the combat, and the sound, and the voice acting, and the mini-games, and the differences between the first game and the sequel. I mean, I do want to talk about it, or at least acknowledge it. Suffice it to say, everything that was good about the first game is 100x better in the second game, and everything that sucked is gone. And if nothing else, it's probably the best looking game on the 360 right now; I'm having trouble coming up with something that looks better. But again, that's not what I want to talk about right now.

This is what I want to talk about: Mass Effect 2 is not an RPG. It is, rather, a role-playing game.

I had attempted, a long time ago, to articulate this distinction. I had just finished my first playthrough of Mass Effect 1, as a matter of fact, and was having trouble getting into Eternal Sonata.

I like Eternal Sonata, but I'm having a hard time really getting into it, and I think part of that is because Mass Effect was still running through my bloodstream. But more to the point - I don't really understand where the RPG is in Eternal Sonata, and to extrapolate that even further, I'm not sure there's a lot of RPG in most games that call themselves RPGs.

Unless I'm incredibly misguided, RPG stands for "role playing game", and I deem that to mean that my player character is something I have an incredible amount of control over - not just in terms of managing stats and armaments, but what they actually do. The problem is that the vast majority of RPGs that I've played really just have you managing stats and armaments - you're still doing what the game tells you to do, and your basic choice comes down to using magic or using swords.

And this is why Mass Effect 2 feels like such a revelation. There's no loot in the game. In the first Mass Effect, the inventory management system was a total mess; in ME2, there is almost no inventory to manage at all. You have a few guns, and you upgrade them not by leveling up and getting an arbitrary number added to their stats but by mining for supplies on uncharted worlds. There's no XP, either - at least, not in the traditional sense. You gain XP by completing missions, rather than by killing things. Which, when you think about it, makes the concept of "gaining experience" something literal.

This is important, I think. Look, I'm all for loot and inventory management and stat bonuses - that stuff is fun when it's done right, and picking up cool stuff is a pleasing reward, and this is why Borderlands was so successful for me even though there was absolutely no narrative to speak of. But it's also incredibly artificial, and it takes you out of the moment. The only time you need to look at a menu screen in Mass Effect 2 is if you want to save your game, or to look at your available missions in order to figure out what to do next. (You can still customize your character's armor and weaponry, should you so choose, and you do that while you're on your ship, in between missions. It's all about context.)

Not to make this analogy again, but ME2 feels a lot like GTA in space. There is a central mission path, which takes you all over the place, but you are free to pursue whatever else strikes your fancy whenever you like. The difference is that your character in GTA has a pre-scripted personality; you can do whatever you want, but ultimately you're really just guiding your dude from point A to point B. Your character in ME2, on the other hand, is very much whoever you want it to be, and the game goes out of its way to make that actually mean something. As in previous Bioware RPGs, you are an active participant in conversations, and ME2's new "interrupt" feature makes this experience feel even more visceral. You feel more connected to the people you interact with.

It's this sense of immersion that impresses me the most about ME2. I've barely scratched the surface of the game's story, but I'm already heavily invested in my adventure. I truly feel like the commander of a kick-ass, state of the art spaceship. And at this point, I could care less about inventory screens; I just want to go back to it and explore.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Weekend Recap: preparing for ME2

Not much to report this weekend, but here's what's what:

1. Finally finished my 3rd playthrough of Mass Effect 1, and picked up the Achievement for hitting Level 60. That's all I wanted to accomplish - hit level 60, and make sure that I could import my character into ME2 with all the stuff I wanted to be in place. (Which is somewhat ridiculous - my first playthrough was all light-side, my second playthrough was deliberately dark-side, which meant that my bases should have been covered. But I guess I wanted whatever perk there may be in hitting Level 60 with a light-side run.) I'm very glad I did so; I feel very much caught up on the story, which is as excellent as I remembered, and now my anticipation level for ME2 is off the friggin' charts; you don't need to hear about it. Very tempted to take some sick days in the immediate future.

2. Dabbled a tiny bit in Dark Void, which is, for lack of a better word, janky as all hell. It doles out Achievements like crazy, though, perhaps as an incentive to continue slogging through it. That being said, I will probably just send it back to Gamefly tomorrow morning; ME2 will take up all my available time anyway, and I don't feel like I need the Achievements that badly. (I hit 50K; that's enough.)

And so what did you play this weekend?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Darksiders / Bayonetta

Finished Darksiders this weekend, and after that I played as much Bayonetta as I could, before it started driving me completely insane - this was right at the beginning of Chapter 5. And then I gave Brutal Legend one more chance, and crammed in a bit more Mass Effect (1).

But first things first. Darksiders is, for lack of a better word, solid. (Which is ironic, considering the constant screen tearing.) It's got a simple but effective combat system, some interesting and challenging puzzles, a wide variety of environments to explore, and a story that was just engaging enough to keep me motivated through the end, with one of the best set-ups for a sequel I've ever seen.

That said, it's so derivative that it borders on litigious - as you've no doubt heard by now if you've been paying any attention to its reviews, it's basically the dark Zelda game that Nintendo will never make, with the Portal gun thrown in, for some reason. So it feels somewhat uninspired - it has a great story set-up, but it doesn't really do anything special with it. I said before that there are a wide variety of environments, but they're not really particularly interesting; there's a lot of dead space to cover in between combat arenas and puzzles, which gets tedious. (You do eventually get a horse, but it can only be ridden in certain areas, and you don't get it until you're already at least halfway through the game.)

Still, it's certainly worth a rental; if it's derivative, at least it's stealing from the right places.

Bayonetta, on the other hand, is pure, distilled lunacy. Picture Devil May Cry as a perpetually horny, unintentionally racist teenage boy that's taken 3 tabs of LSD followed by 20 cans of Red Bull and you begin to approach Bayonetta's plane of existence. Unfortunately, I don't do drugs anymore, and I'm not very good at games like Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden, so after getting my ass handed to me repeatedly at the beginning of Chapter 5, I came to the realization that no amount of curiosity as to what could possibly happen next was going to outweigh the frustration of not being able to kill whatever the hell was trying to kill me. I'm not entirely sure how what I'd already seen could possibly be topped, even though I've been assured that each chapter gets even more insane. Oh well; my loss.

I had lent Brutal Legend to a friend of mine, but his 360 died shortly thereafter and so I got it back. I'd been meaning to give it another shot; I felt terrible that I couldn't get into it, as if it were somehow my fault, and being that the game is so short I figured I might as well try to get through it. But you know what? It's not my fault. I hate the Stage Battles. I hated them when I was first learning how to play them, and I hate them now, long after I'd forgotten what the hell I was supposed to be doing. Everything else about that game is fantastic - even the side missions, as repetitive as they are, are fun enough. But GODDAMN I hate the Stage Battles. They are totally unintuitive; the controls are absolute garbage; I get no feedback as to how I'm doing or why I won or lost. I'm so bummed.

And so, then, I'm trying to finish my third playthrough of Mass Effect before ME2 shows up next week. I don't know that I'll ever get up to Level 50, as I'm still 80,000 XP short, but that's not really the point; I just want to make sure that I can start my first playthrough of ME2 with the right story elements in place.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The 2010 Lust List

2009 may have been so-so, but 2010 is going to be balls-out AMAZING. In order to help me keep track of all the craziness, here's a quick list of what I'm looking forward to.

Bold = must-have
Italics = curious / definite rental
Normal = possible rental

  • Darksiders (360)
  • Bayonetta (360)
  • Matt Hazard: Blood Bath & Beyond (PS3)
  • Serious Sam HD (360)
  • Dark Void (360)
  • Mass Effect 2 (360)
  • Heavy Rain (PS3)
  • Blur (360)
  • Aliens v. Predator (360)
  • Gran Turismo 5 (PS3)
  • White Knight Chronicles (PS3)
  • Bioshock 2 (360)
  • Dante's Inferno (360)
  • Splinter Cell Conviction (360)
  • Lost Planet 2 (360)
  • Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (360)
  • Dead to Rights Retribution (360)
  • Final Fantasy XIII (360/PS3)
  • God Of War 3 (PS3)
  • Just Cause 2 (360)
  • Ninety-Nine Nights 2 (360)
After that, release dates get hazy, but:
  • Red Dead Redemption
  • Split Second
  • Mafia 2
  • Blur
  • Max Payne 3
  • Alan Wake
  • Alpha Protocol
  • Super Mario Galaxy 2
  • Fallout: New Vegas
  • APB
  • Crackdown 2
  • Batman:AA 2
  • Singularity
  • Dead Rising 2
  • Yakuza 3
2010 looks amazing. And expensive.