Dragon Age II impressions so far

April 16, 2011

I’m playing Dragon Age II right now and I’m tired.  The transition from tongue-in-cheek blitzkrieg shooter Bulletstorm (highly recommended by the way, if the opportunity to kick a crazed freak into a cactus sounds even remotely appealing) to DAII‘s classic stat-heavy role-playing is proving tough.

Looking back on the 30 hours I’ve played so far, I can identify distinct high points and low points.  There are sections of the player character Hawke’s journey which are genuinely engrossing, dramatic, and laden with tense political sub-plot.  And then there are much longer and more frequent sections that make me want to quit, slide off my chair and roll around on the carpet like a lunatic just to dispel the onset of suffocating boredom.  Taken as a whole DAII is like a roller coaster, albeit a great deal more depressing.

One thing that’s not variable though is the combat, which is, apart from a single exception that I’ll come on to, extremely unsatisfying.  I will agree with most other reviewers that it is an improvement over the combat in the original DA.  But it’s not much of an improvement.  And the combat in DA pissed me off anyway, so it’s not a particularly good benchmark.

The polygon count has obviously increased and that means everything looks prettier, from the detail on characters and monsters to the environments and the pyrotechnics.  I can also applaud the animations, which are smooth but also appropriately rapid-fire.  Hawke is meant to be an action hero after all; slow clumsy moves wouldn’t have fit the bill.

But the combat itself does get very tedious very quickly.  Of the hundreds of quests I’ve done so far, I can count using my fingers (although that would be retarded so I won’t) the ones that haven’t followed the same standard template.  There are almost always 3-5 routine encounters, each encounter consisting of 2-3 waves of combatants, each wave spawning as if from nowhere (occasionally the Bioware designers have bothered to add the illusion of a door through which the enemies burst, which is a bit better) and so obviously timed that there might as well be a countdown in the middle of the screen.

Even the environments are templates.  What Bioware have done, rather than go to the trouble of actually designing a new map for every location, is design a smaller number of maps (like five), and repeatedly re-use them.  It’s exactly what they did back when they shat out Neverwinter Nights, with its 50 practically identical caverns, and it wasn’t a good idea then either.

To add to the insult, bosses are far too common, and as any economist will tell you, when something becomes more common it can only depreciate in value… or something.  I’m not a big fan of bosses in games, but I do think that if you are going to include them, you should make them rare and special, and give them some unique abilities and behaviours that challenge me in new and exciting ways.

Setting those poor design decisions aside though, the main issue is simply how boring the combat is.  Again a comparison with Bulletstorm is worth making because in that game the fight scenes are just as frequent, if not more so, equally repetitive, and yet addictive enough to cause one of those idiot ‘scientists’ to claim that it’s “poisoning the youth” or some such nonsense (which actually happened of course).

We can all name a game we’ve played that’s like that: repetitive almost to a fault but absolutely brilliant.  Batman: Arkham Asylum, with its spectacular brawling template duplicated a hundred times, springs to mind.  DAII makes the mistake of being repetitive and joyless at the same time, which is a double-whammy of tripe.

Perhaps I don’t get it.  Perhaps it’s not for me.  Perhaps true fans of the franchise play on hard difficulty (something completely beyond my ability and patience) and love the combat because that’s the sweet point at which it becomes rewarding.  If that’s the case, take my assessment with a pinch, or mug, of salt.

While I’m on the subject of the difficulty setting though, I should say that I feel as if I’ve been duped.  The interview with Mark Laidlaw, plus my own positive impressions of the demo, led me to believe that DAII had been made markedly more friendly to the casual gamer.

To an extent those impressions were accurate: playing on normal, most of the fights are about as hard as I, a pathetic noob, want them to be.  But then there are lots that are too easy, and a sizeable portion of ultra-taxing encounters on the other end of the spectrum.  It’s unsettling.

But I would be a false and vile trickster if I failed to underline the fact that, in spite of all the gameplay hiccups, the main story is quite excellently told.  Those high points I mentioned earlier have all occurred when I’ve stopped pottering about completing lame side quests and focussed on that story.

It’s about being an outsider, about regaining pride, caring for (or neglecting if you so choose) your broken family, attempting to triumph in a period of intense political turmoil, and ultimately leaving your mark (whatever form that mark may take, based on your decisions) on an ancient city with a history that’s troubled to say the least.  This aspect of DAII really is fantastic, and sufficient grounds for me to recommend the game to any fan of the genre, even if like me you didn’t enjoy the original as much as the majority seemed to.

And while I’m hemorrhaging praise, I should note that one exception to the rule that the combat sucks.  Near the end of the game’s second chapter you’re forced to confront a whirling storm of sentient rocks called an ‘ancient rock wraith’.  It’s a boss battle, and the only one so far that I’ve properly enjoyed.

It resembles a boss battle in World of Warcraft, in that there are several distinct stages requiring you to react in particular ways.  At first the wraith seems to be a powerful but dumb catapult; a simple matter then to surround it on all sides and slowly smash it to pieces with sword and spell.  But what’s this?  It pulses with electrical energy and curls up like a hedgehog, levitates and quickly enters into a raging barrel roll!

Hawke is instantly knocked unconscious and my healer is badly injured.  He recovers and resurrects Hawke just in time to witness a second assault: the wraith begins to crackle with energy once again and like Arnie in Predator, I sense my impending doom.  Ducking behind a nearby column, my party are spared the full impact of the ensuing explosion.  We all return to rock bashing and after a while settle into a tactical rhythm.  Victory comes soon thereafter.

It’s not rocket science to comprehend by any means, but it doesn’t need to be.  I don’t want to have to alt-tab and google for a step-by-step guide to progress to the next zone; I want to be placed in a situation where I can observe, learn, experiment and triumph without having to reload my last save twenty times over.  The rock wraith delivered on all those criteria and it deserves a medal.  Maybe the purple heart?

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Lair of the Shadowbroker

September 12, 2010

Lair of the Shadowbroker could not have arrived at a more perfect time for me.  I dodged some sort of incompatibility fiasco that occurred immediately after release, preventing everyone who downloaded it on the 7th from playing it at all.  But apart from that saving grace, its release date was aligned at precisely the right moment in my current play-through.

I’m at that stage in the campaign where my team is at the apex of it’s power.  All crew members are levelled up heavily.  I’ve completed all but Tali’s loyalty mission, and I’m just about to go in search of the Reaper IFF, which marks the beginning of the end of the game.

As I write, I am in fact only half way through the DLC, but feel compelled to record how surprised and impressed with it I am so far, whilst the joy from last night’s session still lingers in my mind.

What excites me most about Shadowbroker is that it hints quite strongly at a general advancement the writers have made since their last effort.  There’s more dialogue than one might expect on your typical ME2 mission, but more than that there is a palpable sense of maturity in what’s being said.  This is much more like a good episode of Battlestar Galactica than a bad episode of Star Trek.

The improvement is most striking during Liara’s dialogue.  Though I romanced Liara in ME1 with my male Shephard, I never found her attractive or interesting in the slightest, and ultimately only bedded her because I couldn’t stand Ashley Williams, the only alternative.  Here, she has undergone a metamorphosis.  No longer a dull, spineless archaeologist, she is ruthless, combative, determined, positively zesty.

One section sees you and Liara in a high speed chase, flying (literally flying) through a maze of skyscrapers and tunnels in a taxi.  The mechanics of the chase itself are entirely unremarkable.  In fact, the controls felt basic and sluggish, and there was no sense of real speed, even with the throttle at max and turbo boost on.

But it’s a handy conveyor belt for some hilarity between the two characters, Liara taking every opportunity to nag at Shephard about floating mines ahead, Shephard trying to maintain focus.  Think Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith escaping from the alien mothership in Independence Day.  Don’t think Ewan Macgregor and Hayden Christensen in Attack of the Clones.  Oh sorry did I just trigger a terrible flashback?

I return to writing a couple of days later, having completed the mission and brought about an end (of sorts) to the Shadowbroker’s dynasty.  The finale is truly exhilarating, taking place on a colossal cruise ship (the titular lair) with a whopping stern reminiscent of Dark Helmet’s battleship Spaceball One.  An array of conducting panels (easily mistaken for solar cells at first) combine to form one massive lightning rod, channeling harmful electricity from the stormy atmosphere of a distant alien world.

In a manner akin to the final stage of the original Mass Effect, the first phase of Shephard’s assault takes place on the outside of the ship’s hull.  The electric storm is a jaw dropping sight and the perfect backdrop to a series of skirmishes against the Shadowbroker’s minions.  Your squad members quickly note the unique tactical challenge posed by the environment: the aforementioned lightning rod is but a conduit which discharges lightning bolts on to smaller energy sinks dotted about the hull.

Shoot one of these capacitors and the energy built up inside explodes outward, wreaking havoc upon anyone unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity in a far more dramatic way than the more common exploding crates.  The effect these hazards have is to quicken the pace of the mission.  Combat zones occur every 30 seconds as you advance, but you won’t be bogged down for long.  Enemy squads are rapidly dispersed with clever use of the electrical explosions, and Liara’s abilities add to the formidable arsenal you can unleash.  Combat in ME is rarely as much fun.

And all of this culminates in a boss battle which is probably the best designed of any in the game, prior DLC packs included.  It’s broken up into several neat phases, much like a boss encounter in World of Warcraft, and Liara chips in with clever advice to compliment the on-screen indicators.

You’re required to adapt to changes in the Shadowbroker’s armour, so it’s not brainless, and at the same time it doesn’t bog you down with a huge shield bar to reduce.  Like the rest of the combat in the mission, it progresses quickly and smoothly and doesn’t frustrate.  Bioware have found a balanced and sophisticated template for these encounters, no doubt something to look forward to in ME3.

And that’s really the main takeaway from Lair of the Shadowbroker.  Either someone at Bioware is cracking the whip hard, or they’re all on steroids, because they have clearly ratcheted up the quality control.  I can only lick my lips in anticipation of what they will be able to achieve in the next year or two as they develop the final chapter of the trilogy.

The stakes are high: the threat of the Reapers having been hyped to such an extent that I can’t see how our hero can possibly succeed.  With the smoky smell of an oncoming apocalypse in the air, can Bioware finally confound critics and convince even the most skeptical that a computer game story can go toe-to-toe with that of a renowned TV series or movie?  I contend that they can.


Mass Effect 2

March 7, 2010

If there’s one word I can guarantee that I will avoid using when I write about Mass Effect 2, it’s ‘disappointing’.  I also promise not to mention ‘marmalade’, but that’s hardly relevant.

Apart from surpassing the previous installment in every way possible, ME2 has cast an apocalyptic shadow over its inferior (and obese) relative Dragon Age: Origins.  I can certainly target some flaws in the gameplay, and I will, but what game, with the possible exception of Planescape: Torment, doesn’t have flaws?  The fact is that there are a hell of a lot of good things to say about ME2, and it ought to be recognised as the pinnacle of film-like storytelling in gaming today.

Like most games, ME2 has taught me a valuable lesson, and that is that I can be seduced very quickly.  Not very easily, mind you; it takes the right set of atmospheric conditions, long, flowing hair over supple breasts, or an array of well kept, high calibre firearms to get me in the sack.  But if you’ve got those things, or something similarly alluring, you can have me remarkably fast.

In the case of ME2, the allure to begin with was the third-person shooter combat.  This was something I was looking forward to from the myriad gameplay trailers produced by Bioware before the game’s release.  It stands in stark contrast to the combat in ME1, which felt a little crude and contrived even at the time.  Now we have a Gears of War-esque model, featuring a fully developed cover system and a proper emphasis on the value of headshots.

In time I settled into it—the rhythm and structure of fights.  It became normal; part of the wonderful scenery.  But at first it was a thing of sheer joy.  None of the hype had prepared me for how natural and exhilarating it feels to take such intimate tactical control of Commander Shephard’s actions.

It’s a funny thing, because in truth the mechanics at work are no more sophisticated than those in Gears of War.  What makes it so impressive is that it creates an immediate sense that this is how Shephard really fights.  In ME1, the character of Shephard—whether paragon, renegade or a bit of both—was expressed only in conversation; this time around you get to be Shephard the strategist, the marksman, the warrior.

Or more accurately, Shephard the vanguard, my chosen class, imported from my ME1 save game, which reminds me to note briefly that the slight concern I had about the import feature—a selling point advertised at the game’s announcement—was unwarranted.  It worked flawlessly and instantly—a quick copy and paste—and I was away.  And I was pleasantly surprised by how many of my actions in the previous game were taken into account.

In the two years that have passed since the Geth machine race and their master, the reaper Sovereign, were destroyed, much has changed in the galaxy, and the decisions you’ve made have had time to take effect.  The long term consequences which were only hinted at before are repeatedly stressed.

For instance, I sacrificed the council to bring down Sovereign (the big boss of ME1)—what I thought was a necessary act at the time—and in ME2 the council has been dominated by human representatives.  Where previously it was a balanced authority over galactic affairs, it’s now sparked a creeping xenophobia amongst the populace.  Humans have become used to treating aliens like second class citizens, and many aliens resent what they perceive as a machiavellian takeover.

Apart from these basic political facts, plenty of smaller narrative threads are picked up on.  Most of these don’t have an immediate influence on the central plot of ME2, and although some of them are too minor to be anything other than a pleasant reminder of good deeds done, I strongly suspect a few will be carried over and brought to conclusion in ME3, or perhaps beyond.

The choice you made on the Noveria mission in ME1 between exterminating or liberating the Rachni Queen, for example, is explored at great length (at least it was for me – a dyed in the wool liberator), and I strongly suspect there will either be hugely positive or horrifically negative ramifications to come in the next installment.  Bravo to Bioware for creating a sense of continuity while at the same time allowing ME2‘s central mission to play itself out.

It’s a spectacular mission, and, as plots go, quite beautiful, in the sense that it can be fully explained in the course of a few sentences, and that explanation would in no way spoil it.  I’m tempted to do that now to prove my point to those among you who haven’t played it yet, but I won’t.  I will say instead that it’s the personal stories of your crew (alternatively known as your party)—which blossom and transform as you progress—that elevate what would otherwise be a medicore action thriller into an epic symphony.

Yes, there is the mission—essentially to save the galaxy (again)—driving you forward; that’s the end goal.  But what occupies the majority of the 30-40 hours of gameplay, if you play properly, is the long recruitment process.  It’s made very clear to you up front in your briefing with the enigmatic Illusive Man (voiced by Martin Sheen in case you haven’t heard) that Shephard is doomed to failure without an extensive and well prepared squad.

Only 2 of the 11 characters available to join you are members of your old ME1 crew, namely Garrus and Tali, although the rest of the old bunch—Wrex, Ashley Williams/Kaidan Alenko and Liara—still make their obligatory cameo appearances.  Liara, the fragile asari archaeologist, is as dull a character as ever, unfortunately, but meeting Wrex in his new situation was a wonderful dramatic moment.

It’s a telling sign of Bioware’s prowess that that first thing I did after the opening mission was search for Ashley (my previous romantic interest) out of a sense of duty.  Her brief section of dialogue is rewarding, but also reminded me of Shephard’s changing circumstances.  He was the first human spectre, and revered as an Alliance poster boy.  Now, he’s wavering on the outer fringes of the political spectrum.

The characters who join you, including Garrus and Tali, are once again superbly voice acted, but things have been taken up a notch in ME2.  It’s a noticeably more adult oriented experience, and not in the cheap sense that there are big, bad swear words and shocking moments of violence—although there are some A grade shockers in store if you’re inclined toward renegade choices.

The galaxy of ME2 is more morally ambiguous than it was in ME1, and there’s plenty of noir backstory in the loyalty missions.  To explain, each party member has his or her own loyalty mission, which begins when they mention—typically in a fairly urgent tone—that some dark element of their past has resurfaced and must be dealt with.

You’re given the option of turning these missions down in favour of pushing forward in the main story, but that would be foolish.  For one thing, you’ll miss out on unlocking an extra outfit (usually a Matrix-style jet black look) for each character.  Reason enough, surely?  But most of these missions are well worth pursuing for the narrative flavour they add.  It has to be noted that some are clearly better than others, but the best ones—like salarian xenobiologist/commando Mordin Solus’s search for his old pupil gone rogue, or Tali’s troubled return to the migrant fleet—are exceptional.

Mordin’s mission is particularly noteworthy.  At its core is a more ethically challenging theme than most games will manage to incorporate in their entire duration.  Genocide and racism are on the menu, and the numerous exchanges between Shephard and Mordin can spiral into chilling, emotionally fraught debates, or not, depending on the dialogue choices you make.  Mordin is an entertaining chap to have around regardless, but these verbal tussles expose him as being far more complex and intriguing.  Perhaps he’s a well meaning and brilliant thinker, or perhaps he’s a psychotic and morally bankrupt villain; it’s not easy to say.

Praise must be given not only for how Bioware have bolstered the series’ existing strengths, but also for the bold action they’ve taken in cutting out weaknesses.  Gone is any recognisable form of inventory system, which for some is objectionable; for me, a masterstroke.  I’ve no love for sorting items anyway. Even where inventory screens are bearable they’re inevitably tedious, and detract from the pace of the rest of the game.  The inventory in ME1 distinguished itself as a major irritation, and removing it in ME2 has shifted the spotlight away from the boring and repetitive and on to what matters: shootin’ up galactic scumbags.

Another blight on the otherwise great ME1 experience were the vehicle sections, in which Shephard approached each objective in an armoured buggy, the Mako.  These could’ve been executed better to say the least, and I’m overjoyed to see them disappeared in ME2.  Now there are no pointless preambles; your three man team lands in a shuttle and dives straight into the combat.  And because firefights and plot advancing sequences flow seamlessly into each other at a refreshing gallop, once you’re in, you’re carried away with a sense of urgency until the thrilling climax.

The lost vehicle sections served another purpose in ME1, and that was to open up the galaxy—the planets and moons in particular—for exploration.  Roving a planet’s surface in the Mako presented various (limited) opportunites, namely the discovery of ore deposits to work toward achievements, and a few extra experience points, but it was never enjoyable.  It was in fact little more than a filler between missions.  A filler of the chewy, rotten kind that wants to be spat out as soon as possible.

In ME2, this kind of prospecting has been shunted in favour of the now infamous scanning mini-game.  Zoom in on a planet—any planet that’s not set aside for a specific mission—and something akin to a Geiger counter pops up, monitoring for ore deposits.  The game boils down to holding the right mouse button to scan, keeping your eye on peaks that appear on the counter, and launching probes which scoop the ore on to your ship.

It’s markedly more tolerable than the hours spent in the Mako, but still a chore.  And what’s more, you’re punished later on if you don’t collect the resources, which you can spend on upgrades to your squad and the ship’s systems.  This makes it a small evil, and a strange anomaly, given that so much effort has been put into jettisoning other time-wasting garbage.  It also hurt my hand after a while.

Slightly less lame but still a pointless diversion, the hacking mini-games, which alternate between a patronisingly easy version of matching pairs and a basic pattern recognition task, are frustratingly frequent.  The motivating factor in this case is that hacking is (as far as I can recall) the only source of credit income, credits being required for yet more squad and ship upgrades.  As with the scanning, there is literally no challenge in these games at all, and they’re not even slightly enjoyable.

The lesson Bioware need to learn for ME3 isn’t that they need to improve or expand upon these vomit machines, but that they should save themselves time and money and lose them entirely.  Sure, you could draw inspiration from winning arcade games like Peggle or Bejeweled, and maybe succeed in designing a mining game which is genuinely fun, but I really think that if people want to play Peggle, they’ll play Peggle.  When I boot up ME2 I’m not looking for an arcade game to break up the story; I just want the story.  If I get bored and want something more lighthearted, I’ll quit and play World of Goo.

A heavy chunk of the character development options have also been cut.  In ME1, no matter what class you chose, you had more than enough skills to spend points on.  For instance, I specialised in shotgun and pistol use, which meant that my Shephard was a magnificent retard when it came to assault and sniper rifles.

This time around, your options are strikingly thin on the ground, and although you’ll still need to make a choice as to which of the six (at least it was six for me) skills you neglect, there’s no room for defining a sub-class.  If you choose to be a vanguard, that’s what you are.  You can’t be a shotgun specialist close quarters vanguard, or a pistol marksman vanguard.

The most you can do is power up cryo rounds (which are awesome by the way) instead of incendiaries, or vice versa, or forsake the pull biotic (effectively force pull as in Jedi Academy) in favour of shockwave (an uber force push).  These choices don’t redefine the way you fight, but they do subtly influence it, to the extent that some tactics will become more or less workable than others.  And I can understand why this is a significant downer for some, but for whatever reason it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

When I wonder why it doesn’t bother me, I’m reminded of why I love ME2 so much, and why it had me proclaiming within the first half hour that it was the best game ever made.  On paper, it looks like it’s been given something like the Deus Ex 2 treatment: interface massively reduced, avenues for defining your character and class cut in half, etc.  But none of those things were what made ME1 great.  What made ME1 great was the way in which it made me believe that games really can be as good as films.

At bottom, the story of Shephard versus the big bad aliens is no more complex than your average Hollywood blockbuster action movie: Independence Day for example.  But when you play it, it’s not like Independence Day; it’s like The Fifth Element, albeit without the joys of Chris Tucker as an ultra-camp pest in a skin-tight pink suit.

The Fifth Element is a wonderful film, not because of its plot—which is basically solid and dependable—but because for an hour or two, it lets you live in and explore a radically altered universe: quirky, multi-layered, dangerous, fantastic, and teetering on the edge of being obliterated. ME2 achieves that level of escapism too, but unlike a film, it naturally does it far more literally.  It’s as close to living in a film world as you can get right now, and that means it can easily withstand the loss of some fairly sizeable chunks of gameplay.

As it stands, it’s a titanic masterpiece, but who knows if it could’ve been even better had some more bits and pieces been given the chop?  Who knows if ME3 might pillage the entire galactic map and run you through the story in a completely linear fashion?

All I know is that I trust Bioware.  If any developer has proven its ability to make radical game improving decisions other than Valve, it’s them.  The only problem now is that RPGs released in 2010 are going to have to aim for a bar set so high that the gods of Mount Olympus are presently using it as a foot scraper.

P.S. That’s right, I’m doing a P.S. in a review – deal with it!  I would be remiss without mentioning a couple of flaws that have only occurred to me since writing the above splurge of adoration.  These, unlike some of the small issues I’ve already discussed, are what I consider to be real, substantial problems with the game.

The first is something that bugged me in ME1 too – the character animations.  Don’t get me wrong; the animation in ME2 is thoroughly decent.  It’s certainly some of the best in the genre, and occasionally Bioware do get it just right.  Indeed, even at his worst, Shephard looks infinitely more believable than any character you care to mention in an earlier Bioware title like Knights of the Old Republic.

But there remains a great deal of awkwardness and uncanniness in the way ME2 characters move.  This is most obvious in conversations, not that one should therefore dismiss it.  Don’t forget that you’re going to spend something like 50% or more of the game speaking to people.

It’s actually uncomfortable to watch sometimes: Shephard lowering himself down on to one knee for the duration of an emotional dialogue, arms dangling by his sides like a rotund ape, for example.  Bioware have lazily, and rather painfully chosen to recycle some animations from ME1 too: the way that so many characters like to take a stroll from one side of the screen to another half way through a sentence, and then return to a stop, standing motionless for a couple of seconds like a gymnast ending a routine.

These and many other gestures are horribly fake, and all they do is make the player aware of the fact that you either couldn’t, or didn’t want to spend time thinking through the mood and motivations of the characters speaking, and extending those aspects into their movement.

I really want to see a major push on this front in ME3.  I won’t deny that some small improvements have already been made, coming from ME1, but what’s needed is a new paradigm: the kind of attention to detail normally reserved for cutscenes adopted as a standard for acting in-game.  Imagine that, and you’re imagining my dreams.

Second up is an issue that is perhaps less tangible.  It occurs to me, in retrospect, that I almost never suffered any negative outcomes from my actions.  ME2 is built on choices in a way that ME1 was to a somewhat lesser extent.  It takes the paragon and renegade metric and expands its jurisdiction to spur-of-the-moment so called ‘quick time’ events.  You’ll be asked to decide whether to let a party member take revenge on someone, or whether to intimidate some upstart by shooting him in the foot, as opposed to using non-violent persuasion.

I enjoyed having these choices pop-up, and then watching the hilarious or shocking theatre that ensued.  But that’s all these events have to offer: theatre.  I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that none of the decisions I made were having any lasting impact.  They always made me feel good, either in a comforting “I’ve just rescued someone” way, or in a more instantly gratifying “I’ve just set you on fire by shooting up a fuel canister under your feet” way.  I never regretted what I did, or looked back and recognised a flaw in my moral logic.  If Shephard is a paragon, everyone loves him for his generosity and kindness; if he’s a renegade, he gets his way and people praise him for cutting through red tape.

In reality, someone who cuts corners, ignores legal restrictions and scraps moral values will often succeed, yes, but this isn’t the rule.  These proud pragmatists can be made to realise, by the consequences of their actions, that those rules were in place for a reason.  And on the flip side, well intentioned people can make fatal errors in judgement which lead to tragedy.  None of this nuance, which we can all accept, is explored in ME2.  Things are pretty much always rosy whichever side you pick.

In ME3 I’d like to see good and bad side effects of Shephard’s grand crusade.  He’s never going to be evil in the classic sense; that would be a betrayal of his personality.  But surely some of the things he does should be thwarted?  Like any human with limited faculties, he can’t forsee the precise nature of every ripple effect.  Some people he chooses to save should turn out badly, and sometimes when he draws his gun in a hostage situation it should result in a death.

Even Jack Bauer screws up every now and then.


Dragon Age far from flawless

December 22, 2009

I’m finding Dragon Age: Origins to be more than a little hard to swallow.  According to the in-game ‘heroic accomplishments’ character screen, I’m no more than 25% through the game, and that’s after having spent a significant (for me) 45 hours playing it.  Compare that with a total of 48 hours immersed in the thoroughly addictive Batman: Arkham Asylum, accounting for nearly two completions of the main campaign (I say “nearly” after having had my will broken by Poison Ivy on hard difficulty the second time round) and who knows how many spare hours honing my arm and leg breaking skills against thugs in the challenge mode.

Arkham Asylum’s thrilling combination of well paced story, stunning graphics, and above all perhaps the finest stealth and melee combat mechanics of all time, had me addicted from the moment I escorted the Joker through the asylum gates, so 48 hours spent is no surprise.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, I’m now having to force myself to return to Dragon Age, and it’s pretty clear to me why this is the case.

Most reviewers have commented on Dragon Age’s ball crushing difficulty—that while some fights are certainly doable, some are a slither away from impossible.  This is true, but I would say of my own experience that, if anything, the doable encounters are few and far between, and that the majority either tax me to the upper extent of my skill (honed in Bioware’s spiritual predecessor Baldur’s Gate II) or venture far beyond it.

The fact is that I’m struggling to cope with most battles on normal difficulty (the setting which Bioware describe in-game as “the recommended setting for players familiar with role-playing games”).  And when things get too tough for me to handle (which they frequently do), I find myself forced to switch over to easy difficulty on the fly.  Of course this means that in an instant, all my enemies are left crippled shambling wrecks of their former selves, unable to withstand any of my attacks and incapable of causing me any lasting harm.  I annihilate them in short order.  Normal in Dragon Age is more or less equivalent to veteran (inducing spasms of rage) in Call of Duty 4, and easy is akin to recruit (shooting blind one-legged ducks with a lascannon).

I’ve no doubt that you’ll find plenty of support amongst the loyal fanbase for the simple philosophy that if you’re finding a game too difficult, taking the difficulty down a notch is the correct and obvious way to go.  With respect to most games I would certainly agree, but in Dragon Age I think we can all identify something more than a simple case of players (myself included) trying to punch above their weight.  The divide between the two settings is colossal.  I don’t need an easy setting that caters to Bioware RPG virgins; I need an easy setting that shaves some of the ridiculous punishment off of normal, or a normal which has a somewhat less psychotic effect.  As it is, I’m left feeling unsure about what I’m achieving whenever I switch—did I really beat that elf mage, or am I just a slimy cheater?  And of course this is a huge immersion breaker—you can forget about feeling like an inspiring hero battling the oncoming blight when you’re exiting to the options menu every five minutes.

Furthermore, comparisons between Dragon Age and its futuristic brother, Mass Effect, are inevitable. And in this I can identify only a few areas, mostly unimportant, where Dragon Age does a better (or at least better suited for my palette) job.  The interface—more specifically, the inventory screen—is light years ahead of Mass Effect’s clumsy, console-ported mess.  Some item type filter options and radial buttons go a long way toward making organisation of loot (of which there is a metric crap tonne) less irritating.

Control over your party is also infinitely more precise.  Whereas Mass Effect’s combat revolves around the player character in a more frenetic shooter mode (your other two NPC party members in tow), Dragon Age takes the more strategic high road with an emphasis on command of the individual actions of the whole group.  This is, admittedly, about how one chooses to play the games—Dragon Age has a sophisticated engine for AI tactics built in, so you don’t necessarily have to bother with micro management—but the strengths and weaknesses of the gameplay mechanics in each game certainly steer the player down one way or the other.

Gameplay aside, Mass Effect clearly has the edge for me when it boils down to the core story, characters, and dialogue.  The cultural atmosphere of Ferelden—Dragon Age’s high fantasy setting—is almost surreal compared with the more familiar (or at least more identifiable) politically charged galaxy in its sci-fi cousin.  Much of this is accounted for by an awkward schism between the main quest line and the wealth of less important side quests that run along side – sadly an estabished RPG trope.

From the outset, the message that the oncoming darkspawn (orc) invasion is a threat to all humanity is made very clear, but apart from a select few, no one in the world seems to care much about their doom.  Travel to the capital city, Denerim, and instead of a medieval metropolis alive with activity, you’re greeted by a quaint little market and no more than a dozen merchants, all chiefly concerned with the running of their paltry excuses for businesses.  Most of the other citizens are absorbed in petty social occurrences and other assorted matters of no importance at all.  And all this takes place amidst a constant bombardment of religious and superstitious prattle.  Mass Effect largely dodged this awkwardness by minimizing the number of side quests and making the main threat secretive rather than overt – an ancient enemy biding its time to strike.

A strong cast, in tune with the demands of voice acting for a fantasy RPG, might have helped a great deal, but for whatever reason personal conversations with members of your party are rarely anything but dull.  Most of the banter ranges from general background topics, such as “How did you become a Grey Warden?”, to more particular reminiscences along the lines of “Why did you want to leave the Crows, exactly?”  These almost always yield very little genuinely interesting backstory, which is a symptom of how shallow and lacking in emotional depth the personalities of the NPCs are.

The stunningly lackluster Leliana, a bard of Orlesian (Dragon Age’s French) origin, is a perfect example of Bioware’s failure in this area.  Half of her conversation paths are merely vehicles for her to ramble on about specific items of lore – an activity which, she chirps, she loves too much not to do.  And when she’s not waffling about the origins of the darkspawn or some other boring topic, she’ll blather on at painful length about the Maker (God) and how he fell in love with a woman called Andraste—a cliche of a tale which she naturally adores.  I would like her to die, but I’ve invested too much time in her now and she’s the only rogue in my party I know how to use.

Some witty interjections and more natural, less serious remarks from Alistair, a faithful companion who joins your cause early on in the main story, are among the few exceptions to the rule.  Contrast this with a consistently higher level of writing quality in Mass Effect, exemplified by Urdnot Wrex’s tragic tale of the genocide of his species, or Tali’s personal doubts about her pilgrimage away from the Quorian flotilla—some of the game’s most engrossing dialogue, some of the best of the genre, and spoken in a way that constantly reminds you of the characters’ emotional baggage.  There is no contest.

But for me, one difference in particular defines both games more than any other.  Whereas Dragon Age requires the player to imprint their own personality on the player character (who has no spoken dialogue), Mass Effect places you in the gravity boots of a fully voice acted hero and asks only that you direct his moral compass.  Sure, you can change the surface appearance and there’s a choice of classes, but apart from the gender choice, Shephard is in essence the same person.  You don’t get to imagine (as you do in a pen and paper game) what he sounds like, or what his mannerisms are, because that dimension has been taken care of by the writers and the actor.

Being incapable of the kind of sprawling and vivid imagination required for something like a serious game of pen and paper Dungeons and Dragons, the task of inventing a voice for my character in my head is daunting to say the least.  While I coped with, or rather worked around this in the Baldur’s Gate series, the fact is I didn’t know any better at the time. Now that I’ve tasted something richer, it’s very difficult for me to click dialogue options in Dragon Age and not receive that instant vocal feedback.  I’m like some sort of conversational crack whore.  Watching my character stand completely silent, his arms folded, moustache twitching at random, with zero facial expression, while I choose assertive and often violent responses to the character I’m speaking to feels very odd.

I’m sure I can find it within myself to say some positive things about Dragon Age, in time.  It’s not as if I haven’t had some fine role playing experiences in some of the chapters.  But at the moment, I’m stuck working (and I mean working) my way through the bowels of an underground system of caverns, serving as a lacky under one of the noble houses vying for control of the dwarven city of Orzammar.  I don’t exactly feel like I’m playing a pivotal role, and that’s something I never stopped feeling as Commander Shephard, the first (known) human spectre and ultimately the saviour of all civilization.  Ferelden had better start offering up some seriously juicy stuff, because Mass Effect 2 is coming to dinner, and it’s looking a hell of a lot more appetising.


Crysis Warhead

December 5, 2008

If Crysis Warhead has taught me one thing, it is that I should avoid playing on a game’s hardest difficulty setting at all costs. I’ve been taught this lesson before, more sternly than I was taught this time in fact, by Call of Duty 4, where Veteran difficulty brought me no end of stress and frustration. Alas, I am a forgetful fool, and so it was that on a Saturday morning whim many weeks ago, with Warhead installed on Steam, I set aside that lesson, and chose instead to (pigheadedly) play on ‘Delta’.

How I have come to regret that decision—though not immediately at the start of the game as one might have expected. Warhead is a deceptive mistress, in that it starts at a light but brisk pace, once again dumping the player on a tropical island occupied by the Korean People’s Army (KPA) in the year 2020. The player character Michael ‘Psycho’ Sykes, is as effortlessly detestable as he is tediously dull—if you’re like me you’ll take against him instantly. But as was the case playing as ‘Nomad’ (a far more agreeable silent-but-deadly type) in Crysis, what sets you strides ahead of the low-ranking Koreans in combat isn’t your badly conceived one-liners; it’s your ultra high-tech nanosuit.

Crysis Warhead screenshot

Up until about half-way through the game, things are peachy. The nanosuit’s cocktail of maximum strength, speed, and armour, in addition to the cloak mode, is lethal. The suit’s batteries still drain rapidly (though less rapidly than with Nomad’s suit), but there’s more than enough power to cruise through enemy encampments with ease. Many’s the time I’ve decloaked into strength mode (thereby lessening recoil on my weapon) for five second bursts, dispatching entire squads of soldiers before they’re able to react, then cloaking again and recovering my power while hidden behind the nearest available cover.

That’s just my style though—I’m much like Jack Bauer or Batman, if I do say so myself. Perhaps the greatest strength of the Crysis games is that they let you imprint your style of play on the game; rather than the other way around. So, if you’re more comfortable deploying the less sophisticated, but no less effective, tactics of John Rambo or the Terminator, you can forego stealth in favour of rockets, grenades and incendiary rounds, and the enemy will be none the wiser, not least because they’ll all be dead.

Warhead presents a playground of epic proportions. The enormous jungles and mountainous snowscapes (occasionally interrupted by concrete military bases) that completed Crysis’ limited but quite wondrous environmental palette return with hardly a single noticeable change. And the nanosuit only enhances the joyous sandbox-lite theme. But when the better trained quarter of the KPA (including a regiment wearing their own suits) turns up at that half-way point, the shit begins to drift gracefully toward the proverbial fan. The game’s deceptive nature is revealed.

Crysis Warhead screenshot

And you might think this was because of an increase in the complexity of the artifical intelligence, but I’m not so sure. Warhead’s AI is a curious specimen. On the one hand, there’s no doubt it can tax the health meter—there were plenty of stages during and in the run up to the end game where I struggled to survive, having to reload from quick saves time and again. But on the other hand, it almost always looks incredibly stupid.

The enemy are programmed with the fundamentals of locating a target, closing in on that target, and aiming to fire, but there’s no evidence of any form of squad cohesion or coordination. Squads of KPA will happily bunch-up in tight formations, making themselves more vulnerable to well-placed grenades. They rush immediately to the source of any disturbance, exposing their flanks and losing any semblance of a defensive position in the process. And they apparently have no regard whatsoever for the importance of concealment, merrily prancing out from behind solid cover (presumably for a clearer view) and straight into the line of fire, or charging like lunatic jihadists toward my mounted chaingun.

Crysis Warhead screenshot

Simplistic AI was a thorn in the side of Crysis, and it hasn’t been addressed in any major way by Warhead. And it presents what at first seems a paradox: how can enemies be so punishing while simultaneously exhibiting behaviour so suggestive of imbecility? I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not the AI that lies behind the punishment at all, rather, the increasing number of enemies on screen, and the increasing potency (and in many cases, size) of their weapons simply ramps up the damage taken per hit. The enemy just gets bigger and badder, inevitably resulting in an increased frequency of player death—a crude and not at all praiseworthy design approach by Crytek.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only area where Warhead fails to meet the benchmark set by its more glamorous peers. It also fails to deliver in a big way in terms of plot, which might not have been worth mentioning if we were discussing Crysis (where narrative complexity was never on the menu to begin with), but Warhead opens itself up to criticism when it attempts, between firefights, to tell a story.

The central problem with the story is well illustrated by the fact that if you were to ask me to summarise it for you, I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. It’s told chiefly through in-game cutscenes, which range in quality and description from nonsensical to dull, and from poorly acted to badly shot. It has something to do with a past relationship between Psycho and a fellow soldier of his by the name of O’Neill, or at least I think it does. You see, I can’t even tell you with certainty what the subject matter is, let alone go into any detail.

Crysis Warhead screenshot

Frankly it reeks of Crytek trying to make Warhead into something more than a plain sequel, and falling down in the process. And it’s odd that they’ve even made the attempt, considering that every other element of the game is entirely by the numbers, sticking religiously to the enjoyable but ultimately shallow gameplay formula of the previous outing.

True, some good work has been done on the technical side of things—I’ve spoken before of my appreciation for Warhead’s improved optimization on lower-end PCs—but I can’t think of any other features that would count as even slightly innovative.

With all that said, Warhead’s greatest flaw is its mediocrity. It never grabbed me. It belongs in that cursed category of games that I have difficulty playing for more than half an hour at a time, another recent example being Prey. There is something to be said for giving the player more freedom than they’re accustomed to by opening up the battlefield in the way that Crysis and Warhead have done, but it’s a thin line to tread.

What Crytek have failed to achieve is a balance between creating that openness and building meaningful connections between the player and the game world. The few characters that there are in Warhead are emotionally barren. For instance, the bare minimum of effort was put into portraying Psycho (who you’d think Crytek might’ve wanted to concentrate on) as someone who’s torn between getting a bit angry sometimes (the outer limit of his psychosis) and upholding the Geneva Conventions.

There’s a scene three quarters of the way through where he kills a KPA soldier and then sits down on a rock to cry; incredibly poignant when acted by Kiefer Sutherland in the third season of 24, but pitifully unengaging in Warhead, where the essential preceding character development never gets off the ground.

It’s not just the characters that are impossible to relate to either. There’s also zero emotion invested in the combat, which may sound confused to a less demanding “I just wanna have fun” shooter fan, but it’s a lingering concern for someone (like myself) who experienced something quite profound in the electrifying battles of the Call of Duty series.

Crysis Warhead

Firing your weapon and being able to recognise the resulting impact on your target (albeit in a multitude of ways, some more explosive than others) is one thing, but if the significance of critical events in an engagement doesn’t resonate with the player, those events are demoted to white noise. How can I possibly immerse myself in a combat scenario when the environment so perfectly resembles a playground, when the friendlies around me start opening fire on an enemy I can’t even see, and when I feel absolutely no need to protect my men? It is fun, but it’s not enough for a connoisseur.

And that pretty much summarises my opinion of Warhead. It’s the quintessential action gaming romp, with a twist we’ve come to expect: you get to attack camps from different directions, in different ways, and occasionally avoid them altogether, rather than being funneled into them in a fashion typical of a genre so persistently unwilling to escape from its ubiquitous linearity.

Crysis Warhead screenshot

Do I regret my purchase? Not a great deal. Let’s not forget that Crysis Wars, an offering for which I’ve already expressed my moderately high regard, comes bundled with Warhead. And let’s not lose sight of the enduring fact that, though I probably won’t revisit Warhead in future, it is a relatively solid FPS. It’s just not in the same league as a Half-Life 2, a Call of Duty 4, or a Bioshock. Give it a go if my report hasn’t discouraged you, but don’t expect anything spectacular.

70%


Gears of War

August 10, 2008

Do you know what it feels like when you land a rocket directly beneath someone’s crotch in Quake? It’s a beautiful thing to behold. First comes the muzzle-flash, the rocket leaves the long barrel, it sails, torpedo-like, toward its destination. It closes the distance (all of this happens in a matter of a few seconds at most) and with a sensation akin to a warm, friendly hug, you realise that it’s going to hit home. Finally it detonates and your foe explodes in a shower of blood and gibs, reminiscent of a New Year’s Eve fireworks display.

How about a good old fashioned frozen orb in Diablo II? The concept: a top-tier spell on the Sorceress’ cold tree with a freezing area-of-effect. The reality: a shimmering sphere of levitating luminescent white and blue elemental energy spraying deadly spikes of ice every which way, all the time freezing demons solid in their tracks, leaving them helpless against the continuing massacre. Rarely, if ever, have I felt a greater sense of being master of all that I survey than when I was dishing out frozen orbs in all directions, fending off blunderbores, giant maggots and shambling squadrons of zombies without being touched.

These and other wonders are rightfully cherished pieces of the rich tapestry of computer gaming history. And now, carried on the scorched wings of the reborn flaming phoenix of co-operative multiplayer that is Gears of War, there comes another addition to that tapestry. Bid a fond farewell to Quake’s gauntlet and pry Gordon Freeman’s crowbar from his cold dead hands and chuck it in a skip (if you can). There’s a new butcher’s mate in town – the chainsaw bayonet.

The bayonet is a work of art, a thing to be feared – an aspect of terror. You haven’t lived until you’ve pounced on a locust (Gear’s alien menace) and buried your saw deep within his chest, watching him writhe as the camera is splattered with dripping blood and bits of shredded lung. It’s the most visceral experience to be had in the game, and certainly one of the most visceral experiences in the genre. No matter how you spin it in the violent video games debate, in-game gore, done well, is always going to be damned entertaining.

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The now iconic bayonet comes fitted to the ‘Lancer’ assault rifle, arguably the core of a small but stunning armoury including the screen-shudderingly beefy ‘Gnasher’ shotgun, a similarly beefy but more petite magnum revolver, and the torque bow – a true oddity that fires its meat-cleaving adhesive projectiles in a similar fashion to an attached grenade launcher, but looks more like a crossbow.

What brings these fantastic weapons to life – apart from the shocking impact they have on flesh – are the hectic, heart-pounding encounters with the enemy, infused with the almost claustrophobic atmosphere introduced by the game’s famous cover system. Heroic charges are pretty much out of the question, especially on the higher difficulty settings, thanks to the colossal damage that even a bog-standard locust grunt can do to you when he brings his boomstick to bear.

There’s plenty to keep you from feeling brave – manned turrets, ‘troikas’, that feel like they could tear a tank a new one, the locust elite (original wielders of the intimidating torque bow), boomers (hulkish brutes carrying rocket launchers), and nemacyst (slow-flying squid creatures – akin to sentinels in The Matrix – that explode on impact). The message comes across loud and clear: “Get your head down!”, and so you shall, tapping the space bar every five seconds to huddle behind a low wall, deftly slip around a corner, or dive to that next life-saving man-sized object, all with military precision and grace.

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Because of all this hardship, and the reflexive ducking and hiding that will inevitably consume half of your combat time, kills, though not rare by any stretch of the imagination, feel far more meaningful. When you bring down a locust you’ll feel like you’ve leaped a hurdle. Accuracy is key; hitting particular body parts will quickly bring them to their knees, disabling them for a short while and leaving them vulnerable to your face-breaking coup de grace – the curb-stomp, a despicably violent finishing move that involves your boot and their head connecting at dangerously high speed.

Like Call of Duty 4, Gears can be severely punishing to play – mainly because it (unsurprisingly) saves at checkpoints (having been ported from console hell) and doesn’t provide the player with any other save options. A helping hand comes in the way that death is handled. When your health is depleted you keel over in a pool of your own blood and rock back and forth in agony. From there your (hopefully selfless) squadmates can rush to your assistance and miraculously lift you to your feet. It’s not ultra-realistic stuff, and it might anger the fanatical “vita chambers are a cheat” crowd, but it encourages co-operation, and it works.

gearsreview_generalcombat

Not that Gears needs these additions to instigate co-operation – the intensity of the pressure brought to bear upon you and your squad in combat is quite sufficient. Every encounter is a tactical challenge with intuitive solutions, and you’ll no doubt find yourself easing into the action. The basic rule (as with all proper squad combat) is to flank the enemy and dominate them, and you can achieve that well enough in single player, with your AI buddies providing suppressing fire as you advance.

But I didn’t use the words ‘flaming phoenix’ lightly before – these maneuvers come alive in multiplayer in a way that will make you loathe to go solo. Disappointingly, the co-op mode only supports two players (the other two characters in your four-man squad being directed by AI of average competence). If you’re the host you’ll be in the shoes of ultra badass Marcus Fenix; if you’re player two you’ll be his loyal companion, the more softly spoken and moderately hardened Dominic Santiago. They’re both hollow characters driving, or being driven by (it’s hard to say which) an empty shell of a plot, but that’s never a problem for the gameplay.

gearsreview_marcusdominic

Most of the time Fenix and Santiago fight side-by-side (often with the other two squad members), but to spice things up they’re occasionally separated. A far cry from the classic Resident Evil “let’s split up so we can cover more ground” scenario, these splits are entirely believable. For one thing, they usually benefit the team (unlike Jill Valentine having to face off with a giant mutant snake on her lonesome), with Marcus seizing control of a troika pinning Dominic down, or Dominic providing Marcus with sniper protection from a balcony above his position.

And there’s always a satisfying reason given for why the team is scattered – either the trams on a railway leading to a destination are so small they can only support one man, or there are two objectives in different locations that need to be completed in a short space of time. It all smacks of inventiveness.

Unfortunately some of the other special stages are nowhere near as inspired. The few boss fights that there are aren’t terrible, but they’re eyesores compared with storming a locust-held mansion or emerging victorious from a pulse-racing street fight. Even the fearsome Brumak, touted as a central selling point of the game (particularly the PC version, featuring several Brumak-powered levels not available in the console release) is really no big deal when he’s up close.

That said, the single vehicle section in Gears – a dreaded night-time gauntlet driving a two-seater APC across a city infested with flesh eating alien bats, the ‘Krill’ – is unfathomably more shitty. It might sound like a thrilling getaway, but there’s a catch; you’re forced to fend off the swarms of Krill with an ultraviolet searchlight which, thanks to a stroke of mechanical genius, draws power directly from the engine, thereby slowing your escape. It’s not good if you suffer from stress. There’s nothing wrong with the Krill though (apart from their hunger for your bones) – think of the man-eating flying insects in the X-Files episode ‘Darkness Falls’ and you’ve more or less got the idea.

gearsreview_vehicle

On top of everything Gears is a hell of a looker; a delicacy if you’re (like me) a connoisseur of fine graphics. At the time of writing I’ve just been wowed by the next ‘evolution’ in visual detail present in the gameplay demo of Gears of War 2; and yet I still hold praise for the delightful amalgam of gothic and futuristic elements exhibited in the aesthetic of the original.

Everything looks and feels meaty in Gears. Fenix and Santiago – and later Cole and Baird (the other two main cast members) – don’t look like normal men; they’re built more like mutated rugby players. They’ve got that bulky space marine-esque quality about them that seems to seep through naturally from the Unreal Engine. The locust take that inhuman figure to an extreme with their sickly, almost undead-like skin, and horrific, razor-sharp teeth.

What’s impressive is that Epic have crafted an enemy that is simultaneously a close match with the humans in size, shape and strength (a worthy adversary), yet utterly monstrous and repulsive in appearance. The environments are plenty and varied. Some feature grand architecture and chunky stonework; others are Moria-like subterranean mazes with gaping chasms and overhanging rock formations. Unfortunately they rather screwed up with the rain effects – I caught some water in the act of flowing upwards over a rock – but let’s not dwell on minor hiccups.

gearsreview_caverns

Let’s instead dwell on Windows Live, the near-unbearable menu and lobby system serving as the hub for all your Gears activities. If I remember correctly it was a bit of a chore to even sign up because the login system was conflicting with some other software I had installed, so for a few hours I wasn’t able to play the game at all. The menu is more confusing than most to navigate, multiplayer options that one could take for granted in other games (like being able to invite friends to your game) have been reserved for Gold account holders (who have to pay a fee), and you can only have one single player and one multiplayer game on the go at one time. The fact that the interface is plastered with annoying instructions for players using an XBox 360 gamepad is the icing on the cake.

And I’d be remiss without warning you that there are some major bugs (still unfixed the last time I played) which will stop you in your tracks. The one that happened to me several times was that I would get to the finale of Act Two (the game is split into five acts), the game would crash and all of my saves would be wiped. All in all I’ve probably completed the majority of Act Two about four or five times, the silver-lining being that I have an unusually intimate knowledge of Marcus and Dominic’s night mission.

But please don’t be discouraged from purchasing a copy if the preceding tracts of adoration had you seduced. I’ll tip my hat (or at least I would if I wore a hat) to Epic and say that they’ve created what I consider to be by far the finest co-op game in existence. It’s so good that I’m having trouble thinking of any other in its class. Time after time it delivers some of the most challenging, exciting, gruesome action scenes in gaming, and at no point does it sacrifice immersion for cinematic flamboyance (apart from during the cinematics of course).

If you want an over-the-top, testosterone-fuelled frag fest of an FPS with an amazingly solid tactical dimension whisked in, then this is your medicine. And if you want to take a break from squabbling with your comrades in frivolous deathmatches to join the co-operative revolution, then this is your ambrosia. Drink your fill.

92%


Knights of the Old Republic I and II

August 10, 2008

About a month ago now I reached the finale of my revisitation of the Knights of the Old Republic saga, a revisitation that started when I gazed across the room at my brother’s iMac, on which he was playing through the opening sections of KOTOR for the first time.

I couldn’t help but feel pangs of nostalgia when the menacing Darth Malak turned, in that frightening Vader-esque way, to face one of his officers. Fond memories quickly resurfaced of an epic storyline on a galactic scale, worlds populated with masses of characters, a huge body of side-quests, tonnes of force powers, lightsaber combat and the conflict between the light and dark side tying it all together. In short, a classic Bioware production.

I had decided before the game was even installed that I was going to play a dark side character (my default path), perhaps for no greater reason than to avoid the cringe-worthy light side ending cinematic. My class choices came later – Scout for the first chapter and Jedi Consular for the rest of the game – but ended up suiting my twisted ego all too well. As a Consular inclined toward the dark side, I was free to revel in the full destructive power of force lightning, and the life sapping potential of force grip and drain – my favourites.

kotor_intro

The introduction was enthralling enough, with various tutorials (essential for a newbie) skillfully punctuated by the slowly building drama of the ship you’re on being ripped apart and boarded by ‘Sith’. Sadly that drama vanished rather too quickly once I’d crash landed on the planet below.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a wrecked escape pod might’ve attracted the attention of the local authorities, especially when those authorities were Sith, the very same chaps who were desperately trying to assassinate me only moments beforehand. If KOTOR was a great RPG, the crash would’ve been swiftly followed by a chase scene, or a narrow escape from capture – something to make me feel like actual people lived on Taris (the planet in question) rather than a bunch of mindless drones who didn’t seem to give a shit about anything outside of their pointless daily routines.

Alas, whether because of mediocre designers hired sometime after the release of the Baldur’s Gate series, or through sheer laziness, Bioware filled the majority of KOTOR with uninspired side quests and boringly tranquil city hubs in which very little of import ever occurs. Does anyone really give a toss about procuring a serum to cure a load of hapless beggars of the dreaded ‘rackghoul’ disease? Was I supposed to care when I came across an OAP alien with a head shaped like a bent crucifix being bullied by a couple of children? Maybe so, but I didn’t.

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The quest-giving characters in KOTOR are (without a single exception that I can think of) a lot like the desperate couple in the diner in Pulp Fiction: they may have great lines (not that I think that the quality of writing in KOTOR even comes close to Pulp Fiction’s) but they’re never given the screen time of the main characters. As a result I’m never as involved with them emotionally as I am with Bruce Willis’ ‘Butch’ or John Travolta’s ‘Vincent’, or in KOTOR, Bastila or Malak.

And that’s KOTOR’s greatest flaw, shared by KOTOR II, as well as other Bioware productions like Neverwinter Nights and the more recent Jade Empire. The lion’s share of the content of all these games is a mire of embarrassing crap that’s frankly unpleasant to play. It’s crap because it smells, and it’s embarrassing not to me or you or anyone else, but to the finer elements of the games themselves.

In the case of the KOTOR series, those finer elements are the few truly intriquing playable characters who travel with you on your journey, the menacing villains who overshadow your every step (the Darths), and those rare moments when you’re steeped in Star Wars lore, visiting places where only legendary Jedi and Sith Lords have dared to tread.

Combat is generally a tiresome chore in both games. Even the most extravagant force powers tend to become very underwhelming very quickly, given that you’re more or less forced (no pun intended) to use them every five seconds. Lightsaber duels, though somewhat captivating at first, are the same from beginning to end, no matter who’s dueling, and so also become mundane early on. Gun fights are even worse: with no cover system to speak of, all you can do is stand twenty paces away from your enemy and exchange fire until one of you drops to the floor.

kotor_combat

The player character is a great deal weaker in KOTOR than the one in KOTOR II. In KOTOR battles are more or less always challenging, often irritatingly so; in KOTOR II they progress from being fairly easy to totally one-sided about three quarters of the way through.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of fights that a Jedi should never have trouble with, and it’s good to have those in the game so that I can feel warm with smug superiority, but I think you’ve got to make the duels with other Jedi (light and dark) more trying. The balance is perfect in Jedi Academy, where the duels are perilous right the way to the end, but stormtroopers and the like are a pushover.

Where KOTOR really bitch-slaps its younger brother is in the polish department. I remember when I’d first played through KOTOR II (around the time of its release) it was in its youthful unpatched state, and therefore crippled (though not quite as crippled as the infamous Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, which I adore by the way) by bugs as well as missing or unfinished content. Coming back to it recently I found that several patches, some containing the bulk of the that missing content, were available for download.

My opinion of the game is somewhat changed for the better as a result. Though I noticed that some things were still missing, like a few side-quests and NPC conversations on Nar Shaddaa, it is a much more complete affair, and (crucially) free of fatal errors. But it still never feels as well rounded as KOTOR. There’s something intangibly disjointed and spaced-out about the way that KOTOR II plays; with KOTOR everything just felt right – mostly not up to scratch as I’ve already described, but still a fully intact work.

kotor2_finale

Stuff like your alignment (light side/dark side) changing depending on your choices in and out of dialogue makes much more sense in the first game than in the second, in which the rules of morality were hard to grasp to say the least. I actually had to cheat to turn myself to the dark side near the end of KOTOR II. I knew I was evil, that my actions had been deliciously unsavoury throughout, but apparently the game had calculated me to be a model of virtue. I wanted force crush, not some namby-pamby aura!

Ultimately KOTOR has the edge over KOTOR II for this and other reasons, some difficult for me to articulate. There are bits of KOTOR II that are quite charming, but it never comes together properly. What matters more than the differences between these two games though are the differences between them and other (far greater) RPG titles.

I’m about to embark on a play through the Baldur’s Gate saga with my brother (who stopped playing KOTOR about an eighth of the way through funnily enough) and a friend, and if my memory serves me well the BG storyline is far more involving and the side quests nowhere near as pathetic as those I’ve just ranted about. We’ll see, but for the time being I think I’ll warn you not to bother with these two pretentious miscreants. They’re revered in the RPG gaming community, but for me they’re anything but special.

KOTOR: 72%

KOTOR II: 66%