Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3 may be the most disappointing game I’ve ever played. It’s certainly not the worst game I’ve ever played, but it’s certainly not a very good one either. Mass Effect 3 is, of course, the final act of a trilogy. The original Mass Effect, despite its flaws, is one of my all time favourite games. Its sequel, Mass Effect 2, was superior in some areas to the original (notably combat), yet weaker in many others (plot, exploration).

The first two ME games were a combination of TPS and RPG, but the role-playing aspect of the ME games was never about levels or stats. It was about Shepard. Shepard, male or female, was the role assumed by the player. Shepard had an independent persona, but one that was shaped by the choices of the player within his or her role. The ME games featured a branching narrative that reacted to the input of the player. Certainly the framework had its limitations, but it was flexible enough to warrant multiple runs of each title in order to experience the differing consequences based on your unique choices.

This was the primary draw of the ME games for myself and I’m sure many other players. The RP stat mechanics of the original were not particularly complex or engaging and were largely excised from the franchise in ME2. The TPS element, whilst certainly improved in ME2, still wasn’t anything particularly special. The gameplay of the ME series was solid and it did the job, but the reason I played both games so many times was because I wanted to see the impact of my actions and choices on the developing narrative. ME was essentially a ‘choose your own adventure’ game, set within an engaging vision of the future of Earth and humanity’s role in a multi-species community, populated with some of the most interesting, memorable and well developed characters you’ll encounter.

Out of the first two games, I’d personally rate ME1 above ME2 (it had a great 80s sci-fi style aesthetic and sound), but there’s really not a lot between them. The overall plot of ME2 was rather weak compared to the first game, but ME2 was less about the mission on which your character embarks, and more about the people you take with you. After completing ME2 I was certainly looking forward to the final game in the trilogy, and the developers continued to support and expand ME2 with some excellent DLC. But then, The Arrival DLC was released, and that’s where things started to go horribly wrong.

The Arrival was intended to ‘bridge the gap’ between ME2 & ME3. It was essentially a dull, one corridor shooting gallery, punctuated by a few cut-scenes with practically zero player input. There is only one ‘choice’ presented within the DLC, but this actually has zero impact on how the DLC plays out, or indeed, as we later discover, in ME3 itself. It was a worrying sign of things to come, but I understood the intention – it allowed the developers to establish a baseline for all players from which they could launch the story of Mass Effect 3.

Except it sort of didn’t.

Mass Effect 3 has an utterly terrible opening, and it’s something the game never really recovers from. With so much written about the game’s ending, little has been said about just how bad the opening section is. In fact, I’d say it’s almost as equally awful as the ending. Everything is wrong with it, and it sadly sets the tone for the rest of the game. Now, I could write pages and pages taking apart the opening section and explaining just how bad it is in excruciating detail (in fact I did, but it ran to about seven pages of expletive filled ranting), but instead I’m going to focus on my biggest issue with it. An issue that is, I feel, the most serious problem with ME3, one that’s not been as addressed as it should given all the focus on the terrible ending. And that issue is Shepard.

As I’ve said, the ME games are really about Shepard, about the player tailoring their own Shepard persona over the course of the series and therefore directing the flow of the narrative. This was the strongest component of Mass Effect, one that enabled me to forgive the rather mediocre gameplay, weak plots and shallow RPG mechanics. Shepard was our character.

But in ME3, right from the very start, it’s clear that Shepard is no longer the player’s character, and the story is no longer ours to influence. Shepard is now a character independent of the player, taking actions and making key decisions without player input. Conversation options are few and far between in ME3, and Shepard babbles on for long stretches, forcing the player to simply sit and watch. In the previous games, the player would take an active role in shaping how these conversations play out. Now they are little more than barely interactive cut-scenes.

I understand that in the previous games, many conversations only provided the illusion of player direction and ultimately the outcome was often the same. But removing pretty much all player input and reducing what was once multiple options to investigate and question down to what is often only two basic responses was a terrible idea. Sometimes, the illusion of control is better than nothing at all.

On top of that, the developers added a ham-fisted psychological element, as Shepard is haunted with visions of a young boy he saw die. Once again, this sets Shepard as a character no longer shaped by the player. I find it hard to believe, for example, that a full renegade Shepard would give much of a damn.

And this is the real issue with how the opening plays out, and from that point on, the rest of the game. Right from the very start, I didn’t understand why my Shepard was where he was or why he was there. It simply didn’t make sense for the character I’d shaped across the previous two games. Shepard was no longer a character shaped by the players, but an independent character shaped by the choices of the developers and the needs of the plot, which the player now had even less ability to influence than before.

Now, you can argue that Shepard was never our character as such and it’s not our place to say what that character should or shouldn’t do in a given situation. But when the previous two games in the series allow you to build and shape that character in your own way (obviously along certain constrained paths) it’s extremely strange that the final game in the trilogy completely disregards this approach.

And before the title even appears on the screen, it’s clear Mass Effect has now transformed fully into a cut-scene heavy, linear third person shooter with a few tacked on upgrade elements. Shepard, our Shepard, who we’d shaped across two previous games, no longer existed. This was no longer a story we were a part of, but one we just had to sit back and watch.

So what about the actual gameplay of ME3? Well, the shooting mechanics of the ME series always did the job, but they were never fantastic. However, they didn’t need to be the strong point of the series. ME3, ultimately, is just a pretty mediocre run and gun TPS. It’s a very basic cover shooter, with the bizarre choice of assigning nearly every combat movement action to a single key – cover, sprint, vault – which is just plain awkward. Shooting isn’t particularly satisfying, with enemies just soaking up fire until they fall. Enemy AI is just cover and shoot or charge. There’s very little in the way of challenge. Weapons are okay, but the biotic powers of the previous games feel weak and even worse than in ME2.

So the gameplay is all rather uninspiring and dull. What else does the game do? Well, the plot revolves around Shepard assembling a multi-species fleet to take back Earth. I’m not even going to get into how stupid the plot is. have ‘critical’ missions which advance the plot, but aside from a couple of notable exceptions (Rannoch and Tuchanka), these are largely linear, dull and forgettable affairs. There are a couple of more interesting side missions involving previous characters, and then a few more bonus missions which are entirely ripped out of the game’s multiplayer horde mode. Wow, seriously? Then you have a few dozen ‘side missions’ which amount to talking to someone, flying to a planet, hitting a button to retrieve the item, and then returning it. That’s it. Why did they even bother? In between this you get to spend time on your ship or the Citadel. You can talk with your crew but this time conversations just play out without any player involvement, you just sit and listen.

Oh yeah, your crew. For some reason someone also thought it would be a great idea to introduce quite a few new characters in ME3. Which I wouldn’t really have a problem with, except some of them get as much or even more dialogue and screen time than characters we’ve known since the first ME. And those are the people I really care about. I want more interaction with those characters, and those from ME2. Not with Kai ‘I PWN U SHEPARD’ Leng, or Steeeeeve ‘boo hoo, my husband died, WANT TO F**K?’ Cortez.

Oh, and in case we’ve forgotten, the ending is possibly the worst thing ever conceived by man. I mean seriously, who gave the green light on this abomination? Ignoring all the major logical inconsistency, let’s just get to the heart of why the ending was so terrible – choices didn’t matter. Regardless of which ending you chose, there was no variation, no sense that anything you had done meant a thing. None of the choices you made across the first two games, or even in ME3 felt worth a damn. The entire ending feels self contained, completely separate to everything in the entire trilogy which had zero influence on how it played out. The Extended Cut DLC did give the characters some sense of closure at least, but it still failed to address the primary issues relating to the ridiculous and nonsensical crucible/hologram kid.

I felt bad about buying ME3 on release because of the DLC fiasco. I didn’t even have high expectations for the game, but I was hoping to be somewhat pleasantly surprised. But instead, ME3 was massively disappointing across all areas, not only the ending. It’s a game that, aside from a couple of notable moments, barely scratches average. It’s a game that feels shallow in content, rushed, with a lack of thought or care. It’s not often I wish I had never played a game because it sullied my experience of an entire franchise. But that’s exactly what ME3 did. It really is that bad. 

And now I never want to speak of it again.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Now Playing: A Tale of Two Sons

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was another Steam sale purchase. It’s a third person adventure/puzzle game with some platform elements and an emphasis on character and narrative. Two young brothers embark on a quest to save their dying father. At least I think he’s dying. He’s probably dying.

All the characters speak in a fictional ‘sims’ style language, so the story is really told through the way characters interact, their body language, tone of voice and expression. It’s all very nicely done and works well at conveying exactly what the player needs to know without directly explaining things.

The lack of any sort of hand holding also extends to the gameplay. You’re told how to control each brother and from then on it’s entirely in your own hands. That said, the game is so simple and easy that it’s not like you’d need prompting every time you hit a puzzle, but it’s nice for a change for a game to trust the player to figure things out on their own.

The controls are simple. One stick for each brother’s movement, and a trigger each to interact. It’s a little awkward at first coordinating each brother independently, especially if you’re used to using one stick for camera movement, but you soon get the hang of it. The game plays out like a co-op for someone without any friends, one in which you control both characters simultaneously. You’ll need both brothers working together to progress, and the way they interact with each other and the environments is very cleverly integrated into the platform and puzzle segments.

Unfortunately, as neat as these sections are, they’re simply not at all challenging, and the mechanics never expand or grow more complex as the game progresses. You’re introduced to maybe 2 or 3 new ways of interacting over the course of the game, but generally, everything you’ll learn within the opening prologue and first chapter is pretty much it. This is a real shame, because the action/puzzle segments are very nicely designed and fun (if easy) to complete.

Graphically, Brothers is a very nice looking game, with some lovely, highly detailed environments, many of which have small, interactive elements for the player to explore. The setting is also good, a lush, fantasy landscape with all sorts of wonderful creatures to encounter – some friendly, some not so much. The game also does a great job of keeping the environments varied from one location to the next, and it’s all quite tightly paced.

That said, the game is easily completed in about three hours and has pretty much zero replay value. And whilst I enjoyed the puzzle and platform segments (and even a couple of fun little boss fights, believe it or not) it feels like the majority of the gameplay consists of simply pressing forward on both control sticks, watching as the brothers run along a (very lovely) linear path from one cut-scene to the next. You’ll hit a neat puzzle here and there along the way, but these are usually completed in a couple of seconds, and then it’s back to pressing down the sticks.

I hate to say it, but I got a little bored playing Brothers. As much as the two characters can interact with the environment and each other, a lot of the time I felt rather disconnected from the game. Like it was an adventure I was watching, rather than participating in. There’s one moment you find some goats to ride up a mountain. It seemed like fun, until I realised the brothers raced along two set paths and all I had to do was hold down both sticks. Hell, a couple of times during a ‘the brothers slide down something’ moment, I just let go of the control sticks entirely to see if it would make any difference. It didn’t, of course, the game just played itself without me.

And because I found the gameplay not particularly engaging, the narrative never really had as much impact as perhaps it should. Like I said, this wasn’t a story I felt I was involved in, or had any real influence in, I was just along for the ride.

But Brothers is still a pretty neat little game. It’s got a great setting, a lovely art style and graphics and some genuinely clever puzzles combined with a unique and interesting gameplay mechanic. It’s just a shame that the gameplay never increases in complexity or depth as the game progresses. If you’re looking for something a little different, something you can sit down and play one rainy afternoon then it’s certainly worth checking out.


Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Now Playing: Spec Ops

Spec Ops: The Line is a third person shooter I picked up in the recent Steam sale. It’s one I’ve had my eye on for some time. It’s gained something of a reputation as an underrated game with a unique setting and a strong narrative. In terms of its gameplay, I don’t think anyone has spoken very highly of it, but it’s a game I’ve seen people recommend based on setting and story alone. And it’s not hard to see why.

The game is set in Dubai, now a dead city ravaged by constant, deadly sand storms. You play as Captain Walker, sent into Dubai to search for survivors and a missing battalion of American troops. The setting itself is a nice choice, although sadly, it’s only something of a backdrop to the environments. It doesn’t feel like the game takes much advantage of the setting in terms of levels, nor in terms of gameplay. There are a few windows you can shoot out to drop sand on people, but that’s about it. Graphically, it’s okay. It does the job. It has some nice effects here and there. I can’t say much more than that. The music is okay too.

So what about the story? Is it as good as I’ve heard? Well, no, although it is certainly better than you might expect from a game like this. The story of Spec Ops, as Walker travels through Dubai, is fairly well paced and takes a decent stab at what it’s trying to do. I don’t want to really go into detail with this because honestly, the narrative is the only real reason you’d want to play this game, and it’s not something I want to spoil. What I will say is that it’s not predictable. It’s a story that will keep you guessing right up until the end. So I have to give it credit for that.

But as much as I appreciate what the narrative was trying to do, I don’t think it quite works in practice. There are certain moments in the game completely out of the player’s control and as a result, the consequences never have the impact you feel that they should. To give a more specific example without spoiling too much, there’s a moment when you’re firing on soldiers and some civilians are killed. It’s meant to be quite harrowing, not just for Walker, but for the player too, when they realise they’ve fired on the wrong target. The problem is, I hadn’t fired on the target. I thought the target looked odd and avoided it. Of course, the game has to progress so in the end it fired on them for me. And this is why a disconnect between gameplay and narrative can cause all sorts of problems.

The impact of the moment was lost on me because it was out of my control. And there are several moments in the game that feel much the same. You can argue that this is a linear story but that’s not quite the case, as there are small ‘choices’ to make along the way which can determine how certain things play out. Nothing major, but enough. Spec Ops walks a strange middle ground in terms of the narrative/gameplay connection, occasionally giving the player difficult choices, but then taking choice away when it wants to rub their noses in something. If there’s one thing Spec Ops doesn’t do well, it’s subtlety.

And this, unfortunately, ties into the ridiculous, over the top combat. So it’s a TPS, and not a very good one. You have a two weapon carry limit with three grenade types. There’s not a great selection of weapons, and enemy variety is crap. You have maybe 4-5 different guys based on the weapon they carry or the hat they wear. You’ll see them a lot, as the game throws wave after tedious wave of the buggers at you. Oh, and their AI is effectively brain dead. Although they did seem to give them a nice auto-aim on higher difficulties. It’s funny watching their laser sights track you even when you’re hidden and moving behind cover. As you can imagine, this all grows rather repetitive very quickly. And it certainly doesn’t help that the actual combat system is so wonky.

You stick to cover when you don’t want to, and break away awkwardly at the worst possible times. Moving in and out of cover can be hit and miss, and some things apparently just don’t work as cover at all, leaving you running against it like a twat waiting to get shot. So yeah, the cover system, a rather key component of a cover-based TPS, is a bit shit. Shooting isn’t really satisfying, not with the limited enemy types or the sparse weapon selection. So what about the level design? Small, linear and pretty crap, really. There’s very little room to manoeuvre or flank, it’s really just a very long whack-a-mole corridor. Like I said earlier, the actual setting doesn’t have much influence in the levels. I hope you like burnt out cars and randomly placed concrete barriers, because you’ll spend most of the game humping one or the other. But if it wasn’t already as dull and run of the mill as you’d expect, it throws in plenty of mindless static turret shooting too. Yay!

So does it do anything new, or interesting with its gameplay? Well, you can order your two squad mates to target specific enemies, but a lot of the time it’s quicker to just take them out yourself. Sometimes they can be useful in a fight, other times they just watch an enemy run past them and shoot you in the back. I sort of liked the characters though, but the more they f**ked up in combat, the more I just wanted to be rid of them.

This isn’t going well, is it? It probably sounds like I’m taking a real dump on Spec Ops, and maybe it doesn’t deserve that. And it certainly should be commended for trying to do something different with its setting and narrative. It takes some risks, it asks some difficult questions of the player. I like that. But like I said, it’s a flawed attempt, one which doesn’t quite have the impact it feels it should. And towards the end, it leaves way too much open to interpretation. You can get away with that to an extent, but there’s so much about how things unfold in the last couple of chapters that really don’t add up if you stop to think about them.

But would I recommend it, based on the strength of the narrative and setting alone? I’d have to say no. It’s okay, but it doesn’t make up for the exceptionally dull and repetitive gameplay. But was that meant to be the point, as I’ve seen some people suggest? This is war, war is hell and you really shouldn’t be having fun? Is the game intentionally poking fun at over the top, modern day shooters?

But even if you’re trying to make a point, it doesn’t excuse the painfully tedious and repetitive combat, terrible enemy AI, lack of enemy and weapon variety and the dull, linear environments. I was bored during most of the game, simply pressing through the awful gameplay sections to continue the story. And when you consider that I beat the game on the hardest available difficulty in under six hours, that’s really saying something. I have to give Spec Ops credit for its attempt to do something daring with its narrative (even if the attempt is flawed and ultimately fails) but that’s pretty much the only nice thing I can say about it. Not recommended.


Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Work in Progress: WFTD, ZS & TSOTS

It’s about time for a writing update! So I’m still waiting to hear back from a lot of publishers and in the meantime I’ve been keeping busy with all sorts of stuff. No, not just video games. Other stuff. So I haven’t had much time for my writing these last few weeks. And when I have had the time, it’s mostly been all about editing.

First up, we have WFTD, which I haven’t looked at in a year or so. I’m doing an initial pass of the text and it’s actually in pretty good shape so far. Hopefully it won’t need too much more work to bring it up to scratch.

In addition to this, I’ve also been working on edits of my e-books. There’s no substantial changes, it’s mostly just a polish and a tweak. As soon as they’re ready I’ll be doing a free promotion on Amazon.

And finally we have TSOTS, which I completed the first draft of earlier this year. I’ve left it for a bit so I can come back to it fresh and get to work on the changes. I don’t think it needs any significant rewrites though, well, maybe one chapter does, but the first draft came out pretty good in terms of structure and pace.

I’ve also been thinking of possible new stuff to write, but looking over a lot of the ideas in my ‘ideas file’ most of them are quite old and look a bit shit now. I think it’s time to compile a new list of concepts. That’s always the fun part.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Now Playing: Papers, Please

I picked up Papers, Please in the recent Steam sale for a couple of quid. It’s one of those games I’d heard a lot of positive things about, without really knowing much about what it was exactly. It’s described as a ‘Dystopian Document Thriller’. You assume the role of an immigration officer at a border checkpoint. Your job is to check the travel papers of those wishing to enter the glorious country of Arstotzka.

Wait, what? A game about inspecting passports and travel permits? That doesn’t exactly sound very compelling and yet, within only a few minutes of play, I was already hooked. It’s best to think of it as a puzzle game, and every arrival at your checkpoint booth is another puzzle to solve. You have to inspect and verify every document they require for entry into the country before deciding to admit or deny their passage. It sounds simple enough, but as you progress through the game’s story based campaign, the amount of documents you have to cross-check and inspect continues to expand.

For example, someone wishing to work within the country requires a passport, a work permit and a travel permit, all of which have to be carefully cross-checked in terms of information such as Name and Passport Number. You also have to check the information against what the person tells you, such as duration of stay. Later in the campaign you may also have to check additional documents, such as vaccination certificates. And of course, there’s all the standard information to inspect, such as the Passport Expiration Date and Issuing City.

But wait, there’s more! It’s also important to cross-check personal information, such as photos, fingerprints, gender, height and weight. Oh, and some documents may be forgeries, so you have to look out for that, too.

As you can imagine, it’s easy to slip up and miss something if you’re not paying close enough attention. It can be rather frustrating checking several documents and admitting a person, only to receive a citation because you missed a single, minor thing. And of course, not all the same rules apply to the same people. Depending on the circumstances, you may need to deny entry, confiscate passports or perform body searches depending on the arrival’s country of origin.

All this, in itself, is pretty good as a puzzle game, because it continually adds new dimensions and elements to the core mechanics which keeps you firmly on your toes. Of course, if you had all the time you wanted to check each document it would be far too easy, so the game puts you on a clock. As a lowly worker of Arstotzka, you get paid a small amount for each valid person you process, whether you admit or deny that person entry. The money you earn is important as you need to pay for rent, heating, food and, depending on certain conditions, things like medicine or a birthday present for your son.

So the game becomes a testing and compelling race to inspect as many arrivals as possible in the time allotted. The faster and more efficiently you work, the more money you can make. But if you work too fast, you may begin to make mistakes. A couple will only receive a warning, but any more and you’ll be fined. This can be a punishing game at first. In my first couple of games I ran up debts and was imprisoned, and then the rest of my family died due to sickness because I couldn’t afford the medicine they required. Life kind of sucks in glorious Arstotzka.

But even when you get the hang of things, you’re still struggling to stay above water, and even a single mistake can really throw off your concentration. Fines build up, and before you know it you have to turn your heating off to try to save some money. And it’s these story based elements that really elevates Papers, Please way beyond its simple, but effective puzzle mechanics. Because as good as they are, it’s the framework surrounding them that really makes it a compelling and addictive experience, one you can become quite emotionally invested in.

The story based campaign plays out over about 30 days (if you reach the end, that is). And unlike so many big budget titles, Papers, Please is one of those games that really does present the player with interesting and meaningful choices, choices with real, serious consequences. For example, after helping an anti-government organisation get some of its people across the border, I received a hefty payment. But, getting a little carried away with my wealth, I upgraded our apartment and a suspicious neighbour took notice. The next day I found myself hauled away and imprisoned. This was only one of 20 possible end states. They may mostly be small variations, but all come as a direct result of choices you make.

There are also a lot of smaller stories wrapped within the overall narrative dealing with different people who pass through your checkpoint, and these may have positive or negative consequences as time goes on. Sometimes you’ll willingly let people through who may not have the correct documents, perhaps because they bribed you more than the inevitable fine, or perhaps because you genuinely feel sorry for them.

Because many of them have a sob story to tell, but whether any of them are true is up to you to decide. And as much as you may want to help someone, you have your own family to consider. Letting that person through without valid documents to reunite with their family might be the ‘right’ thing to do, but not if it means you can’t afford to feed your family due to the fine you’ll receive.

The game puts the player in a difficult moral situation. It forces you to make choices that have real consequences further down the line, many of them negative in terms of the outcome for you or your family. In addition to the Story Mode, which I completed in about 8 hours (including a couple of restarts) there’s a customisable ‘Endless’ mode to really test your bureaucratic skills.

But this is a game where the narrative really is an integral part of the experience, interwoven with the gameplay in a clever and compelling way. Overall, Papers, Please was a refreshing, unique and extremely enjoyable experience. What it does, it does pretty much perfectly, hitting every mark and achieving exactly what it sets out to do. Highly recommended.