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Borderlands 2

I want to talk about Borderlands 2, but first, for the sake of not feeling sleazy, I have to offer a disclaimer.

Earlier this year, I interned at Gearbox Software.

It wasn’t a long internship; I was only there for a week. I’d tell you about what things I did or what my experience was like, but I’m legally obligated not to.

I’m telling you this just in case of the possibility that working for Gearbox has made me biased with regard to their game. I don’t really think it has, since I can wholeheartedly say that I’m not looking forward to Aliens: Colonial Marines, that I don’t care even slightly about the Brothers in Arms series, and that the dev team unofficially calling an easy-to-use skill tree in Borderlands 2 “girlfriend mode” is nothing short of disgraceful.

But you’re free to conclude for yourself whether or not I’m “biased,” I suppose.

Anyway, now to talk about Borderlands 2.

Actually, no; first let’s get everyone up to speed. As I’ve said before, Borderlands was a game I both loved and hated. The most novel aspect of the game was easily the gun variety. There were so many guns ranging in varying aesthetic styles, from the old-fashioned Jakobs six-shooters to the sci-fi themed Maliwan elemental blasters to the military-esque Dahl weaponry. And more importantly, all these guns had different attributes that really affected gameplay in meaningful ways.

Gearbox took the old dungeon crawler template of providing a bazillion different weapon drops of varying stats, but instead of the usual “critical hit chance,” “arcane resist,” “dexterity” and whatever other small numbers that mean nothing to me in terms of running around and hitting bad guys with a sword, these weapons affect things like reload speed, weapon capacity, and accuracy. Yes, both of these hunks of metal are shotguns, but while that shotgun deals more damage and reloads more quickly, that shotgun has far more accuracy so you can deal more damage from a distance.

What this means is that different weapons will appeal to different people based on their own individual playstyles. As you’re looting all these guns, you have to look at them not in terms of which has the highest damage per second, but in terms of how you would use it. This made weapon choice feel more important and more interesting than many of the Diablo-style murder-a-thons that Borderlands took inspiration from.

Unfortunately, while constantly looting guns and swapping them out to find the one that was just your style was a blast, the rest of the game felt rather stale. The environments were samey, the interface was messy, it was plagued by a multitude of bugs, and worst of all, the narrative felt like a total afterthought. The plot was so simplistic it was practically nonexistant, and the NPCs never moved or did anything interesting while on screen, so the game never felt like much more than an endless cycle of shooting dudes, looting corpses and trying out guns.

If you got some friends to play with you, the social experience combined with the gun variety made it just enough fun to overlook all that. I played through the game four times, but I never really felt satisfied with it.

Now that I’ve finished Borderlands 2, I can say that I’m still feeling the love, but I no longer feel the hate. Unlike its predecessor, I feel it’s safe to say that Borderlands 2 is unqualifyingly really damn good, even in single player. And I’ll tell you why:

This man is why.

Anthony Burch, the guy behind Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? He’s who they got to handle the writing for Borderlands 2, and he did a brilliant job.

I think the best example of how well he handled the material  is with Claptrap. Like many others, I hated Claptrap in the first Borderlands. They tried to sell him as a cute, helpful little robot friend, but he didn’t fit that role. He was so irritating, noisy and intrusive that he’s become infamous among gamers. Even fans of the game generally found him detestable.

Having said that: I love Claptrap in Borderlands 2. And he wasn’t replaced with a different character who also happened to be named Claptrap, like Shaundi was in Saints Row 3; all they had to change was the way he’s perceived by the rest of the world. In this game, Claptrap isn’t presented as a cute robot friend; he’s treated as the annoying friend that nobody else in the group really wants to deal with. Nobody is outright cruel to him, but they don’t respect him either. They treat him like what he is; a necessary nuisance. He has good intentions, but he’s irritating as hell, and this time, everybody knows it.

He’s still the same character, but this time he’s endearing and funny. He managed to make me genuinely laugh more than once, and he’s not the only character who did so. This is the biggest improvement upon the original: the writing, and more specifically, the characters. The people in this game are varied, charming and funny, and they interact with one another in great, memorable ways. This is because Gearbox went out of their way to get an actual talented writer (Anthony Burch) who knows how to write solid characters for a comedy.

The most memorable character in the game has to be Handsome Jack, the antagonist. He’s a completely caricatured Saturday morning cartoon villain who goes out of his way to tell you that you suck and he’s totally going to kill you. He’s rich, he’s smug, and he wants to rule the world through ruthlessness, imperialism and money. Here’s a few lines of dialogue near the beginning of the game…

Stuff like this is all over the game. It’s great.

What surprised me, though, is that there’s actually a character underneath the humor. Without spoiling anything, he actually does have cares besides money; there actually is a human being underneath the evil. He is an undoubtedly evil character, but he’s fairly three-dimensional. And that goes for a lot of the main cast. The attention to detail with the characters and dialogue is impressive. And I think part of why the main supporting cast members are appealing is because they actually join you in a few missions, which makes them seem far more real than the MMO-style Borderlands 1 NPCs. It makes you feel like they’re actual people who care about what’s happening in the world.

The story is also a lot more involved and a lot more detailed than that of Borderlands 1, though I suppose the bar wasn’t set that high. It isn’t extremely complicated or profound, but it’s certainly competent. Your goal is established effectively at the start — Handsome Jack took control of Pandora using the riches of the Vault from the first game, and you want to stop him from being an evil jerk. The good guys are introduced, and you’re given adequate motivation to want to protect them.

Unlike Borderlands 1, the story has various twists and turns that make the journey more compelling, and unlike Borderlands 1, you actually know what the hell is going on. The first game’s story is so simplistic and yet there was so much left unanswered; most notably, who was that “guardian angel” character, and what was her motivation to help you reach the Vault? Again, without spoiling anything, those questions are thankfully answered in the sequel.

Most of the other problems with Borderlands 1 have also been fixed. The environments are hugely varied; you start off in a snowy, icy region, and throughout the game you travel through grassy plains, swamps, deserts, caves, industrial complexes, and an urban city. This makes progressing through the game much more engaging. There’s also more enemy variety, which makes the combat feel less samey. The weapon proficiency system has now been replaced by a “Badass Rank” system that works entirely differently, so you don’t feel compelled to restrict yourself to one weapon type anymore. The interface has been cleaned up a fair bit, so you won’t have quite as much clicking in the menus.

And to top it off, the PC version doesn’t feel like a sloppy port this time around. A great deal of effort was put into making it feel like an actual, you know, PC game. Matchmaking is integrated through Steam instead of Gamespy, you can skip the stupid splash screens at the start, and it gives you all the options you’d expect. Hell, it lets you adjust your field of view. How many PC games give you that option these days?

When the game first came out I was shocked by how many reviewers called it “Borderlands 1.5” and claimed it just felt like “more Borderlands.” I can only see that attitude applying if you pay absolutely no attention to the narrative, and even then, there’s a great deal of environment variety and enemy variety we didn’t see last time around. Borderlands 2 isn’t Borderlands 1.5; it’s Borderlands 2: The Awesome One. It’s what Borderlands 1 should have been, and I’m glad to see Gearbox learn from their mistakes.

If you really, really disliked Borderlands 1 down to its very core, then I guess you won’t like this one either. Like Borderlands 1, you spend a lot of time gunning down bandits and monsters, looting their corpses and picking which guns to use in the next fight. Like Borderlands 1, the game’s fairly buggy. And like Borderlands 1, the ending is an anticlimactic cliffhanger. (Though it’s considerably better this time because you actually understand what the hell happened.) But if you thought Borderlands 1 was a neat concept with a lot of rough edges like I did, then I think you’re gonna love Borderlands 2, and I’m pretty sure I don’t just think that because my name is in the credits.


XCOM: No Medkits For You

Several days ago, a kind soul who goes by the name of Duneyrr gifted me XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It’s half turn-based strategy, half management sim, and all-around a really good game. I’m impressed by how absorbing and challenging it is while also being very accommodating to newcomers. Maybe someday I’ll sing its praises, but right now I want to talk about a serious problem I have with it, a problem that’s made me rage-quit more than once.

In case you’re wondering: Yes, I did name her Felicia Day. And she ended up being my first Colonel, and my first Psychic. I think the game is trying to tell me something.

In XCOM you get a lot of soldiers. There are four classes (Support, Heavy, Sniper, Assault) and each soldier’s class is determined at random. Each soldier can equip one item for each battle. (Well, except for high-level Support troops who can carry two, but I digress.) “Items” include things like scopes that improve critical hit chance, grenades, protective vests, and importantly, medkits.

When a soldier is shot down in the field, he has a chance to become critically wounded instead of immediately dead. A critically wounded soldier is disabled and in three turns, he will die. In that time you can save him by either eliminating all hostiles and completing the mission, or having another soldier reach him and use a medkit to stabilize him.

So what happens if a character holding a medkit is critically wounded? “Surely,” I hear you wondering, “it would be logical for another soldier to reach her, take her medkit from her disabled body and use it to stabilize her?”

“Well,” I bitterly reply, “I guess Firaxis thought that would be too easy, because instead the answer is that you can’t do anything about it. If you don’t have someone else with a medkit, you’re pretty much fucked.”

“But there’s a logical explanation for this, right?” you inquire.

“Nope.”

The metagame reason for this is because items cannot be exchanged in the middle of battle. A soldier’s item(s) is/are glued to her. From a design standpoint, this makes things a lot simpler to program, and for the most part it’s never a big deal since you always give each soldier the item that best suits her role. (Scope for the sniper, medkit for the support, etc.) But in this particular situation, there’s obviously a very valid reason for why you would want one soldier to take a medkit from another.

You can argue that this is the designers’ way of providing an added challenge for the player. You can say that this forces you to be more careful about who you give the medkits to and how you use your medkit-carrier on the field. (I’d say that there’s already so much challenge for you if you play on the higher difficulties that it doesn’t really need this layered on top, but whatever.) But this is sidestepping the real problem, which is that there’s no explanation for why you can’t do it in the logic of the game world.

If they weren’t being lazy and actually intended for this to be a deliberate feature, they could have acknowledged it somewhere. They could have had an NPC explain that the medkits aren’t handheld objects and are actually attached to the armor of the user. Or something. It’s not that far-fetched, since some of the items clearly are things you can’t easily pick up and give or take, like the protective vests. As it stands, there’s just a black void where the answer should be.

See, this isn’t necessarily a problem with regard to game balance; this is a problem with immersion and cohesion.

Allow me to get off-track for a moment. There’s this show called Tasteful, Understated Nerdrage, where a guy talks about in-depth concepts in video game storytelling and world-building. Here’s my favorite episode:

In the episode he talks about how a multimedia experience like a video game can become something much greater than the sum of its parts when all those parts work together to create a cohesive, effective whole. You see, XCOM isn’t just a turn-based combat sim. The combat is part of something much greater. XCOM creates a big, organic, adaptable story about you trying to save the world from an alien invasion. For the most part, all the different parts of the game (the research, the engineering, the recruiting, the fleet commanding, etc.) all fit effectively as part of this.

The combat is probably the most important piece of the puzzle, since it’s what you spend a huge amount of time interacting in and how you handle the combat greatly affects how well you succeed or how horribly you fail in your overarching mission. And while turn-based combat is obviously not meant to accurately portray how a real combat scenario would look, it symbolizes real combat, and it’s important that the metaphor is consistent with itself.

And in this case, that metaphor falls apart. I can see what the medkit item looks like. It looks like a handheld object. And every soldier knows how to handle medkits; this is a fact established by the game. But for no apparent reason, one soldier can’t take a medkit from another incapacitated soldier. This breaks the illusion of the combat, which breaks the illusion of the game. You might call this a nitpick, but it comes to slap you in the face whenever one or more of your support troops goes down. (And if you play XCOM, you’ll know that this sort of thing happens a lot, whether you want it to or not.)

So, there’s my gripe. An unfortunate flaw in an otherwise (mostly) great game.


Guild Wars 2: Gravelings Broke My Pants

I recently reached level 80 in Guild Wars 2. This marks the first time I’ve ever reached the level cap in an MMO. For the most part, it’s a very finely crafted game that can appeal to many different people. There’s exploration, fast-paced and aesthetically appealing combat, structured PvP, unstructured PvP, piles of interesting lore, and the whole world is beautiful and lovingly stylized. If you play with a few friends, it’s an absolute blast. It can even be a lot of fun if you’re playing as a loner. It’s highly accommodating.

And then there are the dungeons.

This is me hiding under my associate’s robe, in case you were confused.

Ascalonian Catacombs, or AC as it is now known by historians, is the first dungeon in the game. Bear in mind that the rest of the game works very differently from the dungeons. One of the major selling points of Guild Wars 2 is that the quests and events involve fighting alongside other players without actually having to communicate with them. Anybody who deals any meaningful amount of damage to a monster gains experience for its death, and anybody who contributes to an event’s completion in any way gains rewards afterward. It’s a great way to streamline MMO questing and preserve game flow while also making you feel like you’re contributing to something bigger than yourself.

The dungeons, by contrast, are instanced and encourage (i.e. require) you to join or form a party of five before entering. These are the only places in the game that actually emphasize collaboration between players. (Excluding PvP, but fuck PvP.) This means that Ascalonian Catacombs is the first time the player is expected to actually collaborate with other players.

So, exactly as you would expect, the dungeon is gruelingly difficult to the point of frustration and tedium.

Wait, what?

Us staring hopelessly at the battleground where we will die.

Each dungeon has two modes: Story mode and Explorable mode. I’m not sure if ArenaNet understands what the words “story” and “explorable” mean, because Explorable mode doesn’t have any more exploration than Story mode, or any less story. The way it actually works is that you’re supposed to do story mode first; Explorable mode is a more difficult version of the dungeon that continues the story after Story mode. What they should really be called is Part 1 and Part 2, or perhaps Hard Mode and Fuck You Player.

On our first attempt at story mode, we Total Party Wiped on the second room. The room consists of at least three dudes that each have powerful abilities and massive health bars, and there are several traps that can kill you in one or two hits. Any reasonable game designer can tell you that that’s horrible pacing. Difficulty is a complex thing and it’s hard to get it exactly right, but as a basic rule of thumb, you generally want to introduce one extremely lethal game mechanic at a time. Don’t combine these two elements until we’re acquainted with both.

Tell me this isn’t the dumbest looking ghost you’ve ever seen. This asshole is the boss.

The boss encounters are generally exercises in watching for hard-to-spot attacks that kill everyone in the room if you don’t dodge at the right time. Both the final boss of Story mode and one of the mid-dungeon bosses in Explorable mode have an attack that instantly pulls everyone toward him, and then deals a big AoE attack that is absolutely guaranteed to kill you. You can dodge it if you press the dodge button right as he’s telegraphing it, but his telegraph can be hard to spot. Oh, and since this is an online game, input lag is always, always going to be a thing.

And by the way, that’s a problem in general with the combat, not just with those individual bosses. The dodge ability is something every player has, and it’s essentially about a second (or even less than a second) long move that makes you dodge all attacks while in effect. This is one of many examples of the game trying to make itself feel like an action game. And it works, for the most part, unless you’re lagging ever-so-slightly and you just happened to be dodging a split-second before the attack, even though you can clearly see you were dodging when the attack happened.

Don’t get me wrong; as an action fan I’m glad to see an MMO courting action game elements. But when it demands that we use these abilities at just the right time when input lag is hiding in the shadows, it’s a recipe for frustration.

Oh, and then there’s the gravelings.

Can you tell what’s going on? Me neither.

There’s an event in explorable mode that my guildies and I just could not get past. Gravelings are these annoying black lizard things that jump out from big burrows and nibble at your shins. They come in armies, and this event involved breaking down multiple burrows at once, while fighting off the little pricks, and while defending two energy crystals. If the crystals break, the monsters disappear and you have to try again from the beginning.

We tried the event dozens of times. We tried different tactics, we tried forming together at certain intervals, splitting up, turtling, aggressively attacking burrows, basically anything we could fathom. Nothing worked. One of us switched characters to see if the party setup was the problem. We even tried consulting online guides. Nothing worked!

The icing on the cake is that when you die — and you will die — your armor becomes damaged. Armor costs money to repair, and it only becomes damaged from death. What this means is that the game is going out of its way to punish us for failing at its absurd challenges. Why? I’m already being punished by having to start the stupid event over; why do you have to append more punishment on top of that?! If you expect me to try over and over to complete your dungeon, then fair enough, but don’t break my pants and take my money and expect me not to rage quit!

Shamus didn’t feel like going and repairing his armor during the dungeon. I guess he likes feeling the breeze.

I really hate to say this, but playing through the Ascalonian Catacombs gives me the same feeling that fighting the boss fights in Deus Ex: Human Revolution did. They both feel extremely out-of-place with regard to their respective games, and for all the worst reasons. Guild Wars 2 is otherwise a very gentle, accommodating, accessible and inviting game. This dungeon, on the other hand, is overly punitive and aggressively difficult, and it makes no effort to convey its mechanics gradually. It makes me wonder if ArenaNet outsourced it, because that would explain a lot.

I really, really hope they fix these balance and pacing issues in a patch. It’s simply not fair, and it stands out in an otherwise great game.


Torchlight 2 Beta Weekend

Torchlight 2 is having their beta stress test this weekend. No, that is not a joke, though it sure as hell sounds like one.

For those of you unaware, Torchlight 2 is an action RPG in development by Runic Games, a company formed from some of the guys behind Diablo 1 and 2. Torchlight 2 has quickly been set up by its developers and fans as the “anti-Diablo 3,” since it has offline play, modding capabilities, and features stat points and skill trees while Diablo 3 has a radically different skill system.

(Of course, one could argue that Diablo 3 is more true to the Diablo way since Diablo 2’s skill system was radically different from Diablo 1, but that’s a story for another day.)

Anyway, the TL2 v. D3 dichotomy has become the biggest flamewar in the gaming community today, and most of the fans and haters on either side don’t seem to be aware that a lot of people are actually interested in both games.

And it seems Runic isn’t aware of that either, because they’re having their beta weekend immediately follow Diablo 3’s release.

I don’t know what to say.

Actually, I do know what to say: Are you serious, Runic? Deny it all you like, but your game is very similar to Diablo 3, and considering how much of a juggernaut that franchise is, this is practically the equivalent of an independent war shooter having its beta weekend immediately follow the release of Modern Warfare 3. This is a game you do not go up against under any fucking circumstances.

The first Torchlight was essentially Diablo 2 with three characters, one town, and no multiplayer. It was fun, but it got repetitive very quickly. Torchlight 2 looks more promising, but I simply can’t find myself as interested in it as I am about Diablo 3, a game that’s been coming for over a decade. I would have jumped at the opportunity to play the Torchlight 2 beta, but if given the option between that and playing more Diablo, I’ll go with the latter.

(I actually won’t be playing either this weekend, as I’ll be on a canoeing trip, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The bottom line is that the Torchlight and Diablo fanbases are not mutually exclusive, and you can’t simply ignore the release of your direct competitor, especially when it’s Diablo Fucking Three.

The more I hear and read about Torchlight 2, the less it seems like an attempt to make a good game with its own identity, and the more it seems like a love letter to the people who are still bitter about Diablo 3’s DRM. This beta event in particular seems like a middle finger to anyone who wants to play both games. I was planning on buying your game, Runic, but if this is how you’re going to play it, I might hold my money back.

So to anyone who thinks Blizzard has joined the Dark Side and has lost its way, you should probably give Torchlight 2 a look. To everyone else, I recommend Diablo 3. It’s a fantastic game, and I plan to explain why in the next few weeks. And if I fail to deliver on this promise again, I give you full permission to drag me behind the shed and beat me with a stick.


Preablo III

So, Diablo 3 comes out tomorrow, as you all probably know at this point.

Diablo 3 has to be the most controversial subject in gaming right now. It’s arguably one of the most widely anticipated games ever at this point, and yet there’s an overwhelming number of former Diablo fans expressing rage, disappointment and disinterest in the game because of its required Internet connection and real-money auction house. It’s caused any forum thread regarding Diablo to turn into a battlefield of fans vs. ex-fans, one side saying Blizzard is stupid and evil now and the other side saying they’re butthurt over nothing.

Personally, I’m not happy about the required online connection, but I’ve preordered the game regardless and am very much looking forward to it. I don’t like that you have to play on an online server even for single player, but I understand why they’re doing it (anti-piracy, more incentive to buy auction house items, etc.) and I’m confident that it won’t ruin this game for me, especially since I’ll mostly be playing multiplayer with friends anyway.

I played Diablo 1 when I was three years old. It was the first RPG, as well as the first graphically violent game, I ever played. Everyone in my family played it, and we all had fun. Diablo 2 was a rare example of a game that both my brothers and I all played obsessively. My brother Neil, who normally doesn’t particularly care for games, played Diablo 2 for hundreds of hours, getting multiple characters to level 80+ and literally decking them out in the very best items in existence without using cheats.

I’ll admit I felt nostalgia tingling through my spine as I played the Diablo 3 beta during the open weekend. As pitiful as it may sound, this franchise has played a prominent role in my life. Furthermore, I’ve loved every single Blizzard game since Warcraft 2, so it seems unwise for me to skip this latest installment.

If you’re abstaining from D3 because of its always-on DRM, I respect that. It’s your choice, whether you base it on principles or a lack of a reliable connection. Hell, it took me awhile to decide whether I’d be buying the game myself. I wouldn’t dare take the choice away from you.

But you are not a holy crusader battling the forces of evil. You are not a courageous protester standing up against corporate injustice. You’re just a guy (or girl, of course) who’s decided not to buy a game because it doesn’t let you play offline. And that’s fine, so long as you don’t talk about it as if Blizzard is “evil” and anybody who’s buying the game is stupid, wrong, and/or “part of the problem.”

I understand it’s easy to get upset about the fact that its required online connection won’t stop Diablo 3 from selling incredibly well and being loved by critics and gamers. I’m against the always-on DRM template, and I don’t like that it’s being used in a game I’m so interested in. But this won’t become the norm for every game, no matter how well Diablo 3 does. Even if it’s adopted by EA, Activision and Ubisoft (and I doubt all three of them will put it in every game they release) there will still be plenty of other studios who don’t use it. Thanks to Steam, Desura, Kickstarter and so on, there are plenty of avenues for independent developers to release high-quality games with no required connection.

It’s easy to hate anybody who supports Diablo 3, but consider where I stand. Diablo 3 is a game I’ve been looking forward to for years. I played through the beta and enjoyed it thoroughly. I don’t like some of the choices they’ve made regarding it, but my internet connection is generally reliable enough for it not to be a huge problem, and from my perspective it seems like a game that will be worth every dollar I spend. This doesn’t make me “weak-willed;” I’ve done my research, weighed the pros and cons, and concluded that this game is worth purchasing despite its flaws. It’s not ignorant; it’s what you’ve done for literally every game you’ve spent your own money on.

It’s easy to preach about “the principle of the matter” until you realize that if you were truly 100% against the idea of a publisher trying to keep control of its product after it’s been sold, you would have stopped buying games as soon as they added serial keys. The truth is that everybody draws a line at some point, and you shouldn’t hate us for drawing our lines a bit farther down the road than you.

In short, if you don’t buy the game, that’s fine. Just don’t patronize those of us who do.


More on the Mass Effect 3 Ending Dispute

First: I already said this in my last post, but since some people felt the need to explain to me how Mass Effect 3’s ending sucks so badly, I feel the need to reiterate: I wasn’t, nor am I currently, trying to defend Mass Effect 3’s ending. I’m merely pointing out that many, if not most, of these fans involved in the Retake Mass Effect movement are acting immature, disrespectful and downright stupid. (Note that I’m not saying they are stupid — merely that they’re acting like idiots. There is a difference.)

Also, again, nobody post any spoilers in the comments section.

Okay, so I’ve been hearing some people claim they deserve compensation because “Bioware shipped a broken, defective product.”

Holy shit, really?

No, not really. From what I can gather from reading lots of comments while deftly avoiding spoilers, the ending is:

  • non-sequitur
  • illogical
  • stupid
  • unfitting with the themes and tone of the rest of the series
  • lacking any sense of closure or explanation of what just happened

If all those are true, I can absolutely understand why fans are angry and upset with Bioware, but they’re still making utterly baseless accusations. None of those point to a “broken and defective” ending, they merely point to a bad ending.

You can’t get your money back because of a bad ending. If you could, then Peter Molyneux owes a lot of people a lot of money for all three Fable games.

I know what you’ll say next: “Bioware promised us so many things about the endings that they didn’t deliver! They promised us our choices throughout the series would affect the ending and it wouldn’t just be A, B, or C and etc. etc.!”

I have yet to see these promises in any of the advertising or on the back of the box, so I’m pretty sure these were all things Bioware said they were working on during interviews. Here’s the thing, gamers: When a developer “promises” features during interviews, that does not guarantee anything.

And I’m shocked that so many presumably adult gamers haven’t grasped this yet, considering all the times we’ve had developers “promise” all sorts of features and fail to include many of them because of time or budget constraints, or simply because they decided on another idea they thought was better later on. I mean, fuck, have any of these protesters even heard of Peter Molyneux? That guy has based his entire career off of outright lying during interviews, promising the earth and then churning out half-assed products.

One more I’ve been hearing: “Bioware released a game without an ending.”

Is there ever a point when the credits roll? Does the game ever say THE END at any point, or imply that the campaign mode might have stopped? If so, then this is a game with an ending. It might be a bad ending, but it’s still an ending.

I’ve seen multiple articles deconstructing why the ending fails as a work of fiction. I haven’t read them, of course, since I’m avoiding spoilers, but I’ll just assume they’re correct. The ending might fail to provide closure or affirmation, but speaking from a literal standpoint, yes, the game does have an ending. Just a really, really bad one. You don’t get your money back because of that.

Frankly, I’m sick of seeing this. People like me point out how stupid a lot of the “protesters” are acting, and they get countered by people explaining that the ending seriously, totally sucks.

News flash #3: I wasn’t even discussing the ending! I was discussing the backlash!

“Your game fails on a fictional standpoint; therefore it’s a defective piece of software and I deserve reimbursement” is a completely absurd mentality. As a piece of software, Mass Effect 3 functions exactly as advertised. If it fails as a work of fiction, you throw it in a trash bin and move on.

If I published a book with a crappy ending, nobody would be beating my door down demanding that I rewrite the last five pages. That’s just not how it works.


Saints Row 3: What Happened To Shaundi?

Saints Row 3 probably would have been one of my favorite games of 2011, had I played it in 2011. Sadly I didn’t get ahold of it until January 1st. I was a big fan of Saints Row 2, and based on my expectations from that game, Saints 3 did not disappoint. I had to turn the resolution to 720×480 just to make it playable, and even then the framerate chugged whenever things got busy (spoiler: things were busy most of the time) but that’s my laptop’s fault, not the game’s fault. On the whole Saints 3 felt very fresh and fun.

I have a lot of things to say about it, some good and some bad. I guess I’ll start with the first observation I made.

The three major support characters in Saints 2 were Johnny Gat, Pierce and Shaundi. In Saints 3, Gat and Pierce are back on screen in the very first mission. Gat looks largely the same. Pierce is wearing a pretentious rich-guy costume, but he’s still Pierce. But Shaundi never shows up, not in the mission or in the whole game.

So here’s my question: What the hell happened to my favorite character?

The strange thing is that there’s a new girl in the group and everybody refers to her as Shaundi, but she doesn’t look, talk or act anything like Shaundi from Saints 2. I understand that graphical upgrades are going to cause some changes in a character’s overall appearance, but this Shaundi has a different face, a different outfit, a different voice, and a completely different personality.

Saints 2 Shaundi was the archetypal stoner. She was chilled out and laid-back, she rarely ever got upset or tense, she knew all about drugs and where to find and produce them, and to top it all off, she was a complete and total slut. She just didn’t seem to give a shit, and that’s what made her charming.

Saints 3 Shaundi is so different I refuse to accept that it’s the same person. This one is a complete hardass. She’s pushy, she’s violent, she always seems to be angry at somebody, and she doesn’t hesitate for a moment to bark out threats, even threats directed at her friends. Occasionally other characters will make jokes about Shaundi being such a slutty stoner, and there’s the rare case where she’ll allude to some past exploit of hers into the field of drugs and sex, but none of that is ever shown in her actual demeanor or actions. I get that characters can change overtime, but this is a pretty extreme gear shift, and we never even see a hint of the old Shaundi in this new one.

My theory is that at some point between Saints Row 2 and Saints Row 3, Shaundi must have died a horrible death, and since the other three dudes in the team wanted to have a girl in the group to look pretty, they hired some actress to wear a low-cut top and pretend to be Shaundi. And this actress completely misses the point.

Whatever the case may be, I’m not happy about this shift. As I said, Shaundi was my favorite character in Saints 2. She was charming and endearing, and I found her to be the most relatable character, though I’m not sure what that says about me as a person.


Skyrim: Guild Requirements

There’s one major difference between Skyrim and previous Elder Scrolls games that’s been stirring up a lot of controversy. (Note that when I say “controversy” I don’t mean media attention; I mean nerds arguing with one another on forums.)

Bethesda has adopted a mentality that the player should be able to experience all the content on one playthrough without having to worry about min-maxing and stat whoring. We first noticed this in Oblivion, where it was possible to become the leader of every guild (though doing so was a challenge and required some planning in the leveling and stats department).

Now in Skyrim you can basically take command of every guild and complete every questline regardless of your build. The two most notable examples are that you can become Archmage without ever learning more than a few low-level spells, and you can become leader of the Thieves’ Guild without ever having to sneak.

So the big question is, is this a good thing or a bad thing? I’ve heard arguments for both sides. Some people say the fact that any questline is beatable with any build diminishes the point of character building in the first place, and that it breaks immersion when someone who is clearly only a beginner at magic is revered in the Mage’s College as a master of the elements. On the other side, people say that you still have the option not to go into those guilds that don’t make sense for your character, and that withholding content from you because you picked the wrong choice ruins some of the fun.

On one hand I agree that my character should not be Archmage when she’s been spending all her time hiding in shadows and backstabbing, but on the other hand, I think Bethesda’s new philosophy with regards to content is great. The idea that you can’t have access to entire questlines until you reroll a character can be irritating, and I always figured the appeal of differing player builds was having different approaches to the same challenge, not being given different challenges altogether. After all, Deus Ex has a wide variety of play styles, but you go through pretty much the same levels no matter what you do. It’s all about how you play, not what you play.

I read a forum post that I found very convincing on the matter…

I love how I can join every guild and be everything in Skyrim. If I had to remake a character just so I could experience the Mage Guild, I would never have experienced the Mage Guild. Do you know what this encourages? Google searches that ask:

“What class has the best quests in Skyrim?”

There’s a lot of truth to this. If I wasn’t a fan of stealth, I wouldn’t have ever experienced the Thieves’ Guild questline if it required me to be sneaky. It’s supposed to increase playtime by encouraging replays, but instead it decreases playtime by limiting your options. And there’s certainly still replay value, because each play style still feels substantially different.

Then again, it still does break immersion when you can lead the Mage’s College without being a mage. Yes, you can simply refuse to join guilds that wouldn’t make sense for your character, but the fact that the option is still there can break your suspension of disbelief. After all, the reason Bill Gates hasn’t won the Ultimate Fighting Championship isn’t because he’s simply chosen not to; it’s because he can’t.

So here’s my solution, Bethesda. Don’t change your approach to player content. Let everything be open to everyone. Instead, simply take away the guilds that are supposed to be accessible only to certain builds, and replace them with guilds whose defining characteristics don’t involve specific character attributes.

Some of the guilds in Skyrim already work this way. The Bard’s College doesn’t really have anything to do with the skills you unlock in the game, so joining it makes equal sense no matter what build you have. The Dark Brotherhood works, because all you really need to be successful in it is a passion for assassination. Even the Companions sort of work, since despite individual members claiming “we don’t use magic” or “we leave the hiding and backstabbing to the cowards,” ultimately it’s just a group of people who like to fight.

The two problematic guilds are the Thieves’ Guild and the Mage’s College. I’m not sure how to make the Mage’s College work, but the Thieves’ Guilds could absolutely work if it was just tweaked a bit. I mean, they already took away that silly idea from Oblivion of the guild basically being an order of Robin Hoods. Now you’re basically an organization of thugs with ties to an influential corporation. All they’d have to do is ditch the pretense of the guild being sneaky and nonviolent and there you go, any and all are welcome.

With that said, I definitely like Skyrim’s approach more than Oblivion’s and presumably Morrowind’s. If the game isn’t fun enough for me to play through a second time anyway, I’m not going to do so just so I can go through another guild or two that I couldn’t before. And if I do want to do a second playthrough, I’d want to go through all those fun questlines again, not be walled off from them because I picked a different class this time around.


Skyrim: Character Building

So far I’ve logged 48 hours into Skyrim. That’s actually less than most people I know. This game is practically overflowing with content, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It’s a very pleasant surprise, since I wasn’t expecting much out of it to begin with. Skyrim is a vast improvement upon Oblivion in many ways, and I’ll probably be talking about those in the next few weeks.

One thing that intrigued me right away is how you build your character; or rather, how you don’t, at first. Oblivion and Morrowind both use a fairly standard method of character creation; you can level up any skills you want throughout the game, but at the beginning you have to choose which abilities are going to be most prominent in your character. Very similar to the Fallout formula.

This was at its absolute worst in Morrowind and Fallout 1, where you didn’t even get a taste for the gameplay before you had to choose your primaries. This would be like forcing a child to choose his future career before he’s had any schooling. We don’t know what we want to do yet. Sure, I can  make blanket assumptions like “I like stealth, so I’ll probably end up leveling Sneak” or “I’m going to travel a lot, so I guess I’ll go with Outdoorsman” but those depend heavily on the game mechanics.

The only way to figure it out ultimately is to create a character, play enough of the game to figure out what you want to do, and then create another character and make the right choices. That test run ends up being a whole lot of wasted time.

Skyrim takes a different approach. You don’t pick a class, or primary skills, or really anything that affects your character at the start. The only stat-affecting choice you make is in your race, and that really doesn’t affect things as much as you might expect. You do end up specializing, but that happens organically; as you use each skill, that skill levels up.

This system allows players to experiment and see what play style suits them before they start to focus themselves and specialize. I got to try out pretty much every method of combat before I concluded that dual-wielding daggers fit me best. I was planning on specializing in Destruction magic before I started playing, but once I realized that it doesn’t really fit my sneaky ninja playstyle, I pretty much stopped using it. Conversely, I never would have guessed that Restoration would have been my favorite field of magic, but it’s hugely helpful when I’m low on health in dragon fights, so it’s one of my highest skills now.

It’s also important to note that they’ve completely removed ability stats from the equation. There’s no more Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence or any of that jargon. Instead, when you level up, you simply choose whether to increase Magicka, Health or Stamina. That’s a very straightforward and obvious choice, but it still makes you feel like your character is growing and developing.

Ultimately this all forms an experience where you’re never forced to make a decision that might punish you if you pick the “wrong” choice. I’m sure this will upset the old-school CRPG fans who want number-crunching, min-maxing and build planning. So if you’re craving a good spreadsheet, you won’t get much out of Skyrim. But for those of you who don’t want that needless complexity mucking up your immersive experience (i.e. for people like me), Skyrim passes with flying colors.

And that’s the bottom line. Bethesda has identified their target audience and made a game fit just for them. They’re not pussying around and trying to appeal to everyone here. Skyrim’s sales suggest that there’s quite a substantial demographic that wants to explore, kill, loot, level-up, and conquer. Bethesda has observed what contributes to that and what distracts from it, and they’ve cut out the fluff and delivered the goods.

And I applaud them.


Bejeweled 3: Zen

It probably seems very strange that I’m talking about Bejeweled 3 when Skyrim is sitting neatly in my digital library with about a year’s worth of content collecting dust. I think the Steam sale is primarily to blame for this. Bejeweled 3 was just recently on sale for $10, and while I’ve played Bejeweled games once or twice on a phone here and there in the past, I’d never owned Bejeweled before.

I wasn’t a big fan of it when I played it; I figured it was too repetitive and simplistic. But this is PopCap, who made what I still consider to be one of the greatest games ever made, so I figured there must be something to it. I mean, this isn’t just Bejeweled. It’s Bejeweled 3! It’s all shiny and graphicsified!

Well it turns out there is something to it. Multiple things, actually. The classic mode is the repetitive and yet strangely addictive slog we all know and/or love. There’s a time attack mode, which I didn’t like too much. There’s a puzzle challenge mode, with a multitude of varying challenges that require you to think carefully or quickly. I liked those a lot. And then there’s Zen Mode.

Let me tell you about Zen.

Some people say that “casual” games like Bejeweled and Angry Birds aren’t actual games, and that they’re just “time-wasters.” I’d disagree for the most part, but I do think Zen mode probably doesn’t count as a game, because I always figured that for something to be a game, it must pass the following two requirements:

  1. It must have a pre-determined goal of some sort.
  2. It must have the possibility to either pass or fail.

Bejeweled Classic passes this test. Zen mode is like Bejeweled Classic, but it doesn’t have an end, and it’s designed so that you never fail. You can keep going on and on and you’ll never lose or win. It sounds boring, but Zen is a game mode meant entirely to help you unwind. To achieve this they added several features commonly associated with meditation; there’s breath modulation, there’s a list of soft aural tones you can choose from, and you can have positive affirmations appear periodically at the bottom of the screen.

Speaking as someone who has been struggling with depression and self-confidence issues for years now, I find it wonderfully therapeutic to relax and arrange gems while taking deep breaths, listening to the sound of rain falling on leaves and seeing lines such as, “I am strong.” “I can achieve great things.” “People admire me.”

In Bejeweled the game will point an arrow at a gem you can move if you’re stuck for awhile. Normally at that point I’d be frantically searching for the next gem because I’ve looked across the entire board and still can’t find it, but in Zen mode it tends to happen a lot because my brain has slowed down to the point where I’m barely paying attention to the game anymore.

It’s essentially meditation, but with Bejeweled. And I think that’s a really great combination. I can’t see it feasibly working with any other PopCap game, at least the ones I’ve played. Plants vs. Zombies often requires quick thinking and I don’t see how it could be designed to never lose. Peggle involves a lot of sitting around and watching the ball bounce, and it can easily cause frustration when you miss. But Bejeweled is perfect for the role. It keeps you active enough to prevent boredom while not putting any pressure on you whatsoever.

And I think the best part about it is how you can edit everything to your liking. You can control the speed of the breath modulation, the sound of each individual aspect, the type of aural sound and the category of affirmations. Personally I chose to turn down all the regular sounds of the game (the gem explosions and the voice actor yelling “EXCELLENT!” were quite distracting), listen to the soft rain sound and see the “Self Confidence” affirmations. This made the experience work really well for me personally. I’m sure others would choose differently, and they can.

Like I said before, this isn’t really a “game,” or at least not the kind of thing we gamers refer to as games. This isn’t the kind of thing you can (or should) play for hours and hours, but it’s a great way to unwind and relax, and I can see it becoming my nightly routine to play this for a little while before I go to bed.