REVIEW: Mass Effect 3

Well, I guess that’s it, then. After five years, three games, three books (no, I don’t count that other one), seven playthroughs of the previous two games, hundreds of hours, and seemingly endless conversations, debates, and loving recollections between friends and other fans, I’ve finally finished Mass Effect. One of my favorite game franchises of all time and the one that has probably had the most poignant impact on me in regard to how I view video games has finally come to a close, and as with any closing of a beloved fiction franchise the goodbye is bittersweet.
I’ve sunk a lot of time and a lot of love into these games over the years, more than I have any other franchise, be it game, movie, book, or TV show so perhaps one should not approach this review under the assumption that it will be an objective, purely critical affair; Mass Effect means a lot to me and for me to attempt to remove all emotion and vested interest from this writing would be an exercise in futility and I know that. I’m just a fan, and this is just me talking about the closing chapter in a game series that has captured the interest, imagination, and admiration of myself and so many others since 2007.

There has been a ridiculous amount of hype for this game, which is pretty much unavoidable for such a high-profile release. There have been good signs, bad signs, and more than a few ludicrously pervasive marketing stunts, but the hype continued not only unfettered but actually bolstered by the news rolling out. Me? I’d taken a stance of cautious optimism. Mass Effect 2 had more than a few factors that made me approach the next offering in the series with some trepidation, and the train wreck that was Dragon Age 2 only strengthened that stance. I was worried – no, scratch that – I was scared about what would happen to Mass Effect 3 if the trends I’d been seeing develop in BioWare games over the past few years continued. But when launch day came around I sucked it up, popped the lid on my N7 Collector’s Edition, and sat down to see how things would turn out.

I’m really not sure how I managed to pause to take a picture

Ultimately, I liked it.

Don’t get me wrong, there were still a few things that really rubbed me the wrong way about the game and we’ll get into that soon enough, but overall I was pleased with the game that we ended up with. Most of the major issues and plot points that you’ve been dealing with since the first game are wrapped up in a satisfactory manner and if there isn’t at least one moment that reaches you on an emotional level then you either haven’t played a Mass Effect game before or you have no heart. It’s all in all a solid offering: it’s not the best it could be, to be sure, but it’s still quite good.

To begin with, I’m going to cover the more mechanical aspects of the game simply because I’m a firm believer that you play Mass Effect for the story and while things like “how the game controls” are still important especially in a video game medium, I don’t consider them to be the most interesting parts of the franchise and since I like to base most of my reviews on a scale of least interesting to most interesting (or good to bad, if I’m tearing into a game) then we’ll start with the controls.

In the time between the original Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, BioWare put a lot of time into developing and changing the way the combat of Mass Effect worked. In the original, combat was a fairly simple, somewhat clunky numbers-based affair: your means of attack and defense had definite numerical values attached to them, so that when you saw that a certain assault rifle had a damage rating of 276 and another had a damage rating of 312, then you were probably going to pick the latter. This was in keeping with BioWare’s history of pen-and-paper style RPG game design: Dungeons and Dragons veterans are familiar with the simple fun of balancing or optimizing stats for a certain style of play. But in Mass Effect 2, most of this numerical intricacy was thrown out in favor of a more simplified, action-focused play style. Your inventory was downgraded to the point that you only had about three or four weapons to choose from, no numerical data was provided for any of these weapons, and you only had a short list of upgradeable skills to work with. This re-focusing of combat did, however, allow for the developers to create a more focused, fluid combat system that was both more aesthetically pleasing and more responsive to player skill.

Pew pew pew

In the jump from Mass Effect 2 to Mass Effect 3, little has changed: shooting is still largely a cover-based affair and more importance is put on where you place your shots as opposed to what the damage rating assigned to your current weapon is. That being said, BioWare did manage to bring back at least a bit of the old RPG feeling. Your inventory has been upgraded substantially, with each weapon type having at least something in the area of ten different options to choose from. Each of these weapons feels distinct and it probably won’t take you long to find one that complements your play style nicely. Skills have been similarly refined so that approximately half of your skill upgrades branch off in two directions, allowing you to further tailor your build to suit a particular style (damage vs. recharge time, capacity vs. duration, etc.). There’s still not much of an economy, as you can’t really sell items and the minimalistic loot system is built more along distinct upgrade paths so it’s not perfect for us old, outdated RPG dinosaurs but it’s a step up from the second installment, to be sure.

Your movement abilities have also been diversified and most of the changes are quite welcome. Commander Shepard can now vault over low cover without having to first duck into it, which makes moving around a battlefield feel far more fluid. You can also run much faster and for longer periods of time, as well as being able to execute a combat roll in virtually any direction, which is highly useful for diving out of the way of enemy grenades or missiles (and you’ll need to do that a lot). The only real complaints I have are that with so many new abilities (and with only so many buttons on a standard xbox controller) Shepard can sometimes get… confused. I’ve had more than one instance where instead of taking cover behind a wall, Shepard decided instead to dive-roll out into the middle of a shootout and promptly get shot to pieces. It’s also possible to accidentally vault yourself up over the cover you’re hiding behind, effectively putting yourself between said cover and your enemies’ field of fire. Because God only knows my paragon Shepard couldn’t allow that innocent wall to get shot because of him; he would instead use himself as a human shield so that wall could go on living its undoubtedly fulfilling life in the middle of a pseudo-futuristic hallway.

Punching people in the face is also a much more viable option now

There’s also a persistent issue that is, at first glance, a completely understandable design decision but after a while becomes an incredible annoyance. If you take a look at most cover-based third-person shooters, you’ll notice that your character frequently leaves his head sticking just barely above the top of whatever chest-high wall he’s currently hiding behind but his enemies can never seem to line up a decent shot on this inch or so of exposed human skull sticking above a supply crate. Well, Mass Effect 3 apparently thought this was a bit silly so now that ever-so-slightly exposed head is a perfectly viable target for anybody shooting at you. It makes sense that you’d still be able to get shot while leaving part of your body exposed to enemy fire, sure, but it’s intensely irritating when it happens because you have no real control over it; there is no button to make Shepard crouch lower so you’re left with the feeling that you’re getting shot up only because your avatar is too much of an idiot to protect their own dome. This is further exacerbated by the fact that your shields only begin to recharge after you’ve ceased taking fire for a requisite amount of time; if you’re continuously getting shot while behind cover it makes it very difficult for your shields to gain respite long enough to bounce back up to full strength. This isn’t a major issue but in the instances where it does crop up you’re guaranteed to notice it and it can get very frustrating if it happens more than once in a short time.

On the graphical side of things the game has gotten a pretty serious overhaul; while things like weapons, walls, and environmental objects like ground textures and rocks won’t look much different, the update is most noticeable in the character models. Armor and clothing have much more detail and character faces in particular look a touch more realistic than in past games. Somebody also decided to bring back the abundant blue lens flare that seemed to be missing from the second game, and which I actually really loved due to its almost camp sci-fi quality. The only time the enhanced graphics of the game are an actual detriment is when it comes to lip sync. I’m not sure if there was just less attention paid to it this time around or if the new faces simply draw more attention to it but lip syncing in this game is seriously bad at times. There are moments where it looks like somebody just hastily moved the character’s jaw up and down to give a doll-like illusion of talking while refined human speech flows out of your speakers that has no business emanating from a mouth that moves like that. It’s not always as obvious as I make it sound and it’s fairly easy to overlook after a while but it can be downright eerie when first encountered.

They look nice here, but their lips move like anime characters’

Now, all this is fine and good and makes playing the combat sections of the game just as fun as ever. Only, I would contend that the shooty bits of Mass Effect are entirely secondary to the plot and characters. Mass Effect isn’t something you get into because you can play a space marine; it’s something you get into because you can experience a story, a cast of characters, and a rich galaxy. Talking to people in between combat encounters isn’t adding plot padding to the game, that is the game.

Plot-wise, things are much more focused in Mass Effect 3than they were in the previous game. Of course, that’s not exactly saying too much in itself simply because you spent all of Mass Effect 2 being railroaded around by an organization everybody hated while they made you dance around the galaxy chasing a threat that left the main antagonists of the series sitting in the background. It was a sloppy, directionless mess that was only held up by its fantastic cast of well-written characters and some continuing plot points established in the original Mass Effect. By the time we’ve reached Mass Effect 3, the threat that has been talked about throughout the first two games has finally been realized: the Reapers have reached our galaxy.

See why you shouldn’t have “dismissed” my claims?

As such, the plot of Mass Effect 3 is much more immediate, much more dire, and much more focused than Mass Effect 2 or arguably even the original Mass Effect were. Your goal is very clear: you have to find some way to stop this seemingly unstoppable race of technologically superior machines before time runs out, and time is running out quickly. Your only hope lies in uniting the various races of the galaxy into one coherent force and working together to stop the Reapers. As such, virtually everything you do in the game is tightly focused around this one end goal. Main plot points, side quests, and even item gathering are all dedicated to gaining war assets for the coming confrontation for the fate of the galaxy.

Even the newly-introduced multiplayer aspect of the franchise revolves around the central idea of preparing for war. As you go through the single-player game, you can opt to do a number of side quests that involve flying down to a planet, accruing some critical resources, and flying back up. Your commanding officer then informs you that he’ll be sending in a special forces team to secure the area after you leave. In the multiplayer segment, you are that special forces team. Choosing from a list of various races and classes, you and three other players form a four-man team to go down to the planet and secure it, battling through ten waves of increasingly-powerful enemies while performing other time-critical tasks at the same time. All of this can then increase your “galactic readiness” rating in the single player game, which is essentially a multiplier that ranges from .50 to 1 and influences your final readiness rating going into the final battle. It is not necessary to play multiplayer to get the optimum level of readiness in single player, it just makes it easier to do so. It’s a fun enough multiplayer offering, but I can’t see it staying fresh for very long even with the fairly extensive level up paths for your character. I can’t help but wonder how this will influence the game when people want to buff their readiness rating up to 100% and yet nobody is online to play with anymore.  I was wary about the inclusion of multiplayer at first, and still think it’s an unnecessary addition, but it is an interesting way to provide cohesion between multiplayer content and single player story without making one encroach on the other.

Team up and fight evil with xX P1mpD4ddy420 Xx

While this all makes for a more focused game, which is good, it does sometimes leave a little something to be desired. Sometimes the side quests you do, while still helpful to the war effort, seem like they could have been done by somebody else. I mean, it’s great that we’ve got those extra funds coming in from wherever but isn’t that a job that should be done by somebody else? Somebody who’s not busy rallying the military forces of the entire galaxy under one banner? This is a minor point of questionable utility that in some ways is common to a lot of RPGs (wait, you want me to collect a few wild plants for you? You do know there’s a giant demon-dragon tearing up a town like, three miles that way, right?), but because of the immediacy of the Reaper threat in this game it all seems a bit more out of place than normal.

Similarly, because these side quests are trimmed down to better relate to the main plot, there are certain elements that are lost to the necessity of the situation. Namely, there really isn’t a sense of exploration anymore. Mass Effect was conceived as a reconstruction of the space opera. There was a joy in exploring the galaxy and interacting with peoples and planets that we haven’t really seen much of in recent years, not since things like Star Trek and Stargate tapered off. The wonder of exploring a massive galaxy is mostly gone in Mass Effect 3, but in some ways that is to be expected; we’ve already had two games to explore and the time for whimsical planet-hopping is long since passed with genocidal spaceships bearing down on civilization. This makes sense for the narrative and I don’t really hold it against the game; as I mentioned in the beginning of this review, this is just something that part of me misses because I feel like it is an inextricable part of what Mass Effect is.

To seek out new life and new civilizations… 

What I may hold against the game, however, is the way in which characters are not as deeply developed as they were in the past two games. Mass Effect 2, through its various loyalty missions, established a large, deep cast of characters that are not soon to be forgotten by anyone. The original Mass Effect was able to do the same thing while relying almost solely on conversations with the characters on board the Normandy. Everybody had opinions, hopes, and convictions that helped establish them as truly memorable characters. In Mass Effect 3, most of this has been forsaken again due to the immediacy and all-important nature of the Reaper attack. Now, most of the conversations you have with your squad are simplified so that most of them only really re-affirm their dedication to the mission in various ways. Sure, there are still a few instances where characters can express more personal distinguishing ideas, but they are much fewer and farther between than they were in past installments. One of the characters, Ashley Williams, has actually been stripped of much of the character she had in previous games. In Mass Effect 3, we never hear her voice any concern over having to work with different alien governments, whom she was distrustful of in Mass Effect. We only briefly hear her talk about her family, which was so important to her previously, and she never once brings up her belief in God, something that seems like it would be incredibly related given the fact that everyone in the galaxy is facing extinction. I can’t decide if all of this is simply due again to the nature of the mission, if the developers didn’t want to give too much dialogue to a character that could have died in the first game, or if they simply caved into fan displeasure over her character from Mass Effect and took away all the elements people objected to, leaving her with hardly any defining traits at all. This is again a personal problem and is undoubtedly influenced by the fact that Ash is one of my favorite characters in video games, but it still stings to see a character diluted so much here at the end.

But the NPCs aren’t the only ones who have seen their ability to express themselves cut down a bit. Shepard himself has suffered a similar fate. Admittedly, a lot of the dialogue in Mass Effect and even more in Mass Effect 2 failed to give Shepard much characterization. But here in Mass Effect 3, things have gotten a bit out of hand. You’ll notice right away that Shepard starts talking a lot without player input. I can’t tell if it came down to time constraints when recording dialogue or if it was a conscious decision to direct you towards specific plot points, but it gets very hard to ignore as time goes on. In previous games many people expressed annoyance that the brief descriptions on the dialogue wheel resulted in them saying things they didn’t agree with (i.e. “I don’t work for Cerberus” becomes “I’m only working with Cerberus because…”). In this game, that annoyance is taken to the next extreme as players often aren’t even asked what they want Shepard to say. A good chunk of Shepard’s dialogue is instead recited automatically without the player inputting their choice first. In an RPG where players have spent two games shaping their character, this feels like a slap in the face at times. It gets worse when you notice that even when you are given the option to choose your response, virtually every dialogue choice is a binary one. In the previous games you had at least three ways to respond, giving you a subtle way to shape Shepard’s reactions on a smaller scale outside of the “big choices” of the game. Here, you can’t do that. My straight-to-the-point, die-hard Marine Commander Shepard, for example, was forced into choosing either the “nice guy” or “jerk guy” responses in every conversation: there is no middle of the road option. For somebody like me, who really values the roleplaying aspect of Mass Effect, this just downright sucked. If the rest of the game wasn’t so good, I might have considered this a deal-breaker. But there’s still enough opportunity for player choice and characterization to save at least a little bit of the RPG that still survives in Mass Effect, if only barely.

Remove every option except “Paragon” and “Renegade” and you have the
ME3 dialogue system

Luckily, a lot of the other aspects of choice in Mass Effect remain intact. There’s not a whole lot of new choices to make that are original to this game alone, but rather most of the major divergences come from the decisions you’ve made in previous games. This is the benefit of importing a save all the way from the beginning: you get to see a lot of the choices you’ve made come to fruition. The resolution of the Krogan Genophage and the Quarian/Geth conflict are so ridiculously rewarding to finally see carried through to their ultimate conclusions (that’s not a spoiler, you knew you were going to address those again) that I really can’t even put it into words. These events are something that will mean different things to different people based on how they approached these issues previously and what opinions they formed through those interactions. My thoughts on the Geth and how I subsequently choose to deal with them will differ from someone who had different interactions with them. This variation is fun, and while I haven’t done multiple playthroughs yet, I most certainly will in the future and I look forward to seeing how a differently-structured character can approach each problem. This is what defines Mass Effect for me, and it’s completely awesome.

The only time this falls apart is sadly enough the conclusion to the game itself. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything here because I recognize not all of you have finished or even bought the game yet. I may address all of my various points of consternation with it in another post because there really is a lot to talk about, but the short version is that after five years and three games, the ending is a colossal disappointment. If you’re anything like me, then you’re going to end up setting the controller down at the end of the day feeling largely unfulfilled and upset that this is the way your 100 hours or so finally pays off. It just doesn’t fit within the major themes and previously established tone of the Mass Effect universe, and you’re left with something ridiculously out of left field and borderline insulting to the player. Really, there are only two possible options here: either they ran out of time and had not yet established an ending for their blockbuster trilogy (which makes them stupid) or they legitimately thought this was the best way to end their blockbuster trilogy (which makes them really stupid). It should also be noted that I’m saying this after having built up my resources for the final battle to a point that ensured I got the so-called “best” ending. Like hell.

Epic-looking, but what follows is worse than the Ewok party at the end of
Return of the Jedi

Ultimately though I’m still pleased with Mass Effect 3. The story is focused and largely well-written, especially when compared to Mass Effect 2, and it ties a bow on top of the series as a whole, no matter how haphazard that bow might be in some places. Taking a character that you’ve created and seeing their story and the story of those around them come to fruition is something that we haven’t really seen before in a video game, at least not to the extent that BioWare has done here. I won’t say that this game has completely restored my faith in BioWare, they’re still on my watch list due to some of the crap they’ve pulled in recent years and to the people they’ve been losing. But when I look back on my time with Mass Effect 3 I find that I still really liked the game. Despite the flaws, despite the grievances, despite the outright terrible ending to the franchise as a whole, everything else still makes it stick in my mind as something good. The game made me smile, the game came damn close to making me cry, and most importantly the game made me care. Anything that reaches you on that level is something special, and I’m pleased to say that Mass Effect 3 fits the bill.

REVIEW: Battlefield 3

Battlefield 3 falls somewhat in uncharted territory for me. I am for the most part a single-player gamer. My only real exposure to multiplayer comes from co-op ventures from games like Left 4 Dead and a very brief stint with Call of Duty 4 that did nothing to alter my opinion of online gaming save perhaps drive me further from it. So Battlefield 3 was a bit of a gamble. I had never owned a Battlefield game before this and had no intense nostalgia for the revitalized jet combat and ridiculously massive maps that all the longtime Battlefield fans seemed to long for. But I had a few friends who prompted me to give it a shot and next thing I knew I had a copy showing up at my door. And in spite of my previous disdain for the online gaming realm and my trepidation about subjecting myself again to a fast-paced bullet-ridden realm of suffering, I ended up really liking the game.

But before we can delve into why Battlefield 3 won me over,we need to get some of the boring stuff out of the way, and in this instance the “boring stuff” is the campaign. You’ll notice right away that the major selling point for Battlefield 3 is not its single player campaign, as it comes on disk two of a two-disc package, with the first being reserved for multiplayer and co-op. The game’s story is told via a series of cutscenes, in which the main player character Staff Sergeant Blackburn is interrogated by… I dunno, some shady government official types. It’s all very Tom Clancy, only without the diehard attention to minute detail. The main plot involves a threat from a fictional terrorist organization operating in the Middle East with plans to bring a nuclear attack to bear against the United States and several other NATO countries.

These guys never learn

While the plot is standard fare for modern military shooters, the scenes through which it unfolds are decidedly more interesting than the overarching narrative they tie together. It’s fairly clear that DICE attempted to take a page out of Infinity Ward’s playbook when they set about developing the campaign; the almost trademark Call of Duty approach to singleplayer is patently obvious to anyone familiar with it. The campaign is incredibly short, often arbitrarily linear, and jam-packed with dramatic,over-the-top setpiece events. While it’s no secret that Battlefield is competing directly with Modern Warfare 3 for success, it seems that nobody told DICE that “competing” doesn’t mean the same thing as “do the same thing as your opponent and hope you win”.

That said, there are a number of areas where despite its emulative approach, Battlefield 3 actually does surpass Call of Duty in terms of impressiveness. This upper hand, however, doesn’t come from taking a Michael Bay approach and just making everything bigger and more explosive; rather, it comes from subtlety. For the first few minutes of one of the earliest missions all you’re doing is sitting in the back of an armored personnel carrier listening to Johnny Cash over the radio and your support gunner bitching about your orders. You then exit out onto a market street in Tehran, with AH-6 Little Bird helicopters buzzing overhead and other soldiers questioning the locals.You walk down a side street, talk with a superior officer, and then cautiously make your way through empty back alleys while you search for a missing patrol. For at least a moment, before the bullets start flying, you get a sense of what it must feel like to be a member of an occupation force in a foreign country.The memorable parts of this early mission don’t come from sudden, violent firefights but rather from tense, nerve-wracking segments where you’re trying to assist a Humvee crew that was hit by an IED while civilians (whom for all you know could be insurgents) look on from a gathering crowd. It’s like something out of The Hurt Locker.

All of these people may want to kill you.
Just stay calm…

But if people are going to remember anything about the campaign of Battlefield 3 it will without a doubt be “Going Hunting”: a mission in which you serve as the Weapon Systems Officer on an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Take special note of that: you’re the WSO, not the pilot. During the mission your job is to maintain situational awareness and manage missiles and countermeasures during dogfights. It is genuinely tense to frantically swivel your head around inside the cockpit, trying to keep visual contact with enemy aircraft while your pilot tries to evade and maneuver into a suitable attack position. Top Gun is one of my favorite movies, so being able to effectively play a whole mission where I step into the role of Nick “Goose” Bradshaw was a dream come true. I was literally shouting at my wingman to break left or right whenever it looked like an enemy fighter came to bear on him, nevermind my own frantic curses when the tone of an enemy radar lock sounded in my ears. But there were few things as satisfying as getting a missile lock of your own and bringing down a bandit in an enormous fireball. Try to resist saying “Splash one” when you do. Go on, I dare you.

The rest of the campaign, however, is not nearly as exhilarating. There’s a sniper mission that isn’t as good as “Ghillies in the Mist” and a tank mission that comes close to emulating the old Call of Duty 2 North Africa tank mission but ultimately falls short, and the rest is your typical first-person shooter fare. The guns do feel distinct and responsive, to be sure, and Battlefield 3 finally got rid of the absurdly long reload animation that plagued the Bad Company games. But really it’s just lather, rinse, repeat putting bullets in bad dudes for a few hours and you’re done. It’s boring, but at least it’s not infuriating like Call of Duty’s “infinite enemy respawn points” crap.

You’ve played most of this before, we know, calm down

Of course, you don’t buy a Battlefield game for the campaign. Multiplayer has always been the selling point for this franchise and that is certainly still true with Battlefield 3. As we mentioned earlier, I’ve never been a fan of online shooters, and this is primarily because of one factor: I can’t twitch. I just don’t have a fast enough response time to succeed in most online games. Most of the time I’ll end up dead because some kid who’s hyped up on mountain dew manages to freakishly spin around and put a dozen rounds into my head before I even knew there was somebody there to shoot. In a team-deathmatch based online community, there isn’t really a place for a player like me. Or rather, there is, but it’s waaaaay at the bottom of the score charts.

Battlefield 3 alleviates some of this pain by heavily incorporating into the scoring system something that most other first-person shooters are missing: tactics. Not the kind of “tactics” where you manage to figure out the most broken hiding spot on the map so that almost nobody sees you and you can take potshots at everybody without a care in the world, but actual tactics that require teamwork and appropriate tools for a given job. Taking certain key points in a game of conquest, for example, is significantly easier with the help of a tank (and a dedicated engineer to keep the tank in working condition). Sniper cover is actually useful for holding and securing points instead of just a way for people to hide and work on their kill/death ratio. Medics are invaluable in keeping your team on their feet for as long as possible before having to burn a respawn. And air units provide close air support and rapid transport for infantry. Every piece of the puzzle needs to work together in order to form an effective fighting force and when your team works harmoniously the results can be fantastic. This I can do.


All of this is only amplified when you play the game with friends. The game allows you to join up with a squad automatically at the start of a game or to manually set up your own. My current setup has me joining up with two additional friends, each of us playing a complementary class (engineer, medic, support gunner) while coordinating actions through Skype as an alternative to Xbox Live’s functional but less-than-ideal voice chat function. It’s nothing short of fantastic to have our light machine gunner lay down suppressive fire as our engineer pops out of cover to fire a rocket at a tank and I dash out into the open to revive a fallen player with a defibrillator.You don’t get this kind of cooperative effort in something like Halo.

All of this is bolstered by stunning visuals and what is probably the best sound design that has ever appeared in a game. Lighting is of particular note in the graphical department, as shadows shift and move as wind blows the trees that cast them, and dust particles dance in beams of light that filter through half-open windows. Moving between interior and exterior environments will result in your vision taking a moment to adjust to the new lighting conditions, but not in a staged Fallout 3 kind of way: this is a constant, dynamic effect. Every time you walk outside your vision will flare slightly for a moment and then normalize. It’s done subtly, too, so it’s not a big attention-grabbing “Look what we can do with light effects!” moment but rather a seamless part of the presentation. And in regards to sound… well, I can’t do it justice. Everything just works. M2 Browning machine guns clank and cough their way through their ammo belts, gunshots at a distance actually pop like they’re supposed to instead of sounding like canon fire, and even the voice acting is authentic. This may be the only time you’ll ever hear me defend widespread profanity in a game. These are US Marines in combat situations and when a .50 caliber slug rips through a wall in front of you I think an “OH, F*CK!” is actually warranted.

Yeah. It’s pretty.

But there are problems with the multiplayer, as well. Or, more accurately, there are widespread issues with the game that affect multiplayer along with the main game. First of all, while the game does indeed look beautiful most of the time, it does occasionally suffer from a few graphical hiccups. Object clipping and screen tearing is not uncommon, and it can get very distracting to see half of a soldier lying on the ground when his body falls between two separate frames that end up in the same screen draw. Framerate issues are also widespread, and certain areas of the game can slow to the approximate speed of a powerpoint presentation. Of course, this will only ever happen when there’s alot of stuff going on around you so you’re almost guaranteed to end up dead a few times during these dips when an enemy soldier seemingly teleports behind you because the game was unable to display his movement path while your framerate stuttered like Jimmy Stewart.

Finally, I need to address an issue that has been remedied at least for the most part by now, but is still a point of consternation for myself and many others. A little over a month ago, DICE and EA released an open beta for Battlefield 3. While I enjoyed it well enough, it undeniably had a stink about it. For starters, the beta build was apparently something like seven months old at the time. Not only was it positively rife with strange glitches that allowed prone enemies to lapse into a “corpse” pose and gave shotgun blasts the knockback power of a decent-sized bus, but it featured only one level which was painfully linear and displayed no vehicular combat, which is a major selling point for the Battlefield franchise. Needless to say, this made a few longtime Battlefield fans… irate. There were the typical cries of “Battlefield is dead” and “I will not buy this game” from the kind of so-called “fans” the video game industry seems to have fostered somehow in recent years, though if recent sales figures are any indication I think it’s safe to assume that most of these kids gave in and bought the game anyway.

I have no qualms about shooting this

So by releasing an old, unsatisfactory build the beta arguably failed in one of the key reasons for releasing a beta: to build marketing hype. People talked about the beta, to be sure, but it wasn’t generally positive talk. So that leaves the other major factor that a beta is meant to address: user data. DICE/EA claimed that they were aware that the build was outdated and that the beta’s purpose was principally to get an indication of how many people would be playing the game so they could adequately prepare their servers. Well, given my experience with the game over the first few days, I’d say they screwed that up pretty good, too.

On launch day, there should have been more than enough data indicating what the server-side people would have to do in order to be ready. But by approximately three o’clock that afternoon the servers suffered a complete shutdown. Nobody could play. The day after, servers were back up but doing a dismal job at actually managing the flow of player traffic. About three out of every four games I attempted to connect to lost connection to the server before I could join play. And in about half of the games I did successfully join, my friends were booted back to the main menu, caught in an eternal loading screen, or plagued with a complete console lock-up. It was about 15 minutes before we successfully got all three of us into a game together (and on the same team, thanks to the auto-balancing feature that often seems to split up people in the same party).

Pictured: Battlefield 3 server room

I’ll admit that I expected server troubles on the first day, but that doesn’t make it excusable. This same problem plagued the last two Battlefield launches as well, and Electronic Arts had the data that should have given them ample information to prepare. Yet the whole launch ground to an absolute halt anyway. This is, to quote a friend, “pretty f***ing bull****, man”. Even now, with the bulk of the problem mostly resolved, I still experience far too many “failed to connect to server” messages when trying to jump in for a quick round or two. If I were writing this review on the day the game actually launched, then I would not have been able to recommend it at all because it simply didn’t work. On day one, it was an unplayable mess. Now it works again, and it’s a blast, but don’t think we’ve forgotten how much you screwed up here, EA. This is just bad business.

All in all Battlefield 3 is a very polarizing game for me. It showed me that I could have fun with online games, and even be good at them. I’ve already sunk quite a few hours into the multiplayer and will likely keep coming back to it for a long, long time. But it’s also an exercise in frustration when it comes to actually joining any of those games and trying to keep your squad together. Additional bugs and glitches can further impede your game and there are always plenty of jerks who are all too eager to run down their own teammates with an Abrams tank. If you were looking for a single phrase to define Battlefield 3 then it would be this: Fun but flawed. Luckily for us, the fun is generally enough to outweigh the flaws and can even keep you coming back for more. With luck, this should hold me over until the next game on my list comes a-callin’.

In February.

I need to find more stuff to write about.

REVIEW: Batman: Arkham City

It’s been over 72 years since the world got its first exposure to the Caped Crusader, and in that time he’s covered a lot of ground. With a veritable mountain of comic book appearances, movies, and merchandise, Bruce Wayne has been around the block a few times. But no matter how many times he eradicates the criminal presence from said block it seems that some new crisis crops up to keep old Bats in the game. And while some of his exploits have been… less than impressive, a previously unknown game studio in London got their hands on him and in 2009 gave us what had up until now been the single greatest Batman game ever produced.

Two years later and Rocksteady Studios is back with Arkham City, the much-anticipated sequel to Arkham Asylum and a pretty good example of how to take your previous work and expand on it in order to effectively one-up yourself. Arkham City takes the same winning formula that made Asylum so enjoyable and cranked it all the way up to eleven. It’s not just more of the same; it’s a real expansion of what we saw before and takes nearly as big of a step forward as Nolan did when he went from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight.

Come a long way, haven’t you, Bats?

The game’s story takes place approximately one year after the events of Arkham Asylum. Warden Quincy Sharp has somehow talked the Gotham city council into cordoning off a sizeable portion of the city for use as a prison. Imagine Escape from New York, only replace Kurt Russell with Batman. Warden Sharp has relinquished principle control over the new prison facility to Hugo Strange, a villain who tends to be largely under-utilized within the Batman world despite his rather unique traits. At the outset of the game, Bruce Wayne is captured by Strange while giving a speech denouncing the new prison and is subsequently thrown in amongst the criminal population who are waging a massive gang war under the leadership of figures such as Two-Face, The Penguin, and everybody’s favorite clown The Joker. From there, you’ll don the cowl and go about trying to find out what exactly is going on in Arkham City and what you can do to stop it.

One of the first things you’ll notice when you boot up the game for the first time is that somebody did a serious overhaul of the graphics. While the game was no real slouch in the visuals department the first time around, things have been seriously beefed up for the sequel. Facial animation in particular is significantly more expressive, even managing to give the almost incessantly brooding Dark Knight a bit of extra emotion now and again. And once the camera pulls away from the close up shots you realize that movement and combat animations have been similarly improved. While engaging crowds of mooks in a fistfight, you’ll notice that Batman has a distinct animation for nearly every punch, every kick, every block, and every toss of a batarang from virtually every approachable angle. You’ll hardly ever see awkward repositioning of enemies as the game forces them into appropriate markers so Batman can carry out his attacks. The Freeflow combat system is back with a vengeance and it’s almost impossible to get tired of the simple joys of beating down the criminals of Gotham.

This isn’t even remotely a fair fight; he’s Batman.

What you’ll notice next is one of the defining differences between the Arkham games: Arkham City is big. It might not be the size of Liberty City, New Austin, or Florence, but when compared to the single prison complex of the Asylum that you were confined to last time, there’s a lot more ground to cover. The city is entirely enclosed either by high walls or the Gotham Bay, giving you a clearly defined play area to traverse, which you can do with remarkable simplicity using a combination of your grapnel gun and your cape to launch yourself into the air and then glide above the city like… well, like a bat. Unique districts and neighborhoods divide the city into a number of smaller areas that each have their own aesthetic and points of interest but can all be transitioned between fluidly with no loading times. Everything is placed in a way to make the city feel immense, but given expeditious use of your gliding capabilities you can still get from one end to the other in about three minutes.

This new installment in the Arkham franchise also introduces something that the previous game had virtually nothing of: sidequests. Legitimate, RPG-style sidequests. While some might question the utility of carrying out a tangential mission while Hugo Strange vies for a near dictatorial grip over Gotham, these additions to the main story are a welcome chance to immerse yourself in the Batman lore. Whether you’re investigating a sniper attack by Deadshot or frantically trying to track down Victor Zsasz before he kills again, these departures from your principle objective are not only fun, but are legitimately fascinating as you’re thrust deeper into Batman’s world. This applies doubly so to the Catwoman subplot which has you control Selena Kyle as she tries to make her way in Arkham. This isn’t just some tacked-on character skin that you can throw on for a few minutes of fun, Catwoman is a fully realized playable character with her own distinct combat animations and situational dialogue. Not only is it a an excellent companion to the main game that enriches the overall experience, but it’s a good use of free day-one DLC to help combat used game sales a-la Project Ten Dollar.

Not in the faces!

Additionally, if you played the first game then you’ll recall the Riddler Challenges that tormented you every time you entered a room in which you hadn’t solved the riddle, or every time you consulted the map with that one lingering question mark still hovering over it, letting you know that you weren’t done with the game yet, dear player. Oh no, there was still much to do. Well, Edward Nigma is back and he’s seen fit to nearly double the amount of challenges this time around, bringing the grand total up to a staggering 440 riddles, trophies, and challenges that need to be solved, discovered, and/or beaten. I’m not going to lie to you and say that it’s a piece of cake, but I will say that I am not a gamer that obsesses over collection quests. I don’t like them much and I’m just downright not very good at them. That said, I still managed to complete every last challenge the Riddler threw at me. Why? It’s because unlike most collection quests where you just stumble around Liberty City for hours on end looking for pigeons with nothing to show for it at the end except a few gamerpoints, the Riddler challenges actually give you a tangible end goal to work towards. You’re not just looking for a few trophies just to say you found them, you’re tracking these things down so that you can gain clues that will eventually lead you to the Riddler so you can take him down and stop him from putting innocent lives in danger. This is what other collection quests are missing, and it makes the whole experience not just palatable, but actually memorable and enjoyable.

Remember when Jim Carrey was the Riddler?
Yeah, I try not to, either. 

But at the end of the day what makes Arkham City such a fantastic game can be traced back to one simple idea: Rocksteady Studios just gets it. It would be impossible to make a game like this unless you were truly a fan of the material. Every bit of the game absolutely exudes the feeling that you are the Dark Knight and you are living in his world. The magnificent voicework by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill really draws you into this comic book come to life as you immerse yourself in a game that is so laden with Batman fanfare that you could spend hours marveling at the attention to detail present here, and believe me, I have. This is perhaps one of the most striking examples of why you should love what you do: because when you have genuine passion for the things you make then you have the ability to make something wonderful. And that’s really what Arkham City is: something wonderful.

REVIEW: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Wait, it’s been how long since I updated? What the hell have I been doing? Well, I guess I’d better get on it and post something about Deus Ex then, huh?

First off, I’d like to bring something out into the open that may tarnish (or further tarnish) my reputation: I still haven’t beat the original Deus Ex. I have it, it’s been installed on Steam for a while now, and I’ve gotten through the first couple missions about to make my way into Hong Kong (which as I understand is possibly the best part), but I haven’t actually beaten it yet. I took a stab at it in an attempt to prepare for Human Revolution, but launch day came too soon and I couldn’t hold back from popping in the disk and launching into the new before I had completed the old. I hereby extend my formal apologies and vow to complete the original soon enough, but in the meantime bear with this poor soul with only an initial grasp of the source material for this game.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the long-awaited third entry in the Deus Ex series of games that started back in 2000 with the original Deus Ex from the now-defunct Ion Storm Entertainment. It was followed by Deus Ex: Invisible War, which I have also never played; which is apparently for the better if you listen to most fans. So coming 11 years after what has been described by many as the best PC game in history, Human Revolution has a lot to live up to. And while I’m perhaps not supremely qualified to make that particular judgment just yet, I can say with absolute certainty that this game is truly great of its own accord.

Human Revolution serves as a prequel taking place in the year 2027, approximately 25 years before the events of the original, which gives you a bit of technological dissonance, since everything seems to look significantly better and more advanced in the past than it does in the future. That’s what a decade of graphical improvements do for you, I suppose. You’ll see a lot of interesting technology just within the first few minutes as you get acquainted with the world through a Half-Life style scripted walk through a scientific research laboratory in Detroit, a city which has undergone a bit of a resurgence in industry after the so far (mostly) fictional collapse of the US automotive industry but is still… well, Detroit.

You play as Adam Jensen, the head of security for Sarif Industries, one of the world leaders in human augmentation technology. While you have control over some of Jensen’s dialogue that allows you to shape some of his more specific opinions and actions based on your own judgments, all of Jensen’s mannerisms and dialogue that are outside of your control still hit all the right notes. Jensen himself serves as a near perfect embodiment of the central issues of the plot (that we’ll get into in a minute) and gives the player a personal connection to those issues. His voice actor can sometimes come a little close to Solid Snake gruffness, but it never gets too ridiculous or too distracting. More importantly, the voice acting isn’t so damned flat like it was in Deus Ex. A great game it may be, but voice acting in those days wasn’t exactly held up to the same standards it is today. This much improved presentation quite frankly makes Jensen a much more likable character than JC Denton, who not only had a stiff voice actor but was just stiff in general. Some of the stuff that happened to that guy and he doesn’t even bat an eyelash? Sorry, JC, but Jensen has my vote as the better protagonist.

After you’ve been introduced to Mr. Jensen and take your initial tour of the facility, the story kicks into gear. The lab gets attacked, some stuff and some people get broken, and you get beaten to the brink of death and left in the wreckage. To save your life, you are extensively augmented with advanced prosthetics that end up replacing your arms, legs, most of your chest, and even your eyes. Of course, you were kinda busy dying to have much of a say in this procedure so it’s all done without your express permission or input. Your views on human augmentation suddenly become a lot more potent and for many people a lot more polarized after this. After a six month time gap in which you’re busy recovering and adapting to the fact that your body is now something like 75% machine, you go back to work for Sarif Industries and what follows is a tale of corporate espionage, crime, and conspiracy that will take you from Detroit to Shanghai and other cities and locales in between. The story is on the whole well-written and engaging, but I simply can’t talk about too much of it here because it’d spoil major plot points.

Of course, if you wanted a techno thriller you’d just rewatch Blade Runner. This is Deus Ex, and the gameplay is just as important as the story. I’m happy to say that fans of the original will have to try pretty hard to be disappointed in the gameplay here, as far as I’m concerned. For nearly every mission objective there are at least two to three paths that you can take to get to it. Don’t be fooled by the first-person façade, this need not be your standard shooter game. Yes, you can approach every objective with guns blazing, and as a shooter it plays well enough: you can pop into and out of cover and switch between cover spots with the press of a button, and guns feel responsive and suitably powerful for the job. But sometimes you don’t want to alert the whole place that there’s a guy with an assault rifle coming in the front door.

For my particular playthrough, I went with the stealth approach, which plays in a similar manner to Splinter Cell: Conviction. Holding the left trigger keeps you glued to cover spots, and you can jump between adjacent cover easily enough, which keeps you out of enemy sightlines until you reach your objective. If somebody does get in your way, then a suppressor attached to your pistol should work nicely (or a tranquilizer rifle if you’re like me and attempted a non-lethal playthrough), though make sure you hide the body lest another guard find it and raise all sorts of undue fuss over finding his buddy Frank with a 10mm slug through his head. And if you don’t want to deal with guards at all, then finding an air vent that you can sneak through John McClane-style or hacking the electronic lock to a back door can get you to where you need to be just as easily.

Hacking can also benefit you in other ways, such as when you come across a security terminal and decide that you want the camera in the warehouse building deactivated, or the gun turret in the courtyard to turn on your enemies instead of you. Hacking can also be used for tasks as simple as getting into somebody’s email, which can provide mission-critical information, useful keycodes and login information for other terminals, or just provide you a fun bit of backstory or easter eggs such as a login name of R Deckard or a prosthetics company named Kusanagi. Some incredibly interesting plot details or character information can be found through these non-essential messages and really do a lot to flesh out the game world. One even managed to completely and irrevocably alter my opinion of a major character. And this was just on some otherwise innocuous computer tucked into a corner of a back room in a hallway that you didn’t have any need to be in. I love it when games reward you with details like this for exploration, and Deus Ex does so better than any other game I know of. Fully exploring the world you’re in adds even more flavor to an already rich game.

Hacking itself is a simple little mini-game that involves you connecting various nodes together before having your entry point located and locked out by security. Different locks and computers will have different difficulty levels that are generally tied into the value of whatever is behind them. A level five lock on a door labeled “armory” will probably net you some pretty rich rewards… if you manage to get inside.

The other mini-game involves your interactions with other characters. When you meet up with certain important NPCs that have something you want or need of them, you engage them in conversation that attempts to convince them to help you out; this can range from something as simple as getting a corporate spy to tell you exactly what kind of data she’s trying to recover from some thugs, to getting a terrorist into letting a hostage go free. The reason I call these conversations mini-games and not just standard RPG dialogue fare is that they really do play out as a kind of battle of wits. In a BioWare RPG, most of your dialogue consists of questions; asking people who they are, what they do, what the political climate of the region is, where exactly you can find that +1 sword of kickassery, that sort of thing. When it comes time to make decisions, it’ll often come right down to you stating what you want the outcome to be. How often have your major decisions in the Mass Effect games involved just selecting the result that you want? It’s great that you can make these decisions, sure, but simply selecting “kill the Rachni Queen” from the dialogue wheel makes you feel like you’re just shaping the world to your whim. In Deus Ex, the people you talk with are active participants in the world. You have to convince them through a sometimes intense discourse into doing things that may be against their best interests. That terrorist doesn’t want to let the hostage go because he knows she’s likely the only thing keeping him alive. The desk clerk at the local Police Department doesn’t want to give you access to evidence because he knows he could lose his job over it. It’s up to you to choose what you think are the most appropriate options in any given situation. Appeal to their sense of honor, tear apart their argument with reason, or just threaten to bash their face in with your robo-fists. Each person will react differently to each of these options depending upon their own personality. These aren’t choose your own adventure stories, and you’re not a world-shaping superman: you’re an active participant in a living world and things will unfold around you in accordance with the established rules thereof.

All of these gameplay mechanics can be enhanced further via the use of upgrades to your extensive augmentations. A lot of these are what you’d expect: your arms can support strength augments that allow you to lift heavier items and punch through weak spots in walls, upgrading your legs will let you run faster and jump higher, and upgrading your artificial eyes lets you see through walls and ignore the effects of flashbang grenades. But mixed in with these are some less-expected augments that can be a lot of fun to toy around with. One special augment allows you to jump from any height and land safely on the ground without damage. Another lets you go invisible for a short time to help you sneak right past enemies and even walk right through laser tripwires. And a very unique augment acts as a so-called “social enhancer”. No, it won’t help you get a date to the prom, but it will display useful personality dossiers on the person you’re talking to, along with the ability to release certain pheromones into the air (yeah, seriously) that aid you in convincing certain personality types with relative ease. All of these upgrades can be purchased in the menu screen via “Praxis Points” which you amass by gaining experience or by purchasing them at medical clinics for an admittedly costly price. Each upgrade you buy makes you more adept at matching the situations you encounter.

But at what cost?

Without a doubt the central theme of this game is the issue of transhumanism. As technology advances, these augmentations become more and more common, and for more than just medical applications as extreme as those Jensen required. Where today an individual with a limp would likely just adopt the use of a cane, the availability of advanced prosthetics in this future world allows that same individual to just have the whole leg replaced. Even people with perfectly healthy limbs often put in to get a shiny new set of prosthetics. While that seems odd to us, the key thing to keep in mind when assessing this scenario is that this level of prosthesis is far beyond what we have now. While prosthetic arms of today are undoubtedly getting more advanced, they are still less optimal than a real arm. Not so in the world of Deus Ex. These prosthetics are advanced sufficiently so that they actually perform far better than a human limb; it’s even mentioned in-game that the new 100 meter world record setter has a pair of prosthetic legs. A number of in-game characters and indeed many actual followers of the transhumanist philosophy see this embrace of technology as the next step in human advancement: increasing physical and mental capabilities while simultaneously decreasing susceptibility to aging and disease through the implementation of technology is how transhumanists suggest humankind furthers itself into the future and perhaps ultimately transcend our current state of existence.

Of course, it’s no wonder that the game additionally presents some strong opposition to these ideas, just as there is in the real world. A large portion of society, known as human purists, speak out against this widespread augmentation, extremists even take militant action in their opposition to the practice. They argue that by replacing flesh and blood with metal and plastic, people risk losing their humanity. One of the leaders of the movement purports that such extensive augmentation is not a means to advance humanity, but is a rejection of it; an embrace of enhanced ability at the sacrifice of the human body, its flaws, and the human condition itself. By this assessment, mankind’s reach has extended beyond its grasp.

The game does an excellent job of not really pushing you towards any one ideology as “right”. It presents you with both sides and has you interact with both of them extensively, showing the benefits and flaws of both. As I said earlier, Jensen is the perfect character to connect these issues to: a man who is extensively augmented, but who was made so while unable to voice his opinions about it. You can play him as pro-aug, anti-aug, or of a divided mind, wrestling with his state and how he feels about it. Similarly, he has elements of both man and machine in his personality. He can be passionate about things and people, but his mannerisms are often cold and… well, robotic. He’s a man of two worlds, and as he struggles with these questions of humanity, so too does the player.

Deus Ex raises questions about a great many things, and without breaking the fourth wall it asks them of you. What’s your opinion of human augmentation? Is it really a way forward for humans? Is it really harmful to our humanity? What does it even mean to be human? This for me is why the game is great and not just good. I like games that make you think, and Deus Ex does that. Sure, it may be nothing but science fiction now, but the game has an aura of plausibility around it. Even if people getting robot arms never becomes an issue, it’s not hard to imagine the same kind of debates happening in our future. Technology is becoming more and more central to all of our lives; supposing that we don’t see half-human half-robot individuals spring up in the coming years, we can still wonder what impact technology is having on us, and whether we’re using it for good or ill. The issue of “what is a human” is pretty apparent today in the ongoing abortion debate, and I think we’re all pretty well acquainted with what extremism can do to any otherwise good ideology. Even some of the behind-the-scenes themes of the game such as national identity fading as the strength of international corporations continue to grow can be easily applicable to us today. Even the characters in-game react with the same attitudes and actions that we can easily attach to any major controversial issue in real life. Deus Ex is making one heck of an effort to hook you in and connect to you. Remember that people engage in entertainment media to relate not just to escape. This is the formula for games that you remember.

But enough of me waxing philosophical, let’s move on to how the game looks. Graphically, it’s actually nothing too special. I played the Xbox 360 version because my laptop can’t handle the system requirements, though a halfway decent PC can run it maxed out with few problems (hope that gives you an idea of how weak my laptop is). Pretty much everything looks solid from a technical perspective, just not outstanding. Some textures, namely those on faces and body models, look a little bland, some movement animations can look a little stiff on NPCs, and lip-syncing seems to have a lot of trouble matching up with dialogue, though it’s possible that I’ve just been spoiled by L.A. Noire. The framerate can also stutter a bit here and there and load times can seem to last longer than Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake, which can be irritating during particularly difficult sections of gameplay (and to save-scummers like me), but all in all the game performs well.

What’s really important here however is not graphical capability, but rather art design. This game is just bursting with style. While you’ll certainly run into a few places where you’re just sneaking around another warehouse or office building, the unique touches the art team put into this game are really phenomenal. While most any other game would design some corporate office as not much more than a desk and a computer, Deus Ex will have that desk covered in books and sticky notes reminding them of daily tasks (or a computer login password if you’re lucky). There might be a couch with a credit chip stuck in the cushions, or a small table with a bottle of whisky absent-mindedly left on it. The whole place will just be loaded with small, inconsequential stuff all of which adds a certain richness to the setting that many games overlook while they’re busing making another concrete corridor with chest-high walls scattered through it.

The objects themselves even have a unique character to them. In a style that is meant to evoke the feeling of a period of scientific innovation, many pieces of clothing, furniture, and architecture are designed to be reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance. Even the overall color palette of the game is evocative of chiaroscuro paintings of that era, using contrasting tones of black and gold to emphasize light (or lack thereof). It’s still a game that doesn’t have a tremendous variety of colors, but here it feels more like it’s done for an artistic reason as opposed to the “brown shooter with bloom effects” market.

Of course as much as I’ve sung this game’s praises up until now you just know that I can’t let it off the hook that easy. Nothing is perfect, and so somewhere in here there have to be a few things wrong with this game, right?

Well, sadly, there are. Sadder still is that it’s not at all hard to identify them. In fact, they’re right up in your face calling embarrassing attention to themselves like your uncle Bobby who found the booze at a family reunion.

First of all, there are the boss fights. The freakin’ boss fights, man. Whoever determined that this game should include mandatory, arena-style bossfights should be punched in a vital organ: one for each fight. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad for a player who based their character on a “shoot everything in sight” kind of mentality, but for a weak little stealth player like me, I got stomped. I had next to no weapons that had any sort of power to them, having had relied on my little 10mm pistol and a tranquilizer rifle for all the so called “fights” I’d been in up until then, and those were few and far between, I having only fired my weapon a handful of times up until this point. Then suddenly I’m tossed into a large rectangular room with a 7-foot-tall southern behemoth with a gatling gun for an arm and a penchant for throwing grenades that made me wonder if his AI had been designed by the people behind Call of Duty. (Also, I should point out that this machine-gun man is named Barrett. And this game is published by Square Enix. Yeah.) I’m left to defend myself with my aforementioned pitiful armory and nearly no combat-centric augmentations whatsoever. The fight ultimately boiled down to me hiding in a corner like a scared little girl until Yosemite Sam eventually killed himself with his own grenades.

This was a thing that actually happened.

While it may sound awesome that you can take out an enemy using their own ordnance, it didn’t feel like I had succeeded against anything, only that I had gotten lucky and achieved victory through an exploit in my enemy’s AI. The subsequent boss fights are no better, and while they do take place in more interesting arenas, arenas they still are. In a game that goes to such great lengths to provide you with as many options as possible for reaching your goal, these combat-only boss fights feel incredibly ham-fisted and punishing to the player, and had no business being in the game apart from assuaging the publisher’s fears that people wouldn’t accept a game without some mandatory combat.

And then there’s the finale. I’m hesitant to bash the development team for the final mission since it seems far more likely that they just ran out of time and didn’t get the opportunity to include everything they wanted to in the final product. While the setting is actually very interesting, everything within it is most decidedly not. One of the major twists works okay from a plot perspective, but it presents you with some very out-of-place enemies to fight and just seems not to fit with the overall atmosphere the game had otherwise worked so hard to create. And then to wrap up the entire game with another clumsy boss fight and a really, really anticlimactic ending (that I won’t spoil for you, chill out) is very depressing after playing through an otherwise magnificent game. Again, I felt like the team felt pressured to create a more conventional, big-scale ending for their AAA market game. None of it fit, and it left me feeling embittered towards the way my 40 hours were wrapped up. It was an ending that would have been far more at home in a Metal Gear Solid game, complete with mysterious audio-only scenes after the credits. Of course the playing of the original Deus Ex theme before the transition back to the main menu was enough to bring a smile to my face even in the midst of everything else.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution has been called an ambitious game by many. I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment. Rather, Human Revolution is not ambitious in an avant-garde sort of way, but is probably more akin to the fulfillment of a promise that the original Deus Ex made 11 years ago: it is a game that entrusts its players with the power of choice. It is a callback to the so-called “thinking man’s shooter” that was embodied in games like Deus Ex and System Shock, but modified and updated to the high production values of the modern game industry. It combines fun, fluid gameplay with real, engaging storytelling and philosophy. It’s got enough meat to the main story to provide you with a solid experience, but the elaborate backstories and fun references you find stuffed away in the corners and back alleys make it so much deeper, and the potential for so many different approaches to any situation ensures that the game has massive replay potential. Despite its flaws, this game truly resonated with me. It might not have struck me emotionally as something like Dragon Age was able to, but it struck me intellectually, if you’ll forgive the pretension in that statement. At the end of the day, I suppose the best praise I can give this game is to explain that I’m a man who organizes his game shelf not alphabetically, but by awesome value. And Deus Ex: Human Revolution has earned a spot near the front.

REVIEW: Portal 2

After the unprecedented success of the first game, we all knew that it was only a matter of time before we saw Portal 2. Of course, when that “matter of time” is expressed in Valve Time we all knew that we could be cooling our heels for a while.

But then on March 5 of last year, we got the announcement that Portal 2 was indeed on its way. And then half a year after its initial projected release date, we finally got our hands on the little bugger (and one day early to boot… well, for those of us that ordered the game on Steam). So what’s the verdict? How does the sequel to one of the most critically-acclaimed games in history stack up?

Well truthfully, it’s a lot more of the same… of course, “more of the same” really just means “here’s some more of something awesome” so no worries.

Portal 2 starts off shortly after the events of the first game, in which you seemingly defeated GLaDOS and escaped the Aperture Science research laboratories to the surface. Of course the cheery beat of the ending credits song was made somewhat ominous by GLaDOS’ assurances that she was still alive, and a later alteration to the ending of the game further made you feel a little less accomplished about your supposed victory.

And so you’re taken back to Aperture science. You wake up in a hospital room of sorts and after a quick re-acquaintance with the controls you’re back to solving puzzles. If you played the first game, you know the drill here: you fire a portal at a surface, you fire a different one at a different surface, and you’re able to move stuff (and yourself) between them. Even though we’ve played it before, it’s still an engaging alteration to more traditional platforming gameplay. You’ll see a lot of familiar elements in the puzzle rooms you encounter, chief among them Aperture Science’s signature “cube and button based testing”. There’s also bottomless pits, watery pits, and turrets. Making appearances for the first time however are laser beams which will need to be redirected or blocked as needed to activate certain parts of the environment, and some sort of levitation field which can be redirected using portals and used to traverse otherwise un-crossable gaps in the test chambers. Perhaps the most notable game-changers are the new gels. They come in three varieties: blue, orange, and white, which can make you jump higher, run faster, and fire portals onto otherwise un-interactive surfaces, respectively. As with the first Portal, these elements are first introduced one at a time, and in later levels you’ll be interacting with nearly all of them at once in order to progress. In a sense, the vast bulk of the game is a tutorial of sorts, but it’s implemented so seamlessly into the gameplay so that you never think of it as such. You’re not “playing a tutorial level” so much as learning how the game works as you play it. The pacing really is phenomenal.

And while the gameplay is in all respects strong enough to stand on its own (in a way, most Valve games operate as tech demos of a sort) the writing department didn’t just let that carry them. One of the things that made Portal so endearing was its dark humor and its unique way of telling a story behind the scenes instead of force-feeding you a plot.

As you traversed the test chambers of the first game, you would occasionally find hidden alcoves and various hidey-holes behind a few mis-aligned wall panels. These off-the-beaten-track areas were covered with discarded food containers and what appeared to be the hastily-drawn art and nearly unintelligible ravings of a madman: presumably a previous test subject forced to undergo the same trials as you (though a supplementary comic strip appears to offer a different explanation).

From observing these secret rooms as well as the events and scenery of the main game, you begin to piece together a backstory of sorts, though it seems you often came up with more questions than answers. Are there other people besides you in this place? How did I get here? What exactly happened here? Where *is* here, anyway? It’s a typical Valve formula of making the player wonder about the details of their situation, and therefore immerses them deeply within the game world they’ve created.

Portal 2 follows the same philosophy of “show don’t tell” that the original did. While it’s not exactly a mystery as to why the facility is a bit more run down than last time (you did kinda blow up its caretaker and a *lot* of time has passed since then), there are other questions to be answered as well. While I won’t dare give too many of them away, I will say that if you’re curious as to how Aperture Science got its start, then you’ll get to discover some of that on your own, with a little help from the leftover recordings of Cave Johnson, the founder of the company and one of the funniest characters in gaming, thanks largely to him being voiced by J.K. Simmons, who gives us awesome stuff like this.

And that leads into probably my biggest praise of the game: it’s funny. And not the kind of funny where you think about it and say to yourself “yeah, that’s funny”; I mean actual, legitimate, pause-the-game-because-you’re-about-to-fall-out-of-your-chair funny. The dark, dry humor of the first game is more prominent than ever here, as well as a bit of silly British comedy from what is possibly the most animated non-human character ever seen in a- actually, you know what, forget that. Even human characters don’t get this expressive. A little robot sphere with a British accent has some of the most expressive movements and quirks that you’re likely to see outside of a Pixar movie. Say what you will about the aging Source engine, Valve is really getting good at animation. Which suggests some tantalizing possibilities

Now, I don’t want to get all Valve fanboy-ish here. I’m not exactly one of their biggest fans out there. I don’t own either of the Left 4 Dead games, I’ve only played about 1.5 games of Team Fortress 2 (and now look down on it with disdain now that it’s essentially become a trading ground of virtual hats), I hate with a flaming passion their continued insistence on putting jumping puzzles in their first person shooters, and I’m beyond pissed with their seemingly complete lack of attention for their flagship franchise. But with that said, I really do think that Valve is one of the greatest game developers out there. They might delay their products all the time, but at least they’re not jumping the gun and releasing an unbalanced, unpolished, and outright unfinished game to the public with the intention of fixing it later in a patch like almost every other company out there these days. They’re always looking for ways to innovate and challenge the status quo of what have become accepted gaming norms. They’re not skimping on unique storytelling and interesting characters when the simple fact that they have a gravity gun would probably keep most people happy. And most importantly they understand how to design a game that *works*. Listen to the commentary tracks they included in some of their games: you can hear them talk about what went into nearly every design decision: why you meet this character here, why this particular obstacle was put in this particular place, why this enemy was shaped or voiced a certain way, why that wall is white instead of brown, and why they placed this item here to get the player to look up for a change. Valve pisses me off a lot, but I can’t say that they don’t know their craft.

But back to Portal:

Is the game perfect? No, of course not. There’s a few instances where the game doesn’t make it quite clear enough what you’re supposed to do next, especially in the areas where you’re outside the actual challenge rooms and you’re not stuck on trying to figure out how to open the door but rather on where you’re even supposed to go. Yes, it’s a puzzle game and it’s supposed to stretch your mind like that, but there are a few places where the environments are just a little too big and the solutions just a little too exact that you start crossing into frustration territory. The game also feels like it went just a little bit long. A few areas toward the end probably could have been cut with no real negative effect and would have made the game feel a bit less padded. The ending was also a bit… odd. The main premise is understandable and the credits song carries with it the same sort of ominous feeling that “Still Alive” did, but some of the events during the ending itself just seemed exceptionally out of place. And just from a personal perspective, I was very disappointed that there wasn’t a more direct tie-in with the Half-Life franchise after this little number. (If you haven’t played Half-Life 2: Episode 2 then for the love of Gordon Freeman DO NOT CLICK ON THAT LINK.) None of these minor flaws are enough, however, to mar the exceptional final product.

Now, I still haven’t touched the co-op campaign, which I hear gives you about four more hours of gameplay and a completely separate storyline that still ties in with the main game, so everything I’ve said thus far is based solely on my impressions of the single player campaign. Of course, even if the main game was all that was offered, it would still be more than enough to be an incredibly worthwhile product. Regardless of the ridiculously high bar that was set by its predecessor, Portal 2 manages to funnier, more engaging, and more varied in its challenges than the first Portal ever was. If you enjoy things that are good, then you owe it to yourself to play Portal 2.