Three is the magic number (sometimes).

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Originally published on The Game Jar October 12th 2012

Number three. In Half Life terms, three is a never-ending wait for a game that can never live up to the hype. In Fable terms, it’s a terrible second half of the game, which then drags the good bits down with it. But does it always have to a bad thing? Making a third game in the trilogy means two games worth of practice previously, right? Some developers do get it right though, so here’s my take on three games that perfected the formula the third time around.

Halo 3 Not only is Halo 3 the best Halo game ever made in my opinion, it’s one of the best games ever made. It’s nigh on perfect. It’s why I hold out no hope for Halo 4. It’s why my love for Reach was always a little white lie. With Halo 3, Bungie had perfected their craft. Whenever I look back at any of the Halo games, it always seems to me that Halo 3 was the last Halo that Bungie enjoyed making. Although Reach was a good game, it never felt like it had the developers heart and soul poured into it, Halo 3 was the conclusion of a story they’d been telling for some time, and their desire to do it right shone through. Even though some criticised the graphics, I thought it looked beautiful. The jungles were lush and vibrant, the deserts were dry and arid. With two other game’s worth of weapon balancing to fall back on, Halo 3’s combat was as tight as a drum. The guns felt great, vehicle combat was awesome, and they even gave us a new toy; the Spartan Laser. I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved that gun, so I’ll stick to telling you that it’s in my top five of greatest ever video game weapons. As good as the campaign was however, Halo 3 had a bigger reputation to live up to; multi-player. The original Halo’s LAN multi-player is regarded as a seminal moment for the FPS by many gamers, and Halo 2 was just as loved as the first, and as a result the third game had huge on-line shoes to fill. To my mind, it succeeded. Still to this day, objective based games on the Vahalla and Sandtrap maps are some of my greatest gaming memories, nothing will ever touch playing Rocket Race with friends on either of them. I’m running out of room here, and I feel like I’ve missed loads out. Saved films and screenshots, the huge amount of stat tracking, just two things introduced by Halo 3 and only now being done by other games. I could go on into a whole other article just to do halo 3 justice, but I won’t. Quite simply, Halo 3 is the best Halo game ever made.

Mass Effect 3 Admitting this game is the best of the three is a little painful for me. After I’d finished it first time around, I spent a fair bit of time telling my gaming friends that I didn’t like it very much. Then, after many weekends spent playing the multi-player and another go at the campaign, I had to grudgingly admit that Mass Effect 3 was the best of the trilogy. With the first game, Bioware nailed the compelling storyline bit, but the mechanics were a little unwieldy. With the second game, they polished the controls, but the story was a little basic. With the third game Bioware combined the best of the first with the best of the second to produce a Mass Effect game that was almost perfect. For a long time I let the ending overshadow the rest of the game, and whilst I still don’t like it, I have come to realise just how great the rest of the game is. Thanks to two previous games worth of back-story, ME3 takes the friendships you made along the way and gives them real emotional weight. Losing a character that’s been with you for so long really hurts, putting the others in the way of danger becomes the hardest decision you have to make. And don’t think being a Paragon in the two previous games makes things any easier, either. The “right” choices from the first two games have a lasting effect on the third, and it’s not long before they stop feeling so “right”. It’s hard to think of another game that tracks so many previous choices and successfully weaves them in to a coherent, gripping narrative but Mass Effect 3 does just that. The fact that I and so many others had such a strong emotional reaction to the ending demonstrates one thing, that Bioware has created a galaxy full of characters you genuinely care about on an emotional level, and not many games can say that.

Gears of War 3 Why is Gears 3 the best of the trilogy? Simple, Horde 2.0 is why. Declaring Gears 3 as the best of the three based on one game mode might seem a little crazy, but not in the case of Horde mode. Have a think now, how many reviews did you read post Gears 2 that referenced Horde when describing some other game’s survival-based feature. “What’s Halo ODST’s Firefight mode like? Kinda like Horde, only with Halo…” That was what my friends and I were saying at the time, and it was a similar kind of description for Call of Duty’s zombie mode too. Other games had done co-op survival modes in the past for sure, but none of them had done it with such style. With Gears 3, Epic Games blew the mode out in almost every direction. More weapons, more enemies, more deliciously sadistic executions.., and all playable with four other friends. In my opinion Horde 2.0 is about as perfect as a co-op mode gets. But it doesn’t stop there, for the first time in a Gears of War game you could instajib the COG too, via Beast mode. All of our Locust-loving fantasies were indulged by Beast mode, finally we could blow those filthy humans into meaty chunks by picking the Boomer Locust, we could turn them into a bloody smear on the floor by running them over with the Berserker, we could take them apart in many, many different and violent ways. As you’ve noticed, I’ve gotten this far into the paragraph and I still haven’t mentioned the single player campaign. That’s not because it’s bad (it’s really very good), it’s just that kick-ass multi-player has always been the game’s party piece, and with Gears of War 3 Epic Games has made one of the finest multi-player shooters money can buy.

Tales from the Mass Effect Universe: Entry 3

WARNING! I will be talking candidly about the three Mass Effect games in this series. If you want to avoid spoilers, do not read any further!

Entry 3: The truncated report on Mass Effect 2

MassEffect2_coverAs this series has been on hold of late, I’ll begin with a brief recap. Having played all three Mass Effect games multiple times, and completing them virtually every way possible, I began a new journey and took the only un-travelled path left to me; full on female Renegade. I resolved to be as bad as possible, and get as many people killed as possible. How much difference would it make? That’s where this series comes in, as I attempt to keep track of my latest journey through three huge games.

Having begun my Fem Shep Renegade in style with Mass effect 1, I was looking forward to getting stuck into the second game, so I began it with enthusiasm. You probably know how the game begins; Shepard dies, Cerberus rebuilds her, and then sends her off to investigate some settlement or other. At this point, being a Renegade is fairly simple. Take the red conversation options, and kick ass. So far so good. The trouble is, after the opening is done, the game changes and makes things little more cloudy.

Mass Effect 2 introduces a loyalty mechanic which ties in to the final suicide mission, and influences survival rates. I’ve already stated my aim is to get as many team mates killed as possible, so this would mean avoiding the loyalty missions. The trouble is, loyalty missions are a fairly large chunk of the game, and I wanted to import a max level character with a full renegade bar in to Mass Effect 3, so where was I going to get that experience from?

ME2-Grunt_in_his_tank

But I don’t wanna get up and go to school

I played through the game normally, recruiting team mates, fighting the collectors, and hovering up all the side quests I could lay my hands on. Things were going OK, but not for long. You see, I hit the very wall that delayed this whole series. Everyone was recruited (Grunt was still frozen, but he was aboard the Normandy), I was close to wrapping up the story, but I was nowhere near having a max level character with a full renegade bar. I needed to do more missions.

Having already cleared up all the available DLC, the only thing left open two me was to do some loyalty missions. If I’m honest, it wasn’t a total disaster. After doing some research, I’d discovered that if I wanted Shepard to survive the final mission, I’d have to have some loyal team mates after all, so I picked the missions most likely to fill up my Renegade bar. Zaeed’s loyalty quest immediately sprung to mind – lots of innocent refinery workers to let die there – but the others were tougher to choose. Samara’s quest was the only other obvious Renegade choice. Naturally I chose to betray her, and take Morinth, although I forgot to try to romance her.

Garrus_Vakarian

Kiss your ass goodbye, Sidonis

With an internet-sourced flow chart of all the possible choices in my hands, I entered the Omega relay. First to die was Kasumi. For some bizarre reason, she was hanging around the engine bay, and died in an explosion. That’ll teach her for being in a part of the ship she’d never previously been in! Next was Thane, thrown up against the wall in his quarters after the Normandy takes a hit. Who knew shelving could be so deadly. Two team mates down, the ship crashes on the side of the Collector base.

Please don't send me down the vent shaft...

Please don’t send me down the vent shaft…

Next up to meet their space-maker is Tali, as we enter the base. With legion in the hands of Cerberus, and her loyalty mission uncompleted, she was sent to her doom down the vent pipe. Hacking the door goes wrong, and before it closes, she’s blown away by a Collector. My Fem Shep sheds no tear. I proceed through the rest of the mission trying to get both Jacob and bitch-face Miranda killed, but both of them stubbornly cling on to life. With just the boss fight to go, I have one last chance to kill one of them, but who? Jacob or Miranda?

Obviously it would be Miranda. So after killing the Human Reaper, and saving the Collector base for the Illusive Man to gain some last-minute Renegade points, we begin our escape. The cut scene begins, we’re running away, but oh no! An explosion occurs! Shepard gets up, and Zaeed pulls himself to his feet, but Miranda… she’s gone! After celebrating her death, I leap into the Normandy and head for home, safe in the knowledge that Illusive Man won’t use the base for nefarious means…

Can't believe you got me killed AND gave the base to the Illusive Man.

Can’t believe you got me killed AND gave the base to the Illusive Man.

The Game Jar Files: A Lookback at Dragon Age Origins

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 24/04/2013

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Dragon Age: Origins is a curious game. Graphically it’s not very pretty, the storyline is clichéd high fantasy, and mechanically its a hardcore RPG. And yet those that like the game, love it. So much in fact, that it’s sequel is considered to be the inferior game, despite having far more technical polish. So why do gamers love it so?

Considered as somewhat of a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, DA:O is what I would call a proper, old school rpg game. The kind of game Bioware is seemingly convinced no one wants to play any longer. Every bit of armour and weaponry has stats to pour over and compare. Characters have multiple builds to explore, and stats to tweak. Every enemy corpse is a chest to be looted, and dungeons are full of secrets to find. There’s three different races to play; Human, Dwarf and Elf. Three different classes to play; Warrior, Rogue and Magi, each with their own specializations. Combining the races and classes, there’s six separate Origin stories to explore. If you’re starting to get the impression that DA:O is a big game, you’d be right. It’s chock full of the kind of content that RPG fans love

After you’ve chosen your race and class, your first steps into the world of Ferelden take place during your origin story. Each story, although unique to your heritage, serves to explain the chain of events that lead you to joining the Grey Wardens, and embarking on the main quest proper. Ferelden is facing  another Blight, an event that will see a horde of evil Darkspawn (undead creatures?) unleashed upon the land, and it’s the Grey Warden’s duty to stop it. Unfortunately, the Grey Wardens are lacking in numbers, and rather unpopular, so things are already looking bleak. King Cailan has a far more romantic view of the Grey Wardens, and is eager to join them in battle against the Darkspawn at Ostergar. Teryn Loghain, the kings general and father-in-law, has other plans though. Seeing political gain in the king’s death, Loghain withdraws from the battlefield, leaving Cailan to die and the Grey Wardens to take the blame. You and Alastair somehow survive the battle at Ostergar, and are left with the unenviable task of stopping the Darkspawn, all the while under suspicion of treason.

After the opening stages of the game, you’re left to decide how to proceed next. Your plan is to recruit allies from the three races, but the order in which you do it, is entirely up to you. Also undecided is your choice of companions. I’m not just talking about who you party with, either. Several characters can be left un-recruited, or even expelled from you camp in the future, and it goes some way to bringing a sandbox feel to a game which essentially has a linear story. The game world tries the same sort of thing too, the various locations are fully explorable, but only within their limits. Try to venture out, into the countryside between towns, and you’re automatically taken to a map and asked where you want to go.

One of my other favourite aspects of the game are the various origin stories, and how they tie in together. For example, in Denerim there’s a dwarven weapons merchant called Gorim in the town square. If you talk to him he’s polite, but he won’t reveal how he got there. It’s only by playing the Dwarven Noble origin story that you find out who he really is, and how he became a lowly merchant. If you play the Human Noble origin story, your run in with Arl Rendon Howe later in the main quest has a far more personal edge to it. If your class choice is Mage, a certain prisoner in Redcliffe will have featured in your origin tale. DA:O is full of these little crossovers, and while they’d never be classed as major plots points (within the context of the main quest line), they do add plenty of charm and flavour.

My love for Dragon Age: Origins isn’t complete however, as it does have one or two things I don’t like. There’s a section during the rescue of the mages circle that takes place in the Fade that I suffer through every single time I play the game. I find it repetitive, and in places confusing. Considering that the game is so large anyway, I could happily do without it. Then there’s the colossal amount of DLC to get through, it’s almost overwhelming at times, and I still haven’t finished it all. But those two pale into comparison when compared to venturing in to the Deep Roads. Every time I go in there, I get lost. Every. Single. Time. And I’ve done it multiple times too, so I should know better. The biggest problem is a lot of it looks exactly the same, I’ve lost count  of the amount of times I’ve lost track of which direction I’m going in.

I started off by calling Dragon Age: Origins a curious game, and I stick by that. At the time, I agreed with the reviews that give it a 5 or 6, and yet I played it endlessly. I liked it despite it faults, and I’ve never been able to quite work out why. I rather suspect it’s because (to my mind) it’s the last time Bioware really made a full on RPG. Dragon Age 2 and the Mass Effect games are fine, but they’ve had a lot of the RPG elements stripped out, and I miss those things. It may feel old fashioned by today’s standards, it certainly lacks the technical accomplishment of the later Bioware titles, but Dragon Age: Origins retains a certain level of charm that other games often never have.

The Game Jar Files: I know that voice!

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 17/04/2013

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I’m slightly reluctant to write this article. The voice acting in video games has improved immeasurable over the years, so complaining about it feels somewhat counter productive. Not entirely though, because I have a very specific problem with today’s voice acting, namely the overuse of certain actors. Nothing breaks my in-game immersion quicker than hearing a voice I connect to another character in another game, coming out of a different pixelated mouth. So how big of a problem is it? Only you can tell me that. It’s entirely possible that I’m the only gamer that gets hung up on this sort of thing, but, with the move towards games with stronger stories, I very much doubt it. If we as gamers are to buy into the characters presented to us, doesn’t the voice delivering the lines need to be unique?

Last week or so, I was enjoying the very excellent Tomb Raider. As I’m sure you know, the latest game is a prequel, and attempts to tell the story of how Lara Croft became the girl we all know and love, and by and large, it does a very good job of doing so. I did however, have a slight problem paying attention to it, thanks largely to some of the voice acting. One of the first cut scenes up, and I’m doing a double take. Conrad Roth, he sounds familiar! A little further in, and the penny drops. Brynjolf from the Skyrim Thieves Guild is in my Tomb Raider! A bit further on from that, and I pick up one of those journal collectable things that contains spoken dialogue. Mercer Frey from the Skyrim Thieves Guild starts coming out of my speakers. From that point on, the Conrad Roth character was broken to me, whenever he said anything to Lara, I was right back in Riften, imaging he was calling me laddie before sending me off on another thieving  job.

The troubling thing is, if the sharing of voice talent is any indication, that developers seem to constantly relying on a small group of voice actors. If you played Dragon Age: Origins, Simon Templeman will be familiar to you as arch villain Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir. If you played Mass Effect 2 or 3, he’s Admiral Han’Gerrel. In Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, he’s Gabriel Roman. Star Wars: The Old Republic, Dead Space 3, Jade Empire, Kingdoms of Amalur: The Awakening… his list of voice credits in video games is immense. Continuing on the Bioware/Naughty Dog crossover theme, there’s Gideon Emery. He’s another actor with a distinctive voice, that’s easily recognisable when you hear it. His role as Fenris in Dragon Age 2 is probably the biggest, but he’s also been in a variety of other Bioware games.

Perhaps the biggest culprit though is Claudia Black. Now, there is no doubt that she’s a very attractive lady, or that she has a very appealing voice, but damn she’s everywhere. The first time I heard her dulcet tones was playing Dragon Age: Origins, she voices Morrigan in that game. Next time I heard her voice, she was Chloe Frazer in Uncharted 2. After that she was Admiral Xen in Mass effect 2, followed by Samantha Byrne in Gears of war 3, then back to Chloe Frazer in Uncharted 3, and finally, Admiral Xen in Mass Effect 3! Talk about immersion breaking. Ironically, it’s the quality of her performances that causes the problems. Chloe Frazer is a well realised character, thanks mainly to Ms Black’s excellent work, and it’s that level of performance that makes hearing her work elsewhere harder.

Not so long ago, I was crying out for some decent voice acting my games, so I shouldn’t complain to much now that we’ve finally got some, but the familiar voices are jarring now. Nolan North is Nathan Drake. He just is. So when his voice comes out of the mouth of my Human Necromancer in Guild Wars 2, it feels odd. I find it very hard not to picture CSEC officer Armando Bailey whenever Colonel Saul Tigh is on screen in Battlestar Galactica. Having written this article, it’s become clear to me that good quality acting can be a double edged sword. Actors such as Nolan North or Claudia Black bring a high level of believability to Nathan Drake and Chloe Frazer, and that believability solidifies those characters in our minds. The voice is the character, and therefore it’s very hard to hear that same voice in another virtual body without connecting it to another face.

Now that developers have (finally) managed to attract a selection of quality voice talent, their next challenge is to widen that pool. If the voices coming out of your favourite characters isn’t to become jarring in the future, they need to be used sparingly, and that means having a wider selection of actors to begin with. I don’t want to be rolling my eyes at Lara Croft’s mentor because I’ve spent so much time with him in another world, I want Bryjolf to sound like Bryjolf, and xxxx to sound like xxxx. Overly familiar voice actors breaks my immersions, and in an entertainment medium like gaming, immersion is king. Story telling in games is getting much stronger, and as a result, the demand for skilled voice actors has grown. The talent pool needs to grow if all our heroes and villains aren’t to sound the same.

The Game Jar Files: Bioware and the burden of EA ownership

Originally published on The Game Jar.com – 05/12/2012

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Ideas can be tricky little blighter’s to pin down sometimes. For a while now, I’ve been considering writing something about Dragon Age 3; what it might be like, whether the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle would have any impact upon its creation, and how it would be received by fans. The idea bounced around my head for quite some time, but it wasn’t untill recently that it started to take shape. Over the last week or so, conversations with friends about various aspects of the Mass Effect franchise started me thinking; was I asking the right questions? There’s far more negativity towards Bioware floating around the internet now than there was a year ago, and maybe a piece on Dragon Age 3 would be too small. The bigger question was how do gamers feel about Bioware themselves? It occurs to me that there are gamers out who will never give the next Dragon Age game a chance, mainly because it will have EA’s logo on the box. Has EA’s ownership of the studio soured Bioware’s relationship with the fans? In this piece I take a look at two of Bioware’s biggest IP’s to see if EA ownership really has changed the studio for the worst.

Whenever fans talk about Bioware’s possible decline, they nearly always mention the 2007 takeover by EA. But how much of an impact does new ownership actually have? Perhaps examining how the Mass Effect franchise has changed over the course of three games can help. Even though the first Mass Effect was released after the take over, it was only just after, and as such wasn’t made under EA’s ownership. Before release, it was Bioware’s stated intention that the first game was to be the first installment of a trilogy of games, but by 2008 it was clear that EA had other ideas. A quote from then EA president Frank Gibeau gave the first indication that Bioware were no longer in control of the franchise’ destiny; [Mass Effect] “will be a franchise for [EA] for a very long time.” Mass Effect 2 is released in 2010, and unlike the first game, it’s multi platform. It’s entirely possible of course that a still independent Bioware would have  abandoned Xbox exclusivity too, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that EA either had an influence upon that decision, or indeed were the ones making it. Mass Effect 3 arrives in 2012, and by this point the franchise is very clearly an EA property. Micro-transactions are shoehorned in by way of adding a multi-player mode to a game that has never even had a co-op mode, and despite the fact that it turns out to be a very creditable addition,  you can still short cut your way through unlocks by spending real money. Mass Effect’s metamorphosis into a full-blown EA game is complete, and many fans are left wondering what the future holds.

If you’re console gamer, I doubt you’ve been paying attention to Bioware’s new Massively Multi-player Online game Star Wars: The Old Republic, but if you’re ever going to understand why I think the way I do, you really need to. You see Bioware has had a rough time of late with this game, and it’s become like a millstone around their neck. Even the most ardent of SW:TOR fans probably won’t be able to look you in the eye and say it’s been a success, and it’s continued struggles are a concern. Perhaps console gamers indifference is due to the fact that it’s made and maintained by Bioware Austin, and not the Mass Effect bit of the company, I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s a game that cost a lot of money to make, was expected to be a lot more profitable than it is, and is published by EA. It’s relevant to what sort of company Bioware is now, or more to the point, is allowed to be. But let me skip back a couple of sentences to the important bit; “was expected to be a lot more profitable than it is”. It’s important because in many respects SWTOR is a good game, it’s just not making the kind of money that EA expected it to, and that’s how it’s ended up switching to a free to play payment model less than one year after release. Would an Independent Bioware have switched from subscription to F2P so soon into SWTOR’s lifespan? I don’t believe so. I don’t believe that they would have had two rounds of job cuts at their Austin office either had they still been Independent. Those staff would still be there, creating the content that the game badly needs. Under EA’s ownership, Bioware Austin has cut staff and added a cash shop with micro transactions to a game not even a year old.

So is that it then? Do we all just accept that Bioware is now merely another EA studio, its sole purpose to churn out average games that make shareholders wealthier? No, I don’t think so. As you can see from my examples above, I do think that EA ownership has changed the studio for the worst in some respects, but you can’t deny that they’re still making quality games. No company remains unchanged after they’ve been bought out, but in this case I don’t think that’s the problem, it’s the EA factor, and I don’t think it’s a problem that Bioware can ever solve. The controversy surrounding ME3’s ending, the bumpy ride SWTOR has had, they’ve both been exacerbated by the negativity that surrounds EA. It’s unfortunate, it’s unfair, but it’s also the reality for Bioware from now on.

Tales from the Mass Effect universe: Entry 2

WARNING! I will be talking candidly about the three Mass Effect games in this series. If you want to avoid spoilers, do not read any further!

Entry 2: Noveria, Virmire, and wrapping up Mass Effect 1

GiannaParasini4After wiping out the colony of Zhu’s Hope, it was on to Noveria to see what havoc I could wreak there. If you’re familiar with the game, there’s not many full on Renegade opportunities to be had, but I could continue my trend of being as rude and obnoxious to as many people as possible. First to experience my  no-nonsense approach was Kaira Stirling, every time I go through this part, I wish that I could just shoot them dead right then. I know you get to kill her later, in Synthetic Insights, but still. I ran through all the usual small missions in Port Hanshan, smuggled for Opold, spied for the Asari women in the bar etc, and took particular joy in turning Gianna Parasini down. She annoys me every time to, with her high-handed attitude. I’m looking forward to finding out whether she turns up in Illium, if she does, she wont be buying me a beer. After wrapping this section up, I moved on to the Peak 15 section of Noveria, and plodded my way through it for what must be by now the thousandth time. During conversations I took every Renegade option possible, but the only reall bump was choosing to eliminate the Rachi queen. With my Renegade score looking quite healthy, and the warm internal feeling of insect genocide glowing inside me, I departed Noveria, quietly pleased with my death-toll.

Virmire_28Virmire, lovely Virmire, let the bloodbath begin! If you’ve been reading this series, you’ll know my aim is to go full Renegade over the course of all three games. Given that, I’m sure your mind has already raced forward to that moment, and is already recoiling in horror because of what I’m about to do. So, if you’re a Wrex fan (and let’s face it, who isn’t), look away now. Yes, I killed Wrex. Brutally. In other play throughs, I’ve always saved him, because y’know, he’s Wrex, but I have seen him die once before. If the conversation goes badly, and if you tell Ashley to be ready, she shoots him for you, and all your left with is berating her for killing a team member. But that’s not what happened here. I chose the option to shoot him, smashed him to the ground with my shotgun, then unloaded into to his prone body! (forgive me, Wrex!). I don’t think I’ve ever chosen that option before, or if I did, it was when I first played the game, because surprisingly I found it quite shocking. In general, I’ve enjoyed this Renegade play through, but not that bit. Shooting Wrex left me with scars that’ll never heal… After that, the assault on Saren’s lab was fairly routine; I killed the assistant, chatted to Sovereign, and left Kaiden to die. Regular kind of day.

Council_Hologram-Ambassador_Meeting_2That left me with Ilos, the citadel assault, and the Bring down the Sky DLC. BDTS whilst being a fairly enjoyable bit of DLC, doesn’t seem to have any impact upon the later story ( apart from a small cameo in ME3, if you let Balak survive), so I took the Renegade option, left everyone dead, and moved on. Ilos is straightforward; kill Geth, open the door, drive the Mako to the conduit. I’ve done it so many times now, I could probably do it blindfolded. It was the Citadel assault then, that provided the last little boost to fill up my Renegade bar. Of course, that meant the arrogant, pompous council had to die. Mwuhahahaha! That look on the face of the Destiny Acencion commanders face, when she realises the Alliance isn’t going to help, is priceless. With the unhelpful council members little more than space dust, the final cut-scene takes a decidedly fascist turn. Udina rants on about how Humanity will become the dominant species, how they’ll make the rest fall in line, etc. I hate Udina, so even though I’d pursued the Renegade path, I still couldn’t bring myself to choose him as council member. I was sick of politicians by that point, so I left them, not caring who was chosen.

Mass-Effect-1-boxartWrapping up Mass Effect 1, a few things had become apparent  First, all my Renegade killing was probably just removing all the colour from the next two games. Helena Blake for example, she doesn’t play any real part in Mass Effect 2, but meeting her again does provide a nice little callback to the first game. I was obviously removing a lot of that kind of stuff. Second, the combat does suck. Just a little bit. I’ve moaned a fair bit (in the past) about the introduction of thermal clip “ammo” for later games, but I’ll live with it in return for the much tighter combat mechanics and solid frame-rate  It’s strange going back to a game you love and noticing the technical flaws for the first time. I guess its just a symptom of ever improving games. Mass Effect is showing it’s age now, good job the story is as good as ever. Lastly, I miss the proper RPG aspects in the later games. I want to pour over armour and weapon stats every time I pick a new piece up. Removing all that felt wrong at the time, and it still feels wrong now.

Next instalment I move on to Mass Effect 2, where the Renegade path will be less straight forward. Till then, keep it Renegade, Soldiers!

Tales from the Mass Effect universe: Entry 1

WARNING! I will be talking candidly about the three Mass Effect games in this series. If you want to avoid spoilers, do not read any further!

Entry 1: Introduction and the story so far…

Mass-Effect-1-boxartI’ve played all three Mass Effect games multiple times, and in multiple ways. There are one or two things I haven’t ever done, like romance Jack, or get people killed in the suicide mission, or cheated on my love interest, but by and large I’ve explored most options. There are two paths I’ve never fully explored however, and those are to play the games in full Renegade mode, and to play a female Shepard from start to finish. What does Fem Shep look like in the third game? What happens if I never unfreeze Grunt? Are there any consequences for cheating on my love interest from ME1 in ME2/3? Obviously, as a Mass Effect nerd, I needed to answer these questions. Thus began my latest journey through Bioware’s three epic space adventure games. I would play a female Shepard, I would be as nasty as possible, and I would get as many allies killed as possible. This should be fun…

The story so far.

SeranKillsNihlusI began Mass Effect by re-using a level 59 Fem Shep Soldier. Given the choice, I would have preferred playing an Adept, but a second 60 to import to ME2 would be nice to have, and the bonuses for doing so are quite nice. One complete play-though should be enough to get that last level, so I dived in with the Soldier. I played through the opening mission on Eden Prime being as snotty as possible to everyone you can talk to. I punched out the hysterical scientist locked away in the container building thing, but much to my disappointment, I couldn’t shoot the guy smuggling weapons at the docks. Building that Renegade bar up could take longer than I thought. After Eden Prime, I hit the citadel. As I had one level left to get, my plan at this point was to do every quest I could lay my hands on. Through past experience, I knew that getting from 59 to 60 was a long slog, so I wanted every little bit of XP I could find.

ClerkBoskerI hoovered up every quest, and took the Renegade option where possible. I slept with the consort (not that it bumps up the Renegade score, but hey…), I called the Hanar preacher some nasty names whilst mocking the C-Sec officer trying to deal with him (or her, do Hanar have different sexes?), and I got rough with Bosker in Embassy bar. All of it started to build the Renegade bar quite nicely. Eventually I was nearing the point of departure from the citadel, and I made my first discoveries whilst on this play-through: It’s impossible to prevent Garrus, Wrex, and Tali joining your mission. I vaguely had some recollection of trying and failing before, but it was so long ago I’d forgotten. Thinking about it, it makes perfect sense when you consider that you’ll be losing either Kaiden or Ashley on Virmire. What I didn’t try is completing the game without collecting Liara. Whether the game would allow you to proceed to Ilos without her, I don’t know. Regardless, she’s my goto love interest, and I couldn’t save the galaxy without her. How meeting her on Illium would play out if you never met her in 1 does intrigue me though.

Feros_ArceliaSilvaMartinezI continued to plough though the side quests that I knew had play-off’s in ME2 until I dinged 60. As it turns out, my last play-though with the character had gotten me a fair way to the final level, so as I hit Feros, I had the choice to either continue knocking off side quests, or just speed through the main story. At this point, I’m not sure what I’ll do. There are some interesting side quests around Cerberus left to do, and while they don’t add anything significant to ME2, they do add a little flavour when you meet whoever survived Virmire, so I’ll probably do them. But I’m jumping ahead now, so I’ll finish catching you up by rounding off the Feros mission. As I said, this is a Renegade play-through, so when the choice came whether to equip gas grenades or not, I chose not! Every colonist died, even that snotty cow Arcelia Silva Martinez, I enjoyed killing her. Shiala (the Asari cloned by the Thorian) died too, she took a bullet to the back of the head, execution style. By the time the Normandy was dusting off, there were very little survivors, and my renegade bar was over half full. A job well done.

In my next entry I’ll be continuing my adventures in Mass Effect. Noveria and whole host of side quests still await, so there’s still plenty to do. Until then, keep it Renegade, soldiers!

The Game Jar Files: Customer isn’t spelled F-A-N-B-O-Y

Originally published on the Game Jar – Sept 6th 2012

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Generally I try not to post stuff on my blog when I’m angry, it only leads to a boring rant that nobody wants to read, and when I look back at the post six months later I cringe at being so self-indulgent. I’ve tried to continue this rule when writing for The Game Jar too, already it’s saved you from multiple posts about things said on the DBR podcast, for example. Today though, I break that rule. One opinion piece on Edge Online’s site has lit the blue touch-paper, and I can’t hold my response in any longer. Brian Howe’s article entitled “Video game designers: ignore entitled gamers” is a well written, entertaining piece on how developers of the future have been subjugated by “entitled gamers” who demand changes to everything they don’t like in their favourite games. Like I said, it’s well written, but at the same time it’s managed to piss me off. Whenever this subject comes up, and whenever it’s commented on by someone in who believes gamers do have too much say, they seem to conveniently forget that gamers are also customers too.

Almost inevitably now when discussing whether gamers do indeed wield too much power over developer creativity, the example cited is the fan outrage surrounding the Mass Effect 3 ending. Those in the pro-developer camp will tell you it’s the perfect example of  how bad gamer pressure can be for a creatively based industry such as game development. Of many things written about this in the gaming media at the time, one or two had some balance and attempted to understand where the unhappiness was coming from, but most went with tired old clichés. “Entitled gamers are whining about nothing again!” or “This is an attack on the artistic integrity of the industry!”. Both of these arguments miss the point entirely to my mind, mainly because games journalism seems to be hung up on tired stereotypes of gaming essentially being an immature pastime. Sadly we still seem to be part of an industry that is permanently stuck in its teenage years. Whether it’s gamers that think that racism or homophobia is fine when trash talking on Xbox Live, parents that don’t stop their fourteen year old son from playing Call of Duty, or publishers who haven’t quite worked out how best to make money from games, the whole damn industry doesn’t seem to be able to mature into adulthood.

I mention this because Mr Howe’s piece seems to perfectly reflect my point above. In his future world, gamers are emotional tyrants with game developers at their beck and call. He describes a world where all manner of unthinkable changes are made to iconic games, with the very start of the whole process being traced back the ME3 ending controversy. In truth his piece is pretty funny in places, but he still doesn’t seem to be able to do without resorting childish name calling eventually. Sure enough it’s not long before he breaks out the traditional put down for shutting gamers up; Fanboy. If I had my way, the word fanboy would be erased from everyone’s brain. It’s become shorthand for dismissing criticism out of hand. Can’t think of a coherent counter to an intelligent point of opposition? Call me a fanboy and have done with it. I’m a grown up, I have two children and a mortgage, I’m not an anything-boy. Here’s the thing everyone seems to have forgotten, you know all those “whining, entitled fanboys”?, they’re paying customers too. The money they spent in 2007 on the first game ensured that there was a third game ending to be pissed off at. In short, gamers money is what makes the gaming industry possible at all, without it there’s no Mass Effect franchise.

I hate to go over the ME3 thing again after all this time, but when people cite it as an example of gamer power gone bad I can’t keep quiet. Particularly if they’re being disparaging whilst doing it. The people so quick to put down the unhappy fans still seem cling to the idea that making games remains a cottage industry. That the latest blockbuster is still made by a small group of friends who came together to create cool things. Outside of indy devs, those days are gone. The harsh reality is Bioware’s right to artistic integrity was sold to EA along with everything else. Bioware’s sole purpose now, like any developer bought by a publisher owned by shareholders, is to make money for the investors. Cool games are a means to an ends, a happy by-product of the business that gaming has now become. When EA’s CEO John Riccitiello stands in front of investors to give them the latest progress report on money made, not a single one of those investors will say to him “making millions of dollars is fine John, but what I really want to know is how Bioware’s artistic integrity is holding up?”

Where some saw all this ME3 hoopla as a terrible precedent, I saw the first glorious shoots of gamers finally realising the power they have as consumers when they band together. I’ve been a gamer for a long time now, I’ve gone from asking my parents to buy me the latest game to being the parent being asked. I’ve grown up as a consumer and it’s about time games journalist did the same. The gaming industry has matured into one where profit is the sole metric of success, and some of us have adapted to it. It’s high time that those that haven’t dropped the insults, and catch up with the rest of us.

The Game Jar Files: A look at SW:TOR without saying “WoW Clone”

Last week or so, the usual “what are we all writing about on The Game Jar this week?” email dropped in to my inbox. After a bit of head scratching I decided I’d try out the new-ish free trial available for Bioware’s first and only MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and write about that. I would cover the first 15 levels available, try to figure out why the game gets so much criticism in some corners of the ‘net, and generally come up with some conclusion as to whether it’s worth you forking over your cash after the trial ended. That was what I was going to do, right up until the moment when Bioware decided to change my plans for me. At the beginning of last week the developer dropped the news that the game will be ditching its subscription based payment model, and switching to a free to play one in the Autumn. As I’d already spent what felt like days downloading the trial, I decided to press on regardless. Whether it was value for money or not would be kind of irrelevant, but I could still find out if it was a quality game or not. MMO’s by their very definition are big things, and I only have fifteen levels to play with, so a comprehensive review of the game would be out of the question. Will its trial contain enough content to sell the whole game? Let’s find out.

The Game. If you did away with the Bioware logo screen when the game first starts up, you’d still know who it was made by. Dragon Age II and a Mass Effect 3 ending aside, the name Bioware means high quality role-playing games to its followers, and it’s no different here. Admittedly I’m not really a Star Wars fan Per Se, but even still the very first cinematic had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. Jedi were swishing their Lightsabers around, the soundtrack from the films was rumbling in the background. It was as perfect an introduction as any fan boy or girl could hope for. Character creation continued to get the Star Wars fever building as I chose my class and race from a suitably iconic selection of humans and aliens, evenly divided between Empire or Republic. For my trial I created a Chiss Bounty Hunter on the Sith Empire side, fully intending to take all the Dark Side choices possible. I entered the world and began my story, the core of the game, and where it really shines. I began on a dirtball planet with no real reputation to speak of. I join a team of other bounty hunters and pretty soon I’m working for a local Hutt crime boss. Bioware have called this approach to story the fourth pillar, and it’s what they feel sets their MMO apart. Personally I’m not so sure it does, but you certainly can’t fault the quality of the storytelling. From the first “pew pew” of your blaster it feels right. Upon entering the Hutt’s palace you’re greeted by shifty looking aliens hanging around in the dark corners. The cantina band is playing the kind of music you expect them too. The slave girls sitting at the base of Nem’ro the Hutt are in skimpy space bikinis. It is Star Wars.

Having gotten the creation of the world right, SW:TOR reveals its trump card, fully voiced cut scenes. Like the Mass Effect series, you choose what your character says via a dialogue wheel. With just three options there’s not much room for finesse, but it is a huge improvement over the traditional quest text box and a mute hero. I really enjoyed the story side of things, it’s well written and progresses you through the universe quite nicely. Unfortunately is doesn’t quite obscure that fact that the rest of the game is box-standard MMO. Over familiarity with well-worn game mechanics are what kills this game, step away from your storyline quests and you enter a world of deja vu. Underneath the Star Wars gloss are the same sort of tasks that are found in many older, more established games, and at this point they’re just plain boring. This Yin and Yang of good storyline/boring side quests is why subscription numbers fell away. Gamers played the story to its conclusion and loved it, then tried the side quests and found nothing else to hold their attention besides rolling another character. This perhaps is the reason why gamers are so harsh with SW:TOR, Bioware has such a great reputation that fans were hugely disappointed to see them be so conservative with such an iconic IP. The MMO market is a crowded place, and being an “also ran” isn’t quite good enough if EA Bioware is written on the box.

The switch to free to play. Personally, I can’t see the switch as anything but a disaster for Bioware. The game launched with a subscription, therefore I think we can safely assume that free to play was never in their plans, so how on earth did they end up here? In my opinion it’s because of a lack of experience in the MMO genre which lead them to making some big mistakes PR wise. Before the game was launched there was massive hype. The Star Wars IP + Bioware’s RPG-making expertise = sure-fire hit. On the face of it a guaranteed success. The game did what most Bioware titles do at launch, sell millions of copies. Maybe that’s where the complacency set in, because they never worked fast enough to add features and content that would retain all those players who bought the game. With a console title, gamers buy the game, play for a few months, and then they stop and move on to something else. Fine if your game is called Mass Effect, very not fine if it’s called SW:TOR. Bioware’s biggest mistake in my opinion was spending too much time talking about what they were doing to make the game better, and not enough time doing it. A solid three months of pushing content and fixes out is what SW:TOR needed to put it on a firm base for future growth. Looking back, Bioware reminded me of the proverbial rabbit in the headlights, with the full gaze of  gaming press and MMO gamers upon them, they froze. Maybe the controversy over Mass Effect 3’s ending was a contributing factor to their indecisiveness, I don’t know. From the outside looking in it seemed to me that they had only planned for a runaway success, and when it didn’t happen they had no plan B.

So is SW:TOR worth your time? Right now with a sub fee? Maybe, only if you’re an avid Star Wars fan. When it finally goes free to play? Most definitely yes. Granted I only played the first 15 levels, but in all that time I never really found anything to really dislike. Bioware’s story telling is as excellent as ever, the fully voiced cut scenes for quest giving really gets you attached to your character, and the Light side/Dark side choices add the same sort of twist as choosing Paragon or Renegade. It’s a solid, fun RPG game that just happens to be an MMO too. With a subscription Star Wars: The Old Republic restricts itself to the real hard-core fans and that’s a shame because the story on offer here is really worth playing. Thankfully when it finally goes free to play, the question of whether the good bits are value for money goes away, and Star Wars:The Old Republic will get the number of players it deserves.

WoW Clone 😛

The Game Jar Files: Mass Effect 3 Earth DLC

Originally published on The Game Jar 30/07/2012

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Wait what? My epic space RPG has multi player? It sure does, and to my mind it’s the most surprising part of the package purely because it’s pretty awesome. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that the multi player side of the game has received no less than three bits of free DLC so far, the third being Earth, which released this week. Before I delve into the details, I’ll run through a brief overview for anyone who’s not played the multi player. The super short  TL;DR explanation would be something like “it’s a 12 wave Horde mode with occasional objectives thrown in”, but that wouldn’t really do it justice. Yes, it’s another survival type co-op mode that pits you and up to three of you best Reaper stomping buddies up against waves of increasingly difficult enemies, but the RPG character elements throw something fresh into the mix. Weapon load out, choice of race, and allocation of skill points all add an extra layer of tactics, and team play is nigh on compulsory. Add in familiar backdrops from the Mass Effect universe and you have well-rounded, highly enjoyable co-op experience.

New characters, new weapons, new difficulty. In addition to adding the new and totally masochistic Platinum difficulty, the Earth DLC adds six new characters, three new maps, and three new weapons. Potentially there’s a huge amount of theory crafting to be dug into here, but then this article would end up being three times the length, and it’s far more enjoyable to just go play the damn game.

Characters: Each class gets one new elite Human N7 Operative. Broadly speaking, and without getting bogged down by describing each ability in detail, they play pretty much as you would expect them to, the Engineer is still an Engineer for example. Two things did catch my eye though, the N7 Soldier is an absolute tank, Krogan levels of Shields and Health in fact, and the Sentinel has a rather nifty omnitool based shield strapped to his arm. The full list is as follows; The Biotic based Adept Class has added an N7 Fury with the ThrowAnnihilation Field, and Dark Channel abilities. The Soldier class has added the highly armoured N7 Destroyer. Multi Frag Grenade, Missile Launcher, and Devastator Mode are the included abilities. Engineer adds the N7 Demolisher with Homing Grenade, Arc Grenade, and the rather handy Supply Pylon. The tech/biotic Sentinel goes with the N7 Paladin. Snap Freeze, Incinerate, and Energy drain are present here. Perhaps my favourite class, the cloaky sniper Infiltrator adds the sleek sounding N7 Shadow. Tactical cloak, Shadow Strike, and the intriguing sounding Electric Slash are her tools. From most favourite to least favourite, the kill stealing Vanguard class goes with the aptly named N7 Slayer. The Phased Disruptor, Sonic Charge, and Bionic Slash abilities are sure to ensure that this new Vanguard is as OP as the other variants.

Weapons: Added to the already sizeable arsenal are the Piranha Assault Shotgun, the  Acolyte Pistol, and Typhoon Assault Rifle. I’ve not tried the shotgun or the rifle yet, but I have had a go with the Acolyte. I found it tricky to use, it needs charging by holding the trigger down and the bullets (grenades?) it fires have a tendency to bounce off of whatever they hit if you don’t get a direct strike. No doubt better players than me will put it to good use, but I won’t be swapping it for my Geth Rifle any time soon.

Firebase Rio First impressions are Hydro Electric. Rio is a long thin map with multiple levels, think Cod 4’s Wetworks or Gears of War’s Canals but with a Mass Effect look and you’re just about there. To the one side of the map we have a far off city lit up at dusk, and to the other we have what looks to be a dam. A central command building divides the map into two, and blocks sight lines from one end to the other. At one end is a power station looking area, with lots of vertical pylons making combat close quarters with lots of corners to hide around. Defending this area during objectives is tricky. The other end is more open and allows more ranged combat. To the side of this end is a platform in which all the games I’ve played so far seems to be the permanent extraction point. So far the best tactics seem to be to bunker in the centre of the map, down spread across the width, so as to be able to fire upon whichever end the enemies have spawned.

Firebase London. Instantly recognisable to anyone who’s played the final mission in the main story. Set during the night amongst the ruined buildings of London, this map is dark and moody. Arranged in a Plus (or positive) layout with rubble and vehicle wreckage everywhere, it plays just like Gears of War’s Raven Down. Enemies spawn from any of the ends, and anyone loitering in the middle of the map will soon find themselves under fire from all directions. The most defensive point is an elevated walkway across one end, which gives a good view of the centre and parts of the sides. You’re never total secure up their however, as there’s easy access via a flight of stairs at either end. Personally I’m not a massive fan of these night-time maps as I find the enemies and ammo dumps a little hard to spot, but they do have some real atmosphere. Overall a solid map that plays quite differently to Rio. 

Firebase Vancouver. This one is probably my favourite, being the only daylight map. Set on a damaged high-rise office block, it takes the shape of a square, with each quarter having a different feel. Deployment and extraction occurs on an outdoor and exposed Helipad in the bottom left corner of the map. Moving up from there we have a shady, utilitarian looking area with plenty of ducting and air conditioning units for cover. Up a flight of stairs to the left and we’re on a balcony overlooking the previous area, and in front us is the close quarters office block. Exiting the offices by moving down brings us to the last corner of the map, and back on to the roof area. Here there’s one lonely portacabin and a bit of ducting, not much cover if you get caught. With lines of sight between quarters nicely obscured, this map encourages you to stay on the move constantly, shotgun wielding Vanguards should particularly enjoy this one.

What can I say in conclusion apart from its free stuff so go download it. Criticisms? First, you don’t get to play with the new characters right away you have to unlock them. Second, the Rio and Vancouver maps are a little too generic Mass Effect universe in their looks for my liking, there’s nothing about them that really shouts “this is Earth”. Other than that, it’s a hearty thumbs up from me. Keep ’em coming, Bioware.

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