The Game Jar Files: The problem with RPGs

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Originally published on The Game Jar – February 10th 2014

With the amount of cross-pollination going on in the games industry, it’s no surprise that genre boundaries are softening. First person shooters are borrowing elements from RPGs, RPGs are borrowing elements from FPS’, and all sorts of other genres are borrowing from both. Whilst the sharing of ideas is nearly always a good thing in my opinion, I do wonder if this process has some unwanted side effects to it, particularly in the case of RPGs. You see, to my mind, RPGs seem to have forgotten how to do the role-playing bit of their name over the years, and I’d like to know why.

Before I go any further, I’d like to set out what the term RPG means to me. Many many years ago, before video games were as ubiquitous as they are now, gaming meant something entirely different to me. Now and again, it meant moving little metal soldiers about on a table, but mostly it involved sitting down with a group of friends, with a sheet of paper and a pencil, and rolling dice. Advance Dungeons & Dragons was my first proper taste of a role-playing game, and ever since then I’ve been hooked. Thanks to the way it’s played, AD&D gives you access to a world that allows the player a tremendous amount of freedom to become their character, thanks largely to the fact that a human being is running the game, and not developer code. This freedom is at the heart of what a true RPG is to me, and it’s also what’s missing from a lot of games.

The Mass Effect series of games is a prime example of what a watered down RPG looks like. Because despite all of it’s choices, Mass Effect is a game that allows the player very little freedom. Instead of being free to take your character in any direction you wish, you’re constantly funnelled in the direction the game wants you to go in. Even the skill system rigidly binds you to the path set by the developer. Of course, being free to simply ignore the story unfolding around you has massive implications, but forcing you to pay attention to it also has its consequences. Knowing that there’s always a hand on your shoulder, constantly guiding you, means that Shepard never completely feels like your character. He or she will always partly belong to someone else, and I don’t think that’s what an RPG is about.

The reason developers are slowly watering down player freedom, is that they have far more control over the quality of our experience. In theory, that sounds like a good thing, but along with that control comes the restriction to fully role-play your character. Going back to AD&D, the very best Dungeon Masters know that part of creating a great gaming session means being brave enough to allow players the freedom to fuck things up by being stupid or reckless. If my Rogue is the kind of guy willing to risk his life by smuggling a dagger into a tavern that doesn’t allow weapons, the DM needs to have the flexibility to allow me to play him that way. The moment he tells me my character wouldn’t do that, he’s not wholly my character. If developers want their players to fully immerse themselves in the character they’re playing, failure – intentional or otherwise – has to be an available option.

Whether we’ve ever had an RPG game that truly offers the same freedom as AD&D, I don’t know, but I do think some have gotten close. The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion was the last video game I played that came closest to emulating the freedom of a pen-and-paper role-playing game, mainly because of the things I’ve already talked about. Apart from a small section at the very beginning of the game, the story left you alone to get on with things. The moment you left that sewer, you could be anyone you wanted –  a hero, or a villain,  or even a drunkard and a wastrel. And yes, I could even fuck things up by murdering key characters, or intentionally being bad at wielding a sword. I know it sounds counter-productive to suggest developers should allow their players enough scope to go astray and miss out the story they want to tell, but to me that freedom is essential to great role-playing.

To be fair to developers, they have gotten much better at telling us awesome stories, and I thoroughly enjoyed games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, but at the same time they do seem to have lost the ability to tell them without holding our hands all the damn time. They’ve become far too obsessed with the concept of every player being the chosen one with a carefully scripted special destiny. One of my favourite P&P RPG’s of all time is a game called Call of Cthulhu. In that game there are no special snowflakes, only ordinary human beings – human beings likely to wind up either dead or mad. How quickly the player ends up there is entirely in the hands of the player. The creators of the game aren’t obsessed with ensuring players get to see the entirety of everything they’ve created, and the game is better for it.

If we’re to go back to having meaningful role-playing experiences, developers need to be braver, and set us free. They need to accept the fact that abject failure is also a viable option. They need to come to terms with the idea that creating a truly unique character also includes the possibility of making mistakes when creating it. When they narrow the choices down to ‘Correct’ and ‘Slightly less Correct’, when they refuse to allow us to create an average and flawed Commander Shepard, they place an unwelcome limit on how much we the players can develope our characters. In their relentless pursuit of the ‘great gameplay experience’ they’ve taken away our freedom, and that dear readers, is the problem with RPGs today.

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?

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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.

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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: 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: 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.

Do review scores matter any more?

Outside of Metacritic related bonuses, do they really matter any more?

Name whatever series you want, we’re all invested in one title or another. We all have an attachment to at least one game that’s so strong, review scores become irrelevant. For me it’s games like Mass Effect or Gears of War, for you it could be Battlefield. Whatever it is, chances are it’s a sequel of some kind. And that’s not a criticism, publishers are businesses and sequels are where the low risk sure-fire profits are at right now. Despite the fact that most of us like to think we want new IP, the sales figures say we want sequels. But that’s not all they say. If you listen carefully they also say that the whole practice of reviewing games and giving them a score is fast becoming a pointless exercise.

Let’s take Call of Duty Black Ops 2 as an example. Anybody involved in this hobby will be able to tell you this game will be the biggest launch of the year regardless of the reviews it gets. Call of Duty fans buy Call of Duty games, so what relevance does any score have? The same immunity to a 1/10 score also renders a 10/10 score meaningless. Why even bother reviewing the game at all if the very best score possible has no real impact on commercial success? You have the holy grail of video games here, a title so strong that it’s a guaranteed sales blockbuster, and at the same time impervious to negative write ups.

At this point you’re probably thinking that I’ve missed the point of reviews entirely, but it’s not the text I have a problem with, it’s the outdated mechanic of putting a number at the end. Even though the write-up is someone else’s subjective opinion, it still gives you a much better flavour of what the game is like than an arbitrary mark out of ten. So come on, isn’t time we ditch the review score and rely solely on the text of a review? I’d argue we’d all be better off if we did.

Multi-Player Weekend Event Madness!

Apologies for no post last week, a stomach bug has been sweeping through our house and one of the casualty’s was last week’s post. I did have a long old speech about Bioware’s artistic integrity not really being under attack three quarters done, but as it’s not really that relevant now the post is lost to the mists of time. A lucky escape I hear you mutter.

Anyway, I’m still not quite 100% so this post will be short and sweet, and not really about anything at all. This weekend I’ll be trying to fit in two multi-player event weekends, one on Gears of War 3 and one on Mass Effect 3. If you fancy joining me hit me up over Xbox Live – Gamertag: SGT Benton.

Details incoming!

Gears of War 3

Gears Weekend 2x XP in versus, beast and horde. Guardian has a new xp multiplier. Horde bonus objectives every 2 waves. Custom gnasher skin.

Gears Weekend playlist is Raven Down 24/7. First to 10 Execution with Gnasher and golden snub loadout on Raven Down only.

Gears Weekend features tophats and flower blood for the Raven Down massacre playlist.

Mass Effect 3

Join the war against the Reapers online between 5PM PST Friday, March 30th to 5AM PST Monday, April 2nd and promote at least 2 characters to your single player campaign.

This operation includes PC and Xbox 360; we are continuing to work with Sony to enable these types of Operations on the PlayStation 3 platform. We appreciate your patience, and we expect an update later this week regarding Operation Raptor and the PlayStation 3.

Commendation Packs will be awarded to individual soldiers who complete their training, and a Victory Pack will be awarded to everyone if the Allied Goal is achieved. Packs will be available to download the following week. Please note that participants need to set “Upload Gameplay Feedback” to “on” in the online options to be able to participate in Operation RAPTOR.

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