The best part of Dragon Age: Origins is Awakening

Opinion, Video Games
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Cover art courtesy of the Giant Bomb Wiki

By : William Chandler

Day 1 of the Write A Stupid Thing Every Day, or W.A.S.T.E.D, quarantine challenge that I’ve imposed on myself.

Some loose thoughts on Dragon: Age Origins and its expansion, Awakening.

Dragon Age: Origins is, unlike KOTOR, Jade Empire, or the Mass Effects, a slow burn of a story that really only gets better as it goes on. The beginning is a dreary, morose origin of your choosing that doesn’t skimp on the spectacle, but does cut back on the Golden Age Bioware bombast ™, at least in the plot department. In my particular case, a collegiate wizarding dropout that is forced to enlist in the military after his friend gets cancelled for not telling his GF about his blood fetish. The end of the world makes an unceremonious return to a bunch of people who know it’s there and just can’t be arsed to deal with it. There’s regular shit to do, haven’t ye heard? Fields to till and politicking to bungle. All the cards are laid out on the table after the battle at Ostagar which is roughly four hours into the game. I’ve seen the end already and know exactly the form it takes. No mystery, no suspense. This stands in stark contrast to the hushed whispers and conspiratorial end of the known universe in Mass Effect, the true nature of which presents as a third act reveal. For this reason, I think, Origins has a much less gripping early game but it only goes up from here.

Not mechanically speaking, though. The game is much the same at hour 50 as it is hour 1, with the exception of more frequent difficulty brick walls to careen into once you’ve lulled yourself into a false sense of security with the combat systems. Nay, the game truly shines in just how in control of the whole experience you feel. Decisions are laid at your feet at a regular pace from the very beginning and it’s difficult to tell that they are even decisions sometimes, much less which of them might just come back to haunt you later. The ending also changes in its fine details to reflect exactly what you have or have not done. In my first full playthrough of the game, completed last month, I realized that I didn’t care for Zevran all that much. I didn’t want him out of the story or dead or anything but he’d just be that party member in an RPG whom you mostly ignore through the end of the game unless you really need something lockpicked. I’d chat with him on occasion but his particular brand of ‘I’m a silly and horny assassin boy with a lonely backstory’ just didn’t do it for me. He betrayed me later on, like he knew exactly how I felt about him, and I had to set him on fire. Whoops. Guess I won’t see you in the sequels.

Replay: Mass Effect

Opinion, Video Games

By: William Chandler

232274-944902_99714_frontI’ve been meaning to replay the original Mass Effect for quite some time now. It stands as not only my favorite of the first two Mass Effect games but rounds out the holy trinity of Bioware games that is also comprised of KOTOR and Jade Empire. If I took the time to make a concrete top ten list of my favorite games, it would likely hold a pretty high spot. My love for the Mass Effect series is also tinged with regret. I’ve never actually even played Mass Effect 3 due to a lost save file that I carried through the first two games and a lack of motivation to start anew thanks to the quite controversial reception of the third game. After a nasty relapse and subsequent rage quit of my horrible addiction to ranked League of Legends, I decided to begin a full series play through in order to finally wrap things up for both Commander Shepard and myself.

Frankly, just thinking about how long it has been since the first Mass Effect came out makes me physically ill. It was nearly nine years ago and I was twelve years old. I did at least two full play throughs of the game in the week after its release, one renegade and one paragon, and I would later take my paragon file into Mass Effect 2. After which I wouldn’t ever play a Mass Effect game again. Well, until now that is.

For some reason the first things I thought of while installing Mass Effect onto my PC were the damned elevators. The ones on the ice planet of Noveria to be precise. I remembered their strange mosaic-like frosted glass windows that made them feel like they doubled as tacky bathrooms. I also remembered just how hated the elevators actually were at the time of the game’s release in 2007. The elevators served as some fairly lengthy and far too frequent loading screen cover ups which, if player reaction was anything to go by, was almost a worse idea than just having some long as shit loading bars. Back then I didn’t really mind them. Boy, was I tolerant. In the year of our Lord 2016, those things are actually the devil. They kill pacing and the frequent comrade conversations that I remembered from before actually are not all that frequent. I think I heard Garrus and Wrex (because those are the only two companions I ever use in ME1) bicker one time in my full 25-ish hours with the game.

Upon reaching the menu screen I felt some deep nostalgia from the music. I remembered it being great but, man, is it actually incredible. Honestly, the entire soundtrack is just aces. It’s one of the things from Mass Effect 1 that has held up the best. It’s highly electronic, of course, but it is sparse and tasteful enough that it never overstays its welcome and the incredible orchestral accompaniments are saved for some of the most memorable sections of the game. Outside of the soundtrack, however, the audio is surprisingly lackluster. Ambient audio is either barely acceptable or entirely not there and just about anything other than the bass filled gunshots are pretty bare. I think of my frequent MAKO drives along the surface of the empty side-planets and can really only call to mind the faint whirring of the MAKOs engines, another decidedly passable effect. At some point I just wound up turning on a podcast to fill in the silence.

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Enjoy the benefits of a capitalistic monopoly with the Steam sale

News, Video Games

By William Chandler

The annual Steam summer sale began today at noon and will purportedly continue through the 28th, with an encore event of the best deals lasting until the 30th. It’s extremely hard not to be excited by the prospect of buying stupidly large quantities of games at actually reasonable prices and then subsequently never playing them, but I pride myself on being a debbie downer. I mean, there is quite a large number of Early Access games in the top sellers page of Steam right now that, due to being in Alpha and already making boatloads of money, will probably not be discounted. Which is fine and dandy, but it just rubs me the wrong way that many of these games can be publicized as nearly complete on the front page while actually being hardly even playable, yet will likely avoid going on sale due to their incomplete nature. It’s just a weird situation, ya know?

Whatever. I gotta go buy Democracy 3 on sale right now.

(INFER ARTICLE TITLE FROM WITHIN)

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

Were I required to make some weird and creepy human personification regarding video game storytelling (which I obviously am), I would say that storytelling in games is akin to a young teenager still in the throes of awkwardness and enamored with the idea of who they want to be. Developers are unsure of just how to communicate exactly what they need for the plot, so they sprinkle collectible notes throughout the environments that the player then has to pick up and read for lore, or they insert cutscenes between bouts of interactivity for a brief bit of movie like exposition. But that’s the cool part about games as a medium; they can blatantly rip off styles of storytelling from books and movies without anyone batting an eye because they’re young and developing. Hell, often times they rip off multiple styles at the exact same time. And while this can work, and indeed has, for a great number of games, it often causes you to forget exactly why games are unique.

More like cut-movie am I right? *laugh track*

I mean, audio logs were cool as fuck when you heard them in System Shock 2, Doom 3, or the original Bioshock, because they were a relatively fresh concept for delivering background information that was not immediately necessary for the plot at hand. For Doom 3, all you really needed to know was that demons from hell were invading your shit on Mars and that it was a decidedly necessary venture for you to stop them from doing that. And you could certainly get all of that just by playing the game. However, if you really wanted to know why this was happening and what exactly was going on prior to your unfortunate arrival to the space station, you could pick up the numerous audio logs spread around the base that might clue you in on such things. They were pretty much an optional addition to the story and they didn’t require taking control away from the player like cutscenes, and that is precisely what made them interesting at the time.

The inherent popularity of them in the original Bioshock is really what did in audio logs for me, though. After Bioshock’s release, you would often see the arbitrary inclusion of audio logs in games that, frankly, did not need them. Who honestly cares about the motivations of the Jackal in Far Cry 2? Neither the plot of the game nor his character within it were interesting enough to even warrant me finishing it, much less giving a remote shit about finding 17 collectible audio logs in a game world so massive that it was unlikely you’d ever locate them all without some form of guide.

Thanks a lot Frank Fontaine

Honestly, the biggest problem with audio logs, as well as the aforementioned notes and cutscenes exposition methods, is that they are all counter productive to the entire purpose of video games, which is to be interactive. Cutscenes literally rip control away from the player and force them to stare at the screen for a few moments (or an hour if it’s a Kojima product), notes take time to read once you collect them, and audio logs force you to stand in one spot for a moment if you’d actually like to hear whatever it has to say without being interrupted by pesky gameplay.

Stop for a sec and read this note in the middle of this haunted asylum

This is not to say that these methods are wrong. But after years of playing games that repeatedly recycle these same methods which tell you everything directly, it is really easy to notice when games get it right. And boy does the Souls series get it right. Being forced to infer much of the plot and lore of the game from the environments, enemies, items, and characters within the gameplay is not only a refreshing change, but it also enhances the feelings of accomplishment you get from completing a particularly difficult area. Not being told everything directly up front through top heavy exposition makes the player feel intelligent and is more natural to boot. After all, when was the last time someone in real life explained every bit of his or her honest motivations behind an action at the slightest prod? Rather, you often get bits and pieces and are then forced to fill in the rest on your own based on knowledge of their character, environment, past, etc. The STALKER franchise is great at this as well, although their writing quality and story structure are admittedly considerably weaker.

Keep on wheelin’ and dealin’, Souls games

Gamers should encourage more developers to focus on perfecting the type of story delivery that complements the interactivity in games rather than perfunctory attempts at overly complicated, mature, and self serious plots (THE MULTIVERSE BOOKER) or pointless twists that only harm the game in the end (YOUR WIFE WAS THE BIONIC ARM THE WHOLE TIME).

Perhaps then storytelling in games can enter the young adult phase where it loses all motivation to improve and instead prefers to watch reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air all day.