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.

1516178-the_conduit

The Witcher 3 and open world storytelling

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

(Light spoilers from the first ~4 hours ahead)

Throughout my nearly 100 hour playthrough of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I couldn’t help but constantly recognize ways in which the game continued to make the story of the main quest feel compelling. A surefire way to break the immersion, sure, but it felt like something truly worthy of recognition. After all, often my least favorite parts of open world RPGs are the main story, yet The Witcher 3 manages to make its main questline feel important and consistently interesting despite the dozens of hours of other content also vying for the attention of the player. This is, of course, a natural extension of the game being all around really damned good, but there’s definitely more to it than this.

It certainly helps that the main objective at any point in the game can be boiled down to a single line without feeling meaningless. It starts off as “Find Yennefer.” It’s pretty clear from the game’s opening moments that Yennefer is a person of great importance to Geralt and that their relationship extends beyond one of mere intimacy, especially since his dream initially depicts a fairly simple and relatively mundane version of their lives together. A lazy and beautiful morning at Kaer Morhen with some of the people Geralt cares for most. Geralt the character clearly feels compelled to find Yennefer but why would the player controlling Geralt feel the same?

The dream continues on to depict his relationship with Ciri, a young girl who takes the role of his protégé but perhaps somewhat of a daughter figure as well considering their apparent closeness. Everything then goes quickly into nightmare territory with Kaer Morhen coming under siege by a force of overwhelming power and Ciri being attacked directly.

While those with knowledge of the past games, or perhaps even the books, will recognize all of the shit that Geralt and Yennefer have actually gone through together, these details are unnecessary thanks to the game’s presentation of the dream and Geralt’s brief discussion with Vesemir afterwards, should the player choose to let Geralt open up about it. Geralt even states that he dreamt of he and Yen together at Kaer Morhen despite the fact that she had never even actually been there, making the beginning clearly idealized. In this conversation it also becomes readily apparent that Geralt is worried by the dream although fails to go into much detail about why. One thing is certain though. It seems as though Yennefer is in danger and that danger may extend to Ciri as well.

Rapid Fire Reviews 5-16-15

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

I haven’t done one of these in a bit. Here are some games I’ve been playing.

(Image courtesy of Codemasters)

Dirt Rally (Early Access)

I caught myself getting pretty excited when Codemasters decided to stealth drop Dirt Rally into Early Access on Steam a few weeks ago. I’m a pretty big fan of the Dirt series even though Dirt 3 and Showdown, the two most recent entries prior to Rally, missed the mark by a pretty wide margin. Thankfully, Dirt Rally represents an extremely strong return to form for the series, even in the feature limited Early Access version that is currently available.

Perhaps return to form is a bit inaccurate. Dirt Rally is, by all accounts, the most sim-like of all of the games in the Dirt series, so its more like a return to Codemasters’ earlier Colin McRae titles. Dirt Rally, with the default level of assists and AI set to the easiest difficulty, proves to be a decently challenging experience for several hours of play. The handling model in the game is generally more realistic than past titles and will require some getting used to. Not to mention the fact that the tracks are often more hazardous than ever with roadside debris, hairpin turns and slick surfaces all looking to fuck you over. Dirt Rally required a decent amount of studying before I ever felt like I was even a little in control of my vehicle.

Bloodborne’s fukkin easy, fam

Opinion, Video Games

Just kidding. Sort of.

Jeff mentioned in the last two Bombcasts that he felt like Bloodborne was much easier than he’d anticipated. In the discussion that followed, the bombcast crew briefly touched on the idea that perhaps this was because the Souls series’ reputation for being completely impenetrable was inaccurate to some degree. This definitely has a lot to do with it. Thanks to a combination of overbearing Bandai/Namco ads talking about how “OMG UR DEF GONNA DIE BCAUSE ITS SO HARD” and many mainstream gaming journalists consistently falling in line with this marketing ploy to some degree, what you have is a series that is unfairly passed over by many people because they just think that they wouldn’t be able to handle it.

The truth is that Souls games just value observation and patience over any form of raw skill, mechanical comprehension, or character build quality. Obviously having any or all of these things can make your time with a Souls game even easier but someone with the ability to patiently observe and calmly react to situations could make their way through the game without ever having to understand any of the admittedly sometimes overwhelming systems that are at play in these titles. And I think this is where the disconnect is for many people. Few other games ask players to be so consistently careful and even fewer games punish players as harshly for their carelessness.

This is where some of the changes in Bloodborne come into play and why the newest FromSoft title is the easiest in many ways.

From has, pretty smartly, made the initial playthrough of the game a bit easier when compared to past titles, but left the difficulty there for those that want it, locked away in chalice dungeons and NG+.

The biggest change has to be the health regain system that allows players to partially regain their health by striking an enemy after being damaged. This effectively lessens the punishment of player mistakes and somewhat encourages sloppier play. This, in turn, ensures that fewer blood vials will be used which, considering that players can now have 20+ healing items on them at any time, makes it quite easy to not have to use too many vials prior to reaching the boss. Being forced to use some of your valuable healing items on the run to the boss was a major point of difficulty in the past.

Healing is also now extremely fast, occurring in roughly a single second. Compared to the absurdly slow animation for drinking an estus flask in Dark Souls, this makes healing while in immediate danger actually feasible. Not to mention that the new dash makes backpedaling your way out of a fucked situation that much quicker, after which you can just quickly pop off 2 of your 20 blood vials. Combine all of this with the new ranged parries that are just as easy to pull off as shield bash parries in Demon’s or Dark Souls, except you can stand outside of melee range to do them. Or stand in melee range, potentially take a hit, and still regain your health off of a parry.

From aren’t stupid, though. They’ve been pretty aware of what aspects of the Souls series their fans love and these changes are, of course, intentional. They even took steps to balance them out. Armor now does little to protect you from physical damage meaning large enemies hit you harder than ever. They’ve added more random flailing to bosses which ensures that their movesets can’t be memorized as easily. NPC hunters can really take you out to pasture, too. Not to mention that the final (human) boss is one of the most challenging and enjoyable fights of its kind that the series has ever seen.

Bloodborne is certainly still quite a challenging game at times and has all of that Miyazaki “charm” in shiny new wrappings. It’s a great game and will easily be in my top ten at the end of the year, but it is far less punishing and much more accessible than what series veterans may have become used to.

The difficulty of Souls games is DEFINITELY oversold by many but, make no mistake, Bloodborne is definitely the easiest one of the bunch.

Images courtesy of Playstation.com/en-us/

Dying Light Review

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

Dying Light – Developed by Techland and Published by Warner Bros.

Purchased on Steam and reviewed on PC

Dying Light feels like a much more complete version of the ideas that Techland posited back in 2011 with the extremely flawed Dead Island. The latter felt like a budget title the instant that you booted it up which, while giving it a decent amount of charm, wound up being the killing blow for Dead Island in my eyes. The myriad of technical issues, cringe inducing story moments and questionable gameplay decisions sapped the enjoyment from the title regardless of its decently creative and fun gameplay systems. Dying Light, on the other hand, at least gives off the initial impression that it is trying to appear to be a AAA title, complete with snazzy little intro cutscene and a tonal shift towards the more serious end of the spectrum. However, it quickly shows its true hand when the plot absurdities and horrible voice acting reveal the camp beneath it all.

This is decidedly for the best. My patience for overly dramatic and self serious zombie related media have run dry long ago and a sillier approach is always welcomed. This is not to say that Dying Light doesn’t have its somber moments, but there is definitely more of a b-grade horror movie tone present throughout that lends well to the main character’s constant “Oh, fuck this” attitude. The protagonist is far from silent, often chiming in with thoughts that mirror the player’s own, and shit very rarely goes his way. And, in the end, this means Dying Light’s tale is considerably more human than many experienced in modern games. Don’t get me wrong, the plot is still pretty much terrible, complete with supposed twists and major character deaths that pack no meaningful punch, but by the end I had really come to sympathize with the plight of whatever the main character’s name is.

Dying Light takes the already enjoyable basic gameplay concepts from Dead Island and tweaks them to fit with the new parkour elements which are now a primary focus. Gone is the analogue melee combat which made accurate weapon swinging possible by giving the player full directional control but, honestly, I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I would. In its place exists a system to make melee combat feel much quicker which falls in line with the idea that the player should constantly be on the move. Dying Light feels more like you’re taking potshots at zombies as you sprint by whereas Dead Island felt more like an actual straight up fight. The parkour takes a lot from Mirror’s Edge (including the smart notion of making a shoulder button the jump button), feels great and is surprisingly satisfying thanks to a smartly crafted world to traverse. I just wish there had been a little more variety, as roughly 75% of your total play time is spent in one of two environments. That said, the parkour is easily the most successful part of the game as it ensures getting from point A to point B is always an immensely enjoyable experience, which is great because you’ll be doing a lot of that. Not to mention that Dying Light pretty much lacks any form of fast travel for a majority of the game.

Space Marshals Review

Mobile, Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

Space Marshals

Developed by Pixelbite Games

Reviewed on Retna iPad Mini

I know about as much about iOS gaming as I do about the current state of affairs in Lithuania but I definitely know when I like something, and I really like Space Marshals. It’s a gorgeously rendered top down iOS shooter with a particular focus on using stealth to engage enemies tactically and some beautifully realized touch controls that make the whole affair pretty painless to get into. It’s satisfying, and damned fun to boot, but it’s held back by some poor encounter design and the occasional overpowered enemy.

Space Marshals actually reminds me quite a bit of 2014’s Counterspy, both in good ways and bad. Counterspy was, of course, pretty strictly 2D whereas Space Marshals is more isometric, but the minute to minute gameplay isn’t all that different. Simply running headlong into a room full of enemies will only serve to get you straight iced in Space Marshals due to the fact that you are frequently both heavily outnumbered and outgunned. This leads to the utilization of stealth elements in order to tactically position yourself in the environment to give yourself an upper hand in combat. This is the modern equivalent of stealth gameplay boiled down to its simplest elements. Sneak around killing dudes just out of earshot or sight of other dudes and continue doing so until you’re spotted, then just start mowing guys down until things return to status quo. Rinse and repeat.

Alien: Isolation and patient gaming

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

Alien: Isolation asks quite a lot from the player. It asks that you consistently pay attention to your surroundings, that you strongly consider every single move, and that you be aware of the Alien’s location at any given moment. It asks that you remember things; passcodes to doors, the minute details of a floor’s layout, and even potential hiding places should things go south for you. It even asks that you look past your own anxiety and stress in order to move forward, one step at a time while under extreme and constant duress from all manner of forces more powerful than you. All of this takes a toll that is both emotional and mental, and, over time, this tension drastically alters the way you perceive the game itself as well as the challenges that it places in front of you. But perhaps the thing Alien: Isolation requires most from the player is something that is often in short supply: Patience.

There is a lot of waiting in Alien: Isolation. In the very beginning this is a good thing. Your brain is on full alert and you can feel your insides twisting at the mere prospect of that first sighting of your hulking Xenomorph nemesis. You know it’s coming. As a fan of Ridley Scott’s original film, those inevitable first deaths at the hands of the Alien are as tantalizing as they are dreadful. Smartly, the game holds back for roughly two hours of walking, exploration, and exposition about just what the hell is going on in Sevastopol station. The tension is sky high by the time you first glimpse the Alien in a clumsy, pre-rendered reference to the film that is really only missing a cat. This tosses away a lot of the good will that the game has been building so carefully but is certainly not even close to a killing blow. Soon enough you’re attempting to avoid a group of trigger happy humans, as well as the Alien, without even the motion tracker to assist you, in order to escape to another floor via an elevator.

This early sequence represents the game at its best. A clearly defined objective and some obstacles to be avoided with careful observation and a tiny bit of self assured forward progress. I slowly crept toward the objective in question, a door that needed to be hacked, with my heart pounding in my ears almost as loudly as the Alien scurrying in the vents above and the horns from the soundtrack blaring in my headphones. The Xenomorph clambered down from the vent in front of me with that shuddering vocal noise so strange that I couldn’t even begin to classify it. My first actual, unscripted Alien sighting. It was as awe inspiring as it was horrifying, easily making up for the earlier scripted missteps. All nine feet of it truly dwarfs the player character’s huddled form, startling me into an inability to move. Thankfully, it hadn’t yet spotted me so I began my painfully slow crawl back the way I came from, and huddled behind some cover where I waited for my situation to improve. I didn’t mind waiting because it was partially instinctual and, in my mind, it served a purpose: survival.

Sunset Overdrive Critical Analysis

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

I’m officially referring to Sunset Overdrive as my “Pleasant surprise of the year” because, man, I really didn’t expect to like it at all. Insomniac’s favor with me fell off pretty drastically during what I considered to be a run of pretty mediocre PS3 exclusive FPSes, uninspired Ratchet and Clank sequels, and then whatever the fuck Fuse was. This heartbreak and subsequent loss of faith in Insomniac’s ability to consistently put out quality, fun, and charming products really made me skeptical of Sunset Overdrive even if its concept had a lot of potential. Then came the abysmally unfunny ad campaigns which tried way too hard to get across that silly, anti-authoritative punk tone. The odds were pretty heavily stacked against Sunset Overdrive for me but, almost as if to simply prove me wrong, I think Sunset Overdrive is some of the most fun I’ve had playing a video game this year.

The premise is simple but with an interesting stylistic twist. What if the apocalypse was brought about by an energy drink that causes violent mutations in human beings and the corporation responsible for the drink would go to any lengths to contain and cover up the incident? The result, according to Sunset Overdrive, is the “awesomepocalypse”. A version of the apocalypse in which silliness and fun often trump whatever horrid acts occur during the collapse of society. The story, while always entertaining, really doesn’t have too much to it aside from the stock standard reluctant rise to heroism that your character pursues. The game has cliches in spades but it comes across as definitely purposeful thanks to the game’s overt self awareness. So, there really isn’t much of a plot to speak of but at least there are some relatively charming characters along the way.

The writing is decent enough but is mostly held back by some pretty forced hit or miss humor early on in the game which feels much more natural after several hours. It’s like they stopped trying to be funny and just started being funny, which works very well in the game’s favor and does an excellent job of upholding the lighthearted tone. And I really think that it’s that tone, which permeates everything in Sunset Overdrive from the art style to the music, that helps prevent the game from becoming stale across the numerous hours it takes to complete. But it’s the gameplay that truly sets it apart from the rest of the AAA titles as of late.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Critical Analysis

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

Do note that this review is only of the campaign and does not take into account any of the multiplayer features.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is at least better than the low point found in last year’s entry, Ghosts, but more importantly, it manages to actually recapture a little bit of what made Call of Duty such an enjoyable series in the early years. That is to say Advanced Warfare is strange because while it certainly attempts to push the franchise into the future through both the setting and, subsequently, the mechanics, it also feels more stuck in the past than ever.

Advanced Warfare is extremely faithful to the established Call of Duty formula, however, exactly which version of that formula may be the most surprising part. It feels most at home when compared to Modern Warfare 2’s flavor of action movie insanity, especially when you consider the sense of scale both of these games have. The release of Black Ops in 2010 signaled a full on departure from the large scale warfare prominent in previous entries and started to focus more on smaller, more intimate and secretive conflicts. More spy movie shit, if you will. Modern Warfare 2 had its fair share of spy movie shit as well, but much of it was in the background of a much larger conflict, and the player often participated in both types of missions.

Similarly, Advanced Warfare consistently switches between small and large scale battles throughout its campaign, ensuring that the pacing shifts enough that things never really feel stale. This return to the feel of older Call of Duty games is welcomed initially but it might be too little too late because, regardless of how good the game is, it’s still Call of Duty. The sense of excitement and wonder that used to permeate the release of a new Call of Duty is noticeably absent, as it has been for years, and really only serves to hinder Advanced Warfare in the long run. I definitely enjoyed myself while playing the game, but I also couldn’t help but feel like Advanced Warfare’s attempts to recoup the status quo that was lost in the last few games only made its formulaic mechanics outshine any potential amazement from the new stuff.