Category Archives: Reviews

The Legend of Zelda – Review

Originally released on the NES in a gold cart, there's a little cutout on the box for it to shine through.

I completed The Legend of Zelda a few weeks ago. I originally purchased it something like five years ago at a garage sale along with a Nintendo Entertainment System and some other games. At that time I was beginning to realize I really liked what The Legend of Zelda games offered. I played The Legend of Zelda and probably got halfway through it but gave up. But I recently decided to compose an encyclopedia dedicated to the franchise and thought I should begin with the first installment. Besides playing through the game, I crafted graph paper maps of the overworld and each dungeon, as well as an item list, a bestiary, and a synopsis.

The Legend of Zelda has no intricacy to the story. Ganon has captured princess Zelda and wishes to rule Hyrule. Link saves Zelda’s nursemaid who tells Link of this and he decides to save Zelda by completing the Triforce of Wisdom, which Zelda broke into eight shards to prevent Ganon from getting them. Akin to the story, Hyrule itself is rather sparse. There are towns in Hyrule, occasionally caves will house merchants or some helpful elderly citizens, but that’s it. The Legend of Zeldais a lonely adventure.

The overworld of Hyrule as made by me! 8 pages long by 4 pages tall for a total of 32 pages.

That’s not to say there isn’t much life in Hyrule, to the contrary. There is a plethora of enemies throughout the kingdom, as well as in the many dungeons. There’s actually a wide variety of enemies too. Sure some are variations of other monsters, e.g. red and blue versions, but defeating all these different enemies requires many weapons and items.

So now that Link has an objective, complete the Triforce of Wisdom and save princess Zelda, and he has enemies in between him and his goal, it’s quest time proper! But what’s an adventurer without a weapon? Well Link receives a sword at the very beginning of the game, the first screen to be precise, from a helpful old man. But besides the trusty sword, there are many additional weapons throughout Hyrule that are necessary to progression.

Even though I feel Hyrule is very sparse because of the lack of towns or humans, it’s a wonderful place to adventure through. Exploring Hyrule was often very satisfying, made more so as I completed another screen of my maps. With each screen, I stumbled upon a new arrangement of enemies, the screen itself a battle puzzle, and once I finished off the remaining enemies, I’d explore my surroundings and see if anything was out of place. At some point the areas of Hyrule I could reach would force me to battle through a new dungeon, obtaining a new weapon or item, and clue, that would help me defeat more enemies, reach new places, and hopefully, set me on the path to my next destination.

Once in a dungeon, the object is to reach the boss, defeat it, and claim the shard of the Triforce. Each dungeon has a dungeon map that reveals the layout and a compass that shows where the Triforce shard is located. In most dungeons, there is a secret item that is necessary to defeating that dungeon’s boss, or a subsequent dungeon’s boss. Also located in nearly every dungeon is an old man who gives a hint as to Link’s next steps. Some of the clues were vague, but it was enjoyable deciphering them and figuring out for myself what to do next.

A photo of an individual page of my overworld map. Everything is colored in accordingly and included are notations about each screen.

I found the first half of the game quite easy. The areas of Hyrule I had access to at this stage was limited, due to the items I had at the moment, so the enemies weren’t too difficult. As I got closer to completing the Triforce though, I was able to explore Hyrule more fully, and not only that, but the dungeons began growing in size and becoming much more troublesome. The enemies took more hits to defeat and there was a greater quantity of them in the later dungeons. In many of the later dungeons I’d often get stuck on one room in particular, usually because it contained a lot of enemies that would take multiple hits to defeat. The layouts were more confusing as well; instead of obvious room to room progression, there’d be more dead ends or secret paths that opened when bombing walls. That aspect didn’t bother me at all however. It would be annoying when I ran out of bombs to try and find some more, but finding secret paths made me feel like I was mapping a world unseen.

Finding paths, deciphering clues, and mapping the world in general was very appealing to me. Completing The Legend of Zelda was fun, but much of my enjoyment came from making my maps and learning Hyrule. The combat got difficult in some areas, but it was also simple and fun. At some point, mapping dungeons or the overworld would become necessary to complete the game, but doing it from the beginning adds an extra sense of accomplishment and I will always have these maps to look back on.

Universal Studios Theme Park Adventure – Review

The box art for Universal Studios Theme Park Adventure

It may not be at the top of everyone’s list of fun things to do, but going to Universal Studios ought to be at the very least, a memorable experience. Not everybody can have that experience though; that’d be mad expensive! Definitely more than it’d cost to pick up Universal Studios Theme Park Adventure for the GamCube, and I thought it was a very memorable game… for all the wrong reasons. Universal Studios theme Park Adventure is a dull premised game, with very poor gameplay and a lack of nearly any fun.

In Universal Studios Theme Park Adventure, you play as a nameless child who has been told by Woody Woodpecker to go and check out Universal Studios. There is an objective and an end to the game. To complete the game you must ride every ride and collect the letters that spell out Universal Studios. At the beginning there is only one ride that’s open: E.T. Adventure, and actually that’s the only ride that’s ever open. To ride any rides after you complete E.T. Adventure you must buy hats that allow unlimited access to the other rides, I would’ve liked to know that before exploring the whole park and wondering: “How do I ride these other rides?”

Once you figure that out it’s just a matter of getting enough points to buy hats, it’s not that hard, not that fun either. You earn points by completing rides, finding letters, picking up garbage around the park, as well as shaking hands with mascots. Garbage is very prevalent but it doesn’t add up. Running into the mascots happens pretty frequently and there’s no reason not to shake their hands. However getting around is a chore. You do get a map but it’s nigh impossible to make sense of it. I eventually remembered the layout from memory, but even then, I still spent too much time trying to get places.

The attractions are the meat of the game, and wow, they’re stinkers. E.T. Adventure is the first attraction, and the one that’s always open; it plays like a not fun version of Paperboy. In Jaws, you are on a boat he’s attacking; you throw barrels and crates at Jaws to prevent him from attacking. It controls terribly and the timing of button pushes doesn’t seem to fit the on-screen action. Animation Celebration is a collection of three minigames: a trivia game, a puzzle, and a game of concentration; Animation Celebration is not required to complete the game, coincidentally, it’s not fun either. Back to the Future – The Ride is a chase ride where Biff has stolen the DeLorean and you must ram it until its health is depleted, which is harder than it sounds. In Backdraft you play as a firefighter and must rescue survivors, while putting out fires in an apartment building, and I didn’t totally hate it. In Jurassic Park – The Ride you operate a laser on the back of the Jeep from the first movie, while being chased by an assortment of dinosaurs. You can charge it up or just fire away; this attraction wasn’t terrible either; it’s very reminiscent of the Sega arcade/Dreamcast game Charge ‘n’ Blast. Waterworld. Waterworld has you watching a cutscene. But wait! You can view this cutscene from five different angles. Yes, that’s right, five! It’s probably the worst looking piece of CG video you’ll ever see, and it’s pointless. Five seconds and nothing interesting happens. Lastly The Wild, Wild, Wild West is in the vein of old light-gun arcade games where you shoot at targets, here you just need to be faster than the CPU.

The majority of the attractions are straight-up, not fun, and the compliments I could muster for the others are they’re not one-hundred percent not fun. In a weird way though, I enjoyed Universal Studios Theme Park Adventure. I don’t think many people will ever play this game so the knowledge that I have about it makes it seem worth more than the knowledge I have about a game a lot of people have played. I have a soft spot for the game, I feel sorry for it. That said, it’s not a fun game and I wouldn’t recommend it.

Final Fantasy XII – Review

The party from Final Fantasy XII.

I’ve completed another Final Fantasy, this time a more modern one, Final Fantasy XII. While I am knowledgeable about the series, I haven’t played a ton of them, but this is easily my favorite. I spent a month and a half playing through Final Fantasy XII in bits and pieces when I had the time and I’ve thought a lot about the game in the weeks since I beat it, what I’ve written are the my biggest takeaways from the game. I’ll talk about the world at large in Final Fantasy XII, Ivalice, the characters that form the party, the story very briefly, and the battle system. In general I feel Final Fantasy XII is a staple in the collection of anyone who enjoys role-playing games, and worth a look even for those don’t.

Final Fantasy XII takes place in Ivalice, a familiar environment for the series, home to the Final Fantasy Tactics games, as well as Vagrant Story. Ivalice spans many geographical regions, including many deserts, but it’s also home to snow covered mountains, tropical beaches, thick rainforests and more. Passing through these regions, I enjoyed not only the battles that took place in them, but marveling at the amount of work that went into making each location as detailed as they turned out.

Smack dab in the center of Ivalice is Dalmasca, home to Rabanastre, the city where much of the game takes place. Rabanastre is large, the largest city I’ve ever seen in a role-playing game, or any video game for that matter. Walking through its many areas, I viewed the beautiful architecture that it was composed of, reminiscent of a Europe of ages past. But Rabanastre isn’t the only large city in the game, there are others, but there is diversity in Final Fantasy XII; more common are the small gatherings of people, forming makeshift hubs, or villages in the heart of the wilderness, composed of foreign races.

The party battling a boss. Notice the blue line extending from Penelo, telling her who to attack.

After reading that the developers had visited Turkey and took an interest in European, Middle Eastern, and Asian cultures for the game, it’s easy to see that the influence has found a place in the game, specifically, much of Ivalice is set in a warmer climate, with Rabanastre being surrounded by deserts on all sides.

The vocabulary the characters often spoke with prompted me to look at some words’ meaning more than once and I’m not digging the game for it; I enjoyed hearing seemingly archaic words, broadening my own vocabulary; it’s something that helped reel me into the setting. Even though the game has an antique vibe, technology is everywhere. One of the first cut scenes in the game shows a battle raging with foot soldiers on the ground dressed in armor and swinging swords at each other; one side attempting to defend a castle-like structure with the other side attempting to capture it, meanwhile an aerial dogfight is going on between futuristic flying crafts, zipping about. This blend of swords and soldiers and futuristic sci-fi was an interesting juxtaposition of aesthetics.

Ivalice is a world built on the foundations of magicite; a magical crystal substance that holds power, power that inevitably will end up in the wrong hands. Long ago the Dynast-King Raithwall united all of Ivalice under his rule, with the help of magicite, bestowed to him by the mysterious Occuria, undying, god-like beings. The time of the Dynast-King Raithwall was thousands of years ago and current day Ivalice is on the brink of war.

The battle I mentioned earlier was between the Dalmascans, protecting Nabradia, the border between them and their attackers from the east, the Archadians. Archadia is a large kingdom, perhaps the most powerful at this time in Ivalice and they want Dalmasca. Why? Perhaps they want Dalmasca to allow them easy passage to a third kingdom, Rozarria in the far west. During the final moments of this battle, the king of Dalmasca has agreed to sign a treaty with Archadia, but he is assassinated directly after.

A couple of years after this, we are introduced to Vaan and Penelo, two orphans living in Rabanastre  who both lost their parents in the war, as well as Vaan’s brother, who fought at Nabradia. Vaan has much disdain for the empire, after all the war took his whole family. Vaan doesn’t have much direction in life, he spends his days running errands for a shopkeeper along with other orphans of the war, but much of his time is spent stealing from others. His only real goal is to become a sky pirate and be able to live freely, going wherever he wants. Penelo seems to be the angel on Vaan’s shoulders, leading him out of trouble and attempting to prevent him from getting into any more. While Vaan has his goal of becoming a sky pirate, all it seems Penelo wants is to remain at Vaan’s side, and not lose anyone else.

Rabanastre is soon paid a visit by a member of the Archadian royal family, and the newest overseer of Rabanastre, Vayne Solidor, the son of the Archadian king. He is a charismatic person; as he begins speaking to the crowd of Rabanastrans, it’s apparent they don’t want what he’s selling, but Vayne is able to whip the crowd into frenzy and get behind his rule, at least somewhat, with a charming presence and an intelligent tone; he seems peculiar though. Vayne is tall, with long black hair, and a smile that seems… off, he just looks like an antagonist. After Vayne’s speech, Vaan decides to break into the royal tomb and steal something back from the empire and it’s during this escapade that he meets Balthier and Fran.

Balthier has a cool personality about him, he always appears to be in control of the situation; basically he’s the dashing pirate. His partner Fran is a viera, a woman with rabbit like features, including long ears and hair that practically flows to the ground. Like Balthier she also has a cool personality, never coming off as nervous. She definitely shows her smarts throughout the game, offering practical advice and necessary knowledge of magicite. As the game progresses Balthier comes to view himself as the leading man, and why not, being a sky pirate he has the airship that eventually transports the party, he shows an altruistic side later on and all in all, he’s just a fun character. And from the events that unfold, his past is brought to light and wow!

CG from the cut scene where Vayne Solidor presents himself before Rabanastre.

As they make their way out of the royal tomb, they soon stumble into a rebel group, headed by an unassuming beauty, who is later found out to be the princess of Dalmasca, Ashe. She is a strong-willed fighter who wants nothing more but to restore Dalmasca to the kingdom it was before Archadia took over. As the story progresses she has to find the strength within herself to do what she must; even though she is strong-willed, she has doubts about what she has to do, and whether she can pull off what must be done. At times she seems distant from the rest of the party members, almost focusing solely on what lies ahead for her, but with what lies ahead for her, who wouldn’t be focusing on that, after all, Ivalice’s future is practically on her shoulders.

Last, but not least, there is Basch, a former leader in the Dalmascan army, but now an outcast, as he has been charged with assassinating the king. The party finds him in prison, and while they know what he has done, they know they need him. But Basch does not have the demeanor or the attitude of a royal assassin; it becomes instantly apparent that this cannot be the man who murdered a king. He is a soldier through and through, showing respect for the rest of the party, and pledging allegiance to Ashe in particular.

There was a lot going on in the narrative of Final Fantasy XII, at times I felt overwhelmed, but I managed to sift through the dense amount of information and enjoyed the payoff.  In the last ten or so hours of the game, all these story threads were coming to a close, and I didn’t want to stop playing; I was the most hooked to the game at the very end. I clocked in under 80 hours when I finally beat the game, and I still had plenty to do. I aim to replay Final Fantasy XII at some point, and I left plenty of side quests for that play through but I did an ample amount regardless. Final Fantasy XII is simply a massive game, with a massive amount of content.

I guess the only thing I haven’t talked about is the actual gameplay and the systems Final Fantasy XII employs. With each Final Fantasy, Square Enix implements a new battle system, or tweaks aspects of a previous one and Final Fantasy XII is no different.

The party battling it out.

Many role-playing games have plenty of areas to explore, and they’re usually broken up into towns, a world map that the party traverses, and dungeons. Typical of many RPGs, especially those from Japan are random battles. For instance, as I’m moving my party around the world map or a dungeon I see no enemies, but I’m randomly attacked and whisked off into a battle scene in which I choose the actions I want to take, and once I’ve won, I’m back to the world map or dungeon. Instead of random battles, when I wouldn’t know when I’d be attacked, Final Fantasy XII shows enemies while I’m traversing dangerous areas. This isn’t the biggest change however.

Just as random battles are common in role-playing games from Japan, so are turn-based battles, battles where everyone is allotted a turn, including the enemies. In games like this I would pick an action, my character would do that, and then the enemy would do the same. Instead of being whisked off to a battle scene in Final Fantasy XII, the party members begin attacking enemies whenever they’re in range, never being taken into a separate scene. Direct control was never taken away from me, I could move about and select the actions I wanted and when the battle was done, the party relinquished their weaponry and I continued exploring the area. This “Active Dimension Battle” system as Square Enix calls it requires real-time selection of actions, and as such, I didn’t wait for the enemy to have his turn and then take mine. I’d select an action for a party member to take, and then a bar would fill up and they would do that action, there are still elements of taking turns, but never losing direct control of my team went a long way in making me not feel limited.

Setting up Penelo's gambits.

Rather than entering in actions for each party member, I could assign “gambits” to them. Gambits tell the AI to “do this, if that.” There are hundreds of separate gambits and when paired up, they’ll tell an AI-controlled party member to do something. For instance, I could have Vaan use a potion on a party member when their health falls below a certain percentage, or attack only flying enemies. Each character can have twelve gambits assigned to them maximum, and they’ll follow them according to their priority. I felt as though I could pair gambits up for any occasion, even though I used fairly simple combinations, I knew I could get very creative with them. For the first twenty or so hours I assigned gambits to the two AI-controlled members of my party and chose every action for my main character, but I eventually had everyone using gambits. Instead of being a player on the field, I was more of a referee, changing actions when I thought something would work better or just healing somebody because I hadn’t told an AI member to watch out for a certain adverse affect.

With Final Fantasy XII, Square Enix developed Ivalice into one of the biggest and most detailed game worlds I’ve played through; introduced me to well-developed characters who did not seem like the played out caricatures I’m used to in role-playing games; showcased an interesting story, one that harkened back to the roots of Final Fantasy, with crystal-powered life, all the while, weaving an interesting mature tale of corruption and complex relationships. Lastly, I experienced gameplay systems that brought new elements to a genre I spend so much time with. For these things, and many smaller elements, Final Fantasy XII will be a game I gauge all others by.

Mass Effect 2 – Review

Commander Shepard is joined by some new faces in Mass Effect 2.

I jumped into Mass Effect 2 right after completing Mass Effect and its DLC packs. I was late to the party on Mass Effect, but I enjoyed it immensely nonetheless. Mass Effect 2 provides many changes to the formula set up in Mass Effect and many of these changes were to aspects that I enjoyed in Mass Effect. Mass Effect 2 has forsaken much of the role-playing aspects from Mass Effect, for example loot. I enjoy the constant quest for better gear in games, so the removal of this, and other concepts turned me off initially, but in the end, provided for a more efficient adventure. Overall, BioWare has shifted some focus away from the RPG aspects of Mass Effect and made Mass Effect 2 a much better action game and a better game in general.

When I traveled between planets in Mass Effect, I either knew exactly where I wanted to go or I was just exploring. If I was completing a mission I’d make sure I knew the star cluster, the star system and finally which planet, sometimes I’d even keep a pen and paper handy to keep track of everywhere I needed to go. Mass Effect 2 has simplified this process; whenever you enter the galaxy map, icons related to your missions point out where you go until you’re finally at your destination and the actual travel in the galaxy map is handled slightly differently as well, which I prefer over Mass Effect’s.

When completing missions in Mass Effect, I’d land on the planet I needed to be on and first off, check the map, locating the closest object and going for it, whether it is a mineral, some loot, or where I needed to be for the mission. When I’d get planet side in Mass Effect I’d feel compelled to explore it, before tackling the mission. In Mass Effect 2, they’ve taken this sort of exploration out; instead when you land on a planet, you go straight into the mission or colony if it’s a location akin to the Citadel. This creates a more straight forward approach to the missions, and the game in general; it felt significantly more closed off. Personally I enjoyed exploring planets and scavenging for loot in Mass Effect, but I also appreciate the structure that Mass Effect 2 presents, I was able to get exactly where I needed to be without hassle.

Tali battles alongside Commander Shepard.

Tied into the scaling back of exploration is the removal of loot. Instead of stumbling upon hundreds of weapons and various equipment that are unique primarily because of their stats, Mass Effect 2 has simplified all this by allowing access only to a handful of different weapons. New to Mass Effect 2 is the upgrade system. On the Normandy is a research station where you spend minerals to produce upgrades, either found while on missions or bought from stores. In Mass Effect, minerals were found by mining them planet side, now that landing on planets is removed, minerals are received from scanning planets in the galaxy map, which turned out to be a fun, fairly mindless, way to spend some time.

Mass Effect 2 is much more competent as an action game than Mass Effect was. First off, Mass Effect 2 does a better job of integrating biotic and tech abilities into the combat. In Mass Effect, I don’t remember using my allies’ abilities as much as I do in Mass Effect 2. Whenever I’m in a firefight, I use my squad’s abilities as often as possible. Of interest is the ability to combine effects to create more powerful reactions, in some ways shaping who I decided to take along with me on missions. Instead of having infinite ammo and overheating, weapons must now be reloaded; which didn’t really change the way I played; I never had a problem running out of ammo as enemies dropped it quite frequently and I had plenty of weapons or abilities if needed. As was the case in Mass Effect, the squad Shepard leads in Mass Effect 2 is diverse, both personality-wise and ability-wise, only more so this time around. Every character seems more developed, and more differentiated then the cast of Mass Effect.

While I don’t want to spoil much as it has a phenomenal story, I will say that Mass Effect 2 opens with a bang, surprising myself and everyone else as I recall when it originally came out. The opening paves the way for the story in Mass Effect 2 to come from a different angle then in Mass Effect. The overall objective of the game seems like a suicide mission, but the way I handled it, everything turned out satisfactorily. In Mass Effect, there was an enemy to target and something to qualify as an end, taking out the rogue Spectre, Saren Arterius. Mass Effect 2 doesn’t have that sort of singular enemy threat, leading to a feeling of lack of accomplishment upon reflection. I definitely completed what I set out to do at the onset of Mass Effect 2, but it feels like an insurmountable task, still, to defeat the Reaper threat in Mass Effect 3, which makes me want Mass Effect 3 even more to see how this series is resolved. Regardless Mass Effect 2 was an exceptional adventure and I discuss it often with others who have played through it, it’s a fun game to talk about.

Mass Effect 2 got of rid many of the things I enjoyed about Mass Effect, but I still came away liking Mass Effect 2 more. The game is still an RPG, and it’s still a third-person shooter, BioWare has emphasized the action more in Mass Effect 2 and as a result, it’s a much better action game. While I loved the exploration and the RPG aspects of Mass Effect, I think the simplification of these mechanics made Mass Effect 2 an improved game over its predecessor. I could write another thousand words about Mass Effect 2 but at this point it’s clear: Mass Effect was terrific, and one of my favorite video games, Mass Effect 2 is even better, and I can’t wait to play Mass Effect 3.

You Don’t Know Jack – Review

You Don't Know Jack returns to consoles after a long absence.

For a series that was at one point as prominent as You Don’t Know Jack was, I’ve had little experience with it. The series debuted in 1995 and there have been many releases since then. Of the games released, I’ve only played the PlayStation version of the first game. I bought the PlayStation version a couple years back and a friend and I play it every now and then. It’s a great game to turn to when we’re in the mood for some trivia, or just something to laugh at. The newly released You Don’t Know Jack, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Nintendo Wii and DS, and of course the PC, has brought  the experience back to consoles, and it’s a welcome return, although not much has changed.

You Don’t Know Jack is broken down into episodes, with each episode containing ten questions. The questions are often humorously written while maintaining a clear enough tone to know what’s being asked, mostly. Occasionally, it’s confusing to figure out what the question is asking for, as if the writer got too caught up in attempting to make a joke, instead of maintaining a balance between humor and understandability. The topics vary greatly, from scientific lingo to questions about recent pop culture; throughout our play session my friend and I were equally knowledgeable and lucky in our answers and saw a wide variety of topics.

The episodes contain ten questions along with a minigame or two and each episode ends with a Jack Attack. Episodes are not randomly put together so once an episode is completed, there isn’t much point in returning to it. Each episode begins with the host mentioning the sponsored wrong answer; as the episode proceeds, if you find an answer that relates to the sponsor somehow, pick it, you’ll get the question wrong, but for finding the sponsored wrong answer, you’ll receive a prize and some bonus cash. Before playing each person must create a profile, each person’s profile shows their stats and the prizes they’ve found, the prizes are something to replay older episodes for, but collecting them seems like pretty minor bragging rights.

Besides the sponsored wrong answer, there are a few other unique aspects to the game flow. At some point, the person with the lowest score will get to attempt a Dis or Dat. In Dis or Dat, the player with lowest score is given keywords and picks whether that keyword falls into one of the two categories, or occasionally both. The Dis or Dat that sticks out in my mind was the first one my friend and I got. We had to pick whether the words given were the names of Popes, or the names of Britney Spears songs, this example shows what the developers mean when they call You Don’t Know Jack a blend of high culture and pop culture.

The Jack Attacks play out similarly. The host gives a clue as to what the players are looking for, and they must match the two words that fit the best. In the center of the screen is one large keyword that is coming towards the players. While it’s onscreen, smaller keywords are flashing around, and if the connection between these two keywords is what was asked for, the players buzz in. The person who gets it the fastest gets four thousand dollars, but, if you buzz in on the wrong answer, you lose four thousand dollars. The Jack Attacks gave a chance for those who didn’t do well throughout the course of the game to have a final chance, but in my experience with the game so far, if you did well throughout the game, you’d likely do well during the Jack Attack.

You Don’t Know Jack is a blast, especially for thirty dollars. I haven’t tried the online, and the single player is a quick way to experience the game’s humor but for me, local multiplayer is the only way to play You Don’t Know Jack. With seventy-three episodes, it’ll be a while before I’ve experienced everything You Don’t Know Jack has to offer, and if I’m still left wanting more at that point, I’ll pick up one of the downloadable content packs, not that that’ll happen anytime soon.

Mass Effect: Pinnacle Station – Review

In Pinnacle Station, Commander Shepard competes for the best scores in a training simulator.

Pinnacle Station was the second and last piece of downloadable content released for Mass Effect. The other piece of DLC, Bring Down the Sky, plays out like any other mission that Shepard gets. What I mean is that you travel to a location, figure out what’s really going on and decide how to handle the situation. Pinnacle Station on the other hand has no decisions to be made and is primarily action for the entire mission.

Pinnacle Station itself is a spacecraft that houses a robust training simulator. In it, you play through twelve scenarios, divvied up between four types: timed, where you kill every enemy as quickly possible, hunt, where every kill adds time to the clock, capture, where you capture points on a map as quickly as possible, and survival, where you must survive as long as possible. Each scenario has a leaderboard and you need to place first on each. I played through them all about the same; I ran as much as I could and never stopped using the assault rifle, and only one scenario gave me problems playing this way.

Completing everything associated with Pinnacle Station took me a little under two hours. While Pinnacle Station took me longer to complete than Bring Down the Sky, its focus was more narrow, and grew tiring. I think including your friend’s scores to the leaderboards would’ve added something of value to the package, unlike the in-game rewards you receive. There are three achievements totaling 150 Gamerscore so that’s nice, but if you don’t care about achievements and are more interested in the conversation and storytelling aspect of Mass Effect, save yourself five dollars and skip Pinnacle Station.

Mass Effect: Bring Down the Sky – Review

Batarian terrorists are attempting to crash an asteroid into a human colony in Bring Down the Sky.

Bring Down the Sky was the first piece of downloadable content for Mass Effect. It opens up a new mission tasking Commander Shepard to prevent a group of Batarian terrorists from crashing an asteroid into a planet. It is a mineral rich asteroid and due to this, a human mining colony has been set up. While taking care of the main task at hand, preventing the terrorists from crashing the asteroid into the planet, I received a few small assignments as well.

For costing a dollar, I’m pleased with the amount of content I got from Bring Down the Sky. It took me a little over an hour to complete all of the assignments related to it and it contained many of the elements that make Mass Effect, Mass Effect. Bring Down the Sky is mostly action-orientated with a few enemy camps; exploration is required for the small assignments, and it all ends with a major decision. I definitely recommend Bring Down the Sky for anyone looking for more out of Mass Effect.

Mass Effect – Review

The Xbox 360 box art for Mass Effect.

Mass Effect is a game developed by BioWare, noted for the work on many previous, and very popular, role-playing games. It’s set in space and follows Commander Shepard as he improves the perception of humans and ultimately attempts to save the universe. I’ve been aware of Mass Effect for a long time now. I’ve been told that I need to play it more than a few times. Starting out I didn’t quite know what to expect. I know it’s a role-playing game of some sort, but I also know it’s a third-person shooter, so how does that work? The dialogue system has been heralded as something truly cool, if not groundbreaking, adding to the replay value and the sense that your Shepard is somewhat different from your friend’s Shepard.

I don’t know where to start with Mass Effect, it’s a culmination of so many things that I enjoy in video games. I felt like I was out there in space, exploring these barely-known planets, mapping the unknown and making discoveries along the way. I communicated with hundreds of humans and aliens and had conversations with them; I wasn’t just reading text pop-ups but poking and prodding them for answers. The conversations usually led to a linear outcome, but I had different options on how to get there; perhaps I could negotiate with two parties that are having a dispute and work it out peacefully, or I could kill one of them and be done with it, saving myself time. I took care of some of the galaxies worst criminals, fighting alongside a squad of unique teammates, both personality-wise and ability-wise. And I did this all while gaining experience and attributing points to skills in an RPG fashion.

Commander Shepard talking to Liara T'Soni.

There is an open nature to the progression of Mass Effect. I could proceed through the primary story at my own pace while completing the considerable amount of missions. The universe was quite large, made a little bit smaller once I realized I couldn’t land on every planet but baffling anyway. There was maybe too much similarity between the planets however; they’d differ geographically and climate-wise, but usually contain the same sorts of findings. Traversing the more mountainous planets became tiresome as well; I’d have to travel around the impassible parts attempting to find a way to get where I needed to go, which sometimes took a while.

One aspect I particularly enjoyed about Mass Effect was the way it distributed experience. For every enemy killed, I’d get a popup telling me I received so much experience. Whenever I completed a mission or made progress in one, experience; even when I’d resolve something through a conversation, which was usually associated with a mission, experience. I like that BioWare incentivized talking as a means to resolve situations, and rewarded you for it. And like many games currently, you can position your Shepard as being “good” or “bad”.

Mass Effect is a third-person, cover-based shooter, kind of. You have your choice between a few weapons and abilities, and you gun down all sorts of enemies like a similar action game. However, games that include cover usually structure themselves so getting into cover is required to survive, in Mass Effect I rarely used cover and was able to blow through most everyone without difficulty. Unlike the cover, loot played a relatively large role in the game. Practically everywhere there were containers that Shepard could hack into and receive their bounty. The weapons and equipment received, of which there was copious amounts, all differed slightly, just enough to warrant the decision to equip or trash. There were numerous add-ons that boosted stats as well, and the loot aspect added to my interpretation of Mass Effect as an RPG, as I was able to customize and make my Shepard different from someone else’s.

Considering that Mass Effect is now three years old, I think it’s still strong visually. Mass Effect has a film grain camera filter, which can be turned off, but I liked it. It’s not overbearing, but it’s noticeable and it gave the game a unique look, which at first I thought might not mesh with the general concept of sci-fi, but it turns out I was wrong and liked it a lot. I enjoyed the design of most everything in the game. It all looked familiar, but it was its own at the same time. I’m not the biggest Star Wars or Star Trek fan, but it’s apparent that anything following in the vein of those juggernauts will crib something; but I’m not the person to tell you about the similarities between Mass Effect and those universes.

Checking out the galaxy from the deck of the Normandy.

On a technical note, it’s easy to tell that Mass Effect was developed a few years ago. It seemed that every time I got out of a load screen, there was massive texture pop-in. Characters and objects were visible, but their outer layers, the textures, weren’t. This isn’t a massive fault but after each load I waited a few seconds for it to finish, and it did distract, especially once I got into the groove where I’d play for a few hours at a time, and that’s easy to do with Mass Effect.

Mass Effect has pulled me in and grabbed me like no other game in a very long time. Throughout my adventure I’d go on hours-long benders, not noticing the time go by. It always seemed like I had something to do, I was always busy. As soon as I’d complete a quest, I’d have a dozen more in my backlog. I’d explore the bountiful amount of planets, exploring the terrain and finding minerals, random junk, and occasionally an enemy base or another mission. This all kept me busy, and while at first it was a lot to cope with, I soon got my spacelegs and was able to let myself get sucked in.

I spent thirty-odd hours playing as much as I could of Mass Effect.  I enjoyed so much about it, the universe, the story, the conversations, the exploration, the RPG aspects and even the combat to a lesser degree. There were minor annoyances like small mechanics not being explained well or random technical issues, but I can ultimately overlook these as Mass Effect brought me many more positive thoughts than negative. It has become one of my favorite games and has made me a fan of the series for a long time to come.

Doritos Crash Course and Harms Way – Review

Box art for Doritos Crash Course.

Here we are again with Doritos Unlock Xbox campaign. In short, Doritos puts together a competition for individuals to brainstorm some game ideas that relate somehow to the Doritos brand, judges go on to vote for the one’s they like the best, and eventually Doritos funds the winning concept(s) and the final product(s) get released via Xbox Live Arcade for free. In December 2008, Doritos Dash of Destruction was released and it wasn’t terrible, especially for achievements which were easily the main selling point to anyone who played it, like the two new games: Doritos Crash Course and Harms Way.

Doritos Crash Course is side-scrolling platformer that presents itself like a game show, similar to Ninja Warrior or Wipeout. You take your avatar through fifteen levels of increasingly complex platforming levels, boosting, jumping, swinging, and sliding your way to the end. Towards the end Doritos Crash Course became very complex and at times difficult, but what it required me to do was always within my means and in the end, down to timing on my part. I played through the game racing a pal online and I’d say it took us less than an hour. It was a blast and an easy game to get into and figure out.

Harms Way on the other hand is more of a complex game, both mechanically and visually. Doritos Crash Course looks

Box art for Harms Way.

great, but Harms Way has a photorealistic aesthetic and looks wonderful considering it’s free; then again, there are a lot of yellows and browns in it… In Harms Way you can control either a vehicle or a stationary turret. When driving a vehicle you are, of course, competing for first place by finishing three laps the fastest, but along the tracks are shortcuts, which require turrets to blow open and power ups. Turrets are stationary and as a turret user you manually switch between them, with plenty scattered throughout the courses. When playing as a team, a driver and a turret user, the driver can pick up turret upgrades allowing the turret user different weapons. I preferred playing as a turret; the driving wasn’t bad, but I’ve played plenty of racing games like Harms Way, I haven’t played a racing game where I man a stationary turret and take out my driver’s competitors. I had a blast playing this co-op and strategizing with my driver, it felt like he needed me and we had to work together communicating.

Both these games are worth checking out, they’re free after all, and they’re both quite good considering. They’ll each take about an hour to get everything that you want out of them and they’re both better with more people, either online or off.

Call of Duty Classic – Review

Box art for the PC release of Call of Duty.

Playing Call of Duty Classic on the hardest difficulty is the worst game experience I’ve had in recent memory, and probably up there as one of the worst mistakes I’ve made playing video games. I suppose the initial reason for choosing this difficulty was the ability to get all of the achievements (playing the Xbox 360 version) on one play through; I didn’t take into account that it would be nigh impossible and make me want to break my controller on multiple occasions.

Going through Call of Duty Classic on veteran reminds me of Call of Duty 3 on veteran, which I did a year or two ago. I had a terrible time, and hindered my impressions of that game, and I actually broke an Xbox 360 controller during that play through. You’d think I’d learn my lesson after that; hopefully I have after this time, what’s the saying again: fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me?

Call of Duty Classic is straight up difficult; your health doesn’t recharge and there aren’t any health pickups, it usually only takes an enemy two shots to take you out, they can spot you from very far away, and they utilize cover, often leaving their heads or arms vulnerable for a few seconds. The checkpoint system is frustrating as well. It seems to checkpoint at certain times, naturally, but only if you have more than half health. I can see how this is helpful, preventing you from continuing a long level with barely any health after getting shot early on.

So that’s how it’s difficult, what makes it frustrating and just a terrible time is the amount of repetition. In many sections, I’d have to repeat them multiple times, with some taking double digit retries. To progress, I’d literally have to kill one enemy and then die by the next, just to figure out where that second enemy is hiding, and then make it one enemy/wave farther, hopefully not getting shot and thus triggering a checkpoint.

It’s not that Call of Duty Classic is a terrible game, it’s probably a very good World War II shooter, and I guess I wouldn’t really know having only played a handful. The game seems to include many familiar scenes, albeit all the highlights it seems that should be in a WWII product; to someone who has played many WWII shooters it probably feels stagnant. Playing the game on the hardest difficulty makes me want to yell as loud as I can (expletives), smash my controller into anything that’ll produce a loud sound, get up and storm around, quit the game in a rage and never play a game on the hardest difficulty again! For some reason I stuck through it all though, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone else to do the same.