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.

Advertisements

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.

Grandia II – Review

Ryudo Upfront with the Supporting Cast in the Background.

With Grandia II, Game Arts took the formula they implemented in Grandia, simply iterated upon it, which works with me, I loved Grandia and it creates another fantastic Japanese role-playing game with a fun battle system and compelling story. Grandia II, as with Grandia, is set in a, mostly, bright and colorful world.

If I were to condense the themes presented in Grandia, I’d say it focused on adventure and discovery, of exploring unknown territories and learning about new cultures. Grandia II on the other hand focuses more on our spiritual relationships and the role and impact of religion in the world. Grandia II is the story of Ryudo, a gun-for-hire and Elena, a songstress in the Church of Granas. Ryudo is hired to be her bodyguard, but things go awry early on and they soon learn that Valmar (the evil god and Granas’ opposite) could reawaken and bring destruction to their world, what’s more, Elena is possessed by a piece of Valmar, which manifests itself occasionally, and transforms Elena into Millenia. This shape shifting element is interesting and provides for a character that is the polar opposite of Elena, like Granas to Valmar. Throughout the game they meet new party members who give a taste of the different regions in the game and are generally likeable. This wasn’t the case with Ryudo; at first he was a prick and very ignorant of others; the way he responded to peoples questions and concerns was off-putting, but as the game progressed, he became more comfortable with the people around him and as the on-going situations evolved, he revealed more about himself and became a more likeable character. Like, Grandia, Grandia II is light-hearted for the most part, with plenty of humor and fun gameplay, although the progression appears very formulaic, town, dungeon, town dungeon, etc.

Throughout the game, the story unraveled more and more, finally reaching a crescendo of understanding and going pass that crescendo into a surprising twist in lore. Grandia II is a more succinct adventure than Grandia with the game lacking in extra content. There isn’t any reason to go back and play more when done , there isn’t a new game plus mode, and the way the game ends it’s sort of hard to anyways, which is a shame because as with Grandia, I would still go back and battle more If I could.

The battle system, originating in Grandia takes turn-based battles, and added an element of real-time choice to it, creating a satisfying blend of action, which hit a spot in my psyche that loves being in control. The battle system has changed very little from Grandia. There are only a few things off the top of my head that I can think of that changed from Grandia to Grandia II. Instead of leveling up magic and special skills through use, you now attribute points to the individual moves. I thought it very clever in Grandia that special moves and magic leveled up and became stronger through use, thus, I used stat boosting/reducing spells more than I normally would in another JRPG. Also, instead of learning new magic spells by reaching certain requirements with certain elements of magic, in Grandia II you receive eggs which contain 18 preselected spells. There are more eggs than party members so there is always ample choice.

Noriyuki Iwadare returns as the composer and I enjoy his soundtracks a great deal. They are lighthearted and fun, which matches the general tone of Grandia II. Although there are, darker sections of the game, his compositions match the feeling, often, if not always. Familiar tonal themes are repeated throughout the game, with the actual compositions changing up slightly. I can see many people listening to the soundtrack and thinking it is quite cheesy with his ample use of electrical guitar, but I find it befitting the action and look of the game. The appearance, like in Grandia, is very appealing to me; the game is very bright, set in a, mostly, colorful world, with anime-like character designs–this is from Japan after all. The voice acting is fine, although what bugs me is that it isn’t totally voice-acted, barely any is, and this inconsistency always bothers me. The CG is also infrequent, and in most cases, very poor. The CG for cutscenes is almost laughably bad and strangely grainy, but when it is implemented into the higher level magic and special moves, the blend of normal graphics and CG or animation provides a unique clash that, at first seemed off putting, but quickly grew on me.

Grandia II was initially released on the Dreamcast in 2000, and then later ported to the PlayStation 2 and PC in 2002. I completed the Dreamcast version, played a bit of the PS2 version, and didn’t play the PC version. The Dreamcast version comes with a soundtrack CD that has twelve tracks of Grandia II related music, and I say related only because there are two remixes not present in the game. I enjoyed the selections and thought they provided a good cross section of Noriyuki Iwadare’s work here. The PS2 version included new CG cutscenes which take advantage of the hardware better, but still have the aspect of clashing with other aspects of the game. I played the PS2 version on a PlayStation 3 and due to this the game looked much crisper; this would probably be the way to play it. The PS2 version didn’t come with anything extra although the manual is very detailed. One of the main complaints against the PS2 version at its release was a poor port job, with the game hitching at times, I didn’t play very much of it, but did notice the game slowed down at points, but never when it mattered.

Grandia II is one of the finest games on the Dreamcast, and a fine Japanese role-playing game. With a well paced story and an incredible battle system, it’s worth seeking out if you’re a fan of JRPGs.

Final Fantasy III – Review

 

 

The familiar design harkens back to the “good old days” of Final Fantasy.

 

Final Fantasy III is very traditional; then again, it originally came out in 1990. Within the first hour I had all of my party members and knew the ultimate goal I was aiming for. Luneth, the primary protagonist falls in a hole right away and finds out he is one of the chosen four, destined to save the world. His town elder knew this and when you return back to your hometown, they send you off with a few paragraphs. There isn’t the need for excessive exposition here. All you need to know is what the end goal is, what you’re doing in the current dungeon/town, and how to win battles.

It seems that Final Fantasy is renowned for being a series that one can turn to if they want a detailed or captivating story, and in this aspect, Final Fantasy III is very disappointing. The dearth of detail in the story turned me off; it’s a reason I play video games, and specifically, RPGs. The characters were stiff and lacked detailed personalities, the story was eventful, but nothing ever seemed impactful, a good job wasn’t done on making it seem like every action was necessary. Most of my time spent was zoning out and just battling to progress, and that’s the way I ended up playing the majority of it. I’d plug in a podcast, nothing against the soundtrack which I liked, and play it in bed before falling asleep, and I had a lot of fun playing it like this as I usually do with handheld games.

The party getting information on an early event.

The battle system is simple, lacking complexity, which works. Battles are easy to understand and with the ample amount of job classes, there is a variety of strategies available. Final Fantasy III did a good job of requiring me to try out multiple classes. Some dungeons would contain enemies that would resist physical damage, presenting the need to have your party deal nonphysical damage, via magic with mages or summoning, um… summons with, um… summoners. There were quite a lot of situations like this where you had to move out of your comfort zone; whereas I would usually keep my party full of physical attackers and a white mage for healing, I experienced many different jobs, and by the end of the game, I had a diverse party, with at least half of my party being a class I wouldn’t ordinarily pick.

One complaint I did have in regards to battling was the amount of grinding required towards the end. Throughout most of the game, I’d wager I was a level or two above where I needed to be, and it stayed like this up towards the final dungeon. After losing to the final boss a couple of times, I fought enemies within the last section of the game for at least five hours to level; this difficulty spike is not uncommon with games like this, but was nonetheless annoying when I knew the outcome of the game and only wanted to complete it at

The party battling it out against some early enemies.

this point, granted I handled the final boss ably, but still! This aspect also brought up another annoyance, the save system. The ability to save anytime on the world map is practically a requirement, however there is also a quick save option that allows you to save anywhere, but the save will be deleted when you return. Instead of implementing the ability to save anytime and keep that save, the developers have opted to keep the original spirit of the game intact, for instance, let’s say you’ve been grinding for an hour in the final dungeon and stumble upon an enemy that wipes you out, there went that progress. While this is aggravating, it’s also something that makes you adapt and from that point on, I was exceptionally cautious, and in a way, this difficulty is enjoyable and helps in keeping the game feel as it originally did.

There was no emphasis placed on totally remaking the game for today’s audience, which probably would’ve aged it in different ways as it’s been on the market for four years now, it’s the original Final Fantasy III, slightly redid. If you can appreciate a game designed in 1990, check out Final Fantasy III; it provides a lengthy quest that is sparse with detail, but a fun battle system that is easy to watch the time fly by with.

Metroid Prime Pinball – Review

Remember that DS?

I’ve had fun playing Metroid Prime Pinball. It’s a strange game, and while some might say it would be better off not existing as a Metroid game, at least it’s a quality pinball game. Samus Aran’s ability to transform into a ball lends itself well to a pinball game, even though it is a shallow reason for one. The game is essentially a retelling of Metroid Prime, minus any exposition or context. All the tables are based off of the worlds from Metroid Prime and you fight the same bosses. The music as well is from Metroid Prime, although here it is slightly remixed. Unlocking new tables is confusing, unless what the manual says is correct, but I never pay attention to those things… Anyways, to unlock new tables you collect a certain amount of artifacts, like you did in Metroid Prime, and you’ll get the ability to play on new tables, which isn’t that confusing as it turns out.

The tables are simple, but fun to play, and with time easy to get good at; the same can be said for the bosses; they take time to figure out strategies, but once you do, it’s hard to lose. Having bosses, to me, seems out of place in pinball, but it’s done well here; it ties itself well to Metroid Prime, breaks up the standard goal of focusing on points, and differentiates itself from other pinball games. That said the game can get repetitive. After only a few hours, I had seen all the tables that were unlocked had to offer, and progressing seemed like it would take more luck than skill and so went my enthusiasm. I would end up dying quite early, and I would think I didn’t have enough artifacts unlocked to continue on, so I’d restart. But as I learned the tables and my grasp on my purpose became clearer, it was evident I would need equal amounts of skill and luck, as is often the case with pinball.

The Tallon IV table, one of the initial tables available.

Artifacts come from succeeding at minigames and beating the bosses. The minigames are quite simple; the wall jump for example transports you to a separate area where you alternate the L and R buttons to wall jump, eventually reaching an artifact. Others are played on the board such as activating an enemy battle; space pirates, shriekbats, metroids and other familiar creatures will populate the board and you are tasked with defeating them all within a time limit. You’ll see all the minigames relatively soon, and then they become rote, although there being two types of tables: normal tables and boss tables, play strategies get significantly altered. The game comes with a rumble pack, and that’s pretty much that. It doesn’t seem very powerful and it makes a loud noise every time it rumbles, which can be distracting; it just doesn’t add much to the experience.

Metroid Prime Pinball piqued my interest initially because pinball games are somewhat of a rarity, as I played more I began to get burned out as it seemed like beating the game would require more effort than I cared to put in, once I got to the later tables though, I regained my ambition and trying for the ultimate goal, beating the game, became exciting again. As I do with most handheld games anymore, I played Metroid Prime Pinball in bed before falling asleep each night. I thought it offered enough fun in the relatively short bursts I played it, yet enough content to satisfy longer play sessions. It’s a competent and fun pinball game, its ties to the Metroid universe might as well be nonexistent, but it does nothing to foul the name of the series.  Samus’ Morph Ball ability may be a shallow purpose to play a pinball game, but at least it’s a worthwhile pinball game.

Record of Lodoss War – Review

The US box art for Record of Lodoss War.

Well I think I’m done with Record of Lodoss War. I’ve been playing it off and on for about two weeks now and I’ve had it. It’s a frustrating game where death is frequent; I must’ve saved every three minutes in the seven hours I’ve logged, and you know what I’ve just realized? There isn’t a good enough sense of payoff for me to continue playing, so I’ll stop.

Record of Lodoss War is an action RPG, developed by Neverland and released on the Dreamcast in early 2001 here in the US. The game is based off of a Japanese anime/manga and having no previous experience I’m unaware how, if at all, this relates to the source material. Judging from the setup though, it seems that the game is meant as a side or alternate story. You control The Hero, who has been brought back from the dead. A bad dude has been doing some bad stuff, like deciding to revive an ancient beast that will do his bidding and destroy, destroy, destroy. This is why The Hero has been resurrected, you see, in his past life he was a great warrior and a wise wizard believes he’ll be able to stop this evil. This wizard, Wart, initially sets you up to take over a goblin settlement which then becomes home base, a safe spot to return and do some blacksmithing. The Hero’s quest is ultimately to stop all the bad guys and as far as I proceeded on his quest, I met a few allies and visited a couple of towns and plenty of dungeons. The story seemed dense with detail and it would appear that knowing more about the source material would lighten the load but regardless, the story didn’t capture my interest.

Talking about the gameplay, Record of Lodoss War shares a lot with Diablo. You control The Hero in real time, explore dungeons, do some blacksmithing, etc. Battling enemies usually ended up a frustrating experience. I’d line up next to an enemy and start wailing away on the attack button, watching my health bar and if it got too low, I’d drink a potion. In the event that I ran out of potions, which happened all the time, I’d use the Recall spell to warp back to home base, refill, and warp back to then rinse and repeat. In the event that I was overwhelmed with enemies, which also happened all the time, the game slows down to a crawl and at this point it becomes easy to get trapped in a corner and die. This process led to many deaths and loss of progress, as I thought I’d be okay and go awhile without saving only to run into a strong enemy or get overwhelmed; this process was frustrating, but necessary to advancing.

The Hero battling some skeleton archers.

Equipment and loot is a big part of dungeon crawlers and Record of Lodoss War disappoints. In my time with the game, I rarely happened upon loot dropped by enemies and the loot that I found in dungeons, I generally passed on. At the home base is a blacksmith to whom you can take your equipment and add ancient inscriptions which add stat boosts and special attacks. Adding these effects seemed helpful, if only incrementally and overall the blacksmith wasn’t much assistance, nor was there much depth to blacksmithing. Without this sense of continually upgrading my character, I’ve lost the will to continue playing the game and whenever I’d battle enemies and have it take forever to defeat them, I felt weak, as if I’d been cheated on the equipment available to me. Exploration wasn’t fulfilling either, the few dungeons I’d been in seem very gray, in fact the game as a whole feels very gray. The game has gotten to be more frustrating than fun and even if I had some connection with the source material, I can’t imagine I’d want to continue playing based solely on the story Record of Lodoss War presents.

At this point the price for Record of Lodoss War is relatively expensive; a quick search of Amazon and eBay says you’ll have to pay around twenty-five dollars for a used copy. The manual contains great information, but there isn’t anything outstanding about the overall package. Others might have more patience with Record of Lodoss War, but if you’re searching for an RPG for the Dreamcast, or just an older RPG to check out, there are many better options.

The internet's source for Mansion of Hidden Souls.

%d bloggers like this: