Review: Mass Effect 3

November 19, 2014 at 8:24 am (Uncategorized)

Originally published on Press Start (now unavailable)

Mass Effect 3 is one of the biggest sequels of this console generation, and it has finally arrived. It holds the distinction of being one of the few sequels that is so desired for its story above all else. The kind of hype that has surrounded the game is the kind that can break lesser franchises if anything significant goes wrong. Marketing behind the game, aimed at a more mainstream audience, has been a major point of contention for existing series fans. PR stunts like the launching of copies of the game on weather balloons, the tie-in iOS third-person shooter game, and the addition of multiplayer have left some fans wondering if the developers bothered to make a great core game to go along with it all. The final product, though it may at times sacrifice variety and experimentation for the sake of consistency, manages to capture the desperation of a galactic war and tell the story of the commander who has been saddled with the responsibility of saving Earth.

Practically every element of Mass Effect 3 has you working toward one main end: stop the Reapers. The war against this synthetic form of life provides the basis for almost every mission, from the main story beats to the smallest of side-quests. The sharp focus on combat and the war at large suggests the intent to keep the expansive and disjointed nature of RPGs in check for the sake of concluding this massive story.  Part of the result is that Mass Effect feels more like a shooter than it ever has.  While this likely does a little something for EA’s bottom line, fans who began with the original game may find the balance off-putting.

Back then we were offered planet landings where you could ride the Mako vehicle and scavenge for resources and mercenary hideouts. The decision was made to remove (rather than improve) these sections for Mass Effect 2 and replace them with an ultimately tedious mini-game, but its DLC introduced a new and better vehicle for a few missions. I, for one, expected the finale to include some distillation of this to keep things interesting, but no such compromise is present. Ultimately I can understand the decision to leave this kind of activity out of Mass Effect 3, but the lack of vehicles or other alternate gameplay styles leaves the variety lacking at times and the world feeling a bit neutered. There are tanks and landing vehicles galore during many of the missions, but players are forced to admire them from a distance.

Despite the heavy focus on combat, Bioware has successfully managed to encourage a balanced use of biotic and tech powers when compared to firearms.  In past games, it had felt like most shootouts could be solved simply by shooting for long enough at each enemy, and though that’s still the basic concept here, there are some enemy types and situations that can be more effectively handled with special powers. An example is the Cerberus guards that carry large shields in front of them, and can’t be fired on directly.  I was using a Vanguard character, and those that choose other classes may find a different situation, but it seems as though the three pillars of combat in Mass Effect have been given equal footing here, which helps set the game apart from the crowd of existing shooters.

One thing the game has lifted from its shooter brethren, though, is the addition of online multiplayer, which has been a polarizing element for series fans since it was announced.  Some have seen it as an affront to the story-based nature of the series, and when all is said and done, I’m inclined to agree. Mass Effect’s multiplayer pits a team of up to four human players against ten waves of enemies on six different arenas. The only wrinkles thrown into the formula come in the form of occasional king-of-the-hill style objectives that are really just made to force you to a different part of the map every so often. The mode can be surprisingly fun, and it’s surely nice to see those biotic powers in action within a multiplayer setting, but there isn’t much to hold your attention for very long. The six arenas are taken straight out of the single player campaign’s N7 missions (or is it the other way around?). Maybe the most impressive aspect of the mode is what takes place between matches. Players can earn credits, experience, and new weapons and races, so there is a lot to get you playing, and the progression is handled well. If only the gameplay itself were the best reason to spend time with multiplayer.

Despite the lackluster nature of the online mode offered, the overall package comes together very well. Mass Effect 3 easily has the best visuals in the series, with improved textures, lighting, and special effects all around. There are still issues with textures popping in too late, and with elements slipping in and out, but they are minor compared to their frequency in the past. Another high point of the art design is the new crop of environments that appear in the game. There is some impressive variety, from the harsh wastelands of Tuchanka to the lush Quarian home world, and numerous others. Though the aforementioned focus on gunplay is ever-present, there is also a surprising assortment of war-related scenarios the writers have concocted that all manage to feel fresh throughout your 30+ hours during the main campaign. Unfortunately, a few larger problems present themselves. There is one major side-quest I have still not been able to attempt due to a bug that allowed me to complete it simply by talking to the same character twice. Hopefully, issues like this will be ironed out by patches in the coming weeks, but it did sour my experience a bit.

The story itself is very well conceived, especially when compared with other RPGs, classic or modern. The ending(s) may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and no aspect of it is particularly inventive, but your ending likely won’t feel entirely out of place within the context of this particular game. Perhaps Mass Effect 3’s biggest weakness from a narrative perspective is its reliance on the first two games. The number of new characters is shockingly small. If, like me, a large percentage of your party was killed at the end of Mass Effect 2, you may find yourself with a disappointingly slight party to work with. As always, though, they are quite a cast of characters to behold. The voice acting is top notch across the board, and lends a lot of credibility to the stories of the various races and conflicts that make up the game’s fictional universe. All of this is capped off by a stellar soundtrack that captures everything from contemplative to tragic to victorious moods with equal weight.

A common theme of Mass Effect 3’s qualities seems to be that the developers made the right choices for the game itself, but ones that may prove problematic for the series going forward. Such an urgent story necessitated a narrow approach to the game’s structure, and Bioware was ruthless in its focus, molding the finale to this epic series into an action-packed experience that puts you once again into the shoes of Commander Shepard and doesn’t let go.

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Review: Rhythm Heaven Fever

November 19, 2014 at 8:23 am (Uncategorized)

Originally published on Press Start (now unavailable)…

The Rhythm Heaven series began in Japan as Rhythm Tengoku on the Game Boy Advance, but did not reach North America until its second iteration. Simply titled Rhythm Heaven in North America, it brought an eclectic mix of music mini-games to the Nintendo DS. Though it was controlled with only two stylus actions (tapping and swiping), it provided a serious challenge and an infectious style that moved against the grain of established genre conventions. Guitar Hero and Rock Band were enjoying huge success, but Rhythm Heaven proved there was life in the genre beyond expensive peripherals and licensed soundtracks.

The game was a success, and though we in the Americas have still not been graced with a port of the original GBA game, Nintendo did see fit to localize the new Wii sequel for our shores. Rhythm Heaven Fever continues the series’ stylish, irreverent take on the music game genre and for the first time brings its charms to a console. Despite the jump in systems, the game largely follows the mold laid out by its predecessors. It wisely abstains from motion controls in favor of simple button presses. Only the A and B buttons are used throughout the entire game, and though this may sound like an overly simplistic system, there is a surprising variety in what is expected of the player from song to song. You may only be expected to press and release two buttons in the games 40+ songs, but there is a different feel to the cues required to master each one.

The simplicity inherent in Rhythm Heaven Fever’s design is perfectly consistent with its flawless visual style. From the menus to the game itself, it looks like virtually no other game on the market. Though the well-implemented audio cues make it so you could actually play the game with your eyes closed, I don’t recommend it. The game is a bizarre cartoon come to life, with bright, cute visuals featuring everything from a ringside wrestler interview to a troupe of cheerleaders egging on students in a library. Also, monkeys. Lots of monkeys.

But what about the music? This, after all, is a music game. Well, it works wonderfully. The off-kilter tunes, set in a variety of styles, are as strange as the visuals that go along with them. Most are instrumental, but even the few with vocals are delightful send-ups of pop clichés. Just as it’s hard to stop picturing some of the vibrant and weird set-pieces, it can be hard to get some of the more infectious songs out of your head. The game’s absurdly charming synergy of visuals and sound is the thing that sets the series apart from its more predictable and sedate competition.

In fact, to compare this game to something like Guitar Hero is to miss the point entirely. The best comparison I’ve seen made is to Nintendo’s own Warioware series, and I think it’s a fitting one, though the songs here will last you longer than any of the “microgames” from that series. Though you are required to pass one song in order to unlock the next, the game encourages a more playful approach to progression, offering a medal for “Superb” performance on each song, and randomly offering “Perfect” opportunities on songs for which you’ve already earned medals. One common criticism of the series, however, is the vague rating system. There are only three main results: Try Again, OK, and Superb, all self-explanatory. The problem is that, after a song is finished, your perception of your own performance is all you have to compare to the rating handed out. While I do think my gut/memory lined up with the game’s performance results most of the time (more than they did in the DS Rhythm Heaven), there will still be times when players may feel robbed, and with no clear score or explanation displayed, there’s nothing to prove them wrong.

The game’s 2-player mode seems to pull the curtain back on the ratings a bit by displaying scores. Omitting this in single player seems like a conscious choice by the developers, though a strange one. The 2-Player games, with their Nintendo signature pairing of cooperation and competition, are entertaining while they last. Unfortunately, the mode is underdeveloped. It uses variations on the excellent single player games, but only a handful of them, and beyond that there are medals to earn that unlock a few 2-player Endless Games to play with. More could have been done with this mode since the gameplay lends itself well to 2-player action (though it seems like a wise choice by the developers to not shoot for 4), but hopefully we’ll see a proper expansion of the mode in future installments.

Rhythm Heaven Fever’s expert synergy of visuals and sound make it a memorable and worthwhile experience, whether you’re interested in it for its style, challenge, or simple but effective gameplay. It doesn’t feel like anything else on the market, save its predecessor(s), but it could have taken a few more leaps with the design, as it will feel familiar to fans of the DS game. At a mere $30 MSRP though, it’s worth taking a chance on if you’re a fan of music, animation, or fun.

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Mass Affection

November 19, 2014 at 8:19 am (Uncategorized)

Originally published on Press Start (now unavailable)…

Love, like religion, should be private. Others may know of our feelings toward a certain person and glean the occasional insight into our experiences with them, but when it comes down to it, most of us keep our romantic relationships close to our chests. It seems that becoming especially intimate with one person means withdrawing from everyone else just a little. I think it’s fitting then that my favorite video game couple to date is one that no one else can experience: Eve Shepard and Liara T’Soni from Mass Effect.

You might think it’s a cheap choice, but there is no doubt in my mind that of all the romances I’ve been presented with in games, this one was the most affecting to me personally. The thing that’s supposed to set video games apart as an artistic medium is interactivity. In a movie or novel, you watch characters fall in love, and if the story is well constructed, you empathize with the characters. But in those mediums, you are passive. Whatever the creator(s) have laid out for you is what you get.

Games, however, are built on the concept of the variable, but due to the art form’s growing pains, game romances tend to rely mostly on the conventions of other mediums, namely film, to get the characters’ relationship across. Even when it is done effectively, and a relate-able romance blossoms (Farah and the Prince of Persia come to mind), there is still a distinct lack of interactivity that prevents the player’s choices and instincts from making a difference in that particular aspect of the story.

My customized Shepard character from Mass Effect won Liara’s favor because I made it so. Knowing that I could have failed made the situation that much more relatable. After all, who can’t sympathize with rejection? Though the game didn’t send me through a grueling gauntlet of challenges in order to secure a relationship, there was still a more genuine arc to the experience. All I had to mark my own progress was the memory of the way Liara had looked at me or how she had phrased something in conversation. Uncertainty is as relate-able as rejection.

Admittedly, when playing as Shepard, I was more of a catch than I probably am in the real world. That is also part of the appeal. In real life, I currently live in my Mom’s house, and my last major accomplishment was getting an entry level job at an insurance company. In Mass Effect I was a fearless leader who’d held a diverse military team together and saved countless lives by the time Liara and I hooked up. The confidence this brought with it undoubtedly helped my assertiveness when it came time to interact with Liara. If I were forced to watch how my real self would handle the situation, I would probably have to turn away in embarrassment.

It’s a testament, I think, to how devoted I was to this experience, that I didn’t hesitate to avoid romantic entanglement in Mass Effect 2. Liara takes a supporting role in that game, but I knew I’d see her again one way or another, and despite Shepard’s long absence from her life, I had no plans to betray our union, however brief. It sounds as though Mass Effect 3 will have consequences for those that neglected to take this particular moral high ground. Though part of me is glad for that, it ultimately doesn’t matter. It may be true that millions of people have played the Mass Effect games and had their own relationships with Liara, but as far as I’m concerned, she only has eyes for me.

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