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Late To The Game: Mass Effect

February 15, 2010 Leave a comment

With the recent release of Mass Effect 2 I decided to delve back into the original Mass Effect again. This was one of the first games I played on my Xbox 360 and I was quickly won over by the game. Bioware does an amazing job of telling a great story with decent game mechanics.  This is one of the few examples where a great story can outshine a few lack luster mechanics. Throw in great voice acting, beautiful graphics and replay value and you have a top notch game.

The game play is a shooter with RPG elements to it. The RPG elements are the stronger of the two but it is a decent shooter. You have a central character and a squad of other characters that you build up as you level. With a 50-60 level character cap you end up with a pretty stout character by the end of it all. There are a lot of skills for you to put points into and each skill either improves your ability with a weapon or power or it unlocks another tier of skills. The variety of skills seems nice at first but I think it is too much. But it does make you feel like you are growing your character over the course of the game.

I admit I am not the greatest shooter player. Thankfully Mass Effect gives me a squad of two additional characters to fight with. They aren’t the smartest squad in the galaxy. They tend to not be able to navigate around objects they get stuck on. They also don’t know how to jump. Of course like most Bioware games neither do you. But when they aren’t stuck they can be killing machines and they tend to take fire for you if you are like me and cant target your enemies very well.

There are almost too many weapons in the game and many of them seem redundant. They have customization too. You can add multiple improvements to them and the armor you get. Generally you want the higher number of whatever you find. Then give your hand me downs to your squad, sell them or turn them into Omni-gel. By the end of the game you have more money and Omni-gel than you will know what to do with.

Omni-gel is useful in that it helps you with two of the weaker parts of the game. The first is that you have this awful vehicle called the Mako that you use to drive around planets. It has guns and rockets and can jump unlike you. It can also get stuck on terrain and flip over. Thankfully much like a weeble it wobbles but it wont fall down. Your Mako will always end up on its tires. With this Mako you will navigate the huge areas of maybe a square mile that contains all of the goods of a planet. When the Mako is damaged, and yes it will be damaged, you can repair it with the miracle that is known as Omni-gel.

The other use for Omni-gel is to circumvent the one mini game to rule them all in Mass Effect. If you wish you can open crates and computers and everything by doing the same type of puzzle over and over. This puzzle is a Simonesque game. Should you wish to skip this game you have Omni-gel to override it. Should you fail to succeed at the game you have Omni-gel to override it. Omni-gel is the duct tape of the future.

Those two things aside though the game is a lot of fun and a great story to play through. You get to save the universe from evil which is always a plus. On the way you have the chance at love and even for that love to be with an alien species.  Great back stories for each of your comrades and a universe full of intrigue and a life of its own to really explore open up a game that treats you like an actor in your own interactive story.

With lots of choices and a moral system the game also gives the opportunity for multiple play-through. A single play-through will unlock the ability to take your next game to level 60 from the previous 50 cap.  Achievements call to you to play with a particular choice of comrades to unlock them which makes multiple play-through ideal for unlocking all of them. If you are like me you will. I really like achievements.

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Late To The Game: Fable 2

January 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Fable 2 was a game I was quick to pick up when it came out. Peter Molyneux designs some very fun games and even if they don’t always live up to his promises they do always push game design forward. Fable 2 is no exception in this and brings together both simple story design with new tries at innovating the moral game design. Add in some innovative use of a trusted dog companion and a great concept in environmental change based on decisions and you have a fun game. Since I played this game they have added two DLC pieces which I will comment on as well.

Fable 2 starts you off with some decent control of your character design. As the game progresses you can add tattoos, change hair styles, color of hair, and your wardrobe. All of these changes have an effect on your interaction with other people and the comments they will give you. These interactions will also affect your good vs evil and purity vs corruption which are your moral compasses through out the game. Your character ultimately comes down to the decisions you make and based off those decisions your character will be shaped and grow.

Besides clothing and material appearance changes you will find that your diet will also affect your character’s appearance as will skill choices. Eating meat and pies will make you fatter and some will make you more corrupt. Eating vegetables and tofu will make you skinnier and purer. Simple mechanic but effective. Skills work in changing your appearance with strength based skills bulking you up and magic making you glow more with magical veins.

Going good vs evil shapes your appearance and your reputation, as does purity vs corruption. People tend to like good characters and will talk with you. My first play through I went all good and pure. I ended up with a halo over my head and could walk through town with no problem. My second play through everyone but quest giving NPC’s ran in fear of me because I went evil and corruption. I ended up with horns and red skin. It would seem that the world of Fable frowns on mass murderers who sacrifice entire towns to the Temple of Shadows.

The game presents you with many opportunities to do the right or wrong thing. For the most part the world doesn’t really care. Yes guards will punish you and like my second play through the peasants will run in fear but it is still simple AI. The peasants with red hair aren’t wearing kerchiefs to cover their hair because my character is known for killing them. That would be a real accomplishment and sort of what I remember being promised back in Fable 1. Still the game takes us closer in this direction than most games do and I can appreciate that. I also appreciate that other than running peasants the game doesn’t try to make you feel guilty for the horrible things you do.

As far as the story goes it is a decent one of a hero/villain who has to save the world. You do so with the aid of other gathered heroes in a very linear fashion. Fable 2 tries to give the illusion of an open world that you can explore and do the story in your own time but that is a lie. It gates your movement by forcing you to do certain activities before moving forward. Now it does so in a logical format and chances are the average player will be fooled by this seemingly open world but if you break away from the story long enough you realize you are forced to progress at the speed of the story and not your own will. Along with a decent story is funny dialogue and good voice over work. The dialogue is a little cheeky at times but can be forgiven.

Your dog companion is one of the best parts of the game. He helps you fight battles though kind of pitifully. Your dog also detects treasure for you to dig up or chests for you to open. This can be handy if you are not that observant of the environment or want to search every corner. Chances are your dog will find it for you. Your dog also loves you no matter what so you can always count on your dog no matter how good or evil you become. Your dog can learn fun little emotes that you can train him with from books you find or buy. The bunny hop and playing dead are favorites of mine.

Besides your dogs ability to learn emotes so can you. In fact it is about the only way to interact with other characters in the game since you are a mute who can only grunt. I guess this was a way to avoid lots of written and voiced dialogue for your character. Your emotes range from distasteful like farting and growling to flirty emotes like come hither. You can shape the opinion of townsfolk with these emotes and some, reaching certain thresholds, will give you gifts. Emote animations are an interesting form of communication and are done in a fun manner here.

The other thing I really liked in Fable 2 was how certain choices could be made that in turn shaped the environment. Sadly this is only done a couple of times in the game but when done I actually felt like my choices had an effect on the world. Again a slight illusion since it didn’t change the eventual outcome of the story and perhaps only changed my access to a few side quests. Still it is a start in the right direction. It gave me more reason to replay the game and see what my other choices would have given me. I would love to see more games do this. Granted it is not always feasible to create extra assets a player may never see but hopefully production will get to a point where it is easier to do.

Also I give Fable 2 a nod for being smart and letting the player continue to play the game after the overall storyline is done. There are a lot of things you can keep doing and even some quests that don’t open up till after you finish the main story. They don’t even charge for DLC content to do this (I’m looking at you Fallout 3). This little feature has had me drop back into the game every once in a while. It even made me more likely to buy their DLC which I did.

The first piece of DLC Knothole island was a fun little addition. There was a good bit of content there and nice level design. It made good use of a changing environment and gave the illusion of a larger area to explore than was really there. I was disappointed to see that the content was gated to your story progression. They added a good bit of new items and a fun story. It was a worthy addition to Fable 2 and felt like a complete package.

The second piece of DLC was See the Future. Instead of being one area with an intertwined story you get a collection of adventures loosely linked together. Though the story is weaker than Knothole Island the adventures themselves were solid. They felt at times like content that could have been in the game for release but had to be dropped do to time constraints. The addition of new costumes was cool and novel in their use in the game.

Fable 2 suffers in only that it doesn’t live up to the hype but not for a lack of trying. The game is a fun one and has a lot of opportunities for replay. Its a comfortable world and one I am happy to return to when nothing else presents it’s self. Fable 2 is another 4 star in my collection and the DLC is right there with it.

Late To The Game: Bully: Scholarship Edition

December 23, 2009 1 comment

I picked this game up a few months ago and then got around to playing it a month later. There was a lot of hype and controversy around this game when it came out. I was interested in seeing how a sandbox world set in a prep school and the surrounding world around it would play out. I was pleasantly surprised and slightly addicted to the game.

Bully: Scholarship Edition for the Xbox puts you in the role of Jimmy Hopkins, a brash youth thrust into the halls of Bullworth Academy. The object of the game is to survive school, dominate social peer groups, and get the ladies (or guys if that’s your fancy), just like real High School. You accomplish these goals by going to class, doing favors for your fellow students and avoiding or confronting other bullies. You are given the ability to intimidate or accommodate your fellow students and teachers which many of us lacked in real life. Jimmy also has an arsenal of items like stink bombs and a slingshot to aid him in his adventures. You even have a back alley bum to teach you special forces fighting techniques he picked up in the war.

The classes are probably one of my favorite aspects of the game. They are a collection of mini-games which vary depending on the subject. Geography has you match names to countries on a map. English has you spell as many words as possible from a pool of letters. Math is a multiple choice math test. Biology has you dissect different creatures by tracing lines and clicking tools. There are a couple of pattern matching and quick time event classes too like chemistry, shop class and music. All of them have their share of challenges and fun getting progressively harder as you pass each class moving to the next level. Biology was one of my favorites in concept but challenging with the controller. Probably easier with a mouse on the PC or perhaps with a Wii wand.

Favors for students and teachers are your standard fair of missions you find in games. Delivery, collect item and use object  missions were the most common. Most of them had a time element to them. The thing that was done well was keeping them in the context of the game and using them to move the story forward. All the missions had a purpose and the rewards were usually worth while. Typical rewards were money, new items to use (like firecrackers) or a new girlfriend.

Every season at Bullsworth was a storyline and advanced you through the social ranks. Each social group gained you access to a new girlfriend to win. You can be quite the player by the end of it all. Kissing girls gets you a boost to your health which is a nice bonus but not needed once you get the controls down. Most fights are easy to accomplish without worry of defeat. Still I found myself picking flowers and buying candy all the time to get the girls. There are ways to get certain male characters to kiss you as well which I guess was part of the controversy of the game but I never pursued that route in my play-through.  Most romances in video games are novelties and have little substance in the game. Bully is no exception.

Your seasonal advancement also opens up new areas of the school and the town surrounding it. Bully: Scholarship edition really gates you in where you can go and what you can do but gives you the sense of an open world. I realize this is a way to give a sense of advancement and achievement. Its a nice reward but I am hesitant to really say its a true sandbox if you are gated in where you can go. Its a small gripe and has no real bearing on my enjoyment of the game but is worth noting.

Bully: Scholarship Edition gives you ample things to do and collect. You have a good variety of clothes to buy and earn to help Jimmy fit in with the different crowds. Jimmy even gets a skateboard and a bike to ride around on. These are handy since they help you not only accomplish certain mission goals but also get you around a lot faster. This handy because of one of my other complaints about the game.

The other complaint of the game is the time of day and the window of time given for any activity. You are not working in realtime in this game nor should you be. However the clock is a little fast for you to accomplish much in this game in a given day. You wake up and have your first class almost immediately. Now you can skip class but then you are truant which makes doing anything on campus or in the town harder since you have truant officers after you. Since most classes are fun mini-games anyway you might as well go to class. After your first class  you can maybe do one task if it is on campus. Then you have to rush to your next class or again be truant. After your second class you have time to do one or two more tasks before you are breaking curfew and then eventually just collapse of exhaustion or head to bed to sleep.  Now there is no rush to finish missions and you can eventually complete all the classes so you have no more to do giving you more time to explore and do what you want with out penalty.

Really the word penalty is false as well. Even if you get caught and sent to the principles office you just get access to more mini games like mowing the lawn or shoveling snow. These lead to more achievements. Not really a punishment. Sure they take all of your stuff but you eventually have plenty of money to buy it back or have your own chemistry kit to make the items like stink bombs as much as you want. I never really felt like getting caught was a punishment in the game or a setback. Only the hands of time were my bane.

Bully: Scholarship Edition gets a four out of five stars from me. It had a decent story, fun mini-games and lots to do. The gated pseudo sandbox environment and short days took away from what could have been a perfect experience.

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