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The Mass Effect Franchise in Review

I’ve come quite late to the Mass Effect franchise.  Despite it being my most recommended game series to date, I just never really felt the urge to pick it up.  With such an extensive Steam back catalogue, and being primarily an MMO player there have always been other calls for my time.  Being an adult sucks like that.  But when I saw the launch trailer for Mass Effect Andromeda (the music supervisor for that trailer deserves a huge raise by the way) I was blown away and decided that I just had to play the series in preparation.

I’d tried Mass Effect 1 before, and while I enjoyed it, I found the Citadel quests a little monotonous, so when I stopped playing for a few days I just didn’t start it up again and promptly forgot about it.  But with all the constant recommendations I decided that this time I was going to stick with it.  And I was not sorry!

The overarching story is deep and immersive.  The attention to detail is second to none.  Walking past characters you can’t even interact with and listening to their conversations made the world seem real.  It’s the joy and danger of truly immersive, interactive, player-driven storytelling.  Commander Shepard wasn’t just a character I was playing.  I was her.  She was an extension of me.  Her choices were my choices.  I didn’t treat her as an object to move through the game. I treated her as an extension of myself.  I refused to let myself restart missions for different outcomes.  I committed to my choices having a lasting effect.  Which is why the ending let me down so much.

Mass Effect 1 was a good game, but not a great one.  The story was brilliant, and the way my Shepard created her own little family on the Normandy was exceptional, but the side quests and planet exploration were repetitive and clunky.  The combat was enjoyable, and I liked speccing my character to suit my play style, but overall the game experience of ME1 didn’t blow me away.  Still, the story kept me going for Mass Effect 2, which is where the series really started to come into its own.

Mass Effect 3 Kaidan AlenkoMy female Shepard had romanced Kaidan in ME1.  The romance was a cute distraction at the time, but I didn’t feel any deep connection. It was masterful in ME2 that, despite Kaidan being only in a few minutes of the game it actually made me care about him in a way that the first game hadn’t.  The storytelling and interactive dialogue really improved in ME2, and for the first time, I was invested in all the characters.  Building a new team and creating a sense of loyalty in my crew gave them all depth.  I’d briefly considered setting up a new romance in ME2, but when I met Kaidan on Horizon, his reaction to seeing me with Cerberus was so real and believable that I was pretty shocked.

That moment in ME2 on Horizon seemed to get a pretty negative reaction for Kaidan, but for me, it appeared to be a very real way to react.  I was a little disappointed when he walked away from me in anger, but I understood, so I let my reaction to that filter into my conversations with other characters.  I thought then that I could probably move on and try to romance someone else to get the full game experience, but every time I went into the Commander’s quarters I saw his picture there, the truth was that I as a person just couldn’t do that to Kaidan, especially after his apology message, so ultimately my Shepard just couldn’t either.

While the romance seemed a little gimmicky on paper, by Mass Effect 3 it had me completely immersed.  It made me personally invested in the characters.  They weren’t pixels on a screen.  They were my friends and family.  Everything my Shepard was doing wasn’t just to save the earth and a bunch of strange NPCs I’d never meet; they were to protect these people who had been with me from the beginning.  That is why, when the ending came, at first I wasn’t too disappointed.  Part of that reason for me was the fact that I was so hooked that I’d played all three games non-stop in less than a week.  I played for full days, sometimes until 4 or 5 in the morning.  I just couldn’t stop!  I had to know what happened to these characters, and having my Shepard sacrifice herself for those who she loved made sense.  It hit me right in the feels, but it didn’t feel wrong.

But, after the buzz of non-stop play and immersive story came to an end, and I had a chance to sit back and think about it, I found myself getting a little angry.  The story up until that point had been masterful.  It had an internal logic, but on closer inspection, the end just didn’t.  It would have made sense to have all the existing options there as other players had made other decisions up until this point, but there was a fourth option that was what my Shepard had been building toward that the game simply didn’t address.

Every decision I’d made up until that point would have brought my Shepard to one, logical conclusion.  Convincing the Crucible of the fallacy of his argument.  The narrative and my decisions had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the cycle could be broken.  I’d negotiated peace between the Quarians and the Geth, and the Geth were helping rebuild Rannock, the Quarian homeworld.  EDI was free to self-actualise and discover her individuality and was a valued member of my team.  The inevitable ending that the Crucible had foreseen was not inevitable in my world.  That should have been my ending. But instead, my Shepard’s decisions and choices were bastardised for shock value.  And that’s what it felt like.  So many hours that players spent investing in the character and their future ripped from them in a moment, thanks to a blatant plot twist for the sake of it.

I’m not going to lie, the franchise is still probably the best video game series I’ve played to date, and despite my disappointment at the ending, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  The suicide mission of ME2 is probably the most immersive well developed final mission of any game I’ve ever played.  Ever.

Mass Effect Andromeda has some pretty big shoes to fill, but I’m definitely excited to play it.

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Opinion: Dear Esther – An Argument for Games as Art

Dear EstherIt was a dreary, rainy night in London when I first came across Dear Esther in the Steam Summer Sale a few years back. It was a bitterly cold night as only British summer nights can be, and so I sat down to a bottle of red wine and a game that I knew nothing about.

I came out of my haze an hour later, my wine untouched and my brain working in overtime trying to come to grips with what I’d just played. In fact I couldn’t even decide if ‘played’ was the right word to use. The experience left me elated, contemplative and truly touched me in a way that few games ever have, or indeed will again.

Dear Esther contains none of the elements that would constitute traditional gameplay. There is no environmental interaction and no combat. What the game gives you instead is (in a rather clinical analysis) atmosphere, immersive story and solid environments.

Moving through the game world feels like interactive poetry. The story is constantly narrated as you move through the environment and yet remains elusive as to its ultimate purpose. The story comes from a series of letters written by the narrator, and as the game progresses the stories of the characters entwined therein become more and more blurred leaving the ultimate meaning open to interpretation. Dear Esther is a game that deserves analysis, certainly on a narrative level, and when combined with the hauntingly beautiful soundtrack it serves as an experience, a journey rather than simply a game.

Leonardo Da Vinci once said “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” Dear Esther is poetry that can be experienced, and in my determination that certainly qualifies it as a true work of art

Review: Civilization: Beyond Earth

Civilization Beyond Earth

I have long been a fan of the Civilization franchise and treated myself to Civilization: Beyond Earth in this summer’s Steam sale. The trailers looked stunning, with fantastically realised alien worlds and new and unique buildings and troops that made me love Firaxis all over again. I wasn’t disappointed in the way the game looked and felt. It was vast, alien yet familiar, and stunningly rendered. I could however have been forgiven for thinking that I was just playing a Civ V mod. Despite a few unique and interesting elements, the whole game felt no different to a play through of Civ V, just with less character, personality and victory fanfare.

Where Beyond Earth struggles in its realisation is that it lacks story and personality. The only sense of story we receive is a singular cutscene before gameplay starts. Gone are the individual and unique civilisations and their leaders from Civ V. Instead they are replaced with rather bland alliances from a cookie cutter mould who fail to interact with the player in the same way that their counterparts did in Civ V. This is a shame, as the alliances had the potential to be something so much more. Firaxis have projected their perceived planetary alliances in to this game, and in the next centuries, if countries could be convinced to work together for a common goal, I could certainly see these alliances be prophetic. With alliances such as Polystralia and ARC
(American Reclaim Corporation). These cultural alliances would have had so much scope for individuality that it seemed wasted to have them all essentially the same, except for a slightly different character model. Civ V‘s leaders had so much personality. Personality was completely lacking in Beyond Earth and it made diplomacy feel unrealistic and unvarying. There was no scope to truly build relationships with the other leaders which felt frustrating as the game progressed.

One of the ways in which Beyond Earth does shine however is its replacement of Civ V‘s Barbarians with Alien lifeforms unique to Beyond Earth‘s planets. They are not immediately hostile so your civilisation can have relatively peaceful goings on with the planet’s indigenous flora and fauna, both of which have their own unique designs. Other alliances who share a similar Affinity to you will appreciate your unwillingness to attack the indigenous alien lifeforms or find this outmoded and a sign of weakness. Depending on how you wish to achieve victory in game will depend on which path you choose. The alien fauna however will immediately become hostile if you travel too close to one of their nests making the beginning stages of the game a lot more interesting than any of the previous Civ games. There are more incentives not to just let your explorers run on autopilot as, if they accidentally stray too close to an alien nest, they will be immediately annihilated. Instead, you can choose to attack their nests directly by training warriors, sparking an all out alien war within the first few turns of the game, or you can choose to ignore the nests by directing your explorers a respectful distance from alien spawns.

Civilization Beyond Earth Screenshot

So much of Beyond Earth was simply Civ V with a UI overhaul and some renamed elements, but the unique elements and true stylistic changes speak to the potential that this game truly has. The Tech Tree from Civ V is replaced with a Tech-web and it allows for far greater customization of your civilisation and requires some real thought on what to research as it will directly influence the direction your civilisation will develop and how you can achieve victory conditions. It allows far more experimentation in this new game world and makes the player feel far more in control of their cultural development. There is a constant underlying decision of whether to research based on your civilisations needs, predicting the actions of the surrounding civilisations, or simply research to head straight for a victory. I really enjoyed this new element of the game. It was even more disappointing then that when victory conditions are met the game ends very abruptly with a pop up saying you’ve achieved victory and then unceremoniously dumping you back to the main screen. For a victory that actually requires some depth and consideration, and after on average about 6 – 10 hours invested in a singular scenario these victory screens just felt very lacking and made the ultimate gameplay resolution seem almost disappointing.

In Beyond Earth Firaxis has implemented a quest system which I thought was a brilliant idea. With the length of time it takes to play a full scenario the quests serve as a welcome break; something different to do for a while which I quite enjoyed. Ultimately however this new system was unvarying and felt under-developed. Rather than being choice or expansion oriented they are instead tied to the construction of buildings. Most of the quests are simply a choice between two options but seem to have no real effect on the game world other than an immediate gain in food, energy, production or culture. This is once again a system with so much unrealised potential. After playing through a couple of different scenarios you also come to realise that the quests are the same each time you play, meaning you stop paying attention to them and they become more of an annoyance, rather than an essential gameplay element.

Despite its flaws however I couldn’t dislike Beyond Earth because of how much I loved Civ V, and essentially Beyond Earth was simply more of the same. It was a disappointment as a new, standalone game, but had it been released as a Civ V mod it would have been an amazing addition. For a franchise that has lasted this long and is now in it’s 6th full iteration I certainly expected a little more. I am interested to see whether future updates and expansions will bring anything new to this game, which simply felt like it needed a little ‘more’.

Review: Bioshock Infinite

 

BioShock InfiniteWarning:  May Contain Slight Spoilers

BioShock Infinite.  The words still give me a nervous sense of excited anticipation when I hear them.  It has possibly been the most anticipated game of the last few years, and I know I, along with many of you, waited impatiently for March 26th to roll round so we could play.  It therefore saddens me to have to say that BioShock Infinite was a good game.  It could have been a great one, and had the potential to be so, but it stopped short of that and remains for me firmly in the ‘good’ category.  Reviews have been overall positive,  but I can’t help but feel that perhaps others played a different game to me?  I enjoyed my time in Columbia, and I even went back for a second visit, but the game simply didn’t inspire me as much as I had hoped it would, and I left the game feeling mildly confused and a little let down.

The world of Columbia is a perfectly rendered piece of 3D art.  It is visually flawless, with thematic visual cues there for anyone with enough insight to understand them.  In design it had the potential to surpass even Rapture, (the underwater dystopia from the original Bioshock), but while the city was a visual cornucopia of beautiful design, it fell short in a number of ways.  We entered the city of Rapture after its demise.  The player had a dead city to play around in.  We had the chance to experience a living world through audio logs and visually immersive game design.  Much of the life of the city was left to the imagination, but the storytelling was executed in such a way that despite Rapture’s dystopian feel, the metropolis and its inhabitants felt alive, and the player felt invested in the city and its people.  I truly felt like I was in Rapture while playing the original BioShock.  BioShock Infinite problematically suffers from the opposite.  In an attempt to create a living city, one on the eve of its destruction rather than a pre-rendered wasteland, Irrational have created a city that lacks depth, and prohibits player investment.

Our first view of Columbia is of a sprawling urban city in the sky, inexplicably populated by racists!  We see street vendors, couples on dates, are serenaded by a barbershop quartet (I laughed out loud when I first spotted them on the platform and stopped to listen to the whole song, and yet there is no interaction between these people and the player.  The effect it creates is that of a living museum, in which everyone is staged for viewing pleasure rather than giving the feel of a living, breathing, functioning city. I know it’s unfair to compare BioShock Infinite with its predecessors, but the comparisons are there to be made purely by virtue of its branding.  This has proven both a blessing and a curse.  As a BioShock game I feel that Infinite was forced into a mould which it should have risen above in order to become a truly exemplary game.  Many of the decisions made to keep it a ‘BioShock’ game felt arbitrary and unnecessary.  In Rapture’s game world the plot was detailed with an immersive depth which made the player feel like they were part of something bigger.  Every weapon, plasmid, and enemy made sense in the game world.  Why can you shoot bees out of your palms?  Why, because of Stem Cell Secreting Sea Slugs of course! (Try saying that ten times fast…)  In the world of Rapture, every decision had a consequence, and every technology had a back story.  Infinite lacked both these.  Why can you shoot ravens out of your hands? Why does Booker DeWitt feel the need to just gulp down every liquid in sight without questioning its contents?  Even the decisions which made the world of Rapture so immersive were completely unrelated and unnecessary in BioShock Infinite.  Within ten minutes of entering Columbia you are given a choice between being an insufferable racist and stoning an interracial couple with a baseball, or choosing to stone the actual racists with the same said baseball.  What difference does it make to the game?  None whatsoever.  Your decision making potential is completely arbitrary.Bioshock Infinite Columbia

Choice is offered at various points in the game, but never makes any difference.  There are vague distinctions between ownership, so you can choose to steal, or not steal someone else’s belongings, you are even warned not to harm those fighting alongside you.  Ultimately however it never matters, as the game never punishes you for any of your actions. What was most glaringly obvious to me however was when choice should have been an option, but was omitted.  The most stand out moment of this for me was when you come across two people who have been placed in the stocks for an unjust reason.  I spent ten minutes running around them trying to find a way to free them, shooting at the stocks, and seeing if I could get Elizabeth to pick a lock (apparently all she’s good for).  There wasn’t any way I found to free them.  For a game that placed so many choices before me, I felt like this was one I could have embraced!  There was so much visual attention to detail that the mechanics of choice could have used some more of it.

Conceptually Columbia had a lot to offer.  It is a city in a parallel version of our own history.  Potentially it could have given some deep, insightful experiences regarding racism, fundamentalism, and gender politics.  It appeared to be where the game was heading, and I was excited to see what it could show me and how thought provoking it could be. The character of Elizabeth was meant to be a strong, capable female character, but ultimately she is relegated to the role of the lock pick who hides behind boxes and occasionally tosses you coins.  She had the potential to be so much more, and I would have liked to see her utilise her own powers in combat and have the player use them when they became available, rather than having her wait for instructions; she seemed ultimately to be a product of the time in which the game was set, rather than breaking any new ground.  Even the white supremacist setting proved to be essentially arbitrary.  It is soon forgotten once the combat kicks in properly half way through the game, with only fleeting mentions of an essentially immigrant slave labour force, the seizing of assets, and unlawful execution without trial.  I feel the games industry has come far enough not to shy away from deep and confronting issues, and while they are hinted at, there are never any moral statements made on the inclusion of these topics, and they are used purely as that, a statement. In and of itself I guess this should essentially be enough, but the game never seems to choose sides, or even suggest that these things might be morally reprehensible.  The protagonist took part in the Wounded Knee Massacre, and the Boxer Rebellion, with ties to Colonialism and Nationalism, and yet these themes are not explored in any real depth, or any statement made on the protagonist’s involvement in them.  BioShock Infinite was a step in the right direction as far as raising these issues, but shied away from going so far as making a statement on its themes. Even the game world of Rapture, while thematically a little less ambitious, still made a statement at the end based on player choice.  The endings served to tell you exactly what kind of person the game developers thought you were, however in BioShock Infinite the ending is ultimately the same, no matter what you choose; although ironically this might be the very thing that the game was trying to say.

Over all, I found the plot was under-developed and slow moving for the first half of the game, and too fast-paced and racing by the second.  The pacing felt off and there was very little explanation given for anything in the game without finding all the often-too-difficult to discover voxophones (I still haven’t found all of them).  What are vigors?  Whom are we battling half the time and why?  What exactly is Songbird, or any other stronger than ordinary enemy for that matter?  What is a Mechanic, and why is it half man, half machine?  Why can Elizabeth control tears in the inter-dimensional fabric?  It has been suggested that many of these questions will be answered in the upcoming DLC’s, however if the plot can’t stand on its own two feet straight off the shelf, then it seems to me just to have been greedy game development to take out salient plot points only to sell them as DLC in a few months time. BioShock Infinite simply left too many questions unanswered, meaning the game world made very little sense, once again serving to make it seem ultimately lifeless.  I never truly felt what I was fighting for, because I had no real context for it.  I know what my objectives are, but never why I should be inclined to carry them out.  It was thematically grand, with concepts that could have given the game such a depth of experience, but the plot had such a shallow development, that it simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

Controversially, I truly feel that BioShock Infinite would have been a much better game had there been more focus on the plot details and development, and less focus on combat.  The combat often felt added in to artificially extend gameplay.  It didn’t present enough of a challenge, even when played on hard.  I believe that Columbia’s game world would have benefited from a more plot focussed and detailed approach to gameplay, like puzzles and problem solving.  The plot extended like a mystery novel, with constant hints at what was to come without giving anything away all at once.  Because of this, I think gameplay should have been far more cerebral, and less action oriented.  The skylines could have been utilised much better to achieve this, and the ciphers which were used as side quests could have played a far bigger role in the main bulk of the game.  For such a thematically ambitious project, I think a more cerebral approach to game development would have given the whole experience a depth which it lacks in its current form.

Over all, BioShock Infinite was enjoyable and certainly worth a second play through.  It gets many things right, but in my opinion simply failed to execute them to their highest level.  I find it difficult to look past the potential for this game to have been so much better than ‘good’.  I do however look forward to the three upcoming DLC’s, as they may help to build on the strong foundations that have been laid by the game in its current form.

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