Saturday, November 19, 2011

An Ode to November


Wow, have I had an interesting month. It's been such an epic spectacle that I thought I would put my feelings into words and really show my appreciation for the massive impact this month has had on me. So without further ado, thank you November. Thank you for teaching me valuable lessons in such concepts as humility, but even more so, in torture. Thank you for showing me all the unique ways to crush a man’s soul, shatter his self-worth, and bring him to the brink of insanity. Thank you for showing me my new threshold for pain and especially thank you for showing me all the new and creative ways to use swear words. Thank you for showing me that sprinkling in a few good things here and there only serves to make the next act of viciousness that much more impactful. Thank you for showing me all the new smells, the new sensations and the new feeling in my stomach. You know, the one that won’t be going away anytime soon. And most of all, thanks for the feelings of dread on what may be around the next corner. After all, you’re not quite done with me yet, are you? So one last round of applause for November. Any person, creature, thing or intangible word that bears little practical meaning that can somehow amass so many people, events, accidents, crises, and various other horrible things in a mere twenty days deserves some kind of recognition. If I were a sadistic man, I would take the lessons you taught me and use them against others. I may even become famous. Sadly, I’m not a sadistic man. I’m a good person with simple desires and interests. So rather than torture others with the knowledge I've gained this month, I will patiently wait for these last ten or so days to end while you continue your reign of terror upon my soul. I only hope that December is not quite as cruel and brutal as you November. If he is though, he will most certainly use my hopes to his advantage. Thank you November. Now go fuck yourself.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Batman Arkham City Review


Batman Arkham Asylum was a huge surprise when it was released in 2009. It looked great, and it seemed like a Batman game that actually might not suck, which was pretty rare back then. In fact, Batman Vengeance is the only game that was any good. DC had a notably poor record for developing games based on their characters, so it’s easy to see why nobody would believe, but when the truth dawns, it dawns in fire. Sorry, I had to. Anyway, Arkham Asylum was probably the first excellent Batman game ever made. And when I say excellent, I mean setting a new bar for game developers. I would never have expected to see that come from a licensed game, much less a license that has struggled as hard as Batman has to create even a decent game. If Batman Arkham Asylum set a new standard for many action adventure games to come, the question is, can they outdo themselves?

I can’t say that Batman Arkham City is better than Arkham Asylum. It’s not because it’s bad, far from it. I just can’t say that Metal Gear Solid is better than Grand Theft Auto because they are so different. Arkham City is a totally different beast when compared to Arkham Asylum. It’s bigger, bolder, and much more ambitious. Instead of moving from one section of Arkham Asylum to the next, Batman is smack dab in the middle of Gotham City, albeit a closed off section of Gotham now known as Arkham City. That’s right folks, Arkham Asylum has been moved to the center of Gotham City and serves as an enormous prison for the criminally insane. The massive city has been divided into subdivisions each controlled by one of your favorite Bat-foes, and its all-out war for control of Arkham. Meanwhile, something is fishy with the new warden of Arkham City, the not-so-widely known psychological mastermind, Dr. Hugo Strange. Strange is a unique villain in Batman’s Rogue’s Gallery, as he is one of the very few enemies that are aware of Batman’s true identity. As such, Dr. Strange makes sure that Batman makes an appearance in Arkham City by way of going after Bruce Wayne.

The story in Arkham Asylum was one of the best Batman stories ever told. Arkham City features a story that is just as compelling and engrossing, but it’s much bigger and much darker. Almost every notable Bat-villain makes an appearance from the obvious guys like Joker, to the not so widely known foes like Deadshot. Each sporting new looks, and occasionally, entirely new takes on the characterizations. This is one of the best parts of the Arkham series. Seeing Rocksteady Studios’ take on each character is often times inspiring. Even characters that are so often tossed aside for being silly, like Penguin and The Riddler, get their personalities ret-conned turning them into significant threats. Whoever thought of turning Riddler into Jigsaw from the Saw series is a certified genius!

On the topic of The Riddler, everybody remembers the surprisingly addicting collection quest from Arkham Asylum right? Hunting Riddler trophies here in BAC has gone through a massive overhaul. Instead of simply figuring out how to get the trophy from whatever room it’s in, the new Riddler quest is far more worthy of Batman’s time. Now, each trophy can only be earned of a test of wits. The Riddler challenges the Dark Knight’s mind, body and spirit for each trophy. When you need to know how to find these trophies, you can’t just find a map this time. No, sir, that’s too easy. Instead, you have to find the Riddler’s informants, henchman that spy on the other gang leaders for the master of questions. You’ll need to interrogate his troops in order to solve his dark riddles. A quest that is easier said than done. As you collect more trophies, solve riddles, and complete challenges, you will eventually have an opportunity to rescue hostages from the big green meanie’s clutches. It is in these moments where you realize just how dangerous The Riddler truly is.

The combat has been altered slightly, and not all alterations are for the best. The combat speed seems to have been slowed down slightly and there are so many combo’s and special moves that’s it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Personally, I think there is way too much crap jammed into this enhanced combat and I personally believe it has become over complicated in many ways. I suppose saying this game has too much awesome isn’t the worst criticism you can get, but I found the combat in the first game to be perfect as it was. Also, the slower combat speed was nothing short of frustrating to me. I was a master of the combat in the first game. Now, I’m getting my ass kicked all over the park because of these two relatively minor changes. Not to mention that due to the over-stuffed fighting combos, the controls always seem to be against me. Normally I would say I just suck, but like I said, I was a master ass-kicker in Asylum. The only change is the slower speed and added combos (except for quick button gadgets, but that makes combat easier). Still, some people will probably transitions easier than I did to the combat, so that won’t be a negative for some. But even with these flaws, Arkham City still has a very fun, exciting and thoroughly satisfying combat system. One that makes you feel like the Dark Knight himself.

The new gliding system was added to Arkham City out of necessity due to the much larger city. Batman can not only glide, but he can also use his grapple gun to launch him up high into the sky in order to gain momentum and speed to sore through the city streets with haste. Patrol helicopters also provide a sort of public transportation, if you will. The ability to dive bomb from the air has many advantages, from building momentum in transit, to combat maneuvers and even assisting in solving a few riddles. All of these enhancements combine to create a travel experience that is just as fun as anything you else you’d expect to find in the game. And in the vastness of Arkham City, the new travel abilities are going to put to good use.

Another new addition into Arkham City is the side quest feature, optional missions that expand not just the story of Arkham City, but also providing some closer to Arkham Asylum. For example, Bane is in Arkham City, but he is on a quest to hunt down and destroy the last remnants of Titan, the mutagenic goo from the first installment. There are other villains you’ll be battling in the side quests as well. Deadshot, Zsasz, and even the Mad Hatter are all out for Batman, and it’s up to you to stop them. The side quests are very well thought out side stories that emphasize a level of the detective play that the story campaign simply can’t provide. Most mission come to pretty satisfying conclusions and some even lay a hint or two regarding the future of the series.

The Challenge Maps make their return in Arkham City, but this time, you have the ability to play as multiple characters. Batman, Catwoman, Robin and as of just recently, Nightwing are all playable in the challenge maps (Catwoman even has her own campaign that intertwines with Batman’s story). The combat maps are just as awesome and challenging as ever, in fact more-so, with the new enemies introduced in BAC. The predator maps on the other hand, leave me a little disappointed. The best part of Arkham City is just how jammed packed it is in virtually every way. Sadly, this ends up hurting the predator maps. The maps are large and very dense, but are ultimately poorly laid out, especially in comparison to Arkham Asylum’s predator maps. The predator sections were my favorite parts of Arkham Asylum, now they are my least favorite here in the city. That is a testament to the power of level design as the predator play is almost completely unchanged.

Another thing I want to note is the fantastic voice acting. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill return as the Batman and Joker respectively, and they once again hit it out of the park. In my mind, these two are the best actors to portray these characters, and that can be said throughout the entire voice cast. The characters are absolutely flawless. I give special props to Maurice Lamarche as Mr. Freeze. His cold and almost mechanical performance give Freeze an ambience befitting to his namesake. Every time he speaks with his helmet on, I get chills. Couple that with the best boss fight and he becomes that best addition to the game. I never liked Mr. Freeze that much, not even in the 90’s toon. Now, he may have just graduated to one of favorite characters. Two-Face, who is my favorite Batman villain, finally makes an appearance, and although it is brief in comparison to Joker, Freeze, and even Penguin, it is definitely memorable, although it is also well beneath what the character deserves. Two-Face hangs out at the courthouse, reigning judgment on his foes as both the prosecution and the defense. Two-Face as he is portrayed in BAC may go down in history as the definitive characterization of the Gotham’s former white knight, which makes his small role all the more tragic.

All in all Batman Arkham City is well worth the price. Hours upon hours of entertainment can be found in this game, and its well-done entertainment at that. Like Gears of War 3, Batman Arkham City is bursting at the seams with exciting and fulfilling content that is sure to please for hours. There are so many puzzles, side stories and fan pleasing Easter Eggs that you may find yourself neglecting the main story for a while. I enjoyed every minute of this game, and when I finished it, I wanted to start it all over again. First I need to get those damn trophies. With its careful attention to detail, compelling story, faithful representation of the characters and mythos and its magnificently grim, gritty atmosphere, Batman’s Arkham series isn’t just the definitive Batman game, it is the definitive Batman story.

I give Batman Arkham City a 9.5 out of 10.

Pros

The definitive version of Batman

A powerful and gripping story with excellent voice acting

Masterful grasp of the characters, setting, and universe

Fun and exciting combat

Huge sandbox style city to explore

Side quests, Riddler Collectibles, and Challenge maps offer hours of fun entertainment

Jam packed with content

Great graphics

Excellent music

Think of a Batman character. They’re probably in this game somewhere

Cons

Combat changes sometimes serve as a liability

Many Predator challenge maps could be designed a little better

Some characters don’t get the screen time they deserve (like Two-Face)

So many actions that can be performed, sometimes controls get a little confused

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Mass Effect 3 Beta Leak Impressions


Yesterday, Xbox 360 users who signed up for early access to Mass Effect 3 got a special treat. A Beta Demo of the highly anticipated threequel was leaked over Xbox Live and fully downloadable. The version was rough around the edges (very rough) but fans were still delighted to get early-early access to the final act in the prolific trilogy. I myself was unable to play the demo, but I have seen footage of it in its entirety. Since I have been incredibly vocal about my negative opinions of Mass Effect 2 and the way the series has been marketed since joining with EA, I thought it may be a good idea to offer some first impressions.

All of the videos start off on the menu screen. One of the most memorable moments of ME1 was its unique menu. I remember listening to a haunting atmospheric melody as I stared at the horizon of a distant planet. Upon hitting the start button, I was transported to a screen that slowly cycled through the story’s cast of characters. ME2’s menu wasn’t so memorable. We stared at space debris and were then shifted to screen inside a Cerberus ship. It was boring and really didn’t set a space-opera vibe like the original did, but the computer screen menu worked well for what Bioware wanted to accomplish. ME3 combines the two, showcasing the horizon of a distant planet Earth as hundreds of Reapers descend on the world playing music similar to ME1. Pressing start transported the player to a computer screen nearly identical to the one of ME2, this time with an Alliance d├ęcor. It’s the best of both worlds that sets a grim tone for Shepard’s final adventure. I liked that Bioware opted to showcase their commitment to bringing the trilogy full circle just in their menu screen, but ME3 won’t win fans over by what happens outside the game.

Upon starting the single player campaign (God I hate that I have to specify that!) players will be taken to the usual character creator where they can customize their Shepard to their personal specifications. After that, you choose the in-game settings. It’s here where much controversy has been founded. ME3 features 3 play styles, Action Mode, Story Mode and RPG Mode. Action Mode is a setting that emphasizes the action TPS gameplay and auto-selects all dialog options and decisions as well as auto level-ups your Shepard. This mode is likely geared towards new players who have not touched a Mass Effect yet, so it’s no big deal that the ability to make tough choices has been removed as these players have already demonstrated a considerable lack of good decision making skills. Next is the story which handicaps the combat difficulty so that you can enjoy the tale that unfolds in ME3. This mode also allows you to make all conversation and decision choices you wish. Finally, there is RPG mode, which may as well be called Mass Effect Mode, as it is the optimal way to play Mass Effect 3 as it has been designed. Choices and dialog are up to the players, you manually level Shepard up and the combat is not scaled back in any way.

Obviously these new modes are not being well received by fans. Many see this “Action Mode” as dumbing down the game, even after repeated promises from Bioware that the RPG elements, depth, and complexity of gameplay will make a triumphant return. The truth is this: Yup! Action Mode is a dumbed down version of Mass Effect 3, but let’s look at the big picture here. Would you rather have a dumbed down option for the TPS crowd, or would you rather Bioware pander to the TPS crowd on a universal level and dumb down the gameplay for everyone? My vote goes for the former.

After that is out of the way, the game begins. I won’t go into too much detail in order to preserve the sanctity of the single player experience, but I will say that this leak was potentially the best thing to happen to Bioware in their marketing campaign, which is the number 1 reason I believe this leak was not intentional. The graphics look astounding, even in this rough state. The cinematic presentation is better than ever and the sound (when it worked) was amazing. The dialog and voice acting was occasionally off, but the exchanges between Shepard and his mentor David Anderson are excellent. The dreaded, “We fight or we die, that’s the plan,” line is shockingly not just stock trailer dialog. It’s actually spoken in the game, and even more shocking, the line doesn’t come off as hokey or cheesy.

The gameplay looked about the same as Mass Effect 2, however, the combat animations such as running, rolling, and taking cover looks stiff and often times, quite ridiculous. The diving and rolling are unnaturally over the top, which is especially bad for a game that has had a strong commitment to presenting the game realistically. I also think the gameplay is moving too fast. What I mean by that is that the game speed moves at a very jarringly unnatural speed. That word again. Unnatural. I don’t like that ME3’s gameplay makes me say unnatural when talking about two different things. I also don’t like the “You’re too retarded to play this game” helper icons. A little icon pops up telling you to Follow Anderson until you leave Earth. Follow Anderson? Thank God you told me that one because I never would have guessed I should follow the guy who is constantly saying, “This way!” and “Come on!” By the way, there is only one path to walk here. I couldn’t avoid following Anderson even if I wanted to. Fortunately, these helper icons can be disabled, and it is possible that they are only present because it’s the tutorial.

Either way, nobody plays Mass Effect for the gameplay (right Action Mode?) which brings me to the story. Man oh man, the story is looking good. We open with Shepard stuck on Earth awaiting his hearing with the Alliance Military Defense Committee. The hearing is tossed out the window upon the discovery of a large invasion force of unknown origin heading towards Earth. The committee wants Shepard to answer one question, “Is it the Reapers?” That question answers itself in a matter of moments. From then on, it’s a quest to escape Earth on the Normandy before the Reapers eradicate Shepard and his friends.

After the Earth portion is finished, the game leaps to the inside of the Normandy’s Kodiak shuttle where Shep and co. are prepping for a new mission. They are on their way to Sur’Kesh to have a sit down with the Salarians. Shepard and his crew are joined by Urdnot Wrex to save a host of Krogan females. The return of Wrex is every bit as awesome as it should be and what’s even better is when we run into more than a few familiar Salarians along the way. This is the same demo showcased over and over again ever since E3, so everybody knows Cerberus shows up to be massive pains in the booty.

Even in this short view of the story, it’s obvious that there is a much darker tone. Not manufactured dark like Mass Effect 2 was, but legitimately dark and dangerous. There is a strong sense of desperation in the air. I think the moment that really hits the dark and desperate vibe is when Shepard and Anderson turn around to watch the surveillance video of the Reapers invading Earth, a clever nod to the earliest moments of ME1. One thing that I was thoroughly impressed with was the way the missions were paced. They weren’t overlong with exposition like ME1 nor did they just throw Shepard in the middle of a battlefield upon touching down like in ME2. They carefully built up the necessary tension and story beats while not boring the player to death. It was just right.

Another topic worth noting is the impact of your choices and how they may affect ME3. I can tell you right now that this brief demo showcased more potential variation in ME3 than all of ME2. Within the first few minutes we will be introduced to the Virmire Survivor and Sur’Kesh is all over the park. Wrex, Mordin, Garrus and someone else all show up to assist Shepard in retrieving the female Krogan. I feel as if I can let out a sigh of relief after seeing the amount of people showcased that may not actually be alive come ME3. That being said, it’s also nice seeing squad members acknowledging one another in the way they did in this demo. I won’t go into details.

Among some of the other highlights was our first look at James Vega. We don’t see much of him, but it’s clear that he has a certain amount of reverence for Shepard. Vega is big and tattooed, which has been a source of mockery from the fans, and he sounds like Freddie Prinze Jr. is his voice actor. At least to me. We also get to see the first meeting between Shepard and Ashley (no Kaidan in this demo) which had an awkward vibe to it, proving that the events on Horizon won’t be brushed aside and that the e-mail was likely outside of cannon for those of us who romanced the snarky warrior woman. There was also a demo on the multiplayer, which I watched and was astonished with how slow, empty, sleep inducing and dull it was. I had a feeling it was going to be a Horde rip-off, but this was just lazy and uninspired in my humblest of opinions. Maybe it will be a bit more exciting at launch.

Even though the gameplay segments had me a bit nervous, I was very impressed with the story, presentation, and character interactions. It’s rough around the edges, very brief, and the Earth segment had very little dialog options, but you can still get a pretty good impression of what is in store for fans of the franchise. I have to admit, many of my fears have been alleviated, but I’m still concerned about the finished product. After viewing this demo, I feel very comfortable preordering the collector’s edition again, but I am remaining wary of the possibility of a huge embarrassing failure. Good or bad, Mass Effect 3 will likely own my soul for the entire month of March in 2012. If it’s good, probably even longer.

Update 11-7: Bioware's leak turned out even worse then initially expected. It looks like some dude in Russia was actually able to hack the beta demo somehow and managed to pull specific story details, including a full and complete synopsis of the game's entire story line. Also included were details on characters, death scenes, weapons, powers, customization upgrades and the origins of the Reapers. Practically the whole game has leaked onto the net months before the release date. Bioware made an official statement saying that although much of the information revealed is not fully accurate and has changed in some form, it's close enough to ruin the story experience for fans. Bioware is strongly encouraging fans to avoid reading the information if they are deeply invested in the story experience. Yikes. Sounds pretty bad to me. I didn't read any of the info myself, but one minor spoiler did slip out on the forums that I am a little concerned about. Hopefully that is one of the changes that Bioware made to the final product. Personally, I just hope that there is no mention of the Beings of Light anywhere in that synopsis. Because that idea was stupid.