Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Demo Impressions

Today I got a chance to try out the demo for Mass Effect 3, earlier than the Valentine’s Day release date. I would like to send out a big thank you to movie321456 at the Bioware Social Network for offering me the code. Thanks! Anyways, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about how Mass Effect 3 will turn out. I have had my ups and downs with it. One day, I think it’s going to be terrible and a massive disappointment. Other days, I think it will be the end all be all RPG of our time. It can go either way, after all, Bioware has a lot to deliver on, and many fans have lost faith in their ability to deliver the goods. A lot is riding on Mass Effect 3, which means that a lot is riding on this demo. So without further ado, let me offer my take on the demo. I have already given my perspective on the beta leak not too long ago, so I will avoid being redundant.

In case you were not aware, the demo features the opening on Earth and a portion of the mission on Sur’Kesh, the Salarian homeworld. All of the glitches and graphical hiccups from the beta leak are gone. The game runs silky smooth and the quality of the graphics are top notch. The official music is now in place, and I must say, it is quite impressive. All of the familiar themes are still around, which was a bit of a concern being that Jack Wall is not contributing to the soundtrack. The 80’s synth sound is more prominent than it was in ME2, while still maintaining the bombastic epicenes the sequel’s score provided. The song playing during the character creator is simply awesome. I want it on my I-Pod now!

As far as visuals go, I have a minor gripe. The contrast is almost too much. Everything is just so dark and murky or grey and pasty. This is actually mostly good, as it gives the story a very somber gravitas, but they go a little far with the contrast. I created a custom Shepard with brown hair in the character creator, and thanks to the extreme contrast in the wider world of the in game graphics, my would be mildly tanned skinned, brown haired Shepard ended up looking like a creepy vampire with jet black hair. I can’t even imagine what the palest skin tone looks like in game. It would have to be an albino’s albino. Yeesh.

On the topic of the character creator, Bioware stayed true to their word by adding a few new hairstyles for Shepard, both male and female. Male players may be disappointed that they did not add any new facial hair, however. Either way, most of the new hairstyles are not so great. They only add about four new hairstyles for both genders, and about half of them are pretty good. They have a boat load of new hair colors too. Purple, pink and an assorted other crazy colors are available for your rave-friendly Shepards. I did manage to duplicate my primary Shepard from ME1 and ME2. I am happy to say that he looks better than ever (except for the fact that his brown hair looks black and his normal skin tone looks pasty). If you are worried about your import, I can assure you that your Shepard should look just as good if not better than before, though you may need to tweak his skin tone and amp up the game’s brightness level.

Now let’s talk about the combat. Bioware made some heavy boasts about the new combat, and while I can honestly say that the combat is better than ME2, I think the developers may have overhyped it a smidgen. Outside of the new combat rolls and snappier cover to cover movement, it plays virtually the same as ME2. That includes the clunkiness. Unfortunately, the combat is not nearly as smooth and polished as Bioware has touted. In fact, it is a bit clunkier thanks to all of the added jumping, rolling, and climbing, mostly because every cover based and evasive action is all done by pressing A. There were way too many times in my playthrough that I attempted to take cover only to roll in place while Cerberus soldiers shot at me. It was certainly frustrating, but no more frustrating than the similar problems encountered in ME2. Overall, the system is better simply because of the added evasive maneuvers Shepard has the ability to perform.

The enemies are much smarter than in the past. In ME2, they just kind of ran at you shooting, almost as if they wanted to die. In ME3, the enemies not only act like they really want to kill you, but they also would like to stay alive. Enemies will attack, flank, dodge and do whatever it takes to kill you and live to tell the tale. They are more aggressive and much tougher than before. Again, Bioware overhyped how hard they are. I didn’t have any real trouble with them. But then again, Bioware said that Normal was the new Veteran. I guess I can agree with that. I played on Normal and the game was about as challenging as Veteran in ME2. It was hard enough to be a challenge but not at the expense of the fun factor.

The biggest shortcoming this demo suffers from is the lack of RPG mechanics. That’s not to say that ME3 has no RPG elements, it’s just that the demo does everything in its power to make sure you don’t see them. You are allowed to collect upgrades, but you are never given an opportunity to use them in your weapons. You can find armor pieces, but the demo doesn’t allow you to wear them. You can level up your Shepard with the new and improved branching stat progression system, but you don’t have nearly enough points to get a clear sense of how good the system will actually be. You could try investing all of your points into a single ability, say concussive shot, but then, you would only have a fully upgraded and customized concussive shot, with no other abilities to speak of.

Another source of frustration was the new weight system. In ME3, all of your weapons have a weight count. Each weapon has its own weight comparable to its power. For example, the Revenant Light Machine Gun will weigh far more than the standard issue Avenger Assault Rifle. The amount of weight you carry has a direct impact on your power cool-downs. The heavier your loadout, the longer your abilities take to cool-down. Go into battle with nothing but a pistol and you can expect your powers to cool-down almost instantaneously, but if you’re decked out like John Matrix, expect your abilities to cool-down about as slow as molasses. The system is a smart, elegant and perfectly balanced solution to the RPG/Shooter debate, and it allows caster classes, like Adepts, to use their powers much more frequently. So why is it frustrating? At the beginning of the demo, during the fall of Earth, Shepard has access to only two or three powers. A vanguard for example, will only have one point allocated to Charge, Incendiary Ammo, and his class power, Assault Mastery. This leaves you with only your charge to zerg your enemies. Obviously that isn’t very representative of the weight system. Things get worse when you visit Sur’kesh and your Shepard, regardless of his or her class, is decked from head to toe with a significant arsenal of four weapons. This drags the cool-down times, and forces you to play as a run and gun soldier, even if you play as a power heavy class like Engineer. Not only that, but there are no weapon lockers or upgrade benches to reconfigure your loadout, meaning your stuck playing Rambo in the jungles of Sur’Kesh. The weight system was one of many elements of ME3 I was eager to see firsthand. Alas, I will have to wait until March. Sigh.

I was also very disappointed with the dialog in the game. The entire Earth demo was nothing more than a giant cutscene intercut with combat segments. 90% of Shepard’s dialog was predetermined, leaving the player to simply watch as Shepard speaks lines you wish you chose for him/her. All in all, the first 30 minutes of the game features only four or five dialog prompts. This is incredibly worrisome. What is even more disturbing to me is the astoundingly limited choice in dialog options. It has literally boiled down to Paragon or Renegade, with no middle ground whatsoever. Each conversation only had two options with no opportunities to investigate. ME2 frequently had prompts that only featured two options, but most of the time you had at least three. To make things worse, many of these conversation prompts featured the exact same line of dialog regardless of whether you chose the top or bottom response. It was literally verbatim the same line! I was honestly wondering why Bioware even bothered putting dialog options in the game. This demo made me feel like Bioware no longer has an interest in player agency and would rather give Shepard his own personality. If this is a consequence of giving Shepard more emotion, I would rather they left him a block of wood with more things to say. And that’s coming from a guy who actively supports the idea of a more emotional Shepard.

All in all, the demo was a tad disappointing. This is not to say that Mass Effect 3 will also be disappointing. In fact, I think ME3 will be great. The problem with the demo is that it is completely non-representative of the Mass Effect 3 experience (at least, I hope it is). There are virtually no dialog options, no choices to make (no matter how small), not enough points to invest in the new stat progression system , there was no way to test out the new weight system causing player to be unable to properly test out the classes. There was no upgrading, no customizing, no exploration, and no real story either. I didn’t expect that all of these elements would be featured in the demo, but I am shocked that the only element that was featured was the combat. This had an adverse effect, as it only served to highlight how un-polished the combat really is. The combat was fun and an improvement over ME2, but it still can’t stand on its own.

The excellent graphics, brilliant cinematics, improved combat and amazing score can’t save the demo from being a disappointment. It is unfortunate that we humble fans couldn’t get a more fleshed out look at what ME3 might be like, but at least we know these RPG features do exist in the game, even if we can’t access them in the demo. Bioware has many of their hardcore fans concerned about ME3’s direction, and this demo isn’t doing them any favors. As for me, I remain on the fence. If the main game has more dialog options and a stronger sense of player agency then what the demo has offered, ME3 should be in good shape. That is under the assumption that the RPG features mentioned above and the story are well done. Here’s hoping.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Woman in Black Review

I don’t like horror movies. They never scare me. There have only been two horror movies that I have seen that genuinely freaked me out, The Thing and the original Evil Dead. That’s it. I normally like to shy away from creepers, slashers, chillers and freakers because of this. That being said, a friend asked me to accompany her to see this movie (which I admit, I never even heard of it until she asked) so I said, sure! Why not? The worst that could happen is that I get to write a review about the flick. And now, it is so.

The Woman in Black isn’t so much a horror movie as it is a spooky thriller. It’s about some guy who stays in a haunted house for some reason. Honestly, I really don’t know what was going on. Harry Potter played some kind of lawyer, I think. He was trying to sell a haunted house. Maybe he was a realtor. I don’t know. Anyways, he stays in the house and it’s haunted. That’s really all you need to know. The house itself is occupied by the spirit of one of its previous tenants: The Woman in Black, a crazy ass ghost that has a penchant for murdering folk. And not just any folk. I won’t tell you her favorite target. You’ll just have to see it.

Anyways, Harry Potter aka Daniel Radcliffe plays our hero. I don’t remember his character’s name but I do remember that he is a widow raising his son all by his lonesome. Now, I know things were different back in 1800s or whenever the hell this story takes place, but I don’t have children, and I am about a biscuit older than Radcliffe. I found that strange. Then again, one of my friends had a kid at 17, so whatever. Anyways, he take this whole “sell this house job” so he can afford to raise his boy. Soon, he arrives in a spooky and isolated town and meets a whole ton of really creepy people. Aside from a near vacant story, this was my biggest problem with The Woman in Black. The townsfolk were so obviously creepy and portrayed so heavy handed, it was nearly laughable. This scene comes to mind. Subtlety is obviously not a word that exists in this director’s vocabulary.

The story may be absent, but, it’s a haunted house movie. This of course means that the story can be forgiven as long as it’s spooky. And spooky it was. I give credit to the director here. Subtlety may not be in his vocabulary, but sometimes that’s a good thing. Many of the chills and scares come out of nowhere and hit in the face like a brick. And you know something, it frigging works. This movie was spine tingly spooky. The sight gags were genuinely creepy. Often times, they were so creative that I couldn’t help but smile. The middle act is where almost all of the creepiest shit happens. I wish the whole movie was a solid as the middle, but sadly, it was not. Even so, the creeps, chills, freaks, and scares are effective and abundant. Even those jump moments are effective here, which is hard to pull off. However, the director gets a little crazy having roughly 4 jump moments per act. Eventually, they wear thin and become predictable, removing the “jump” from the equation. Despite the director overcompensating with his shocks, the movie is grim, moody and filmed quite well.

Even with its successes, there are other issues I had with this movie. One problem I had was that I really didn’t care about what happened to Harry Potter. I never felt a connection to him. He was one dimensional and had shockingly little dialogue in the movie. That and Radcliffe’s performance essentially boiled down to him looking either freaked out or confused all the time. And to be very honest, Radcliffe’s freaked out face looks a little too similar to his confused face. So even though the chills and scares were highly effective, they would have been even better if I feared for the protagonist’s fate. I really didn’t.

One thing that made me chuckle was the visual design of the film. Old school England with a grey and blue color scheme? A little too close to the last few Potter films if you ask me. In fact, a scene early in the movie takes Radcliffe aboard a train, reminding us all too effectively of his previous role. It’s strange because this movie reeks of Radcliffe trying to distance himself from Potter by going darker, edgier and moodier, and yet, I found myself cracking jokes about how he had boarded the train to Hogwarts. Perhaps he should have tried playing a drug addict like all those other former child stars.

The Woman in Black is hardly innovative or original. It’s formulaic in structure, and hollow in story. The lead character is bland and uninteresting and the town’s creepiness level is way too obvious to be considered anything but hilarious. The beginning will bore you, the ending will disappoint you, and yet, I walk away with a positive notion of the film. Its greatest success is its creepy middle act when Radcliffe spends the night in the haunted house with nothing but a dog and a spirit. And creepy it is. The spirit doesn’t hold back when terrorizing Radcliffe’s character, and frequently sneaks up on him when he least expects it. I wish the director was sitting next to me so I could pat him on the back for some of his creepy sight gags. It is actually quite obvious that the director had a lot of great ideas on how to scare the socks off of people. Everything else, not so much.

The Woman in Black is greater than the sum its parts and offers a surprisingly fun and chilling night in a spooky ass haunted house. I can’t recommend it to everyone, but if you like these kinds of movies or Daniel Radcliffe’s acting, then check it out. Me, I was surprised with it. Is it great? Hell no. Is it good? Not so much. Is it bad? No way. In a word, The Woman in Black is decent. And that is not always a bad thing. I give The Woman in Black and 6.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

I Made It!!!!

A funny thing happened to me this week. I became that which I have always wanted to become. A grizzly bear. Well, no. Not really. I didn’t become a bear. No. The truth is, that after years of trying to become a real writer, perfecting my craft, publishing a comic, and running this blog that is designed to make you inferior beings just a tad smarter, I have made it! Yes sir. I now feel comfortable calling myself an industry professional. An honest to God writer. How did this happen? I will tell you sir. I will tell you.

Only a few days ago, one of my posts made its way to a certain forum. Now I won’t go into detail about what the slightly disparaging post may have claimed about an upcoming threequel game. And out of sheer respect for the community, I won’t Bother Saying Nothing about who read the article. In any event, the post was panned and I received what essentially amounted to hate mail. No threats mind you, just a few petty insults, a bunch of dudes putting words in my mouth, and other dudes taking portions of my article completely out of context. And that’s how it happened. That’s how I became a real writer. I got hate.

You know, there is a certain level of satisfaction that comes with being infamous. Sadly, the infamy is mostly unwarranted spawned from a few folks who only read half an article, and everyone else simply jumped on board. Either way, it’s hate, and it’s mine. All mine baby. All mine. I’m admired for my detestability. High five if you can guess what movie that’s from. And no Google. That’s cheating.

I’ve been cheated, jipped, overpaid, underpaid, hired, fired, loved, hated, positively reviewed, negatively reviewed, I’ve sold, I’ve bought, I’ve divided, and I’ve conquered. If that doesn’t spell “PERFECTION” nothing does. Although my dreams of one day becoming a grizzly bear may never actualize, I will always be a writer. Whether you like it or not.

Oh, and to you out there who may naysay and flaunt about with your superiority complexes telling me that none of that means I’m a pro, you’re wrong. There is actually scientific evidence out there that supports the fact that I’m a pro. It’s a book written by Rob Leifield. He’s a scientist ya know. In anatomical studies. Heh.

Now I bid thee farewell for now. Stay thirsty my friends.