Game Review: Mass Effect

With Mass Effect 2 on the horizon, I doubt anybody really cares about my thoughts regarding the original title. After all, we’re talking about a game that was released way back in November 2007, and by now, anybody that had any remote interest in the game has already played it through numerous times and has since put the game back on the shelf to collect layer upon layer of beautiful dust.

More like "Ass Effect", am I right?

More like "Ass Effect", am I right?

Fortunately for you, dear reader, I simply don’t give a damn that this review is woefully out of date. Yes, much like my notoriously late Fallout 3 review, I’m gonna tell you what I thought of the game anyway, simply because I can …

That is, if I can finally decide what I actually thought about the game.

You see, Mass Effect is a tough nut to crack … it did so many things awesomely right, while at the same time doing so many things terribly wrong, that it all blends together to form some sort of bizarre mutant hybrid of good and evil that, despite its flaws, you simply have to see all the way to the very end. You know, like Bob Saget doing stand-up.

Anyway, in no particular order, here are a few things that I particularly liked and disliked about Mass Effect:

The Incredible Detail of Commander Shepard

If there’s one thing Mass Effect got right, it was the game’s protagonist, Commander Shepard (especially compared to the generic Lone Wanderer found in Fallout 3). On the surface he’s pretty much your run-of-the-mill Bald Space Marine, but through a combination of remarkably competent voice acting and the subtle effects of the initial character creation that can be found throughout the entire game, Commander Shepard really comes to life.

Don't let the generic look fool you.

Don't let the generic look fool you.

While not very in-depth, the choices made at the start of the game regarding Shepard’s upbringing and military history really flesh out his background and provide an additional layer to the game’s narrative. There are no amnesia-riddled angsty teens here — people are well aware of Shepard’s past and will bring it up on numerous occasions through the game, opening up new dialogue options, cinematics, and mission objectives based on what you decided had happened to him before the story begins. This level of detail really gives the impression that this is a living, breathing character who belongs in this world — and not just some random jerk that they pulled off the street to play the role of “hero”.

The Empty Husks of the Other Characters

Outside of Commander Shepard, however, I never really gave six shits about any of the other characters found throughout the game. In particular, Garrus, Wrex, and Tali all join your party within a few minutes of one another near the start of the game — but I’m thinking, who the hell are these people (er, aliens) and why did they decide to join me? The game spends so little time introducing you to these characters before they become part of your squad that it is truly impossible to care for them or understand their goals / motivations.

Yeah, you look cool, but why are you following me?

Yeah, you look cool, but why are you following me?

Of course, I can already hear the fanboys whining that everything you need to know about the characters can be gleamed from the completely optional (and tremendously boring) conversations aboard the Normandy between missions. While this is somewhat true, it would have been much more effective to show the stories and personalities of these characters through action rather than words by having them more actively involved in the main story missions. Only once does this really happen (the scene where Wrex freaks out on Virmire) — a little more of that sort of thing would have been greatly appreciated.

Spectacular Graphics — Most of the Time

Even on my small, non-HD television, it’s easy to see that Mass Effect has incredible graphics. Well, after they’ve completely loaded, that is. Then again, seeing the layers of detail appear one after another as the game loads the environment does provide an interesting glimpse into how the designers created the characters and worlds …

Driving in Space — Not Nearly as Fun as You’d Think

While the main story missions are a lot of fun, the sidequests are … well … not so much. The first step of nearly every sidequest is to land on an uncharted planet and drive your awesome looking tank, the Mako, across the most boring terrain ever conceived by a video game developer. Seriously, each planet consists of a single colour of rock and nothing but bumpy, jagged mountains. No rivers, no trees, no animals, no caves, no lakes of fiery magma … nothing. I suppose they are uncolonized planets for a reason, but still, the driving sections really sucked a lot of the fun out of Mass Effect simply because they were so mind-numbingly boring, tedious, and utterly lacking in the lush detail found throughout the rest of the game.

Looks like fun, right? WRONG.

Looks like fun, right? WRONG.

Of course, what happens when finally climb over that jagged-ass mountain and reach your destination?

Research Outposts — Now Available in Bulk Orders!

Well, on each planet there is either a research outpost, a lab, or a mine. The first time you reach one of these structures, it’s pretty neat. The next time you reach one, however, you get this very uncomfortable sense of deja vu. Wasn’t I already here, you ask yourself? Would BioWare actually be so lame as to actually recycle the floorplan for every single research outpost in the game? Yes. Yes they would.

Perhaps there is a single trusted supplier of research outposts and mining structures that all mercenaries and scientists in the galaxy feel compelled to purchase from, lest they be mocked and heckled by their peers? Or maybe the intergalactic Martha Stewart has discovered the ultimated, undeniable feng shui layout for research outposts?

If there is any upside to the tedious and repetitive nature of these sidequests, it’s that knowing the layout of each type of structure ahead of time made the battles much quicker and easier, since you already knew exactly where the enemies would come from and where the crates would be with which to take cover. Not that the battle system needed to be made much easier, mind you …

The World’s Greatest Elevator Simulator!

Do you like elevators? I mean, do you really like elevators? Then you’ll love Mass Effect, where loading times between areas are “masked” (and I use that in the loosest sense of the word) behind thrilling elevator journeys! Can you feel the excitement? BECAUSE I CAN!

This image is actually burned into my TV.

This image is actually burned into my TV.

Yes, the game has its flaws (and I didn’t even get into the incredibly frustrating inventory system, or the fact that money is pretty much useless throughout the entire game, or the fact that the game isn’t as long or as open-ended as you’re led to believe). But despite these flaws, I still found Mass Effect to be a very enjoyable adventure. The story was solid (and easily accessible for people like myself who aren’t massive sci-fi nerds), the combat was acceptable (albeit rather repetitive at times), and the method of navigating through dialogue trees was extremely intuitive. Plus, it actually had a climactic ending with a decent final battle (unlike the letdown that was the final chapter of Fallout 3), so that already bumps it up a few points in my book.

In conclusion, Mass Effect gets a definite thumbs up from me. Now, which ancient game will I unearth and review next?

Game Review: Fallout 3

Although most of the traffic to this blog seems to be coming from Google Image Searches for items such as “Vigo”, “Magus”, and “Ovechkin”, there might be a handful of you out there that actually take the time to read the nonsense that I type into this thing. And if you’re one of those select few heroes of the blogosphere, you’ve probably noticed that Steve McCutchen’s Cavalcade of Awesomeness has been a bit of a ghost town as of late. No, my friends, I haven’t been critically wounded. Instead, I’ve just been spending far too much time roaming the Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3 for the Xbox 360.

Yes, I know, I’m a bit late to the party when it comes to reviewing this game, seeing as how it came out last fall and has already seen three expansion packs come its way. However, it was never really a high priority. For starters, I wasn’t a crazed Fallout fanboy clamouring to get my grubby paws on the newest iteration of the franchise. Sure, I had tried the original, but could never really get into it. Something about the slow and clunky battle system, isometric viewpoint, and annoying random encounters on the world map that didn’t really click with me, I guess.

A very excellent game ... but you already knew that.

A very excellent game ... but you already knew that.

Second, I had never played Oblivion, so I was completely unfamiliar with the game engine that Fallout 3 would be built upon, and more important, rather apathetic about the whole third-person / first-person Western RPG genre as a whole.

However, I had heard (and seen) good things about Fallout 3, and with no game lined up to play after defeating Twilight Princess, I finally decided to give it a shot.

In short, the game is really, really good. Quite excellent, in fact. Great atmosphere, pretty graphics, an extensive levelling system that lets you create a variety of character types, some nice dashes of humour thrown in now and again … but that’s not what this review is about.

Everybody already knows that the game is super awesome. Instead, here’s my take on some of the minor, nitpicking issues I had with Fallout 3:

The World’s Greatest Scavenger Hunt!

So I spent upwards of 45 hours completing the main quest and quite a few of the sidequests scattered throughout the Capital Wasteland. But enquiring minds need to know — just how many of those hours were spent slooooooowly scanning every desk, shelf, cabinet, and locker in DC for loot? Far too many, by my estimation. And what is the reward for pillaging an entire city? Sure, you might find a useful item or two, but it’s mostly a bunch of tin cans, mugs, scrap metal, and financial clipboards. I can’t feed my family with financial clipboards, dammit!

On that note, why are the clipboards and plates and drinking glasses even in the game? Mere cannon fodder for the incredibly shitty Rock-It Launcher? No … I refuse to believe that’s the case. There must be more. Bethesda Softworks must be working on an expansion that will introduce the ultimate in protective clothing: Clipboard Armor. Schematics for this item will call for seven Clipboards, Wonderglue, two Fission Batteries, and a Toaster. Yeah … that would rock.

The World’s Greatest Inventory Management Simulator!

So what happens after you’ve unleashed your inner kleptomaniac and shoved everything that isn’t nailed down into your pockets? Well, you get very heavy and unable to move, of course! It’s completely natural to be able to carry a dozen different weapons on your person at any time, but if you try to add one more bottle of whiskey to the pile, your boots suddenly turn to lead. And when that happens, you get to experience the ultimate thrill ride of sorting through your inventory and deciding which crap you really need and which crap you can nonchalantly toss on the floor until you’re light enough to walk at a non-herniated pace.

Get used to this screen. You'll be seeing it a lot.

Get used to this screen. You'll be seeing it a lot.

And don’t think the fun stops just because you’ve levelled up a bit and boosted your strength so that you can carry a few more pounds of junk. By the time that happens, you’re packing super heavy T-51b Power Armor and Gatling Lasers, which means you can actually carry less stuff before having to go through your inventory again and again every time you want to pick up a new item.

Architectural Diversity — The First Casualty of War!

There’s a lot of area to explore in the Capital Wasteland. Regrettably, you won’t really want to, because it all looks the same. Whether you go north or south, it’s the same dreary landscape, over and over and over again. When you finally make it to a settlement, it’s the same type of house over and over and over again. And whether it’s a Vault, the Nuka-Cola factory, an aircraft carrier, a robot factory, or a food processing plant, every single major set piece in the game must have used the same interior decorator, because it all looks freakin’ identical. It takes some of the thrill out exploration when the new place you just discovered looks exactly the same as the last dozen places you discovered.

Get used to this screen. You'll be seeing it a lot.

Get used to this screen. You'll be seeing it a lot.

Biodiversity — The Second Casualty of War!

Okay, so a nuclear war wiped out American civilization as we know out. Towns annihilated, infrastructure completely wiped out … and damn near every single species of animal totally vapourized? It would seem so, because the only living things inhabiting the Wastes are mutants, ghouls, dogs, ants, molerats, scorpions, bears, crabs, and deathclaws. For a game as in-depth as Fallout 3, that’s a rather piss-poor variety of things to shoot at over the course of your lengthy adventure. You can only headshot so many Super Mutants before it grows tiresome, you know? Where are my mutated eagles, giant sandworms, feral warthogs, sharks with laser beams, and other assorted horrors of the apocalypse? Not in this game, that’s for damn sure. Just lots and lots of Super Mutants.

Get used to this screen. You'll be seeing it a lot.

Get used to this screen. You'll be seeing it a lot.

Think of it this way — Kirby had to face a greater variety of enemies than the Lone Wanderer. And that ain’t right.

Weapons, Weapons Everywhere!

So there are only a few different enemies you can encounter in the Wastes. Not to worry, Bethesda understood that this would cause some concern among players, so they created hundreds of different weapons with which to slay these fiendish beasts!

Of course, if you’re anything like me, you’ll go through the entire game without using any of your awesome Mini-Nukes or Bottle Cap Mines or Plasma Rifles, simply because you’ll want to save your ammo for when you face something really big and nasty beyond your run of the mill Raiders and Super Mutants, right? I mean, when you finally have to take out the Enclave, you’ll need all the firepower you have to get through the final showdown, right? Well …

The Ending Sucked (SPOILER ALERT)!

Too bad, because there is no epic final battle! Psyche! Destroy the Enclave by whispering sweet nothings into its master computer! Watch the base explode, content with the knowledge that you didn’t get to blow up a single thing! To top it all off, if your speech skill is high enough, you can simply tell the last boss (if he can even be called that) to beat it! Scram! Take a hike! Hit the road! Can you say climactic showdown for the ages? No? Me neither.

That, and the fact that Fawkes refuses to activate the Purifier on your behalf, despite the fact that it’s already been established that he’s immune to radiation, is just plain stupid. Destiny my ass, you stupid mutie. Now get in the box and take one for the team.

So there you have it — my take on Fallout 3. A great game that has its flaws, to be sure, but still a great game nonetheless. If you haven’t played it, do so. You won’t regret it. Just make sure you don’t have any pressing commitments, because this game will swallow your soul. Seriously.

The Lone Wanderer strolls through another generic settlement.

The Lone Wanderer strolls through another generic settlement.

The Lost Art of Video Game Instruction Booklets

I’ve got a confession to make — I’m one of the few people on the entire planet that actually reads the instruction manual before playing a new video game. Always have, always will.

The instruction booklet, seen here in its glory days.

The instruction booklet, seen here in its glory days.

Sure, knowing what the hell each power-up did was great, but for me, the reading of the instruction manual was always about the story and the characters. I wanted to know about the world I was about to enter, the monsters I was about to kill, the people I was about to play as, and their motivations for doing all of the insane stuff that developers would shove into their games.

It wasn’t enough to just play the game — I had to understand the mythology of the game, too (an affliction that still haunts me to this day, as I’ve spent many an hour looking up pointless things such as the chronology of the Metroid series, for example).

Perhaps it was the fact that the NES was a fairly simple console and therefore didn’t need pages upon pages explaining motion controls, alternate controls, memory and storage options, online settings, online troubleshooting, etc., but whoever was tasked with writing old-school instruction manuals had a lot of empty space to fill. Combined with the fact that most games never really told any sort of story during the actual gameplay (meaning that the writers could make up pretty much anything they wanted), you get a whole lot of crazy shit winding up in the hands of children across the world.

Take, for example, Super Mario Bros. According to the instruction booklet, the game’s plot goes a little something like this:

One day the kingdom of the peaceful mushroom people was invaded by the Koopa, a tribe of turtles famous for their black magic. The quiet, peace-loving Mushroom People were turned into mere stones, bricks and even field horsehair plants, and the Mushroom Kingdom fell into ruin.

The only one who can undo the magic spell on the Mushroom People and return them to their normal selves is the Princess Toadstool, the daughter of the Mushroom King. Unfortunately, she is presently in the hands of the great Koopa turtle king.

Mario, the hero of this story (maybe) hears about the Mushroom People’s plight and sets out on a quest to free the Mushroom Princess from the evil Koopa and restore the fallen kingdom of the Mushroom People.

You are Mario! It’s up to you to save the Mushroom People from the black magic of the Koopa!

Wait … what? Black magic? Only the Princess can reverse the spell? Mario is actually slaughtering the citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom with each brick he destroys? And all of this nonsense applies to a game where you run constantly to the right and eat mushrooms how, exactly?

To be fair, the very concept of the Mario series is so messed up that anything the writers could have concocted back then wouldn’t have made a whole lot of sense, really. At least they tried, and in doing so they produced a classic piece of video game literature.

The victim of black magic, apparently.

The victim of black magic, apparently.

In my opinion, the best part about the instruction booklets for the NES Mario games were the detailed descriptions of the run-of-the-mill baddies Mario would encounter during his adventures. Without these ridiculous blurbs, I wouldn’t have terms such as Goomba, Lakitu, Spiny, Bullet Bill, Cheep-Cheep, Podoboo, Koopa Paratroopa, Beezo, Pokey, Sniffit, Trouter, Birdo, Monty Mole, Thwomp, and Ludwig von Koopa burned into my brain until the day I die.

And just like the main plot, the backstory for some of the baddies had to be fleshed out a bit (especially when their only characteristic was “walking left”), often with glorious results.

In the Mushroom Kingdom, slowly moving left makes you a "wild fighter".

In the Mushroom Kingdom, walking slowly makes you a "wild fighter".

Unfortunately, classics instruction booklets a rare breed these days. Maybe Miyamoto and the boys assumed that we already knew what the hell a Goomba was (which is true), but the manuals for recent Mario titles such as New Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Galaxy contain nary a single word about Mario’s enemies. These new manuals are sterile and soulless, featuring a rundown of the numerous control schemes and a brief explanation of the millions of power-ups found throughout the game — and nothing more.

And that’s a damn shame, because the colourful writing and sheer personality found in the older manuals was part of the unique Nintendo charm.

I'd much rather read this insanity than learn how to troubleshoot my Wi-Fi connection.

Admit it, you'd much rather read this insanity than learn how to troubleshoot your Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection.

Granted, at least Nintendo still puts in some semblance of effort with its newer Mario manuals. Lots of pictures and pretty colours, and all in all, they do a pretty good job of explaining the game mechanics. However, a lot of other game companies have completely done away with the in-depth manuals of old, replacing them with cheaply produced black-and-white inserts that explain practically next to nothing about any aspect of the game save for a tiny controller map outlining which button does what.

I suppose the justification is that since hardly anybody reads the manuals (besides me), there’s no point in devoting time and resources to the project. And while this makes sense, it hardly dampens the harsh blow of disappointment that festers inside me after skimming through yet another sub-par instruction booklet.

Luckily, the lost art of awesome instruction booklets isn’t completely lost, as a select few companies still “get it”.

Useful? Not really. A good read? Most definitely.

Useful? Not really. A good read? Most definitely.

While the manuals for the Grand Theft Auto games will never be accused of being particularly useful (they’re more form than function), they’re always an entertaining read, as Rockstar Games presents the elements of the game through a series of well-written Liberty City phone books ads, tourism brochures, police bulletins, etc. It’s a truly great way to introduce the reader to the world they’re about to enter.

Meanwhile, Konami’s manual for Contra 4 for the Nintendo DS was hilariously old-school, written entirely in over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek, grammatically-incorrect language designed not to bore you with technical details, but to get you pumped about putting the boots to the alien menace. Even better, it also featured a list of enemies you’ll face along the way, including the ever-so-awesome “Ingrid Birdman” and “Missile Hugger 3000”.

While a few torchbearers of the craft remain, I fear for the future of the good ol’ instruction booklet, mostly due to the impending full-scale arrival of digital download delivery methods. Will the freedom of the digital form spark a renaissance for well-written and detailed manuals? Or is the instruction booklet as we know it witnessing its final days, soon to be replaced with mere FAQs and text files? Probably the latter … but I hope I’m wrong.

All video game manuals were sourced from ReplacementDocs.com. Check it out … it’s a great trip down memory lane, if I do say so myself!