Category: Video Games



Mass Effect 3

I think so many things about the Mass Effect series, far too many to corral into a focused thought. I know because I’ve tried to write this review several times already and I have nothing to show for it except thirty paragraphs of ramblings.

My brain lies to me sometimes. Because I’d loved Mass Effect, and because Mass Effect 2 changed several of the things I’d loved about the first game, I convinced myself that the sequel wasn’t quite as good. It had been a year and a half since I’d touched either game, so after I finished Mass Effect 3 I decided to go back to the very beginning and do a marathon playthrough with a fresh character. Not only would it be a plot refresher, but it’d let me undo all of the dumb mistakes I made in games one and two that I ended up having to pay for in game three.

So ME3 deserves credit for that, at the very least. When you play ME1 and ME2 back-to-back, it’s clear which is the better game. Yes, I like ME1’s skills tree better; yes, I like being able to customize weapons and earn tiny amounts of XP for every little thing I do. But there’s no way I can go back to ME1’s unwieldy combat or awkward pacing. I’d like to apologize to ME2 for being so mean to it.

I was expecting not to like Mass Effect 3. As it turns out, ME3 contains several of the most emotionally poignant moments I’ve had playing video games. It has the hard task of incorporating decisions you’ve made in previous games — and making the player feel that those decisions were significant — while maintaining an economy of story and a clarity of plot. It’s done that amazingly well. Until ME3 I don’t think I’d ever played a game that added replay value to its prequel. Have you?

My favorite parts of ME3 happen hours before the game’s notorious and infuriating ending. Yes, the ending is bad. Even when you’re expecting it to be bad it manages to underwhelm. It’s bad in almost all the ways a sci-fi ending can be bad. It’s thematically disjoint, arbitrary, and derivative. It offers a false choice. It violates continuity. It violates canon. And it’s so maddeningly ambiguous that it doesn’t feel much like an ending to anything.

The upcoming free DLC promises to provide more context to each ending. But at best it’ll address only some of this. I seriously doubt this whole thing can be un-fucked.

Here’s the thing: I never cared much about this whole galaxy-wide threat. For me, the Reapers were a glorified MacGuffin, an excuse for me to ride around on a ship and meet cool alien races and shoot robots with sniper rifles. A Mass Effect game is at its best during side missions, when you can pretend you’re dealing with a Star Trek–style episodic threat and forget about that thing that’s trying to destroy the universe.

That’s why the ending, awful as it is, doesn’t ruin this game for me. I’ve played it for at least forty hours now and only three of those hours have been unenjoyable. Does the underwhelming finale of Seinfeld ruin the entire series, or even just the final season? What about The Sopranos? On Metacritic, Mass Effect 3 has a score of 93/100 according to critics, but only 50/100 according to Metacritic users. I understand their frustrations, but I’m on the critics’ side here.

But the ME3 ending disappoints me in a deeper way. I would play at least six more games just like ME3. I had been looking forward to playing those games someday. I had thought that Bioware was looking for their own rich universe for sci-fi storytelling. The ending of ME3 — no matter which one you pick — seems to salt the earth, as if they wanted to rule out any future stories that would take place after the events of the game. They could do prequels, but there’s only a thirty-year window between humans’ first contact with other races and the events of ME3.

Aside from a spin-off game or two, I doubt Bioware is interested in telling more Mass Effect stories. And that’s profoundly disappointing. I’m most of the way through my second ME3 playthrough, but I’m playing it more and more slowly. I’m in no hurry to get to an ending that reminds me, clearly and bluntly, that it’s all over.



Infamous 2

I’m a tough man to write video games for. Any triple-A title released for a major console is the result of so much craftsmanship from so many talented people, such that you can find genuinely good things to say about even the mediocre ones.

Why do I want a game to have long-lasting impact? Why does it have to be profound to me after I’m done with it? I played the original Infamous for at least fifteen hours — doesn’t that say more about its quality than whatever I feel about it eighteen months later?

Because I feel the same way about Infamous 2. It’s just as good as Infamous in all the ways that Infamous was good, and bad in all the ways its predecessor was bad.

At the beginning of Infamous 2, plot contrivances lead Cole and his annoying sidekick Zeke to make their way from Fake New York (Empire City, the setting of Infamous) to Fake New Orleans (New Marais). A giant evil thing called The Beast is heading in their direction, slowly and surely, but in the meantime there’s a new city to play in. The open world is full of open-worldy stuff; there are scattered things to collect, and territory missions, and even user-generated side missions.

And there’s the main storyline, a set of missions where you meet other people with crazy superpowers and fight generic monsters and find blast cores (which function as rather blatant plot coupons; The Beast gets closer each time you collect one). All of this is fine, I suppose, and I’ve loved games with plots just as ridiculous as this.

Maybe I’m just getting tired of games that don’t seem to care about their own plots. There’s no sense of pacing or cresecendo; Cole seems to react to everything that happens with the same sort of grizzled nonchalance. There’s no attempt to make exposition seamless or elegant; if there’s something you need to know, a supporting character will give you a clumsy info-dump the moment you need to know, and no sooner. (Midway through the game, Lucy tells Cole about a plague that’s killing half the city. If it’s that large, shouldn’t Cole know about it already?)

Or maybe it’s that I can’t think of a single thing Infamous 2 does that hasn’t been done better by another game. Maybe it’s good in a way that’s too balanced, and if it had tried hard to excel in a certain aspect I’d at least be left with something to grab onto.



L.A. Noire

If you’re wondering how to reconcile the high mark to the left with the paragraphs of red ink below, let me explain. L.A. Noire is a very good game that wears all its faults on the outside.

It boasts several major achievements. The first is MotionScan, the facial animation technology that represents the boldest effort yet to bridge video games’ Uncanny Valley of facial expressions. The game’s interrogations are meant to put the technology front and center, asking the player to read these facial cues to sift truth from lies.

The second is its detailed portrayal of post-war Los Angeles. I’m no expert, but they don’t seem to have taken many shortcuts here. They’ve modeled nearly one hundred real-life vehicles, all of which are driveable within the game. They claim to have recreated 90% of downtown L.A. with painstaking fidelity to architecture. The wardrobes, the music, the signage… hardly anything feels anachronistic.

These things are well worth bragging about. But they have nothing to do with the gameplay. L.A. Noire mixes slow, static scenes, like interrogations and crime scene examinations, with open-world, sandbox-style tasks on a city map. These are tough to blend. It’s disorienting for a game to feel like Heavy Rain one minute and Grand Theft Auto IV the next.

Something else bothers me more, though. At moments few and far between, L.A. Noire is simply no fun to play, and the fact that it was fun to look at was the only thing that pushed me out of the ditch. Yes, it’s nice to be able to “read” characters, but not within the context of a dialogue tree that combines the worst aspects of Encyclopedia Brown logic and Phoenix Wright logic.

No, seriously. This is why solve-the-mystery gameplay is so hard to do well. At its best, it lets the player feel smart as he pieces together clues and has sporadic eureka moments. But far more often it feels mean, as though the player is being punished because she didn’t follow the game’s own Moon Logic. There are several places in interrogations where you’re supposed to accuse someone of lying after they’ve said something true — and, when asked for proof, present a piece of evidence that doesn’t contradict what they said.

At least Phoenix Wright allows for a bit of trial and error as a way of navigating its odd flavor of Moon Logic. In L.A. Noire, a missed question might be the difference between five stars and three on your case rating. Now, on one hand, the case ratings are ancillary and I shouldn’t take them so seriously. On the other hand, the game moves forward at the same pace whether you’re good at it or not, so the case ratings are nearly the only reward that the game offers for skillful play. I want this game to be more than a twelve-hour-long movie, but it fights me all the way.

The facial animation, while revolutionary, isn’t yet perfect. About 70% of the time, characters’ faces look like those of human beings; about 15% of the time, they look like flat images projected onto egg-shaped surfaces; and the remaining 15% of the time, they look like Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black. And the way they’re captured — under bright lights, in front of 32 cameras, sitting in a barber’s chair — might be to blame for some ham-filled performances by minor characters. At times I was reminded of interactive movie games, the scourge of the mid-90s adventure genre, and their tendency to feature the worst line-readings this side of a pornographic movie.

The story is solid. Often, I didn’t like the way plot developments unfolded, but I dare not complain about such things, lest we be thrust back into the age where you had to learn a game’s story by reading its instruction manual.

You should play this game. I don’t know if you should buy it, but you should certainly GameFly it or borrow it from a friend or sell it back to GameStop four days after you purchased it. You should play it not just because it’s a good game, but because I suspect it’ll be an important and influential game — in the same way that it’s important to see Star Wars just so you can know what people mean when they reference it.

Some reviews seem to give near-perfect ratings to L.A. Noire because of its technological achievements — even as they admit its flaws. I can’t do that. I can’t even spot it a few points for causing me to rewatch L.A. Confidential. Instead, it gets the most heart-wrenching B-plus I’ve ever given.



Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

To express my feelings for Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, I had to track down a sentence Roger Ebert wrote: “Learning the difference between good movies and skillful ones is an early step in becoming a moviegoer.” In the last few years, I’ve started to notice the “skillful video game” trend: a game that’s got all the polish in the world but isn’t any fun to play.

In fact, here’s my review of the entire Assassin’s Creed series: each game gets worse even as it gets more skillful. It was plain to see, for instance, that the series of carefully-planned, oh-shit-here’s-my-chance assassinations in Assassin’s Creed had been rejiggered for the sequel; it became a series of extemporaneous situations that seemed to reward lack of planning. (“Who is this guy? Why I am I killing him? Screw it; I’ll just run up and fire my pistol.”) But it also fixed so much of what was wrong with that first game and gave me a gorgeous depiction of Renaissance Italy to freerun around. I was satisfied.

But something’s gone wrong. Brotherhood has added so many layers of sound that it’s lost the melody completely. Is Ezio singularly focused on getting back the Apple of Eden, the MacGuffin crucial artifact that can exert absolute control over mankind? No, he’s balls-deep in Roman real estate, buying shops so he can earn more money so he can buy more shops. Or he’s training new recruits with a menu-driven process that’s about as exciting as Progress Quest.

None of this has anything to do with the plot of the game, but that’s the whole point. Filler of the Brotherhood sort is quite common in modern games. It’s an easy way to parallelize the development process: the team that works on the side quests doesn’t have to keep in sync with the team working on the main quest. But it’s also an easy way to bury the kernel of an excellent game beneath a stack of laundry lists.

A stronger story might have saved this game. Any story might have saved this game. As it is, there’s only enough plot in place to set up a stupid cliffhanger ending. But it’s getting hard to care about what happens in the present-day universe of the game when I know I’ll be spending most of the next game in a machine, helping my ancestors become real estate moguls.



Alan Wake

“Stephen King once wrote that nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations. They’re antithetical to the poetry of fear. In a horror story, the victim keeps asking, ‘Why?’ But there can be no explanation, and there shouldn’t be one. The unanswered mystery is what stays with us the longest, and it’s what we’ll remember in the end.”

That’s the voiceover that begins Alan Wake, a game that borrows more than a little from King’s oeuvre. The game was written by Sam Lake, who also wrote the stories for the Max Payne series, but I fear he’s taken the wrong message from King’s words, and purposefully set out to write a story that makes no sense. That’s not quite the same thing.

I have few words for Alan Wake’s gameplay, which is neither awful nor fantastic. I echo the praise for the game’s atmosphere and its associated light/dark gameplay mechanic. But I could write a whole book (under the guidance of my own particular Dark Presence, no doubt) about this game’s incoherent plot.

Early on, I had my own theories about what was actually going on, about which parts were real and which were not. About halfway through, the story shifted in a way that invalidated most of my theories. It seemed to be building toward an ending that I wouldn’t have liked, but would have respected, because it would at least have given measurable meaning to the events of the game.

Soon after, though, the story veered off and headed straight to Crazytown. There were exits along the way — opportunities for the plot to get back on the Sense-Making highway — but by then the cruise control had been engaged and nobody was behind the wheel. (I’ve abused this metaphor.)

The game has an ending — or, at least, a series of disjointed vignettes; I only know it was the ending because it happened right before the credits. “But surely they’re setting up a sequel,” you might be saying, and you’d be right; but that’s part of the problem.

There is economic incentive for Remedy to make Alan Wake into a franchise. You make more money from three games (and the odd bit of DLC) than from one. But sequels must build upon solid foundations. You don’t make one story into two by chopping it in twain, just like you can’t separate a verse and a chorus and call them two different songs.

Which brings me back to King’s remark. If you’ll humor me, there’s a vast difference between a story that cannot be explained and one that makes no sense.

Thrillers often feature supernatural elements that prey upon the fears of the charaters and the audience alike, and that’s fine. I don’t need to know why there’s a sinister clown called Pennywise who torments a ragtag group of kids in a small town in Maine. I’m happy to accept it as the premise of a story that furthers some other storytelling goal.

Similarly, I’m more than willing to accept the unexplained “Dark Presence” that pushes the titular author to finish a manuscript that becomes reality as he’s typing it. But I can’t forgive a story that deliberately leaves plot threads unresolved, which appears to arrive at “answers” that are mutually incompatible, which leaves the reader to “draw her own conclusions” when there are no conclusions to be had. It’s the crutch of an unskillful writer. Other stories, and even other video games, commit the same sin. As far as I know, none tries to justify it with a misreading of something another author said.

Alan Wake divides itself into episodes, each with its own cliffhanger; it begs to be judged by the way it creates mysteries and then solves them, as if it were Twin Peaks or Lost. I am happy to oblige: by this standard, the game is shit.



Alpha Protocol

The Zero Punctuation review of Alpha Protocol fails to convey just how awful the core gameplay is. It feels like they wanted to adapt the Unreal Engine in the same way that BioWare did for Mass Effect, but got only halfway there before they needed to ship.

Yahtzee does mention, however, one of my other frustrations: the game fails to convey the consequences of possible actions. Twenty minutes in, you find yourself standing in front of a computer terminal at the headquarters of the titular agency. The game offers you the option to hack the terminal. A guard is standing right next to it.

I hesitated because I didn’t know what the consequences would be. How does “hacking” work in this universe — is it discreet enough that the guard won’t know I’m doing it? Am I liable to get caught by someone else?

An aside: “moral choices” in video games are, to me, more about cost vs. benefit than right vs. wrong. Because my real-world morality may not map to the world depicted in the game, and because “being evil” is a legitimate and common play strategy, I need to know how the decisions I make serve game-related ends. Hacking a terminal is a good example: if I know it carries both a bonus and a penalty (e.g., you get access to information, but security is heightened after the intrusion is discovered), I can make an informed decision about whether to take the gambit.

As it turns out, hacking the terminal resulted in a small XP boost and access to some boring e-mails intended for other people. The guard didn’t notice a thing.

Ultimately, though, the crappy gameplay is the game’s undoing. If it were just a bit better, I’d be able to tolerate it long enough to get into the (widely-acclaimed) plot. Instead, it’s going into an envelope and back to Gamefly.



Heavy Rain

A couple years ago, I stumbled upon a game called Masq. It’s a simple game with the art style of a comic book — a bunch of still frames with no sound — but each choice you make affects the final outcome in significant ways. I played at least four times and never had the same ending twice.

I’d forgotten about Masq until I played Heavy Rain. They’re both interactive dramas (a sparsely-populated genre, to say the least), but the new PS3 offering aims to meld the forking plotlines of Masq with the atmosphere and immersion of high-tech games.

Developer Quantic Dream is aiming to break new ground in both story and storytelling. To distinguish between them, I need only recall Indigo Prophecy, the studio’s previous game: it used fascinating storytelling mechanisms to convey a story that was utter shit.

Well, they’ve fixed that part. I spent the entire game somewhat fearful that the plot would veer into WTF territory, but it didn’t. Instead, I got a simple-yet-compelling noir plot, plenty of meaningful choices, and a unique ending. No, I mean a unique ending; there are seven in total, the most I’ve seen in a game since Chrono Trigger.

The main story is about eight hours long, but I’ve already finished two playthroughs, and I know I’ll revisit Heavy Rain at least once a year to remind myself how a game should tell a story.



Bioshock 2

For most sequels (though Mass Effect 2 is a notable exception), my expectations are largely diminished — even when the original is one of my favorite games of all time.

That’s why I was satisfied with Bioshock 2, even though it’s not as good as the first. The gameplay improvements (dual-wielding weapons and plasmids!) are much appreciated. The setting and backstory are solid; it was nice to see how Rapture’s other half lived, and how the city’s class stratification laid the grounds for a collectivist counter-movement.

But the plot, when viewed up close, grew more and more incoherent as the game progressed. The last two hours are spent communicating with an ally over radio; I started to feel like her only purpose was to explain a plausible plot rationale for why you had to go to place X and do thing Y, over and over again.

The main villain is depicted as the ideological opposite of Bioshock’s Andrew Ryan. But Bioshock documented the events that turned an ambitious mogul into a hypocritical authoritarian. Sofia Lamb, on the other hand, has no depth to her villainy, and seems to undergo no character development in the two decades she’s spent under the ocean.

But, again, I nitpick because I love. I’m in the middle of my second playthrough and will be first in line for Bioshock 3.



Mass Effect 2

On one hand, it boasts a story of comparable quality and a leap forward in combat gameplay. It easily warrants more than one playthrough.

On the other hand… must they excise so much of what makes a game an RPG? I’m speaking mostly about the level system, looting, item customization, and a handful of other things that were completely retooled from the previous Mass Effect.

But in one other aspect, too. In the real world, stuff exists on the edges of the frame. Stuff you’ll never end up examining in detail, but which exists even so. This stuff is important! It lends crucial verisimilitude to the game’s universe! When it’s trimmed, as it seems to have been in Mass Effect 2, that universe feels stark and linear, as though you were on a “save the galaxy” amusement park ride. Tycho explains it better.



Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

You don’t need me to tell you how good this game is; the rest of the gaming world got there first. I don’t know if any one game can be a “system-seller” — but if you already own a PS3, it’s inexcusable not to own Uncharted 2.

It’s not just good; it’s unusually, surprisingly good. It’s unusual for a game to be this much better than its prequel. It’s unusual for a game to make such large graphical leaps over its prequel on same-generation hardware.

But most of all, it’s unusual for a game to have this much polish. Video games are developed according to rigorous schedules, lest the technology become outdated before the game’s done. Nearly all games, regardless of quality, have to scale back their ambitions in order to ship on time.

Maybe there’s stuff that didn’t make it into Uncharted 2. But it doesn’t look that way from the outside. If Naughty Dog have figured out how to streamline the game development process, then they possess a competitive edge far more important than tech specs.

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