Now We Are All Sons of Bitches: Review of Spec Ops: The Line

by Javy

There exist few games as appropriately titled as Spec Ops: The Line. This third person squad-based shooter is all about what it means to cross lines. What separates a man from a lunatic? A solider from a butcher? A crusade from genocide? These are all questions that have been tackled before in the provocative films of Coppola and Kubrick, but never has anyone ever actually developed a video game that has both set out to offer its player that sort of harrowing, stomach-churning experience and been successful—until now.

 
Speaking of Coppola, Apocalypse Now fans should already being paying attention to Yager Development’s newest game;  Spec Ops: The Line features a straightforward narrative concerning three soldiers’ journey into the heart of sandstorm ravaged Dubai to search of Colonel John Konrad, an officer who volunteered his unit to help evacuate Dubai in the aftermath of the first storm. Konrad’s unit (The 33rd “The Damned” Battalion) fails to evacuate the city due to both intermittent powerful sandstorms and the unruly populace. He is forced to declare martial law, and Dubai turns into a warzone with the 33rd fighting insurgents and rebels. The US government receives a transmission from Konrad, stating that the evacuation has fallen apart and that the death toll is immense.
Enter Martin Walker and his squad: tough-guy Alphonso Adams and the wise-cracking sniper, John Lugo. All three characters are unremarkable stereotypes with no personal history provided for us, except that Konrad once saved Walker’s life. However, the narrative’s strength as far as these characters go isn’t watching them develop. On the contrary, it’s in watching them crumble and become depraved. Killing insurgents in the opening levels of Spec Ops is just like any other squad-based action game. You target a baddie and Lugo or Adams will take care of them, shouting enthusiastically as they do so. However, as you proceed through Dubai and witness all the tragedies and atrocities—some of which are dealt by your own hand—their enthusiasm wanes. Once you find yourself fighting the 33rd (i.e., American soldiers) they are no longer hardened killers. They are broken men crying out in frustration and resentment whenever you order them to end another human being’s life. “He’s dead, okay!?” Lugo will shriek with despair as the blood of a fallen enemy stains the sand. Of course, after everything that these men must suffer—and that you must suffer by extension—during this six hour journey, who can blame them?

Can Walker and company can survive Dubai with their souls intact? (Caption Credit: Yager Development)

During the course of the story, you will commit—sometimes purposefully, often accidentally—some of the most horrific acts of violence committed in a video game. And worst of all, Spec Ops often gives you the illusion of choice to go alongside these actions. For example, at one point you are presented with two men hanging by their hands from a metal beam beneath the desert sun. The one on the left stole water. As a result, the man on the right, a solider ordered to guard the water supply, slaughtered the thief’s family. You must choose who lives and who dies. Is there a right or wrong? Does it matter or affect the narrative at all? Maybe, maybe not. You’ll never know your first time through. Or your second. Or your third.

The situation (and many of the situations within Spec Ops, for that matter) may seem macabre and exploitive, which is a viewpoint I can understand. But these are just knee-jerk reactions. The violence in here is no more gratuitous than that featured in Full Metal Jacket. So many games ask their players to mow down hordes of enemies for the sake of patriotism (Call of Duty) or for the progression of a grand, sweeping sci-fi narrative (Mass Effect) and even Spec Ops requires us to do this for the progression of its story, but the one thing it does differently is that it demands the player look at the trail of bodies they’ve left in their wake. Loading screen captions mock the gamer: “ How many Americans have you killed today?” or, my personal favorite: “Do you feel like a hero yet?” Spec Ops maintains no subtlety about its point: this game is meant to make you feel like you’re going through hell.

 
At least hell is a beautiful place. Dubai (gorgeously rendered in the Unreal 3 engine) is jaw-dropping, quite possibly the most interesting looking environment offered to us since Bioshock’s Rapture. Walker and company will traverse malls, hotels, and open streets, all of which gleam in the sunlight and are only days away from being buried by an avalanche of sand. Too bad Dubai is never really a character like Rapture is. You never learn anything about the city that you’re fighting through other than it’s a warzone overseen by a man who may or may not have lost his marbles. But that’s a minor inconvenience at most—Dubai is still a beautiful environment. Equally impressive is the detail given to your squad’s physical deterioration. As the game goes on and traumatic events are stacked upon one another, your characters will receive wounds and burns that remain with them for the rest of the game, a convenient marker for their psychological states. Not everything is pretty, though. Expect to have frame rate issues and texture pop-ins from time to time.

 
The obvious focus here is on narrative, but a game still better have at least dependably fun gameplay if it doesn’t want its player growing bored enough to lose interest before the campaign is over. Spec Ops has just that—nothing more, nothing less. You run, you duck behind things, and pop out every once in a while to fire or chuck a grenade at somebody. Sometimes you order your squad mates to kill your enemy or provide suppressing fire. Yager didn’t even bother to change the Gears of War style ammo indicators. There are also issues with hit-detection and the “take cover” command. During my playthrough, there were at least four times I died because Walker decided to run past the wall I wanted him to take cover behind. It’s bluntly obvious that the focal point of this gaming experience is story. I don’t mind so much. I’d rather have ho-hum game mechanics than a forgettable story, and the gameplay is still fun. It’s just nothing that you probably haven’t played before if you’ve managed to stick your toe in the shallow end of the action genre sometime in the last seven years.

The physical deterioration is a particularly nice touch. (Caption Credit: Dumbwire)

The multiplayer is also pretty standard but not without its merits. The modes include deathmatch, team deathmatch, and “Buried,” which is basically your typical objectives-based game mode. The sessions can range from balls-to-the-walls chaos or a sneaking fest where everyone is tip-toeing around the map, ducking beneath walls and ramparts in order to stalk prey. It just depends on the variety of people you’re playing with. The chaotic sessions are a nice mixture of Uncharted and Call of Duty, and it’s always a blast to shoot out a window hanging above a foe and bury him in sand. The lame ranking up/experience point system might put a damper on your fun sooner than expected if you’re like me and find that such a model creates an uneven playing field. But even then it’s fun for three or four hours.

Should I Buy It?

Yes. Ultimately, Spec Ops isn’t about multiplayer. I think there’s an argument to be made that it’s not even about gaming in the conventional sense. It’s a ballsy game that goes for broke in the attempt to offer its player something new. And in my case, it succeeded the majority of the time. I liked that it made me question my actions and blurred the lines between good and evil to the point that I hated my cowardly, monstrous protagonist more than almost any villain I’ve ever encountered in this medium. There are no heroes in this incarnation of Dubai, only men mired in chaos and agony. Spec Ops: The Line dares to take you to a dark place, a place that you might not be prepared to go, and provides one of the most disturbing and unique experiences within a game in years. Play it—if you’re brave enough.

9.5/10

Examining the Cutscene: Max Payne 3

By:  Will Harlan

This article is a response to Totalbiscuit’s rant on cutscene and story presentation in video games (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RGORttEnzA&feature=g-u-u). Please watch the video before you continue as I just would like to address a number of errors present in his argument, especially as it concerns Max Payne 3.

Totalbiscuit’s main point — one which I can agree with to some extent — is that cutscenes can remove the main purpose of video games: player interaction. He is of the belief that storytelling is told primarily through player interaction in video games. And I agree with him. A large portion of the story in video games should be presented through player interaction. Games that feature absolutely no player interaction, choice, skill, etc. cease to be “games” and become semi-interactive stories. Cutscenes do serve a purpose and serve that purpose well; it is just as TB said “cutscenes are required sometimes to do things that the engine cannot do. More often than not, players need a bit of a nudge in the right direction…” (approx. 3:18). TB claims, too, that many modern games are oversaturated with cutscenes as to make an incredibly cinematic experience, but it removes players’ immersion with the game and its story. TB’s opinion, in this case, is wrought with hyperbole. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll limit my arguments to his complaints with Max Payne 3.

He makes the point that the cutscenes in Max Payne 3 remove the control of story from the player, thus turning the reigns over to the “cutscene” proper. The player can’t muck up or fail during a cutscene, all he or she must do is passively watch as story unfolds. The cutscenes in Max Payne 3 are not these entirely passive action sequences. Rather, they achieve a more  modern approach by implementing cutscenes in video games differently: as seamless segways to recontextualize various points of action. Max Payne 3 hides its loading screens behind cutscenes, which certainly does carry risk of over-saturation since the Max Payne series is renowned for incredibly long loading screens. But, I’d argue that the new cutscenes in Max Payne 3 interrupt the flow of story less than the comic book style narrative ever did. This is because you see exactly, within the same graphical detail as the cutscene, where you are when you start controlling Max. No longer is the player placed in control with little contextual clue of his or her surrounding, because this is provided from the cutscene as it flows immediately into action. There are multiple moments in Max Payne 3 when the player is, at one moment, watching a cutscene and at the next prompted to quickly unload onto some unfortunate bastards in a bullet-time event. Every moment where it feels as if “cutscene-Max Payne” is going to blow enemies away FOR the player, the game immediately curtails this fear by displaying the game’s targeting reticule and making the player pull the trigger.

At no point is Max Payne ever shooting or killing without the control of the player. The cutscenes add fluff and context to each scene as it begins and ends, and there is little to no experiential interrupting as a scene of action flows into another. Think about a lot of the classic Final Fantasy series. Sure, the comparison seems risky and silly but I think it is quite relevant to this myth of story being presented with “hyper-interactivity”.  Scenes of action and turn-based gameplay were met by literal walls of narrative text and occasional cutscenes. Those games featured some of the best storytelling in video game history to date, and was the story actually presented with true “player interaction”? Of course not, unless your idea of interaction includes pressing X/A repeatedly to advance text. Sure, occasionally you were allowed to answer something like YES/NO, but these details hardly mattered in synthesizing a unified experience of a narrative. It really came down to how willing you are to be submerged in the game’s story. No one forced you to read the text and find it awesome, but Max Payne 3 — since it hides its loading with cutscenes — forces you to watch the story. For those who made up their mind that the new setting and the different characters “aren’t Max Payne,” that’s going to make caring about the cutscenes pretty difficult. TB and other games just really doesn’t like the slight turn in story — nothing is wrong with that at all, but to strawman it into this huge issue with cutscenes and modern video games is wrong. The hate for Max Payne 3 isn’t about cutscenes at all — it is about a frustration over the departure from the series’ norm–displaced onto a strawman of “evil cutscenes.” Don’t believe me? Go back to Max Payne 1 & 2 and count the number of times that the graphic novel bits make action choices for the gamer. I can think of three or four huge moments off the top of my head.

I definitely think cutscenes can be used way too much.  And modern games? Sure. They use a lot of cutscenes — a few modern games use them to inappropriate excess. But to say that older, classic games were completely interactive when story was presented (or even moreso than they are today) is to see the past in rose-colored lenses. Games which allow complete control and manipulation of the story are few and far between; other games fabricate this experience by letting the player run/jump around while other people are talking.  And some games remove this facade of choice and treat players to well-designed cutscenes which seamlessly flow and recontextualize upcoming and previous points of play—such is the case for Max Payne 3.

Max Payne 3 Review (PS3/PC)

by Javy Gwaltney

It’s been nine years since we stepped into the shoes of hard-boiled detective Max Payne as he investigated a series of murders in New York City and explored his own dark psyche with brooding thoughts that were both poetic and wrought with terror. The conclusion of the second game seemed to indicate that even though his former happiness was out of Max’s reach, there was still hope for serenity.

The opening of Max Payne 3 does a good job smashing that notion to bits.

Our beloved detective is now “living” in Sao Paulo. For reasons that are not immediately clear, Max is an ex-cop who is working bodyguard detail for the Brancos, a wealthy family headed by millionaire estate-mogul  Rodrigo. It’s clear from the get-go that Max has seen better days and is less than thrilled to be working for a collection of rich bozos . Rodrigo himself isn’t too bad, but his brothers (one young and stupid, the other a politician) are teetering on the edge of morally bankrupt, while Rodrigo’s trophy wife constantly finds herself playing the role of the damsel in distress. That might sound entertaining and slightly humorous, but in Max Payne 3, it means a whole lot of people are going to die, often gruesomely.

Image

Max Payne 3 is a vastly different animal than its predecessors. (Photo Credit: Rockstar)

The differences between the previous installments and this one are glaringly apparent locale wise, so we’ll skip that (though fans of the game’s predecessors should be thrilled to hear that there are two New York levels). The dark and gritty feel of the series is retained despite the fact that the majority of the game takes place in bright daylight; one might go so far as to say that it’s even gotten darker. After two games of nursing bullet wounds with painkillers, Max has found himself addicted to pills and alcohol. Gone is the poetic quality of his musings: don’t expect to hear gems like “There was a blind spot in my head, a bullet-shaped hole where the answers should be.” Instead, Max settles for sailors’ language, which, on one hand, is rather disappointing. However, it also reinforces the notion that Max is getting old and is tired of finding himself embroiled in conflicts that he has no right caring about in the first place. This is not writer Sam Lake’s Max Payne game, and it shows. Dan Houser, the talent behind both Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption, elected to show our “hero” as a weary middle-aged man who knows only violence and may, in fact, be seeking a place to curl up and die—if only he could let himself. This question is both the central strength and weakness of Max Payne in this particular installment: what drives him forward? What does he have to live for? The people he works for are hardly different from the gangbangers and paramilitary tyrants he’s shooting. He professes no attraction or affection for any of the people he’s trying to save. In almost any other scenario, this would be a fatal flaw—if it were not for James McCaffrey’s astounding voice acting. You can hear by turns the deadness and the passion in the man’s voice. He doesn’t even know what he’s fighting for, but hell, he’s gonna fight anyway, like some cowboy in the dying days of the Old West.

Max Payne 3 is a disgusting game. Bullets tear through flesh and bone, leaving jagged entry and exit wounds; bodies flail and slump over as blood pours from bullet holes; sometimes they even twitch or moan before they pass away—and if you’re feeling generous enough, you can even ease their suffering with a pull of the trigger. Certain kills even allow you to follow the bullet in slow motion as it finds its mark. Of course, if you’re the queasy type, you can almost always skip the bullet cam.

Get ready for a lot of this. (photo credit: Rockstar)

Gameplay is relatively unchanged from the previous installments. You’re running and gunning through a variety of levels and using bullet-time (SLOW-MO) strategically to take out enemies. And, when I say strategically, I mean that you better get used to aiming at baddies in mid jump. Max is not a tank; he has to be moving constantly. A seek and cover mechanic has also been added to the gameplay, but don’t take much comfort in that. Almost all the environments degrade from bullet fire, so that nice cement pillar you’re hiding behind takes about ten seconds to be reduced to rubble. MP3 is a hard game. Expect to die several times for peeking your head out too early or for running out of ammo, but it never really feels like the game has cheated you. It just expects you to be both patient and quick acting. However, Max’s latest outing isn’t without its flaws. The ragdoll effects for both Max and his foes are impressive and are the closest thing we’ve had to an evolution in that department since Red Dead Redemption, but sometimes an enemy will fall backwards and half his body will get stuck in a wall or, even worse, you’ll dodge to the right and hit an invisible barrier, which will cause Max to be useless for about three seconds, leaving you open to gunfire and, more often than not, instant death.

Almost as much has been said about the game’s interesting gang warfare multiplayer option as its single player, but don’t be fooled.  At it’s core, Max Payne 3‘s  multiplayer is fun, but, like Battlefield 3, the fun is tarnished by the inclusion of a hackneyed XP system that dotes out rewards to players NOT on skills but instead on the time that they’ve devoted to playing the game.  You cannot access all equipment options from the get-go. Instead, you must play match after match in order to earn cash and experience points in order to buy and use higher grade weapons. And (again) just like Battlefield, three or four months from now this is going to be a game that’s unkind to newbies since the majority of players will be running around with high powered weapons and perks. The multiplayer is fun for the first three or four hours, but after that, one realizes that they’re playing just to unlock new equipment and really not having that much fun in the process.

Is it Worth my Money?

Yes. Max Payne 3 has been in the making for a long time and it shows. This is a carefully constructed experience and perhaps one of the best action games in several years. The replacement of Sam Lake with Dan Houser hurts the story, but the gameplay from both previous installments has been improved without robbing the elements that make the series so unique. Just skip the sub-par multiplayer and spend all your time in single-player: an admirable Man on Fire inspired romp through Sao Paulo with one of gaming’s legendary protagonists.

8.5/10

To MMO Or Not To MMO–One Gamer’s Struggle With Online Gaming

By: Justin “Lunchbox” Waterfield

 

Let’s take a journey into the topic of MMO’s, and their history with our dear author: Lunchbox.

Phantasy Star Online for the Gamecube was my first real MMO.  Got the modem adapter for the gamecube and everything, it was the coolest thing in the world when I was 14.  I had never played Everquest, or anything of the sort, so it was a completely new genre for me.  It was shortly afterwards that World of Warcraft was announced and on the horizon.  I was an avid RTS player, and loved Warcraft 3, of course I was gonna check it out…

 

I remember walking into Best Buy the day WoW came out, and I purchased the now super rare Collecter’s edition that sits on my book case.  I remember thinking how awesome it was, and how incredible this vast world seemed.  I still had my parents crappy e-machine with dial-up internet…my character stuttered every 3 seconds while running…but I loved it.  I then got my good friend Andrew (Biggie) into it as well, and I always loved going over to his house and just exploring the world together.  We were such noobs.  We had no idea what the stats meant, or what anything did–we just loved the idea of it all.

Enter college.  I had been a level 60 night elf rogue officer in a raiding guild called Remorseless on the server Llane.  We kicked Zul’Gurub’s butt, and I was completely epic’d out; something that was a true feat back then.  I still didn’t know what a rotation was, and damage meters were still not even considered worth anything.  Sophmore year of college I met some friends that also played WoW…and that sparked us creating a guild: Colbert Nation.

This changed my life. Literally.  I usurped leadership from the douchebag leader (former friend), and that would then start a 4 year and technically ongoing journey.  I would go from a 3-4 man guild, to a 40+ man guild at our peak during Lich King.  We raided everything from 10m, to 25m, to hard modes over our life time.  It was Cataclysm however, that finally started making me not love it anymore.  The frustrating raid designs, the annoying boss mechanics, and the constant drama of leading a guild finally broke me.  Last December I unofficially quit WoW.

I still had a 6 month subscription until April 18th, and for the first time in almost 4 months…I logged into WoW tonight.  I thought Star Wars: The Old Republic was going to be my savior, and my internet retirement home.  Granted, SWTOR was/is an incredible game.  It’s pretty, the voice acting is unbelievable, and the fact you can play an MMO like a single-player game is a nice change.  In the end however, it was just another WoW clone that I just couldn’t make myself play anymore, the spirit of it was dead inside me.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about all this, I built a huge family around the guild and hell most of them went to my wedding :).  For the past 3 years we’ve been going to Dragon*Con in Atlanta as an informal guild meet-n-greet.  I’ve actually met and hung out with 80% of my guild, including 4 crazy ass Canadians!  It’s been so nice to take a break, and not play WoW or SWTOR, and I actually thought I was done forever.  That damn itch will always get you though…

I’ve really missed the guildies, and I missed hanging out with everyone, but I definitely don’t miss raiding and scheduling my life around a game.  I decided to start up the ol’ WoW tonight for the hell of it.  I got a couple of the guildies together, hung out on vent, and we did Looking for Raid (We call it looking for derp).  I had a pretty good time(trolling aside).  I am definitely still bored to death by WoW, and while I was originally skeptical of Mists of Panderia…I think I might give it a shot.  I really realized tonight that I miss my friends, my guildies, and all those relationships I created.

Fear not, I’m never going back to the crack like I did.  Freedom has given me so much more, but I do think I might incorporate it back into my life…at least a little bit :).

TRIPLE THREAT! MASS EFFECT 3 PART III

Today, 3 of our staffers have taken the time to present you with the best and most thorough examination of the recent gamer explosion known as Mass Effect 3 and the critical response the ending is getting.  Continuing our first ever TRIPLE THREAT!, segment I am proud to present you with the final feature cross view of Mass Effect 3.

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Why the ME3 Ending Controversy is a Historic Moment in Gaming History

By: Lunchbox 

            Humanity has a long history of revolution.  When the environment in question stagnates or becomes corrupt, its citizens seek to rebel.  The emotions leading up to a revolution are always the same: unrest, unease, anxiety, fear, anger, doubt.    We are angry for what is happening to us, and we are afraid that nothing will make it better.  Emotion is a powerful catalyst, and it is because of emotion that the Mass Effect Series has caused an uprising in its fanbase the likes of which have never been seen before.

In the event you haven’t played or finished Mass Effect 3, let’s go ahead and get this out of the way:  SPOILERS INCOMING.  Upon completion of Mass Effect 3 you are given 3 choices on how to “end” the game.  You are bombarded with a new character, new information, and then forced to make a choice that will end everything you’ve done in the series.  A series that has been defined and acclaimed for giving the player almost full control over how the story flows and evolves.  It was groundbreaking, innovative, and it was the most rewarding experience I have ever had in a video game.  It is because of all these things that it completely broke my heart that it ends on such a disappointing note.

This has produced a backlash amongst the fans.  As of writing this article it has only been 2 weeks since the game came out, yet we have seen thousands upon thousands of fans rise up to combat what is seen as a completely lazy attempt by Bioware to end the series.  This has produced a very passionate and nearly unified coalition of fans, who demand Bioware to address and do something about the ending(s).  As with most topics of heavy debate, it has also split the fan base into those who find no fault in the ending(s) and usually attribute those who do wish to change it as “entitled” or “whiners”.  You can imagine that no matter how civil things started out, it has become more and more violent.

The good will and sheer passion generated by the fans has been the loudest voice heard in the industry thus far.  What started out as a group of Mass Effect fans on the Bioware Social Network Forums who were just trying to make sense of it all, has turned into an incredibly huge global network of fans united in the goal of taking Mass Effect back.  A militia turned into an army, which then turned into a global armada.  The hashtag #RetakeMassEffect is the group’s banner, and the flag they proudly wave.  Social Media which not only demonstrated its power in the real life revolutions of the Arab Spring, have been just as effective with this revolution:  Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/Etc. have all been used as tools of spreading the message.  To this day the Bioware forums have new posts updated on a nearly minute to minute basis, regardless of the time of day.

The greatest triumph of this has been the coverage it has received, and not just by typical gamer news outlets.  Forbes, BBC, and other major news networks have tuned in to the revolution, further spreading the message and keeping the hope alive that the fans message will be heard.  For the first week Bioware remained silent, making hardly any indication it was even aware of the growing uprising amongst its fans.  Just when things were reaching a breaking point, Bioware broke the silence.  They responded at first with the usual Public Relations crap of “We are listening to your feedback”.  That was then replaced with some notes and blogs by members of the Mass Effect team.  It was today however, the revolution received its greatest victory:  Ray Muzyka, Bioware co-founder, spoke out and declared that the team would be taking initiatives and based on player feedback he indicated some sort of closure would be provided, most likely in the form of DLC.

The revolution continues on however, while Bioware has not only recognized the problem but indicated they are going to “fix it”, the fanbase will not be quelled until they see for themselves the fruits of Bioware’s labors.  One bittered fan put it best: “Hold the line!  We can’t give up until we know Bioware isn’t going to just cop out another piece of shit and sell it to us as cake.”  With a Child’s Play charity in recognition of the good intentions by the fans (which is already over $70k), it is clear that the fans are not giving up easily.  Why then are the fans, regardless of which side you support, so filled with passion for this?  Emotion.  The Mass Effect Series does one thing better than any other gaming series to date: it makes you care.  You care about “your” Shepherd, “your” squad, and “your” relationships with the characters of the narrative.

Mass Effect 3 left many players with incredibly strong emotions: shock, disbelief, depression, anger, and ultimately bitterness.  When we develop such strong relationships with characters, regardless if they are real or not, our brain cannot tell the difference when we lose them.  The playerbase after many years of devoting itself to the Mass Effect series is now grieving.  They are grieving for their losses, they are shocked for the way it ended, and now they are very angry.  It is ironic that the strongest characteristics of Bioware, good story-telling and genuine emotional responses, are now being used to fight them back.  The fans are demanding a better story, a better ending for “their” Shepherd.  You can argue the intricacies of who ultimately owns the story: the fans or the writer, but you can’t argue the overwhelming passionate response the fans have generated.  They got one of the biggest gaming companies in the world to not only listen, but possibly to act.  They have also in an unprecedented event changed the way a story ends.  Have they taken Mass Effect back?  Only time will tell.

~LB

Check out the first two reviews right here!

PART I

PART II

TRIPLE THREAT! MASS EFFECT 3 PART II

Today, 3 of our staffers have taken the time to present you with the best and most thorough examination of the recent gamer explosion known as Mass Effect 3 and the critical response the ending is getting.  Continuing our first ever TRIPLE THREAT!, segment I am proud to present you with the next feature cross view of Mass Effect 3.

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ME3: It Ends?

By Eric H and guest writers: Ross Funderburke and Dan Yates

                It’s difficult to define what Mass Effect 3 gives its players where the game leaves off; it’s hardly an end at all, leaving the player with a “to be continued…” rather than a defined conclusion.  In this regard, it’s a bit funny to debate whether or not the game’s ending is worthy of any real praise as it isn’t even an ending at all.  That being said, many feel cheated and robbed of a satisfactory conclusion to what has been an incredibly popular RPG franchise.  They have plenty of reasons to be disenchanted, but the purpose of this piece is to explore if some of the criticisms really hold water and if the potentially temporary ending of ME3 has any real value at all as far as good storytelling is concerned.
On one hand, there are those who feel that every ending presented in ME3 is exactly the same.  While this is certainly true, it seems a strange criticism to level at ME3 when ME2 and ME didn’t really provide any actual choices either.  A great example of this is whether or not you save the Council at the end of the first game.  Assuming you let them die, the most you ever get are a few fresh faces on the council, curt and inhospitable dialogue, and a general feeling from a few higher ups that you’re Earth’s main man.  At most, your choice has cost you a little courtesy, but the story is exactly the same.  The choices are cosmetic and give you, the player, an opportunity to customize your gaming experience.  So if Bioware has really made no promises that choice will be significant and hasn’t done it in the previous games, then what makes ME3’s story much worse for not having those life altering choices?  Truth is, it doesn’t seem to at all.  But the universe is still rich, with cool characters and companions, and you still get to see the robot bug things blow stuff up (‘cause, you know, that’s cool).

(Photo Credit: TechnologyTell)

The real question is whether or not what Bioware left for gamers is actually worth something.  The game ends with what seems to be a dream sequence—that, or Shepherd dies and has an out-of-this world experience that would leave Johnathan Edwards with eyebrows raised.  In either case, the surreal ending scene allows for several theories, one of which is that it is an attempt at indoctrination by Harbinger himself, the Reaper that blasts Shepherd’s body sky high.  In the conversations present in the dream world, moralities are reversed and twisted and bent on guiding Shepherd’s thoughts to a specific conclusion.  Killing the Illusive Man, a pretty obvious bad guy, is a renegade choice with no apparent Paragon choice to balance the equation.  Continuing further on in the dream sequence, morality is further skewed with the option to kill the Reapers.  Sure, it’s what you’ve been working toward all along, but it’s now suddenly a Renegade choice to stand up for humanity and Raid-spray those Reaper bugs.  Of course, the opposite choice, controlling the Reapers, is suddenly a great idea labeled as a Paragon choice.  You know, because controlling the Reapers is morally better than exterminating them.  Then again, maybe these choices are presented the way they are because it’s an ideal presentation for Harbinger to make a pawn believe he is a king.  In this ending scene, Harbinger presents the ultimate choice, and he does so in a way that makes him the ultimate challenge.  After all, choice seems to have always been Shepherd’s greatest quality.  He was given autonomy as a Spectre, went rogue as a Cerberus agent, and chose to leave Earth to hopefully save the galaxy.  What better weapon is there than a man’s own choice?

This is why the ending of ME3, if it can even be called an ending, is satisfactory: it is the apex in the war between choice and fate.  Sure, the game doesn’t make this realization easy for you and it leaves you with a pretty severe case of blue balls, but just like that one girl in high school—totally worth the wait.  Then again, maybe she ditched you right before prom and never called you again.  In that case, ignore that comparison and think of it this way: the gravity of the Mass Effect universe was always immersed in a shroud of choice , even if it was a thinly veiled one, and what better way to define choice than to have it confronted by an enemy that is the antithesis of choice.  Harbinger is the king of all tyrants.  As far as the Reapers are concerned, the destruction of mankind is not a product of choice, subjugation is not an escapable future, and the extinction of all biological life is an evolutionary necessity.

Bioware may have given the illusion of control with your customizable armor and trinket filled Captain’s Cabin, but you can rest assured the Reapers are here to take even that illusion away and leave you a husk of a human–leaving the upset fans with only a faint echo, “You touch my mind, fumbling in ignorance, incapable of understanding.  There is a realm of existence so far beyond your own you cannot even imagine it.  I am beyond your comprehension.  I am Sovereign.”

Check out the other two reviews right here!

PART I

PART III

TRIPLE THREAT! MASS EFFECT 3 PART I

Today, 3 of our staffers have taken the time to present you with the best and most thorough examination of the recent gamer explosion known as Mass Effect 3 and the critical response the ending is getting.  In this, our first ever TRIPLE THREAT!, segment I am proud to present you with the first feature cross view of Mass Effect 3.

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How Both Advocators and Opponents of Having a New Ending For Mass Effect 3 Are Wrong

By: Javy Gwaltney

My mouth has probably never spewed as many profanities as it did when I watched the ending for Mass Effect 3 for the first time. And yes, I say “the ending” because I, like a good number of fans out there, feel as though every single ending has pretty much the same result. But we’ll get to that.

Right now, I want to talk about the internet’s response to the ending, which has been overwhelmingly negative. The Mass Effect 3 story section of Bioware’s forum has a new topic decrying the ending every couple of seconds.  Users have also taken to sites like Metacritic and Amazon in order to bomb Mass Effect 3’s page with low scores. There’s even a Facebok group called Demand a Better Ending to Mass Effect with over 32,000 fans. This situation has created several different factions, all of whom have ultimately been shoved into two groups: those who support a new ending for the game provided as DLC to gamers and those who oppose it.

Unfortunately the most annoying aspect beyond this group assignation is that neither side seems to fully comprehend the reasoning of the other. The opponents of the ending have accused the supporters of being whiney, entitled gamers who want only happy endings and are sour pusses because the conclusion to the trilogy was a downer. Of course, supporters of the game have hardly been more civil when they’ve been presented with a point of view that doesn’t match their own.  Basically, it’s all the same flamebaiting and trolling you’ve ever seen, except on a huge scale, one that’s ultimately drawn the likes of Kotaku, IGN, and even Forbes into the debate.

So, the big one, the motherload, the question to end all questions (for the moment, anyway): do displeased fans deserve a better ending and should Bioware give it to them?

After I got done cursing, I decided to play through the series again with a different character just to see if I had the same reaction a second time through. And I did. There was less profanity involved, but I still couldn’t help but feel crushed—and I don’t mean in a good way—by the conclusion of the third game. Personally I think we deserve a new ending. It doesn’t even have to be a happy ending, really. The opponents of a new ending seem to think that what we want is the archetypal happily ever after movie, which really isn’t the case at all for most advocators. We want two things: (1) an ending where our choices actually count (ala Fallout 3), and (2) an ending that isn’t riddled with so many plot holes it looks like one of the paper targets at the shooting range. In fact, let me be clear: I love depressing endings. But this ending is just poorly written and rushed it. I don’t want to make any assumptions about what the case was within Bioware’s development house, because I’m an outsider, but just watching the third gets my writer sense tingling and makes me feel as though after Drew Karpyshyn (the head writer for Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2) left, his replacement, Marc Walters, didn’t have the slightest clue how to end the story. And, in one of those stomach-turning epiphany moments, I realized that maybe, just maybe, Bioware is aware of how bad the ending is and is hoping that their defenders’ cries of “It’s depressing JUST LIKE REAL LIFE OMG IT’S ART” will protect them.

Sadly, that’s probably right since, again, many of the opposers’ main fallacy appears to be thinking that we want a happy ending, which not all of us do.  I don’t think the ending is particularly artful. Instead, it feels like the writers just took the Architect scene from The Matrix Revolutions, the star baby scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion and just threw it all on the script for the hell of it. Again, I’m not saying that’s the case—but damn if it doesn’t feel like it. And that, friends, is why I want a new ending.  And it’s the reason plenty of other people want a new ending, too.

Pretty much.

But the problem is that we’re not going about getting that ending the right way. Joining the Demand a Better Ending to Mass Effect 3 page isn’t going to help make that happen. Facebook groups like that aren’t really the same as voicing your concern; it’s more like joining a support group where other people are trying to  comfort each other  and air out frustrations (and that’s not an insult directed at anyone on that group since I’m a member as well). So what does constitute making your voice heard, you ask? Well, technically, I think this does, though I have mixed feelings about setting up a charity in the name of the ending of a video game.

Let’s talk about the positive aspects of doing so since those are clearly the most self-apparent and can be briefly discussed. One, that’s over 30,000 dollars being donated to children in need. Two, it’s a smart move because sites all over the internet, including sites that aren’t necessarily gaming focused,  are giving the movement for a new ending. That’s the good. The bad? Well, donating to a charity does not and should not figure in into this argument in any way, plain and simple.  I think, beyond using it as a device to get attention, it’s also kind of a sleazy ethos building tactic. This move is not also done to catch the attention of the media but also to combat the claims that the supporters are not self-entitled and whiney children, but if viewed from the right perspective, there’s something almost childish about bringing a charity into an argument as support.

If you really really really want Bioware and EA to hear your complaints, don’t simply write your frustrations on a Facebook page wall or in a thread on a forum.  Don’t bomb the sites where they’re selling the game, and don’t send an email that will get trapped in a spam filter or deleted with the rest. Go old fashioned.  Let them know you’re serious by taking the time to sit down and write a letter.

Here’s the mailing address for Bioware:
BioWare Edmonton
200-4445 Calgary Trail NW
Edmonton AB
Canada T6H 5R7

Of course, if ending DLC is something that Bioware has planned all along, the whole point may be moot, but it’s still not a good thing. In fact, I don’t think the company is going to come out of this with their reputation unscathed. If, on one hand, they don’t release ending DLC, they’ll be responsible for bungling the ending of one of  gaming’s most beloved franchises. However, releasing post ending DLC will basically set a precedent justifying the release of unfinished video games by companies like EA.  Regardless, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. With this situation building momentum and Kickstarter suddenly becoming a way for gamers to support whatever projects strike their fancy, there could very well be a radically different gaming industry on the horizon—for better or for worse.

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Check out the next two reviews right here!

PART II

PART III

An Open Letter to Starbreeze Studios Concerning its Latest Game

Dear Starbreeze Studios,

I told myself that I would never be THAT gamer. You know the one I’m talking about, complains about having to pay for day-one DLC, writes in profanity laced, truncated sentences, and has absolutely no idea how to participate in civil discourse. So, I’m going to try to remain as civil as possible with this message out of respect for the quality content that you’ve produced over the years—except for, you know, Syndicate.

Now, don’t stop reading yet. I’m not approaching this from the “oh my god this game is nothing like its predecessor” angle because I’ve actually never played the original game, so I didn’t have that bias when I sat down to play your product. Of course, I sat down to play it after I went to the store and bought it despite having heard just how bland it was, because I’ve been a huge fan of yours ever since The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay debuted back in 2004.

I’ve always admired how you’ve managed to innovate a genre that year after year populates the market with dull cookie-cutter games. Riddick was a revelation in terms of what you could do with am FPS. The graphics were dark, ahead of their time, there was a physical combat element, adventure gameplay, and a pretty good storyline—superior, at the very least, to the film the game was based off of. The Darkness? Even better. You took a mediocre comic book character and created an incredible supernatural noir world with a breathtaking story and astounding gameplay. The Darkness is one of the unsung classics of this generation of games.

And then we have this. What the hell is this? A stupid story set in a stupid universe filled with bland futuristic environments and the same old boring weapon set that’s been around since the 90s. The cybernetic abilities (e.g., hacking into an opponent’s mind to make him commit suicide, hacking into his gun to make it explode and stun him, and hacking his mind to convince him to turn on his enemies and then kill himself) that should have made the game a blast to play are pathetically underused. Jackie Estcado had a whole arsenal of abilities in The Darkness: impaling enemies, supercharging guns, sucking enemies into a black hole. And the best you can do in Syndicate is come up with 3 abilities—one of which is the practically the same one as one of the other abilities—and a slow-mo mode?

To your credit, you made the game slick looking…at least I’m assuming you did, since the environments are difficult to appreciate thanks to the levels being doused in bloom and blinding lighting effects.

This is pretty much every time you pass an open window or skylight in the game. (Photo Credit: neogaf.com)

Originally, I was going to write a review for the little gaming blog that a couple of friends and I own. But just playing the game made me disappointed to the point where I knew that I couldn’t describe any of the flawed mechanics of this game objectively, because frankly, I’m so disappointed in you. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I know what went on behind the scenes while this game was being created; whether EA rushed the development along, or your staff was just cocky, or what, because that isn’t my role here. I’m a consumer, a dedicated one, actually, considering I’ve bought nearly every gave you’ve ever made. My only job here is to buy your product and complain when you drop the ball and the quality isn’t up to snuff, which, rest assured, is the case here.

You developed a bad game. Not only is the gameplay nothing, absolutely nothing, in comparison to everything you’ve released before, but it’s also buggier than most games in public beta (Six: that’s the number of times the game crashed at a loading screen during my playthrough of the single player campaign).

Syndicate is listed at 59.99 on Amazon.com. It sells new for the same at most retailers. I bought it for that much. In truth, the game is worth 20 dollars as it is. As a loyal customer, I’m sorely disappointed with this run-of-the-mill shooter you’ve developed. I always assumed that a product bearing your devious looking mascot would be worth buying. Silly me.

How about this? Let’s make a deal: I’m going to stop at where I am in the game (the fourth or fifth hour in the single player campaign and six matches completed in co-op), so I can stop trying to convince myself that I’m having fun, and you can maybe develop a game that isn’t quite as awful as this one.

Sincerely,
A disappointed fan

Dear Esther Review (PC)

By Will Harlan

Dear Esther is in the uncanny valley of video game nominalism. It is debatable whether or not it constitutes an actual ‘video game’. As a fair warning to the “die hard gamers” out there, Dear Esther is a story-telling game. There are no achievements to win, puzzles to overcome, enemies to blow up, or other players to teabag — there is nothing outside of the text.. er, story. As such, Dear Esther might not be for you so feel free to stop reading this review now.

 

Prepare yourself for a unique experience with Dear Esther (photo credit:PC Advisor)

When a game challenges the definition of what a ‘video game’ is, it usually is a key indicator that some exciting experimentation with the medium is happening. Dear Esther is an experimental story-telling adventure game. The term adventure is to be used lightly, as Dear Esther does not simply let you endlessly free-roam around with no holds barred. However, Dear Esther is not meant to be approached with a simplified concept of a “rail-roading” game. While sure, the majority of the game does guide the player along a pretty designated path there are avenues to explore which add to Dear Esther’s atmosphere, story, and aesthetic. The game is not trying to be a game to rapidly draw the player to an end, rather it is a game of means and process. Dear Esther brings out empathy, melancholy, and sorrow through the atmosphere it expresses. As such, the way to approach Dear Esther is not to try and rush through to the end of the game. Rather, the process of reaching the end should be slow and ponderous. The game compels players to think and feel — not blindly run through the levels without taking moments to sit and receive the aesthetic brought on by the music, dialogue, and visuals.

Should I Play It?

    The game is beautiful. Its story, music, and (definitely) its visual design work flawlessly to produce a very memorable experience. I do not wish to go into much detail of the story, or how the designers’ aesthetic choices perfectly mirror the story’s direction. To do so would risk ruining an incredibly breath-taking, emotional experience which is not to be found in many other places. Dear Esther is for those who are patient and willing to have gaming conventions challenged, and who long for a game that provokes feeling on a level comparable to Eliot’s Prufrock. It will not be a favorite of many ‘hardcore’ crowds of gamers looking for a challenge, and it doesn’t need to be. If you’re willing to take an experimental plunge, however, Dear Esther is going to be for you. My only criticism is that it is a bit pricey ($10), but the actual look and feel of the game shows you exactly where that $10 went.

Though I’d like to refrain from posting a numerical score to represent its experience, I understand certain things are necessary in a review. Keep in mind this ‘number’ comes from an obvious fan of experimental gaming.

9.0/10

The Darkness II Review (PS3)

by Javy Gwaltney

Let’s get something out of the way: The Darkness II will not win any game of the year awards. Jackie Estacado’s second outing does not feature innovative gameplay or breathtaking writing (as its predecessor did), but it does have some of the best run & gun action released in several years thanks largely in part to the game’s quad wielding system and its gory executions. Plus, a return to the world of The Darkness is hardly ever a bad thing.

The story is as follows: mob boss Jackie, who has spent the last two years mourning the loss of his girlfriend Jenny and keeping the supernatural demon known as the Darkness locked inside his body, is forced to go on the offensive and unleash the The Darkness when opposing mafia factions and a shady organization known as The Brotherhood begin to attack his operations. On top of having to deal with an entire army of thugs and cracked out cult-goons, Jackie’s also experiencing visions of his dead girlfriend. I guess having demonic powers ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

  Gorehounds should rejoice. This is one of the bloodiest games ever made, perhaps even more gruesome than the reboot of Mortal Kombat released last year. You spend the entire game literally tearing through enemies, disemboweling them, and painting the walls with their eyeballs and limbs. The Darkness II’s execution system isn’t really anything new—you grab an enemy with a tentacle and then press a button to execute them—but the perks of executing these guys makes it so that this system isn’t just superfluous; it’s actually a necessary part of the game. Want an example? Ammo in the world of The Darkness II is surprisingly sparse for one filled with gangsters and evil organizations hell-bent on taking over the world. To refill your supply, you have to not only pick up caches littered throughout each stage, but you’ll also have to perform hitman style executions, for which you’ll be rewarded a grotesquely fantastic execution sequence and some bullets for your troubles. There are also other execution styles that reward you in other ways (one gives you a shield, another gives you a sliver of health, etc.). This keeps the executions from growing stale as you’ll be forced to switch between styles depending on what you need. Executions also net you valuable Dark Essence which is used to buy power upgrades that range from letting you access more execution styles to growing Darkness armor when standing in the shade and granting you the power to see and shoot through walls.

One of The Darkness II's greatest feats is making you feel like such a badass. This guy here? He's about two seconds from being a stain on that wall over there. (Photo credit: Buzzfocus)

Besides tearing enemies to pieces with your spiky tentacle friends, there’s an abundance of guns for you to use to fill them full of holes. It’s a good idea to conserve that ammo, though, as there are many sections of the game filled with light, and Jackie’s Darkness powers won’t work unless you shoot out those lights or take out the generators powering them. Don’t despair though, if you’re dry and up against a swarm of enemies, you can always fall back on whipping/slicing them to death and picking up poles or other sharp goodies with which to impale them.

The game’s environments are also beautifully rendered in a cel-shaded style that will delight comic book enthusiasts. Originally, I was opposed to the artistic direction that the series was taking, but having played the game all the way through, I must admit without the slightest bit of reluctance that the visuals are simply fantastic; the perfect balance is struck between comic book design and photorealistic graphics. Nothing ever seems too cartoonish—like certain sections in Borderlands— this is without a doubt the best use of cel-shading since The Wind Waker. The sound effects also compliment the visuals and the gameplay nicely. Any FPS fan knows that a game with weak gunfire sound effects will pull you out of the experience. The guns in The Darkness II sound (and therefore feel) just right. However, fans of the original game will definitely notice that Jackie’s soft-spoken voice actor (Kirk Acevedo) has been changed for a more aggressive, masculine voice actor (Brian Bloom), probably to help ease the character’s transition from quiet, contemplative hitman to profanity spewing mobster.

Insert your own caption, damn it (photo credit: Joystiq)

The sections in which The Darkness II suffers the most are the length of gameplay and story. Narrative wise, it’s unlikely that the game could have measured up to its predecessor. The noir element of the original game is gone, and The Darkness II resembles No More Heroes far more than it does the original game. That’s not to say that the story is bad, per se, it’s just standard revenge fare with a supernatural twist. There was at no moment in my playthrough of the second game that came close to matching my sense of dread and utter horror that I felt during THE scene in the Darkness (spoilers). The fact that the storyline is only about 6 hours long is irksome as well; however, there’s a good deal of replay value with both the exciting co-op multiplayer mode “Vendetta” (think of Left 4 Dead with superpowers and mobsters instead of zombies and you’ve got the right picture) and New Game +, which lets you play the game over again with all the powers you’ve earned.

   Should I Play It

When I wrote my impressions of the demo, I was skeptical about how the final product would turn out: “The demo seems to showcase a game that’s going to be a fun little violent cel-shaded romp that involves tearing mobsters to giblets with demon tentacles. There is also the strong impression that this is going to be a vastly inferior sequel to an undervalued masterpiece.” However, I’m quite happy to say that though the second game is not as great of a game as its predecessor, it’s a worthy sequel and should be played by anyone with an itchy trigger finger or an insatiable bloodlust

8.0/10

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