Thursday, 29 March 2012

Loving Mass Effect 3's multiplayer

I really tried to stay away from another Mass Effect 3 related post, but it’s climbed inside my head for so many good and bad reasons. However, whatever my rampant inner fanboy may scream at Internet forums and comment fields, there’s no denying it’s an excellent game. I was especially pleased to find how good the multiplayer turned out.

Based on an abandoned Mass Effect FPS project turned third-person, it controls very similarly to the single player experience except you only have access to three powers on each class. Even though your custom character is limited compared to Shepard, you still have some fun biotic, tech and weapon combinations at your disposal to beat back the enemy waves each map throws at you and up to three other players.

My favourite aspect of the multiplayer is that it sticks two fingers up to the Call of Duty XP progression system and does its own thing. The best gear isn’t unlocked when you play for hours on end and sacrifice personal hygiene for game time, but instead is cruelly awarded at random. Instead of tying XP to gear, players buy equipment packs with in-game credits that come stuffed with random goodies.

It reminds me of my days spent collecting Pok√©mon cards, eagerly tearing open each foil pack to check for new cards. Mass Effect 3’s equipment reward system is exactly the same. Sometimes you get lucky, but most of the time you get virtually kicked in the nads for your efforts. It’s brilliant.

Unlocks that appear at certain levels in games like Call of Duty and Battlefield 3 may give you something to work towards, but they also set artificial limits and targets. Whenever I finally unlock whatever I’ve had my eye on I start to run out of drive and the game stops being interesting. Mass Effect 3’s random system always seems to spit out different rewards and doesn’t even hint at me beforehand what they might be. I like the mystery.

Once a character hits level 20 you can ‘promote’ it to the single player game, where it becomes a permanent stat that affects the (crushing, disappointingly limited) ending. That class then gets reset to level one where you can re-spec it with new abilities as you level up, whilst keeping all of the guns you have already earned.

I just hope that more games follow Mass Effect 3’s example and branch away from the unlock system that is being squeezed to death by the unrelenting annual horde of military FPS games.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

"Won't someone please think of the artists?"

I’ll just clarify now that I’m not stepping into the “Are games art?” argument here because I don’t care for the fires such a question can ignite in hearts and angry keyboard fingers. What’s really riled me is how the screams to change Mass Effect 3’s ending are being described as ‘undermining artistic integrity’. Demanding a better ending is justified in my opinion, especially with the space magic, plot hole riddled, nonsensical conclusion Bioware originally delivered.

Again, I’ll keep this one spoiler free for those who have yet to play this truly amazing game that tragically ends on a whimpering fart.

One of the challenges posed by those against the Retake Mass Effect 3 movement is that it is not our right to challenge an artist and demand they change the ending to their story because it harms artistic integrity. I’d argue that games pissed away their artistic integrity a few years ago. Games aren’t mainly made for the love of it anymore. The really sad and depressing truth is that mainstream games are made for the money.

Why do you think we are bogged down with sequels and series revivals? It’s because original ideas are risky and not guaranteed to rake in the big money. The ambiguously titled ‘indie games’ scene is going a long way to tackle the creative deficit, but we still have a long way to go until the big boys of publishing start taking serious risks.

The artistic integrity argument has particularly annoyed me because of the industry’s new favourite tack-on: downloadable content. Chunks of games that could have been included in the original release are being removed and served later for extra cash. I didn’t buy the day one From Ashes DLC for ME3. I get the impression it was meant to be in the full game but was cut and made premium content due to time restraints, even though it was ready in time for release day. Surely this should have been free content for players that purchased a new copy of the game, similar to the Zaeed character in ME2?

How can you claim artistic integrity when you are not shipping completed works of art? Did the Mona Lisa have alternative scenery people could buy to place onto their prints to expand it? Does the Venus De Milo have ports for clip-on arms to finish the unfinished work? To claim artistic integrity you should stick by your original work and not charge for as much additional content as possible to milk your original vision dry. Anything you add or modify should be free or significant enough to add content that can stand up as its own ‘piece of art’ and deserve a price tag.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Why end Mass Effect like that? (Spoiler free)

This is a completely spoiler free article as far as Mass Effect 3 plot details are concerned, but I will still talk about the structure of the ending, so if you want to keep yourself completely pure you may still want to look away now. You have been warned.

I finally finished Mass Effect 3 yesterday after 25 hours of shooting, talking and gathering, not to mention the 50 or so hours I put into the rest of the saga to get here. Whoever said the destination is not important but instead it’s the journey that matters must have been talking about Mass Effect 3. It has been the best journey through a closely linked trilogy I have ever played and I’m sad that it has come to an end. Well, I’m sad it came to an end like it did.

Siding with the vocal masses on forums and comment fields across the net, I think the ending was really badly done, not least because it didn’t actually make sense within the lore the series has worked so hard to establish. Unfortunately, it also went back on what the series has been all about.

At the game’s finale you are offered a choice of A, B or C to determine how the game ends. These choices take into account none of the decisions you have made throughout the game or the series. It doesn’t matter if you saved or doomed groups in the first game, or if certain characters didn’t survive your playthrough of Mass Effect 2. You are offered three choices that are independent of everything you have done on your paragon or renegade path.

What makes this even more infuriating is what Casey Hudson, the game’s director and executive producer said about Mass Effect 3’s ending in an interview earlier this year. He said: “It’s not even in any way like the traditional game endings, where you can say how many endings there are or whether you got ending A, B, or C.”

I got ending C if anyone is interested.

Players shouldn’t have been offered such a choice at the end. Surely the choices of their actions throughout the entirety of this space epic should have determined what sort of ending they received. We’ve been making the choices all the way through the three games that lead up to this point. Surely it all counts for something in the end.

There have been many conspiracy theories suggesting that the game hasn’t actually ended here, and there is even a prompt at the end that says something along the lines of ‘remind your wallet we’ll be releasing DLC’. Perhaps we haven’t seen the end and BioWare will redeem itself, or maybe we’re just stuffed with what we got with the end product. Either way, I know I’m not the only person who is anxious to know what BioWare’s plans for the future of Mass Effect are.

Friday, 9 March 2012

No disc drives in next Xbox

Whilst there is no concrete news about the next Xbox console (I refuse to call it the Xbox 720, that’s silly), the buzz this week suggests that Microsoft will be doing away with disc drives in their new machine. That’s according to MCV, who are saying that Microsoft has been telling its partners the news that they are going into the future sans-discs.

Personally, I’m not convinced that we will see download only consoles from the big three in the near future, as the UK’s Internet scene in some areas is only just more effective than a network of courier pigeons. This is set to improve over the next few years, but will people be happy sipping retail sized games through their potentially narrow Internet pipes?

Of course this is not a problem for some of the better developed net nations, but if it were to happen, it makes a significant push towards near constant online connectivity for gaming. I know you would only really need an Internet connection to download the games (unless they come stuffed with Big Brother DRM measures), but are enough people in a good enough position to maintain a decent net connection on their console? It will certainly upset heavy users that have a download cap or a low fair use policy with their ISP.

In all likelihood, Microsoft will still support some form of physical media for their next machine. There’s still a lot of money to be made from people who like boxes and special editions. The MCV report goes on to say that the console will have some form of interchangeable solid-state card storage, similar to that of an SD card. If this is the case then it will be interesting to see if Microsoft comes up with a new games format.

GAME will certainly be happy that they would still have something to stock on their shelves. Well, that is assuming they can still afford shelves in the future. I don’t think we are ready to push for a download only console just yet. OnLive is trying that experiment at the moment, and there is still a portion of gamers that can’t have the connection to support such a service. I’m certainly looking forward to E3 this year, where all eyes will be looking at Microsoft for a console reveal.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Staying in the GAME

It was very tempting to go with the much overused and expected ‘GAME Over’ pun for a title, but I just about managed to resist. Well, I almost did, but I still mentioned it in the top paragraph. That’s still worth half a point for making an effort to be original, right? But anyway, with the disastrous no-show of Mass Effect 3 in stores caused by a financial black hole and the possibility that such a thing might become a trend, is there a way for GAME to survive as a high street retailer?

In its current form I am not convinced that GAME can possibly stay around for much longer. Even the company directors are considering a retreat from the brick sanctuaries found lining town centres and shopping arcades. It’s easy to see where they are losing their customers. Let’s be honest, if you are tech savvy enough to navigate to my little Internet blog, you probably do most of your shopping online where you can find titles 20 per cent cheaper than you will find them in GAME.

Focussing on the chain’s problems isn’t the point of this post, but it’s obvious that the overpriced games, understocked back catalogues and rip-off trade-in prices are but a few reasons why most people tend to go elsewhere. What would it take to turn the business around and give prime location shops an edge over websites that can operate from warehouses in the darkest corners of nowhere?

One advantage of physically existing in a high traffic area is the ability to show off your products. The online domain has been slowly catching up with the amount of exposure it can output, but it still can’t quite rival the possibility of letting you play the game instantly. It might just be my memory fading into oblivion, but I seem to remember that demo units used to be a lot more prominent in shops. These days it seems like you’d be lucky to see a DS booth in the corner. Surely allowing customers to try before they buy will influence snap decisions?

Whilst demo units will take up space on the shop floor, it will be another hook to draw people from the street and into store. I realise it isn’t perfect as you will still get the bored dossers that have no intention of buying anything come in and play the games, but it still pulls in a bigger crowed of potential customers.

Introducing regular events could also draw in crowds of people. I don’t just mean launch events designed to flog the latest games and consoles, but things like Street Fighter tournaments or Call of Duty shootouts. You’d need staff dedicated (or desperate) enough to work the extra hours, but making your shop something more than a place to buy games could help develop a loyal customer base who would actually want to buy games from the business.

Game shops can survive, but they need to work out what they can offer to gamers other than just a place to buy games. They will never be able to seriously compete with the online retailers at a pure price level because they have drastically increased running costs in comparison. But there must be a plethora of advantages that are just waiting to be tapped from having control of over 500 shops across the UK. If GAME forms a proper community to engage and embrace, people might be able to justify paying slightly more for their games.