Archive for category Console Gaming

Mass Effect 3 post-mortem thoughts

So yeah, I’m done with Mass Effect 3.

Well, not done. I’ve played it three times now, and am working on the fourth. So here comes spoilers beyond and beyond, if you don’t want spoilers you really shouldn’t read this.

Things I’ll say before going more into detail: no, I don’t like the endings. No, I don’t want Bioware to fix the endings to placate me, I didn’t sign a petition nor do I support it. I’m neither for or against it, I feel it’s pointless. This is the game, this is the story of the game, these are the endings. That being said, pretty much everything up to that point is amazing. I actually found Mordin’s death quite moving (although I still have no idea why Mordin has a new voice actor now) and enjoyed pretty much every cameo and return, loved the story as it unfolded, loved watching Shepard try and navigate the treacherous politics of the galaxy while seeking to unite everyone to fight the reapers. The game is at times spectacular, your choices from previous games have surprising consequences at times. I’ve played a vanguard and a solider and enjoyed both of them. I even find the inventory system fairly easy to cope with, although partially because I only carry a Revenant most places I go because to me, the Revanant is Shepard’s signature weapon. Read the rest of this entry »

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inFamous 2′s moral missteps

In this piece I will be discussing the recently released inFamous 2, and I feel I should preface myself with some warnings to the reader.  First is the obligatory SPOILER WARNING;  I will be discussing some of the bigger story events in the game, so should you want to remain unspoiled you should look away.  Second, while I will be taking a rather harsh and critical look at one specific aspect of infamous 2, this should in no way be read as a negative review.  In fact, the gameplay here is an excellent improvement on the original, with tons of content and well worth the full price of admission.  But, as this site’s name implies, sometimes you can’t help but nitpick.

The inFamous franchise aims to take the concept of moral choices in games, mechanics usually restricted to RPG titles, and bring them into its decidedly action-focused game world.  The series follows Cole McGrath, an ordinary guy with a flair for parkour who gets the extraordinary ability to control lightning, as he travels through the fictional vistas of Empire City and New Marais trying to survive and avert-or cause-varying levels of destruction and mayhem.  The player’s choice between good and evil paths is central to the gameplay, affecting not only Cole’s appearance but also what powers he can access, with Evil abilities that tend to exhibit a rampant disregard for collateral damage and civilian casualties.

inFamous handles this concept of morality rather clumsily.  In the first game, things had a fair setup:  you’re given an inhuman amount of power and placed in a horrible situation. Do you go the Spider-Man route and accept the great responsibility to help those around you, or do you put on the Joker makeup and relish in the chaos and madness?  Unfortunately, the games stumble in the execution of these ideas, with inFamous 2 making more missteps than its predecessor.  Both games make the classic mistake of giving each moral conflict only two drastically opposed resolutions without any semblance of subtlety or middle ground.  Cole can either be an electrical messiah, healing the sick and arresting muggers with energy handcuffs, or he can be murderous psychopath, using prisoners as kindling for a bonfire while chucking grenades at innocent bystanders.

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Breathing new life into Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider is a franchise that I’ve grown up with. The first game in the series was released in 1996 when I was 10 years old. Unfortunately, as the years went on, the franchise went stagnant never improved upon itself. Those excellent adventure games we loved on the Playstation became old, diluted and mediocre at best. It, sadly, became a franchise where many of us were just waiting for it to die and go away so we could paint our memories of it with beautiful nostalgia, rather than constantly be bombarded with low quality followups to something we loved.

When the franchise was given over to Crystal Dynamics, Tomb Raider: Legend and Tomb Raider: Underworld attempted to revive the franchise, but it wasn’t enough to inspire faith in the Tomb Raider name again. Regardless of who holds the IP, the fact is the franchise has become old and stagnant, and whatever story the series had became a convoluted mess. It’s a lot like the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. It started out great and there are still some gems here and there in the series, but the franchise has become such a beaten mess that nobody has much faith in it anymore — a new Sonic game elicits groans of exasperation (though, admittedly, not necessarily for the same reasons.)

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The Nitpixels Podcast Episode 9: Pizza is totally a video game

The Nitpixels Podcast returns this week with your hosts Alex Ziebart, Matthew Rossi and Mat McCurley. Michael Sacco has been replaced with a potato. This week our discussion topics include:

  • More same-sex relationships in Mass Effect 3
  • The Gears of War 3 beta
  • The problem with movie-to-game translations
  • The art of the Easter egg
  • Some stuff about food that has nothing to do with video games at all

You can listen to the podcast in the embedded player below, download it directly via the link below, or download and subscribe via iTunesNote: The iTunes store can take an extraordinarily long time to display new episodes on the podcast page. If you subscribe, it will download the episode for you, even though it may not immediately display on the page.

Do you have a question you would like to ask the Nitpixels crew? Have comments about the podcast? Email us at mailbag@nitpixels.com and we’ll answer it on the next edition of the Nitpixels Podcast if it strikes our fancy. You can also tweet any of us your questions — you can find our Twitter handles on the right-hand side of this very page (unless you’re on our mobile site).

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Just how bad is the Playstation Network… fiasco? Disaster?

Just to give you an idea of how bad it is, no one knows exactly how bad it is. In a world where various media outlets clamber all over you for something like this, the brute fact that no one knows just how huge the clusterfuck is should be telling you something. I dare you to go to Playstation’s official blog and comb through their Q&A sessions, and then tell me exactly how bad this was. I double dog dare you. I know that, after reading those Q&As, I find myself terrified for the safety of my XBox Live stuff and I don’t even have a credit card attached to that account. That’s how bad this is sounding. It’s sounding so bad that people can actually worry about competing products.

Frankly, as bad as the PSN going down for almost a week is, what’s worse is how the company decided to handle how it informed its customers of this ‘malicious intrusion’ and exactly what it means to them. Days of silence. If you shut down an entire online social gaming network because someone managed to penetrate your security and stole credit card information from it, the time to tell us is when it happens. Customers should not be reading about how the network may have been breached five days later. The first discussion of what exactly happened to people’s personal information on the PSN servers shouldn’t be six days later.

The intrusion and theft are bad, awful, horrible for consumers. But Sony’s decision to basically tell them nothing for days and days while also not providing the service they paid for in this fashion was just a terrible choice on their part. People should have known within a day or two why they couldn’t connect. They should have known if they needed to change their credit card or debit card information, even if it wasn’t actually compromised, just to feel safe. Sony should have given their customers a chance to take that action and get that sense of security as a gesture of respect to the people who pay for the service. Cover their asses before you cover your own.

I’m not currently a PS3 owner, but I did play a Sony MMO for a while, and right about now I’m glad I didn’t give them my credit card or debit card information. Based on how they handled this situation I would absolutely not want Sony to have that information. That’s not how you deal with a crisis. You don’t make it so that your customers sigh in relief that they used a pre-paid credit card to play your game. It’s not the kind of opinion that gets people to come back.

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Sexuality is Not a Game Mechanic

Dragon Age 2, BioWare’s latest RPG offering, allows players to strike up romantic relationships with party members regardless of the gender of the player character or the NPC in question. Basically, if your ideal romantic interest would have to be homosexual/bisexual in order to be romantically compatible with your particular character, they will be. This also means that you as a player may periodically experience flirty conversation from NPCS that might not match up with the sexuality you intend for your character.

After a self-professed “straight male gamer” posted on the BioWare forums complaining that he was getting hit on by male characters while playing as the male version of Hawke, BioWare’s senior writer David Gaider gave a fantastic response: essentially, “get over it.” Gaider affirmed that BioWare is committed to giving players of all sexualities the opportunity to pursure romantic interests in whatever configuration they please, which is fantastic, and a real step forward for video game relationships in general.

Somehow, though, I’m still finding cause for concern.

Video games have been struggling for a long time now to be recognized as a legitimate art form, largely because it’s not been until recently that games have even had the opportunity to have extended dialogue, like books, and voice acting, like movies. The increase in “cinematic-ness” (cinematicity?) has also led to an increase the number of memorable, “real” characters present in games.

To be fair, though, games and movies and books are often all striving for very different things. A fantasy book you read or movie you see in theaters has the aim to entertain you, to tell its own story, to present its characters in a specific set of scenes and situations. Things are a little different in modern role-playing games, especially where BioWare is concerned. While still taking part in an over-arching narrative, you’re given the opportunity to shape the world (and the narrative itself) through your decisions and interactions. And even your main character, normally the rigidly-defined cornerstone of a narrative, isn’t set in stone; you can choose different backgrounds, appearances, and, in this case, sexualities as well.

Now, contrary to what sitcoms and movies would like you to believe, “homosexual” is not a personality trait. Neither is “bisexual” or “asexual” or “only sleeps with big disfigured metal space bugbirds” (don’t judge me). But it is part of a character, of a person. Sexuality shapes interactions both personal and public, and lots of other facets of a character. Which is why BioWare’s choice concerns me.

Let me give you some perspective. I liked Final Fantasy VII just fine, but I didn’t love it like I loved Final Fantasy IX. In FFVII, with the exception of some small stat differences, all characters behaved fundamentally identically in battle thanks to all of their skill assignments being handled with Materia, useable by anyone with no restrictions. Anyone could do anything, which was a far cry from the highly specialized characters of FFIX. If I needed brute force, I knew to use Steiner. In FFVII, anyone could be my brute-force guy (or gal).

Now, perhaps it’s fallacious to use game mechanics as analogues to “real-life” traits. In fact, I know it is, and I’ll get to that. So I’ll put it in a different way. In a BioWare game, like in a good movie or book, I can expect a character to generally act a certain way. I know Garrus will have a deadpan one-liner for lots of situations. I know Miranda will choose (and suggest that I choose) the most pragmatic option in most circumstances. These are the ways these characters work, the way they react to things. They’re integral parts of their character.

So what’s not integral? Stuff that relates to or works with game mechanics. Is Miranda a fundamentally different character if she uses submachine guns instead of pistols heavily in my game as compared to my friend’s game? No, she’s still a femme fatale ice queen. Her choice of gun has an effect on gameplay, not narrative — two very different things. It affects how I experience the narrative, perhaps, but not the narrative itself. That krogan was going to meet his end regardless of the weapon used, and Miranda would still shrug it off because that’s who she is. And so is her sexuality.

Essentially, by making it something that can be adjusted, changed, deleted, what’s happening is that BioWare isn’t treating sexuality like a character trait. They’re treating it like a game mechanic. And in an oeuvre that includes games in which “relationship” has historically (and unfortunately) been defined as “a minigame with sex as a reward,” that’s actually not that surprising. In fact, I’d argue that the best way to please players of all sexualities would be to give them a handful of relationships meaningful outside of the pursuit of a PG-13 sex scene, not give them access to a large number of ultimately trivial ones.

If it sounds like I’m condemning BioWare’s decision, I truly am not. I don’t envy BioWare in their effort to please people of all sexualities, and envy them even less in trying to legitimize an art form. In fact, I don’t even think this is a bad solution to the heterosexual male-dominated “gaming culture” that thinks elves are “gay” even when they aren’t. It’s just that there’s still a long way to go if we want games to be societally progressive and a legitimate art form, and part of the latter is not just continuing to sacrifice the building blocks of a character in the name of game mechanics when there simply must be other ways to do it. Even if we haven’t thought of them yet.

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The story/game disconnect in CRPGs

Spoilers for several games, past and present, including Dragon Age II abound in this post.

Computer RPGs excel in many, many ways. They can present a unified visual, with voice acting, immediate character visuals, and fantastic locales all realized for your playing convenience. Think of how hard it would be for a game master to create the milleu of Mass Effect through his or her voice alone.  But one element of the tabletop RPG that has always been nigh impossible for CRPGs to present is the ability to make shit up on the fly. To give an example, imagine you have the same scenario in both an RPG and a tabletop dungeon crawl – a boss fight that requires the players to fall into a trap behind one of two doorways. If this trap is necessary to set up the scene, the easy thing to do is to set it up so that no matter which door the party opens, that’s the door with the trap.

The problem here is that in a CRPG, there are things like save games and replays, so the players will learn fairly quickly that the game cheated, and that either door presents you with the trap. In a pen and paper game, there’s no replay and even if the suspicious players go and check the other door, a GM can blithely lie to them and have there be no sign of a trap. Yes, in each case you were railroaded. But in case A, you can easily find out, because the game can’t cover its tracks.

CRPGs have to balance a very careful line, leveraging their assets to make you forget that in the end, the story is by necessity on rails. Even when a game presents you with options and choices that can determine the outcome, it can only present you with so many because the story has to end somewhere.  There’s only so much room on those game discs or in that file download for variation, much as if you were ultimately reading a choose your own adventure book or using a flowchart. The game’s goal, therefore, is to make you forget that. It does so with all of the bells and whistles at its command, ultimately, and by making use of as many ‘non-choice choices‘ as it can get away with.
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Dragon Age II – The review in which I spoil the hell out of this game so if you don’t like that, why are you still reading this headline? It’s only going to get worse.

I am simultaneously awed by and slightly disappointed with Dragon Age II.

Awed by the art of the game, by the improved combat system, by the quest flow. Awed by how much work obviously went into it. Awed by the decision to focus away from the Gray Wardens who were the stars of the previous game and instead focus on a ten year period of time and unfold a story over that ten year period. Awed by some really excellent in places voice acting and dialogue options, and by a dialogue system that actually creates a voice for your character based on the kind of dialogue you choose over time. (For instance, my first Hawke almost always choice the diplomatic route and so his tone was far less sarcastic than my second playthrough.) This is a superlative game. This is a game that is superior than its predecessor in almost every single way from gameplay to storytelling.

The original, however, does not have so unrelentingly grim and painful a theme as does its sequel. In Dragon Age: Origins, you play a hero in a time of crisis who stands up against both disastrous unnatural entities bent on destroying all life while also taking action against those who attempt to use the crisis to ascend to power. While it’s a bleak and horrific threat you face, the game itself has a tone of optimism in the face of the disaster and in the end the triumph that comes feels wholly complete and justified. Furthermore, choices you make really feel as though they had a positive impact on the world.

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From the Mailbag: Satire and sexism in video games

This letter was submitted via our mailbag@nitpixels.com email address, to be read on the podcast. We may still do that, but I wanted to get my full thoughts on the subject written out.

Last October, Twisted Pixel released Comic Jumper on Xbox Live Arcade. A lot of people said it was sexist and racist. Twisted Pixel replied that it was actually parodying all the themes people were calling it out for. They pointed out that all of the sexist characters, including the player’s character, were horribly inept and that the moral was that all those themes are bad. Twisted Pixel’s next game, Ms. ‘Splosion Man seems to be taking on those same tones.

My question to you is: Do you think video games can accurately portray subtlety, satire and parody? Do you think slapstick Xbox Live Arcade games are a reasonable platform for this? Or did most gamers think Andrew Ryan created Big Daddies just because he was evil?

Thanks,
Ian

I’m actually very glad you asked this question! It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about quite a bit since Twisted Pixel started to release information and gameplay footage of Ms. ‘Splosion Man.

I absolutely believe that video games, like any other creative medium, are a valid outlet for satire and parody. “Video game” is about as descriptive as the word “book.” Saying that you are reading a book says nothing about its contents, except that it is probably full of words. Is it fiction? Non-fiction? Historical? Is it for children or is it for adults? Is it a religious text? Political commentary? Social commentary? Book describes the object you are holding but it says absolutely nothing of its contents.

Video games are a diverse outlet and they will only grow to be moreso as time continues to pass. There are straightforward platformers that hold no illusion of being anything but a good time, like the Super Mario series. The FPS scene has an entire range of titles, from realistic war stories to shoot-em-ups. There are RPGs that take place in any setting imaginable across an entire spread of genres — comedy, drama, science fiction, history, fantasy, it’s all there. Video games can be an outlet for satire and parody just as well as any book or movie.

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Dragon Age 2: My bleary eyed response

This is intended as a kind of infodump reaction to the game. A full review will be coming as soon as I replay a few times.

It’s a good game all told. I just finished it, blazing through it in two nights of painful insomnia, and I will doubtlessly play it again to catch up on all the side quests I missed. Some of what Alex said in his demo impression holds true for me. While I think the female body type worked fine for Isabella, it’s very disconcerting to see every female in the game, even your mom, expanded to such proportions. My wife made the point that if your apostate sister was really serious about hiding from the Templars, that dress she has on isn’t going to avoid her any attention. She’s right. It’s even weirder when Flemeth shows up in her wildly different new outfit but the story tells you it’s taking place at the same time as the events of Ostagar and Lothering from DA:O. I get that Varric wouldn’t know what Flemeth used to look like, but it was still weird to see her with a boob window.

From here on in will be spoilers. So don’t read any further if you don’t like those.

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