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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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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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Magicka: Vietnam announced


If you’re a PC gamer and you haven’t played Magicka yet, you’re doing yourself an immense disservice. Magicka, a title from Arrowhead Games, does not have a particularly deep story or narrative. It draws lightly from Norse mythology, but largely it’s one great big wizardly joke. ¬†It’s a frantic top-down adventure game where you create hundreds of different spells by combining eight basic elements. Some of the spells are extremely useful. Some of them are a disaster. Friendly fire is always enabled, so playing multiplayer with your friends becomes an increasingly chaotic experience. In Magicka, chaos is fun. It had an extremely buggy launch, but most of those issues have been smoothed over and the game is absolutely wonderful.

Very recently, Arrowhead Games made the deal even sweeter and announced Magicka: Vietnam. Wizards in ‘nam. Magicka: Vietnam is either going to be one of the most offensive gaming experiences of 2011 or, if done properly, will be one of the most enjoyable. Magicka‘s light-hearted tone certainly seems well-suited to tackling that sort of content. Vietnam, to some extent, is still a topic that is off-limits unless you’re an FPS game. It is one of the few true American disasters in recent history (from an American POV, naturally) and so it can be a touchy subject. Magicka is taking a “nothing is sacred” approach to its gameplay, so it may be able to pull it off.

Either way, Magicka is currently $9.99 on Steam and I highly recommend it. I can guarantee that you will have fun playing it.

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Dragon Age II demo impressions

I didn’t like the first Dragon Age. I’m a die hard Mass Effect fan and I really wanted to like Dragon Age: Origins, but overall I thought the game fell flat. Some cool ideas, certainly, but it never really gripped me. I went into the Dragon Age II demo with extremely low expectations, prepared for more of the same — even the reviews and previews on major gaming outlets didn’t do much to sell me on the changes to the series in DA2.

The demo is fun. I didn’t expect fun, but fun I got. The combat is more enjoyable than Dragon Age: Origins (in my opinion, obviously), the Mass Effect-ization of the main character Hawke helped pull me into what little story there was in the demo sequences, and it was overall a more engaging experience. My brief experience with the demo was above and beyond my experience with Dragon Age: Origins, and it very well may have reversed my decision to not buy Dragon Age II.

I still have gripes, however. Allow me to detail them!

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The problem with hacking minigames

BioShock. Mass Effect. Fallout 3. Oblivion. All of these games are generally accepted as pretty damn awesome. You (and I) may disagree with how awesome they are, but the general consensus is that they’re great games. All of them have one thing in common that really bugs me: hacking minigames. “Oblivion doesn’t have hacking minigames!” you say. “It’s a medieval fantasy game! What are you even hacking!” There is a lockpicking minigame. It counts.

Hacking minigames are unfortunately common in AAA action/adventure titles, and the success of games such as Mass Effect and BioShock are likely to make them even more common as other developers try to learn from BioWare and Irrational Games‘ example. Just so we’re absolutely clear: I hate hacking minigames. Allow me to explain why.

They take you out of the action

To some degree they take you out of the action intentionally, with the developers fully aware of it. Hacking minigames pull you out of the explosions, gunfire and soaring magic and give you a cooldown period. You get a break from the point and shoot, even if the break is point and hack instead.

The problem is that in some parts of these games, most notably in BioShock, you are pulled away from the action too often. The hacking becomes tedious. As you get deeper into the game, you no longer want to do it at all. You start to dump all of your resources into being able to skip it or make it faster and easier, just so you can get through it. Using these minigames occasionally can certainly enhance gameplay, but when you walk into a room with 4+ hackable turrets that you either turn on your enemy or waste ammunition or EVE (mana/magic points) to kill, it doesn’t feel fun. You don’t feel clever for hacking that turret and turning it on your enemy when you do it four times in a row. You would really rather just get back to killing splicers.

They’re disability-unfriendly

The average gamer doesn’t think about it much, but there are people with disabilities that love video games just as much as everybody else. Why wouldn’t there be? Players with injuries or other disabilities want to play the same things that everybody else does, and generally they can. Maybe they won’t be as competitive in StarCraft 2 or Counter-Strike, but they’re perfectly capable of playing games like BioShock and Mass Effect, even if it means they need to keep the game difficulty quite low.

Then you throw hacking minigames into the mix. These minigames usually require stellar hand-eye coordination and quick reflexes to meet the time requirements. In the original Mass Effect, the typical hacking minigame requires you to carefully move an object through a series of concentric rings with moving obstacles. Already, that is more difficult for players with a limited range of motion than the game’s actual combat. On top of that, you generally only get 10-15 seconds to complete the challenge. Not likely. Luckily, the original Mass Effect offers an option that allows you to bypass the challenge completely. You can break down your spare, useless items into omni-gel and can spend it as currency to skip the challenge.

Mass Effect 2‘s minigames are not identical to those of the first game, but it’s the same concept. You have a short period of time to complete a reflex-based challenge. In this game, however, you don’t have the option of using omni-gel to bypass the challenge. If this only locked you out of bonus items or credits (currency), that wouldn’t be too much of a problem. The problem is that there are places where an inability to complete these minigames can stop your progress through the game entirely. For those familiar with the game, there is a gate in Grunt‘s recruitment mission that you need to hack to get through. If you can’t complete that minigame, you cannot move on with the game.

What was gained by gating the story progression with a hacking minigame? Does that gain outweigh locking disabled gamers out of an otherwise disabled-friendly game? It’s certainly something that should be considered when implementing these games.

If I wanted to play flash games I would go to Kongregate

Despite these games being high-budget releases, these hacking minigames are glorified (and sometimes simplified) flash games — or maybe something far older and simpler. BioShock‘s hacking minigame is an updated version of Pipe Mania, a puzzle game from 1989 developed for the Amiga. Pipe Mania is a classic, but it has also been copied, rehashed and reproduced so many times throughout gaming on so many platforms that BioShock‘s hacking system strikes me as incredibly uninspired. It most certainly did not make me feel like an awesome hacker. More like a ¬†plumber.

In the original Mass Effect‘s hacking game, you’re a small sprite advancing through lanes of obstacles and moving objects. Apparently to hack a computer console, you must play a circular version of Frogger. Once again, this minigame struck me as being uninspired. It didn’t feel much like hacking either, just like BioShock‘s hacking didn’t. It was a minigame for the sake of having a minigame. Mass Effect 2 improved on giving you the feeling that you were hacking something — the game actually used a technological aesthetic instead of brightly colored squares and triangles prancing about. Aesthetics help.

Okay, that’s what makes them bad. How can they be used well?

Let’s recap. I think there are a few important things to keep in mind when designing and utilizing hacking minigames.

  • Does this minigame make sense as a hacking minigame? BioShock‘s Pipe Mania does not feel like hacking. Mass Effect‘s Frogger does not feel like hacking. Mass Effect 2‘s “match the circuits” game (seen at the top of this post) did, in my opinion, feel like hacking. It was a simple matching game, but the aesthetics and tasks associated with it were clearly technological.
  • Do not make these games mandatory! They are an excellent tool for offering bonuses or even shortcuts. But if someone cannot complete the hacking minigame (whether it be due to lack of skill or lack of motor skills due to injury), it should not stop the game/narrative dead. Minigames are not the core of your game. Minigames should reward success, not punish failure.
  • Diversify them. It’s okay to have multiple forms of hacking games. It does not need to be a new game every time the player touches a console, but two or three different ones adds spice. Not every shootout in an action game plays out the same way. Why should this? Mass Effect 2 used two different hacking games and I feel that worked very well. It reflected what sort of work you were doing.
  • Use them sparingly. Don’t do what BioShock did and put several hackable turrets and cameras in small spaces. It becomes tedium. Spread these encounters out. It will make them more meaningful.
  • Don’t add minigames just for the sake of adding minigames. Do they add something to your game? Will your game be lessened by a minigame’s absence?

TL;DR

Okay, maybe I don’t hate minigames. I just hate bad minigames used poorly.

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Mass Effect and combat diversity

It is extremely hard to deny that Mass Effect 2 is one of the best games currently on the market. Personal taste will determine where it falls on your gaming hierarchy, but it’s still undeniable that it’s a wonderful game. Mass Effect 2 worked very hard to improve its combat system over the first Mass Effect game and cut out a lot of the unnecessary fat, and while it did a good job at this, there were a number of things the original Mass Effect did very well that didn’t make it into the sequel for one reason or another.

My personal grievance is the loss of some of the most thrilling opponents from the original game. Mass Effect 2’s cover shooter gameplay is on the whole more exciting than the combat of the first game, but the enemies themselves aren’t particularly meaningful — each enemy that pops up feels like little more than more meat being thrown into a grinder with very few exceptions — the Scion enemies force you out of cover temporarily and the melee opponents that flank you do the same, but their appearances are rare outside of the core, mandatory missions against the Collectors. Beyond that, combat is essentially: enemy sticks their head out, enemy dies.

Personally, I see a few ways they could mix up combat again in the upcoming Mass Effect 3.

Bring back the Geth Hopper

The leaping, wall-crawling son of a bitch at the top of this post is the stuff of nightmares. The unit is pitched as a “cyberwarfare platform” in the in-game universe and it does its job well. Not only does the hopper scramble your on-screen radar while it’s present and blind you to your enemies’ locations (assuming you don’t have the appropriate upgrades), it also adds additional dimensions to the combat. When the geth hopper is involved, you can’t just look straight ahead and take a headcount of what you’re fighting. The hopper could be on the ground, but it could also be overhead or on the walls, taking cheap shots at you while it scurries out of the line of fire.

A close friend of mine, one of the rare few that disliked Mass Effect 2, describes its combat as “hiding behind conveniently placed boxes while spraying bullets down a hallway.” That’s an extreme oversimplification of the game, but it’s true in the most basic sense. There are very few enemies and encounters that force you to pay attention to what’s going on anywhere but directly in front of you. The reintroduction of the hopper (or new enemies similar to it) could change the dynamic of combat in a big way.

Geth in general are also less intimidating in Mass Effect 2, largely because the cover shooter gameplay makes them feel less intelligent, less predatory. The geth could be downright terrifying in the original Mass Effect, employing snipers in high, hidden nests while throwing shock troops, armatures, and colossuses at you. The geth are supposed to be scary opponents, but in Mass Effect 2 they were a mild inconvenience, even in Tali’Zorah‘s recruitment quest wherein you actually are put up against a colossus. Unfortunately, the single colossus you encounter is completely stationary and poses no real threat whatsoever while you funnel the geth ground troops through a single pathway of your choice.

Bring back the hoppers, bring back the armatures and the colossuses, and let’s make the geth scary again.

Bring back the krogan

Oh yeah, there were krogan all over Mass Effect 2, but did any of them ever strike fear into your heart? Krogan in the original Mass Effect were dangerous brutes that, if you let them close to melee range, would completely ruin your day. There weren’t very many of them, but the ones you encountered were damn mean and damn meaningful.

In Mass Effect 2, the krogan are plentiful. There are encounters where you kill them by the dozen, and one of the recruitment quests specifically throws weak, mass-produced krogan at you — almost like the game is fully aware that these giant, imposing berserkers are no longer notable. Throughout the game you also encounters the krogan-led Blood Pack mercenaries, made up of the monstrous krogan and the diminutive vorcha — the universe’s sentient vermin. In encounters with the Blood Pack, it’s rarely the krogan that sets you on edge. You see it, gun it down, and move on with your life. The vorcha with their rocket launchers, flamethrowers, and insane health regeneration that demands no less than a headshot to put them down are far more frightening.

Mass Effect 3 needs the krogan of the first Mass Effect, not the glorified moving target of Mass Effect 2. When a krogan charges me, I want to be worried.

More flanking, melee enemies

Mass Effect 2’s husks are one of the few enemies in that game that make you realize how vulnerable Commander Shepard and his/her teammates can be. Until you’ve acquired a significant number of upgrades, a husk rush can swarm over your team, drag your allies to the ground in an instant, and force Shepard into a terrified retreat. That’s a good thing. The husks (and to a lesser extent the fishdog varren) flank you, flush you out of cover, and suddenly you’re under fire from all of the enemies you were safely hiding from behind a box.

These enemies were used to great effect in the few core missions against the Collectors, the game’s primary opponents, but very rarely beyond that. The rarity of in-your-face combat in this game (unless you played a vanguard, of course) not only made combat very repetitive after awhile, it also made some of your teammate options less attractive. The only time you would want your allies using shotguns is when they were equipped with the DLC shotguns that turned them into long-range weapons. They had no opportunities to use these weapons up close, so a large aspect of those characters was essentially useless.

In Mass Effect 3, I would like to see some more short range and mid-range combat that forced you to adapt to the situations and use your teammates that specialize in that kind of combat. Use your tough, tank-like characters, use the characters that are strong short-range fighters, build a perimeter and hold out against the swarm.

To sum up

Mass Effect 2 is one of my all-time favorite games, but the transition from Mass Effect 1’s engine to Mass Effect 2’s engine definitely carried a bit of the “baby and the bathwater” issue with it. If BioWare builds Mass Effect 3 up using what they’ve learned from both of its predecessors, we’re in for one hell of ride. I don’t want them to ignore the great things that weren’t carried over from the first installment of the series, because there’s still a lot of potential there waiting to be used.

Mass Effect 2 fell into the trap of assuming that because different enemies use different spells, that must mean combat will be diverse. That’s not true. You need variety in aesthetics and motions as well — the first Mass Effect nailed that, but the sequel fell short. Mass Effect 3 has an opportunity to integrate the strengths of both games and I hope they achieve that.

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Fallout: A study in the unpleasant as compulsion

Having just finished Fallout: New Vegas, these thoughts were fairly fresh in my mind so I thought I’d get them out there.

What I find interesting when I play a Fallout game is how much of the gameplay mirrors the setting, a post-nuclear landscape with a twist. Fallout is the post apocalypse of a future embodied by the Ford Nucleon. Laser guns and plasma rifles, supercomputers as big as a room, old cathode ray TV sets, vacuum tubs and broken down old robots that would look at home on the set of Lost In Space. Fallout is the disaster after an alternate history, and it’s always fascinated me to go through the various shattered urban ruins. Since I used to live in Washington DC (not far from Bethesda, actually) Fallout 3 was a fascinating exercise in seeing places I’d known and realizing “Hey, this isn’t how it looked at all in our world.” The subways, the cars and trains, even the streets were different and the differences didn’t stem from the atomic war. The Smithsonian had different museums even.

As fascinating as “spot the divergence” is in the Fallout games, however, what I found most striking in my New Vegas playthroughs was how the game supports the feeling of being a wanderer in a world where people struggle to make a life in the wretched refuse of a golden age. Much of your food, clothing, weapons and other supplies are in effect garbage and trash recycles from the civilization that just destroyed itself. Most of the buildings, even the ones being used, show signs of being picked apart and their materials recycled. The game has an inventory management system that places hard and fast caps on how much you can carry forcing you to cache gear and supplies in various locales you gain access to. You often have to choose to eat unpleasant or even radioactive things in order to regenerate wounds or drink dirty water to keep hydrated. Your weapons and armor break down over use and must be repaired. Currency is based on the bottle cap, to the point where you will actually be offered a job to go and smash a functional soda bottling plant because it’s being used to make bottle cap currency.

In essence, the economy of Fallout is based on the idea that the only legitimate money comes from before the war, and any attempt to make new money is suspect. It’s a fascinating metaphor that pops up several times in various Fallout games, the idea that this is a world that doesn’t create anything new, it just scavenges in the trash of the old, dead world. One character from Fallout 3 even makes this comparison. What I find most worth exploring here is how this dead, sterile, possibly even necromantic setting which uses the dead past to build the tottering present is so embodied by the art and story choices so that every act ties into the feel of the world.

In Fallout one often succeeds by the thinnest of margins. Victory conditions are often fluid (in Fallout New Vegas one can choose to support one of two major factions or instead to work to one’s own end) and even when you “win” the game you’re still, ultimately, living in a world that killed itself nearly 200 years before you even started. Everything from interface choices to art and storyline, to inventory, to how food and drink work, even ammunition and weapon conditions all emphasize this ultimate truth. You live in the bones of a dead world, it says, all you have done is to choose what got scavenged.

Part of the real genius of Fallout is how it embraces this. Part of what makes it such compelling play is how it highlights it in ways both great and small. From the doctor with two trained mercenary guards, one of whom complains about not having been paid and the other who confides in you his doubts as to her actual medical accreditation while standing in the shadow of a old dinosaur tourist attraction to the gigantic mutant grandmother in the bright yellow wig this is a world where the stakes are high and sometimes treasure is an old tin of radioactive mac and cheese. Fallout makes the mire and offal of the dead past seem a fitting reward.

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