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Friday, February 04, 2011

Game Play: Mass Effect 2 (PS3)

I played the first Mass Effect briefly on a friend's 360, and while saw that it was clearly polished wasn't entirely sure what the real appeal was about the extremely popular title.

That's because you can't play a Mass Effect title briefly and get the real appeal. In fact, if I have any real complaint about the recent PlayStation 3 port of Mass Effect 2, it's that they won't be porting the first one.

Mass Effect 2 is a Bioware RPG through and through, and so players familiar with Dragon Age or Knights of the Old Republic know the basic score: a streamlined experience tailored around gathering characters into your party and selecting a couple of them to bring along with you on missions. There's a morality scale, there's a grand story, there's a lot of memorable NPC's to meet and interact with.

Kindly, though, the morality scale is less black and white, less "save the kitten" or "kill the kitten" - and feels more like changes in the style of the player than really building "the ultimate hero" or "the ultimate villain.

If anything impressed me about Mass Effect 2, it was how it managed to avoid pitfalls similar titles fell into. Take Fallout 3 for example. Fallout 3 could also be considered an open ended RPG based heavily on decisions made by the player. Mass Effect 2 has one huge advantage over Fallout 3, however, which trumps any other comparison:

Mass Effect 2 does not consistently crash. In fact, I think it crashed once on my during my entire 45+ hours of gameplay. Once, Bethesda, once... which is technically one more than it probably should be two less than an average Fallout title might accomplish in a single night.

Outside of that, Mass Effect 2 requires less wandering - and oddly enough, felt more like a shooter hybrid than the Fallout 3 titles. I never once felt the need to forcibly pause Mass Effect 2's action (though it does pause to let you select new weapons and use powers).

More interesting to me is Mass Effect 2 was also far more enjoyable than Dragon Age - at least for myself. As I wrote in the past, Dragon Age has serious balance issues which more or less beg for you to refer to wiki articles on how to "correctly" play the title if you don't want to get stuck in a dwarven dungeon getting devoured by some monster boss (still a bit bitter about that one). I never had that instance with Mass Effect 2, never felt like I had to be cautious in where I went in the galaxy, I simply explored and adventured and upgraded my party.

So this is a game that had none of the technical issues of Fallout 3, or New Vegas ... and had none of the frustrations I found with Dragon Age. In short: it was freaking awesome. I'm considering a second playthrough before Mass Effect 3 hits the holidays, which I rarely take the time to do anymore (even with Demon's Souls - and some would argue that was the point of that game).

Highly, highly recommend.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Game Play: Minecraft

I had peered over the shoulder of other Minecraft players via tweets and YouTube videos and to be quite honest, had no idea what big deal was all about. If you've been living under a rock, Minecraft is an indie sensation; grabbing awards and selling like hotcakes. And when you first look at it, it looks basically like a game about punching blocks.

And even once you first jump into the game, the game seems like it's just basically about punching blocks. You may have seen videos about people creating enormous towers and elaborate traps, but you've got a fist and mountain full of dirt to get through and little idea of what else is out there. Then night falls and there's a lot of groaning going on and a pretty good chance you might just die.

Maybe it's a sign that gamers have gotten so used to in-game tutorials and intro level handholding that there's an expectation that you simply shouldn't need documentation anymore, but trust me when I say the first thing you'll want to do in Minecraft is read the tutorials to get a grasp for the basics of the game, how to build important little things like torches, and surviving your first night.

Once you've gotten past that step, and especially if you're a child of the Lego generation - there's a good chance you'll be addicted to the game right away. Minecraft is essentially a lightweight RPG for the Lego set, where mining for materials means that you can control the world more and more - and eventually you'll be trying to do things like carving out an underwater observatory for simply no other reason than to see how what it's like when you're done.

The mechanics of the game are, to be honest, quite fascinating. It's not questing as much as exploration and the risk to reward ration is heavily tied to investment in time rather than loss of save points or experience. I've been playing the game quite a lot and really my most horrible fate to date is losing a diamond pickaxe while I was trying to tunnel a water plume from the ocean to my dungeon's floor. It's annoying - but it really just means I have to go find another diamond vein somewhere. The monsters, part of the creatures called mobs in Minecraft jargon, are more parts of the environment than encounters - they're something to be tamed just like that landscape you'd rather seen turned into a castle. The emphasis on the sandbox nature of the game is important, and really what makes it shine.

It's also interesting to look at Minecraft's roots - the game essentially takes Infiniminer, which was intended to be a team game about, well, mining blocks and building things, to solve the complexity issues around Dwarf Fortress, a game about mining, crafting and defending yourself.

It's a relatively untapped subgenre of the sandbox variety - very different from the GTA concept of simply running around a moderately fixed environment. But the appeal is now officially undeniable, and I'd keep an eye out in this space in general.

Obviously, highly recommended.