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Pixel Rift VR

Capture

Note: Distortion and blur in the screenshots is a side effect of the Oculus Rift display mode, it doesent look like that in actual play!

Finding myself to be a “VR enthusiast” having obtained an Oculus Rift via Mysterious Circumstances™ I’m doing that thing of downloading absolutely everything (within the realms of non-WTFGTFOeww) I can find for it to experience.  That inexorably led me to finding Pixel Rift – an absolute delight of an indie project by the immensely talented Ana Ribeiro and her team.  The game is still very much in early development, but the premise is not only clever and original, but also hugely appeals to the RetroGaming fan that I am too.  It also contributes to Donna’s and my own love of indie Kickstarter projects 🙂

The game is played from a first-person view, from the perspective of Nicola, a gamer who’s a huge fan of the fictional game “Pixel Rift”.  What follows is a progression for both Nicola and the “game within a game” as she gets older, and the game “upgrades” through generational hardware changes… e.g. Atari console, to Gameboy, to SNES, and beyond.  The clever framing mechanism for this is the virtual representation of the environment, and Nicola’s “growing up”

MY SHOES ARE AWESOME.

MY SHOES ARE AWESOME.

In the alpha demo, the menu screen sees you as a baby toddler, sat on the floor, with an old telly looming in front of you in an appropriately “giant” living-room.  There’s an advert in creaky old 70’s style on the tv for Pixel Rift – watch it long enough and you get a pseudo-augmented-reality explosion of colour from it, delighting both you, and your virtual infant representation.  In front of you are the various consoles, delineated by year, with their representation of the virtual Pixel Rift game.  In the demo, you can only play the 1989 “Gamegirl” version, the others are “locked out”.

Selecting the Gameboy…  er, Gamegirl, you find yourself in a primary-school classroom, sat at a desk covered in paraphernalia relating to Nicola’s Pixel Rift obsession.  Your classmates surround you, fooling around, whispering at you and each other.  At the front, next to the blackboard, your very hoary strict school teacher/school mistress (a la “Misty” comic, those of you old enough to know what I’m talking about) talks at the class in a very thick Northern accent, dryly talking about the subject (Biology, I think!) and –depending on you, and the class’s behaviour – either turning her back to write on the blackboard, or shouting/being exasperated at you and the other children.  With her back turned, you can look down to sneak your Gameboy out from under the desk, using the gamepad to control the virtual game, within the game.

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Pixel Rift for the “Gameboy” – is a mono platform game, the objective being to get to the end and fight the end-of-level boss.  Play is interrupted by having to drop the Gameboy back under the desk when the teacher turns around, or risk her wrath.  However – there is MUCH more to explore beyond playing the game-within-a-game.  You’re also armed with a paper spitball launcher, which you can use to torment classmates, the teacher, or somewhat more modestly fire into the bin in the corner – the results of which are somewhat fantastical, but hilarious.

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Get to the end-of-level-boss on the Gameboy, however, and you are treated to an explosion of virtual augmented reality, as the boss and your player avatar leap out of the confines of the game, out in front of you, as the reality of the classroom fade into the background.  Its gorgeous as the characters appear as their 2D chunky pixelized selves, but huge, capering and clambering about in front of you and over your books and desk, whilst the 3D world of the classroom still resides hazily in the background.  Defeating the boss requires a blend of the 2D play mechanics, and the “real” world.

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The potential for this game is HUGE, and I *love* its quirky fun little nature.  The promise of going through different ages and years, Nicola growing up, the games becoming more advanced just really appeals to me.  I really like the pseudo-personal nature of the premise, but also how it appeals to my nostalgia.  However… I don’t know how much the game will appeal when played in a purely 2D non-VR realm , and VR is the only way to play it at the moment.  Suffice to say it is very much a niche product at present.  I think there might be an audience for Ana’s game were she to make it 2D compatible too, but the game most definitely achieves the wow-factor when played with an Oculus Rift.

Oi! Swot! Whats the answer to number 7?

Oi! Swot! Whats the answer to number 7?

It’s got some glitches, some oddities, and some of the animation is buggy, or at least unfinished – but for a prototype game for a prototype device, it’s immensely entertaining, and has a lot of potential.  It might be a bit of a British gamer thing in particular, but I’d love to see posters and assorted other paraphernalia of the eras shown in the various scenes, e.g. movie posters, “Look-in!” pinups, etc.  From the screen shots on their page, it seems that there might be some other expanded stuff beyond the classroom/living room environments, so maybe we’ll see that kind of stuff later.

With a relatively small audience available for VR projects at the moment, I hope it is successful in its bid for Steam Green Lighting, or if they decide to kickstart it, though again I think they could help themselves a bit by making a non-VR play option too, it would certainly appeal to the RetroGamers out there.

It’s got my vote, thats for sure 🙂

 


Elite: Dangerous (p)Review

Astronaut Pianist, Obvs.

Astronaut Pianist, Obvs.

Scottish Highlands. Christmas.  1984.

Bemused parents indulge a child in her somewhat atypical (or so was believed for the time) interest in both Outer-Space and “Computer Games” – a fairly natural progression from the previous year’s SuperGirl costume request.  For a computer game of the time it seemed to be absurdly expensive  – £12.99.  Previous parental protestations of “but you’ve enough games!”  – surely an impossibility when the family computer is a BBC Micro (Dad had aspirations of poshness) – are put aside, and there was always the hope that at least one of the children might become a “Computer Expert” in the future, and allow aforementioned parents to retire early.

Hopes, alas, STILL not fulfilled!

 

Even the box was impressive.

The game was “Elite” – now of course so well known (or not?) as the defining sandbox game (in SPACE!)

I must admit to not being very good at the game – I don’t think I ever really made it much past “Mostly Harmless” – the game’s stat tracker for your spaceship killing prowess, “Elite” being the pinnacle.  But being 10 years old, I had a blast trying to dock my spaceship, and jumping onto my escape-pod (bed) when I thought I was about to fail.  Nevertheless, I knew a good game when I saw one, and enjoyed much play with it before a rogue coffee killed the computer.  It would be replaced by a C64, and arcade games.

However, a soft spot was kept for Elite, and I would look in on the various ports as I got older and watched 16-bit come and go, space games go Epic (Wing Commander) and then die a near total death but for wee stalwart indie coders.   Then David Braben came along with a Kickstarter, and promise of a 21st Century relaunch of Elite with ALL THE GRAPHICS, and lo, my long dormant space-heart gave a flutter.

 

Here then, is my preview of Elite: Dangerous (Beta V1):

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As I write this, the next release of the beta is due for release, and promises much more content and an increase from 50 or so systems to explore/trade in/fight in/get lost in to a somewhat more sizeable 500 odd.  We’re now approaching a decent sized gameworld to explore, but still only the merest fraction of what will be available at final release (due this year) – a procedurally generated 400 billion.

However, I’ve got ahead of myself – let me explain what Elite: Dangerous is, should you not be familiar with this great-grandparent of the open world sandbox game genre.

Elite is a first-person sci-fi space-based pseudo-GTA.  That little soundbite is misleading, but mostly accurate aside from the car-jacking, violence, and “of the moment” bangin’ soundtrack.  By first-person, I mean that the game world is viewed from your – as yet non-customizable aside from gender –  in-game avatar’s viewpoint, exclusively from the cockpit seat of your spaceship.  Planned post-release DLC will have you wandering about your ship and space-stations, but for now you are a somewhat alarmingly headless body sat in a seat, and invisible to other players.

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At the start of the game, You – The Plucky Player – are a spacefaring person, gifted with a basic starship of modest capabilities.  By modest I mean that it has 4 tonnes cargo capacity, 2 gun mounts, and a couple of spare utility mounts.  These are used for some purchasable (using earned in-game credits) additional upgrades.  For example – a “Heat Sink” a deployable dump of your ship’s waste heat produce, used both as a decoy, and a way to vastly reduce your visible radar signature – which when used in conjunction with “silent running” mode, essentially making you temporarily invisible, complete with neat slow frosting of your canopy glass.

Later upgrades include missiles, beam weapons, and Battlestar Galactica-style projectile cannons, but also non-combat upgrades like a docking-computer.

Docking computer you say?  Yes, one of Elite’s notorious legacies is the fact that when docking your ship with the giant space-stations which in order to generate gravity… rotate.  You have to navigate your suddenly giant-feeling spacecraft through the most apparently narrowest of letterboxes to enter the safety of the station’s landing pads.  It’s deceptive in that the entrances are actually pretty large, but you get the distinct feeling of little headroom until you get a feel for your ship’s physical dimensions – no exterior views yet.

We're going to need a bigger door.

We’re going to need a bigger door.

Back in the original 8 and 16-bit incarnations of the game this was especially difficult as there were few analogue control surfaces to use.  For my part I used to point at the entrance, put the engines on minimum, and hope for the best – inevitably jumping in to my aforementioned escape pod (bed) when things went disastrously wrong.  (You could actually buy an escape pod, but I never made that much money!)  Today, things are different, we all have mice, gamepads, and even Flight-sticks that allow much more precise control of rotation and whatnot.

Old School.

Crashin’ it. Old School.

Speaking of rotation – the flight model is a curious one, in that it’s a blend of super-fun-sci-fi Star Wars type jet-fighter style, with bonus Physics™ – but with the option to switch off (and on, at a whim) “Flight Assist” – which basically makes the control system entirely “Newtonian Physics” – requiring you to apply reverse thrust to bring your craft to a halt, and apply inverse directional thrusters to counteract the proportional amount of…  look, just watch 2001: A space odyssey, or GRAVITY, then you’ll know what I’m talking about 😉  I find it horribly complicated to fly the ship with Flight-Assist off, others love it (mostly those who grew up with Elite’s 16-bit sequels: Frontier and First Encounters) – but it does have its uses.  Fancy pulling off Babylon 5 and BSG style flip-around whilst still moving in the same direction, allowing you to fire at a chasing attacker whilst still moving away from them?  Flight assist off… just remember to correct your spin with your thrusters!

I say! Did you just cut me up?

I say! Did you just cut me up?

So, what’s the plot?  There isn’t one, at least not yet anyway.  You’re basically plonked into your ship with no direction.  At the beginning, the point is pretty much to Make Money.  Money = ship upgrades.  More Money= better ships.  That’s largely it for the moment, in the beta anyway.  In the beta money is earned from various activities, more of which will be available as the game develops.  For now, here’s a few examples:

Trading products between planetary systems – a full commerce system is in place in the game, fluid and dynamic.  One system might have high demand for farming equipment, and pay a high price to buy from anyone able to transport them in.  The player might find a system whereby Farming equipment is cheap-as-chips, buy as many as they can afford and their ship’s cargo-bay hold, travel to the high-demand system, and make considerable profit.  Whilst there, they might find something sold there that is in low-demand, ergo cheap, which they can sell back at another system for a higher-price.  Trading like this can be slow-work, but it’s a good safe way to make money.  There’s also the possibility of buying something legal in one system, but illegal in another, sold to the black market at considerable profit.  That runs the risk however of the Space-Cops scanning your ship for contraband, and a: fining you or b: not asking questions and just blowing you away.

Bounty Hunter is another money-making method, though is obviously quite a bit more dangerous than being a Space-Trucker.  Check the local station bulletin boards for jobs, then head off to look for The Mark(s) – earning cash for their destruction.  There’s also considerably less legal assassination jobs to be had, though these can render you a wanted renegade in certain regions of space.  You can also fly out to some notable pilot hangouts – e.g. “Resource Gathering Sites” – where player’s go to mine for minerals etc – spot someone with a “Wanted” tag?  Take them out, earn some bucks.

Mining – take an appropriately configured vessel to mine materials from asteroids in the aforementioned Resource areas.  Watch out for thieves and bandits tho.

Courier missions – similar to trading, but often you’ll be given cargo directly to deliver to some other location.  The fee paid will be affected by how far it has to go, and whether or not you might have to avoid any “Imperial entanglements” to deal with… or Federation, for that matter.  The Imps and the Feds are the two primary factions in our Sci-Fi world here.

'Sup guys? Whatchadooin?

‘Sup guys? Whatchadooin?

So – already there’s a fair bit to do, much more is planned closer to and post-release, including World Events.  There’s already been a couple of these with a civil war breaking out between two systems, precipitated by nefarious underhand guerilla warfare missions offered to the player, and pleas for certain items of produce to be smuggled in and out.

Now here’s the interesting bit with this new generation of Elite as a game.  It’s multiplayer.  Also, it’s optionally singleplayer… but with the repercussions of the events in the multiplayer.  How so?

Well, you can choose to play the game in full multiplayer – Open Play – out there with all the other players.  That means all the usual caveats..  Trolls, Griefers, heroic saviours, co-op wingpersons, trading buddies, Clumsy docking, rage-quits et all.

Or…. You can play solo in an NPC-AI populated universe, but with the same world-state (politically and economically) as the multiplayer, but without the human player element.  This is actually a great idea,  and especially useful at the start of play when you’re getting to grips with the game mechanics and trying to earn a bit of money to get going.  Penalties are the same as multiplayer, however – you earn enough cash to buy that big new fancy Lakon-9 hauler freighter, but accidentally push the booster button and crash headlong in to the side of a station…  you lose the ship, and any cargo aboard and have to restart over with any remaining cash with the default freebie ship… unless you had enough spare cash left over to cover the insurance cost of the replacement ship!

You can also currently bounce between solo and open-play multiplayer modes, which could be perceived to be a bit of a cheat.  Build up to awesomeness in solo, pwn in multiplayer.  Except you wouldn’t be alone in doing that.  Stuff gets too heavy in multi? Back off in to solo.

For now, however, multiplayer in terms of co-operative player interaction is still very much in its infancy.  The developers recently added inter-player text and voice comms, but it still needs a bit of work, as well as willing players.  Getting together with one or more friends though seems like a really exciting way to plunder the depths and wealth of the game, especially as the content increases in the run-up to release with options like actual recognized deep-space exploration being a career!  Of course there will be “EVE-online” faction wars and such like, which could have huge potential for multiplayer… but you might be an everyman/everywoman who just wants to get on and stay out of the war.

Planned DLC for the game post-release includes adding features like player avatar movement within your own ship and stations,  planetary surfaces (including obviously landing on said surfaces with your ship), multiplayer crewing of your vessel, and more.  That complete set of features would be beyond even the imagination of my 7 year old would-be astronaut self  – and I used my imagination A LOT to greatly expand what was on screen with those black and white vectors, I really can’t wait.

Ultra-detailed interiors already.

Ultra-detailed interiors already.

However, it’s not all joy and happiness.  You’ll either love or loathe the control systems.  It will very much depend on what you decide to use.  Elite is definitely targeted in the main towards using a flight stick/throttle controller.  After that there’s options for gamepads, and good old mouse+keyboard.   I’ve tried mouse control.  It didn’t end well.  Or start well, for that matter.  Yet others thrive using it.

The Head-up-Display (HUD) in-game can cause consternation.  Its meant to be a holographic display whereby you turn to look at the relevant area for it to appear, using your controller to select options therein.  I found this quite cumbersome until you’ve customized your controller of choice to quick-switch between the three primary menus.

And…..  multiplayer.   Like anywhere else, players can and will piss you off.  Not all the mechanics for literal policing of player behaviour is in place.  E.g. you’ll enter a system with police patrols, but they won’t always help you in time if you’re attacked by another player or NPC.  But hey, maybe that’s realistic!

Also… It’s a beta at the moment, so it *will* crash, sooner or later, and stuff will be buggy, or act strange.  I’ve been in my ship, happily parked on a landing pad only to have the station literally disappear out from under me, like Babylon 4 😉  But there’s also stuff that happens where you think… hmmm.. that’s cool.. I might be able to use that… like bringing yourself out of “Supercruise” too close to your destination only to find yourself INSIDE the station.. with only a few seconds before the intruder alarm goes off, and the cops blast you into oblivion.

Wonder if that's LV-426?

Wonder if that’s LV-426?

Speaking of “Supercruise” – some of the game mechanics might cause consternation too.  Hyperspace is the method used to travel vast distances between systems, fuel allowing.  Once arrived, you are stopped in the system by the largest planetary body, still very far away from your actual desired destination – usually a space station.  So, to speed up the travel to your “Final Destination” your ship has a mode called “Supercruise” a sort of very high speed but not quite hyperspace mode, where you designate your target destination from your HUD, and engage the drive.  What you then have is a manually controlled acceleration and steering to your  target requiring you to slow down as you close distance, disengaging the drive at a point of your choosing.  Where this can frustrate is that it’s very easy to get impatient and over accelerate, causing you to be unable to slow down in time,  therefore overshooting the target, meaning you have to pull a big turn to bring you back around, hopefully slowing down this time.  A lot people are NOT happy about supercruise, they want some form of autopilot.  I think this comes from the pseudo-MMO nature of the game.  In many other MMO’s there’s auto-run options that mean you can effectively distract yourself with something else whilst still keeping one eye on the game.  Not so in Elite.  Look away at your peril.  I suspect, however, that the Devs may make a purchasable auto-cruise system, as it could actually add to the immersion.  Think Star Wars and the Millennium Falcon crew dossing about in the lounge, but getting a warning to tell them that they’re approaching destination/under attack/out of hydrospanners.

So much is forgivable however, whilst the game is in Beta.  It’s certainly nearly cooked, but it is most definitely still in the oven.  Visually it’s a treat, and pretty scalable in terms of performance.  Aurally it’s an absolute stunner.  The sound design is utterly amazing, hugely putting you “in the picture” – the music is a bit generic Space-Opera at the moment, but hopefully will improve… or you can do what I do… put on an ambient/spacemusic radio stream!

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You have to pay a bit of a premium to get on board this currently PC-only spaceparty at the moment.  £50 at present, final release will be £35 for the game and then more for the proposed DLC.   I hope that we can have a few more women to play the game, as Space feels very much a bro-verse so far, and I hope to have a full gender spectrum conglomerate to fly with post-release.  As release gets nearer though, I can already feel The Shape of Things To Come in the imagined vibration of the ship’s hull, and my inner 10-year old astronaut self is getting very excited indeed about her childhood dreams becoming virtually realized! 🙂  Speaking of which…

 

 

Addendum:  VR – THE GAME CHANGER

Space.  It's big.

Space. It’s big.

Elite: Dangerous as it stands is a hugely promising sci-fi space game, built on a prominent legacy, and coming at a time where the combined genres of Spaceship and Flight-Sim games are enjoying a bit of a renaissance.  Elite is certainly a hugely enjoyable game already, promising much more at release.  However, everything changes when the game is experienced via a Virtual Reality Head-Mounted Display.  I’m lucky enough to have obtained an Oculus Rift Development Kit 2, and I knew that Elite had been given optional configuration for play on these devices.  It’s a bit clunky, a bit buggy, and plays sheer hell with even high-spec gaming PCs…. But…  never before have I *ever* experienced anything like it.  It is a completely different experience playing the game in VR.  Background starfields and planets are no longer just background.  They are there.  Right there, outside your suddenly very real feeling ship’s canopy.  The canopy complete with the handles you feel you must be able to reach out and touch.  The glass of the canopy feels like it’s mere inches away from your head, and whilst the planet beyond the canopy is probably millions of miles away.. it is most definitely OUTSIDE your canopy, millions of miles away and huge.  Huge beyond your normal comprehension of the definition of the term.

"They should've sent a poet..."

“They should’ve sent a poet…”

This is because everything is rendered to scale in the VR incarnation of Elite.  I look down and see arms, and hands gripping controls just like mine.  I’m completely bamboozled when I raise a hand to scratch my nose… but my virtual hands remain in place.  I’ve emerged from a space-station in my ship innumerable times playing on the monitor to the same scene.. only to come to a dead halt in the same location when playing in VR, agog at the awe-inspiring majesty of the apparent infinity of space, and the sight of a sun emerging behind a Saturn-like planetary body surrounded by a ring of debris.  In combat, rather than wrestling with mouselook controls to try and get a bead on a ship I’m pursuing, I merely follow its progress with my head and eyes, craning over my shoulder as I bring the ship into a steep turn to follow it, my head turning as I bring the enemy back towards the front of my ship as I open fire to finish it, then ducking instinctively as a piece of the ship debris bounces off the top of my canopy.

And those HUD nuisances I mentioned earlier?  Rendered moot when you simply look to your left or right to activate them!

This time around, I think VR is going to be huge, and I think it will be accessible, especially if Sony can bring their “Project Morpheus” VR headset to fruition for PS4 players, where hopefully players will be able to join in the Elite: Dangerous world (as project leader David Braben has hinted as an option) –but also most especially as the Oculus Rift matures for PC owners.  Like Morpheus said about “The Matrix”… “no one can be told what (VR) is, you have to see it.”

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Where’s my coffee mug?

 


So… I have an Oculus Rift.

dk2-product

That is to say, an Oculus Rift Development Kit 2.  Which is a Virtual Reality HMD (Head Mounted Display) – as opposed to some kind of smelly ailment cultivating product, which is what it sounds a bit like from the name.

Sony have also announced a similar solution for the PS4 available in the near future (albeit with some SERIOUSLY problematic demos)

The OcRift has been on the go for just over year, from a successful kickstarter campaign, through to a first prototype, a massive investment by some big name firms (including most (in)famously Facebook) and now a 2nd prototype (DK2) which is pretty close, I imagine, to the final product, despite protestations of still insufficient screen resolution (1920×1080, but with the horizontal split in two, 960 pixels per eye) – but given the sheer amount of horsepower to meet the idealized 75hz 1080p display, I doubt we’ll see a practical 1440p or 4K offering anytime soon.

I will be reporting on using the DK2 over the coming weeks, including re-jigging my near complete preview of Elite: Dangerous, for which EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED :O

Additionally, with any luck, I might be able comment on my own tentative haphazard steps into developing VR projects for the device.

Stay tuned…

More this:

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Less this:

woman-wearing-visor-in-virtual-reality

 

I’ll leave you with the ever energetic JackSepticEye to give you an idea what we’re talking about here…

 

 


Guild Wars 2

What follows is a little background on my MMO playing experiences, you can skip direct to the Guild Wars 2 review below if you want 😀

Early in 2005 I remember seeing a game being covered a lot in the gaming magazine press of the time, how it was going to be a multiplayer game of unprecedented scale, giving rebirth to a term that had been used before, but by comparison most assuredly inappropriately until this game’s release; MMORPG.  Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game.  The game – ofcourse – was World of Warcraft.  Now, the game itself and coverage thereof had not been enough to twitch the interest-o-meter for me by much, as whilst I like the fantasy genre, I was not au-fait with the Warcraft universe, so I felt no immediate compulsion to investigate further.  However, a friend had already been playing it for quite a while, and offered a 10-day free trial.. so I gave it a go.

This first foray into the (the fortunately now abbreviated) MMO genre proved to be of mixed value.  Certainly at the time WoW was gorgeous to behold.. and so startlingly BIG. The players at this time were mostly the typically serious RPG types, which made for a very atmospheric experience, but.. it really wasn’t grabbing me that much.

WoW nostalgia

I felt I needed to join a guild, or better yet my have my gaming friends get on board too, and a couple of them did so (like some sort of tri-pledge.. we shall three buy this game *cackle*) and lo, we began playing proper.   Well, suffice to say that the fun really began then, as the three of us played our way through the game solidly for 3-4 months – or I did anyway, my compatriots would continue to play on and off for many years beyond – and it was great.  Working together, we ploughed our way through the first 30 levels or so, enjoying the exploration, discovery, and unlocking of various treats.  However,  my available time to play the game was considerably less than my friends, and I soon fell behind their inexorable levelling-up, though even this didn’t diminish my enjoyment;  but my interest did begin to wane, and the £6 per month subscription fee was feeling unjustified and I eventually retired from play.  I would return to WoW twice more between then and now, the most recent attempt proved to be quite depressing as the game had changed quite drastically due to spammers, and seemingly illiterate, disinterested brats flocking to its now free-to-play early levels.

Over the course of the intervening years I would try to recapture that exciting feeling of collaborative exploration and story with several would-be WoW usurpers.  Lord of the Rings Online, Star Trek Online, Dungeons & Dragons Online, and more than a few Korean sourced free-to-play games. Early on in the investigations, Guild Wars emerged.  It was at the time unique since it operated on a subscription-fee free system.  You bought the game, you played the game.  Sounded like a no-brainer, and I even got the chance to borrow a friend’s copy of the game and try it.  It certainly looked lovely, with a less cartoony look than WoW graphically, but a less fluid feeling of movement.  Being unable to leave a path because of obstructive grass(!) was a bit of an immersion breaker, so after only a bit of levelling.. I abandoned it.

Much later the first real WoW challenger came along as far as I was concerned; Age of Conan.  I really enjoyed my time spent playing it, it looked SOOO nice, and that makes all the difference in terms of wanting to explore a fantasy landscape.  However there were some problems, one of the game’s making, the other more of my own.  First, the game relied heavily on instancing (essentially a zoning-off of various sections of the map to minimize both server and end-user hardware taxing) with multiple instances per zone, which could have the very odd effect of you and your friends occupying the same zone at the same spot… but not seeing each other because you were in different instances.  The other problem was simply that my WoW-cronies weren’t really enamoured with the game, so I didn’t have the camaraderie that I had enjoyed previously, but also somewhat crucially I was no longer a bachelorette, no longer gleefully playing games until 4am – work be damned! – no longer having nor desiring the time to become involved with an MMO so much again, and so…

I abandoned it.

So.  That monstrous pre-amble brings me to Guild Wars 2.

“Aren’t you a little short for a… er.. Necromancer?”

I was fairly put off MMO’s by now (a dalliance with a beta of “The Secret World” recently seemed to cement this opinion), but I was keeping a hopeful optimistic eye on GW2’s development.  It looked beautiful, it was going to retain the no-subscription-fee model – though that is less noteworthy in this day and age of F2P – and it was making a real pitch at offering something familiar, yet different.

I had been drumming up interest with two of my friends – one was the former WoW alumni, the other a WoW-despiser, but fan of Dungeons & Dragons Online, and toe-dipper of Star Trek:Online.. and lo, once again I had a triumvirate of new-game pioneers.  Launch Day MMO play is… an Interesting Time.  You either can’t get on in the first place, or you get on and suffer lag, bugs, and all sorts of quirks, not to mention the sheer bedlam of having a massive number of new players all starting in the various start zones all at the same time!

The map of Tyria – World of Guild Wars – WoGW, if you will…

At the time of writing this tome, it has been 11 days since we installed the game.  I will describe that period in succinct style, using the world-famous “Facial Expression Mood Modifier Encapsulation System – FEMMES, a homage to the classic 8-bit game review magazine Zzap! 64)

Days 1-3: Installation, updating, and initial impressions:

Longest install ever. 2 disks, followed by a 2.2gb update = “Bored, thinking about stuff I could be doing, should go off to make coffee” face.

Slightly frowny face: Limited body-shape customization options for player avatars.

More frowny face: A Couple of the default female player character outfits:

FEMALE FANTASY ARMOUR CLICHE

Ha! My mighty… armour… will save me from your deadly attacks…?

Positive face at standard intuitive MMO (read: WoW) interface and controls.

Slightly disappointed sadface at graphics on highest settings.

Nonplussed, concentrating face at interchangeable weapon/powers interface and use.

So many things… *icons spin to the music of “Vertigo”*

Days 4-7: Settling in.

Zoned-out, nobody home face regarding crafting/skills (by contrast my former DDO chum loves it)

Pondering hopeful face: Create another character of different race and class.

Confused face caused by hearing what I know to be Jennifer “Commander Shepard” Hale’s voice, but not recognizing it in the slightest.  That must be ACTING! 😀

Bored-face.  Not enough collaboration or teaming with friends… feels like the most Minimally Multiplayer Online Game ever. Lots of people doing things, often the same things as you, but separately.

Days 8-11: Do I really like the game, or is it just not working for me?

New character, new class: Raised-hopeful-eyebrow face, this seems to be better!

Smiley face: New class is much more my thing,  and my friends and I are working together again, much more cohesively.

My Bro’s and I, looking Awesome.

RAWR-face! This is great!

There you go.  11 days in, and I’m really enjoying it, and for a multitude of reasons:

1: So far I’ve discovered I only like one (of eight possible) player classes, the other two I tried felt tedious in the extreme to me – when you find the shoe that fits.. its all good.

2: Once you understand the game’s mechanics – which are similar enough yet different to WoW’s to leave you slightly on an off-footing – you can get together with your friends to explore and progress through the game and its landscape very enjoyably.

3: Friends not around? Progress the character class specific single-player storyline which also gains you experience and levels you up, there seems to be less obvious “grinding” in GW2 – its still there, but not as blatant or boring as “kill 20 rats/goblins/thingmabobs” – there are usually multiple ways to complete a given quest.

4: No subscription-fee means no “must get my money’s worth” requirement to play… your friends may level ahead of you (mine are already 10-20 levels ahead of me) but this is less of an annoyance because of the game’s “level playing field” system, which reduces a high player level to the maximum for the area they’re in at the time, though admittedly this is at the expense of the fun-factor of returning to a low-level area when you are a high-level swaggering Goddess, gleefully swatting formerly troublesome wretches that get in your way.  Let them eat cake… and noobs.

5: Combat!  Its fun!  Its a good mix of WoW’s style of gained powers/skills assigned to hotkeys (usually the number keys and clickable on-screen icons) but also featuring Age of Conan style evasive maneuvering.  If you don’t move, you’ll soon be clobbered by higher-level beasties.

Have at you, foul Murloc-impersonator!

6: Quests! They’re.. a bit different.  By which I mean how they’re implemented.  WoW is famous for its bright yellow “!” over quest givers.  GW2 operates something similar yet different.  First, they’re heart icons.  Empty outlines for incomplete quests, solid for complete.  What makes them different is the fact that you don’t have to approach and “talk” to the quest givers in order to participate…  merely being in the zone where the quest is relevant is enough to have you participate.  Want to help that other player fighting the mob?  Do so.  Your contribution helps them without compromising how much XP they gain, as well as gaining you the XP and adding to the fulfilment of the given quest in the zone you happen to be standing, regardless of whether or not you are interested in participating!  Initially I found this to be a little odd, and distancing from the “story” – but it actually works really well.

Better yet are the dynamic events that occur randomly but regularly throughout the different regions.  For example:

You’re ambling around a locale when an “event nearby” notification appears.  It could be that bands of marauding centaurs are assaulting an outpost nearby.  You can involve yourself to help fight them off, gaining generous XP subject to how much you actually contribute to the battle.  Merely being in the place where the event is happening if it’s completed will still gain you XP nonetheless!  Where it gets clever is if players fail to fight off the marauders, and the outpost then becomes *their* outpost!

Me. Ambling. Yesterday.

Things I still don’t like:

1: Instancing. Yes, the game has instanced zones.  Not Age of Conan style, but not quite WoW style either.  Its still a bit of an immersion breaker to have to “portal” between areas beside each other on the map.  Something WoW did that was just so fabulous was the ability to pick a direction to walk in, and just walk.  Loading was seamless aside from specific crossing areas (e.g. by boat) – alas, not so in GW2, but the areas are still pretty large, and with multiple exits/entrances.

2: Graphics. I admit to being a little disappointed with GW2’s looks.  We’ve been seeing lovely videos promising beautiful, atmospheric locales and the like over the last few years, but the actual in-game graphics are a mix of lush, pretty design… on slightly angular polygonal landscapes, with not a huge amount of Bells or Whistles.  Don’t get me wrong – graphics do not a great game make – but they certainly help build an atmosphere, and I felt that the final product was not quite what the marketing was promising. Shocker, I know!  The design ethic, however, is beautiful.  To be fair, I suspect that most attention is spent on key locales, rather than outback wildernesses.

Beautiful artwork on the instance loading screens

3: Maybe its my getting old, or maybe I’m too accustomed to simplistic control systems, but I found GW2’s interchangeable abilities, weapons, and items quite complex and mind-boggling at first.  I *am* getting the hang of it, and enjoy the variety.  It’s also nice that you don’t *have* to meddle in the ways of crafting/skills/etc if you don’t want to, for I am unsubtle and quick to boredom…

4: There are less pleasing MMO staples in this game; emotes are a lot of fun (e.g.  /laugh /cry ) etc even if you’re not doing the whole serious Role-playing thing.  Guild Wars seems to have less than other MMOs I’ve played…

5: Speaking of Role-playing: GW2 seems determined to break atmospheric  immersion with lots of bizarre quirks.  The Human emote /dance results in a very cheesy pseudo-line dancing affair (though admittedly, I’m somewhat a hypocrite, as I *loved* Guild Wars original moves!)  The Trading post (GW2’s both real and virtual money ebay emporium) has amidst its items… Aviator sunglasses?  Baseball caps?

6: I miss Murlocs 😦

“grolgrlgrlgrglrglr” – A Murloc, earlier.

As for The Trading Post – the jury is still out on it.  Something that allows for game items to be bought and sold for game Gold or real £$money has much potential for abuse and game-breaking.  Time will tell… but game-servers cost money, and GW2 is not using the traditional F2P game model, and is therefore likely looking to bolster perpetual revenue however possible.

Verdict:

Guild Wars 2 is an enjoyable game, and a fun MMO, that for me at least has brought back almost all the positive vibe I enjoyed in the heyday of my WoW play, largely through allowing me to enjoy the game with my friends *and* with a clear conscience of no monthly cost to absorb.

Its a game that can be played as solo or grouped with friends as you like, though I suspect you are better off going into the game with known comrades, as in-game interactions with other players seem to be a little limited at present.  Mostly people complaining of lag, but then hasn’t every online game since the dawn of The Internet had those individuals whose purpose in life seem to be to inform us of this?

Ok, I may have been a bit harsh on the graphics…

My gripes about the graphics should be offset by the fact that a less demanding game means less need for super-powerful PC to play it on, which was always WoW’s greatest strength – it was playable on some of the lowliest laptops, assisting WoW to become one of the biggest selling games for the longest time.

It is likely that GW2’s publishers hope to achieve something similar, and I wish them every success, as it appears to me that – finally – there is a new MMO Queen on the throne, long may she reign.


The Late, Mass Effect Trilogy review

*note that I do not review the multiplayer element of ME3, as I’ve barely played it, hopefully someone else can cover it – I did find it mildly enjoyable, however!
*also note that whilst this review is as spoilerfree as is humanely possible, links to videos and the like will not be!  The key reason of this review is to convince the 6 remaining people in the world who havent played any of the series – especially women – to play it!

Now, let me be clear.. up until recently it was not entirely certain where that comma in the title would be placed… because it was only very recently that Mass Effect 3 (and by association the entire trilogy) was truly finished. Also because prior to the “little” addition of the Extended Ending brought about due to fan outcry it could be classed as “late” as in dead.. dead to me and dead to many of its fans.  The addition of the extended ending (in my opinion) saves the series and makes replaying it viable. It is frankly baffling that they thought the original ending was satisfactory in any way.  However, I get ahead of myself, lets talk about the games first, and then after we’ll talk a little about the debacle that was the conclusion to the series.

The *real* Commander Shepard, looking badass.

Mass Effect was launched in 2007 exclusively on the Xbox, though it was later – thankfully – also released on the PC, and the subsequent sequels on PS3, PC, and Xbox.  It has to be said that PS3 players have got a bit of a raw deal with Mass Effect. No first game, 2nd game delayed by a year, third game’s extended cut released nearly 2 weeks after everyone else got it.   The game was a departure from Bioware’s staple of RPG style gaming, aiming as it were to introduce shooter elements, along with squad management and resource/weapon modifications.  It was also a brave new move for the gamestudio, as here was a completely new setting featuring original characters in a wholly new created sci-fi story world.I picked up the first game cheaply in 2009 on the Xbox (not my preferred gaming platform) and after initially grumpily grumping about the controls quickly warmed to it, though I largely ignored the whole weapon upgrading and squad special power management thing.  I was hooked on the whole RPG element of the game, especially due to the option of playing as a female protagonist in a world where the gender of the lead character was completely irrelevant = equality, feminist fans 😀

There is something just so cool about wandering the corridors of a military starship that you are the Executive Officer of and seeing the crew salute you as they encounter you.

BAD REAPER! BAD!

The story was an interesting one; in some ways it reminded me of Halo, in that it almost felt like you were being plunged into an already started storyline, and you have to pad out your knowledge of the world you’re exploring.. well.. by exploring it.   2183: The Human race struggles to find its place in a vast galaxy governed by a stern and suspicious multi-cultural Alien council at the apparent onset of war with an invading ancient force known as “Reapers”.  Characters are well defined, superbly animated with lots of emotive behavior complimented by superb voice acting.  Later on in the game there are some pivotal choices to be made that cause genuine pause when the player is confronted with them.

So… about those head tentacles…?

The repercussions of those decisions are felt not just within the game itself, but ultimately in the sequels too; hence the importance really of playing all three.  It is because of these decisions shaping branching personalized elements of the plot, that so endears the games and their characters to its fanbase – making some events so desperately affecting later on.  This level or attachment to game characters was something very new to me I have to admit.

Is it still a big fall if it’s in zero-gravity?

Mass Effect 1 ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, but most satisfactorily so, in a way that meant that even if it never got a sequel, it had a definite feeling of self-contained closure.

ME1 Gameplay summary:
RPG, lots of shooty, lots of pickingup/buying resource management, lots of squad power management,  some puzzles (mostly doors)

WooHoo! Mass Effect 2 begins and everything’s hunky dory!

The sequel was released in 2010 (which I bought on day one this time!) and introduced a few changes to the game dynamic.  Many of the micromanagement elements of the squad and special power/weapons were simplified; good for me, but perhaps less so for others.

Another feature that was dropped: the “Mako” sections from the first game, essentially an awkwardly controlled vehicle used to explore and travel between areas.  I for one missed this, as I thought it added a larger open exploratory element to the game. Though ME2 had a much more linear plot direction.  The game has an incredibly dramatic start that re-introduces you comfortably to your familiar setting and characters from the first game before violently taking them away from you (and vice versa).

THIS kick-ass girl band’s gigs are worth seeing..

What follows is essentially a “magnificent seven” style building of a new squad/crew that may or may not feature characters from the first game.  One interesting plot device element is the removal of your love interest (if you developed one) from the first game, leaving you to either develop something new with someone new or remain faithful to your original love interest, in the hope of reuniting later.

This second iteration of the series introduces many new characters and elements, now all very well established in the narrative’s universe, with even better performances from the leads. Martin Sheen puts in a fantastic performance as the shadowy puppet master “The Illusive Man”.

The second game also introduces much heavier repercussions to decisions and/or lack of development of resource finding. The latter being quite an unnecessary nuisance I thought, but again, I was never one for the whole resource management/finding/buying stuff… I would go on to quite painfully regret this at the conclusion of my first run of the game!

Some of the characters introduced new in the 2nd game are somewhat two dimensional, others prove to be very interesting. Jack, the fierce biotic jailbird being one and Miranda the seemingly cold, perfected human being another.  Characters met in the first game returning get much better fleshed out, BessyMate Garrus, I’m looking at you 😀

Miranda’s bum was unavailable for comment at the time of this review.

Some new elements introduced this time around prove to be a little annoying, I was often very concerned that Miranda seemed to be talking out of her improbable arse a lot of the time, as in literally,  simply due to the amount of camera-time aforementioned derriere got.

ME2 proves to be quite the successful sequel, with a gripping conclusion that has multiple branches (including one where you – the lead character – die!) albeit giving a portent of what was to come with a sort of colour coded finale.  Another welcome new introduction are the “loyalty” missions that you do or don’t, these determine how close a relationship you develop with your crew members, which may or may not affect the conclusion of the game, and its final chapter.

I’m sorry, did I break your concentration?

One thing I will confess is that I found the shooty element of the 2nd game quite fatiguing… so much so that 2/3rds into the game I took a several month break from playing it, as I was genuinely tired of some of the relentless sections in the lead up to the final “suicide run”.

ME2 Gameplay summary:
Lots of RPG, too much shooty, less weapon/resource pickup, but mining/planet searching element added and tied heavily to ship upgrades, more puzzley bits.

You lookin’ at me, Punk?

…which brings me to 2012 and this finale of the series which introduced a “Story Mode” to a joyous me.  Story mode removes the reliance on shooty bit proficiency in order to progress the story, and features much more story development *during* those sections, as opposed to the previous game’s “talkalot,shootstuff, talkmore,findstuff,shootstuff,talkalot” apparent structure.  What Story mode effectively offers the player is a heavily dialog involved version of events that means you don’t have to be so good at shooter style games in order to get through the game, a real welcome option for players like myself.  The other two options available hopefully fulfil other player’s desire for full-on action with little dialog, or a “normal” mix of the two.

I’m going to need a bigger gun…

Mass Effect 3 starts ominously, darkly, pulling no punches, and featuring a sequence of events before even the title appears that had me having to be consoled by one’s otherhalf, as I was a blubbing mess!  Once the preamble of the story is set in motion, the game falls back into fairly comfortable shoes treading the path defined in the previous game – exploring, team building, plot development.  The linearity of the plot is tightened further than the previous game, but still allows for going off the beaten path.. though this is problematic due to the overall plot-spine being so strong – you feel that sidemission “fetch” quests and the like are stupidly unimportant in the grand scheme of the things, so I felt that there should be a talk option along the lines of “What?! Are you mad? There’s a war on! Find your own damn <object> !” – however, at least this time around they have the conceit that doing these wee tasks contributes a small part towards the greater war effort by adding to your “Effective Military Strength” or “War Assets”

This… cant be good…

It is ME3’s action setpieces where some truly awesome plot development occurs and how these events play out is often highly influenced by decisions in the previous games.  There are some parts of this final chapter that present some squeamishly difficult choices to make, and it is a testament to the quality of the writing and story that they are so difficult to make at times.  At one point such a dramatic moment occurred that I could not bear the thought of continuing with that decision/event made canon, that I went back a whole series of saves to try and “correct” it – only to learn that the game was effectively giving me – to throw a Star Trek reference in – a “Kobyashi Maru” – a no-win scenario… how ever I played it, there was going to be some form of terrible repercussion.

You’d be upset too if you couldn’t get your hair colour to stay the same between games!

For me, this is why Mass Effect 3 is the strongest of the trilogy, as by now you are familiar with the characters, the environment and the illusion of your choices creating a unique and personal story to you creates a player/game involvement that I have never before encountered.  I found it very difficult to objectively review this game, as to me it seemed to transcend the definition of “game” into something beyond the kind of emotional investment that a really good movie might engender in its audience.  You might say that the Mass Effect Trilogy as a whole was a synthesis of the medium of cinema and videogames. Ha!

I’ve got a bad feeling about this…

ME3 gameplay summary:
Player tailored, but as it pertained to me: Lots RPG, perfect level of shooty, zero *required* resource /squad management, minimal puzzles. 90% plot/character interaction driven.

One of the game series’s other controversial (at least if you happen to be FOX news) features was the Love Interest.  In the first game it was possible to romance one of 3 characters, this was expanded in the 2nd and 3rd game, allowing for faithfulness to the first game’s LI or not.  The first two games featured the option of lesbian relationships which were nice enough, though likely mainly for male titillation, as it would not be until ME3 that gay male relationships would be an option.  I’ve watched how these unfold via youtube (does this count as watching porn?!) and think they are lovely, though the option of recently bereaved shuttle pilot Steve as a potential Male-Shepard conquest annoys me!  I’m amused at some player’s love triangles they have created themselves throughout the course of the games.  The actual lovemaking scenes themselves are (I think) very tastefully done and, certainly in the case of the third game (I can’t speak for ME2 – Monogamous Kate Shepard, see), add to the emotional gravitas of the story.

Star Wars eat your heart out…

It was therefore a tragedy to me (and a large number of ME fans) that the last 10 minutes of the trilogy finale seemed to throw a leftfield turn of direction with a seemingly abrupt nonsensical ending filled with more questions than answers, which was very much the opposite of what was promised by Bioware in the very high profile marketing campaign leading up to the release of the game.

I think even Bioware underestimated how invested in the story their fanbase was and how actually emotionally hurt they were by the game abrupt ending.  This feeling of loss spawned some great things though, with enterprising players dealing with the very real feeling of grief they were experiencing by advancing the story through art and storytelling; there are some absolutely stunning fanmade works out there, I’ll put some links at the end of this article.

Hmmm. Must be injured more than I thought, my arm seems to have shrunk.

Now, there’s no doubt that either through a bizarre overinflated sense of “artistic integrity” Bioware decided to create a very ambiguous set of endings that leave story threads blowing in the wind,or they rushed the game out in the end to meet deadlines.

I for one believe it to be the latter, as there were many other little inconsistent failures in quality assurance in this final chapter at launch.  Throughout the trilogy one of the most important and awesome features is the ability to import your save from the previous game, continuing your “universe” based on your choices previously in the series, as well as your own custom appearance.  The import worked in ME3, but not the appearance part; forcing you to redefine your appearance as best as you could.  This was not fixed until well after a month following the game’s release,  by which time the majority of players had finished the game and were probably suffering PME3TSD.  There were also other glitches that affected gameplay and player story immersion.  Getting stuck on bits of scenery, terrible terrible character animation clipping and an increase of “uncanny valley” factor in NPC performances with some very notable exceptions (love interest characters in particular are so emotive in their face animations it hurts! – though aforementioned bugs caused my love interest to disappear mid-snog at one point!)  If there was one thing that was definitely a mistake on Bioware’s part it was that the last words you essentially see at the end of the game are “PURCHASE DLC”  – it was like after wooing you with 100’s of hours time invested in an involving story… ABRUPT ENDING! Hahahah! Buy more DLC!

On the subject of DLC; ME1 had a few bits and bobs of DLC, nothing particularly earth shattering (so to speak).  ME2 had some very notable packs; most especially “Lair of the Shadowbroker” and “Arrival”, but ME3 caused controversy by having day one, on the disk DLC that arguably should have been core content in the first place.

Who’s the bloke in the middle?

So it seemed that Bioware were so taken off guard by the subsequent huge outcry (most of which was valid, though there were a few that really were hurt and wanted a genuine 100% happy ending) that they relented and announced a forthcoming “Extended Cut” version of the ending would be released for free.  This unprecedented announcement was treated with hope by many of us and disdain by others. I would hazard a guess that the disdain mostly came from those who played the game as shooters first and foremost with little emotional investment in the story.  Around this time talk of the fan-based “Indoctrination Theory” was at its most intense and whilst I admit to being disappointed that in the final analysis it was rendered nullified by the EC, I think that what we got restored my love of the series and made the thought of replaying it genuinely viable. Whereas without the EC it felt as no choice in the entire series ultimately mattered, so why bother to replay?

*no caption due to author bawling*

With the EC DLC in place the 3 original endings that were 95% similar in content have been replaced with a possible 5 key iterations with subtle further variations within each based on player’s choices throughout the entire series, as well as some small other additions to the story in the run up to the finale, including a beautiful if improbably set farewell to your love interest.  Also, very importantly each of the choices becomes an actually viable choice with “lots of speculation” as to its repercussions beyond what is now fully expanded in the new endings – a previous choice that was largely written-off as “BAD” seems to now have captured fan’s attention for its possibilities beyond what the game actually shows.

So, I can now say unreservedly say that the Mass Effect trilogy is to me,  the finest, most involving, emotional gaming experience I have ever had, and that description is a disservice to it.  As I’ve already mentioned I feel it transcends interactive media as we know it, it is more than game, more than a film.  The combination of solid writing, a good sci-fi story, stellar performances, cinematic sound and music design elevates it to a level beyond anything I’ve seen before, as long as you get “into” the story and those characters, which both my partner and I did through the associated audiobooks, and comics.

Oh, the music… ME1 and 2 had some fantastic music, memorable themes, but by the third game the ante had been upped to such an epic level, the involvement of cinematic composer Clint Mansell working with the existing composers raised the bar highest of all.  Even now, listening to the soundtrack as I write this, I feel myself welling up when certain tracks play.  When it comes time to vote for Game of the Year, I might find myself umming and aaahing about ME3 the game, but the music+sound  will wholeheartedly get my vote.  This is the year that a Reaper’s “HwAAAAAAAAAAAM!” may match R2-D2’s warbles for zeitgeist familiarity!  That was something I wrote about in my own blog, in that Mass Effect may have become a new generation’s Star Wars, but I feared it might have been similarly struck down by its original ending as Star Wars was by a director with CGI OCD!

Before the EC DLC, the idea of playing pay DLC set during the story arc leading up to the end was unthinkable “Whats the point?” being a common reaction amongst players, but now it seems like a much more viable option. Rumour of elements from a forthcoming DLC being stealthily delivered as part of the EC DLC only fuels interest.

Across the stars

And thats the important difference, we are now left wanting more, as opposed to sitting in baffled, hurt silence needing more, in terms of an explanation.  Mass Effect was never meant to be a bleak 70’s style sci-fi with an atonal soundtrack and a huge “?” final frame.  Bittersweet, emotional – yes.  Twin Peaks or LOST – no.  Its also worth noting that even with the EC, several of fans’ complaints still won’t have been addressed; and by that I mean collected War Assets – only the key biggest ones feature in the end game, when likely some will want to see them all, but these are minor complaints given what they have fixed.

I now outwardly firmly place myself in the “battleworn, sad, but content” camp now its over.. but secretly I’m a very upset geeky fangirl that I wont be witness to any new adventures of Commander Shepard (I will miss Jennifer Hale’s voice performance in particular), and not be around to raise any little blue children with Dr. Liara T’Soni :*(

Fan-made content of note:

Koobismo – maker of the fantastic alternative timeline ending comic: Marauder Shields – his Audiobook version is a thing of awesomeness.

Neehs – maker of animations and stills that fulfilled many a player’s emotional needs post-game! Linked picture is still my wallpaper across all my devices! His Alternative-ending video was a truer bittersweet end before the EC was released!

#femshep on Deviant art and femshep.com – for all your fabulous Ms. Shepard artistic and narrative needs!

My own mass effect music playlist on youtube


Saints Row the Third – Addendum!

When I was prepping for the review I *knew* I had made a video showing me “strutting” the town to that oh so notable BeeGees song…  of all days today on the day that Robin Gibb passed away, I find it again.

So here I present to you my little tribute to both Robin Gibb, Saints Row, and totally awesome fashion sense that I would so very much rock in real-life if I could afford the LouBoutin’s 😀


Saints Row the Third + DLC

“How long until the helicopter gets here?”

“Oh… about two waves of SWAT guys, I guess?”

That little exchange right at the beginning of Saints Row: The Third gives you an example of the tone, self-deprecating humor, and.. so very anti-Grand Theft Auto this game is. Not anti as in antagonistic, merely that it goes out of its way to show how different it is from what would be a possible natural first impression of the game. I know it was mine!

I played a lot of – but never finished – GTA:Vice City, wooed by its apparent comedy, completely awesome (to this child of the 80’s!) soundtrack and open sandbox gameplay. I skipped an installment and picked up GTA:IV upon release, and whilst I was agog at its visuals and scale; I was left cold by its story and niggling friend/cousin micro-management.  So I barely played it at all.

So… in 2011 Saints Row the Third arrives on the scene with some completely “whacky” adverts on the TV and, most crucially of all (to my personal tastes), a full campaign co-op multiplayer mode! I love co-op in games, especially those with big story arcs to follow, it just makes such a difference to be able to play through a game with a friend in this way. This is exactly what SR3 allows you to do, but that alone doth not a great game make, fortunately it manages to be that too.

As I alluded to earlier, the game takes the basic gameplay style of GTA, (driving, shooting, gangsters city exploration), and does away with any attempt to paint it in any kind of gritty realism in favour of bright day-glo colouring, larger than life characters, story, and events.

I am…. a toilet.. ?

The game allows you to play as male or female, (and um, change that if you so desire later in the game!), with full performances from the player-character for each. In fact, somewhat bizarrely you have a choice of voice-performance style to choose from at the start. (for female: default, Easter-European accented, or NEW YAWK accented !) These options are all defined about half-way through the (playable) intro with the usual character appearance customization, which is quite detailed in this particular game, I spent the usual half-hour or so tweaking it – I would later discover you can change your appearance in-game!

Now, I approached this game not having played any of the previous SR games, so I was initially a bit baffled by the characters and setting, but quickly warmed to it – especially when early on your co-gang member Johnny shouts “PROTECT THE BOSS!” – and I was all looking for the boss, until I realized it was me! This seemed all the cooler due to the simple fact that here was “Me”, the apparent female leader of this gang.

What follows is a rollercoaster action ride of the first 20 minutes of the game which forms the basis of an introduction, after which you’re in sandbox territory and, unlike GTA, the entirety of the city is at your disposal from the very beginning.

Head out on the highway…

As you explore, your map populates with shops, services and notable locations. Want to fly a plane? Head to the airport. Want a change of clothes? Find a clothing store. Fancy a bit of plastic surgery, a tattoo or pimped vehicle? – Just find one of the many places on the map that offer the service you want, right off the bat.

You pick up the primary story arc through interactions with your homies via your phone (which doubles as your GPS/map) as well as sideline quests of the usual escort, assassination, and fetch ilk.. and some slightly more unusual events.

The basic premise of the story is that by this installment of the game The Saints Row gang are celebrities, not really doing much gang-work, more into public appearances and product endorsement. During a bank-robbery “stunt” featuring the star of a Vampire-related TV show, it all goes wrong. The Saints are locked up and then taken to the leader of a crime Syndicate who expresses their intention to take over the Saint’s assets. This sets the basis of the story, The Saints reclaiming their mojo, taking on the Syndicate, and taking over the City of Steelport.

“This is some rescue!!”

This is an adult game, make no mistake, both in terms of language, content, and most certainly violence. If anything its more violent than GTA, with yours and other gangs at war with each other, the police, military and government. The violence is offset by the day-glo colour scheme, comedy, and sheer absurdity of it – but from a purely superficial standpoint it can look very violent, especially early on. Perseverance pays though, as you soon not so much get used to it, but are laughing at the ridiculousness of it. Weapons including a baseball bat with a huge purple dildo attached, the hilarious sound-effects of the Genki mind-controlling reluctant octopus launcher, (no, really), and the Land Shark launcher soon had me guffawing at it, not to mention the “car” chase played out with gimpsuited sex-slaves pulling carriages which, yes, as is customary, explode upon crashing! Did I mention this was an “adult” game?

Just another day in Steelport…?

What really sells this is the tongue-in-cheek performances of the actors, as well as some really good animation, and I absolutely *love* the fact that the characters interact with you “the Boss” the same regardless of your gender, this makes for a really satisfying experience playing this as a female, much the same as Mass Effect, there’s really Zero instances of “hey, sweet cheeks” – and when there is it is there regardless of the character’s gender – as my male co-op mate found out to his dismay in one scene where you’re drugged and staggering about the place naked (humorously “pixelated” bits, of course!)

There has been some comment however on the other females as depicted in the game, and I will put my Feminist hat on and say that yes, there is a huge element of scantily clad “bitches and ho’s” who seem to be mere objects and scenery in the game, but I’ll say that this is offset by the strength of the primary lead characters as written in the game – the player, and Shaundi, your right-hand-woman. Its likely something that everyone thinks, but I can’t imagine the game playing out with anything other than a female lead as the boss, and this is a good thing. One thing that did bother me was in the character creation – for some reason the developers think that anyone over the age of 10 has some serious wrinkleage, when I put in my actual age I was horrified at the apparent wrinkley face I supposedly must have if my character was anything to go by. Perhaps its all that sunny weather. On the other hand I was all ready to be incensed about the “Sex appeal” slider being the Boob-size adjustment, but upon checking I found that the same slider affected the size of the male sausage compartment, ha!

Also, there’s a good share of male objectification in the game too. Another nice touch is that you can choose the “uniform” of your entire gang so if you want your girls and boys running around scantily, or sensibly, you choose so yourself.

I’d be lying if I didn’t mention the fact that I absolutely loved the whole “dress-up” nature to this game which is one of its selling points. You can inexplicably walk around the city green-skinned, with a mustache, wearing a space helmet, Lady GaGa-esque couture dress, and combat boots. The clothes shops are simply and comically themed (“Let’s Pretend!” – cosplay fun, “Nobody Loves Me” – Goth/emo fashion, “Leather & Lace” – well.. you can imagine)

Today I will mostly be… Steampunk

As I’ve mentioned the game is very bright, colourful, and graphically very nice, though the characters suffer a lot from the “Uncanny Valley” – I guess we’ve been spoiled by other games recently with character emotion depiction as SR3 is definitely not the best at this, but it hides this with unsubtle exaggerated design.

The game itself was just a pleasure to play, and replay in single player as well as co-op. The winning factor is its sense of fun. I frequently found myself laughing or staring agog at the screen with incredulity.

I picked up the game not that long after release cheaply including a “season pass” to DLC, and the DLC has been a mixed bag of “costumes”, vehicles, weapons, and missions. The missions vary from being small little diversions, to fairly large chunks of standalone fun. I’ve seen the game only (no DLC) this week for sale online for £7 for the PC version (reviewed) which I bought as well so that my niece(teen) and I could replay it for this review.

Posing, casually, but awesomely.

If you can laugh at toilet humour, comedy sex, innuendo and tolerate people being shot (a lot) then I think you’ll enjoy this game very much.  The game has lots of little nods to films, other games, and even ye olde retro text adventures at one point.

Special mention for the soundtrack, that whilst featuring the usual assortment of in-car radio stations (though not as full of character as GTA’s) also has some real standout work, including a song sung by the lead characters, a Michael Bay-esque orchestral score for a scene involving… Well, the shooting of a movie… and a totally left field (but oh so wonderfully appropriate) turn of music for the very unusual finale!

Finally, merely listing the keywords associated with the game should provide you some idea of its bizarre nature:

Guns, shooting, gimps, pimps, zombies, Burt Reynolds, sky-diving, toilet,  gangstas and spaceships.

~K8bit

Gangstas…. in SPAAAAACE!