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!
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):
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.”
*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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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).
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 😀
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.
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.
…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.
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”
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
I’m a time poor and frankly lazy gamesmaster. If there is something out there to make my gaming life easier, I’m going to latch onto it and suck it dry. Like prewritten stories and characters. With the proliferation of epublishing and the cost of actual publishing, roleplaying companies are branching out into the production of PDF adventures, cheaper for gamers to buy and easy to download. Using house or open systems, they provide background information and more for the world hungry or time pressed player until the next core book comes out. Sometimes it’s the only way for small companies to get their stories heard. Epublishing has a bad reputation as a vehicle for low quality, badly edited vanity projects. So the question is – are they a worth the bytes they are written in?
Two recent issues are Black Rock Bandits for D&D 4e by PostMortem Studios and Ursa Carrien for SLA Industries by Nightfall Games.
Black Rock Bandits
This download is thirty black and white pages with some art and priced at $1.99. There are two full page colour maps and other smaller maps to aid the dungeon master. Also included are handy character counters to use if you don’t have appropriate models and the product is easy to print out. Cannily it is written in a way that your characters can just pile up to the village and assist in the way adventurer’s do, or can take on the role of the npcs and be absolutely invested in the threat. The story involves dealing with local bandits in various settings and getting to the bottom of some local mysteries. The six listed townsfolk all have good background information and reasons to be involved, which bypasses that headache. You can tell when a writer puts some effort in. A fire Mage baker, that’s a nice touch. I also like the tactics for the monsters and the straightforward well written text. This would make an excellent one off game or beginning to a campaign. The adventure might be hard for a small group but you could easily add or remove enemies depending on the size of the party. It should give a group a solid night of quality gaming and for that price you get a lot of bang (or fireball if you will) for your buck.
Publisher: Postmortem Studios
Ursa Carrien is a very different beast. Eight pages of coloured stylised design with integrated art, retailing at $1.49. It looks so shiny on my iPad, but i would hate to try and print it out at home. You are probably not supposed to, we are in the digital age after all. Rather than a pick up and play adventure like Bandits, it details a new area of Mort’s lethal Cannibal Sectors and the monster that lies within and includes a party mission (BPN to those that know). Included are short descriptions, tactics, statistics and related background flavour. Produced by the company that wrote the original game rather than being via open rules it’s very much a new section to a core book. Written to the same good standard and with the same high quality art, it is the most impressive looking download I’ve seen. And also one of the shortest. If you’re looking for value for money you might want to wait, the SLA releases are going to be bundled into a book but there’s no release date so you could be waiting a while. This pack is not for the GM looking for a quick fix but rather a fan of the game looking for excellent new material in the absence of traditionally published media.
Publisher: Nightfall Games
I have a soft spot for rpgs set in our world where things are not as they seem like Hunter, Cthulhu and now AEternal Legends. As an Aware, your character sees the world for its true nature, where monsters lurk under bridges, heroes rescue maidens and magic is no longer the stuff of fiction but is the tangible threads of the universe. Enchanted swords, sorcerers and mythical beasts exist and its up to you to help or hinder them. Will you fulfill your potential and bring Light and peace to the battlefield or side with the Dark, embracing it’s seductive power and fall further than the unaware can dream?
Legends are the most powerful of Aware. They can come from any races or Clades – human, dwarf, elf, gnome, troll, orc and goblin; characters undergoing a physical and spiritual change with developing awareness called manifestation. You think you’re an accountant from Manchester? Well actually…. This is a game of the fantasy of your youth before it became cynical and modern and mostly about vampires and werewolves. The ruleset is Ready2Run, a high trust, quick and loose system. Players choose a clade and a sphere for their characters. A sphere is a general role in society linked to an area of expertise, for example Splendor to knowledge and Victory to art. The usual attribute points, edges and flaws are here and aptitudes are professions both mundane and magical. A list of snappy beliefs and a few skill points round out character creation. Conviction points, gained by acting along with your beliefs, act like fate or story points, allowing you to modify your rolls. Losing them is bad news, hit zero and you are no longer Aware! Interestingly the social class of the character is relevant and comes into play during some social tasks, as well as defining your available equipment. Combat works by allocating your wits pool to actions and defence, so being tactical is essential.
I like this rpg a lot. It awards narrative points for excellent description and roleplaying, encouraging your players to go that extra mile and it matters if you act out of character. The magic system is very open, reminiscent of Mage and Ars Magica, where the player chooses their own effects. The multiple sidebars are helpful and the setting is easy to understand. It also tickles me that if you roll all 6s then you suffer misfortune due to the ‘number of the beast’. The book is well written with an understanding of what makes or a good gaming experience and the art is cool. However the game isn’t perfect, there are ideas here that feel old such as the Ministry of Magic (sorry, Administrative Affairs) and pocket kingdoms and the combat system isn’t quite as simple as it would have you believe. The description of manifestation also seems a little light, I would have liked more on such an important part of the character journey.
AEternal Legends is a fantastic example of a game produced by a small indie company. You can feel the designer’s devotion, there is already a free to download adventure and sourcebook for urban monsters, with more support material promised. It is these sorts of RPGs that we should be supporting wholeheartedly to keep the hobby alive and full of variety.
Now excuse me, I’m off to battle those ghouls pretending to be traffic wardens.
Publisher: Mob United Games
If I said The Avengers, you’d know exactly the setting of rpg Agents of SWING. The Cold War, short skirts and fast cars mixed in with international mayhem and poured for your pleasure. Players are employees of the Supreme World Intelligence Network Group and are battling against whatever evil organisation Control (otherwise known as the GM) can come up with in the grooviest manner possible.
The attitude of the game is definitely uncomplicated amusement. Stunts, cliches and zippy one liners are positively encouraged. If you aren’t poking fun at the enemy, wrestling a shark and firing a laser from your watch you are doing it wrong. Agents of SWING is well detailed with twelve (thirteen?) departments to assist you and send you on missions. The often thorny issue of money is absent, gadgets are purchased with advancements or you are given what you need as part of the job. Every character also has a cover which the player creates, meaning you get two concepts for the price of one, like a steel hearted professional killer pretending to be an international playboy. The 60’s setting makes for interesting challenges – imagine no mobile phone, no Internet or advanced forensic testing. Players have to get creative and engage those brains to get things done. On the upside if there is no global meglomedia then who is to know what the Prince of Butani looks like or even if that is a country!
I’m impressed by the many pages of games master advice that really detail what you need to know and be able to do. Coupled with the vast number of recognisable npcs and straightforward way to create enemy organisations should mean playing Control is less of a daunting task. I like the simple but striking artwork, helpful timeline and the breezy character sheet. As someone who has spent far too long cutting up photocopied pages I appreciate the collected tables, making it a snitch to print out your own reference sheets.
There are many things to love about Agents of SWING but I have to put my hands up and say I personally don’t like the FATE system it uses. FATE is open source and has been used in other games such as Starblazer. I agree the mechanics are simple and easy going and lends itself well to this sort of game. My problems are the negative dice – roll 2d6, take one from another, leading to more failures than I think there should be, and the character Aspects. Instead of stats you have a number of Aspects which describe your character which in turn influences your rolls. For example, the Aspect “Mine of Useless Information” gives you a bonus when trying to recall odd facts to say, impress a target scientist. I find this method too broad, open to abuse and daunting for some players.
However this is just my own niggle, it may not be an issue for anyone else. I hear there are tons of supplements on the horizon and even a deluxe printed version with pencils and dice! It is always encouraging that a game is going to be supported beyond it’s first release, showing real love for the product. I’d like to see a book on SWING in the modern world, how it has changed and what happens when agents get old? But I’m being greedy. This is a humorous, action packed, free wheeling game without complicated rules.
In the words of Austin Powers “Its totally shagadelic.”
Publisher: Postmortem Studios
Ever heard of The Bloody Code? Me neither, but it’s the setting for the Tough Justice courtroom roleplaying game. It was one of the darkest times in British legal history, running from the late 17th to early 19th Centuries. There were over two hundred offenses that could lead you to the gallows via a colourful and exciting legal system. In this game the players are split into two teams – the Defence and Prosecution, the aim is to convict or acquit the accused. A true life or death situation.
Tough Justice utilises the ”Beer and Crisps” mechanic which is very simple and I like that. Choose one of yor six stats, roll a d6, add, modify by merits and flaws, compare. Winning tests adds to your case total and the side with the most points determines the poor defendant’s outcome. There are character classes but these don’t define your abilities, more your role in the trial – lawyers, police types and allies. Allies are everyone else that could be involved in the story, including women and children. As the time setting suggests, playing a women has it’s own special difficulties but they aren’t ignored or relegated, so anything goes. Including felons themselves! The case is split into phases, allowing for pre trial actions. Handy for the characters who aren’t able to talk in court due to the laws in place at the time. Here they get to investigate, harass, seduce or whatever else may help their side win. The book is a hefty two hundred and sixty pages with minimal art but I imagine that helps keep it nice and cheap at ten dollars to download as PDF.
There are many good things about Tough Justice. Never before have I seen such detailed examples of play throughout the book, following an entire case from start to finish using player’s dialogue. It is littered with helpful hints and has a seventeen page ‘olde slang english’ lexicon. They have obviously really tried to help the players understand both the game and the legal proceedings of the time, without getting too technical. Also included are suggestions for making the game kiddie friendly and LARP, something other games would benefit from. I personally like the rules for rolling up defendants and the group story generation. You need a game to play that evening and have nothing prepared? A game of Tough Justice can easily fill that gap as encounters can be player driven without much difficulty and the judge purely reactive.
The biggest challenge with Tough Justice is that it’s a game about playing through a trial in a court of law. When I first proposed it to my gaming group they weren’t jumping up and down with excitement. There are no bad guys to destroy, empires to build, civilisations to protect. The scope is very small, one life to save from the gallows with wits and cunning. Unless this appeals, it’s going to be a hard sell. However I think the game has excellent potential as additional rules to use in your current campaign, whatever setting that may be. Vigilante finally caught by the police? Pirate brought before the conclave for breaking the code? Spaceship pilot threatened with court martial? Tough Justice can be adapted to play out the trials in a way usually glossed over during sessions. Imagine how impassioned a player would be to save his character from a carbonite judgement after two years of play!
As an experienced gamer I would recommend Tough Justice as a well produced game with reams of background knowledge of the time, a simple ‘pick up and play’ concept and it’s usefulness in other campaigns. To misquote the judges of the time and their dreaded sentence of death “Take this game from whence it came, to be held in the hands until read.”
For fifty minutes one cold November day, I was Sally Sparrow.
Perhaps an explanation is in order: this was 2009 and Cubicle 7 were in the process of releasing their Dr Who tabletop roleplaying game1. It wasn’t actually available for sale at that time due to shipping issues, but they were still running demos at Dragonmeet. It was so much fun that we put in a pre-order and eagerly awaited the day when it would drop through the letterbox and into our clammy little paws. We also won a Dalek standee the same day, but that’s another story…
There have been three Dr Who roleplaying games so far. The first was published by FASA2 in 1985 and has Tom Baker and Leela on the front cover, even though neither of them was still in the show by that point. The second was “Timelord” by Virgin3; unusually for the time, it was printed as a standard paperback and marketed as such to fit in with their line of novels. It includes the following classic piece of advice for novice roleplayers: “Role-playing is like acting: some people are good at it and others are appalling. There are some splendid examples of bad acting in the television series, so a player who cannot throw himself into a role is hardly setting a precedent – in fact he is making an accurate contribution to the adventure!” Er, right.
So why am I writing a review for a game that’s almost two years old now? Because it’s a good game and many people probably don’t know that it’s out there. Also, the new series of Doctor Who has just broadcast one of its best episodes ever. But also because at some point this year, Cubicle 7 will be releasing an updated version with all new artwork and some new monster material to bring it into the Eleventh Doctor’s reign. You can still get hold of the Tenth Doctor edition, which is what I’ll be reviewing here, an eye-poppingly gorgeous boxed set and well worth a look if you can’t wait patiently for the new stuff.
And, yes, I said boxed set. Many of the early RPGs came as multiple booklets in a box with a few dice. They then graduated onto A4-ish hard or soft-backs. Others, like Timelord, have been published in a smaller, more recognised format. Like its FASA predecessor, Cubicle 7’s game has gone for the traditional boxed set, but not for the same reasons. Licensing intellectual property is a very complex area these days; someone else already has the licence to produce Dr Who books, so the designers have been forced to be creative and return to gaming’s roots all at the same time. And yes, it has dice in it. They have TARDIS blue dots on them.
It also has a lot of other stuff in it: a Player’s guide, a Gamemaster’s guide, an adventures book, character sheets, pop-out gadget cards, story point counters and a four sided rules summary, all very similar to James Wallis’ favourite game of all time, the hugely influential Ghostbusters4. And that’s one of the game’s strengths: it has learnt from the best of the past and given the players a fast, simple way into the game that doesn’t necessarily require several days’ reading first. You can pick up the quick start guide (helpfully labelled “Read This First!”) and the pre-generated character sheets (Tennant’s Doctor, Rose, Mickey, Martha, Donna, the decent, non-Torchwood version of Captain Jack, Sarah Jane and the tin dog) and just get on with it. There’re not many games that you can say that about.
Obviously there are rules for creating your own characters; basically, you start with a set number of points that you assign to particular areas. In this game, that’s Attributes, Skills and Traits. There are six Attributes, which give your character a rough idea of their overall capabilities. Then there are your Skills, which make it all a bit more specific. I freely admit that this is the point at which I often give up on RPGs; the background might be amazing, but endless lists of abilities usually kill my enthusiasm stone dead. Fortunately this time, I survived.
Possibly the most interesting of these three areas are the Traits, which show a genuine knowledge and affection for the setting. The best examples of this are “Resourceful Pockets” (a Doctor staple) and “Screamer!” which made me laugh a great deal (even more so now after River’s comment to the Doctor in “The Impossible Astronaut”). There are also bad Traits, which gain you extra points to spend elsewhere, a fairly common idea in gaming but again containing a nice nod to the show’s history, particularly in the form of “Unadventurous”. This Trait can be used to “retire” a character from the story by giving the companion a reason to leave when they are fed up of being cold and wet, hypnotised left, right and centre, shot at, savaged by bug eyed monsters or not knowing whether they’re coming or going or been. There are also some fairly special Traits for aliens and Timelords, should you wish to play such high-powered characters.
What about the mechanics? Well, they’re fast, fun and very organic. It involves a little bit of maths (rolling two dice, adding them together then adding two more numbers to that, comparing it to a difficulty and seeing if you’d beaten it and by how much), but nothing too strenuous. That’s as far as it has to go, but there is a very nice touch in what could basically be described as the Vicki Pollard mechanic (“Yeah, but, no, but”). This allows you to have degrees of success and failure based on how far above/below the target number you were set and its great for getting some extra dramatics into the game if you don’t already do that sort of thing. You’ll also find quite a few tables and loads of examples to support game play, some from familiar episodes and some new.
A rather cool feature is the order in which events will happen during any given encounter: those who wish to talk go first (so they can do the whole tenth Doctor Shouty Man thing if they want), then those who wish to run, run (again, all very in-keeping with the show’s formula). Those who wish to do something (like build a gadget) go next and finally those wishing to resort to violence have to wait until the end. The anti-gun message is perhaps a little strident given the Doctor’s previous history regarding fire-arms (and UNIT), but it does fit with Tennant’s holier-than-thou attitude on the matter. I’d be very interested to see if this changes with the new edition, seeing as the Doctor has admitted finding River’s gunplay really rather enticing. There’s a whole load of stuff on damage and how to use the system’s story points to avoid getting moshed (and how to get more of them if you’re running a bit low), and an entire chapter of hints and tips for the new player. Needless to say, they’re rather more useful than the one from Timelord. And all this is just in the Player’s Guide!
The Gamemaster’s Guide is as sumptuously produced as its companion; my only real niggle with it (putting my lecturer’s hat on) is that there are some really odd grammatical choices in parts of the editing that felt really jarring (and that I’d mark my students down for). But then, I am incredibly old-fashioned that way, although I haven’t quite taken to wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. Yet. And then there’s that odd box on the top of page 53 about introducing characters in a game, slap bang in the middle of a section on healing and damage…
The rest of the GM’s book is good; straightforward to read, littered with examples from the series, only one of which I couldn’t place for the life of me (the SS Nakamura, anyone?) and some lovely humour harking back to the original series. Indeed, the Brig gets his infamous quote about aliens being resistant to bullets included in the description of potential alien immunities that will tickle long-standing fans without confusing new ones (à la the whole “Who the hell is Rassilon?” debacle at the end of the specials). Essentially for this type of book, it covers exactly what you’d need it to: story-telling advice, monster details and a more in-depth discussion of the rules. They’ve even duplicated some of the critical information from the Player’s Guide as well, so the GM doesn’t have to go borrowing the players’ book from them at a crucial moment.
All in all, this is a lovely shiny game with fun accessories, a well balanced rule system that can be pruned to suit your group’s playing style and sufficient support to get you going in the right direction. Cubicle 7 did say that they’d release the equivalent of a patch for people who already own the original version of the game when the new edition comes out, which suggests the changes will be mostly cosmetic. There is one other boxed set available (Monsters and Aliens) and a whole raft of others lined up for release in the summer. But then, they were also going to get released last year, which was somewhat scuppered by Tennant’s leaving and the whole re-branding issue. Never mind, I’m sure they’ll appear in time…
1 – Dr Who: Adventures in Time and Space, the Role Playing Game (2009) David F. Chapman et al; Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd
2 – The Dr Who Role Playing Game: Adventures Through Time and Space (1985) FASA
3 – Timelord: Adventures Through Time and Space (1991) Ian Marsh & Peter Darvill-Evans; Virgin
4 – Ghostbusters, a Frightfully Cheerful Roleplaying Game (1986) Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis & Greg Stafford;West EndGames