Posts Tagged‘bioware’

Dragon Age Inquisition Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Dragon Age: Inquisition: The World is Breaking.

The one review per week deadline I’ve set myself is both a blessing and a curse. I have certainly broadened my gaming horizons considerably since I first started doing it having played many titles I would’ve otherwise let slip by the wayside. Unfortunately it also means that I usually pass on titles that require a heavy time investment as I simply can’t do them justice. However there are exceptions and Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game who’s predecessors I’ve played (and loved) in the past, is one I certainly couldn’t pass up. So, after shirking off all my other responsibilities for the past week I’ve managed to work my way through Bioware’s latest RPG, and I’m incredibly glad I did.

Dragon Age Inquisition Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

It has been one year since the events of Dragon Age 2 and the world, still reeling from the last blight and the turmoil in Kirkwall, is set to face another threat. The sky has been rendered asunder in a massive explosion that destroyed the Chantry’s most sacred of temples with you, bearing and strange green mark on your hand, being the only one to survive it. Whilst many want you to be put to the axe immediately Seeker Cassandra steadies their hands in the hopes that you will be able to close the breach between this world and the fade. To do this she invokes the right of the Inquisition, severing ties from the Templars and Chantry to form a new order to close the breach and seek its cause.

At first I thought Inquisition was running on some kind of supercharged Unreal engine, due to the way it used specularity, however it turns out that it’s powered by none other than the Frostbite 3 engine, the same one that’s behind the beautiful graphics of the Battlefield series. Compared to its predecessors Inquisition is definitely a major step forward with everything taking on a new sense of scale and detail. Surprisingly this doesn’t come with it’s usual associated cost of stuttering frame rates, something I was quite impressed with. It may not be Skyrim-modded-to-the-nines beautiful but it’s definitely a game that would be best played on a current generation hardware.

Dragon Age Inquisition Screenshot Wallpaper Pretties

The sheer breadth of Inquisition is something that’s hard to understate, something which is wholly a product of the previous instalment in this series being panned for its limited nature. The core of the game still remains the same, it’s a Bioware RPG that has a heavy focus on the story and your role within it, but surrounding that are numerous quests, challenges and other activities that I’m sure adds up to well over 100 hours worth of play time. Layered on top of all of this is the War Room, a birds eye view map of Orlais and Ferelden that allows you to send your advisors on missions to gain influence, rewards or to unlock further missions for you to pursue. It shows that Bioware has listened to the feedback regarding how narrow Dragon Age 2 felt in comparison to its other RPG titles, even if they may have overcompensated to the point of impacting other things (more on that later).

Combat feels like an evolutionary improvement of what was done in Dragon Age 2, keeping the same action-RPG focus whilst attempting to add in other mechanics to make the traditional RPG style more accessible. Instead of the traditional pause mode Inquisition instead gives you a Tactical Camera which allows you to look around the entire combat field and assign actions to your party. It’s not a requirement to use it however as the behaviour system for your companions is back in and, thankfully, is coupled with a much more competent AI that’s able to recognize its new abilities and when it should and shouldn’t use them. Probably the most notable change is though is that the healing system has been completely revamped with no character class having a native healing ability and the number of healing potions given to your party fixed at a certain amount. What this all adds up to is a combat system that’s far more streamlined, lending the focus more to the action than the minutia.

Dragon Age Inquisition Screenshot Wallpaper Combat

This also means that the strategies you’ll use in Inquisition are going to be far different than any other RPG out there. Instead of ensuring you have the holy trinity set up you’re far more focused on controlling combat, setting up combos and making sure you use other survivability options so you don’t churn through your potion stash too quickly. My party make up usually consisted of a 2H warrior (me), dual wield rogue (Sera), control mage (Dorian) and a frontline tank (Blackwall). The combinations of control from the mage and tank warrior meant that both Sera and I were able to set up extremely devastating combos, some that could drop an entire group of enemies in just a couple hits. There were a couple issues with survivability, especially with mechanics that would drop half your health bar in one hit (not giving them a chance to us a potion) but for the most part once I got past the first 5 hours or so I felt essentially untouchable.

Indeed those first 5 or so hours are probably the most difficult and probably worst paced of the game. Now some of the issues I encountered with not being at the right level might have had something to do with my “go for the story missions first” play style, however once I was over that initial hump whenever I needed to level myself up I didn’t feel like I was struggling to find missions to fill the gap. I think this is probably due to the differences between say, level 3 and 6, being far more drastic than the differences between later levels as I certainly didn’t feel that the later levels made as much of an impact as the first 10 or so did. What was a bit of a chore sometimes was the grind to get power so I could unlock the next set of missions but again this was probably due to me attempting to smash out the storyline rather than meander about.

Dragon Age Inquisition Screenshot Wallpaper Closing Rifts

The crafting system has been shaken up considerably allowing you to create all sorts of highly customized armour and weapons to suit your needs. There’s 3 top level categories of materials (cloth, leather and metal) which have dozens of different types and levels beneath them. This is what allows you to craft armour and weapons with varying characteristics although you’ll likely find you don’t have enough of a particular type to craft the perfect item, even if you’re the stereotypical RPG kleptomaniac. This will then lead you on a hunting expedition for the resources you require something which doesn’t take too long but can feel a little bit grindy if you’re going for the premium materials. However the result can be well worth the grind as I carried my first craft sword through numerous levels.

The war table is an interesting addition, taking its cues from other non-player mission systems like those found in say Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Most of the benefits you’ll gain from sending your advisors on missions aren’t exactly game breaking but every so often you’ll stumble onto something that can make a decent difference in how your game plays out. There does come a time when you’ll run out of the long duration missions however, which puts you in the rather unenviable position of either travelling back to the war room every 15 minutes or simply letting them slide until you next return. Overall I think it’s a good way to keep the story going whilst adding in another avenue to build back story for the world but I probably wouldn’t miss it if it was gone.

Dragon Age Inquisition Screenshot Wallpaper Dialog

This massive amount of content within the game, whilst impressive, has come with an unfortunate cost. As it stands right now the game is riddled with numerous bugs, some of the innocuous and fun, others game breaking or terribly annoying. Many people, myself included, experience random crashes to desktop with no discernible pattern. Others experience weird things like their characters voice changing from male to female or, and this one is particularly frustrating for someone like me who invests an inordinate amount of time recreating himself within the game, change from one voice type to the other. My originally deep voiced character changed to the higher pitched British actor half way through the game, a bug that currently has no fix in sight. This frustration is only compounded by the interface often forgetting that I had a mouse, refusing to respond to any input from it until I ALT + TAB out and back in again.

Whilst I initially wrote this off as a typical Bioware RPG, which have a reputation for doing this, it became hard to make excuses for them the further I got into Inquisition. Sure, it’s clear that they took the feedback about Dragon Age 2 to heart, however at the same time it’s obvious that they sacrificed on polish in order to jam as much content in as they could. Whilst I understand that patching issues, especially the number which are evident within Inquisition, takes time we’re now a week past launch and there’s no patch in sight to fix some of the more glaring issues with the game. Inquisition is still a fantastic game, it’s just held back from where it should be because of these problems.

Dragon Age Inquisition Screenshot Wallpaper The Fade

The incredible scale of Inquisition extends to its story with nearly every aspect of the world getting the full Bioware backstory treatment. Most if it is unfortunately hidden behind giant walls of text that you’ll have to wade through, however for your companions and major story NPCs they will gladly regale you with troves of information about the world and their place within it. At the same time there’s not an incredible amount of reliance on the previous titles to provide context on the events that are occurring, something which I think many of us will be grateful for given the fact that it’s been over 3 years since we last ventured into the Dragon Age world. Truly Inquisition is one of the shining examples of a game that puts a great emphasis on its story and the world which it exists in.

As to the tale of the Inquisition itself there are numerous moments I could point to (which I won’t, since they’re spoilerific) where the story really shines. It’s a classic hero’s journey, building you up from someone who was in the wrong place and the right time to a leader who inspires all those around him to achieve great things. There are a few moments which stick out in my mind brilliantly where I felt part of something much larger than myself, a notable achievement that few games have managed to replicate. The over-arching story does a great job of making you feel like you’re building towards something greater however the final pay off felt a little anti-climatic. I think this is probably because other games make the penultimate fight feel like you’re going up against insurmountable odds whereas in Inquisition I had cornered my prey and was simply there to deal the final blow. That’s just my impression however, something that may be tied into the fact that I was literally unstoppable at the end.

Dragon Age Inquisition Screenshot Wallpaper Only The Begnning

Dragon Age: Inquisition is a rare example of a sequel surpassing its predecessors, bring a sense of scale and depth that’s rare to see in any game. All the elements that made the original Dragon Age great are there, from the combat to the story to the ancillary elements around them, and the summation of those parts is so much greater than they would be individually. This greatness is however dulled by the numerous issues that plague the game, ranging from the annoying to the down right game breaking. However, despite that, it’s a hard game to put down as everything else about it draws you back in, taunting you to play just one more mission or to follow the end of that quest chain. Suffice to say I think Dragon Age: Inquisition is by far the strongest instalment in the series and it will only get better once Bioware starts patching it.

Rating: 9.5/10

Dragon Age: Inquisition is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $89.95, $99.95, $109.95, $99.95 and $109.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with a total of 29 hours of play time and 48% of the achievements unlocked.

Dragon Age Inquisition

Bioware’s Mea Culpa: The Next Dragon Age.

It’s been 2 years since I reviewed Mass Effect 3 and whilst the burning need I once had to spew forth vitriol has long subsided there’s still a part of me that can’t let go just how badly they handled the way the game ended. I’ve been told several times over that the subsequent DLCs made significant inroads to improving the situation however, for me, the damage was done and I felt it was better to put the series to rest in my mind. Overall it was still a wonderful game experience, one I do not regret playing at all, and it was my fervent hope that Bioware (and the game developer community at large) took the criticism to heart and would do everything to avoid such a situation again.

Turns out, they just might.

Dragon Age InquisitionI managed to get into the Bioware panel at PAX Australia last year and it was interesting to see what the panelists, most of whom were writers and producers for the Mass Effect series, had to say for themselves. It was clear that the room was much of the same mind as I was regarding the ending, much to the chagrin of the person who was asking the question, and it was somewhat disappointing to hear them write off the reaction as mostly “you can’t please everybody”. It seemed then that the community’s desire for Bioware to take the criticism in stride had been met with deaf ears even if the DLC response had been somewhat positive. However recent news, whilst not been a direct apology from Bioware, might be their way of admitting a mea culpa on this part by allowing the player to heavily influence their next title’s ending.

News comes through today that Dragon Age: Inquisition will heavily incorporate the player’s choices into the ending. Interestingly the span of choices isn’t simply from a couple of distinct endings it will in fact include minor tweaks dependent on your choices in the game (and previous ones too), major changes depending on choices made within the game (of which there are 40 or so) and a handful of completely unique endings. If memory serves me Dragon Age wasn’t exactly the heavily player driven narrative like Mass Effect was, although the heavy variation in the origin stories was amazing, so the inclusion of so many different factors does seem like a reaction to the community’s reception of Mass Effect 3.

This was the kind of variation that players were expecting for Mass Effect 3. So much of the game was predicated on choices that you made, many of which had lasting consequences that shaped the world to be uniquely your own. To have all that choice boiled down to a modifier on the RGB spectrum felt like all those choices were essentially meaningless, stripping any feeling of agency you may have built up through each of the titles. With Dragon Age: Inquisition Bioware might be on the right path to restoring some of the community’s faith in them delivering a player sculpted narrative, one that feels unique to them. Whilst I, as always, try to avoid the hype for things like this news of this nature does make me excited for what Bioware has in store.

 

Mass Effect 3 Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Mass Effect 3: A Dichotomy of Love and Hate.

Ah Mass Effect, a game that inspired so much fanboyism and geek lust within me that I’ve gladly parted with embarrassingly large sums of money in order to play it. My relationship with it started with an excited friend of mine breathlessly singing its praises before sending me a short video clip of it. The second the clip finished I knew this game had to be mine, no matter what the cost. This was the only reason why a Xbox360 graced my home in the first place and was so again when I upgraded to one of the new slim models to play through the final instalment. Today I will review the last chapter in Mass Effect trilogy; a review that’s been 5 years in the making.

Mass Effect 3 puts you right back into control of Commander Shepard of the Normandy. Returning back to the Alliance Navy after the events of Mass Effect 2 Shepard is placed under house arrest due to his work with Cerberus. His warnings of an impending Reaper attack have gone unnoticed and it’s not until a full Reaper invasion starts that they look back to him for help. Earth succumbs to the Reaper invasion rapidly but Shepard reluctantly escapes, only leaving so he can gather support to retake Earth back from the Reapers and hopefully drive them back for good.

First impressions of Mass Effect 3 were quite good. For Xbox360 players you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the graphics updates as there’s a noticeable improvement over Mass Effect 2. Whilst it’s not up to the same level as say Deus Ex: Humand Revolution or Skyrim they’re still quite impressive, especially if you’re playing the game on a massive TV like I was. PS3 owners won’t notice much of a difference however as Mass Effect 3 on the PS3 uses the same engine as 2 on that plaform. PC players will also be somewhat disappointed as the code for the Xbox360 version is basically the same and is unable to take advantage of any additional grunt your PC might have. It’s clear that Bioware’s target platform for this game was definitely the Xbox360 first above all others which is great for people like me, but I can understand the frustration levelled at Mass Effect 3 by gamers on other platforms.

The combat of Mass Effect 3 is just as exciting, fluid and challenging as it was back in Mass Effect 2. I was very tempted to try out yet another class as my switch from Soldier to Vanguard in Mass Effect 2 made the game that much more interesting but discussing it with my friends showed that the Vanguard was probably the most fun class out of the lot of them. With the new weapon/upgrade system the Vanguard could easily be made into an incredible weapon of destruction, one that didn’t actually need to carry any guns with him if you played your cards right.

So unlike its predecessors Mass Effect 3 gives you the choice of what weapons to equip, allowing you to carry around up to 5 different weapons. The downside is that the more weapons you carry the slower your powers will regenerate. So for weapons based classes like the Soldier you’ll probably still walk around armed with every single weapon you can carry but my Vanguard spent most of his time with only 2 weapons (later I carried 3 once I had the right upgrades), favouring the 200% buff to power recharges instead. This meant that past a certain point I was basically invulnerable as no enemy could wear down my shields before I could charge again, recharging them back to full.

Still though there were several fights that I found challenging to the point of frustration. Now I’m willing to blame this on the fact that I’m not a console gamer, the PC is my usual platform, and the many deaths I experienced early on where a combination of me not being able to aim properly and a bad talent build. However for most of the really difficult fights there was usually a heavy weapon hidden somewhere which I wouldn’t find until my 4th or 5th time attempting that particular combat scene which made the fight trivial. There are also some particular enemies that will 1 shot you from full health and shields with no way to get out of it (even with upgraded health that left me with 1 bar afterwards, I’d still die). It’s a real shame as apart from these 2 faux pas the combat is really quite enjoyable (thelatter making the last couple hours annoyingly torturous).

The talent tree system received a massive revamp since Mass Effect 2 and the improvements are quite nice. Whilst it still retains the base idea of adding points into a certain ability to make it better once you get past the first 3 stages you’re then presented with choices as to how to improve the ability. In doing so you’re able to craft your character along very specific lines, much more so than you were in the previous 2 games. With a little bit of looking around its very possible to create a character that is nigh on unstoppable, but it’s the improvements that Bioware made around the talent system that are most welcome.

The inclusion of a respec system in Mass Effect 3 is probably the most welcome addition. When you start off many of your talent points are allocated for you. Whilst this is a great way to introduce you to the character class it does mean that your character might not play the way you want it to. Thankfully the first respec is free and that will allow you to craft your character in the way you want. Additionally you’re able to choose 1 ability from your companions to include in your talent tree for a small sum. Yet again this allows you to augment away any of your character’s weaknesses or push them further into unstoppable territory.

The Galaxy Map remains basically unchanged from Mass Effect 2, keeping the same navigation elements whilst changing up the mini-game aspect of it significantly. Instead of going to every planet and scanning them for 5 minutes just to find the resources contained within there you instead scan around the current solar system, looking for little pockets of treasure. If one of the assets happens to be on a planet you then do the familiar scanning mini-game again but at least now it has a pointer to where it is, saving you countless pointless minutes scanning around. There’s also an indicator as to how many assets you’ve recovered so you don’t waste time looking for that one last thing.

You can’t scan around indefinitely though as scanning alerts the Reapers to your presence there. It’s supposed to make you scan smartly around, using the minimum number in order to recover all the assets. If you do alert the Reapers they’ll invade the system and try to hunt you down but they can’t really catch you unless you stay still for more than a couple seconds. Realistically you can just scan to your hearts content then exit/enter the system repeatedly to get the assets, which is what I ended up doing after alerting the Reapers for the 20th time.

WARNING: Mild plot spoilers follow. (There’s a second warning about the MASSIVE ones if you want to keep reading).

Of course where Mass Effect 3 really shines is the grand story that they’ve crafted over the past 5 years. Ever since the first Mass Effect there’s been a terrible sense of foreboding about the coming Reaper invasion and whilst there are some major plot holes (why did the Council ignore Shepards warnings after a GODDAMN REAPER ATTACKED THEM is beyond me) they’ve managed to keep the story moving through 3 games, even with the wild amount of control that the player has over the plot elements.

As always I decided to play Shepard as a Paragorn and whilst I’d agree with the way he acted about 90% of the time there were some definite moments when he’d go off the rails completely. This is mostly due to the paraphrasing that’s done in order to make the dialog wheel work, making it hard to accurately judge what he’s going say, but when the tough-as-nails by-the-book Shepard I spent the last 5 years crafting started acting out of character it really dumped me out of the game. Thankfully those moments were few and far between, but happened often enough to cause me frustration.

Now I don’t know if this was due to the choices that I had made in the previous games or not but the romantic relationships in Mass Effect 3 felt kind of…weird. In Mass Effect 1 I romanced Ashley who makes no appearance in 2 at all. In 2 I romanced Miranda and when I came face to face with both of them again I set my eyes on Ashley, her being Shepard’s first love. What got me however was the fact that Ashley seemed wholly unresponsive to my advances even though, as far as I was aware, there was no way of her knowing what I got up to during Mass Effect 2. Indeed she never confronted me on the fact, instead just giving me the cold shoulder. Miranda on the other hand was extremely responsive to the point where I basically fell into the romance scene which was a total cop out (when did Mass Effect become PG?). I mean I did feel something for Miranda but it felt kind of odd that Ashley would shut Shepard out like that, especially after the first few deep conversations.

It gets even more interesting as the token gay NPC, Steve Cortez (who’s done brilliantly by the way), ended up in a rather deep relationship with Shepard without me really trying. It could just be because it wasn’t possible to have that kind of relationship before Mass Effect 3, thus having to accelerate the emotional attachment, but it still made me think that Ashley’s behaviour was odd in comparison to everyone else. Not odd as in “Why doesn’t she like me”, more like there was something either unfinished or broken in the story line that I was playing through. I could’ve just stuffed up a critical dialogue option and not realised it, but I’m usually pretty good at noticing those kinds of things.

The rest of my relationships with the crew were just as good as the one with Cortez. Whilst towards the end there are many scenes that are pretty much “This is the last time you’ll get to see them here, better make the most of it” kinds of deals they do feel genuine. I personally found the scenes with Liara, Garrus and Legion to be especially touching, giving me the feeling of a true bond between comrades who had been through heaven and hell together.

WARNING: I’m going to spoil the ending here like crazy. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

I’m not going to pretend that this review exists in a vacuum but I did my absolute best to avoid all the articles about Mass Effect 3’s ending prior to finishing the game for myself. All I knew before going into this is that there were people who weren’t happy with it and thanks to my information black out I figured it was just a minority. However after playing through to the ending myself, being able to get the good (read: Green) ending and choosing the Synthesis option I can unequivocally say that Bioware completely and utterly bollocks the ending up, and not just for the reasons that many others have cited already.

For starters whilst the story introduced the deus ex machina ending early on that doesn’t detract from the fact that it is a deus ex machina. Granted there are few ways that such an epic story could come to an ending without resorting to this kind of plot device but it’s obvious that the entire plot wasn’t created back when Mass Effect was originally created. Indeed accounts from Bioware employees corroborate this meaning the true ending wasn’t created until just recently. This then feeds into the larger problem, the actual ending itself.

The whole idea of the Star Child, the devices to control/destroy the Reapers and the requirement of Shepard to sacrifice himself are things that don’t line up with the Mass Effect world or the characters within them. Shepard is not a tragic hero and indeed should you have been a tragic hero in Mass Effect 2 (where not enough of your team members survive) you in fact can not import that game into Mass Effect 3 as Bioware has deemed that ending non-canon. The idea then of Shepard making the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of the universe is completely out of character, as well as being completely non-sensical in terms of the Star Child’s solution. Indeed, whilst the Star Child is ostensibly of synthetic origins and thus can be assumed to be completely rational it acts in ridiculously irrational ways. I would go on but many people have dissected it better than I ever could and my sentiments echo theirs closely.

Now I wrestled with the ending for a couple days before talking to my friends about it but the conclusion I came to was always the same. I really do hate the ending of Mass Effect 3, not because it’s the ending or because its tragic (indeed I hated the ending of Red Dead Redemption, but it was good because I was grieving for the loss) but because it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the Mass Effect universe. Instead of the ending being driven heavily by your choices made throughout the game you’re instead treated to different coloured explosions with 1 of 3 endings based on your choice right at the end. For a universe that managed to incorporate so many of your choices into every aspect of the game this ending feels like it was done absent any thought for the rest of the universe and it really shows.

SPOILERS OVER

As a game Mass Effect 3 was almost everything I had come to expect from the series. The combat was fun and engaging with just enough challenge to make sure that I wasn’t powering through the game. The characters were (apart from one) believable and relatable and I felt a real connection with them. Right up until the final couple hours the plot and pacing of Mass Effect 3 was magnificent and it makes me very ashamed to say that the ending just simply didn’t stack up with the rest of the game, and the rest of the series for that matter. Still I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Mass Effect 3, even if the ending left a sour taste in my mouth.

Rating: 9.0/10

Mass Effect 3 is available on Xbox360, PlayStation 3 and PC right now for $78. $78 and $99 respectively. Game was played entirely on the Xbox360 on the Hard difficulty with around 24 hours of total play time and 80% of the achievements unlocked.

 

Multiplayer Everywhere, But Not a Game to Play.

I can remember my first experience with PC multi player game. I can’t remember exactly what game it was but I do recall running a 5 meter serial cable from my room across into my brother’s and then clicking the connect button frantically in the hopes that we could play together. Alas we never managed to get it working and resigned ourselves to play our game individually. Over the years my multiplayer experience would be mostly limited to bouts on the various Nintendo consoles we purchased over the years with my most fond memories being the countless hours we whiled away on Goldeneye 007.

Online multiplayer was something that eluded me for quite some time. Being stuck out in the sticks of Wamboin my Internet connection lagged behind the times considerably, seeing me stuck on dialup until I switched to a rural wireless provider sometime in 2005. I’d make do by finding servers that were sympathetic to my HPB ways but even then the experience wasn’t particularly stellar. It then follows that I found solace in good single player games much more often than I did with ones that required me to find someone else to play with (with World of Warcraft being the notable exception). 

The games industry however has been trending in the opposite direction. It’s increasingly rare to find a game that doesn’t have some token form of multiplayer in it, especially those ones that are part of a long running series. Indeed many recent titles that found their success as single player only titles have since found their sequels with some form of multiplayer attached to them. The trend is somewhat worrying for long time gamers like myself as many of these efforts appear to be token attempts to increase the games longevity. Whilst this usually wouldn’t be a problem it seems that in some cases the single player has suffered because of it and this is why many gamers lament the appearance of multi player in games.

Personally though, I really haven’t seen much of a decline in game quality with the addition of multiplayer to new games. Indeed looking back at two sequels that found their feet in solid single player experience which had multi player added afterwards (Bioshock 2 and Portal 2) shows that it is possible to make a game with a token multiplayer aspect that doesn’t detract from the main game. It’s worth mentioning however that I didn’t bother to play the multiplayer at all in Bioshock 2 nor did I engage in the most recent effort of token multi playerism found in Rage. Had I done so I might have been telling a different story, one I might endeavour to investigate in the future.

All this being said however I did cringe a bit when two of my favourite titles from Bioware, namely Mass Effect and Dragon Age, both recently announced that their upcoming titles would include some form of multiplayer.  Now these are two titles that have managed to go two releases without having multiplayer and no one can deny the success that both of them have had. The question then becomes “why now?” as they’d both have enough momentum to be successful just off their existing fan base. It would appear that there’s a perception that some form of multiplayer is now a required part of a game and not developing it could adversely affect the games future. There’s a decent amount of evidence to argue to the contrary however, like Skyrim selling a whopping 7 million copies already (and all their past success, of course). 

The proof will be in the pudding as it’s rather unjust to judge a game before it’s released to the public and those games will be a good indicator of just how much a multi player section impacts on the single player experience. Whilst I can’t recall any games that were noticeably worse off because of multi player being tacked on I do understand the community’s concerns about how good, solid single player games could be ruined by focusing on something that, for a lot of people, adds no value to the game. I’ll make a point to give the multiplayer a good work over for these titles when their released in the future, just to see if it was worth the developer’s time of including them in.

Dragon Age 2 Screenshot 3

Dragon Age II: Become The Champion.

As I’ve said previously sequels are always a tricky thing to get right. They will inevitably be compared to their predecessors and should they not be a wholesale improvement on the experience that came before them then you’re guaranteed to cop some serious flak. Still due to their almost guaranteed market potential any original game that enjoys a modicum of success is pretty much guaranteed to have a sequel, or at least a spiritual successor. Dragon Age 2 is one of these such games and since I thoroughly enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins, despite its flaws, it didn’t take much for me to open my wallet yet again for a Bioware RPG. Over 2 weeks and 30+ hours of playtime I managed to conclude the story of Dragon Age 2 and I’m still trying to figure out where I stand with this game, as are many who’ve done the same.

Dragon Age 2 differs quite significantly from its predecessor. Whilst Origins was your typical pick your own adventure style RPG Dragon Age 2 instead takes the Mass Effect style of game play, giving you the choice of a few character classes which you will play through the game with. This drew the ire of many RPG fans as the depth of character development you could undertake in Origins was quite significant and the switch to a Mass Effect style of game play was seen as a dumbing down of Bioware’s standards. Since I’m not usually one to replay a game (unless it’s really, really good) I didn’t take that much issue with it, but I can understand where the complaints are coming from.

You play this game as Hawke, a man/woman who fled the land of Ferelden during the blight that took place during Origins to seek safety in the land of Kirkwall a once slave nation. The game follows the trials and tribulations of Hawke attempting to regain the notoriety that his family once had and his rise to the position of “Champion of Kirkwall”, told in retrospect by one of his companions Varric. There’s a constant sense of foreboding in how the story is recounted so you always have the sense that something big is going to happen. However unlike its predecessor which had a large, overarching plot that drove you from one quest to the next Dragon Age 2 instead sort of drifts between plot points with each chapter having a different (and completely unrelated) goal. This is where Origins shone as the entire game was leading up to that one point at the end, whereas Dragon Age 2 instead switches between no less than 3 different goals, none of which build towards the final conclusion.

Satisfyingly though combat in Dragon Age 2 is really quite enjoyable. I lamented back in my Origins review that the combat, whilst feeling decidedly epic at many points in the game, was quite a bug ridden affair with my warrior constantly getting stuck on hit boxes and abilities that failed to work as advertised. Dragon Age 2 still has many of the trademark skills that its predecessor had however they all work as expected and the attributes and talents system has been completely revamped. The end result was that my warrior in Dragon Age 2 became a wrecking ball of devastation that was on par with the blood mages in Origins. He could decimate entire swaths of enemies with 2 abilities and towards the end he had practically unlimited stamina allowing all his abilities to be used to their fullest potential. This was probably the best part of Dragon Age 2 for a Mass Effect fan like myself and whilst I wasn’t able to play it like Mass Effect (I.E. without pausing the game to micro my team mates) it was still thoroughly satisfying.

Thankfully the default behavior of your team mates has also been vastly improved. In Origins should you neglect to look at the tactics screen you’d be running with a party that had almost no idea what to do apart from auto-attack everything that you attacked. Whilst I had to make a few minor adjustments to the default settings I don’t think I spent anymore than 15 minutes configuring my party’s behavior before they were adequately fulfilling the roles I had chosen for them. Sure they’re still not able to position themselves automatically but apart from that they were far more capable then their counter-parts in Origins, something which I was very thankful for.

Many other parts of Dragon Age 2 have also been streamlined or revamped to take some of the grind out of the game. Crafting has been redone so that instead of having to level through it in order to get better potions/runes/posions you simply find the recipes around the world. In order to make them however you have to find resources which aren’t depleted when you use them. For someone like me who really doesn’t have an interest in leveling tradeskills in a single player game this was a welcome change and something that made me far more interested in hunting down ingredients and recipes. Old school RPGers will probably say that this takes away from the value of crafted items since you don’t have to really do a lot for them but in the end I’d rather not waste another 10 hours in the game just so I could upgrade my armor or weapon a little more.

Loot in the game is almost too plentiful with my character often having multiple sets of armor after a single dungeon run. Initially it all seems kind of pointless since there’s little to spend gold on and you’ll end up having well over 100 gold after the first chapter ends. However the final few chapters took their toll on my gold reserves thanks to many difficult encounters and full sets of armor that were just begging for rune upgrades. This also extends to your companions who, unlike Origins where you could dress them as you felt, will also require upgrades which can be found at vendors all over Kirkwall and its surrounding regions. Some fights these small additional upgrades can be the difference between winning and losing, as I painfully found out several times over.

The relationship Hawke develops with his companions is one of the better aspects of Dragon Age 2. Unlike Origins where romancing someone was a game of playing their friendship right with gifts and certain dialog options Dragon Age 2 simplifies the idea considerably since the conversation wheel alerts you to the romantic option. Gifts are still around (and form part of the romance should you pursue it) but there’s no longer a myriad of things you can lavish on your potential lover. As the above screenshot shows I had a real soft spot for Merrill and thankfully the relationship didn’t end after a single session of bonking (unlike with Isabella). Whilst I didn’t feel as emotionally involved with the characters as I did with say Heavy Rain I still genuinely cared for them, especially Merrill. It seemed some of them also cared for me as well, with Isabella leaving me and then returning later on in the game.

There are however some extremely visible issues with Dragon Age 2 that need to be pointed out. Not least of which is the repeating environments and asset reuse that is seen throughout the entirety of the game. All caves are the same cave save for doors being open/closed or done backwards and all slaver hideouts, mansions and underground passageways are completely identical. Additionally many in game items are direct copies from Origins which would be fine if they referenced some lore about it but many are just straight up ported from the game’s predecessor. This made the game somewhat predictable in parts since all the encounters happened at the same place, diminishing the replay value significantly.

There’s also a couple issues with difficulty pacing within the game. Whilst there were many times I’d make it through by the skin of my teeth the fights were always controllable and I never felt like I was fighting against a brick wall. The end of Act 2 however brought one fight (I’ll avoid the spoilers for now) that was in essence, impossible. Now I’d usually chalk this up to me going through the game too quickly and not taking the time to level. However all the other fights felt more like ones with mechanics that punished you for getting things wrong. The fight in question however punished you regardless, stretching out the encounter to abysmally long lengths. Talking with my friends reveals that a critical dialog option wasn’t available to me, putting me in the rather unenviable position of having to use the dev console to get past this roadblock. Thankfully this only happened once (the other time was due to me attempting a fight before I was capable of completing it) but it still felt highly out of place when I wasn’t struggling with the game up to this point.

The lack of an over-arching plot was something that Origins did magnificently which Dragon Age 2 simply fails to accomplish. Whilst I can understand the reasoning behind it (Origins took place over 2 years, Dragon Age 2 took 10) the fact that there’s really no goal for Hawke in Kirkwall means that during the various side quests you get a feeling you’re just doing them for the sake of it, rather than building towards the ultimate end. Plus amidst the cacophony of other things you’re doing in the game the main plot line can seem to be nothing more than a footnote until one character tells you “Hey, this could take a while are you sure you’ve done everything?”. With some parts of Dragon Age 2’s story being really satisfying this lack of direction really detracted from the experience.

Despite these faults however I really did enjoy my time with Dragon Age 2. Whilst I would sigh at the repetitive dungeons and lament the fact I had little direction apart from the issue du jour the engrossing combat and reduction of miscellaneous crap  made me forget all my troubles almost instantly. I found the conversations a lot more interesting now that my character actually had a voice, even if the choice options didn’t always align with what I thought they were. Initially I was going to say this game didn’t stand up to its predecessor due to the problems that came from the rushed development cycle but in all honesty Dragon Age 2 is a much better game overall. Given the same amount of time to develop Dragon Age 2 as they did Origins I’m sure it would have come out as a game that both delighted fans of the IP and newcomers alike. It’s good enough that I’m considering a second playthrough and possibly ponying up for the DLC, something which I rarely do even for my most cherished of games.

Rating: 8.5/10

Dragon Age 2 is available right now on PC, XBox 360 and Playstation 3 for $69, $108 and $108 respectively. Game was played entirely on Hard difficulty with approximately 31 hours of play time and my character reaching level 21 by the end.

Review scandal: http://www.kotaku.com.au/2011/03/dragon-age-ii-dev-rates-his-own-game-on-metacritic/

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Mass Effect 2: Devastatingly Good.

Mass Effect will always have a very special place on my shelf of games. Way back in the day I remember reading a couple previews of it and being semi-interested but no more than I was in say Bayonetta (which is currently gathering dust, but more on that another day). Then I saw a video of the game play and was instantly captivated. I spent a good couple hours scrounging up every single shred of detail that I could find, becoming ever more entranced in the Mass Effect universe. It got to the point where I said that right before Mass Effect came out I would buy a Xb0x 360 just to play it. My friends told me I was silly for doing so as the game would eventually be out on PC. For me however the 70+ hours that I got out of the game many months before they got to play it was worth every dollar I had spent on purchasing an entire console for just one game. I still do not regret it to this day.

I knew from the start that Mass Effect was destined for a trilogy and immediately after finishing the first I was anxious for the second. Bioware was very tight lipped on the subject for quite a long time and the ravenous sci-fi RPG’er in me was quelled until rumours starting popping up again. For the most part I steered clear of them, not wanting to spoil the narrative that I would soak myself in. So when the day finally came for me to walk into my local EB Games and pre-order the collector’s edition you can imagine how excited I was, which was only matched by the day I picked it up.

Mass Effect, just like Dragon Age: Origins, let you alter your appearance in such detail that you could almost recreate any face in the game. My initial attempts to recreate myself were a bit of a failure, that was until my wife and ex-room mate took it upon themselves to do it for me. It was a decent representation and made for some fun moments when Shepard was doing the horizontal mambo with his various alien conquests. For most of Mass Effect 2 however he looked as he does above since this was the best armor available (part of a pre-order deal with EB). I would’ve liked the ability to turn the helmets off on any armour and not just the default, but it seems it was not to be. Still there were some amusing scenes with Shepard attempting to be comforting in a rather evil looking set of armour.

From the very first scenes of Mass Effect 2 you’re thrown into an increasingly tangled web of loss and sacrifice. The opening scene was heart wrenching to see as all you built up in Mass Effect was destroyed in front of your eyes, including your rendition of Shepard. His resurrection is far from a glorious rise from the ashes where upon he is thrust into the fray instantly upon awakening met with both suprise and cold disdain. This sets the scene for the rest of the game as you struggle with the fact that 2 years of Shepards life have disappeared and everyone you once knew has moved on.

To be honest I was angry with the opening scene for a good while as it felt like a cheap Modern Warfare 2-esque attempt to inspire feelings of shock and loss. However I came to realise that, apart from it setting the scene for your love-hate relationship with your new employer Cerberus, it gave the developers a good “in” to make some much needed upgrades to the layout of your base camp (The Normandy) and to make room for the expanded crew size. Additionally it allowed them to rework and evolve many of Shepard’s past companions without having to do it painfully throughout the game. It’s much easier than the usual attempt of having a screen saying “2 years later” and then everyone has a moustache or another time-has-past telltale sign.

The combat and inventory in Mass Effect 2 is a great evolution of the system that they had in the original Mass Effect. In the original it was very much closer to a traditional RPG with countless items, upgrades and stats to choose from. If you’d played any other Bioware RPGs before the interface would’ve been familiar enough to get around it without too much hassle. Still when playing on a console item management easily became quite a chore and gearing up your party before you left could take quite some time. Combat still retained a lot of RPG elements with the ability to pause the game to queue up abilities, Medi-Gel being the health potion and special abilities having separate cool downs.

Mass Effect 2 on the other hand has taken cues from other great console games on the Xbox 360 like Gears of War, replacing theold health bar with the typical unlimited health so long as you take cover when your damaged system. This then changed the focus of combat quite significantly as it put a much higher value on cover than it did in the previous version. That also had the effect of giving you a pretty good indication when a fight was coming up, since there would usually be boxes or crates strewn across the level for you to hide behind. One thing that I can’t remember if it was present in Mass Effect 1 or not was the mapping of abilities to buttons so they could be used in real time. After discovering that (through the in-game tips section) the game took on a much faster and thrilling pace.

My first play through with this character on  the original was a soldier built to run up to people and smash them into the ground with his bare fists. Not being able to find the melee button for quite a while (it’s B on the Xbox) I had thought they took melee out. After rediscovering it my new Shepard, who was a Vanguard, became an iron fist of destruction, charging any enemy he could and punching them into submission. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to punch Harbinger into submission time and time again, as well as any minion who would dare get in melee range.

It wouldn’t be Mass Effect (or a Bioware RPG) if there wasn’t a chance to get intimate with your crew mates. From the start I had my heart set on Miranda as her cold disdain towards me only served to get me more interested. It seemed that over time she began to trust me with more and more information about her personal life. The scenes with her remembering stories of her childhood and father are heart wrenching, and her loyalty mission only served to cement the bond that I wished to share with her. Of course Shepard got what he wanted and whilst, in true Mass Effect style, there’s little opportunity to talk with your new found lover afterwards before sending yourself on a suicide mission it was still a romantic scene. I’m looking forward to seeing how this relationship develops in Mass Effect 3 (and really, how it will go down with Ashley who was my conquest in Mass Effect) but the effect of these relationships always seems a bit secondary and doesn’t really influence the rest of the game. It could be that they’re playing directly into the hands of the majority of gamers out there (I mean really, the majority of them are just going to go after them for the doink scene, nothing more) but the characters always seem more emotionally involved with each other up until the point where they consummate their relationship, where it usually takes the turn to back to normality. I can understand this level of depth is hard to achieve in a game like Mass Effect (I’m looking forward to Heavy Rain’s take on this issue) but I think the medium and the majority of consumers are mature enough to handle it.

I was hoping to give Mass Effect 2 the coveted perfect 10/10 as the original was one of my favourite games of all time. However I can’t let my inner fan boy override the reality that there are some points of this game that could do with a lot of improvement. The mineral scanning is one of the worst time sink aspects of the game and while I can understand that they have to make the upgrades mean something but wasting the player’s time really isn’t a good way to go about it. Adding in the ability to buy and sell minerals would’ve alleviated this somewhat, as would have say a scanner that would do a radar like sweep across the planet highlighting resource points.

In my 32 hours playing through as my the Vanguard Paragon Shepard I struggled to find times where I had had enough of the game and wanted a break from it. The story was infinitely captivating, the combat engaging and thrilling and the ultimate end was a climatic ending that has me begging for more and eyeing my second Renegade playthrough save with a keen eye. As with any Bioware RPG I can see myself discussing this game at length with all my friends for a while to come as we revel in the little differences that made our playthroughs unique. It is this which is what makes Mass Effect 2 one of the greatest games to grace us as gamers and I can’t recommend it enough to everyone out there.

Rating: 9.75/10

Mass Effect 2 is available for Xbox360 and PC right now for $AU108 and $98 respectively. Game was played on the Xbox 360 on Hard difficulty with around 32 hours of playtime total. Majority of the decisions where along the Paragon lines with the occasional Renegade snap decision.

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Dragon Age: Origins, Infuriatingly Captivating.

Maybe it’s the engineer in me (or more likely the perfectionist) but I find it almost impossible to go to bed when I feel there’s something left to be done. This is probably why I lost many long hours on World of Warcraft since there’s always something that needed to be done. It is fitting then that Dragon Age: Origins gave me the same feeling for a solid 2 weeks and every moment spent away from the game had me thinking about it. After what the game tells me was 31 hours (although I know it was more than that, my quick save/load buttons will tell you) I’ve taken some time to reflect on the world that Bioware created and their prowess when it comes to the genre of deep RPGs.

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The first point of note with Dragon Age, as it is with any RPG that comes from Bioware, is the incredible depth of character that all actors have in this world. All the characters have a depth to them that you don’t often see outside a Bioware RPG. I found myself choosing the same party members over and over again because I wanted to know more about them, anxiously awaiting the next dialogue option in order to explore their past in this world. The unfortunate downside to conveying such depth in this medium means that the game suffers from what I like to call the Mass Dialogue Effect (take a guess where that name came from ;)) whereby almost any character with a whiff of involvement in the story will happily regale you with their life story.Whilst it does demonstrate Bioware’s dedication to developing every character in depth it can be laborious when your replaying a section you failed to complete.

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Now I’ll have to be brutally honest here: I’m not what you’d call a veteran of this genre despite my hundreds of days experience with its MMO counterpart. I missed the Baldur’s Gate series of games when they were released, I haven’t played any of the Knights of the Old Republic games and I couldn’t get into Never Winter Nights. So whilst I’m familiar with the concept of min-maxing your party to make you effective i n combat I still got the same feeling that I did when I was playing NWN, the game didn’t really favour those of us who chose a certain path. Musing over the game with friends showed that a few had chosen the mage class, whereas I the warrior. It became pretty clear early on that the game designers made some fights impossible to hack and slash your way through, wanting you instead to take time to use your abilities carefully and make heavy use of the pause function. This is all well and good, however this was usually accomplished by mearly overwhelming you with enemies which the warriors and rogues have a hard time dealing with. Mages on the other hand can quite easily dispatch a large group of enemies with 2 spells thus rendering the challenge useless. Whilst class balance is a small issue in a single player game I couldn’t help feel a little cheated, although there is the potential to play through again. This leads into my next point, the combat.

Bioware has done a particularly good job of making the combat you’re involved in feel larger than life. The combination of the music, your characters screaming their various lines and abilities that do everything from shaking the camera when you land a critical hit to summoning a massive blizzard almost makes you feel like you’re playing through an epic fantasy movie. The experience is not without its faults however. Positioning my warrior for combat would sometimes get him stuck on the hitboxes of the other characters, making him vibrate violently between 2 spots and not attack. This was only made worse that often some abilities would just inexplicably not connect. This is not to be confused with missing which gives a noticeable “Miss!” text above the enemy, they would just fail to render any reaction. Such behaviour became painfully apparent with the 2 handed sweep maneuver which would hit some enemies but not others. Overall the combat system was engaging but plagued with some difficulties that should have been caught before release.

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Relationships were definitely an interesting mini game in Dragon Age. You can take them in almost any direction you want and the consequences are obvious and long lasting. After unsuccessfully trying to court Leliana (apparently lavishing gifts of a rabbit-mouse, who she called Schmooples, and flowers is the wrong way to go about it) I set my targets on Morrigan. It would be kind to say she was an easy conquer because it only took a couple nights at camp and one quest before the screenshot above happened. As I mentioned previously I knew there was the potential for some horizontal mambo and I was hoping for some long last consequences, story wise, because of it. I was unfortunately disappointed, with the dialogue between Morrigan and I only having a couple options here or there available afterwards. I have read of others having a deeper relationship although they did not appear to be available to me no matter what I tried. I did enjoy the idle chatter between Alistair and the rest of my companions about my various exploits in Morrigan’s tent though.

What intrigued me the most about this game is how unique your experience can be depending on how you interact with people. Bioware thankfully steered clear of what they did in Mass Effect (E.G if you were going for Paragon they were always on the top right, Renegade was bottom right) which made choosing what to say all that more meaningful. Suprisingly even attempting the same path can result in different outcomes should a battle swing one way or another. This is what made Dragon Age such a talking point for the gaming community as everyone discussing it will have a distinctly different experience.

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Despite all its shortcomings I was thoroughly captivated the entire time I was playing. I would curse the game for wiping my party out with a surprise swarm of enemies but the victory that would follow several attempts later tasted all the sweeter. I would feel actual remorse for playing my character a certain way and making decision that I felt were right, but caused me some loss in one way or another. I fell in love with Leliana who would never have me despite all the attention I gave her which drove me into the arms of another. Truly this game is as realistic as it is fantastical and that brings with it reveals some true insights into the human condition whilst fostering the escapism we’ve all come to expect from the RPG giant of Bioware.

Rating: 8.5/10

Dragon Age: Origins is available for PS3, Xbox360 and PC right now for $AU108, $108 and $54 respectively. Game was played on PC on normal difficulty (except for the last fight, I lost 2 hours there you bastards!) with around 35 hours of playtime reported.

Cinematic Gaming (or My Secret Love of Playable Movies).

I’m an avid gamer and have been ever since my Dad sat me down at a computer at the tender age of 4 and showed me an old classic, Captain Comic. I spent many hours playing through that game and never getting too far into it, only to have my Dad’s friend show up and beat the game for me. I remember being awe struck as a child watching someone play through it so perfectly, when I had struggled for hours and only got half as far.

Fast forward 20 years and gaming has become a huge multi-billion dollar industry. So many games are released every year that no matter what kind of genre or play-style you fit into you’re bound to find something that you enjoy. Hollywood blockbuster budgets are thrown at impressive game titles and production values have skyrocketed, which has allowed game designers to become analogous to movie producers. Thus Cinematic Gaming was born, bringing the choices of a choose your own adventure book together with the immersion of modern interactive games.

My first real introduction into this blend of movie and game was Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. Whilst this is no where near the first foray into this genre it is a great example of what it is capable of. The emphasis is strictly on the characters and their interaction with each other. Every time I sat down to play it I felt drawn into the game and empathised with all of the characters, something which was made even stronger by the fact I could make their decisions for them. The ending left my heart aching, something which I had never experienced with a game before.

After finishing Dreamfall and sharing my experiences with some of my friends I was put onto Fahrenheit by Quantic Dream. This was a much earlier attempt at Cinematic Gaming and whilst the graphics were a tad rough, even for the time of its release, the emphasis again was on the plot and immersion. I quickly got drawn into the interaction between characters, and the use of game mechanics really makes you feel like the character is supposed to. Throw in a dash of naughty sex scenes and you’re onto a winner.

Probably one of the biggest jumps forward in this genre would have to be Mass Effect by Bioware, who are renowned for their games with intricate dialogues and over-arching plot lines. The conversation system implemented in Mass Effect is really second to none. Your responses are displayed just before the other person finishes their part of the conversation, allowing you to choose what you want to say before there’s an awkward pause. Once you’ve figured out which options are where (a “Paragon” response is typically at the top, “Renegade” is at the bottom) you can usually judge how you want to respond to someone before the options even come up. This makes the dialogue very fluid, and doesn’t have the same immersion break like many similar games do when you’re interacting with non-player characters.

So how does the future look for this type of game? Well Quantic Dream is busy working on Heavy Rain which is looking to take the next step in immersion with realistic facial expressions. They put an emphasis on the fact that their characters will show real tears, which is something that is sure to tug on heart strings. Here’s a great trailer:

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I’m definitely looking forward to this, and I’ll be sure to give a review of it once I’ve played it through. Don’t expect it to be out quickly though, I like to take my time with things like this ;)