Reviews

Mass Effect 2

So here it is, the sequel to the critically acclaimed and critically drooled over, Mass Effect: I could write for a while on this game…So I’m going to. Without wishing to give away too much, you are once again thrust into Commander Shepard’s space boots and are now working for the morally questionable Cerberus, on account of the fact they kindly resurrected you; And indeed Shepard gets berated for this a quite a few times, presumably its worth it for the health insurance. The widely appreciated BioWare appear to have taken and processed any criticism of the original game and spat out something truly epic. The structure of the narrative is fairly simple, but vastly effective and sees Shepard preparing for a suicide mission to save humanity, for which he or she must gather a formidable crew for. And in order for the team to be in fighting shape, you must lend them a hand with their own problems. So the bulk of the game is spent recruiting and aiding your companions. While this might seem formulaic on the surface, the individual stories constitute some of the best storytelling, bringing the player very close to some delicate and emotional situations.

Now it was expected that the graphics would be updated in the second instalment of the series, but what has been produced is truly stunning, especially for the 360. This time round all the colours are more defined and radiant, widening the range of the spectrum. There’s a significant increase in general clarity and resolution, and the frame rate has been reduced to 30 to prevent the issues with visuals appearing somewhat choppy in Mass Effect 1; the lack of a 60 fps capability is really not an issue. BioWare have thankfully gotten rid of the grainy-VHS look, and have clearly spent a lot of time improving everything from character models to the environments. However you look it, the graphics are a ruddy fantastic sight to behold, many are even calling it the current graphics top-dog.

Combat has been dramatically altered and overhauled, and has consequently improved. Most notably, the awkward snap-into-cover system of the original has been ditched for a much smoother operation controlled by the A button which must now, have already prevented countless smashed controllers.  Additionally the Medi-gel system has been revised, making their primary use reviving, along with the “unity” power which allows for a quicker and more centralised healing of your squad. Besides the larger changes there are a number of tweaks and additions including more weapon types and powers which are certainly welcome, including what appears to be a portable nuclear weapon, I can’t argue with that. Using the target reticule in Mass Effect 2 feels a lot more reliable; you are able to trust that it’s doing its job, rather than a spreadsheet (sorry Eve Online fanboys) underneath the gameplay calculating stats. Combat is now more streamlined, and it’s satisfying to see that strategy still pays off. The addition of some, frankly awesome, heavy weapons only add to consideration of tactics, as you’ll have to know when and when not to use them, as they can turn out to be life-savers in particularly sticky situations. In general fighting seems more fluid and fast-paced, and this complements the game’s cover-shooter/RPG oddity well, making it not only an exciting experience, but a unique one.

Mass Effect 2 combat.

Mass Effect 2 and indeed the Mass Effect series, isn’t your traditional RPG; so one thing I missed at first, was its lack of economy, diversity in objects, weapons and armour. There’s usually about two guns per weapon type, and a fairly limited selection of armour; As I progressed I then found that the player can really only buy the upgrades, which you can discover by exploring, aside from a few novelty items for decoration and some slightly altered N7 armor peices. This frustrated me a little to begin with, but I quickly realised that to approach the game in this way is simply incorrect. BioWare have proved through games like Dragon Age: Origins that they can do the whole economy deal, with items galore and layers upon layer of complexities and indeed deep skill trees, but they have pursued a different path with the Mass Effect trilogy. Clunky elements like the inventory system from Mass Effect 1 have been removed to better fit the style of the series which focuses on story, presentation, combat and interaction.

The voice acting, character animation and lip syncing, is once again outstanding. Both the writing and performances are executed with perfection – the true drama and epicness (that’s a word right? meh) of this space opera is conveyed brilliantly, and I may or may not have given the game a standing ovation on completion, on my own in an empty room….Yet still BioWare have managed to retain many light-hearted and often hilarious little encounters, whether its a bloodthirsty Krogan making a terrible pun or overhearing a classic friend-who-wants-to-get-with-girl conversation, as he desperately tries to drop hints while it all goes swiftly over her head. The dialogue itself is on the whole, very well written, and we can forgive one or two cliched insults (usually from Subject Zero, with whom I had a very rocky relationship with on account of this problem). BioWare have also introduced an entertaining new feature called the Interrupt System, which allows the player at specific points in conversation to take direct action, whether it be of Renegade or Paragon persuasion: this feature works well with the intuitive dialogue system, granting the player yet further control of their Shepard. The cast has its fair share of stars, for example Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now, West Wing), but they were not chosen simply because they were famous, and in an industry increasingly infiltrated by brainless Hollywood stars looking to get their names in, this is exceptional. Seth Green and Yvonne Strahovski most notably give cheekily-lovable and endearing performances respectively (the body and face based off of her doesn’t go amiss either) and further bring the galaxy to life.

Squad members are varied and memorable...and sometimes irritating head-cases.

For those who enjoyed some of the sleazier aspects of the galaxy in the original, do not fear, for there’s no shortage of aliens smuggling raisins and dancing how your mother told you not to, and for the more romantically inclined, BioWare present a lovely bunch for you to share your (possibly final) moments with, although those of you hoping for something more than a bra flash, you will be thoroughly dissapointed. One aspect of the writing which particularly impressed me was the reference to real world issues, which one can relate to whether its problems with the galactic economy or racism – At one point I stumbled upon a rather amusing bachelor party thrown by a human on behalf of an Salarian friend who was desperately trying to comprehend the attraction of watching the exotic dancer. It’s these sort of details and facets which make Mass Effect 2 especially immersive.

The most noteworthy improvement on the original are the side quests and diversity of them: Unlike the original where all the criminal organisations coincidentally chose to use the same architect and same building on every planet, Mass Effect 2 offers a number of vastly different planets, from deep jungles, to icy cliff edges and a large range of architecture; Aside from an inexplicable, yet necessary abundance of crates everywhere (which leads me to think of people in the future as quite the messy little chaps), the environments are masterfully created, and a new interesting experience, working brilliantly with the breath-taking graphics. To bolster this new found variation, BioWare have introduced a number of methods, in many different situations, to keep combat and exploration interesting, whether it be basic puzzles, crates on a conveyor belt (causing need to time shots) time limits, staying out of harmful solar radiation or fighting your way through fog. You can safely say that this game rarely gets boring (my playtime and the period that playtime occurs within attests to this – unfortunately for my social life).

Combat feels more seemless and enjoyable.

The mission structure is, much like Mass Effect 1, very agreeable, and I can’t relate how much I like being logically taken back to my ship/central area after a mission instead of trudging back and forth through areas I’ve already cleared. Which reminds me – the ship is much larger now, and pretty bloody awesome – any game I’m able to have my own cabin in, along with a space hamster, gets my vote. Each part of the ship serves a purpose and there a small side quests and memorable characters, which makes returning to the safety of your ship, something you’ll often look forward to. One slightly controversial element of gameplay is the scanning for resources: while I understand the need for a more down-tempo feature to acquire the base resources and to offset the accelerated action, its perhaps just a little too slow, even with the upgrade to quicken it – although I admit, the descriptions of the planets do make it much more intriguing visiting each one. Equally, having fuel limit may seem a little unnecessary, but it does help to make you feel like you are making important, meaningful decisions, which a captain would have to make – it’s just another little quirk to keep gameplay fresh, and make exploration to the farthest reaches of the galaxy feel all the more intrepid. Another small gripe: I chose the engineer specialisation for something a little different, on the promise I would command combat drones, and turns out these drones are in fact holographic balls, literally, but they didn’t prove as ineffectual as I perceived, although I was more thinking along the lines of some sort of robot with an unnecessarily large gun. Loading times are still fairly long, but gone are the long awkward lift rides, so you’ll no longer have to wonder who passed air, but a short wait is a small price to pay for what it’s loading. Also credits seem a little redundant – you end up with a bulging bank account yet you don’t even really need to purchase many upgrades for the upgrade system (a part I do commend) as you’ll discover them on your travels. Nevertheless, these are small problems.

Mass Effect 2 is, if nothing else, an outstanding achievement, and is undoubtedly another reason why the games industry is now more regularly serving as host to more high profile releases on the level of blockbuster movies, as this game offers an experience far and above some recent Hollywood twoddle. The average player will rack up around 30 hours on one playthrough, that warrants the price as it stands, let alone remarkable cinematic direction, intelligent themes, exciting gameplay and a vast wealth of lore – As I neared the ending of the game, I checked my codex, and due to my OCD tendencies, felt the need to click every entry to remove the “new” notification; I soon realised how many 2 or 3 paragraphed and narrated entries there were and how much dedication and effort has been put into this universe. The criticisms I would  mention like squad mates being a bit too enthusiastic in battle and both repeating the same phrases over and over, or mistakenly taking cover behind some good solid air, are really so minute that they barely detract from the experience. The real brilliance is the way one is left longing for the already planned sequel, after the ending which can be oh so different depending on your choices, knowing that your actions now will affect the awesome story that will ensue, as those who were lucky enough to have been able to import a character into this game will know. This game is a must-(stop-reading-my-blog-if-you-don’t)buy. As cliched as it sounds, it’s a emotional journey that will leave you with real connections to certain characters, and will allow you to act accordingly to those feelings, and although it’s mighty early on, I’m predicting this as game of the year. Play this.

February 4th, 2010
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Weekly Picks 2/2/10

Just a selection of useful and useless links from around the interwebs for your viewing pleasure/disgust in case you haven’t seen them already.

  • The Tester – Sony have delved into the trashy yet addictive world of reality television. In this competition, exclusive to the PSN, contestants get the chance to become a contracted games tester, by being tested in a number of completely unrelated and inexplicable ways. The show features a few well known names as well and Hal Sparks’ hair; it premiers on 18 Feb – take it or leave it.
  • Gausswerks: Design Reboot – An altogether more sohpisticated pick, to make up for reality TV. This blog I stumbled across is owned by an independent games designer and concept artist  who unapologetically “enjoys starting rather than finishing”. He ponders everything from character to level design on recent games, dissecting rather than reviewing, to see whats gone wrong and what hasn’t – a rather interesting read indeed.
  • Gaming Anger Management – A short and badly recorded video of a demo of an indie developer’s game at the Game Jam Sydney 2010 with an intriguing use of sound and colour – but mainly sound.
  • ENN – another offering from  the well respected EscapistMagazine.com. Its been around for a while but is certainly worth a look if you aren’t already aware.
February 2nd, 2010
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VPS hosting offers lower costs than dedicated server hosting (DNS and other services) because the VPS server is not accessed on a dedicated network connection. There are three main benefits to VPS hosting:

1. You have greater freedom to run your own software packages on the server.

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3. VPS server provide a variety of hosting options including shared hosting, no contract, and/or high availability. Although they do have low access restrictions, most VPS’s have limited or no internet access, so you cannot download files from the internet.

For a variety of reasons, many organizations choose to buy or lease dedicated servers. They are the best solution for a small company or project, such as a team that wants dedicated servers for various use cases. High end dedicated server products are now common and cost about the same as private VPS servers. They may include hardware redundancy and even have a dedicated video and network card. But do note, that some dedicated servers offer more robust security services than VPS servers. So use them judiciously if you intend to host sensitive information on them, such as your bank or corporate password information, customer databases or financial information.

Having multiple VPS servers means you will need to get access to multiple servers. This may be easy to manage if you already have a dedicated server where you can manage each server using a common GUI. However, if you don’t have a dedicated server, you may have to make an account to view your VPS’s, configure them, and manage them. It is likely that you will also need to build your own password management software or use other security services such as WAPI, which offer free security assessment. An additional requirement is that all servers must have the same IP address. Sometimes you may need to enable the forwarding of your connections to different servers (most common if you are using external services) as we’ll explain in the next section.

As mentioned before, dedicated server hosts tend to offer higher access restrictions than VPS hosts. However, there are a few options. If you are using an existing dedicated server that does not have any user accounts, you should not be restricted at all. If you are running your own project or using a VPS for a personal use, you may have more access restrictions. We suggest that you ensure your VPS account is not already in the contact list of your company. We’re not discussing open VPS here; we’re talking about isolated VPS’s. For more information on account administration, please refer to section 3.3.

However, if you are interested in using dedicated servers for a project or if you are looking to purchase additional services, we suggest that you read our dedicated server guide. It explains how dedicated servers differ from VPS’s, how to register for a dedicated server, and what different level of services you can run on a dedicated server. We also explain why and how open or isolated VPS’s are an alternative. Having a separate guide for each level of service makes it easier to pick the right one for you.

January 28th, 2010
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Christmas Update

Best wrapping paper ever.

Best wrapping paper ever.

Well its knee-deep in leftover turkey that I bring you this update, so I thought it only appropriate to do a short round up of gaming news, good gaming gifts and things to look forward to. So in the spirit of the everlasting and eternal with which Christmas is now loosely asscociated with, I bring you something else just as everlasting – Duke Nukem Forever …and ever. That’s right, the unfortunate title is not actually dead, at least according to Scott Miller, CEO of 3D Realms, despite the various lawsuits and speculated release dates. He claims that in the next few years there will be a “resurgence” of the Duke Nukem IP. More info here – just let it die!

Adding to the already comprehensive evidence of the importance of the games industry within the entertainment sector is a new report from the Daily Telegraph showing that Britons spent more on games in the past year than movies (that’s DVDs and cinema visits together) totalling up to a wopping £1.73bn compared to just over £1bn at the box office. Mainstream media is slowing pulling itself out of its own ignorance, and the more this continues, the better acknowledgement games will get. It took the global event of Modern warfare 2’s release to even alert some newspapers that men over the ages of 21 actually played video games and they subsequently published whole articles on how astounding it was – lets hope for a brighter future. In news from the US various studios are reporting layoffs such as Futuremark, but on the positive side,  a recent developer census chowed that there has infact been a slight rise in employment over the pond – glass half full eh?

I mentioned the importance of DLC a couple weeks ago, and the avalanche of downloadable delights is proudly rolling forth right now. All the Fallout 3 DLC is now available for half price on Xbox Live should you need to get your post apocalyptic fill, and you should; Also up for the picking is all the CoD:WaW DLC for just 2000MS points, though im still yet to figure out why you’d be playing that, what with god’s Infinity Ward’s gift to gamers being out there on the shelves. We also have brand new content for our pleasure including Mad Moxxi’s Underdome Riot for Borderlands which is out now for Xbox gamers, and January 7th for the PSN. Finally we have some Dragon Age: Origins DLC to look forward to, coming out next week – dig deep folks – afterall, its Christmas.

Speaking of Dragon Age, its one of the many delectable gifts I received this festive season and im thoroughly enjoying it – but its very much an RPG fan’s wet dream, so hardcore FPS’ers should stay clear for fear of pointy ears and swords. I also received WW2 sandbox game The Saboteur and I’ll be posting a review up in a week or so with my thoughts.

If you happily received Modern Warfare 2 this Christmas or any other time, you will, apparently be going straight to hell, at least according to a Maine Christian group who are saying all decent people should denounce MW2. Ironically, all those loonies are doing is giving the game with all the publicity in the world, just a tad bit more; Morons. And while we’re on the subject of Infinity Ward’s Shooter, I feel its worth mentioning that its topped out the illegal download charts this year unsurprisingly, being downloaded 5 million times – bit of a shame really; TV shows and music are one thing – but don’t bother illegally acquiring such a damn fine game.

Christmas is also a time for sharing, so I’ll underwhelm you by sharing the videos and links ive been looking at recently that you may also enjoy. Firstly, spoiler warning, as Mass Effect 2’s Achievement list has been leaked, you can find that here, Then we have a couple of videos on YouTube which apply the mythbusting method of the popular TV series Mythbusters to Modern Warfare 2 – a match made in heaven; and you might just find out some interesting stuff or at least some new methods to torture noobs. Lastly I’m a huge fan of the Inside Gaming series, so what could be better than a games-related comedy web series featuring the host of Inside Gaming, Adam Kovic, AKA The Dead Pixel? …..not much, so here it is.

Finally, its time to do as Noddy of the 1970s band Slade did and look to the future because we’re in for one hell of  year this time round, especially in the opening months. Not only are we getting some fine DLC for Assassin’s Creed II for only a shiny nickel or two, but we’re in for some blockbusters as well. Topping my list is the space epic, Mass Effect 2 – Bioware know what they’re doing, and as an added bonus, have apparently made this sequel much seedier and adult – fun times. Also looking bloody fantastic is Rockstar’s Wild West offering Red Dead Redemption; the gameplay trailer looks bedwettingly-good I’ll have you know. Then of course we have some great potential in the FPS area with MAG, Battlefield Bad Company 2 and Bioshock 2, not to mention Splinter Cell Conviction and other big titles coming later on such as Brink. So thats it for now, not much actual news for this week – I hope to update much more regularly in the coming year and wish anyone who has stumbled across this blog a merry Christmas and belated new year!

December 30th, 2009
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