(This article discusses aspects of MASS EFFECT 2's plot in the vaguest way possible to avoid spoilers, but it inevitably reveals details you might prefer not to know before playing it. It's recommended you've played MASS EFFECT 2 before you read. Actually, it's recommended you play MASS EFFECT 2, period. But I digress.)
It's my assessment that the concept of storytelling in games is now widely accepted as vital, but still stained by general incompetence. KILLZONE 3 seemed eager to craft a compelling narrative but tripped and fell on a ditch full of poo miles short of its goal, as did PROTOTYPE, CRYSIS 2, CALL OF DUTY: BLACK OPS, PRINCE OF PERSIA and many others. Even MAFIA 2, the sequel to a game that was narratively years ahead of its time, failed to fulfill its potential due to a rushed ending and poor blending between story and gameplay, which mostly consisted of driving around to do mundane things and occasionally, if the game was feeling generous, you'd get to shoot someone.
Few companies in the medium reliably deliver narratives that don't suffer from the "good for games" curse, being good in their own right. In fact, off the top of my head, I can only think of two companies: Rockstar and Bioware. In 2010, both did memorable things with their games RED DEAD REDEMPTION and MASS EFFECT 2, but it was the latter that made the most of the medium's interactivity to instill in the player a genuine fear of fucking everything up.
The characters are brilliantly developed through well-written conversations and, most importantly, the situations you go through with them. They ask you for favours which, if indulged, will increase their loyalty to you. Helping Jacob deal with his father, convincing Tali's people not to ban her, finding a purpose for Grunt's existence, all of these missions are vital in making your mind see your AI partners as people whose fate is worth fighting for.
The game spends its entire duration making you care about all of them until you're about to write down the dates of their birthdays and wonder what gifts to buy them.
And then it puts their lives in your hands.
This is the genius of MASS EFFECT 2: its ending. The perfect blend of story and gameplay. As you and your team are faced with a mission so risky it's considered suicidal, the player is required to decide what role each character will play in that mission, and whoever you choose might die (horribly) or get others killed (also horribly).
The game offers you no help in choosing: all it does is describe each character' specialty, but there's no percentage of success, no recommendations. Even though the upgrades you bought for the characters throughout the campaign and their loyalty to you are important in determining whether they live through the final mission or not, they are still in constant danger and their survival remains subject to your decisions. And to make them, all you have is your instinct.
I found myself torn between picking the characters more suited to the task at hand and preserving the lives of the ones I liked best. I kept Garrus and Tali with me at all times so I could personally guarantee their safety, even though they could have been more useful to the mission that would save the entire galaxy if separated from me. I picked Thane for an escort task not only because I considered him competent enough to protect the people he'd be with, but also because it would lead him back to a safer area where he'd remain until the end of the hugely important mission that could have used the most skilled assassin in the universe.
Which decisions worked and which didn't, I'm not going to reveal. But the feeling of playing that final mission is simply unforgettable.
Blasting through waves of enemies while trying to get to a certain place before your teammates die, expecting to hear someone's demise over the comm chatter at any moment, catching a break and being asked whose life to risk next for the safety of the entire fucking galaxy which is in your hands and oh God I'm going to fuck this up
All of that is relentlessly dumped on your shoulders in a way no other medium is capable of doing, and even within the medium I think MASS EFFECT 2 is unique. And it shouldn't be. Games like the utterly brilliant PORTAL 2 show the many merits of tightly linear gameplay design, but I want to see more games that boast a non-linear story where the decisions you make deeply affect everything you hold dear in that universe to the point of making you feel your stomach go cold with the fear of failure, for it makes the victory all the more satisfying, and the defeat all the more dramatic.
"Bias", most popular word in the Idiot Fanboy Dictionary (wherein they define it as "Jim Sterling"), is an inherently bad thing deeply-rooted in human nature: defined by thefreedictionary.com as "mental tendency or inclination, esp an irrational preference or prejudice", which I personally define as "turning yourself blind to reality and distorting facts to suit your happy little fantasy world."
If it'll help us mantain a sense of happiness, it's much easier and attractive to believe it. Wouldn't it be great to believe that Sony is staffed solely by intelligent human beings? Therefore, having purchased a PS3, like I did, is a decision with no cons to it whatsoever. And therefore, every game released by the Sony Einsteins and their associates will be carefully written and developed to please you orgasmically. And therefore, when the actual game isn't up to what you hoped it would be (i.e. the second coming of Christ), it actually IS as great as you hoped! You're just feeling depressed, but you'll be okay in a second. That's why the player character is so difficult to control, and the aim mechanics so imprecise, and why you think you're seeing an enemy NPC running repeatedly into a wall. This is a game made by the professionals that made the gaming console you put irretrievable money on. It is therefore wonderful and you're just not feeling wonderful enough to play it. But you will soon, so don't feel sad. And while you wait, go on the Internet and insult people who disagree with you.
It won't make you happy to realize the PS3 has its problems along with its qualities; that it's quite possible Sony staffed their marketing department with drugged chimps; that their games are made by human beings capable of mistakes (and sometimes chimps); that a game you're eagerly expecting might suck; that not all aspects of the game you love are perfect; that the world isn't defined by a simple and comfortable black-and-white.
Yeah, let's not go with that! The reviewer giving it incredibly low scores such as 8.5 and 9.0 is just biased and corrupt (everyone on Metacritic gave it a 9.00001!). There are a number of reasons for him to hate this game enough to score it so badly, other than him sincerely thinking the game deserves it: he obviously wants to be a contrarian to convince people he's more intelligent than everyone; he gave a low score to another game from the same developer before, so obviously he has an axe to grind with them; he gave a high score to another game from the same developer before, so he obviously doesn't feel like repeating himself; he's a reviewer, so he obviously doesn't have a life or social skills and this is how he gets off; and he's obviously Jim Sterling.
Bias is a word often used against reviewers such as Sterling because they gave the game you consider perfect (or hope will be perfect, since you already pre-ordered it) the abysmal score of anything below 10, or gave the game you consider putrid (because it's the flagship game of the console you don't own) the huge score of anything above 0. And since the game is so clearly what you consider it to be -- I mean, it's clear to you, so it must be to everyone else, look at the Metacritic score! Wait, Metacritic disagrees with me well Metacritic sucks anyway! -- the point is logic dictates the reviewer is wrong. I mean, they used words such as "good" and "bad" in the review, and such words mean opinion, and opinion means subjectivity, and subjectivity means bias, and bias means the reviewer is Jim Sterling, and Jim Sterling means you must forget the proper use of grammar (assuming you ever learned), hit the caps lock key and personally insult him like the imbecile you are.
A subjective review is not a biased review. A subjective review is a review. There is no such thing as objectivity in reviewing because a review is the opinion of the writer. There is, of course, such a thing as a stupid opinion (ironically, most often used by biased fanboys): not properly arguing your points, failing to provide examples, writing "your" rather than "you're" because apostrophes hurt your head. You're still expressing an opinion that is not right or wrong -- it's just moronic. Someone else, someone with the advantage of having a brain, might be able to express the exact same opinion, along with arguments and examples to support it, making it interesting, at least.
I still squint to make sure I'm actually seeing a 4.5 on Jim Sterling's review of Assassin's Creed 2. It's a game I thoroughly enjoyed, but as much as I disagree with Sterling, I can understand why he didn't like it and I did -- the arguments and examples he used helped me determine our different tastes, and in some things I agreed on. This is the magic of reviewing: dissecting a work of art and helping the artform evolve. Reading other people's points to see flaws or qualities you missed or didn't think about, knowing in detail why you like or dislike something.
Take Heavy Rain. Many might consider it a masterpiece because the game acts like one. It's ominous, it has nudity, it's violent, it's "mature". But careful examination of the plot -- well, actually, just glancing at the plot -- will reveal its many inconsistencies and plotholes. As much as you want to like it, doing so will only encourage other developers to put equally small effort in the plots for their games. However, some things in Heavy Rain hit the mark -- it's a fun game, and its mechanics could work brilliantly in a game that makes sense.
If you want an objective review, you have two options: go read the game's Wikipedia article, or if it's still not objective enough, kill yourself and hope there is an afterlife with such a thing as objective reviewing.
And now to my final point, as you must be asleep by now: I often try to imagine the person behind such enlightening comments as "WAT A STUPID REVIEW!!1!! 8.5 IS RIDICOLOUS! YOU WAS JUST TO STUPID TO LEARN HOW TOO USE THE COMBAT SYSTEM!!1!"
The first thing to come to my diseased mind is often a teenager living in a basement somewhere, masturbating over Halo screenshots.
But first things to come to mind are not usually reliable. What if it's a doctor? Or an architect? What if it's not a Cheetos-fueled waste of oxygen? After all, bias extends to much more than just gaming -- political bias and religious bias are two important examples of how disastrous the human tendency to believe whatever is personally more convenient can be, and how it can infect even that level-headed friend of yours who is balanced about everything except one particular subject that turns him into a drooling fanatic. It's hard to accept the political party you've supported for a long time now consists of corrupt bastards, so... it doesn't, and you're right, like always. Isn't it wonderful?
Now let's insult everyone who disagrees so they won't break the illusion.
I know, I know: it was 2005. Gameplay trends change with vomit-inducing speed; having to find a key to open a door was actually acceptable level design not too long ago, and judging by DEVIL MAY CRY 4, Capcom still believes it is. Also, GOD OF WAR was the first of a franchise and therefore subject to its share of bad ideas and subpar implementation of good ones.
All of which should be dissected for all to see in microscopic detail, of course. It's a matter of learning, gaming industry, and in order to ensure the constant rip-offs of GOD OF WAR are eventually going to get better or preferably just fucking end, it's necessary to expose why this game, while worthy of respect for its many achievements, is so brain-killingly frustrating.
Me and this franchise have a history of hating one another. In my defense, the game started it. As a result of living in Brazil, a country where console games are ridiculously overpriced, forcing me to be economic with my purchases and to rely on whatever's available for rent, I played GOD OF WAR II for PS2 first, or more accurately, I persistently tried to. After having to move rocks around to solve incredibly boring puzzles to progress a story I had no emotional investment in, I had the feeling the game just didn't like me very much, and with time the feeling became reciprocal.
Then GOD OF WAR COLLECTION came along, re-dressing the whole thing in HD and giving me a chance to start properly this time: with the first game, which I recently finished.
The premise is, frankly, irresistible: you play as a large monosyllabic bastard with serious anger issues who wields chained twin blades and is on a quest to murder the God of War, Ares, and everyone in Greek mythology and, in fact, any sentient lifeform that happens to stand between him and whatever he's walking towards.
Logically this is a hard character to relate to, which is why the developers don't even bother; they just give him the typical angry male background of having lost his family and wanting revenge. They do add some flair to it, such as the reason for Kratos' pale skin and the impressive CGI cutscenes that appear regularly during gameplay, but in the end of the day, the one thing I gave a shit about is what part of Greek mythology I'd be able to sodomize next.
Considering the protagonist wields chained twin blades, and considering the huge praise this aspect of the game received, I expected amazing combat. However, when I think of the combat in GOD OF WAR, the image that comes to mind is a hurricane spurting blood and severed limbs everywhere. Which sounds awesome, and partially is, but it's mostly very obnoxious. Kratos cannot perform a single move directed at one target; he fights like there's a swarm of bees over him.
Remember the combat in PRINCE OF PERSIA: SANDS OF TIME? Oh, sorry, you were trying to forget it so you can go back to labeling that game as flawless. But see, I have a soft spot for the combat in SANDS OF TIME because it has two things that combat systems seem often disinterested in: strategy and rhythm. Strategy is an adaptable combat system to deal with varied enemies, forcing you to plan a few moves ahead so you can elegantly dispatch all your foes and feel proud of yourself thanks to the efficient illusion of having any fighting skills whatsoever. Rhythm is defined by being as different as possible from the combat in NINJA GAIDEN SIGMA, which can be best described as trying to guess what kind of enemy the sword-wielding blurs are, having half your health bar reduced to a third of its previous state in the five milliseconds you wasted trying to think of an appropriate combo, and finally settling for button-mashing while jumping around like a frog on ecstasy to avoid the fifteen exploding shurikens being thrown at your ass.
To use a positive and more recent example, rhythm is what the combat in BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM utterly nails.
SANDS OF TIME had a simple combat system, which is maybe why so many people hated it; hit and counter-attack your enemy until they fall over, then stick a dagger in their chests. But the charm was in adapting this simple combat system to deal with a variety of enemies. Not only that, but seeing the combat up-close made it much more intense, with the Prince clearly focused and struggling to block every incoming attack, vulnerable and having to settle on dispatching one enemy at a time while minding all the others surrounding him. And I find that much more fun than having a huge number of combos which are all effective in dealing death and destruction to just about anything killable. GOD OF WAR makes most of its combat save for the great setpieces into a casual, detached affair.
Be it minotaurs, medusas, screeching things with big tits or whatever the hell else the game threw at me, most of them were vulnerable to the same kind of combos. Sure, some could parry better than others, and some had extremely strong attacks, but in the end the combat just felt kind of samey and most importantly, it rarely happened on a personal level (something not helped by the far distance the fixed camera mostly settled on). On SANDS OF TIME, you had to focus on an enemy while paying attention to the others, which added a layer of tension and forced you to concentrate. In GOD OF WAR, you can simply wait until all the minions are in close range, then activate the CHAINY HURRICANE OF SWORDY DEATH, a combo directed at everything in a twenty-feet radius of you.
Which isn't true for the boss encounters, when the combat noticeably improves due to the clear and personal focus on one big and intimidating motherfucking target, but it's still problematic. Practically all boss encounters required me to jump as close as I could to the boss' face and deliver as many combos as possible while in the air, until the boss stomped me back into the ground, when I would get up and repeat like the world's most persistent mosquito. I did try using the roll move to evade the attacks, but this clearly proved fruitless, since the sheer shock caused by a huge boss punching the ground was enough to cause an earthquake in Olympus. Staying in the air as much as possible turned out to be the most self-preservational option, as the block move was also kind of useless against fists that were twice as big as Kratos.
The real variety in the combat is sadly in quick-time events, when you keep an inventive and gory animation going by pressing random buttons when prompted. And while the animation itself is entertaining, if you feel pleased with yourself after finishing it, you're probably the kind of person who pats yourself on the back for successfully brushing your teeth every day.
But what I see as the greatest flaw in the combat is the complete absence of an aftermath; after you finish a battle against a dozen scythe-wielding bloodbags, the room looks exactly the same. Enemies disappear in a cloud of black smoke as soon as they die and sometimes before they even hit the ground, and all the liters of blood they spurt just fade out shortly after splattering all over the soon-to-be-clean-again floor and walls. So not only the combat itself is relatively confusing and obnoxious, but the only indication you have of having just fought is the shiny new number of red orbs you have to spend on new moves and magic. Which turns most of the combat into minor, forgettable nuisances instead of memorable encounters. If the problem is processing power, I would gladly have accepted less enemies if I could properly see the horrible things I was doing to them (which only happened when finishing them with a gory move by pressing circle).
(You could argue that SANDS OF TIME has no battle aftermath either, but at least it had a reason for it, neatly summed up by "monsters made out of sand")
It's no wonder the combat that happened anywhere but on ground level turned out to be much more fun; to climb a wall, find an enemy and repeatedly hit him against said wall is immensely satisfying. Sure, it was simpler and much easier, but it was clear, seen fairly up-close and, if you share my sense of humor, really fucking funny.
Which doesn't mean the combat isn't entertaining; it is, otherwise I wouldn't have managed to go past the first two hours of the game. It was just lacking and not worthy of the immense praise it received. Having a billion different moves does not equal a good combat system; a neat control scheme that awards tactical thinking is far more satisfying, as BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM, with its economic and yet surprisingly varied and adaptable combat, would later prove. Try repeatedly pressing the punch button in that game and in a matter of seconds the bat-ballsack will be permanently pushed into the bat-intestines by a tire iron.
What definitely wasn't entertaining in GOD OF WAR were the fucking omnipresent puzzles. I'm not sure who thought requiring Kratos to think of anything more complex than gutting was a good idea. I'm a fan of thinking, but whoever developed the puzzles in GOD OF WAR apparently isn't, considering they're the most retarded scenarios you can imagine, added just to lenghten the gameplay time and pretend Kratos ever uses his brain for anything that doesn't involve a bodycount.
Let me bring up SANDS OF TIME again, for a reason that is far less debatable than its combat: SANDS OF TIME had the best kind of puzzles; the ones that are fun to do. They were an integral part of the platforming; finding out how to get across a chamber was the thinking process, and the fun part was in actually doing it, swinging around in beautifully acrobatic moves, trying your best to perform an unstoppable string of them, going from a hundred feet high to ground level in an amazing display of parkour.
The puzzles in GOD OF WAR are about turning a lever until a rock appears, and then moving the rock to a pressure plate, which will open a door to a room full of enemies for you to kill and have some fun for about thirty seconds until they're all dead and it's back to moving rocks around until the next path presents itself. Another puzzle that is a favorite of the development team is figuring out when the game requires you to backtrack to a location you barely remembered. My favorite way of solving that one was a walkthrough, because fuck that level design.
"Hey, sounds like every adventure game I ever played! Having to figure out a puzzle to progress, and lots of backtracking!" Yes, you might also remember that in good adventure games, this was fun to do because there was a good story that you wished to see to the end, whereas I couldn't give two shits about Chainswords Miseryguts and his family, and the villain Ares wasn't well-developed enough for me to actually be interested in seeing him skullfucked by the man whose life he'd ruined. Well, whose life he'd saved first, then ruined, plus Kratos is a bit of a dick regardless of -- anyway.
The platforming in GOD OF WAR is about grabbing ledges or jumping on various ascending surfaces while fighting demonic bats. This game has one of the worst examples of platforming ever devised by human beings with (presumably) functional brains: rotating cylinders with spikes, which you have to climb while avoiding the spikes. If you're hit by a single spike, or even if you're not, thanks to the awful collision detection, you'll fall and hit many other spikes on the way down, having to climb the whole fifty-feet long bastard again, only to find an even longer one that requires you to do the exact same thing. This happens near the end of the game, by which time the only thought in my mind was "Goddamn it I've come this far, haven't I?", so I bravely kept going. You could say it was a brief flash of common sense from the developers to include this sequence near the end, but no, because any common sense at all would have resulted in this sequence being cut and the amoeba responsible for coming up with it being bukkaked by the entire development team.
The thing about GOD OF WAR is that it has character and uniqueness -- well, it had, before all the rip-offs came along. Regardless of all its flaws, they were flaws because they tried something new or that hasn't been tried very hard before. It was heavily based on Greek mythology, it had very gory combat and wasn't afraid to experiment. Sure, the story was forgettable, the combat is mostly lacking and the experimentation resulted in most of the gameplay time being spent inside a temple that is essentially an endless sequence of find-the-missing-crank/key/artifact puzzles to get to the fucking Pandora's Box --
-- but STILL. It attempted something new in many regards, and while new doesn't stay new forever, it will temporarily forgive a lot of flaws a game has simply due to its freshness.