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Some say he never sleeps and eats only gourmet amaretto cupcakes. Others claim he's a hyperactive optimist. To citizens of the Destructoid empire, though, he's Captain Starkey, Intergalactic Games Journalist.


Disclosure: In my undergrad at the University of Minnesota, I did do PR and event promotion for Microsoft. It does not and has not affected any of the pieces I have written, but it is something that you, as a reader, should know.
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I am someone who has been steeped in gaming. I started playing when I was just a few months old, and over the past two decades I’ve developed a sense of arrogance when it comes to gaming. It is something that I have reflected upon time and time again, because I can never discern what the source of this attitude is. A main interest of mine in why people like one game or another, and whether or not there is any objective “good” or “bad” when it comes to assessing the quality of a game. In a grander sense, I would ultimately like to answer the question- Is fun enough? And are the people who don’t think so really just pretentious dicks (like me)?



We all know someone who is a little… well…snobbish. When these people start talking about chosen media they always look down on your favorites for some seemingly arbitrary reason. They’re usually giant douches about it. While I will openly admit I have most of these character traits, I’d like to think that I am a little different in that I don’t intentionally smack talk others. I used to, but I eventually realized that this is a really bad way to make friends. Still, I recognize that I dislike a lot of games that the majority of core gamers cherish. I hate most Mario platformers, and I really hate Halo, Gears of War, Resistance, damn-near every Final Fantasy game, all of the old Resident Evils, the Grand Theft Autos, and Ninja Gaiden just to name a few. In each case I have at least one major complaint that boils down to bland, uninteresting characters, bad level design, or a hackneyed plot. As much as I’d like to try and claim that my distaste for all of the above titles is not founded in a rejection of that which is popular, I really don’t think I can, because I feel so consumed by my bullcrap hipster attitude that I cannot tell to what degree my complaints are legitimate, or if they are merely excuses to hate an otherwise exceptional game.

I wonder if any game can ever be called objectively “good”. As an artistic relativist, I don’t personally believe so; however there are conventions to game design- Intuitive level composition, challenging gameplay that avoids frustrating the player, teaching players to utilize new concepts in subtle yet inspired ways, etc. Is a game that follows these tenants to the letter always good? What about those games that break with these rules? Is unintuitive level design ever tolerable?

Halo, for example, specializes in shitty, repetitive level design (though this is limited almost exclusively to the campaign). It is confusing, easy to get turned around. There are even arrows painted on the floor to tell you which way to go; presumably because the developers knew how badly they messed up. The characters are one-dimensional at best and the narrative is nothing if not clichéd. Half-Life 2, having many of the same core elements is redeemed through its flawless execution and smooth, flowing, and elegantly constructed form. This may be my traditional rant, but how much of that is simply my rejection of what is popular; if people have fun, then why should anyone care about such vacuous complaints?



God I hate Halo...

That said, when I play a game that openly goes for shallow fun (for example, Super Mario Galaxy) I can enjoy it up to a point. I loved Galaxy until about the time I became a bee. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with bees, but sometime around then I started asking myself a rather annoying question.

“Why?”


Anytime I engage with media it is an exercise is stavin]g off that one question. When it pops into my head, without exception, it wipes out any possible interest that existed. To me, it is the hallmark of poor quality. I reason, if it had an interesting plot or characters or if it was capable of keeping things new and engaging, then I would not have asked that question. Even things that I think are absolutely fantastic begin to get old after a while. Fallout 3, one of my favorite games ever could not hold my interest forever. As fun as watching someone’s head fly apart in a dozen different directions, it just isn’t enough. This is the main reason I cannot play multiplayer games for more than two weeks or so before moving on to something else. In the end, I always ask “why”, and once I start thinking about it, I can never go back.



Yahtzee, in his review of Psychonauts said that, “I would like to think that we aren’t all so jaded that we can let a few handling issues get in the way of enjoying a game that allows you to set squirrels on fire…”. That’s a great point, but it is one that I think he counters himself in his Brutal Legend review when he harped on a handful of harmless hindrances; quite the hypocrite.

I, on the other hand, enjoyed BL. It got me listening to metal again, I found it genuinely funny, and I had a good time with it. I didn’t mind the lackluster RTS elements because I was so consumed by the world that it didn’t matter. I know a lot of people disagree with me, and that’s just fine but at this point I’m really starting to wonder if there is anything objective about the design or reviewing of games. Croshaw, a reviewer that I usually respect, holds a “bizarre and fantastical setting” over gameplay in one instance then turns around and criticizes a game that has very similar problems. So I guess the take-home point, as per Croshaw, is that fun is sometimes enough; while at other, arbitrarily designated times, it is not.

I once thought that there were games that were good and/or bad independent of the observer, but the more I think about it the more I think I understand how utterly ludicrous that is. At the same time, there are some things that are generally not a good idea to put in games (e.g. escort missions) yet a game can be generally considered to be “good” with them (Ico and RE4). So it really makes one wonder just what makes a game “good”? If everything is subjective, then why try to legitimize what is not there by attaching a number to a review in an attempt to assess the title’s quality? Is it not better to simply describe the game as best you can?

Conversely, it seems like there are games that are bad, through and through. There are just some things that are so godawful that they don’t seem to have any redeeming qualities from any perspective grounded in reality. Games like Superman 64 and E.T. will no doubt crop up in your minds, but the thing for me is that I feel the exact same about Halo. With the notable exception of multiplayer, which I always think gets a free pass on the whole “fun” vs. “substance” debate because I seriously doubt anyone has ever expected reflections on the human condition from Smash Bros Brawl.



SSBB Discusses the oppression of women in Nazi Germany

Some people, like Jim Sterling claim that they find “art” in blowing people up. Some like Ben Croshaw think that the epitome of gaming is grounded solely in fun (this is a bit confusing though because he often accuses games of “having the depth of a spoon”). I think that, of those that actively participate in this debate and are in the public eye, Anthony Burch has the best defense of what games *can* be. Games, right now, are almost exclusively male power fantasies. Only a handful of titles in Gamerankings’ top 20 are more than that; typically starring males, almost always in power suits and requiring you to kill thousands of people. Is it fun? Hell yeah. Is it unique? Not at all. I’ve grown so completely bored with the standard space marine kill-a-thon.

With recharging health, grenades, vehicles, absurdly over-powered guns, rockets, etc. it is not uncommon, for a gaming protagonist to wantonly slaughter dozens or hundreds without a single brush with death. Recently, while playing Dragon Age 2, I realized that it was just as guilty of this. Bioware, being one of the few developers that actually understands the importance of good storytelling, still fall victim to this teenage boy wank-fest by allowing you to kill 25-30 people in a single bout in a gloriously gruesome fashion. This is forgivable in a game like God of War, but in DA2 I was trying to be “good”. I was trying to save lives, but I didn’t really have an option. You can’t skip fights, or even talk your way out of half of them. This unyielding insistence on violence creates this cognitive dissonance because you have a role-playing game from a company that prides itself on giving players choice, yet when I choose to kill as few people as possible, I’m still a mass-murderer at best and on par with an entire Blight at worst. This is the sort of thing that really pushes me away from a chunk of the games I mentioned earlier. It becomes a huge problem for me when a majority of the game is based is rooted in this type of gameplay.

So is fun enough? If all you ever want from games is the equivalent of Die Hard, Family Guy, Harlequin novels and a whoopee cushion, then yes ,fun is enough. If you want Shakespeare in Love, Dexter, Moby Dick then, I implore you; support those few people who strive to push the medium.

I would say that the only rational way assess a game is to look at what the developer tried to accomplish with it and decide for yourself if it worked for you. If they want you to have fun, and you do, then they did a good job. If they are looking for artistic relevance, then take it for what it is. I can understand the appeal of killing swarms of things, but sometimes I need more. Sometimes I start wondering why I can’t have anything else. I think we at least deserve some choices. What do you think?

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Daniel Starkey
10:17 PM on 04.24.2011



I realized that I’ve pretty much only posted larger articles I’d like to post some smaller, more regular things dealing predominantly with my experiences with several on-campus video game clubs. I’m a President of one, vice of another, founder of another and an officer in yet another.

So one of the many things I spend my time on is a little group at the University of Minnesota called GG. We meet once a week to talk about a particular topic in gaming. Sometimes we discuss a franchise, sometimes a political or cultural issue in gaming. Sometimes people prepare a presentation to give to the rest of the group, but most of the time we just chat. It’s nice and cold.

I was determined to start the group when I started thinking about how all extant gaming clubs on campus were competitive- and that’s usually not something I am very interested in. I tend to be a social single-player. I like playing games and then talking about them or playing a game with someone else in the room watching. On the rare circumstance that I do play multiplayer games, I like them in the context of friendly competition as opposed to the all-out blood-sport it typically turns into.

All things considered I’d say that we’ve done quite well for ourselves. We get roughly 20 attendees per week, and we could probably pull more if we advertised, but after ~25 it gets hard to control. We currently have two discussion group leaders, Megan and I. With the two of us, we keep things running smoothly most of the time. Oh… also… I met my girlfriend through this club… so… maybe it’s a great way to get a lady friend.

I’ve thought about maybe putting up our weekly topics as a blog post and summarize our discussions, or perhaps making a podcast or something. If there’s enough demand I’ll probably start in on this.

If this is something you have ever thought about or wanted to do, I can definitely provide you with some pointers to make this work on your campus.
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Being the Bioware whore that I am, I bought and finished the latest DLC for my current favorite game, Mass Effect 2, within the first few hours of its release. This is my review of Arrival ME2’s latest and last expansion, and the “bridge content” between ME2 and 3. This will contain minor spoilers for the ending of the Mass Effect 2 campaign, so if you haven’t played that yet, and you intend to, proceed with caution.

I decided I wanted to write this about halfway through playing the DLC; my initial purpose being to formally describe how underwhelming Arrival was. Between then and now, my opinion has shifted a bit further towards the negative end of the spectrum, and it is definitely a weak link in the exemplary line of DLC Bioware has provided thus far.

Arrival is short. Easily shorter than Overlord or Lair of the Shadow Broker. I finished it the first time through in just under an hour between two of my classes. There aren’t any new enemies or weapons that I discovered, so the only reason to play is the plot; which is where a majority of my complaints originate.

Bioware, and the Mass Effect franchise especially, are big pushers of player choice. It struck me as odd then, that none of your choices matter in the DLC. There are at least two major (or at least they should be) options in Arrival, and after playing through twice I can confirm that neither has any effect on the outcome at all. What is worse is that the writers dance around one potentially brilliant choice that could have had tremendous effects in Mass Effect 3, and they fail utterly to capitalize on it; a real shame, considering that I was expecting to have to make that decision and I spent most of the time wondering which course I would ultimately take. It is rare for games to make me genuinely question myself, and battle with which action is morally “right”, that I was saddened when I realized that all that speculation was meaningless. I can’t say anymore without spoiling what little is there, suffice it to say that I feel a great opportunity was squandered.

Arrival can be purchased for 560 Microsoft/Bioware points or $6.99 on PSN, and at that price I would say it isn’t worth the cost. Arrival was billed as “bridge content” but by the end everything returns to normal. No critical information is revealed so it largely feels like a waste of time. If you haven’t played Lair of the Shadow Broker yet, I highly recommend it and it is definitely worth the $10 pricetag.

P.S.
For some reason one character or another says “Arrival” at least five times, probably more over the course of that hour. It seems intentional, which to me, makes it that much worse because there was a really tense moment when I just could not stop laughing.

P.P.S.
I was really hoping to knock this review out before Destructoid got their review up, but it looks like I was beaten to the punch.
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For quite some time I’ve had some rather unusual thoughts about the structure of gameplay difficulty, and I’m glad that I have some incentive to fully explore and distill these concepts into a cogent argument.

Consider this common scenario from the average gamer’s life. Your favorite developer announces a new title at a conference, be it E3, GDC, TGS, or Leipzig. You have never been so excited! You wait for a year or two, keeping up with all of the news and previews, eagerly awaiting your chance to play it. Early reviews say that it is really good, but has some issues with the difficulty curve. You think to yourself “Bah! I’ve been playing games for years, I’m sure it will be fine.”

The release date is finally here; you walk into your local game shop and plop down the $50 or $60. You take it home, carefully peal back the cellophane, take a quick sniff and pop the disc into your system. You get everything ready, get yourself a nice coffee, take the phone off the hook, lock your door, turn down the lights, and settle in for a night of relaxation. Controller in hand, you are ready.

Two hours in, and the pacing is fine. You wonder what those reviewers were whining about. You haven’t had any trouble. Maybe they just sucked. You get to your first boss fight and you start having some trouble. You get killed. You think it’s no big deal; you reload a save and try again. You’re slaughtered. A little annoyed you rethink your battle plan, go grab a few more healing items and tackle it again. Nope. Bitch-slapped by some psychic alien you start shouting in frustration. Again you try, and again you fail. Ultimately, you give up and head to the forums to rip your favorite dev’s latest IP a new one.




This happened to me when playing Mass Effect. The first boss fight was brutal. It doesn’t matter which one you pick. The first one is always a little hard. Even now, every time I try and get another person to play it, they cruise through the game until they get to the first real boss and they hit a brick wall. I’ve played it enough now, that even on Insanity I can blaze through any mission in about 30 minutes, but it is definitely not alone. I had a similar problem when playing Lost Odyssey, and I remember raging pretty hard towards the end of Psychonauts. Ninja Gaiden got really annoying and made me afraid to play it, and I cannot count the number of times I’ve stepped down the difficulty ladder just to progress at a reasonable pace. And let me be clear- I’ve been playing games since before I could walk or talk. My first game was Dr. Mario on the NES when I was just a few months old. I’m not the most skilled guy out there, but I can pick up most any game and charge right on through without any trouble. It is a special kind of frustrating to have a game that you truly love and want to play but can’t because the game is too hard.

While I fully acknowledge that older games were typically harder, my concern lies largely with the creation of a consistent gameplay experience. Many people, myself especially, expect to be immersed when playing a game. We seek strong aesthetics, solid audio design, and a believable story with round characters such that we may be steeped in the world that someone has built for us to experience. Yes games were usually harder in the past, but that doesn’t mean they were better, or, if they were it is not without qualification. If you are looking specifically for something challenging, that tests your skills and your reaction time and the degree to which you can control your character to conquer hurdles that have been laid out before you, then you probably love classic games. They excel in providing that kind of experience. What they don’t do, what they mostly can’t do, is provide that same sort of immersion that modern games have. The stories, the music, the characters, the aperture through which you can view the world in general are all much, much more narrow. The two classes of games cannot be compared. I have set my focus primarily on more modern titles as they are usually structured for immersion. For these games I think that dying, and especially “lives”, “stocks”, or “guys” should be largely eliminated. I put forth as an example of how that might improve gameplay Retro Studio’s first title, Metroid Prime.




Metroid Prime, while still having death, is rarely challenging enough for you to die, and even when you do, it always feels fair. There is a simple directional indicator to tell you where the damage is coming from, and with only a few exceptions, your power scales with what you are expected to kill. Bosses are often huge in size, but you are given every tool needed to properly combat them, and you are never left in the dark. The payoff for gameplay, I think, is huge. You often feel like you are in danger, but you get an amazing high when you fell enemies many times your size, but there is relatively little death to sour the experience.

It is entirely possible that my adventure to Tallon IV was unique, though. Perhaps I am simply really good at it. This does little to mar my main point- difficulty and unfair death is often frustrating, it breaks immersion, and it can piss us off. Why then, do we cling to this trope? If it is not fun, and damages our experiences, why do we need it? I suspect that many will claim that it makes reaching the end more satisfying, and I agree, to an extent, but when the difficulty begins to degrade the overall experience, it is a significant problem. While I can understand the desire for a game that is exceptionally difficult such that the end game is something that only a handful of people are ever able to see, I think that prohibitive challenges are necessarily toxic to gaming as a form of mass media. Movies, books, and music all base their worth on the fact that they become shared pieces of culture. If all games are prohibitively hard, then bringing new gamers into the fold suddenly becomes a monumental undertaking. Gaming, as an art form cannot grow if developers do not have an audience.

An acquaintance of mine criticizes my claim that games are among the deepest media available through an astute analogy. “I don’t think games can ever be considered a form of art because I’ve never been unable to turn the page of a book or watch past a scene in a movie due to a lack of skill.” While, I find it childish and personally annoying, it is a fair point; especially when we consider a broader audience. We, as “hardcore” gamers, lament the “dumbing down” of modern games. We expect more people to join our cultural tradition, but we do not want to adapt to the changing environment in which we live.



Going too far to the other end is just as bad. While I certainly rail against unnecessarily hard games, there are very easy games that deserve just as much ire. I cite as evidence Twilight Princess. A solid game all around that suffered from really awkward difficulty. My main issue with it is the lack of any real sense of danger. In the beginning, you are relatively vulnerable and then you grow in power; that much is standard. The problem, though, is that your enemies do not scale with you. The final battle with Ganon is laughably easy. He does no more damage than some of the very first enemies you encounter. What is supposed to be the epic conclusion to a grand tale comes off instead as a fight like any other. I, personally, never felt like I was at risk of dying. My mother, a more casual player, was very satisfied with the game, however, and shared none of my complaints.

This is a simple problem, and one that, in theory, would be easy to fix. Games like Half-life 2, I think, have a very clever solution- an automatically scaling difficulty curve. When the game realizes the player is struggling, it gives out more health in random boxes. It is a simple adaptation, but it is one that, from experience, is remarkably effective. If, for example, Twilight Princess, detected that I breezed through the game with relatively little trouble, then it could have, in theory, beefed up Ganon a bit and made that bout a lot more exciting.



This may sound obvious, but I advocate a middle-ground in terms of difficulty. I can’t find myself joining in with the rest of the “hardcore” gaming crowd screeching that games as a medium are going down the shitter. I think games have never been better. We liked the games of old because we had never tasted a truly palatable story with relatable characters. If you really get down to it, when thinking about them as being artistically relevant, they blew ass chunks. Maybe I’m broken though. Maybe I am just a gaming-hipster, but I think using difficulty as a measure of a game’s worth, or as a selling point is unfounded. Just because games are easier, doesn’t mean they are bad. It means they are accessible. That said, I can definitely relate with people who feel that gaming has become too easy, but it is a much smaller problem than I think most gamers make it out to be.

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This is the portal to the Lylat system... I put far too much time into saving the pansies that live there...

When I was a young lad, just seven years of age, I dreamed of nothing more than getting my hands on a Nintendo 64. My birthday passed, and I got a Virtual Boy. At the time, I loved it… then I played Teleroboxer, and I raged so hard I broke the right eyepiece... so I was gameless for several months. After receiving a two-year-old POS system for my birthday, I didn’t have a lot of hope for anything special going into the Holiday Season of ’97. I had all but lost my faith in Santa Clause, and I was astute enough to realize that my mom probably couldn’t afford it.

Christmas Day I got out of bed, still in my Hunter Green feety-pajamas, and I shuffled into the living room. With a tempered optimism I started unwrapping my presents. I saw one that was apparently “from” Santa Clause. It was a decent-sized boxed, and I figured it was probably going to be pretty good, but I distinctly remember laughing to myself as I started opening it about the ridiculous notion of it actually being from the man in red. I tore into the paper in the visceral style of a child on Christmas Day. It wasn’t too different from this little boy’s experience…



I was like this kid. Literally. Mom should have recorded that. I could out-crazy that brodude.

I couldn’t believe my luck! A Nintendo 64! Finally I was going to be playing 3d games. Y’know, besides the first Starfox. My first two games for the thing were Mario 64 and Starfox 64, same as pretty much everyone else’s. But, unlike most other people I think, I was far more attached to Starfox. I had played through the first one on the SNES countless times. I remember my mom’s fiancé used to read the text to me, and I was amazed that he could understand frogs, rabbits, falcons, and foxes. Interestingly enough I was always so much better than he was. I could play through on the hardest difficulty without trouble, while he could never break through the armada on the third level… hehe…

Right away, I fell in love. Seeing all of my favorite characters with super-detailed ships, new weapons and vehicles, and textures and everything was just… well it was a time of great glee for this growing gamer. I took the new game to day care where I wowed the kids there with my skillz. Thankfully the place wasn’t big on the sharing thing, so I could bogart the TV and play for hours.

One day though, a new kid came in and watched me play. He said I was good, but told me that if I saved Falco and then flew through the arches on Corneria that I could open up a new level. I had had the game for months and I never figured out that particular “secret.” I was so surprised that I passed it up and kind of pissed that it was so simple; I tried at least a dozen times to get to that “Y-shaped nebula-looking thing.” Once there I fell harder for the game than ever before. A whole new side of the map had opened up to me, not mention the possibility of even more secrets that might one day be uncovered.

So I played. And I played. And I played. For years I played. Off and on, multiplayer, single player… I just played. I would rent about one game per week, and after beating that, or getting to some level I couldn’t pass, I would always fall back on my precious Starfox 64. In time I discovered more and more little tidbits. I found the secret passage in Sector X and the Asteroid Field; I beat the train on Macbeth, killed the lights on Zonas, and eventually I found James McCloud. I thought I had found everything. I grew bored, and I quit playing sometime around 2000. Multiplayer might have kept me going even longer, but we all know that it sucks the sweaty, collective balls of humanity two ways ‘til Tuesday.

I still adored the Starfox series, but Starfox Adventures and Assault never really satiated my appetite for space-action and futuristic dogfights. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I spent my fair share of time in my closet, with a mound of blankets arranged like the inside of an aircraft, pretending to be Fox McCloud. My imagination only fueled my enthusiasm for the genre and the continued failure of Nintendo to provide me with an even passable new Starfox game depressed me to no end.



Assault was infinitely better than adventures... but considering that trash is one of the worst games ever... that's not saying much...

Two summers ago though, I was burning time, just waiting for my freshman year of college to start and one of my friends picked it up again. He told me that he had found a new mode- Expert, and some fun new things in multiplayer including the ability to run about on foot. Once again I was shocked that some aspect of the game had eluded me for so long. I found that I had to get medals in every planet by meeting a certain score and keeping all of my team mates alive. The latter qualification was probably what kept me from expert mode for all those years because I often killed Slippy just make sure that s/he-thing wasn’t talking.



Admit it. No one knew what the fuck that thing was. Also, because I'm not a douche here's the original link.


Once I stopped being a dick (or doing my sanity a favor, depending upon how you look at it) getting the new mode was cake. I had a new playground. Sheer nostalgia kept me going for a while, enough for a few runs through all of my old favorite levels on the new difficulty. When I had my fun, I check some faqs online, just to make sure I had found everything. Finally, I could claim that I finished the game. Completely.

I still save the Lylat System every few months. It really is a short title, especially by today’s standards, and I never get tired of hearing General Pepper’s exclamation at the sight of the hefty bill for my *ahem* expert services. I feel like a fucking badass every time.



Ah... the invoice screen... in all it's tiny glory...

Starfox 64 is a game I just keep coming back to. It is short, sweet, loads of fun, and still somewhat impressive visually-speaking. Back then, it was enough to revive my faith in Saint Nicolas, and I think it has aged pretty well. Nowadays it would be a fantastic XBLA game; though, it probably couldn’t pass as a full title given its remarkably short nature. Y’know… now that I think about it… I haven’t played it in a while… and I left my N64 back in my home state of Oklahoma… I think I’ll just go kill me some monkeys for the rest of my shift on a nice emulator…

addendum: I wrote this a few days ago, and I was sitting on it, trying to decide if I would submit it... In that time I found that Starfox 64 was being remade for the 3DS. How that slipped past me, I don't know, but that's definitely enough to get me wanting one. That and Ocarina of Time might just tilt me to buying one in a few months.
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I would like to preface this by saying that, in a past life I once reviewed games on a regular basis. I had my share of pre-release review copies and the like, and some recent events have inspired to take up pen once again. I am starting what I hope will be a fairly regular stream of video game reviews with one that has recently become my favorite- Mass Effect 2. I chose this as my starting point because reviewing games that you like tends to be relatively easy, but reviewing a game that you consider to be your favorite presents a bittersweet task; coupled with the joy of lavishing praise comes the responsibility to be as objective as possible.



Commander Shepard- More awesome than you could ever hope to be.

If you’ve played Mass Effect then you are probably familiar with the setting. Humanity is new to the galaxy, but they are an up-and-comer in the galactic community. Our species is headstrong, expansionistic, and have a lot to prove. Your triumph over Saren in ME1 has gained humanity some political clout though the exact outlet depends heavily upon your choices; all of which carry over from your last intragalactic escapade.
Mass Effect 2’s prologue picks up one month after the Battle of the Citadel- the grand conclusion to the first installment in the series. Shepard has become the Citadel’s housekeeper. On what is supposed to be a fairly standard mission for the souped-up space marine, something goes terribly wrong. For those that are carrying a file over from game one and have developed an emotional connection with the characters, the next few scenes are dramatic to say the least.
Even though they take place within the first few moments of the game, I won’t spoil anything. Suffice it to say that these events cause Shepard to take a two-year hiatus and ultimately put her in bed with a rogue human faction- Cerberus. Your mission this time around will be to stop mysterious attacks on human colonies by assembling a team of stellar misfits into a well-oiled ass-kicking machine. You’ll also be forced to balance your factional allegiance- siding with the mainstream galactic community or bowing to the will of the Illusive Man, Cerberus’ well-funded leader.



He's always in front of that star...You'd think running an intra-galactic rabidly pro-human faction would require a bit more leg work.

Mass Effect was a generally solid title plagued with technical issues and unrefined gameplay mechanics. It was infamous for texture pop-in, locking up periodically, and has a series of vehicle sections that are generally considered to be among the worst in recent memory. Bioware has, for the most part, remedied most if not all of these issues. Firefights are quicker and squad mechanics have been tweaked such that on the higher difficulties players will need to take team composition into account if they expect to have any chance of surviving. Each class feels more distinct. Adepts skills for crowd control, while Infiltrators can cloak and snipe enemies from afar. Everyone feels useful, and each class has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Outside of combat, ME2 is very “Bioware” in its construction. You have a central hub- the Normandy- from which you launch all of your missions and interact with the game over world. There are a variety of planets to explore from story-centric locales like the seedy Omega and the war-ravaged homeworld of the Krogan, Tuchanka. On each of these planets you will have quite a few NPC’s, shops, etc. and then one or two major NPC’s that provide you with your main quests. Because the core of the game revolves around the meticulous construction of your team, most of the major missions will begin by searching for information relating to location of the next squadmate. After discovering their location, you will typically have to fight your way there. The reward is typically a weapon and a new character for your party.
This may sound very formulaic, but the consistency of it is very refreshing. You can do quite a bit of random exploration before each mission, and you generally know what you are getting yourself into when you start one; which is to the game’s credit because after initiating the sequence there usually isn’t any way to return until you have recruited fresh meat.



This is Mordin Solus. He is a bro.

Besides launching story missions from your ship, you can talk to those hard-earned colleagues to develop relationships (romantic or otherwise), research weapon and ship upgrades, explore any number of random, minor planets, or scan and then mine minerals for research by playing a cute minigame. Each of these contributes to the immersive nature of the Mass Effect universe. By having such an enormous body of material to work through, Bioware gives you a carefully roped off sandbox to explore. Those looking for the kind of completely open world found in Oblivion or GTA will be disappointed. Bioware takes the core concept of freedom from the western games tradition and carefully stitches it to the deliberate design commonly found in Japanese RPG’s. In this sense, they take the best of both worlds; giving the player unprecedented control over the course of events while at the same time precisely composing every interaction, all with the audience in mind. Usually, they hit their mark with astonishing grace, but there are a few moments where more morally even-handed players will likely feel like they are being forced into decisions that have no desirable outcome. These moments can be truly frustrating, though, to be fair, this is a consistent problem in Bioware games. They have a tendency to try and coerce extreme player action. Despite this slight shortcoming, the fine attention to detail that has been put into every aspect of the plot is commendable and, quite thankfully, matched by the luster of the title's other facets.



Yes, they let you probe Uranus.

Moving on to aesthetics, I must say that Mass Effect 2 is simply beautiful. There are dozens more animations for Commander Shepard and the rest of the crew, and the models have been cleaned up. With a tweaking of the equipment system, Shepard’s armor is fairly customizable, but for the sake of character design, each member of your team has their own look which contributes to the construction of their personality. The consistent appearance gives them more depth, more personality. Indeed, the Mass Effect Universe itself feels more alive than ever. Missions in Mass Effect 1 were largely based on lightly populated worlds. There were relatively few NPC’s and each planet lacked defining characteristics. ME2, by contrast is about seeking out specific people in a myriad of exciting locales, ranging from a dystopian underworld built into a hollowed-out asteroid to a beautiful planet coated with skyscrapers. Each locale has a carefully crafted flavor. This does lead to an intriguingly dynamic plot that may upset those that want a clear progression of plot events. The entire game builds to the final mission, and serves as one of only a few major plot events. At the same time, after certain requirements are met, the player will be forced to play through the other major plot points. This, while frustrating to those, like myself who resent the short-term loss of freedom, serves to keep things moving in a timely manner. These missions, thankfully, don’t feel forced and are seamlessly integrated into the overarching structure of ME2’s universe. Curiously, these missions do not seem to have the same brilliant design as the rest of the game. These levels don’t have the same unique aesthetic that clearly defines other major planets and locations. As a result, these plot points, while well-written and generally fun to play act as minor scuffs on a game that has otherwise been polished to a mirror finish.



This is a Scion. I hate it.

From an audio design perspective, Mass Effect 2 brings it in a big way. Jack Wall again provides the music for this title and once again he melds synthetic, sci-fi sounds with big, booming beats. Each mission has its own music that brilliantly fits the personality of the planet, and even of the potential squad mate that you are seeking out. Elements of the Mass Effect theme are brought back as subdued motives within big orchestral pieces that book end your encounters with the ME2’s primary antagonist- the collectors. Their music feels primal, representing their apparent lack of communication, society, culture, or any features that define the other advanced races throughout the galaxy. Their goal is destruction; nothing more. When they make their first appearance, their power is considerable, and from that point on, their music and their appearance is linked, establishing a mental connection between the music and the threat. The entire game is spent running from this absurdly powerful race, and, when you are finally ready for the final battle we hear two motives dueling as the Normandy approaches and directly combats the alien threat. While this attention to aural precision is often seen in movies, this is something we just don’t get enough of in games.
Besides the score, ME2 sounds great. There’s a lot of attention to detail, an all-star voice cast (including the return of two personal favorites, Jennifer Hale and Seth Green), and believable effects. There aren’t too many extra things to say about this that has not been addressed already, so I’ll skip to my complaints. Some of the voice-acting does miss its mark. The male Shepard seems less emotive and much less relatable, and I have never liked Tali’s faux Russian accent. Most of the guns, too, feel a little lackluster compared to, for example, a game like Half-Life 2, wherein practically every weapon has a distinct and crisp sound, most of the weapons just don’t feel to pack much oomph. These complaints are relatively minor though and really don’t detract from the overall game experience.
Mass Effect is to be Bioware’s space epic. Built upon a strong RPG pedigree, Bioware is hoping that it will become a multimedia powerhouse. This is subtly evident in several ways. Firstly there are a few tidbits of content that aren’t readily accessible with the main sequence of game events. Things are referenced that happened in the novels. And while the writers are happy to help with some back story, I get the feeling from the tone that the characters take with my Commander Shepard that these are things I should already know. This also means that, coming from the first game, and ultimately leading into the third, the story feels very in medias res, and the ending is very clearly leading into the final chapter. Thankfully, ME2 does not end in a cliffhanger. In setting up the foundation for the final confrontation, there is still a feeling of closure. You have a clear ending that, if anything leaves the back door open just a crack to prepare for the next installment. As a result of this tasteful handling of the plot, I doubt too many people have or will be complaining about the epilogue.



The galaxy as we know it will be destroyed by kittens. ignore them at your peril.

Mass Effect 2 is a phenomenal title. It is such an improvement over the first. Fans had a lot of complaints about ME1, and Bioware listened. Texture pop-in is pretty much gone, elevators are gone, the Mako is gone, the cover system is dramatically improved, the powers feel more balanced, and your squad needs to be carefully managed, much unlike your inventory which has been streamlined beautifully. It is difficult if not painful to return to Mass Effect 1, realizing that I really don’t WANT to play any particular part of it. In contrast, ME2 keeps me coming back again and again. I’ve played through on insanity, with all of the DLC (most of which holds to the high standards set by the rest of the game), I’ve gone through with a variety of Shepards running many different squad configurations, skipping some content on different runs, and customizing again and again. It never gets old. Killing swarms of baddies is just as fun now as it was when I started, and I have infected my friends with Mass Effect fever. And this is Bioware’s goal I think. To create something that you just can’t help but tell others about it. You want to share your experience, YOUR tale. I remember in some developer diaries before the first game that Bioware wanted Mass Effect to be so personal, that you could sit around the water cooler, talking with people who have played it, but not understanding anything they are saying. They wanted to make it feel like you were playing totally different games. I feel that to some degree this has been accomplished. I still haven’t seen everything, and I’ve raved about some of my favorite moments that my friends missed. There are so many funny bits of dialogue and hidden jokes, and brilliant moments throughout. It’s a joy trying to find it all.
Mass Effect 2 clocks in at around 25 hours, not including any sidequests, loyalty missions, or additional preparations for the suicide mission. That said, this game’s replay value is about as high as one can get in a single-player game and we are given a universe that is definitely worth exploring. Mass Effect 2 is out for the 360, the PC and it was just released for the PS3 a couple of weeks ago. If you have any interest in a fantastic RPG backed with smooth action sequences you owe it to yourself to at least check out the demo.




That's one ugly FemShep.


And, for those of you with ADD here’s the TL;DR version-

Gameplay-> Mass Effect 2 is leaps and bounds beyond the first, but it is by no means perfect. It is still maintaining a precarious position between shooter and RPG. It still is not perfect but it gets that much closer to perfection than its predecessor.
8

Story-> Mass Effect’s story was relatively straightforward. ME2’s is a little more convoluted, less focused, but still manages to evoke a lot of emotion at all the right moments. The loyalty missions are a brilliant addition and perfectly integrated with the game’s core concept of gathering and honing your team for the suicide mission. Honestly, these frequently present the absolute best parts of Mass Effect 2’s writing. The connection you form with members of your squad give these missions that much more weight.
9

Exploration/Immersion-> Bioware does a great job of making this universe feel big, and while it may not be quite as expansive as the first in terms of sheer number of traversable planets, each planet you do choose to land on is unique; a far cry from the cookie-cutter Mako-based playgrounds in the first game.
7


Aesthetics-> Mass Effect 2 looks fucking great. Facial animations have been greatly improved; everything looks cleaner and more focused. Mass Effect 2 is one of the better looking games from this generation.
9

Audio Design-> A few guns feel pathetic, and there are a few poorly done voices, but outside of that Jack Wall and the Bioware team definitely brought their A-game and it shows in a big way.
8

Multiplayer-> There is no multiplayer mode, so nothing can really be said.
0

Overall- 8/10

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