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Edward Zhao's blog

3:28 PM on 03.18.2012

Why I Hate Mass Effect 3ís Ending

*SPOILERS, Massive, sad-face making SPOILERS BELOW*

By my rough estimate, Iíve poured 105 hours into the Mass Effect series. The very vast majority of that time has been excellent, an incomparable journey that masterfully introduced a university populated by endearing, vibrant characters. Iíve met a Salarian scientist burdened by regret and who has a penchant for singing Gilbert and Sullivan. Iíve talked to a species of lumbering hulks incapable of altering their vocal inflection and instead whimsically state their tone before each statement. Iíve helped a terminally ill assassin deal with his lost child, one genetically perfected women with daddy issues, and an overly belligerent super soldier hatched from a tube. Itís an exquisitely rich world and you canít help but develop an emotional attachment, especially concerning characters like Tali, Garrus, and Liara. Theyíve been by your side as youíve saved the galaxy and youíve likely spent hours learning about their idiosyncrasies and aspirations. Due to these bonds, you want Shepard and his crew to succeed; most importantly though, you want closure and resolution to this sprawling, magnificent saga.

So when this engrossing tale abruptly ends, you feel robbed. You see two scenes: one is the immediate aftermath of your last choice and then the other is the Normandy crash landing on some unknown planet. These scant five minutes act as the conclusion to an epic that spans dozens and dozens of hours. It left me with an immense feeling of dissatisfaction and I believe itís related to three primary issues: firstly, thereís no closure for the characters we care about; second, the ending is really a disjointed mess that doesnít factor in our choices; and finally, from a more technical perspective, thereís no real denouement or time period to digest. For most fans though, the outcry has centered on the endingís dreary tone. Iím actually fine with a ďsadĒ conclusion; there doesnít need to be a house and a white picket fence for everyone. Instead, the crux of my argument is that weíre treated to a fairly poor finish when juxtaposed against the brilliant backdrop thatís everything else.

I canít stress how important closure should have been. Itís not enough that Bioware hints at Shepardís survival and resolves the Reaper storyline. Thatís the very minimum and itís about what we got. Instead, we deserve to know the storylines for the rest of the crew. The Reaper invasion of Earth was a dangerous affair and we constantly hear radio chatter describing the annihilation of entire squads. Is Wrex still alive to see his first child? Will Miranda see her sister again? Do Garrus and Tali find true love or was that just some end of days, hot, alien action? This gaping lack of knowledge is especially egregious after the core conceit of Mass Effect 2: it was about the formation of your team and the connections that entailed. Then throughout Mass Effect 3, the scope broadened to deal with entire species. Weíre too jarringly shut out from this remarkable universe and those brief shots of Joker, Anderson, and Liara almost felt insulting. This is a standardized moment within a game that boasted choice. Instead, we receive some reminiscent music and a scene completely at odds with the spirit of Mass Effect.

And honestly, whatís the point of the storyteller on that goddamn snowing planet. Who cares, AT ALL, about them?! It cheapens your accomplishments by raising the possibility that nothing Shepherd did was reality and furthermore, we have exactly zero emotional attachment to them. The ending is already so short that sacrificing scant seconds on this Stargazer scene, so alien and unfamiliar, is terribly unjust.

Secondly, the ending is legitimately flawed when scrutinized. We have no knowledge as to why the Normandy is attempting to escape through a Mass Relay or why your squadmates, rather than fighting on the ground, appear to be running away. And when they do crash land and those three or four crewmates exit, Jokerís smile would ostensibly indicate a bright, happy future. But letís be clear here: Jokerís brittle bones arenít going to survive a harsh, uncolonized planet (well, perhaps with the synthesis option). And since the Mass Relays are destroyed, theyíre stuck indefinitely in some remote place. Thatís not to mention that the galaxyís entire fleet is also stranded on an overpopulated Earth. That gigantic mass of ships is years away from home with seemingly no way for sustained nourishment and, as weíre all aware from the gameís fuel dynamic, little hope of even reaching other systems.

Some have argued that the reason for this disjointed sensation ties into the ME3 script leak. Bioware chose to repurpose the storyline, detailed HERE, and thatís why we get the Reaper God/child/master. The initial ending supposedly had to do with how Dark Energy, if left unchecked, would destroy the galaxy. Reapers were harvesting organics, and specifically humans, in an attempt to save the universe. Shepard could ultimately choose to merge with the Reapers or face that Dark Energy without Reaper aid. Fans have pointed to instances throughout Mass Effect 2 where Dark Energy was mentioned, noting that thereís at least some build up.

Instead, thereís really only a line or two of dialogue throughout ME3 that foreshadows the chaos/order dynamic. I particularly remember those words since they seemed out of place; they raised the possibility of some grand design and that something higher controlled the Reapers. And finally, when we meet the Reaper ďGod,Ē the master plan is this: kill off sentient life forms before they create Artificial Intelligences that would eventually wipe out sentient life. The Reapers couldnít have left a message or simply fought against synthetics? Instead, the solution is an endless cycle that mindlessly razes innumerable species? Itís not logical by any means.

Finally, the endingís structure lends itself to audience discontent. Compare it to a classical ending, chiefly from Shakespeare or from most movies. Think for a moment about conclusions that have left us satisfied. Most subscribe to the formula of climax, falling action, denouement, and final scene. Return of the Jedi, after the Emperor is dead and the Death Star is destroyed, has a denouement. You know specifically that the danger is over and the audience can relax. The Han and Leia romance plays out while Luke has a fitting farewell with his past Jedi teachers. Thereís a resolution for the characters and the audience has time to unwind. ME3 doesnít have those vital moments. Throughout the entire ending, weíre in suspense over Shepardís fate or wondering about the the Normandyís crew. Thereís no actual time period to decompress until the Stargazer scene, which offers nothing tangible to our Mass Effect universe. Each ending, furthermore, is basically the same. Weíre treated to the same montage of Joker, Anderson, and Liara. It has nothing to do with the choices weíve made and even the following cutscenes, where the reapers either leave or die, are remarkably alike. The Normandy always crashes. And the Stargazers, some unfathomable number of years in the future, still speak the same lines. It minimizes what weíve done and crushes the meaning out of all those choices that weíve agonized over. I couldnít help but feel that it was sloppy and rushed.

Overall and from any measurable standpoint, Bioware delivered a quality game. Actually, they gave us an outstanding trilogy and the proof is in our reaction. We care deeply and Jerry Holkin, of Penny Arcade, put it in more eloquent words, ĒThe reaction to the endings is an index of player investment and seeming ownership over the narrative, years in the making, and is as much Biowareís creation as the game itself.Ē Our anger is because we loved the series so deeply. I can admire Bioware for that astounding achievement and thatís why Iíve written some thousand words on the issue, but it neither lessens my burbling discontent nor changes the final few minutes of this saga. Ultimately, I just wanted something comprehensive, something befitting of my Shepard and the spirit of Mass Effect. Instead, it appears that our hundreds of choices donít result in any dramatic differences and weíre rudely shunted out of a dazzling, inspired universe.

PS. Then again, I died some twenty times against that stupid, slow motion Marauder. Heís probably the actual reason for all my vitriol.   read

4:57 PM on 02.09.2012

An Analysis of Uncharted 3 - For my Bliz App!

Just thought I'd share something I wrote up for a job application. It's mostly cause Naughty Dog is amazing and Nathan Drake is so dreamy.

At its core, the Uncharted series is a third person shooter that relies heavily on cover based mechanics and a pretense of platforming. Naughty Dog supplements the experience with branching player choices, spectacular set pieces, and nuanced graphical details. The end result is an arresting action-adventure, and the third installment, Uncharted 3: Drakeís Deception, advances these core tenets while also delivering a narrative tale that sublimely intertwines with gameplay conceits.

The basics of Unchartedís combat revolve around Nathan Drake huddling behind rectangular-shaped outcroppings, shooting at similarly encamped foes. Different enemy types are also present and the mixture of charging melee brawler or distant sniper adds variety, forcing players to constantly adjust. Itís in these moments, when a grenade forces Drake to dive out of cover while sniper beads dot his back, that Uncharted offers the greatest player control.

Drake isnít stuck on the ground as most environments incorporate an element of verticality that allows players to flank enemies or choose more logistically favorable avenues of attack. Naughy Dog does an excellent job of distinguishing these interactive handholds or mossy outcrops through jutting 3D rendering as opposed to the flat, non-interactive scenery. The combination of varied enemies and vertical advantages is an impetus for the player to be in constant motion rather than hunkering behind cover. This creates a prevalent tension as the player is in constant peril when in pursuit of a tactical advantage.

The platforming segments are a compromise between gameplay and design. The sweeping vistas and cinematographic angles are breathtaking from a visual standpoint, meant to underscore a sense of adventure and exploration. But these views would work poorly for a precise platformer, and Naughty Dog instead opted for a simple and straightforward control scheme. Players need to only point in the right direction and tap a button, and thereís a very forgiving window for timed jumps. Gamers can complain about the ease of the platforming, but the gamble is that the audience will be too busy gaping at Drakeís intrepid leaps to complain; itís a tradeoff between a visual spectacle that underlines the themes of exploration as opposed to a rewarding gameplay experience.

Naughty Dogs takes a similar approach to scripted set-pieces. For a developer, these can be amazing tools since they clearly showcase a cinematic vision for a particular instance. Conversely, these moments also rob a player of choice and such scripted events can make the audience more of a passive viewer than an active participant. But Naughty Dog crafts such exhilarating sequences that the player rarely has the time to think, ďOh, going to this spot results in this cutscene.Ē Instead, Uncharted 3 achieves an overriding sense of awe with their set-pieces as Drake dangles out of a cargo plane or as he escapes the tumbling towers of a chateau. Itís a mixture of unique, imaginative events and frantic pacing that completely enthralls the gamer, leaving little time to ponder the technicalities or question the lack of control.
Another of Naughty Dogís most masterful achievements ties into the motifs of deception and intrigue. The subtitle itself, Drakeís Deception, propose an underlying ambiguity that allows for myriad possibilities. Is the subject Nathan Drake or is it his ancestor, Sir Francis Drake? Does Drake do the deceiving or is he being deceived? The milieu of mystery creates an uneasy atmosphere throughout the game, especially as narrative elements constantly underscore misdirection. The opening sequence shows Nathan Drake shot in an alleyway and a plethora of cut scenes bring into question the loyalty of the supporting cast. To express misdirection through actual gameplay, there are various moments of altered reality. Character models elongate, the screen tilts at nauseating angles, and the audience is left with a distorted sense of reality.

Little animation touches also add to the stunning visuals of Uncharted 3. Drake appears to be constantly interacting with the environment as he uses his hands to balance against a wall or when he uses a bottle during a bar-fight. Nathan will sometimes clip through objects, so the effect isnít perfect, but the additional touches still add commendable detail to an already gorgeous game.

One key advance from Uncharted 2 involves a more realistic portrayal of enemies. A chief complaint of the second entry was the bullet-sponge nature of your foes and the especially jarring boss fights. These enemies, though human, were able to withstand a ridiculous amount of gunfire. This severely broke oneís suspension of disbelief and Uncharted 3 fixes them in two ways. The beefiest tank enemies are encased in heavy armor that slowly crumbles after prolonged gunfire while boss fights now play out through melee combat. Thereís a certain satisfaction to be had when fighting in closer proximities, and it offers a more intimate, visceral situation when compared to shooting at a distant enemy. Naughty Dog further creates an engaging experience through excellent character animations and miniature quick time events. The player again has limited control but itís an excuse to see an excellently choreographed brawl.

The Uncharted series maintains a constant theme of adventure and freedom. The platforming segments and the set-pieces aim to amaze through visual wonders while varied enemies force Drake into exhilarating firefights. It also makes for an interesting juxtaposition when comparing the freedom allowed in combat with the scripted set-piece. In the end, Naughty Dog crafted a superb series that highlights exploration and astounds gamers through memorable action sequences.   read

12:55 AM on 01.09.2012

Predictions: The END of the WORLD... in RPGs!

Forgive me for tacking on the Mayan humbo jumbo, I just can't help myself at times. But I do believe there's a point buried behind my popular culture posturing. While perusing the upcoming releases for 2012, I noticed quite a number of excellent RPGs. One could rightly argue that this past year saw an abundance of quality in the genre: we had Skyrim, Darksouls, and Deus Ex. About ten or so people enjoyed the Witcher 2. And too many of us slogged through Dragon Age 2 since our choices will (purportedly) matter in DA3.

But this year promises an even greater plethora of RPG goodness. If 2011 was the Year of 3's, then I have a mind to predict that 2012 will be the Year of the RPG (Where the Fate of the World/Universe Hangs in the Balance). Well, you might argue, pretty much every RPG deals with the protagonist confronting an ancient evil and saving the world. Well, I'll respond, could it be just a coincidence that 2012, the year of the apocalypse, will have gamers defending virtual realms at a record pace? I think not. Itís a sign.

But as to why 2012 will be the year of the RPG, this is a list, in the order that I'm most excited, with a few choice reasons to qualify my unadulterated glee:

And yeah, -SPOILERS- abound.

1. Mass Effect 3
A little over four years. Countless moral choices and hours spent vacillating within a conversation wheel. The endless war between Tali and Liara and Miranda. It all culminates with Mass Effect 3 and weíll finally reap (I know, Iím funny like that) the seeds of being the galaxyís biggest douche. I mean seriously, how can anyone resist those Renegade prompts?

Iím predicting a tremendous achievement for Bioware. Never before have gamers experienced such an interconnected series where our actions have so profoundly affected the proceeding game. Our Shepards have grown close to our hearts, uniquely catered to our personal preference from playstyle to lover to intergalactic government policy. And the supporting cast, comprised of rich, layered personalities, is no slouch. Whenever I think about how it will all end, I simply get this tingling anticipation. And the unquenchable desire to see Wrex in my party.

But at this point, we all know the backdrop. Reapers are threatening to harvest biological lifeforms, wiping out galactic civilization. The entire universe is at stake. Itís the finale where all the sentient squishys are on the line. Iím trusting Bioware to deliver a fitting conclusion.

2. Bioshock Infinite
Look, Ken Levine seems like a really nice guy. Modest, down to Earth, someone you wouldnít be ashamed to bring home to your parents. But you really wouldnít know it from his narrative predilections.

From Sandar Cohenís photography demands to ďWould you kindlyĒ golf club my face, thereís a certain graphic flare that accompanies Levineís work. The manís talented and his resume includes Thief, System Shock 2, and Freedom Force. Heís good at that whole storytelling aspect and I remember the first Bioshock as a heart-wrenching tale. And of course, gut-wrenching too in the sense that your mouth was agape as Jack explored a deeply atmospheric and exceedingly disturbed world.

So Iím fairly certain that Iíll adore Elizabeth and whatever trials our protagonist faces. From the brief trailers, weíve already seen that the gal has spunk; sheíd rather be strangled to death than be a prisoner.

In terms of ending the world type possibilities, I think the previous Bioshocks touched upon the ramifications of self-serving power. If you went down the evil path in the first game, thereís the threat of a nuclear holocaust. In Bioshock 2, (yeah yeah, Irrational wasnít at the helm there) Eleanor sadistically claims sheís going to change the world.

So with Infinite being set on a floating city, I think thereís a good chance that the world is in danger. Whateverís powering the place is likely extremely dangerous. Elizabeth being able to warp time and space seems dangerous. And American Exceptionalism seems like the most dangerous of all. I mean, thereís a chance Rick Santorum is going to be president of this country.

I kid. (Not really).

3. Diablo 3
Blizzard, why canít I quit you? No other developer has consumed so many of my waking hours. They have smooth, crisp gameplay tied to addictive multiplayer (ladder points and loot). They depict broken, struggling heroes and relatable villains. And by God, the whole notion of making money from playing a game is seductively appealing to the hardcore crowd.

From the beta and some quick glimpses at Blizzcon, it simply feels good. I could spend days clicking away happily as I slash/burn/impale hordes of demonic enemies while salivating over the next upgrade or elite loot drop. Itís a very powerful formula that will result in the disappearance of my time, especially when I ask myself, ďCould I possibly pay for the purchase of this game by playing it?Ē

And the world of Sanctuary, despite the happy unicorn and rainbow artwork, is grim indeed. There was this prevailing sense of dread and insurmountable odds in Diablo 2. You were always a few steps behind your foe, every city appeared to be in terrible peril, and they even killed off poor Wirt. After all, you were combating the progenitors of evil itself and Hell didnít appear content to dawdle within their fiery domain. Though the Prime Evils are ostensibly defeated, Blizzcon artwork hints at a feminine version of Diablo. The titular (I crack myself honestly) character is likely to return and sheís definitely on the level of world ending catastrophe.

4. Borderlands 2
Numbers. Thatís what I mostly remember from Borderlands: a constant stream of multi-colored numbers sprouting above the heads of my unfortunate foes while I anxiously waited for my ability to recharge. Played with a college buddy through split-screen, it was a lengthy journey that scratched my loot-collecting itch.

So Iím hoping for a return of weapons with an insane number of permutations, perhaps a few more rocket-launching vehicle segments, and more of those stylized graphics. Enemy AI looks to receive an upgrade though, as they switch from blinding charging forward to blinding charging forward while occasionally sidestepping. Hostiles will reportedly work in some synergistic fashion and even utilize cover to a greater extent. But most of all, Iím interested in the new classes and leveling me up some abilities. Unlocking that next, tantalizing skill has kept me up into the wee hours fairly often and itís an idiosyncrasy I struggle against daily.

The first game concluded with the defeat of the ďDestroyer,Ē a monster that threatened the universe and had to be locked up by aliens. A sequel canít possibly lower the stakes, could it?

5. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
The combat looks fun and smooth. Iím imagining it to be like Dark Souls except without the rage, all-consuming depression, and alcoholism. Thatís quite enough to entice me, but Iíll admit I donít have nearly enough information to make any real statement.

6. Final Fantasy XIII-2
XIII wasnít exactly spectacular. The fighting system was certainly innovative and the CG sequences were dazzling, but the story was fairly muddled and most of the characters were difficult to love. You can only take petulant sulkiness or oblivious, grating optimism so far. But thereís hope for the sequel.

Square-Enix listened very carefully to their fans and XIII-2 will have towns. And shops! Though those are the two biggest additions, there are some promising, minor changes. A hefty complaint against XIII involved the lack of choice for the player; it was linear and the cramped maps didnít help. XIII-2, with the ability to time-travel and choose your own adventure, emphasizes player choice instead. Weíve even been promised different dialogue options and more areas that allow for exploration. It certainly seems like a gracious nod to the fans and perhaps this is when Final Fantasy rights the ship. Ha.

At least thereís a very good chance of catastrophic consequences as Final Fantasy dangles the threat of world destruction fairly often. Maybe itís a gigantic meteor. Maybe itís a psychotic clown who gains enough magical prowess to shoot death beams. Maybe itís a race of self-hating demi-Gods that are trying to revive their Maker by smashing a moon-sized object into the planet below. Donít quote me on that last one, I really couldnít tell what was going on in FF13. But Iíll give good odds that Final Fantasy XIII-2, with its altered timeline and an adversary that can summon purple doom vortexes, will once again place Pulseís fate in lady Cloudís hands.

So there are a lot of excellent, forthcoming RPGs and quite a few of them are likely to deal with a possible End of Everything. Could this simply be chance, some trick of fate for 2012? HrmÖ   read

1:02 PM on 01.02.2012

Resolutions: Don't Be A Hobo

That doesn't exactly sound like a lofty goal, now does it? And yet for a college Senior nearing The End, there's no greater fear. I could blame the American education system or the bacchanalian festivities of my peers or even my own lackadaisical tendencies, but there's not much one can do to change the past. Instead, I sit a scant handful of months before my Commencement, terrified over future job prospects and woefully ignorant of even where to begin my search.

Perhaps it's the lack of structure that hits hardest. I'm transitioning into a foggy unknown that's so malleable and free-form that it's terrifying. I've found that in recent weeks, as I completed an internship off in California, that I began to compute the costs of living. Well, I thought to myself, I can probably live off $20 for food a day. Rent is likely somewhere in the range of $800 a month while the utilities can probably be had for $100. My parents were kind enough to bestow upon me a fairly gas-conscious car, so if I pace myself, I could skim by on another $100. All told, that's roughly $1600 a month for no-frills living.

But who am I kidding? I'm going to need games, a Gold Live account, and probably Netflix. Perhaps a restaurant or a movie or even a book (ha!). There are various activities that I'll simply label as leisure and so let's conservatively estimate $2000 a month in total. Multiply by twelve and per annum, I'm looking at $24,000. To my college-honed sensitivities, that is a horrendously frightening figure.

So how, you might ask, does this tie into gaming? I'm acutely conscious that I have very few marketable skills to potential employers. I have a passing penchant for writing, a knowledge of general gaming trends, and a proficient grasp of Starcraft 2. That's about where my "expertise" ends. And so that's where I'm at for a job search. It has to combine some mix of a love for video games, writing, and possibly E-Sports.

Improvement upon each of these aspects is fairly straightforward. As with most things in life, it's all about dedication and putting the effort into improving your skills. But also with most things in life, it's putting the time in that takes character. So my resolutions are as follows:

1. Write some sort of editorial essay once per day. I'm counting this as the first and let's say I was recovering yesterday from a night of drunken debauchery.

2. Peruse an RSS feed comprised of ten video game news outlets. I'll be following IGN, Gamesport, Destructoid, Kotaku, Joystiq, Developer, Eurogamer, VG247, Industrygamers, and Giantbomb.

3. Play five Starcraft 2 matches on the single player ladder every day.

4. Apply for various job. This means going through Blizzard's entry-level and intern openings and begging/cajoling/blackmailing every videogame website I frequent.

Not exactly daunting for the average person. But in particular, I think number three will give me the most trouble. There's this sense of trepidation during my Starcraft 2 games. The feeling only waxes for the more pivotal engagements and I've found my hands shaking one more than one occasion. And honestly, I can't quite pinpoint why I care so much.

These matches are personal, intimate even. It's a one-on-one struggle that pits your physical capabilities in terms of speed or APM but there's also an entire strategic element in the back. You're constantly having to out-think and outwit your adversary. I'm competitive in other games like FIFA, Call of Duty, and even Super Smash yet I never have quite so strong a desire to win. When you emerge victorious in Starcraft, you know you've bested your opponent, that your efforts were better than his for the past fifteen minutes. It can be taken as a confirmation of worth, but those fleeting moments of victory are nothing compared to the dredges of defeat. Perhaps I simply hate to lose. I'll watch replays, analyze mistakes, and rage at an unbalanced game.

But that's how you get better. And hopefully these resolutions will remain strong for the remainder of this b'ak'tun. Then again, the apocalypse is coming, so might as well just live it up, eh?   read

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