Saturday, August 29, 2009


"Who you gonna call?" If you grew up in the '80s, you don't even have to stop and think about this one. The answer is automatic. In fact, it's probably so automatic, you often come up with the same answer anytime someone suggests anything remotely pertaining to questioning who is going to be the recipient of a telephone call.

The game can be best described as an "interactive movie". Written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, it plays out like a movie, with the characters voicing dialog that sounds appropriate for a feature film. Even better, all four original Ghostbusters actors voice their characters in the game, making it very much like another movie. (There are other voice actors that reprise their roles as well.)

The voice acting is very good, for the most part. The only one I was disappointed with was Bill Murray, who didn't sound like he was "in the moment" — he read so calmly and quietly, even in times of high intensity and action, it sounded like he was about to fall asleep, when I could hear him at all.

The story draws heavily on elements from the first two movies, where the city of New York is once again threatened by Gozer. You are a new recruit to the Ghostbusters squad, and part of your raison d'ĂȘtre is to test new weaponry, and to give the four someone to talk to and abuse besides each other. It's a little disappointing that you don't get to play one of the actual Ghostbusters, but it does solve the question of which Ghostbuster you would actually play, letting the story revolve around different Ghostbusters at will withouth forcing you to change characters mid-story. It's a feature that works — so well, in fact, that the game's weaker moments are when you are on your own, or even with just one other Ghostbuster.

It is somewhat disappointing that the game features no story-mode co-op. Considering how well the story is written for the single-player experience, I'm not entirely sure if it would've worked to just throw a second player into the mix and get the same story experience. There is, however, a four-player online mode in what is often compared to Gears of War's "Horde Mode". Having never played Gears, I can't speak to how it compares. There are a few different types of modes, from protecting equipment from ghostly attacks to capturing as many ghosts as possible before time runs out. Beyond that, there's really not that much to say; the game play is relatively simple and fairly easy to jump into.

One of the multiplayer mode's shortfalls, though, is its complete lack of a party system. We found that we were able to get around this fairly effectively with the Xbox dashboard party system; however, it was not a complete substitution for a legitimate in-game party.

The game isn't without its faults. Occasionally, there are segments where the difficulty reaches obnoxious proportions, where you're hopelessly outnumbered and enemies keep attacking through your futile efforts at defense. And there are a couple instances where the requirement to progress isn't made clear — the game's constant prompting to "use the slime tether" doesn't really help if you don't know on what to use the slime tether. It's also not altogether uncommon to find that you've managed to slam a ghost under the ground, from where it can attack you but where you cannot reach it.

All told, though, it's not a bad game. Not only does it rate extremely high on the nostalgia scale, but it actually does a fairly decent job of turning ghost busting into a decent action game.

Monday, August 24, 2009

O Sonic, Where Art Thou?

I saw this article on gaming blog Kotaku titled "Sega: Impossible To Please All Sonic Fans With One Sonic Game". It's an interesting read for me, considering Sonic and I went to college together (in a matter of speaking — Sonic the Hedgehog was released right before my freshman year, and Sonic & Knuckles came out in my senior year).

I'm certainly one of those who looks at the Sonic games today with a great sense of disappointment. The Sonic I knew was a high-speed side-scrolling platformer, games that excelled in their simplicity and playability. But when I picked up Sonic Heroes for the Xbox, I found this 3D adventure platformer overloaded with characters I had never heard of, trying to be… I don't know exactly what.

What I did find, though, is that my kids absolutely loved it. In fact, they still do. Despite the fact that I look on the game with a certain level of disdain, and I wish they would gain an appreciation for the original Sonic from the retro collection discs I have (and they have played it from time to time), the fact is, they do like this game.

Then came this Sonic Unleashed game, and you could hear the sound of thousands of old-school Sonic fans collectively screaming, "He turns into WHAT?!?" They released a demo on Xbox Live, which was a single level, with Sonic running at high speeds through a very Mediterranean-esque town collecting rings. If the entire game was like that, I would've been thrilled. My kids loved the demo, too. So I ended up buying the game for them, fearing their disappointment when they found out half the game was a much slower fighting game instead of the mach-speed running.

Imagine my surprise when they had almost as much fun beating up on Robotnik bad guys as a werehog as they did at other times.

So back to this interview published by Kotaku. I'm reading this, and suddenly, it all makes sense. If there were two bits that really summed it all up, it would have to be this one from Sega of America's VP Sean Ratcliffe regarding the criticism aimed specifically at the Sonic Unleashed werehog:

"If you read all those things, and we do — maybe not quite every single one, but the vast majority of them — and it's amazing the sort of diatribes you get. But if you sit down with a group of 8, 9, 10 year-old boys, completely different story."
And then this:
Sega's core Sonic target, in fact, isn't those who grew up with Sonic. It's those who are growing up now. "It very much is in that under 12 group," [head of Sega of Europe and America Mike] Hayes said. "And what we have to do is make a Sonic that is of a quality that delights that audience, first and foremost. I'd argue that we very much achieved that with products like Sonic Heroes[…]"

Yes, I'm disappointed in what Sonic is today. But as it turns out, it's more or less according to plan. I'm not the target audience. My kids are. And, as it turns out, they're doing very well hitting their target.

Monday, August 10, 2009

I demand my Games On Disc

Microsoft is rolling out an update to the dashboard, and included in this update is the launch of a new service, called "Games On Demand". It replaces the Xbox Originals program that was available, where you could buy some Xbox 1 games, download them to your hard drive as if they were a (multi-gigabyte) Xbox Arcade game, and play — in fact, all the Xbox Originals games are being moved to this Games On Demand service. What's new is, they are also adding Xbox 360 games to this service. (They are also allowing direct purchases of these games, in real dollar amounts, using a credit card, instead of requiring the purchase of Microsoft Points first.)

It's probably not hard to guess what my opinion of this service is, considering I've complained about trading out physical discs for digital downloads on more than one occasion. Whereas some might find this "convenient" or a "sign of the future" that they can just download and go, I find it a sad harbinger of the further removal of our rights as customers. So far, the games they are releasing on Games On Demand are older games, not current releases, so the level of scrutiny will be a little lower. But I have to wonder how many times it will take for someone to wait several hours for a full DVD to download (when they could have driven to the store, bought it, and returned home in less time, probably — in any case, it certainly won't be quite "on demand", especially compared to, say, Netflix, which goes from "click" to "play" in under a minute) before they give up on the service. How many will find themselves unable to play a retail game when their internet connection drops, because their license information got screwed up in the last repair. How many will suddenly realize they can't trade in this older game. How many will complain when the first bit of retail content is removed from Microsoft's servers due to a licensing issue, and that retail game they bought is no longer available. When will the majority of the consumers realize that this "iTunes model" of digital content is no good here?

I may not have to worry. It looks like Microsoft is trying very hard to shoot this program in its own foot. Gaming blogs are already noticing that the games are way overpriced, compared with the open market on the same games on disc. (They haven't yet reported on the connection, though, that the prices are perfectly inline with their other annoying fact, that the DLC for these games is still on Marketplace, still at its original price.)

Microsoft also continues to provide way undersized and overpriced storage solutions. $150 for 120GB of storage? You can buy hard drives measuring two TERABYTES in size for two thirds the cost. So, users will be more inclined to keep their old 60GB and 20GB hard drives; and if they don't have the disk space for a digital download, it won't happen.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mass Effect

One of my Christmas gifts was a $15 GameStop gift card, and it just so happened that used copies of Mass Effect were in the $15 bin (since new copies are now retailing for $20).

Mass Effect is a gratuitous sex simulator, where you get to choose between heterosexual or lesbian scenes that you are then able to act out in detail, with full-frontal nudity and…

Whoops, sorry, was channeling Fox News there for a moment.

Mass Effect is an RPG set in a time where humans have recently begun to colonize the galaxy and are taking their place in an alliance of alien races. Your character, Commander Shepard, ends up gaining notice of the ruling council and is enlisted into the elite corps of soldiers, the "Spectres". Your initial mission as a Spectre is to track down a rogue Spectre who is conspiring to bring an ancient race of terrorist warriors to destroy the galaxy, or something like that.

Along the way, you pick up side missions and quests that add players to your party. You can pick two from your retinue to accompany you at any given time. Achievements exist for completing the game using particular people for the majority of the game, requiring replay for all the achievement points.

As referenced above, Mass Effect got some press a year or so ago for their inclusion of a sex scene. General opinions about Fox News aside, this was completely absurd. Why BioWare didn't sue for libel, I don't know, as the reports went from mere exaggeration to outright fabrication. There's no "full frontal nudity", for one thing. For another, it's not a "simulation" in that the player controls it; it's a cutscene, which for someone not familiar with videogames means a prerendered video (or sometimes realtime-rendered by the game engine, as is increasingly common these days with more powerful consoles) that the player can only watch, not control. As far as what's shown, it's no worse than what you'd see on a daytime soap opera. Now, as a relatively conservative Christian, I will say it's probably a little more than I care to see in a videogame (or a daytime television show for that matter), but considering this is part of a Mature-rated game, I don't think it's out of place.

Except for the fact that the whole romance subplot feels out of place. The proponents of Mass Effect's intimacy liked to build up the fact that the "sex scene" isn't just haphazardly thrown in for the sake of having a sex scene — it's the culmination of the romantic interaction you have with the character over the course of the game. However, the lines of dialog that seem to have any basis in romance just seem… forced. I don't know if it's bad writing or if it's Mark Meer's flat delivery of the lines (when I expressed this in the Geezer Gamers forum, others commented that the female Shepard voiced by Jennifer Hale is much more flirty and animated), but it just fails to grab me emotionally. When confronted by a female character who professes the need to talk about our relationship, all I can think is, "Why?" When Shepard says "I feel the same way about you," I can't tell if he's feeling romantic or feeling like heading to the mess hall for a pizza.

The story world is fairly well detailed. Following in Halo's footsteps, books have been released to expand the universe. Authored by the game's lead writer Drew Karpyshyn, they provide an interesting (if optional) expansion on the game's story. At this point, I've only read the prequel novel, Revelation. It's very interesting to see events unfold in the novel that are touched upon in the game. In games, you often have to take your environment and situation for granted, with perhaps the most rudimentary backstory to set it up. Karpyshyn does a great job detailing the backstory and giving it life, making this passing "oh yeah, you're doing this because of some past event" moments in Mass Effect's main quest seem more real. It also adds a little flavor to some of the side quests, as you have a greater understanding as to why a race might behave a certain way and might need help defending against another. (The second book, Ascension, takes place after Mass Effect, so although the audiobook is on my MP3 player, I'm not listening to it until after I complete the game at least once.)

Mass Effect plays a lot like BioWare's previous epic, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. It is primarily an RPG. You spend the majority of your time walking or driving around, talking to people or looking for items. Combat, however, is a little closer to an RTS, although Mass Effect brings it a little closer to even an TPS. You and the selected members of your team have certain strengths and weaknesses, and presumably you pick and choose companions that give your party the right balance for the task at hand. (Or, if you're going for the "complete the majority of the game using character 'X'" achievement, you pick that one every time.) When in battle, you control Shepard in a TPS mode, and your companions start to do their own thing. You can, however, hold the bumpers, and that freezes the action and lets you order yourself or your teammates to use your special biotic powers, switch weapons, move, or attack targets.

One major complaint I have is that every command you give your team is done from your point of view, which means if you can't see the target, you can't order your teammates to hit it. I suppose if you consider that you are Shepard, it makes a little sense. You can tell your companions to be aggressive or defensive in their abilities, and if they see an enemy they will react how they see fit. Still, I definitely prefer the Knights of the Old Republic mechanic a little better, where you could switch off and "become" another member of your party and see what they saw (even if it does take you "out of character").

The missions are your typical RPG fare — explore this planet, carry this message, find these people, and kill any bad guys along the way. If a character implies that a mission must be done "urgently" or "right away", that really means "whenever you decide to get around to it". For me, that means spending a lot of extra time exploring and doing side quests instead of plowing straight down the main storyline. What can I say? When I play a game like this, I like to feel like I've seen everything there is and didn't miss something because I was in too big a hurry to get to the end. Besides, the side quests help buff my character for the main quests, so I'm not outmatched when I come across the next "big boss".

It can be frustrating when you come across a fight that you're not ready for, as it's not always entirely clear what you're ready for and where enemies of various strengths lie. Did I die because my tactics were wrong? Or are these guys just 30 levels above me? Where do I find enemies closer to my level anyway? But a very liberal save system (you can save at any time, as long as you're not in battle) makes it much easier to manage and backtracking less painful — as long as you remember to take advantage of it. And again, if after a couple tries you find that this area of bad guys is not for you until your character has properly leveled up, there's nothing that's forcing you to do that mission right now — you can leave the area without penalty (as far as I've noticed) and come back however long it takes later when you're ready.

BioWare, I feel, did a decent job with scale. The galaxy and the planets you explore all feel very large, but in "reality" they are a lot smaller than they seem, as the number of places you can actually go is very constrained. I did feel a touch disappointed when I realized this, but I've quickly come to appreciate it. I at once feel the vastness of the area I'm in, and yet I feel in control, not lost.

One common complaint that's been the brunt of many a joke on the internet is the loading times. There are a lot of them, and they are long. BioWare tried to make them mildly interesting by making them happen in elevators, and trying to make something happen in those elevators — dialog between characters, or news reports reflecting quests or events you just completed. It adds very little to the game (although I guess if you have to have a loading screen, dialog is better than a progress bar?), and the game is now coded to require this elevator ride of at least a certain duration. So, if you were to, say, install the game to your hard drive, you'd find your time spent on the elevator (especially the one on the ship, the Normandy, that appears to be powered by an overweight hamster in a rusty exercise wheel, and contains no news speaker or talkative companions to pass the time) doesn't decrease at all.

I finally finished the main story (which is why I'm finally getting around to making this blog post live). I definitely enjoyed it, especially when I got my stats up to the point where I was actually halfway decent in a combat situation. I also started a second playthrough (achievements of course), and by restarting the campaign with the same character, you can start off with the same stats and equipment you ended the last game with. I don't know if I'll be able to finish all the achievements in time for Mass Effect 2, but it'll be fun to try. :)