Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Computer Game Review: Mass Effect

Mass Effect was the best computer game RPG I have ever played. It had its flaws, but I happily overlooked them and enjoyed the story, the world, and the characters from the beginning to the epic finale.
First off, Mass Effect was made by Bioware, the superstars of computer RPGs. Their past titles, like Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic set the bar very high and were known for giving players a several ways to overcome every challenge, epic plotlines, great writing and memorable NPCs. In my opinion, Mass Effect surpasses all of those previous Bioware titles.

Mass Effect is set in its own universe, and the writers did a marvelous job filling out this world and making it every bit as immersive as the Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons properties that Bioware has worked with in the past. The game includes an in-game Codex that fills up as you play with interesting facts about the planets, races, monsters, factions, and technology you come across.

If I had to pick a favorite thing about Mass Effect, it would be the NPCs. As much as I loved seeing the cool settings and playing through the interesting and thought-provoking missions, hanging out with some of the coolest characters I've ever seen in a video game definitely made every part of the game even better.

I totally dug Garrus Vakarian, the turian renegade cop who quits the force to go after the game's bad guy, another turian named Saren.

I have to confess I developed quite a crush onTali'Zora nar Rayya, the quarian mechanic on a pilgrimage to find things to bring back to her people's fleet of aging starships.

But of course my favorite NPC was the krogan Battlemaster, Urdnot Wrex. The ancient, battle-scarred warrior is every bit as badass as he looks. His gruff exterior hides that he's genuinely worried about the krogan race, which is infected with a virus that has cut their fertility rate so badly that they're all dying out. It doesn't help that he often finds himself going up against other krogans, further lowering the numbers of his already endangered race.

I'll try not to say too much about the NPCs, because getting to know them is one of the coolest things about the game.

The main plot is suitably epic, and really hits the ground running. You don't waste any time killing rats and beetles in Mass Effect. The first enemies you fight are the minions of the main bad guy, Saren.

Saren is a Spectre, an agent of the Citadel Council who has special permissions to operate outside the bounds of ordinary justice. His motivations are mysterious, but his main goal is no big shocker: he wants to wipe out all life in the universe. And guess who gets to stop him?

As the player, you take the role of Commander Shepard. You can choose a first name for Shepard when you create the character, but everyone just refers to you as Commander and/or Shepard. You can choose to play as a male or female Shepard, and you also choose his or her appearance. I played as a male Shepard, so I'll refer to Shepard as "he." You also choose a role for Shepard, who can focus on firepower, technological attacks, or biotic powers (think of biotics as Mass Effect's version of the Force). You may choose to focus on two of these areas instead of just one, so I took a firepower/technological blend.

Your other choice with Shepard is to go either Paragon, Renegade, or a mixture of both. Unlike the normal good/bad choices that most RPGs offer, in which you can choose to either lie, steal, and kill your way through the plot or to stop and save every lost child and sick puppy you come across, Mass Effect gives you two ways to achieve the same goals: you can either go in guns blazing as a Renegade, sometimes sacrificing civilians to get the job done, or you can take the more careful approach of the Paragon, going out of your way to make sure only the bad guys get hurt. I appreciated that the game doesn't try to trick you about which choices are Paragon and which are Renegade.

To me, one of the best moments in Mass Effect was when I had the ability to choose, about halfway through a game, to either kill an NPC or allow it to live. I won't say any more, but even though I was playing a Paragon, I had a very hard time convincing myself to make the Paragon choice. It's when a game can make you pause and grapple with a decision that you know you're playing something golden.

That's not to say that the Paragon/Renegade system always works perfectly. A lot of times, the only difference between a Paragon and a Renegade is that the Paragon avoids civilian casualties, while the Renegade does not. This can be as simple as avoiding having civilians wander into the crossfire in a gunfight.

Soon after Shepard starts chasing after Saren, the Citadel Council makes him the first human Spectre. This allows you to choose your team and fly off in your new spaceship, the Normandy. Even though the Normandy's only purpose in the game is to ferry you from one quest to the next, I loved being able to run around inside my ship between missions, talking to NPCs and party members, and exploring my ship (which just happens to be the best ship in the human fleet).

After playing some  Fallout 3, it felt great to play a game where I did not have to worry about stocking up on ammo or repairing my gear. In Mass Effect, all weapons have unlimited ammo, but overheat if you fire too quickly. Also, weapons and armor do not degrade and never have to be repaired

One thing I could have done without, though, was the unnecessarily complicated inventory system (which I hear has been improved in the sequel). All weapons have many levels. The only thing this accomplishes is to ensure the you routinely need to switch out your weapon for another weapon of the same model but a better level. You also have to stick in upgrades to your weapons and armor, giving you extra damage or effects. Like the weapons, the individual upgrades also have levels, so you'll be switching them out throughout the game.

Another time-consuming aspect of the game is the amount of time you spend getting from place to place. This was my biggest gripe about the game. Almost every planet you land on is extremely mountainous, and you drive your all-terrain vehicle, known as the Mako, over endless hills and mountains to get from where you landed to where your mission is. This might not be so bad if there was more scenery along the way, but for the most part you don't even get trees or lakes to drive past.

Worse, if you come across some bad guys, you'll probably want to jump out and kill them on foot, because using the Mako's powerful guns to kill bad guys yields significantly fewer experience points than killing them on foot. This leads to the immersion-breaking realization that you can whittle down a big opponent's hit points with the Mako's guns, then jump out and finish it off with your regular weapons for the larger share of experience points.

The only point to driving from your landing point to your mission is that you sometimes come across a deposit of ore or a crashed probe or something. These do one of two things: give you items and experience, or give you money and experience. Helpful, but not worth boring, bumping driving to get to.

Whenever you interface with a rock deposit, crashed probe, beacon, locked box, or encrypted computer, you'll play a mini-game I think of as "circular Frogger." It's pretty intuitive and easy to get good at, and as far as hacking/lockpicking mini-games go, I actually quite liked it.

I'm sure I've left out some other things I should say, but this review is long enough now. I hope that those of you who haven't already played this excellent game will check it out. I, for one, have started a second play-through, this time as a female Shepard who will be going Renegade. I also look forward to importing my first Shepard into Mass Effect 2 as soon as I buy it. And Mass Effect 3 is coming out soon, too!

So, I'll end with this:


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What if you leveled up?

I was talking to my friend Kage about this, but I found it so fascinating that I decided to share it with the two other people who also read my blog. What if you were given points to distribute among your attributes, skills, and abilities?

I think this makes a fascinating question to ponder.

Would you improve on your strengths, maximizing your ability to do the things you already do well? This would probably move you toward fame and fortune, since chances are that your current occupation and interests use your strongest abilities.

Or would you take the opportunity to improve on some areas where you are currently lacking? In the long run, this might make you happier, as it gives you the opportunity to shore up the weaknesses that make you suffer.

Or you could put your points into something not practical at all. Maybe it's time you improved your ability to speak with cats. You could start working on your ability to breathe underwater, or open up a new multiclass in Telepath or Pyrokineticist.

In this scenario, you can improve anything, and it's up to you how to distribute your level up. You could dump it all into one stat, raising that one thing a lot while leaving everything else the same, or you could improve a number of things to a lesser degree.

Consider: what are some things about yourself that you would like to improve? This is your chance to get something you've been meaning to work on but haven't gotten to it. Want to work off some of that gut? Improve your DEX. Been meaning to go jogging to work on your cardio? Bump up your CON. Or if your significant other complains that your cooking is terrible, throw out the cookbook and dump all your points in Cooking. You can get all the improvement with none of the hard work!

Alternatively, when you consider that anything can potentially be improved, you could add to things that you could never get better at. Want to be taller? Improve your Height stat. Want to get rid of your glasses? Improve your Spot skill. After all, why would you improve something that you could work on anyway, when you can improve something you otherwise wouldn't be able to?

Personally, I'd probably dump everything* into Perception. I tend to be somewhat oblivious sometimes (sorry, dear), and I would love to be more aware of what's going on around me.

What about you?

* Well, maybe I'd save a point or two for the Chainsaw skill so that I can eventually qualify for Chainsaw Monk.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Review: Perdido Street Station

When China Miéville set out to write Perdido Street Station, he deliberately wanted to do something different from most fantasy stories. Therefore, you won't find any medieval maidens riding beside silent champions on the cover of Perdido Street Station. No orcs, no elves, no dragons. In fact, the setting is not medieval at all, but industrial. If you can't remember the last time I talked about Steampunk on this supposedly Steampunk blog, here you go: Perdido Street Station is definitely Steampunk.

You won't see any gentlemen in top hats and waistcoats. There is no Victoriana in the city of New Crobuzon, which is where the novel takes place. The Steampunk elements are steam-powered trains, constructs with surprisingly advanced analog computer brains, and humans who have been Remade by fusing their bodies with steam-powered machines.

The Remade are one of the most interesting aspects of the novel. Remaking is a form of punishment in New Crobuzon. The oppressive capitalist government (more on that later) sadistically combines people with machine or animal parts for transgressions against the state. Sometimes these punishments fit the crime, but often they are simply malicious ways to punish and cripple people.

Remade aren't the only interesting people you'll find walking the streets of New Crobuzon. There are also Cactacae, big cactus people who live in a domed ghetto called the Greenhouse. There are Khepri, beetle-headed women whose heads are actually whole beetles, complete with legs and everything. The third major non-human race of New Crobuzon are the Vodyanoi, froglike water dwellers who can shape water temporarily. Miéville loves spicing up his city with other creatures, too, so you'll hear about more exotic creatures from time to time. The most important of these are the Garuda, bird people who usually live far away in the Cymek desert, but also have a small immigrant population in the city.

The city of New Crobuzon itself is one of the best things about the novel. Based on what I've read of his work, Miéville loves architecture, and he has a talent for making his settings feel completely believable. One of the ways he does this is by describing the ways in which the various parts of the city relate to each other, for instance the way a blue-collar district turns into a slum, or the way a high-rent area has fallen into disrepair and become a series of tenements and squats. He then fills these areas with people of all sorts, who live fully realized, everyday lives of all kinds. And of course, squatting at the center of New Crobuzon, at the point where the train lines converge, is the massive Perdido Street Station, the hub and heart of the city.

There are a lot more unpleasant ghettos than posh neighborhoods in New Crobuzon, and that bleakness extends to whole novel. Miéville pulls no punches in populating his city with gangsters, thieves, whores, and homeless. The mayor and his cronies are more than happy to keep the populace living mostly in squalor, though there are nicer areas for the wealthy middle class, university students and faculty, and artists. Miéville is well known for his extreme left-wing politics, and he sometimes lays it on a bit thick as the mayor and his fascist militia crush the unions and keep the people living in fear.

The plot of the novel concerns a Garuda, Yagharek, who arrives in New Crobuzon to seek out a scientist, Isaac Dan Der Grimnebulin. Yagharek had his wings torn off by his tribe as punishment for a crime, and he has heard that Grimnebulin is his best and only hope to ever fly again. Isaac takes on the case, believing that his research into the near-legendary "crisis power" is the key to restoring Yagharek's flight. Meanwhile, Isaac's girlfriend Lin, a Khepri artist, takes on an enormous commission to create a statue of a man who turns out to be a prominent gangster. I don't want to give away too much of the plot, so I'll just stop right there.

Perdido Street Station is extremely well written. Reading it reminded me of the works of William Gibson and Neil Stephenson in the sense that I constantly felt like the author must be an absolute genius. Miéville's descriptions of analog computers, for instance, are completely believable and fascinating, and he gives each race a unique philosophy and mindset that is convincingly and mind-bogglingly inhuman.

I wouldn't recommend the novel to everyone, though. New Crobuzon can be a terrible place, and some atrocious things happen along the way that can be hard to read. It helps the setting feel more believable, but it also makes the book unsuitable to certain readers.

I have a few other complaints about the novel, mostly minor, that I can't get into for fear of spoilers. But despite all that, Perdido Street Station was an absolutely fascinating book that I highly recommend.

One last note: at one point late in the novel, the protagonists hire some adventurers to help them. These are clearly D&D characters, re-imagined for the setting. We even heard that they will do just about anything for "gold and experience." In interviews, China Miéville admits to having played RPGs as a kid, though he's quick to note that he hasn't played one in fifteen years. (It's nothing to be ashamed of, Mr. Miéville, sir!) Oh, and also, he collaborated with Wizards of the Coast to make a 3.5 ruleset for the world of Bas Lag where the novel is set, which is available in Dragon 352. Currently he's working closely with Adament Entertainment on an entirely new pen-and-paper RPG, called Tales of New Crobuzon.