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One Week In November

Earlier this week it was announced that Halo 4's worldwide ship date would be November 6th. Though I'm quite excited for the game (especially after reading Game Informer's excellent preview), this decision perplexes me. As most of the gaming world knows, the Call of Duty franchise has been dominating year-end sales for the past five years or so. More recently, the week in which a Call of Duty game drops is absent of almost any other new games despite the usually-crowded November release calendar (the expertly-marketed Skyrim is the only challenger that comes to mind).

Assuming Treyarch finishes the next Call of Duty title in time for the early-November release that the franchise has always dominated, the two behemoth shooters could very well be dropping on the exact same day. For the past few years, the Halo franchise has had great success in carving out a late-September release window; Halo 3 sold 3.3 million units in 12 days, ODST moved 2.5 million units, and Reach sold 3.3 million copies in one month. While those incredible sales figures are proof that the Halo franchise is still as much a gaming phenomenon as it ever was, they don't come close to the gargantuan sales of the recent Call of Duty titles. Call of Duty: Black Ops is the best-selling game of all time in the US, having reached 5.6 million units sold in the first 24 hours of its release. Modern Warfare 3, meanwhile, sold 6.5 million copies on launch day. The gap in sales can certainly be attributed to Call of Duty's availability across multiple platforms while Halo stays a Microsoft exclusive, but the point of bringing up these numbers isn't to closely examine and compare them, but rather to point out how dangerous a simultaneous release could be for both these franchises.


I had presumed that the past few Halo games' September launch dates had been deliberate moves on Microsoft's part to steer the franchise clear of the record-breaking launches that Call of Duty franchise seems so effortlessly capable of; for one, it can assume that the twitch-based, multiplayer-centric FPS gameplay offered by both franchises would appeal to the same audiences, and thus a significant gap in release dates would ensure the success of both titles. What's more is that Microsoft has long been intent on promoting the Call of Duty games as if they were first-party titles. They kick off each year's E3 press conference with footage of the latest Call of Duty campaign, and they presumably shell out a lot of cash to ensure timed exclusivity for DLC.

Microsoft's baffling move here can seemingly be detrimental to both franchises. The most obvious issue is that both of these colossal franchises will have to duke it out over the same audience. Despite being hardcore shooters, these games have serious mainstream appeal, and it's probable that their general audience wouldn't be willing to spend $120 (or more for collector's editions) on two similar games within the space of a week (much less a day). Secondly, one has to wonder if Microsoft's heavy marketing of the Call of Duty games for their console will change; it seems highly doubtful that they'd want to give Activision's blockbuster series an edge over their own.


Last year, EA was intent on having Battlefield 3 go toe-to-toe with Modern Warfare 3, using every possible opportunity to trash talk their competitor's franchise and create a sense of competition amongst the two first-person shooters. Though Activision didn't take the bait, many gamers certainly did, quickly pledging allegiance to their preferred military FPS. Both games ended up doing extremely well, but despite a multi-platform release of its own, Battlefield 3 went up against the king to no avail. Considering their closer launch window and unshakeable positions in popular culture, the competition between Halo 4 and the rumored Black Ops 2 is bound to be fiercer. Though I have no doubt that both games will go on to be huge hits, it seems highly likely that the closeness of their launch days will affect sales in some way.

Of course, all this speculation is predicated on the idea that a Call of Duty game is indeed launching in November, but that's about as likely as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.

Mass Effect 3 Review

Taking a moment to look at the new memorial wall on the Normandy is just as quiet and solemn a moment as it is exciting and gratifying. On one hand, it will force you to remember the great characters that you lost, and make you think of how they may have impacted the final stretch of your journey. On the other hand, it shows you that the game remembers; a choice that I made five years ago that resulted in the series' first major character death still echoes well into the third game. Mass Effect 3 is absolutely filled to the brim with moments like these, and whether they're equally reflective or exponentially bigger and badder, they end up creating an unforgettable testament to the world you've shaped, and the character you've built in Commander Shepard.

It's precisely this heavily branching mythos that makes it nearly impossible to provide any kind of plot summary. The absolute most basic overview I can provide is that Shepard will find him or herself on Earth at the outset of the game. The long-awaited Reaper invasion arrives swiftly, and Shepard must soon venture out into the greater galaxy to raise support for the war effort to stop the synthetic menace and reclaim Earth. Ultimately, however, each player's Commander Shepard will be unlike the next, and the plot will end up varying in ways both large and small. Here the genius of Mass Effect 3, and the series as a whole comes into full view. There's an intricate web of choice and consequence on display that's dictated not just by major the Paragon/Renegade choices of past and present; new bits of narrative are revealed based on the interactions you've had with major characters, the order in which you complete missions, who you take with you on said missions, your thoroughness in completing quests, and the outcome of Mass Effect 2's brilliant suicide mission. The number of elements the game keeps track of and factors into the story is simply awe-inspiring.

Though Mass Effect 3 has been heavily marketed as easy to get into even without having had played through the previous two games, it's not recommended. As the last game in a trilogy, much of the experience thrives on dealing with the long-lasting effects of all the decisions you've made thus far, and BioWare does an excellent job of showing you what all your decisions have lead up to. If you choose to make a new Shepard rather than import a character from Mass Effect 2, you'll encounter some extra exposition to get you up to speed, but the experience will no doubt lose a lot of its impact. If you haven't played the first two and have a sudden interest with the arrival of Mass Effect 3, I strongly recommend you play through them first. The original is a little hard to play at this point, but its storytelling is still top-notch (no to mention it's short), and Mass Effect 2 is just as ambitious and spectacular as it ever was.


The game's main campaign is comprised of what are by far the most well-constructed and memorable levels the series has yet seen. The action in these missions is relentless, and the environments you'll tear through are usually filled with visual wonders. Most importantly however, most all story missions are opened and book-ended with impactful moments of dialogue and choice that both play up the connections you've fostered to the series' large cast of characters while also leaving you huge decisions that go above and beyond any choices the previous Mass Effect games have offered.

There are also numerous side quests to hunt down. Some are so phenomenal that most players will no doubt see them as inseparable from the main campaign while others are a little humbler in terms of presentation. N7 missions introduce you to the game's multiplayer maps and give narrative reasons for why they should be constantly defended in the game's wave defense mode, dialogue-driven quests on the Citadel usually reunite you with old friends and offer great insight into some of the war effort's smaller concerns, and scanning missions make a return in a much quicker, more accessible form. While not all of these quests reach the pinnacle of presentation and design that the most significant ones do, the rewards they offer in terms of story and experience points make them worth checking out.

Mass Effect 3's final level is made apparent after only a few hours. Much like its predecessor, Mass Effect 3 uses the foreboding presence of its finale as a means to incentivize seeking out side-missions to increase your preparedness. Readiness is tracked in two ways: gathering War Assets by completing singleplayer quests increases Effective Military Strength, and Galactic Readiness is boosted by playing multiplayer matches. However, unlike the previous title's brilliantly divergent coda, Mass Effect 3's last mission will play out in pretty much the same way regardless of the two ratings. At no point are you shown how each of your War Assets helped you in the end, or how playing those multiplayer matches helped against the Reaper threat. Luckily, much this content is rewarding enough to warrant experiencing for its own sake, but it's a true shame that BioWare failed to follow up on Mass Effect 2's ingenious suicide mission, especially since increasing these ratings is made out to be of the utmost importance.


Though its predecessor made great strides towards delivering a combat system on par with AAA cover-based action titles, Mass Effect 3 easily takes a spot in the pantheon of third-person shooters - a rare accomplishment amongst story-heavy games. Beyond taking cover and issuing simple squad commands, the crux of the game's combat is its six distinct cla.sses. Though there are certain shared abilities, each cla.ss has two or three exclusive special powers that drastically change your approach to the game's intense combat. The Vanguard, for example, thrives on close-quarters combat thanks to a forceful charge move that will simultaneously give you a shield boost and knock your foes back a few yards. Meanwhile, the Engineer plays a more defensive role, using stun powers and a deployable drone to fend off enemies. Most importantly, however, you'll never feel as if you've chosen the wrong cla.ss despite variances in tactics, each cla.ss is capable of dishing out plenty of damage.

While the expertly-crafted cla.sses are at the center of Mass Effect 3's action, the combat is plenty thrilling in its own right. BioWare claimed that combat would be decidedly faster and more challenging, and that appears to be absolutely true. Even on normal settings, many firefights are downright difficult, but feelings of frustration will likely never set in - mastering the positioning and tactics required to best the game's most challenging encounters is always a joy. Additionally, the game's faster pace, cinematic melee attacks, weighty gun sound effects (courtesy of DICE), and vast enemy variety all add up to make it one of the best third-person shooters on the market.

Though Mass Effect 3 is just as unconcerned with variety as its predecessor was, the expert ebb-and-flow pacing keeps the proceedings fresh and engaging throughout. When you aren't mowing down hordes of baddies, you'll be wandering around either the Citadel or the once-again refurbished Normandy to chat with companions or take on some simpler, quieter quests. Thanks to great writing, delivery, and hopefully the player's connection to the Mass Effect mythos, these scenes always resonate. With the stakes higher than ever, BioWare's usual M.O. of punctuating stretches of extreme action and harrowing decision-making with moments of reflective quietude works better here than it ever has, and you'll quickly forget that there really isn't much to do in the game besides walking, talking, choosing, and killing.

Luckily, traditional role-playing elements are a bit more prevalent than they were in Mass Effect 2, and their presence adds a bit of depth to the game's rather straight-forward proceedings. Weapons can now be slotted with upgrades, armor is much more customizable and focused on stats, and branching skill trees offer fun ways to tailor your cla.ss more to your liking. It's also great to see just how well these added RPG flourishes are balanced with the game's skill-over-stats combat; your equipment and specializations definitely have tangible effects on the game's battles, but enemy encounters don't lose any of their twitch-based ferocity in the process.


This mix of weighty combat and light role-playing also serves as the backbone for the game's surprisingly strong multiplayer mode. Though many originally scoffed at the idea of Mass Effect's own four-player spin on multiplayer gaming's latest craze, the Horde-esque wave defense mode, any amount of hands-on time with Mass Effect 3's slick shooting mechanics will show just how well-suited it is to an action-centric game type. The premise here is simple: players must work together survive ten increasingly difficult waves of enemies, scrambling from their defensive positions every few rounds to complete a simple objective. Though there is only one mode of play, and this formula is never changed, it's endlessly entertaining not only because it's a pure distillation of the game's incredible combat, but also because of its challenge and addictive rewards system. On the game's Bronze (low) difficulty, matches feel like simple run-and-gun affairs, but should you go up to Silver or Gold you'll find that excellent teamwork and communication are all but required.

The multiplayer also has its own unique spin on online gaming's now-standard means of artificially boosting replayability. Experience points are used to upgrade skills much in the same way they are in the game's singleplayer component, complete with branching skill trees that lead to further specialization. The credits you earn, meanwhile, unlock equipment packages that can contain anything from spare ammo reserves and medi-gel to new characters and weapons. The contents of the packages are determined mostly by chance, and it's this element of randomization that can end up being the multiplayer's biggest frustration as often as it can be its biggest draw. There's a certain MMO sensibility to it as striking gold with a lucky pack feels immensely rewarding, while receiving nothing of interest for all your hard work is a huge disappointment. Still, the multiplayer is superbly crafted, and is an absolute blast even if you don't always get the loot you want.


Mass Effect 3 is not the most technically stunning game on the market. Not by a long shot. The game is running on an engine that's at least five or six years old at this point, and small graphical glitches aren't uncommon. Luckily the game's art direction is more cohesive and inventive than ever before. The game expertly mixes the ultra-clean old-school space opera aesthetic of the original with the dystopian grit and grime of Mass Effect 2. The game also doesn't shy away from ambitious set-pieces. Within the first few levels alone you'll encounter Reapers as tall as skyscrapers and get a front-row seat to a smoldering planet while fighting on its neighboring moon. The engine is old and imperfect to be sure, but BioWare pushes it to its limits to fantastic results. Though I've already mentioned many of the game's strengths in terms of audio, intuitive overall sound design, and newcomer composer Clint Mansell's fittingly bleak soundtrack bolster the presentation even further.

One of Mass Effect 3's most awe-inspiring qualities is its exceptional pacing. Somehow the game manages to give you the sense that it's sprinting head-on into its inevitable conclusion, all the while giving you a mature, restrained view of the impact you've had on its universe. And though it's undeniably frustrating that the endgame doesn't take your authorship into account, BioWare nevertheless accomplishes their goal for the Mass Effect series with the utmost success. You'll step away from Mass Effect 3 with a clear sense of how the ideals you've instilled in your Commander Shepard have spun a wildly branching narrative yarn into a singular, unforgettable story. Just as soon as I finished my first playthrough I went back to the original and started another, pondering the innumerable ways in which it could all be different.

Alan Wake's American Nightmare Review

In today's video game industry, the idea of a "sleeper hit" is almost laughable. Most quality under-the-radar games get their just due, whether it's through extensive games media coverage, ports and HD rereleases, or the increasing accessibility of indie and underexposed games brought by digital downloads. As such, the original Alan Wake stands as a not-so-secret gem in the Xbox 360 library. Though it might not be remembered for its gameplay, its quirky vibe that merged pulp mystery and horror-humor was utterly captivating. Despite some doubts that Remedy's latest IP would ever see another release, the now-franchise returns with Alan Wake's American Nightmare. Unfortunately, the game has made no great strides in the gameplay department, and to make matters worse, the game's story falls totally flat. Lacking playability and the soul that made its predecessor such a special title, American Nightmare is an uninspired game that isn't worth the time or money despite its $15 price tag.

The setting of Alan Wake's new reality-blurring adventure is the television show Night Springs, a program Wake used to write for but now finds himself trapped inside (or so I assume). Toward the end of the original game, the titular writer learned of the emergence of an evil doppelgänger known as Mr. Scratch, and in American Nightmare he hunts down his homicidal impostor before any harm can come to his loved ones. Taking him down won't be so simple, however, as Wake soon finds himself trapped in a time loop that forces him to repeat the same night over and over again.


It's this demented Groundhog's Day that ultimately proves to be American Nightmare's biggest problem. You'll be forced to relive the same night three times throughout your five hour adventure, completing the same steps over and over as you inch towards facing off with Mr. Scratch. The lack of objective variety alone makes this scenario rather mind-numbing, and the fact that the characters and plot are all bland and uninteresting (especially compared to the original) makes the journey that much worse. The nail in the coffin is the game's thoroughly unsatisfying endgame, which is far too abrupt to justify the repetitive campaign that precedes it.

The fact that the game lacks the charm that made its predecessor's narrative so engrossing is also hugely disappointing. The original Alan Wake used its convoluted plot to great affect, using its labyrinthine plot to introduce players to many great characters and set up numerous fun scenarios. American Nightmare does none of this; its new characters are all uninteresting, secondary sources of narrative such as radio broadcasts and television shows offer little meaning, and the game never explores its hero's psyche as much as it should. Alan Wake has always found himself caught between realities, and the original title did an excellent job of keeping you guessing as to whether or not he would find his way back to reality or sink deeper into the dark realm he found himself in. American Nightmare, on the other hand, asks you to take everything at face value, never once giving you any hints as to what's really going on with its protagonist's fractured existence along its main story track.


Luckily, manuscript pages make a return, and these collectibles hold the only interesting narrative you'll get in the entire game. These pages serve a few purposes from foreshadowing future events to recapping the original game, and most importantly, offering the smallest bit of insight as to what American Nightmare's plot is really about under the surface. There are an absolute ton of these pages scattered throughout the game's three environments, so those who are into hunting down hidden collectibles will surely get a kick out of tracking down all 53 of the hidden goodies. Manuscript pages also unlock weapons crates that further flesh out Wake's newly-expanded arsenal. No longer is he limited to the normal pistol, rifle and shotgun fare - nailguns, SMGs and even crossbows make Alan more dangerous than ever.

Though its rarely challenging (mostly thanks to the overabundance of guns and ammo), combat in American Nightmare is solid, and occasionally thrilling. Almost all of game's enemies are enshrouded in a darkness the makes them immune to firepower, so you'll have to pierce through their shadowy veil with a high-powered flashlight before delivering the killing blow with your weapon of choice. Its a simple formula, but it works well in building tension as enemies can close in on you quite quickly before you're even able to harm them. Though decent enemy variety and the occasional huge battle will keep you on your toes, the aforementioned lack of intensity really drags down American Nightmare's combat sequences. Most of the time you'll be facing off against only four or five enemies, and considering how powerful the new arsenal is, taking down your enemies will feel like a chore more than a white-knuckled struggle to survive.

American Nightmare features a whole secondary mode based around the game's combat mechanics, and though it avoids the campaign's pitfalls by cutting back on your armaments, it has its own fair share of issues. Fight Till Dawn is a spin on the wave defense mode that has been dominating multiplayer gaming for the past few years now. You'll be tasked with surviving for ten minutes, combating wave after wave of possessed foes in hopes of racking up a high score before dawn. The quintessential problem with this setup is that its three ways of dictating your performance in a round (the timer, the wave number, and the score) never come together to form a cohesive objective - if anything they all conflict with one another. Often I found myself wanting to face off with a more challenging wave of enemies, only to be inhibited by the game's ten-minute countdown. Though it does support a basic leader board, the disappointing lack of multiplayer makes the Fight Till Dawn mode feel like a real missed opportunity.


On a presentational level, American Nightmare is something of a mixed bag. The game's visuals are a bit underwhelming thanks to some jolting animations, supremely cheesy live-action cutscenes, and the overall lack of detail on offer due to the unrelentingly dark art direction. Still, there's rarely anything outright bad, and certain lighting effects are done quite nicely. The game's sound department, on the other hand, is of a consistently high quality. Creepy ambient sound effects, stylish narration, and licensed music are all used to great effect, and though there are a few poor performances, the voice acting is mostly spot-on. Though the graphics aren't all that impressive, its great audio design keeps the presentation from falling into the realm of mediocrity that the rest of the game does.

Though it's great to see a game like Alan Wake get a second chance, American Nightmare not only fails to expand on what made the original so great, but doesn't stand up as a quality title in its own right. The game's repetitive, time-loop premise is its most glaring flaw, but the throwaway story, sloppy visuals and lack of fun enemy encounters bog the experience down even further. The game's Fight Till Dawn mode does serve to alleviate some of the campaign's frustrations, but is riddled with problems of its own, namely the lack of focus and intensity that makes other survival modes so thrilling. Though there are a few things that American Nightmare does right, the bad far outweighs the good. The writer has entered a dark place indeed.

Worst Fans In America

A couple days ago, a website called The Consumerist revealed the winner of their annual Worst Company In America award. The winner was Electronic Arts, a result that I find particularly appalling when considering the publisher's competition. Apparently people think that a company the uses online passes are worse than ones that force horrid working conditions on overseas labor (Apple and Wal-Mart), use predatory pricing strategies (Wal-Mart), get huge bailouts and contributed to the recession. That's not to mention how absurd it is that big tobacco and oil companies weren't even on the list. Past winners included British Petroleum (responsible for the big 2010 oil spill), Countrywide Home Loans (who contributed to the subprime mortgage crisis) and Halliburton. Not only does this all add up to show that consumers in general care about corporate tactics that inconvenience them over ones that degrade people's quality of life, but it shows how unbelievably messed up gamers' priorities are. Is "getting back" at EA for their nickel-and-diming really worth showing off how ignorant the gaming community can be? Hell, EA responded rather quickly to point out how absurd it all was, saying in a statement to Kotaku:

"We're sure that British Petroleum, AIG, Philip Morris, and Halliburton are all relieved they weren't nominated this year. We're going to continue making award-winning games and services played by more than 300 million people worldwide."

The dismissiveness of that response is well-deserved. There are countless companies out their that actively ruin the quality of life for people all around the world, all EA is doing is giving players the option to pay for additional features that usually cost $15 or less. Gamers who think the latter is worse than the former need to seriously reconsider their worldview.


I think that, once again, this all ties back to the various upsets surrounding Mass Effect 3, as well as the dangers and illogic of gamer entitlement. BioWare announced today that Mass Effect 3 would receive a free DLC in the form of an "Extended Cut" ending featuring new cutscenes and an expanded epilogue. Out of curiosity, I checked the official Mass Effect 3 forums to see if fan outcry had been extinguished. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it hadn't. A poll on BioWare's social site shows that 63% of "fans" aren't happy with the announcement of the free content. Checking through people's responses, the main reasoning seems to be that they didn't like the ending in the first place, and thus have no interest in seeing it expanded and explained further. The Mass Effect 3 "reclaimers" who have been dodging the "entitled" moniker for a few weeks now have no more excuse. It's not BioWare's duty to make an ending that will be universally well-received, nor is it their duty to expand upon it, but they did it anyway in an effort to appease their fanbase. The fact that the same people who demanded more closure can find it in themselves to scoff at this announcement is baffling in its stupidity and irrationality.

To say you have the right to something better than what your getting (assuming what you're getting is perfectly functional, which in this case, it is) is by definition entitled. If the creator of a product decides to give you something better, and you refuse it even before you even receive it, claiming it's not good enough, is something beyond entitlement.


I believe it's this same perspective on the Mass Effect 3 ending debacle that aligns perfectly with the worldview I was mentioning earlier - the one in which people feel as if they can reasonably say that a company that causes them a minor inconvenience is worse than one that proactively damages people's quality of life. It's the same narrow-mindedness and ignorance towards the role that both artists and businesses play in society as a whole. I don't think those who voted for EA in The Consumerist's poll and those who are somehow still unhappy with BioWare are necessarily the same group of people, but their way of looking at things certainly seems to be compatible. The ignorance and entitlement displayed by the gamers who comfortably possess this mindset shows that they thoroughly undeserving of the respect that they demand from the industry.

Farewell Zipper

The other day it was confirmed that Zipper Interactive had closed down. This disappointed me greatly as I've enjoyed a lot of the games they've released over the years. Most of the SOCOM games and their portable Fireteam Bravo brethren, MAG and Unit 13 have all been fun games that combine run-and-gun and tactical play rather effectively. Though not all their titles are truly great, there are two in particular that I cherish as all-time favorites: SOCOM: US Navy Seals II and SOCOM: US Navy Seals Fireteam Bravo.

socom 2

Back in 2003, SOCOM II was one of the finest online games consoles had to offer, and it remained that way for quite some time. The game had a good singleplayer campaign, but the real draw for me (and likely most other players) was the multiplayer. Despite the Playstation 2's slim online offering, Zipper created a monster multiplayer component that I played regularly until the end of that ten of consoles. There were three addictive game modes (with the Counter-Strike-esque hostage rescue mode being the favorite), a whopping twenty-two maps, support for 16 players and a whole lot of clans to join, SOCOM II had a fairly unprecedented console multiplayer suite at the time. Thanks to all the aforementioned elements, intense single-spawn matches, a lot of guns, and my involvement in a clan, SOCOM II is a true cla.ssic in my book.

Whereas SOCOM II largely refined pre-established console shooter mechanics, Zipper's first PSP offering, SOCOM: US Navy Seals Fireteam Bravo broke new ground for handheld shooters in many ways. For one, it translated dual-stick shooter mechanics to the single analog stick PSP better than any other shooter the platform saw in its lifespan. It wisely chose a lock-on mechanic instead of substituting the right analog stick for the PSP's face buttons, thus making for a much more functional twitch-shooter experience than pretty much all other PSP games. Surprisingly, this mechanic worked quite well in the game's online multiplayer; though it was quite easy to lock on to another player and start blasting away, you'd always have to wary of the seven other players on the enemy team that could drop you just as fast. I don't mean to mention the game's online play in passing, however. Playing a fully-functional portable shooter was pretty mind-blowing at the time, much less one that featured 16-player online gameplay, voice-chat and clan support.

fireteam bravo

Though not every game Zipper Interactive put out was as superb as the two I mentioned above, they made nine games in the span of a decade, all of which were quite good. The SOCOM series outcla.ssedd nearly every other online shooter on the PS2 and PSP alike, and games like MAG and Unit 13 were also great showcases for what Sony's platforms are capable of. Sony provided no specifics as to why they shut the studio down, though none of their last few games reached the commercial success of the earlier SOCOM games, and their last few games have been met with mixed critical reaction. Regardless, Zipper Interactive is responsible for a long line of great (and unfortunately underrated) games, and I wish them all the best.


More Mass Effect Musings


I've been thinking about Mass Effect 3's ending a lot in the past few days. I beat it about a week ago now, and I've already written a fairly lengthy blog about it, but it still dominates my gaming-related thoughts. While my initial post was simply my gut reaction to the ending, this blog comes from having read about and engaged in the larger conversation that's been happening on pretty much every gaming website you could possibly find as well as simply having more time to think about it all.

One of the main things I've been considering is comparing the third game's final mission and ending to that of its predecessor. Though I realize that Mass Effect 2 and 3 have some major differences in terms of focus and tone, they are very similar in one way; the whole experience seems to be structured around their respective last levels. While individual missions and conversations capture the true soul of the series, both the second and third Mass Effect titles promised colossal endgames right from the get-go. In Mass Effect 2 that endgame was the suicide mission to take out the Collector base while Mass Effect 3 builds itself up around Shepard's eventual return to Earth to settle things with the Reapers once and for all.


Conceptually, both of these final missions are great. For one, the sense of finality looming over the story gives an incredible amount of weight to its smaller moments; Shepard's dirty dozen in Mass Effect 2 may not have been as memorable if I didn't recruit them knowing they were perfectly willing to die for Shepard and his/her cause, and resolving the issues that face each race in Mass Effect 3 may have felt tedious if there was no implication that they'd return the favor tenfold. They also work exceedingly well on a mechanical level. Both games seemingly have an underlying calculus that determines how their respective endings will play out based on how much side content you've explored throughout your playing time. They're both simply great ways to incentivize and reward people for becoming even more invested in the universe.

These two final sequences start to differ greatly when it comes to their execution, however. Though Mass Effect 3's combined Galactic Readiness rating, and Military Strength rating are certainly more in-depth and thorough than Mass Effect 2's behind-the-scenes calculations, the resulting final level is much less satisfying. It seemed initially as if it would play out much in the same way regardless of your readiness levels, and if reports I've read on the internet are true, that is indeed the case. At this point, it would be hard to know if there are more subtle ways your readiness rating could effect Shepard's last stand in London, but it has almost no overt effect beyond whether or not Shepard gasps for air right before the credits roll. So despite the fact that Mass Effect 3 presents a massively detailed calculus for success, none of its intricacies never come to fruition in any meaningful way. When compared to Mass Effect 2's gloriously divergent ending, the last mission in the third game feels most unsatisfactory.


In Mass Effect 2, countless decisions made their way into how the suicide mission would play out. The fate of each and every one of your crew, and even Shepard him/herself were decided by how thoroughly you recruited squad members, earned their loyalty, and upgraded your gear and your ship. Everything that factored into that final scene had a tangible consequence. Fail to invest in heavy armor for the Normandy for example, and Jack will be toast once you begin your approach to the Collector Base. Simple (and brutal) as that. Conversely, I couldn't really tell you how helping Jodum Bau, doing interviews for Diana Allers, or finding the Rings of Alune affected the war effort in Mass Effect 3.

Thanks to some awesome set-pieces and fun combat encounters, I still had a lot of fun playing through the last mission in Mass Effect 3, but it was a shame to learn that the whole war effort sub-game meant next to nothing, especially considering Mass Effect 2's conclusion can play out in any number of ways.


Disregarding the lack of sway Mass Effect 3's numbers game had on its conclusion, the game's ending is still something I've found myself reflecting on quite a bit, especially now that I've gotten a chance to read and listen to other people's spoilerific thoughts and analyses. While I think most negative fan reaction is way too overblown and nitpicky, a select few pointed out some serious narrative faults in the game's last ten minutes or so:

For one, the details surrounding your ascension into the Catalyst are sketchy. Anderson says he had followed Shepard up with some of his team after the Reaper dreadnaught had seemingly wiped out the Hammer strike team. That's all fine, but how then did Anderson reach the center room before Shepard, yet somehow without the remaining members of the team he mentioned earlier? Those are both pretty odd leaps in logic. Secondly, the higher being's explanation of the Reaper's purpose is undeniable circular logic. It essentially states that the Reapers wipe out organics because other synthetics might wipe out organics. I usually hate memes, especially those of the "Yo Dawg" variety, but I was simultaneously amused and disturbed to find out how fitting a summation of the being's explanation it was.


Additionally, after viewing the other endings, I found their similarities to be extremely off-putting. Pretty much the exact same cutscene plays out regardless of your final decision. Even disregarding the incredibly problematic sequence in which the Normandy crash-lands (which I touched on in more detail in my last blog), the game never shows the breadth of your final choice's impact.

But, perhaps in this one instance, the implied nature of it all isn't so bad. I wrote earlier about how much I liked the premise driving your final decision, and despite now realizing that there's a remarkable amount of broken storytelling surrounding it, I still think there's something really brilliant buried in Mass Effect 3's final scenes on the Catalyst. I love the idea that Shepard's struggle for the survival of organics is revealed to have much larger implications. For once, Shepard can't make the impossible look easy, and the humanist qualities of Mass Effect's storytelling are brought to the forefront. You're given a broader view of the way the universe works that extends beyond the simple struggle for organic survival presented through most of the series, and it makes for the toughest decision in the entire franchise on a conceptual level. It's a shame BioWare didn't throw enough resources at the actual ending cutscenes to really drive your choice home, but the idea of irreparably changing the course of all life for all time in one single moment is far more ambitious and haunting than any other decision the series has presented, and it's still a ton of fun to think about simply as a moral conundrum.


I guess my reaction to the ending is more mixed now that I've had time to think about it some more. On one hand, the ending scenes are filled with oddities that defy the logic of the Mass Effect mythos, and storytelling in general. However, the final choice is a great one that I'm sure I will remember for years to come. Ultimately, the one thing I can flat-out say I didn't like about the game is the Galactic Readiness and Military Strength ratings. Both seem to be central to the game's final outcome, but don't end up doing much of anything.

Much like seemingly everything BioWare has done in the past two years, Mass Effect 3's ending was met with sheer revulsion. BioWare's many "fans" have been flooding their forums and Twitter accounts expressing their anger, and the company has even been reported to the FTC. The saddest part of all this is that many are quick to denounce the entirety of Mass Effect 3, and even the series as a whole as garbage simply because they were dissatisfied with the ending. It's simply absurd to take one of the best RPG franchises of this generation for granted. Regardless of your personal reaction to the ending, I think most would agree that the Mass Effect games are all top-notch, and to write them off because of a ten minute sequence is unnecessary and totally ridiculous.

In Defense of Mass Effect 3's Ending


How did people want this game to end? With Jacob and Shepard having that drink in Rio? Shepard reunited with his love interest or finding out what happened to all his good buddies? A galactic-wide celebration a la Return of the Jedi? Regardless of what players may have wanted, the finale we ended up with was a relatively quiet moment in which Shepard talked with some mysterious power. The entity presents him with three choices for how to solve the Reaper invasion, each commenting on the ultimate nature of life within Mass Effect's universe, and each with a potentially apocalyptic outcome. For reasons beyond me, the reaction to Mass Effect 3's conclusion have mostly been outright revulsion. I, however, found it to be quite compelling, and have decided to write this blog to defend BioWare's ending.

For me the first step to really digging into and examining Mass Effect 3's ending was considering what the focal points of the series' previous narratives were. The original was a relatively lore-heavy affair, and though it introduced us to many of the series' iconic characters and locales, it mostly stuck to the basics. The game spends much of its time explaining what Spectre status entails, giving players a sense of galactic politics, and most importantly, explaining the Protheans and the Reaper threat. In short, the original Mass Effect had focused purely on world-building and setting the stage for a large-scale conflict.

Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, stepped away from the narrative the first game spun in order to present a staggering number of memorable new characters, key organizations, and interesting environments. Though many felt the game was stalling its overarching story centered around the imminent Reaper invasion, this was a very likely a deliberate move on BioWare's part. Had we not been introduced to Shepard's ragtag new crew, Aria T'Loak, or the Illusive Man, the universe would have felt quite small once Mass Effect 3 came around.

Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3 puts much of its focus on Commander Shepard and what he/she represents to both the galaxy and the player. Shepard is given an even greater position of power than ever before; when given choices of how to end the Quarian-Geth war, or what to do with the genophage cure, entire civilizations are at stake. Choices that weigh that heavily simply hadn't been presented in the series before these key moments in the third game.

That is why the final moments of Mass Effect 3 are so fitting. The series has increasingly upped the ante in terms of choice and consequence throughout the years, and Mass Effect 3's final decision is the one to end them all. It doesn't get much bigger than deciding the ultimate nature and fate of the existence. The three choices you are presented with are all distinct, but have equally ambiguous consequences that can be counter-productive, if not downright destructive. This is an extremely interesting premise for the game's final choice as it puts Shepard's journey into a delightfully disturbing perspective. All along, Shepard had been fighting against the universe's seemingly inevitable destruction, but the game's final set of options shows that his fight to preserve life has been futile to a point. Shepard's final decisions each have a way of effecting the finality of existence in the galaxy in ways that he/she (and in turn the player) can't hope to comprehend in the moment. Whether the affects of Shepard's action will be positive or negative a left to the player to interpret, but the main point is that his/her act will have an inescapable, and decisive impact on all life. Suddenly, Shepard's struggle against the Reapers is much less of a clear-cut conflict between good and evil. This makes the final decision much grander and more difficult than all the others. Shepard's goal as a human struggling to live was made clear, but upon briefly being put in a position of omnipotence, his fight seems much more ambiguous. This series is all about creating a fantasy of power, and the godlike choice of affecting the course of all life is pushing this fantasy to its absolute limit. And what does it matter that you don't see much of the consequences of this final choice? The actual decision-making process is haunting enough in it of itself, and is thoroughly memorable in its own right.

Mass Effect 3

One of the common criticisms of this ending is that it did not provide much closure. True, we were treated to no montage of what became of the galaxy or all of Shepard's allies, but I'm not sure such a scene was necessary. Frankly, there isn't much more that could have been done in terms of expanding on Shepard's relationships with any major character. To me, the poignant moments that brought a sense of finality to the game's wide cast of characters came at various points during the story. Mass Effect 3 expertly gave nearly every main character a moment in the spotlight throughout its running time, and those scenes brought plenty of satisfying closure to these characters and what they meant to your Commander Shepard.

I won't say the ending is without flaws, however. The obvious weak point is a small scene in which we see the Normandy crash-land on a jungle planet followed by a shot of your crew emerging from the ship looking confused. This, frankly, made no sense. Last we saw the crew, they had split up to help out with the battle in London in one way or another. How they all ended up on the Normandy in a different solar system by the time Shepard made his/her final decision is an inexplicable plot hole.

Mass Effect 3

Ultimately, Mass Effect 3's ending can't be wholly cherished, but it certainly shouldn't be hated or reviled. Its ending is dark, unique and utterly compelling; few grand science-fiction stories have ended in a way that is as obscure and enigmatic as Mass Effect 3, and I find it likable for that reason alone. Furthermore, the ending offers excellent commentary on the nature of Shepard's journey, and the general man vs. machine conflict that has been the backbone of the Mass Effect narrative.

The only part of Mass Effect 3 that I'm disappointed by is fan reaction. Last week, BioWare caved into gamers' entitled demands for a new ending. On its own, that decision represents the absolute worst kind of precedent. Developers (and artists in general) should never be expected to "fix" their art unless it doesn't work on a functional level. Mass Effect 3's ending is a bold (if somewhat flawed) statement, and it's not something that needs to be changed just because players want something that's easier to understand. We're constantly criticizing video game developers for not exercising the amount of artistic freedom that creatives in other mediums can with ease. Yet now that we are presented with a truly out-there, smart and unique ending, people have had such a vocal, immature, and critical reaction that this finale will likely cease being the "official" conclusion to the Mass Effect saga. Considering the sheer number of negative reactions to Mass Effect 3's ending, it's likely that other developers will have taken notice, and if this thoroughly absurd popular reaction ends up being able to dictate whether or not developers take risky artistic choices, then this industry has truly entered a dangerous place.

Worth Its Weight - Uncharted: Golden Abyss Review

It doesn't take long for Uncharted: Golden Abyss to show off the Playstation Vita's rather stunning graphical and control capabilities. Within the game's first fifteen minutes you'll be maneuvering through a beautifully crafted environment, shooting enemies with dual-analog stick controls, and utilizing some of the Vita's many additional control options. The game's opening a true marvel, as it delivers a gaming experience that's completely unprecedented for a handheld, and the truth is, despite a few notable issues, that sense of wonder never really lets up.

Golden Abyss is set before any of the other games, though it has no real connection to its predecessors, and Nathan Drake is no less capable than he's always been. As usual, Drake and a few buddies have to go after some long-lost treasure and avoid the clutches of a maniacal warlord in the process. But also as per usual, the game features plenty of amusing dialogue and great delivery in order to keep the plot engaging. It's best to describe the latest adventure as fun but forgettable; it's unfortunate that it doesn't reach the apex of characterization that Uncharted 2 did, but it wisely avoids the laughable attempts at self-seriousness that dragged its immediate predecessor down so much.


While Golden Abyss also keeps the Uncharted series' now-standard gameplay formula - a combination of climbing, shooting, and puzzle-solving - the usual fare is made all the more impressive simply through the fact that you get to play it all in the palm of your hand. The game's platforming elements continue to entertain despite their relative linearity. Sequences in which you climb up huge set-pieces, take daring leaps of faith, or high-tail it to avoid enemy fire always prove to be thrilling, and the incredible sense of urgency these sequences provide further their success.

Where the game really steps out of its pre-established comfort zone is in its spectacular combat. On the surface, the game plays out much like most modern third-person shooters - the use of cover is heavily emphasized, and if you do find yourself outside of a safe spot, it should only be to run to another one or engage in some quick melee combat. However, Golden Abyss sets its gunfights apart from the competition through great use of the Vita's control options. Melee attacks and weapons swaps can be done on the Vita's touch screen (as well as through traditional button-presses, for purists), and arcing the trajectory of grenades tosses is handled entirely with the Vita's touch controls. The real revelation, however, is the game's use of the accelerometer. While aiming handles just fine with the right analog stick, you can make subtle adjustments with the device's SIXAXIS controls. While this may seem like a relatively small addition, it ends up giving Golden Abyss by far the slickest and most engaging combat the Uncharted series has yet seen.


Unfortunately, the game's puzzle fall short of the precedent set by its entertaining platforming and combat. For the most part, its because of needless gimmicks built solely to capitalize on the Vita's touch controls. You'll be stopped fairly often in order to do mundane tasks such as making charcoal rubbings (done simply by swiping your finger across the touchscreen), or cleaning dirt off of an artifact (done by swiping back touchpad). Not only are these small interruptions devoid of fun in their own right, but they can be detrimental to the snappy pacing the game shoots for. One segment early in the game breaks up a well-crafted cutscene no less than three times for these throwaway uses of the Vita's tech. The game's major puzzles are certainly better, but they still aren't all that great, and often feel just as intrusive as the aforementioned touch screen gimmicks. On the whole, these segments feel so sloppy and unrewarding that it's hard to wonder why they're there in the first place.

Continuing the game's detrimental use of touch controls are the few dragged-out quicktime events that show up towards the end of the game. These moments are essentially fill-ins for boss encounters, but are handled extremely poorly due to their unnecessary length and difficulty. They probably would've been more fun to watch as cut-scenes than play as exercises in frustration.


Setpiece moments are practically the lifeblood of the Uncharted series, and even though technological limitations keep the game from showing off huge moments like a cargo plane wreck or a collapsing building, Golden Abyss still features plenty of great moments that spice things up. There are a few adrenaline-pumping chase sequences, an on-rails shooting sequence, and some pretty massive environments to behold. Nothing comes close to being as breathtaking as the console entries' most impressive set-pieces, but there's some surprising moments to be found nonetheless.

Though Uncharted games have always featured a bunch of collectibles hidden throughout their respective environments, the staggering number of hidden goodies in Golden Abyss is almost intimidating. There are well over 100 secret artifacts, gemstones, bounties, and photo opportunities in the game, and while most people may not feel the need to track down all of them, they can certainly pad the 12 hour playtime significantly.


On a presentational level, Golden Abyss is pretty much unparalleled on portable systems. It features great animations, an incredible amount of detail on character models, plenty of expansive and varied environments, and some well done lighting effects. There are few graphical shortcomings to be found; the game uses lame 2D backdrops in place of sprawling vistas when you get to a spot with a nice view, and the particle effects are straight out of 1999. Despite those minor problems, however, Golden Abyss is easily the best looking handheld game on the market, and is more or less on par with early Playstation 3 titles.

The same goes for the game's audio. Whereas the console Uncharted titles benefited from having huge set pieces with which to show off their sound design wizardry, Golden Abyss keeps things relatively basic. Still, the voice-acting is just as great as it always is, and the music is similarly inspired.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss is something of a reluctant killer-app for the Playstation Vita. On one hand, the game looks and sounds incredible, delivers plenty of thrilling moments, and features some great uses of the Vita's many control options. However, there are many more instances of the portable's touch controls being used as throwaway gimmicks that serve to break up the game's pacing and add some unneeded frustration. The game goes to great lengths to get players to realize the Vita's capabilities with widely varying success. Though it is a shame that Sony Bend couldn't exercise a little more restraint in its uses of the Vita's tech, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is still a huge success simply because it comes closer to a console-quality level of gameplay and presentation than any handheld game has before.

Three-Headed Monster - Mass Effect: Infiltrator Review

I don't play iOS games often, and I've never reviewed one before either, but I was intrigued enough by Mass Effect Infiltrator that I decided to give it a shot. Hopefully you'll find it helpful:

The Mass Effect series has grown to become one of this generations most ambitious and unforgettable new IPs. And of course, every behemoth franchise needs a few spinoffs. Mass Effect has tried branching out into iOS territory before, but it'd be safe to assume that most everyone who played the horrendous Mass Effect Galaxies has erased it from their memory. While Mass Effect Infiltrator stands head and shoulders above its mobile predecessor, it's still far from being a great experience.

The top-notch storytelling, fleshed out characters and great world-building the Mass Effect series is known for is completely absent here. The game puts you in the shoes of Cerberus agent Randall Ezno, who very quickly turns rogue and rampages through a Cerberus base after the shady organization kidnaps his friend. While this might seem a decent premise, there are never any meaningful story moments, and the awful voice-acting effectively does away with any weight the sparse narrative may have carried.


To make matters worse in the story department, tacked on Paragon/Renegade choices pop up from time to time throughout the campaign. The decisions you're presented with not only consist of just one basic scenario (killing or sparing a target you get the drop on), but lack any kind of context or consequence. In the series proper, it's worth seeing multiple playthroughs to the end just to see the effects different decisions you make have on the mythos you know and the characters you love, but Infiltrator captures none of that same divergent ingenuity.

Luckily, the moment to moment gameplay in Infiltrator is pretty solid. While the game is a stop-and-pop cover-shooter that utilizes the dual-invisible-analog stick controls that iOS gamers have grown to expect from most shooters on the platform, it wisely eschews a full suite of controls in favor of a more simplistic approach to aiming and shooting that better suits the iPhone's limitations. Once you snap into cover, you simply have to tap on an enemy and your character will pop out and start firing. From there you can do some fine aiming to hit your target's weak point, or tap on the screen once more to duck back down. If there are multiple targets close by, you can chain your attacks for bonus points. There are also a number of biotic and tech powers, as well as melee moves that serve as effective methods of spicing up combat.


There are a few nagging issues with the combat system. Despite the fact that the controls are a lot easier to manage than they are in most iOS shooters, the UI can still get cluttered, and if you're playing on the iPhone's small screen, maneuvering around in more chaotic situations can get a bit too overwhelming. For the most part, however, combat is done quite well, and is certainly a step up from all the iOS games that try too hard to mimic their console brethren.

As mentioned before, your performance in combat is graded, and you're rewarded with a certain amount of credits depending on how well you fought. These credits can then be used to buy and upgrade weapons, armor, abilities and biotic powers. Unfortunately, unless you're a real pro, it takes a while to get a good amount of cash, and it's likely you'll only own about half the game's abilities and upgrades by the time you reach the end of your first playthrough. You can also collect pieces of intel scattered throughout the game's levels that can serve one of two purposes. Either you can use them to raise your Galactic Readiness rating in Mass Effect 3 (which will net you a better ending in that game), or you can trade them in for some more cash, which seems like a nice touch for those who might view Infiltrator as more of a standalone experience rather than a tie-in.


While Infiltrator's initial screenshots looked extremely impressive, the end product doesn't quite match up to those first glimpses. Certain character models and environments look very really good, but for the most part you'll be seeing the bland corridors of the Cerberus facility, and the similarly bland armor of its guards. While the game does look pretty decent, you won't ever forget its an iOS title.

Mass Effect Infiltrator is hard to recommend to anyone but the most devoted Mass Effect fans. Anyone who's played the console titles will surely get a kick out of Infiltrator's slick take on the series' combat mechanics, and the game's tie-ins to Mass Effect 3 are neat, but the lack of a compelling narrative and decisions, as well as the uneven production values make this feel like a game that's only given half of its effort. The reason why the numbered entries in the Mass Effect series resonate so much with gamers is because there are no compromises, and Infiltrator simply fails to capture the magic that comes from a consistent, top-notch quality.

Another Vita Impressions Blog

The state of portable gaming has gotten a bit sketchy over the past couple of years. While iPhones, Droids and iPads have shown us that smaller, relatively cheap portable games will likely live on forever, the struggles endured by the 3DS and Japanese launch of the Playstation Vita have caused many to wonder whether or not a dedicated portable device can still thrive in today's mobile market. In the past few weeks I've seen threads and articles touching on this subject constantly, with GameSpot in particular seeming to have taken its place as the herald of portable gaming's demise. But, whether or not these are real concerns (somewhat likely) or just game editorial sensationalism (extremely likely) doesn't really matter to me at this point in time. What does matter to me is that I picked up a WiFi version of the Playstation Vita along with a couple games, and I'm thus far extremely impressed. So, as I always do when I write a first impressions blog, here are the three things that stood out to me the most during the time I've spent playing the Vita thus far.


1. Controls galore - The Vita is the single most tech-heavy portable device I've ever used. Though it has the now-standard portable setup of face and shoulder buttons, an analog stick, and a D-Pad, it's all the additional control options that are especially exciting. The second analog stick is a game-changer on its own, and a number of the Vita launch titles show off just how impactful that seemingly simple addition can be; the dual-stick controls for Uncharted and Super Stardust give these games a consolized feel, and they are much better for it. While the device's front and back touch pads, as well as its accelerometer have thus far been implemented into the gaming experience in mostly gimmicky ways, there are a few real revelations: fine-aiming with the accelerometer in Uncharted is precise and satisfying, and the way Unit 13 lays out additional commands on easy-to-reach spots on the touch-screen is genius. While there's no one killer-app that uses each of these control options in a meaningful way, there have already been some fantastic uses of the Vita's fully-featured setup.

Mem cards

2. Hidden costs - Though $250 may seem like a reasonably fair price for a portable as well-made as the Vita, there are plenty of additional costs to consider. For one, the device ships with the most barebones package possible, simply including the device and the charger. To make matters worse, additional accessories are overly-expensive. If you want a case, a wrist strap, a screen protector, and/or a memory card with some decent storage space (all of which are pretty necessary in my book), you'll end up spending well over $300. To add insult to injury, the system's flagship title, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, goes for $50 instead of the usual $40. Though the PSP had the same asking price back when it launched in 2005, it came with pretty much every additional accessory you would need. Though I realized early on that the Vita's final price tag would be much higher than it seemed, and saved accordingly, I bet many consumers (particularly the casual crowd) will take issue with the rather hefty investment necessary for this portable device.

Golden Abyss

3. Handheld beauty - Probably the most immediately noticeable thing about the Playstation Vita is its awesome OLED screen. The screen is extremely vibrant, and features very little of the ghosting that plagued Sony's first portable. Additionally, the screen somehow manages to never look smudged despite the system's heavy reliance on touch controls. If you're as OCD about screen-smudges (or pretty much anything) as I am, then you might find this to be a big relief. The actual tech behind the games is also extremely impressive. The best looking games on the system (namely Uncharted and Unit 13) are on par with early PS3 games, which, it should go without saying, is something of a mindblower considering you play these titles on the go.

Since you probably already have a set stance on portable gaming, I'm not going to bother recommending the Vita one way or the other. Personally, I'm very impressed by the device and its great launch lineup. Expect reviews for Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Lumines: Electronic Symphony in the near future.