Computer Game Review: Mass Effect 2


Mass Effect 2

Warning: Possible Spoilers. Mass Effect 2. Universally praised. The best game yet on the Xbox 360? Read on and find out …

Considering all the effort that has obviously gone into the rest of the game, the overall story is really pretty bland, and consists of ye olde ancient race invading the galaxy and what-not. Despite reams of conversation and backstory, I never did work out the motivations of the Collectors and Geth and all the rest of the bad guys, and it didn’t really matter. The focus is really more on the different characters that make up your crew and their personal stories, which thankfully are relatively interesting.

Like many products designed for the largest market possible, I suppose there’s too much risk in doing something really different in the story department. It’s a shame, but hopefully it’s early days for the industry in this regard.
There is a much-touted emphasis on developing, shall we say, a more intimate relationship with one of your crew members. Sure, I got it on with Miranda in the engine room, which was strange because the conversation options made me feel kind of sleazy and wimpy at the same time to get there. Hold on, aren’t we all here to save the universe? I applaud the developers for trying to include some adult emotions in the game, though you do get the feeling they don’t get out much.

The lynchpin of the whole game is the conversation choice system, and where it puts you on a sliding scale from Renegade (selfish, bad-ass) to Paragon (sensitive nice guy hero). It’s this system which I actually think is the weakest part of the game. The game rewards you for consistency—to the point where emphasis on one type or the other opens up more conversation options (usually powerful ones). To me, this detracts from the realism. As I started playing I found myself wanting to make all kinds of choices—sometimes I wanted to ‘do the right thing’, other times I wanted to shoot the guy in the head for looking sideways at me. But after reading a bit about the game online I soon realised that this approach would get me nowhere, so I had to make a conscious decision to go Renegade or Paragon (afer much indecision I chose Paragon) and so instead of making choices as I went along, often found myself automatically selecting the obviously Paragon choice.

Err, life’s full of grey areas kids. I suppose it’s beyond our technology still, but I want a story that develops in response to my choices, not one that forces me to choose one of two options. Certainly there’s an illusion of freedom here, but it’s a shame to be penalised for not staying on a consistent path.

The gameplay in ME2 strikes a good balance between keeping the overall plot on track and giving you the freedom to explore. There was no rush to advance the storyline, and yet the occasional semi-mandatory mission kept me feeling that events were still proceeding without my involvement. You’ll even find yourself scanning planets for minerals so you can develop your technological options; it sounds boring (and sort of is), but occasionally it’s a nice relaxing change from killing things.

Most of the time you’ll be going on missions either to recruit members of your team, or personal missions on their behalf so you make them more loyal to you and make them more effective fighters. In general, missions usually come down to gunfights—running from cover to cover as you advance on the enemy’s position—but there’s plenty of variety and enough stories and situations to keep the game feeling fresh. The combat is excellent. I was more of a ‘stay in cover and pick off the enemy with my sniper gun’ kind of fighter, but you can develop whichever style suits you best.

I can’t summon up any criticism whatsoever of the graphics—they are uniformly stunning. The cut scenes, especially during the game’s climax, are beautifully shot and rendered; exciting, cinematic, and coupled with a pounding, memorable soundtrack, absolutely thrilling.

One of the unique things about ME 2 is your ability to customise the appearance of your character to an obsessive degree. It took me very little time to create a character that looked just like me, to the point where my girlfriend thought it was ‘weird’ everytime she walked through the room and saw me on the TV chatting to aliens (come to think of it, she thought the whole Miranda thing was a bit weird too). All games need now is a voice sampling synthesizer and the illusion will be complete!

One of the excellent things about ME 2 was the just-right level of difficulty. I threw the controller down in frustration a few times—but mercifully few times. I’m sure some of the combats would have been easier if I really took the time to explore the different power and team ability combinations, but even with my limited grasp of the options, I still managed to get through the game with very little frustration and just enough challenge. However a bit more information on how the various powers worked would have been helpful.

ME 2 is without doubt a stunning game and one of the best experiences I’ve had with the Xbox 360 so far. When I considered what to play next, I couldn’t think of anything I hadn’t played that was of the same caliber. I played for about 25 hours, but there are numerous other missions you can discover, and in fact the game was so good I’d even consider playing it again one day in ‘Renegade’ style. My only real criticism is that the Renegade/Paragon system forces you onto one of two paths, taking away the freedom to make choices ‘on the fly’. Otherwise, I’m really looking forward to the next installment in this series. Hopefully with my voice sampled this time!

Four and a half seductive conversation choices out of five.

Computer Game Review: Prince of Persia


Prince of PersiaWarning: Possible Spoilers. What! Three XBox games, all the way to the end?! Either the games are improving, or my attention span is extending … or being dulled.

The trick seems to be to buy them one at a time. I eBayed the small backlog of unplayed games I had, and now carefully research a new purchase, play it to the end, and sell it before getting another. Since this forces me to get used to one game and one control system, I enjoy the game more. Assassin’s Creed II and Batman: Arkham Asylum were both enjoyable gaming experiences—so how did I find the new Prince of Persia?

I remember playing the original two side-scrolling Prince of Persia games by Jordan Mechner on my Mac many, many years ago (1989 and 1994, so Wikipedia tells me), and they were exceptional games for their time; challenging, fun and full of character. Of particular note was the lovely smooth animation of the little sprite that was the Prince.

In 2003 the Prince went 3D and I played about half of the Sands of Time game before getting fed up, or losing interest, or both. It was very nicely done however. I got the next one, The Warrior Within, and the first battle made me throw the controller down in disgust; I never got any further. There was another one after that I didn’t even look at.

Which brings me to the latest version, confusingly called just Prince of Persia. There’s a new ‘cell-shaded’ look, a new Prince, a new Princess (‘Elika’)—who accompanies you throughout the game—and a new quest, but how did it stack up?

Oh dear. Surely, with the huge wealth of rich background material available in the Arabian Nights genre, they could have done better than this? Yes, it’s ye olde dark-god-versus-light god again, a tired and hackneyed theme if ever there was one. Apart from a nice little emotional twist at the end, the story goes nowhere, and no amount of chatting and flirting between the prince and princess fleshes it out into anything remotely interesting. A huge opportunity lost.

The Prince himself has been compared to a Beverly Hills 90210 reject, and the criticism is warranted. He and Elika are both very American, which is not surprising—let’s face it, the Prince in the upcoming Disney adaptation is being played by Jake Gyllenhaal. While Elika is vaguely interesting and troubled, the Prince is annoyingly cliché, continually spouting his tough-loner-with-a-sensitive-core routine. If I was the Princess I’d strangle him with his scarf. As for the bad guys, they are downright boring. The main god of darkness is just a big monster, and his four main sidekicks, who you’ll fight repeatedly throughout the game—the Alchemist, the Concubine, the Warrior, and the Hunter—are virtually interchangeable despite some offhand attempts to instill some character into them.

Many reviews have mentioned how easy Prince of Persia is to play, and for the most part I agree—it’s easy to string button presses together to get the prince and Elika moving smoothly from wall run to jump to climb to swing—and there are very few places where any form of precision is required or you’ll get stuck. When you’re travelling anyway. The combat is some of the worst button-mashing I have ever come across, and many times I found myself pounding the controller on a nearby cushion in frustration and annoyance. Supposedly you have myriad button combos at your disposal, and the main bad guys have different tactics, but what it really comes down to is the kind of mind-numbing repetition and frustration that only bad computer game design can truly provide in such a finely-tuned and torturous way.

Unlike Assassin’s Creed and Batman, you really don’t feel as if you have real control over the Prince in these fight scenes. It’s difficult to get to grips with your opponent as you keep getting knocked away if you don’t press the right button at the right time. The combats are also interspersed with repetitive so-called ‘QuickTime events’—canned animations where you have to quickly press the right button, or mash one over and over, in order to succeed. If you fail in one of these—and you will, a lot—the Princess always saves you with a bit of handy magic, but the bad guy regains some of its health. There is nothing more annoying than fighting something for ten minutes, finally wearing down its health, and then having it recharge just because you didn’t press ‘Y’ fast enough. Stupid design! What’s more, you fight the same four bad guys, and a few other generic demons, over and over.

As for the structure of the entire game, I found it far too regimented and again, repetitive. There are four main lands, four main bad guys, four main powers to unlock—you get the picture. It’s like playing the largest and best-looking puzzle on the planet instead of going on a journey. And despite the obvious hard work that has gone into the game, there’s a feeling of calculation in the way assets are re-used. You go over the same areas to reach other areas (though there is some teleporting in certain circumstances), you cover the same areas to collect ‘light seeds’ (whatever they are) after you’ve changed the area from ‘corrupted’ to ‘pure’, and animations are reused over and over, such as destroying the doors into the final area of each land, or Elika’s let’s-face-it-this-is-an-orgasm-scene burst of light energy when she purifies each of the corrupted lands.

In the end, it all comes across as more of a glorified arcade platforming game than an adventure. Of course this is fine and may be quite in keeping with the series, but I feel that it could be so much more. And gamers demand more of these sorts of games these days; I know I do.

It would be churlish of me to quibble about Prince of Persia’s graphics; it does look stunning. However quibble I will! As beautiful as the game looks, there is a certain generic look to everything that, despite the bright colours and sense of scale, gives it all a kind of visual greyness. I never found myself really immersed in the environments, and one land looked much like another, all huge ruined buildings and cliffs suspended in empty air. The ‘cell-shaded’ look is nice, and it’s all very colourful, but, like the rest of the game, there’s something missing.

Prince of Persia is pretty easy, apart from the mind-numbing combat sequences, which drove me to consider chucking in the towel several times. Elika’s magic saves you if you fall and you’re always deposited back on the last solid ground to try again. Experienced gamers will probably whip through it in no time.

Prince of Persia is the kind of game that would have been mind-blowing a few years ago, but there’s a feeling of soulessness here. Perhaps it was rushed out (though there’s another one coming out in time for the film in May, and I bet they’re working hard to get that done in time), perhaps the focus was more on platforming than story, but in the end I found it somewhat repetitive, sometimes frustrating, and worst of all, lacking immersion. So I gave it a resoundingly average rating:

Two and a half light seeds (huh?) out of five.

PS: If you’ve read the last three reviews and you’re an Xbox360 gamer you probably have a good idea of the kind of games I like, so feel free to make a suggestion about my next purchase!

Computer Game Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum

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BatmanWarning: Possible Spoilers. Playing two XBox games in a row, and finishing them both? This is unheard of! Work really must be quiet.

After enjoying Assassin’s Creed II I was in the mood for a bit more gaming, so I popped one of my birthday presents in the noisy ol’ white and grey machine (it still amazes me that they let this thing leave the drawing board saddled with an operating noise like a 747 landing)—Batman: Arkham Asylum. I’d heard good reports about the game. Indeed, once I’d got over the fact that it wasn’t Creed III, I enjoyed it immensely.
Batman: Arkham Asylum is an action-packed mix of combat, investigation, story and stealth. Let’s apply my earlier review criteria and look at it in more detail:

Unfortunately, don’t expect too much from the story. The Joker takes over the asylum and throws a lot of goons at Batman while taunting him over the loudspeaker system. Sure, there’s a bit more to it than that—a few other classic Batman villains appear, Joker does have a vague master plan overall, but the focus here is on gameplay, not story. It’s a shame, because a few hallucination sequences (brought on by the Scarecrow) give a taste of how much more interesting things could have been.

With such a long legacy of characters to draw on, B:AC doesn’t disappoint. The game is improved immeasurably by the quality of voice acting by actors from the animated series, most notably Mark Hamill (of Star Wars fame) as The Joker. However there’s really nothing new here to discover about these characters, and they stay firmly within the boundaries already defined for them in the Batman universe.

This is the strong department for B:AC. Using, as it does, the Unreal engine, which was created for first-person shoot-’em-up games, it definitely feels like that type of game, but there’s also much more to enjoy here than just killing bad guys. Batman can flip into a Detective Mode that turns his surroundings into a kind of x-ray monochrome, identifying exits, grappling spots, and most importantly, little skeletal versions of the bad guys with feedback on everything from whether they’re armed to how nervous they are about their imminent demise. It’s a very thematic way of giving you as a player the edge that Batman would have in these situations, and works incredibly well. I especially enjoyed using the grapple gun to zip about the environments, or hanging upside down from a convenient gargoyle to silently grab an unsuspecting goon. You can also pop up from under floor gratings, skulk through ventilation shafts, crash through windows—all those sneaky tricks that make you feel like you’re the pointy-eared batty one.

I found the combat system excellent, since it replaced nitpicky button combinations with cinematic, free-flowing combat. Batman really does feel like he’s running rings around your average pack of muscle-bound goons, and every combat ends with a big slo-mo climatic blow. It’s great to see a game emulate the feeling of movie fight sequences so well.

For those who like that kind of thing, you can go back after you’ve finished the game and fight battles in Challenge mode.

If I hadn’t just played Assassin’s Creed II, I would have been quite impressed, but I think the Unreal engine isn’t quite up to the same standard, most notably when it comes to outside areas. B:AC looks great, but it’s a stylised look, and natural features and vegetation can appear blocky and unrealistic. You also get that strange, somewhat dated, effect when you hit a place where you know you should be able to walk—a sloping roof, for example—but instead Batman just moonwalks on the spot. After the incredible freedom of AC II this is jarring.

There are some nice little touches though—for example the way Batman’s outfit appears to get progressively more tatty and torn as he progresses through the game; and in general the indoor areas look suitably detailed and grubby.

The difficulty level—for me anyway—is just about right, except for a few annoying spots. The worst offender is a terrible sewer sequence that made me feel like I was back in the bad old days of repetitive mazes in pre-rendered adventure games. Really, any game developer who mentions the word ‘maze’ when designing a game should be immediately strangled for the good of humankind.

Fights with unarmed opponents are usually pretty easy, and even the ‘boss’ battles never got so difficult that I couldn’t crack them after a reasonable number of attempts—even if I did have to give up in frustration and come back and try again later a few times. The game provides you with a hint or two if you keep dying, and thankfully doesn’t bring you back right at the start of a long sequence if you’ve already passed a mid-point checkpoint, and allows you to skip cutscenes. Nice.

Batman: Arkham Asylum’s clever blend of combat and stealth is definitely worth experiencing. It could be improved by more realistic outdoor environments and a more interesting and involving story, but otherwise it’s as close as you can get to walking in the caped crusader’s natty black boots.

Four silent takedowns out of five.

Computer Game Review: Assassin’s Creed II


Assassin's Creed IIWarning: Possible Spoilers. It’s been several years since I posted a computer game review on the Hollow, mainly because I so rarely finish an entire game. Either I have a short attention span, or I demand more from my precious entertainment hours that endless repetitive button-mashing—probably a bit of both. However I always find that games—and I’m talking exclusively Xbox and Xbox 360 games, as they’re the only ones I have access to—tend to start off new and interesting, quickly establish their mode of play, and then set themselves on a cycle of rinse-and-repeat. Occasionally I find myself somewhat involved at the start, but then come up against some ridiculous bit of production team decision-making that completely stuffs up the experience. I’m looking at you, Dead Space, which was vaguely entertaining until I got to a stupid shoot-the-asteroids-out-of-space sequence that was as boring as it was hard, and made me throw the controller down in disgust and walk away.

The original Assassin’s Creed was a rare exception, and despite some repetition, and a truly atrocious ending, I enjoyed it all the way to the end of the ride. The stunningly recreated medieval cities, the freedom of movement, and the various side missions made it an entertaining way to pass a few hours now and then.

Assassin’s Creed II however, blows it out of the water. This is quite an amazing piece of gaming entertainment, and while it still has some strong flaws, I enjoyed virtually every moment I spent directing the assassin Ezio around the streets and rooftops of the cities of Renaissance Italy.

So let’s have a quick look at what I think are some of the things that make up a good video game, and how Assassin’s Creed II measures up:

For some bizarre reason, most games place a good story last on the list after graphics, gameplay and just about everything else. How many times have the same old sci-fi and fantasy storylines been rehashed? How many character stereotypes have been recycled over and over? AC II comes out of the gate strongly in this department, but rapidly loses steam. The contemporary story, where your character Desmond enters through an ‘Animus machine’ into the world of the Renaissance Italian assassin Ezio, is an ingenious framework on which to hang all the technical processes of the game, and it works well in that capacity. As a story itself however, it falls flat and goes nowhere. Every return to the modern setting just makes us realise how much more interesting is Renaissance Italy.

The journey of Ezio is far better, but there is still something missing, something that a really good writer would have added: an emotional engagement with the storyline. And that kind of engagement doesn’t come through ye olde ‘you killed my parents’ plot hooks and twists, it comes through creating characters we really care about. Bringing me to …

Closely tied to the success of the story, of course, are the characters you meet in a video game, and how engaging and ‘real’ they are. AC II tries hard in this department, but only gets it right a few times. Ezio himself is kind of interesting, but he rarely goes past his ‘searching for vengeance for the death of my family’ schtick. The best of the lot is a young Leonardo da Vinci, who despite having the most repeated scene in the game (“ahhh, Ezio, you’ve brought me another Codex page to translate”) somehow comes across as the most interesting person in the game, probably because of his endless quirky cheerfulness. Unfortunately, the parade of bad guys all tend to blend into one another, and despite hours of portentious dialogue as they discuss their evil schemes and treacheries, you never quite know or care what they all want.

In this department, AC II is a triumph. It’s as though the entire production team were determined to avoid the accusations of repetitive gameplay they received for the first game. There is so much to do here that it’s almost ridiculous. Some of the tasks between the main storyline feel like afterthoughts—I can’t imagine anyone, for example, feeling the need to find and collect all 100 feathers scattered throughout the game—but others provide much needed variety and excitement. There’s something for everyone to enjoy here—interesting combat moves, puzzle solving, set collection, Tomb-Raideresque platform jumping and timed puzzles, races, side missions, and of course, the pure enjoyment of running and jumping over Venician rooftops, or watching the sunset from the highest point of the Duomo in Florence. Which brings me to…

Surely, this is where AC II trumps them all. How the programmers manage to squeeze in so much graphic detail and complexity is a complete wonder to me. There has obviously been a lot of thought put into historical accuracy as well. There’s nothing to compare in gaming with experiences like strolling into the main square of San Gimignano and actually recognising it from my real life visit there, or having the freedom to swim, punt a gondola, or leap over the canals of Venice, or climb the Campanile di San Marco. Throughout, AC II is an astoundingly beautiful game. And its use of real world artworks and photographs is excellent as well—younger players might even learn something. (Gasp!)

Gauging the difficulty level must be one of the hardest tasks when creating a game, and this one, for the most part, gets it right. I find nothing more frustrating than suddenly coming up against a brick wall of difficulty in a game; this often happens near the end, where I imagine some programmers think that a suddenly impossible task will stretch out the gameplay a bit longer. Thankfully, AC II doesn’t have to rely on these tricks, and while veteran gamers might find it all a bit too easy—I never felt that I was going to run out of funds, or, armed with a good supply of health potions, encounter an enemy I couldn’t beat—I never got bogged down, or came up against anything I couldn’t get through after a reasonable number of attempts.

In fact, it’s interesting that my last computer game review was for Thief: Deadly Shadows, because in many ways this game series is the spiritual successor to the Thief games. I’m excitedly awaiting what they come up with next in the Assassin’s Creed series. I just hope that all little more attention is given to professional storywriting, dialogue and memorable character development.

Four and a half leaps of faith out of five.