Saturday, February 26, 2011

Choose Your Medieval Adventure

Men's hearts hold shadows darker than any tainted creature - Flemeth

Bioware's titles have had a profound effect on me; given their quality, they have effectively ruined many or most offerings from other studios. Clearly, the Canadian developer has steadily crafted a list of RPGs which have made a mark on the industry. The fact that EA joined forces with the developer further exemplifies that said publisher is extremely savvy in acquiring studios.

From the initial race and class selection, Dragon Age: Origins shines. Tolkien myth may have produced wonderful novels and films, but the open-endedness of a next-gen game stands on its own. Do you want to play as an elf who has been enslaved by ruthless humans? Fine, as the developer wisely presents the notion that humans are far scarier than any Darkspawn.

DA:O presents consequences to your actions; characters join and leave your party, they become angry or content with your opinions and have a very distinct personality. Morrigan, a female mage, is of particular interest here; the ultimate cynic, rejoicing in things like harassing a Cleric, while Leliana offers an interesting counterpoint, that of a self-righteous rogue beginning to doubt herself. The battle system is wonderfully addictive, and for an ex-FPS gamer, a very welcome breath of fresh air.

The inherent freedom the RPG genre presents results in the choice to deal with adversaries as you see fit. The Desire Demon controlling a Templar? Do your thing, fine by me. The Blood Mages at the Circle Tower? I didn't have the least desire to kill them either, I would have joined them given the chance; yet I did not play as a mage. The Tranquil are also of interest in how they deal with the darkness that lurks.

When I finally visited Orzammar, the city of the Dwarves, I couldn't help to think of India when they mentioned their cruel and unjust caste system. I don't know if this is done purposely by the developers, but a vivid example of the injustice in the bleak India is always welcome in any media, and, in how many blockbuster movies do you see this topic depicted, even if only metaphorically?

I managed to track down the Ultimate Edition, which comes packed with all the DLCs released. I have not yet moved to that part, but needless to say it's a wonderful addition any gamer would be happy to enjoy even after Dragon Age II is released.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Shepard Begins

Given how remarkable an experience the action-RPG Mass Effect 2 was, the player who may want to delve deeper into Bioware's universe is likely to pick up a copy of the original Mass Effect, as expectation for the third chapter rises. ME1 may initially be unwelcoming due to the seemingly demanding combat. Yet, as it is customary in the RPG tradition, the character attributes need to be built up, and the game slowly but surely begins to unravel before the player soon thereafter.

ME1 chronicles Commander Shepard's first steps as a Spectre, the tension with the Citadel Council, and the fight against the robotic Geth, led by Saren, the turian, with some, well, rather strong allies. It is very much an origin story, hinting at parts of the backstory which are fleshed out in the sequel. The end result is reminiscent of Star Wars: A New Hope, in that a fresh character like Luke (or Solo, depending on how you play) learns the ropes and how to interact with the team.

Having read the Mass Effect: Redemption comic book beforehand, it was apparent how important a character was Liara, the asari. She's arguably the most interesting team member in ME1 and it is partly through her that we learn that humans are regarded as the bullies of the galaxy. As for the length, while the main adventure is contained in only one disc, it is indeed massive. One surprising aspect is just how much coherent backstory there is, which is exemplified by the game's Codex, as well as various spinoff novels.

It's interesting to note how well Bioware performs at the so-called Bechdel, or female presence, test. Not only can the main character be a female, the developer seems to depict a conservative and a liberal female character clashing against each other on both episodes so far. This speaks volumes on how detailed the series is. The game also features one of the toughest puzzles in gaming history.

The game may offer wonderful setpieces and adecuate combat, but it truly shines during character interaction. The squad characters are well fleshed out, kudos to Bioware's writers. From Kaidan, Tali, Liara, Garrus, Ashley, all the way up to Wrex, each character brings a powerful backstory which further deepens the mythology. The themes which later become preponderant in the sequels are hinted at here; the visit to Ilos, once inhabited by the ancient Protean race, makes for a great gaming moment.

I got the good fortune of getting the Platinum Hits edition of the game, which comes packed with documentaries and concept art, which go a long way into showing just how much effort it took to bring this world to life. The game's save file can be imported into ME2, which is likely to make me replay said game, and I don't mind it one bit. Bioware's releases, and this game series in particular, almost single-handedly brings hope to the emotionally arid and trigger-happy current generation of gaming.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Effect of Mass Effect 2

Good science fiction serves as an analogy of real life. It may contain plot holes, some sketchy characters, but, in the end, it presents a narrative that offers a glimpse into the human endeavor. That is why the highly praised Mass Effect 2 succeeds with such rotundity. Not since the release of the Half-Life series has gaming felt so legitimate. In this space opera, you assemble a team composed of different alien races for a suicide mission against an advanced civilization, The Collectors.

It is after the initial recruitment that your teammates ask you to do personal favors for them. What at first seems like filler, in fact serves to add depth of character and backstory. Throughout these missions, Commander Shepard, who can be played either as a male or female, will have to make moral decisions. The Shepard I chose is not the default; which could easily appear on the cover of a fashion magazine, but a world-weary, worn-out warrior. With a dialogue delivered to perfection, the deep story unfolds; I'd have to go back to Silent Hill 2 for such good overall voice acting.

The "Paragon" & "Renegade" choices the player makes have an added realism, considering that for each interaction you are awarded points on not one but both categories. My experience resulted in that doing the right thing made me feel good. Yes; I have in fact learned a moral lesson from a videogame, something which film is seldom effective at anymore. Mass Effect 2 feels more like Battlestar Galactica in that regard, a series known for tackling hefty themes. The fact that Shepard begins to show glowing scarring if he chooses the Renegade ways may be seen as an attempt at coaxing the player, yet I offer that developer Bioware attempts to show the true face of evil.

This leads to the question; is the human race good or evil? Consider that Subject Zero explicitly states she survived hardship due to "instinct." From studies that show we have a fundamental tendency to be selfish (the over-claiming effect), cruel (the inherent nature of bullying), often clueless (brain economy and sparse coding) and oblivious (high latent inhibition), our perceptions of our own race leave much to be desired. The work of the accomplished scientist Robert M. Sapolsky, strengthens the notion that the pursuit of knowledge may in fact correlate with goodness. As a researcher within the scientific community, he is well aware that Ted Kaczynski was the exception in a field which he clearly sees as the driving force of human progress.

ME2 defines the capabilities of the current gen, and puts half the titles out there to shame. I, for one, am glad that, slowly but surely, gaming has shown not only that the medium can be art, but in contrast to exceedingly bottom-line driven mainstream filmmaking, it may one day surpass that industry, once it outgrows its very own limitations.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Searching for Shenmue

As many gamers clamor for a full trilogy, and videos pop up on the internet regarding cancelled spinoffs or halted versions, I am recalled of when I first explored almost every corner of the marvelous work of art that is Shenmue.

And what a rich palette did Yu Suzuki paint with. Almost every person and element in Yokosuka can be interacted with and I dare say most players won't tire, as Ryo Hazuki's town is particularly charming. Ryo's own USAF bomber jacket, as well as various elements from the surroundings, comment on the fact that the 80s were a time of change, of globalization.

A game which consists, in its first disc, of talking to elaborate characters in a small town with a pleasing weather system, and in its second, of employing fighting techniques, so refined as to appear to be from a fighting videogame.

The project indeed began as a mix between an RPG and Virtua Fighter, yet it started to develop into something far greater. The game cost tens of millions to make, which it certainly did not recover in its time.

It was open-ended, cinematic, fully voice-acted and presented QTEs even when such elements in games were uncommon. The sequel had many things going for it, yet it had a "big city" theme which may have worked for some yet not for all. A gaming landmark, for certain.