Mass(ively) Effect(ive)

This Tuesday sees the release of the latest entry to the Mass Effect franchise, Mass Effect: Andromeda; a game where players get to explore the Andromeda galaxy. Given that Andromeda begins following the conclusion of Mass Effect 2, I wanted to offer an overview of the series in order to add context.

In 2007, Bioware – opting for their own take on sci-fi after making Star Wars: Knight of the Old Republic –  released Mass Effect, their take on a third-person shooter/RPG hybrid. What’s very notable, is that not only were they creating their own mythology and universe, but actively envisioned a trilogy of games from the very beginning. Additionally, Bioware focused on creating a system for player choice to be a vibrant component to facilitate true impact from these choices. The player assumes the role of Commander Shepard, being able to determine how the character looks, acts, his/her background and specialty, all based on user preference.

Personally, I am a huge science fiction fan and Mass Effect seemed to be an experience I couldn’t pass up once I heard about it. As I began to explore the Mass Effect games, I was quick to realize that childhood sci-fi favorites like Star Trek had nothing on the lifeforms created for this franchise.

Mass Effect‘s alien species feel very alive and most of that comes from the shipmates you encounter on your journey. Through characters like the weapons specialist Turian Garrus Vakarian, the Asari Dr. Liara T’Soni, the Quarian engineer Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, and the Krogan warrior Urdnot Wrex, each of the major races you encounter feels more fleshed out, allowing the player a more personal connection to some of the large scale conflicts happening in the game.

One of the larger aspects of the game is the in-game character-to-character dialogue one can choose to engage in. Speaking to your shipmates will reveal conflicts and point you in directions to solve them. Black Market trades, war atrocities, and issues stemming from belief and religion rear their heads during play. It was common in my own playthrough to have my morals challenged knowing full well it would affect not only the characters in the vicinity, but would undoubtedly create unforeseen circumstances later in the game(s).

With Mass Effect giving the player a way to control their own future, it gives true weight to the decisions you make as Commander Shepard by having them be reflected and recounted by NPCs. The story of the game does traverse along a path, but the player has the ability to add variances to the story and in this way make it their own. Before Mass Effect, I had not experienced a video game that accomplished such a branching story to such a successful degree. During my own playthroughs, it felt like I was getting closer to these characters and doing my own self-discovery. It ended up being that much more rewarding since I had to bide my time and ask these characters questions in order to dig a little deeper and learn more about them, their motivations, and what makes them tick.

Mass Effect is truly a fantastic introduction of a living and breathing sci-fi world that isn’t perfect. That imperfection drives a lot of the drama, and from there arises an interaction and experience that blew me away. Coming up on the 10th anniversary of the release of the game and given that no game is without flaws, I would say that it is one of the best RPGs to have come out for the last generation of gaming consoles. Since release, Mass Effect has earned 12 awards including RPG of the Year (2007, TeamXbox), Best Original Score (2007, IGN), and Best Story on PC (2008, IGN).

If you are interested in trying Mass Effect out for yourself, here are some links to get you started:

Steam on Windows for $20

EA’s Origin Service for $15

PlayStation 3 for $15

On Xbox 360 and Xbox One for $20

In addition, a box set of Mass Effect is available for $16.95 – $29.99, depending on your preferred platform on Amazon. Or, as always, check with your local used game shop!

A New Way of Doing Things

Recently, I crossed into six years of having an Xbox console. Over those six years, I’ve managed to play about 244 games across the 360 and the One. It might seem like a big number, but that also includes games I haven’t touched but still have a copy of or games where I earned an achievement at any time. But pretty early on in my playing I got addicted to the achievement system.

For the uninitiated, achievements started with the launch of the Xbox 360, and are included in every Xbox-platform title. You can earn them for doing something as little as simply turning the machine on, or as difficult as earning every possible medal in the online portion of a game. Each of said achievements gives you gamerscore, a number that is used to boast about your completions to other players. Usually, the more difficult the achievement, the higher number it awards.

cheevosAt this moment, according to TrueAchievements.com (a fantastic site by the way which is useful for news, community, and of course, for completing games or the achievements), my gamerscore is sitting at 96,107, with a completion percentage of 52.24. It’s to the point with the massive number of games and achievements I could earn, that to earn a single percentage point I would need to earn roughly 86 achievements. That’s typically the allotment from a game and a half… and let me tell you, that can be maddening. Especially with some of the achievements taking a large amount of time to complete. It can only lead to me having some games sit on a physical or digital shelf and simply be unplayed. How bad is it? In the last months I have played through Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic for the first time. Or how among the titles that I have yet to play or complete include Half-Life 2, Blue Dragon, Resident Evil 4, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and I could truly go on. But the point is, I feel like I need to re-evaluate how I play games. There are still some that I will want to find all the collectibles in (Alan Wake in particular stands out, since most collectibles have a narrative purpose), but for the most part I believe I will just play what I want to.

As such, even if I am streaming, I believe I will be changing how I prioritize what I want to play. It’ll follow a very simple principle of what do I WANT to play over  what do I want to complete? I thin this will lead to more of a “thinning of the herd” so to speak. It’s already reflected in my stream as I have recently begun playthroughs of both Ultimate DOOM and Shadow of Mordor. You can look at those streams here at YouTube Gaming.

Do you feel any kind of similar tug-of-war over how you play? Le the know in the comments and let’s talk it out!

How Plants vs. Zombies Can Teach Us About Multiplayer Shaming

If there is any one kind of game I am really bad at, I think it’s competitive multiplayer. I’m not “Jumping off a bridge would be just as good” bad, but I have trouble stringing together a series of kills. As such, I loathe the summary reports at the end of games like Battlefield and Call of Duty.

Both titles clearly show how well each player did on respective teams, and what the kill/death ratio is. This might appear as 8 kills and 12 deaths for instance, but mine tend to be more lopsided. It’s especially embarrassing when you see someone who has a score that only Hawkeye would go “pfft” at. No, not embarrassing – crushing. It’s enough to make me wonder why I spent $60+ on a game when I am so undeniably bad at it. That kind of feeling does not make me interested to continue a game franchise, or, at best, play the single-player mode and then move on.  So imagine my surprise when it took a multiplayer only title to make other titles look bad. Enter Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare.

So, what do I mean? Well, Garden Warfare has a lot of the same modes you might expect in a Battlefield title along with a few that seem very much made for Plants vs. Zombies. And it manages to create a very exciting third-person shooter experience. But what really sets it apart are it’s summary screens after the battle. See, Garden Warfare will tell everyone how many vanquishes (the game’s version of kills) and how many coins you earned. Coins can be earned for a variety of different tasks like healing others, destroying fortifications, and even for just trying! But you notice what’s missing? Your death count is not publicly disclosed to the other players. Instead, if you really want to know, you can view how many deaths – and indeed your ratio – on a separate, private screen.

This simple little change gets rid of what I like to call “Multiplayer Shaming”. That feeling you get when you realize one way or another that you aren’t as good as you thought you were.  When you don’t have to worry about how that looks, suddenly every little vanquish you get helps out! Why don’t more games do this? My only assumption is that a game like Halo or Call of Duty has a huge Professional Circuit and wants to keep it professional and the pros want those stats.

Aside from that one reason I can only think of more reasons to hide the death count from other players. Garden Warfare is also a title where shooting your opponent isn’t always the goal you need to aim for. Take the Cactus character for example. It has the practical role of being the plant’s sniper. But aside from that it has three very distinct abilities which can turn the tide of battle. It can lay down potato mines which work exactly how you would expect. But they can also lay down some Wall-nuts which a zombie has to either break down or walk around to bypass. But the last ability is the most flexible. The Cactus can summon either a Garlic or Artichoke Drone that the player controls to fly overhead and pelt zombies with pin-prick shots or call in a corn airstrike. Did I mention the game is on the zany side?

And maybe that zaniness is the key to the multiplayer shaming. Where actually having fun with the games and trying to not take them so seriously is the best thing to do. Despite this, the atmosphere of a game can lead itself to a certain environment. But why so many multiplayer titles choose to take the more serious approach is beyond me. But maybe with Garden Warfare leading the charge, multiplayer shaming will eventually fade.

Xbox One Download of Garden Warfare

Xbox 360 Download

PlayStation 4 Download

PlayStation 3 Download

PC Download via Origin

So about that Walking Dead YouTube video…

I can’t believe I forgot to put it up here. If ever there was a blonde moment, here it is.

The Walking Dead Episode 1: “A New Day”

And there it is! The stream covers the entire 1st episode, “A New Day”, and is about 2 hours and 10 minutes long. Enjoy folks!

Streaming The Walking Dead Ep. 1 – “A New Day” at 10am Eastern Standard Time on Twitch

It starts today in about an hour! I’ll be playing through episode one of TellTale Games’ The Walking Dead. You can join me and chat with me while I play on Twitch! And even if you can’t make it to the stream itself, you can catch the aftermath on YouTube! I’ll throw that link up after I post that video. Either way you watch, tell me what you think!

But, be warned, the game is rated M for Mature by the ESRB (the equivalent of an R Rating for a movie). It earned the rating for “Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, and Strong Language”.Want more info? Click here and see why they rated it that way.

And of course click right here to go to the twitch channel and watch the stream. See you there!

Choices and Games as Art

So, the other day I had what could be described as an emotional experience brought on by a game. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does I have to stand up and take notice. Now, fair warning to everyone, I will be describing events in the game by TellTale Games, The Walking Dead: Season One. There will be spoilers as I try to describe the events.

Anyone still here? Good! Let’s move on.

Early on in the game, you meet up with a family from Florida that gets caught in Georgia due to the dead rising up. This family consists of Kenny, a fisherman from Ft. Lauderdale; Katjaa, his wife and a veterinarian and pacifist; and their son, Kenny Jr., who is nicknamed Duck since nothing seems to bother him.

kenny

Now, you spend a few months with these folks (split up as episodes to the player) as you try to keep them alive, and you’ll choose whether to side with Kenny on issues or with other members of your band. The problem with siding with Kenny though, is that he always puts his family ahead of other survivors. It’s what makes the events of episode 3, Long Road Ahead, that much harder to bear.

Early into the episode, the player needs to fend off a bandit attack on the group’s base at an old motel. During the fight the player will successfully repel the bandits, but the noise and commotion attracts a few walkers (what the walking dead universe calls it’s zombies). At the very end of all the commotion, Katjaa and Duck become trapped under a walker. Either the player must take the shot and kill the walker, or Kenny will come in and save the day. Then everyone jumps in an RV and leaves the motel.

After a stop that has some grand consequences for the group, Katjaa will reveal to the player that Duck was bit by that walker. In classic zombie lore, a bite will mean that that person will soon die and then turn. All they can do now is try to make him comfortable. But right away Katjaa asks that you tell Clementine. Clementine is a girl no older than Duck is. I started freaking out at that point because personally, I’m no good with kids, but how in the world do you tell a kid “Hey, that kid you were playing with earlier today? Yea, he won’t make it through the night.” But remarkably, the game does give some great options for talking to her and after all she has already seen, it doesn’t faze her like it might other kids.

It gets worse for the family though. Since the discovery of Duck’s bite, Kenny immediately goes into a state of denial. Insisting that he will get better and pull through. The player has to convince Kenny by show of kindness or force that this is his last chance to say goodbye to his son. But what follows during the goodbye is unexpected.

Kenny and Katjaa pick up their son, wheezing and skin turning gray, and walk into the forest to do the unfortunate act of putting their own son out of his misery and making sure he can’t come back and harm anyone after they leave. The player has a choice here too, and can allow Kenny and Katjaa to carry that burden or the player can volunteer and do the sad deed instead. Talk about heavy stuff.

Now, as they go alone to say their goodbyes, a shot rings out and Kenny screams NOOOOOOOOO through the forest. What was expected to be one death becomes two. Katjaa, having seen plenty of death and, (I assume), unable to bear the weight of saying goodbye to her son, commits suicide in front of her dying son and husband. The sadness coming from Kenny, however crafted it might be rang true. The man tries everything to put his family first in the most dire of circumstances and ends up losing it all anyway. Then the moment of truth comes.

The player now has to either watch the grief-stricken Kenny shoot a bullet through his son’s head, or the player has to aim and shoot. I lost it about then. I had been expecting to do the family a service of killing Duck so that they wouldn’t have to, and instead two people go down and one becomes terminally depressed. For the remainder of the episode, you can try to have a conversation with Kenny but he won’t be very responsive. Even when trying to solve a problem, he looks and sounds like a shell of his former self.

Screen Shot 2015-01-20 at 11.15.41 AM

The choices I mention in this recap is just a fraction of the choices you make in a single episode. But these decisions can drastically alter events and make the game more of a tailored experience. This game along with others are the biggest reason I believe games to be a new art form.

Take that last scene for example, in a TV show or movie, most people will have an emotional response to the event, and they should. But I believe my reaction was stronger and more pronounced because of the interactive qualities of the medium. I’m not just an audience member inactively watching events unfold and being unable to say “LOOK OUT!” to someone about to die in a film. No, here I can shape the events, choose who lives and who dies, and how Clementine sees the world. Oh yes, think about it, if I were to choose to kill a man out of revenge in front of her, she remembers in and could possibly grow up in this zombie apocalypse believing that is how people should be treated. And therein lies one of the best reasons I can think of to play these choice-based games.

They force you to think in ways you normally wouldn’t. The Walking Dead in particular challenges your morals and forces you to make decisions with limited time to think on it. We’ve come a long way from the first time my mind was blown as a kid, and Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II asked if I wanted light side or dark side abilities in 1997. Choices are very much the future of games and I cannot wait to see what developers have me choose between next.

If I have peaked your interest and you want to buy The Walking Dead’s first season, here are some links! Just pick your favorite platform and enjoy! Or, head to your nearest retailer.