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You Should Be Playing The Walking Dead

Spectacular cell-shaded scenery, when you’re not being mobbed by the undead.

Look, I’m not kidding around here. If you’re at all serious about games, or watch and enjoy the TV series by the same name, you should play The Walking Dead on whatever platform you feel most comfortable with.

The Walking Dead isn’t my first interactive adventure from Telltale Games. That honour has been bestowed to a smaller game called Puzzle Agent, which is kinda similar in a lot of ways — there isn’t such a focus on puzzle mechanics like there is in Puzzle Agent, but you do get the same explorative, story-driven gameplay, accompanied by a healthy dose of dialog trees.

Telltale Games are quickly becoming the masters of the interactive adventure genre on multiple platforms, and for good reason: most of the story-based games they make are of a very high standard.

For those that aren’t in the loop about The Walking Dead the game, but are a little familiar with the TV series (and possibly even the comic), you’ll be pleased to know The Walking Dead follows the same storyline as the TV series.

The Walking Dead‘s lead character is Lee Everett, a guy who’s on his way to prison when the cop car that’s he’s getting a ride in hits a zombie, and from there, all hell breaks loose. At first he’s confused about what just happened, and why he’s just had to shoot the cop that was taking a ride with, and then he starts to understand that there’s something very, very wrong about the world he’s woken up in.

Which is actually one of the best things about The Walking Dead; there’s real, believable characters. Just like the TV series, you soon meet up with a group of fellow survivors who seem alright, and you quickly form relationships with them. There’s hard-ass Kenny who’s just looking out for his son and wife, there’s can’t-work-out-batteries Carley, the reporter who’s actually a dead-eye with a pistol, and there’s even a few military types who take charge of the group and make the decisions (but ultimately, you make the call).

But the game wouldn’t be complete without some kind of purpose outside of simply surviving the zombie apocalypse, and in The Walking Dead, your purpose is Clementine. She’s one of the first characters you meet in the series, and by that time, she’s already been surviving on her own for a few days. You decide to take her under your wing, and that’s that: the status of her parents is a little murky, and essentially, she’s the little impressionable girl that looks up to you — even though you’re not her real dad, you’re just a guy/some neighbour/silence.

That’s pretty much how the first episode starts. The Walking Dead is released as episodic content: as of writing, three out of five planned episodes are currently out on PC and Mac. They’re released about a month apart, and each episode is around two to three hours long.

Clementine is all you have.

Which brings me to another thing that’s great about The Walking Dead: whilst it’s a game that’s meant to played episode by episode (sometimes, as in the case of episode one and two, with months and months of in-game time in-between), it’s s tailored experience all the way. Make no mistake: the decisions you make in The Walking Dead could have implications two seconds later, thirty seconds later, a few minutes later, even an hour later, and in some cases, even a few episodes later. In The Walking Dead, the choices you make count for something, even if it’s not immediately clear what that something may be. Perhaps that lie you’re about to tell will destroy an already-fragile relationship with another character, perhaps it won’t. The fact is, you won’t know until you make that call.

And boy, do you call all the difficult shots. One of the best reasons you should be playing The Walking Dead is because of the decisions you’ll make along the way; The Walking Dead is all about morals and tough choices, with a little accountability and perhaps even regret thrown in on the side. One of the best things about Telltale’s interpretation of the story genre is the little details, such as when you’ve been particularly hard on a fellow survivor, and it says something like “Kenny won’t forget your words”. It’s a unnerving feeling to know everything you say and do is being judged by other characters. Maybe you choose to tell the others what you were doing when the world ended, or maybe you make something up. Either way, whatever you say will have a profound impact on how the characters see you. Again — maybe that will matter down the track, maybe it won’t.

One thing I love about the dialog in The Walking Dead is how silence is also a valid response. If someone asks you a question you don’t like, or can’t choose from the various options in time, then you simply stay silent. If it’s a particularly polarising decision, silence then represents the fence-sitting option; other times, another character might be asking you about your past: if you say nothing, then that might be seen as guilt or something else. It’s a great game mechanic that works really, really well.

Let’s get one thing straight, though: The Walking Dead isn’t a twitchy first-person shooter like seemingly every other zombie apocalypse game out there. No, it’s a point-and-click, interactive adventure game, and that means you’ll be doing a little puzzle-solving here and there, (how to distract those zombies whilst I run over here and grab these keys?), interacting and exploring your current environment, and talking to other characters via dialog trees. About as twitchy as it gets is the quick time events (of which there are a few, but they’re do what they’re designed to do, i.e. get you through a panicky moment without some uber-complex keystrokes), which don’t really count. There’s one scene where you’re shooting zombies with a rifle, and it’s laughably easy to get kills: you pretty much just point the rifle in the direction of the zombie (you have a scope to make this easier, for some reason), and you click the mouse, and boom, headshot.

Lee Everett — Tough Decisions

I’ve been putting a few hours into DayZ recently, and it’s interesting drawing parallels between that game and The Walking Dead. They’re both about zombie apocalypses, and as much as they’re both totally different games in some respects, it’s strange how some things are similar. In one episode a fellow survivor is about to shoot a bird, but you tell him not to because the noise will draw the walkers — things like “noise attracts zombies”, things like that that you learn in DayZ, and can now be applied to The Walking Dead. In some ways, playing DayZ prepares you for a lot of what was going to happen in The Walking Dead: you’ve been there, done that, so some things are easier. But then some things, like making those black-and-white decisions you have to, just aren’t easier no matter which games you’ve played before this.

Spec Ops: The Line is another recent game that I enjoyed quite a bit, and in many respects, it’s actually more similar to The Walking Dead than DayZ. But where Spec Ops has an entire game which meanders through various twists and turns leading up to one of the best finales of any game I’ve played,  and where Spec Ops builds up the entire game to finish in a spectacular fashion, The Walking Dead is a lot more episodic. You take things as they come, knowing that things might change for the better (or for the worse) in later episodes. The episodic delivery suits it well, I think.

As much as I enjoy pretty much every gameplay and story aspect of The Walking Dead, there are a few things that mar an otherwise brilliant experience.

Let’s start with the black and white decisions you’re forced into. At certain stages, you’re forced to make a critical decision between two absolutes. That whole “infinite shades of grey” thing you hear about? There is a little of that in a few of the longer-term dialog options you get presented with, but the critical events, those are entirely black and white. I don’t want to spoil things too much, but you’ll be choosing the lesser of two evils a little more frequently that I’m comfortable with. I don’t really have a problem with that, but the fact that you’re forced into them is somewhat harsh.

And while we’re on the topic, for a game that’s all about the freedom of choice, sometimes, you don’t get any. That is, you can make decisions along the way, but being a game that has finite possibilities and doesn’t account for every possible outcome from the hundreds of dialog options and choices you can make, there’s only so many possibilities that can actually happen. Maybe you want to run off with a mildly attractive, slightly-insane, military woman, but that’s not how it’s meant to play out. It’s the illusion of choice, and once you realise it’s very real, it kind-of spoils the game. A little.

Lee: “It’s over!” Well, for whoever he’s talking to, it is.

But those are just two tiny flaws on the face of what is, let’s face it, one of the best games of this year. In the grand scheme of things, The Walking Dead isn’t just any point-and-click interactive adventure story, it’s the point-and-click adventure game of the year. Games such as DayZ and the recently-released Guild Wars 2 require you to pour a significant number of hours into the game before you start getting anywhere, whereas The Walking Dead is eminently casual. There’s arguably as many cut-scenes as there is actual gameplay, so if you’re not into the whole story aspect, then this might not be a great fit.

At the end of the day, there is no higher recommendation I can make for you to play The Walking Dead by Telltale Games. It features compelling gameplay with real, believable characters and some of the worst decisions you’ll ever have to make in a video game, but it’s also one of the best zombie apocalypse experiences you’ll ever have (as far as “good” zombie apocalypses go, but you know what I mean). It’s available on pretty much every major gaming platform, and you would be doing yourself a disservice by not playing it. Telltale Games have released one of their best titles yet, and with only three of five episodes released thus far, there’s still plenty of the game left to come.

I can’t wait.

More Fun in DayZ: Lingor Island

Just when you though Chernarus was getting stale, getting a little boring (as you might do, if you’ve put over 300 hours into it so far), along comes Lingor Island, a different map for the DayZ mod that I’ve sung praises about before.

One of the things I never liked about DayZ when playing the Chernarus map was that more than half of the buildings weren’t enterable. Only a select few kinds of buildings were enterable and contained loot, and once you identified those buildings (barns, factories, shopping centers and so on), that was half the battle. No more sneaking around small towns in order to find a can of beans, no more scoping out a town before approaching. Knowing the map and being familiar with the buildings and the loot contained within is a huge advantage, especially in DayZ — and Chernarus didn’t have enough of that.

Enter Lingor Island. Pretty much every building is enterable and spawns loot, and there’s many more building types. It’s exactly the same game, built on exactly the same ARMA 2 engine. It’s a mod of a mod, if you will — simply a different environment in which to fight zombies, gear up, and survive encounters with other players. And I’ve had the most enjoyable DayZ experiences thus far in it — not in Chernarus, the original and only “sanctioned” map — but in Lingor Island, the unofficial Russian map.

Lingor Island is laid out in roughly the same way as Chernarus, only a little smaller. There are three main cities — Maruko in the north east, San Arulco in the middle, and Calamar in the south — and many, many smaller towns dotted all around the map. Instead of the dense forests and wide open plains of Chernarus, Lingor Island features dense, thick jungle areas that separate the various military bases, the multiple airports (three or four, at least), and even the various islands.

Of course, being an island, Lingor also has much more water than Chernarus. Hope you packed your swimming trunks, because depending on where you want to go and sometimes even where you spawn, you might have to swim a little to get to land. It’s not uncommon to swim across a rive to get to the other side, because the only road across isn’t for a few kilometers in either direction.

But the best part about Lingor Island isn’t the multitude of enterable buildings, more vehicles, or even the lush jungle environment. Unlike Chernarus, Lingor Island isn’t about the survival aspects of DayZ. No, no — in my mind, Lingor is all about the player vs player mechanics. Ask anyone that’s played DayZ for any period of time about what their most intense, most adrenaline-fuelled experiences in Chernarus will be, and most of the time, their answer will be the times they came across other players. Forget asking if people are friendly, because in Lingor, the goal isn’t to survive, the goal is to gear up and hunt down other players with extreme prejudice.

Lingor Island is DayZ, deathmatch-style. You see people, and you make it your mission to hunt them down. It’s crazy good fun, super intense, and means you’ll die, a lot.

Because the towns in Lingor are all pretty closely spaced, right from the get go you’re thrown into the most brutal PvP arena. Going solo probably isn’t recommended, but you might be able to get the jump on people easier. If you’re in a group, you can hunt people down via comms — the only downside being you might have to share the loot afterwards.

Sometimes you’ll spend a few hours gearing up, maybe kill a few people, and be feeling pretty good about yourself, when suddenly, without warning, you’re dead. No shot that you heard, no idea where the shot came from, and now faced with the dreaded words: YOU ARE DEAD.

Forget setting up a camp and hoarding gear — the map isn’t big enough to hide things that well, and vehicles make it even smaller. Besides, there are enough military-grade loot spawns for that to not be necessary anyway — if you can’t find a good primary weapon and sidearm and enough food/water to last you for a few days within an hour or so, you don’t know the map well enough.

So if you’re getting bored of Chernarus, there’s good news on two fronts. For one, you can play Lingor Island as a sort of holiday; I haven’t played vanilla DayZ in weeks because Lingor Island is simply too much fun in terms of player-vs-player combat. And two, Rocket has said the current Chernarus map won’t be the one included as part of the standalone game released later this year — it will be kind of the same, but modified with a few other features and more buildings. Chernarus 2.0, if you will.

But until then, there’s Lingor Island, players to kill, and that sort of thing. Now, if you’ll excuse me…

Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops: The Line is a game unlike any other in recent memory. It asks a lot of you. It’s emotionally exhausting, and it’s the biggest eye-opener to war I’ve ever played.

More on that in a bit. For what it’s worth, there will be a few spoilers along the way. I have endeavoured to keep the spoilering to a minimum though, in order for you to enjoy the game in its entirely at a later date. Thank me later.

My expectations for Spec Ops started out as they usually do when a new shooter appears on my gaming radar. The usual “ooh, new shooter!” excitement accompanied by a Google-ing of a PC demo. I found none, but I did end up watching the trailer on my 360, only to be incredibly disappointed: there wasn’t anything appealing here, just what seemed like a massive grind through an extremely linear level structure, doing the typical shooter thing; i.e. shooting things. Disheartened, I moved on and promptly forgot about the initially promising shooter that turned out to be nothing I hadn’t already played before.

Sometimes, it’s fantastic to be wrong. And boy, although I didn’t know it yet, was I wrong — on every possible facet and every possible level.

Fast forward to a few weeks later, when I’m going through my usual gaming feeds to see if there’s anything new. I come across the Destructoid review of Spec Ops, along with The Verge review of the same. I decide to read their reviews out of curiousity, to see if they came to the same conclusions as I did when I had simply watched the trailer.

What I read wasn’t just unexpected, it was flabbergasting. What The Verge and Destructoid described wasn’t the boring, cookie-cutter shooter I had seen in the trailer, but a masterfully put-together commentary on war and its effect on everyone involved.

And then I watched the Zero Punctuation review on a game that had piqued my interest for the second time around, and I realised something: I had to play this game.

As fortune would have it, Spec Ops was on sale on Steam during their Steam Summer Sale a few days after that, and that was that. I paid for, downloaded, and started to play the game.

Now, you have to remember where I’m starting out from: Spec Ops is a game that I initially was somewhat interested in, then completely uninterested in, then finally, very much interested in once again. I had high expectations going in, and Spec Ops exceeded expectations in almost every way.

It’s no secret that I love a game with a good storyline, and Spec Ops is perhaps one of the only PC games I’ve played this year that has delivered in spades.

The scene is this: Dubai is in turmoil after sandstorms have ravaged the once-beautiful city. The US has already sent the legendary Colonel John Konrad and his battalion, the Damned 33rd, to help with the evacuation, but something is wrong. In Spec Ops, you play the part of Captain Walker, a US Delta operator who is sent into Dubai with two of his buddies in order to find out what happened to Colonel Konrad and his band of merry men, the Damned 33rd.

Like many shooters of the same genre, Spec Ops stats out innocently enough. In the first half of the game, you’ll begin to hate the cover-based combat – it’s not too dissimilar from the system used in the Mass Effect series, and yet there’s a constant grating that means combat doesn’t feel fluid as it could. It’s not as intuitive as the Mass Effect system — sometimes when you want to run to cover, you can’t. You just run, and then stand next to the cover, all the while taking fire from multiple enemies. It feels every bit as awkward as it sounds, but it’s not a deal-breaker; you’ll get used to it soon enough.

Ammo is scarce in Dubai, so you have to make your shots count; head-shots, for example, are accompanied by a puff of red mist, and a slow-motion effect that lasts for a fraction of a second. Not enough to move the crosshair to another target, but enough for your adrenaline-fuelled self to plan your next move. In true third-person shooter style, you walk over ammo to collect it, and can pick up weapons from the fallen at your leisure.

Welcome to hell, Walker.

But it’s during the second half of the game where things start to get a little out of hand. It’s not so much a departure from the shooter norm than a complete, off-the-rails derailment that sends you spiralling into the abyss of questionable morals. The story progresses from simple “reconnaissance” to “search and rescue”, all the whilst spinning an intricate web of more questions than answers.

Suddenly, your two subordinates are fighting amongst themselves over a decision you made earlier in the piece. Suddenly you’re thrust into a truly unforgiving world, where horrific scenes are witnessed, where you have to make the choice between shooting a civilian who stole water or a soldier who murdered the unlawful civilian’s entire family as punishment. And, wait a second, why am I suddenly shooting US servicemen? Aren’t we supposed to be on the same side?

There’s various sub-plots in the overarching story of Spec Ops that only serve to drive home the realities of war. At one point, the game sees you team up with the CIA who apparently know what’s going on in Dubai and have a plan — but in the end, all your efforts to get some more answers only results in more questions, and perhaps even the realisation that something is very, very wrong here.

As the game progresses, it’s not just “search and rescue” anymore. It’s “escape”. It’s “revenge”. You’re forced to make terrible, terrible decisions – forget the lesser of two evils, and just choose what you can live with. You’ll die a lot, and the messages on the loading screen are chilling: “do you feel like a hero yet?”, “how many Americans have you killed today?”, and my personal favourite, “you are still a good person”.

Action or inaction will sometimes result in the same outcome anyway, so you might ask yourself: what is the point of Spec Ops? The point is to get you to realise that war itself isn’t just about killing. Make no mistake, Spec Ops doesn’t glorify war like other shooters might do: Spec Ops makes you realise that war is truly horrific. Bad things happen in war. Bad things happen to people who are involved in war, and sometimes, there’s just no coming back from that.

There’s not much more I can say about Spec Ops without spoiling it totally, but suffice to say Spec Ops has to be played. The only real sticking point about the game is it’s cover-based combat — something the Unreal engine isn’t really designed to do — but the gameplay mechanics pale in comparison to the real reason you’re here; I knew Spec Ops wasn’t going to be just another cover-based FPS, and I went in expecting a stellar storyline, great pacing, and believable characters.  Trust me when I say it’s worth it for the storyline alone.

What you get out of Spec Ops will depend on your resolve: some games aren’t just games you play sitting in front of a computer, but real experiences that make you feel like you’ve been there, and you’ve made those choices for yourself.

Spec Ops is a masterpiece of brilliance. It offers an experience like nothing else I’ve ever played, and as a narrative on the realities of war, Spec Ops is unparalleled. You should play this game.

Further reading:
Zero Punctuation’s review of Spec Ops: The Line
The Verge’s review of Spec Ops: The Line
Destructoid’s review of Spec Ops
Ars Technica’s piece on Spec Ops: The Line including an interview with lead writer (major spoilers, please only read if you’ve finished the game)

DayZ Review (feat. Diablo III)

The quintessential DayZ experience: three guys in a field, about to loot through a town, with a single zombie in between them and beans.

Another exam period finished, another game thoroughly played.

For a long time, I’ve always wanted a realistic zombie apocalypse game that was more military simulation than arcade first-person shooter, and in terms of realism, DayZ — the mod for ARMA 2: Combined Operations that’s perhaps the most realistic zombie apocalypse game I’ve ever seen — delivers in spades.

It would be unfair to describe Arma 2 as anything other than a military simulation, as there’s so many aspects to the game itself — radios, ranging, realistic bullet physics, real weather, and so on. DayZ builds upon that, with a few custom weapons and, of course, zombies.

The way it begins is this: you’re dropped into a post-apocalyptic world, filled with zombies. You spawn on the beach, and what you do from that point on is entirely up to you, with the overall goal being to survive as long as you possibly can. Everything is out to get you (zombies, the environment, other players), and you start with basically nothing; I remember the days when you spawned with basic gear — a small pistol, a few bandages, ammo, and enough food and water to get you started. But a few weeks ago, the developer (Rocket) changed the spawning gear to be just a flashlight, a single bandage, and painkillers. Lest you starve or die of dehydration, your first task as a new Survivor  should be to find a few rations — perhaps a water bottle that can be refilled from fresh water sources, or a can of lovely mountain dew.

What you do from that point on is up to you.

Do you lone-wolf it and try and find some kind of weapon to defend yourself from the zombies? Do you continually roam around the cities in your never-ending search for supplies? Or do you gear up and see what the wide open world of Chernarus has to offer?

It’s this combination of military simulation, zombie apocalypse, and open sandbox that means DayZ is so compelling to play. There’s so many things to do — if you’re geared up well enough, do you start setting up camp (provided you can find a tent)? Or do you start looking for a better mode of transportation? And if you run into another player, what then? Shoot on sight, or let them live? There’s so many questions that are asked of you during your time playing DayZ, and you’ll have to make all the choices. Will you explore the big bad world beyond the two or three main coastal towns?

Some choices are easier to answer than others: if you’re temperature falls below a certain amount, you better find yourself a heatpack, or stay indoors until you warm up. If you catch a cold, you better hope you can find antibiotics in a hospital, lest you attract zombies with your coughing and spluttering, along with the gradual decrease in your blood level to half what it normally is. If you’re thirsty, you should drink, and so on, and so forth.

Some of your actions even have consequences: if you’re hungry, you should eat. Consuming an easily-found can of beans only replinishes around 200 blood, but if you happen to come across an animal that can be killed, gutted, and the raw meat cooked, you’ll find that replenishes much more blood (800), but requires many more tools. You’ll need to find an animal, for one, then you’ll need a hunting knife to gut it, a hatchet to cut wood for the fire you need to cook the raw meat, matches to make a fireplace, at which point you can finally cook the meat you found on the cow’s dead body. Enjoying your steak raw, sadly, is not an option when you need the blood.

There’s so many ways to accomplish the same thing in DayZ. You can, for example, light a fire to warm up, instead of going indoors or finding a heatpack. There are many ways to replenish your blood, too: you can eat (beans or cooked meat), or you can get a blood transfusion, with the latter option requiring another player and a blood pack — an item only found in one of the four hospitals in Chernarus.

You'll do a bit of running in DayZ. Did I say a bit? I meant a lot.

It wouldn’t be a military sim without weapons, and DayZ is the perfect blend, weapons-wise, between realistic and military. Common weapons you can find include crossbows, double-barrelled shotguns, winchesters, Lee Enfield rifles, and a whole assortment of sidearms, from the humble Makarov (the previous starting sidearm), to the trusty M1911, revolver, M9, and many more. It isn’t until you start looking for higher-tier weapons that the real fun begins: you can find scoped hunting rifles like the CZ500, and then you get into the true military weapons: M16 and M4 variants, AK and variants, light machine guns like the M249, silenced sub-machine guns, and even massively overpowered sniper rifles like the M24, DMR, and 50-cal M107. All guns make a distinctive sound when fired, so you can tell whether a player is firing an M1911, or whether you should be running for your life any second now because he’s got the gun with the biggest range in the game.

In true DayZ fashion, the zombies are affected by pretty much everything. If you run, you’ll attract zombies. If you crouch-run, you’ll attract zombies. If you crawl, you might attract zombies. If you fire a gun that makes a sound, you can expect all the zombies within a 50-meter radius to hear it, and if you’re firing a weapon in town, you better hope that there aren’t any curious players who come to investigate. That’s kind of the beauty of DayZ: there’s always another way. If you want to kill a zombie that’s between you and an objective, you can — either use a silenced gun, or even melee using the hatchet or crowbar. Flares attract zombies. Smoke grenades attract zombies.

And the zombies in DayZ? The zombies in DayZ hurt. If you’ve got aggro, they come at you at a frantic pace, hurt when they hit you, and can cause you to start bleeding out, or even break your bones. Thankfully, you can outrun zombies if you’re standing up and running — you can lose the zombies if you break line-of-sight and they don’t see (or hear) you again, but you can usually expect your running to attract even more zombies, especially if you’re running through a town. The line-of-sight thing is pretty interesting, and makes zombies fairly easy to evade if you’re running through a town — harder to lose if you’re out in an open field, but still possible. The line-of-sight is an interesting game mechanic anyway, and means even that newer players have a chance to survive (or they’ll learn stealth, which will help them out in the long run).

Health in DayZ matters. You have a blood meter, and if you’ve been in battle and taken a hit, sometimes you’ll start shaking from the pain, making accurate gunfire impossible. Thankfully, you can take painkillers to numb the pain. If a zombie breaks your bones, or if someone opens a door on you and you break a bone (it’s still an alpha, remember), you can fix yourself up with morphine. If you start bleeding out, you can bandage yourself up.

Yes, there’s quite a lot to DayZ — and we haven’t even discussed looting, vehicles, other players, playing in a group, or even death. But the reason DayZ works so damned well — even in its current alpha state — is that it’s just fun to play.

Diablo III isn’t quite the opposite in that it’s still fun to play, but it’s just not as compelling when compared to DayZ or even its predecessor, Diablo II. Diablo II was much, much darker than its successor, and Diablo III just feels as though it’s been given an overhaul for the worse. I know they’re essentially the same game, but it doesn’t feel as foreboding. It tries to be, what with the grotesque models and overall evil themes, but it just falls short of the level set by Diablo 2, and I’m not entirely sure why.

Don’t get me wrong, for the most part the graphical upgrades are more than welcomed (gaming at 800×600 isn’t my idea of fun these days), but instead of using those fancy new animations and graphics to make a better, gritter game, all Blizzard have done is put a few new colours in here and there, made gameplay simpler along the way, instead of making it darker, like a true sequel to Diablo II should be. I enjoyed Diablo II because it was exactly the kind of game I wanted to play — a dark and gritty game, filled with unknown terrors and semi-RPG elements.

Now, Diablo III feels like it just doesn’t have that special spark, and all because they’ve added a few new colours into the palette. The core gameplay hasn’t been changed all that much — Diablo III is still a dungeon crawler at heart — but it has been made to seem more attractive to newer players. The typeface is different, more inviting, which contributes a lot to the overall look and feel of the game. It’s a beautiful game, but there’s no compelling reason to play it besides the continuation of the storyline, and I’m honestly not sure if I would have played it at all if I wasn’t such a huge fan of the second Diablo game. For those that actually want a “nicer” dungeon-crawling game with a more upbeat tempo, there’s always Torchlight. Diablo was supposed to be the go-to game for dark and gritty, and the third one in the series just doesn’t deliver.

Which is a real shame.

DayZ is different in every way. Because it’s based on a military sim, it’s so much more different than your typical zombie apocalypse shooter. There’s not much actual gameplay, to be sure, but that’s half the fun: when you’re given no strict instructions and no real goal apart from just survival, you make do with what you have. At first, you’ll loot cities for all the beans you can get your hands on. You find a weapon to defend youself with. You kill any zombies that cross your path.  You make your own decisions when it comes to killing other players, or letting them live. You team up with other players with the goal of survival, and maybe you’ll abandon them to save yourself from the horde of zombies, maybe you won’t.

But that’s just where the fun begins.

Sometimes you're killing zombies, or repairing cars — other times, you're attaching scrap metal to houses.

Mass Effect 3

Now that I’ve finished my first playthrough of ME3 and grinded my way through some multiplayer, I’ve been sitting on a second playthrough for about a week now.

That is to say, I’ve started my second playthrough, but haven’t actually played any of it yet. A FemShep, Vanguard, Paragon, if you must know.

The way I’ve played all three Mass Effect games thus far is that the first play through is always using the default male Shepard, with all choices made as I would make them. Usually this falls on the Paragon side of things, with decisions made as I would make them (with perhaps a bit of divination as to what might happen in the future). Many people play Mass Effect like this, as it is, after all, a role-playing game.

The second play through is a little more relaxed in terms of choice. It’s the play through that lets me experiment with different choices, as well as allowing me to be a hard-ass Renegade where I believe it’s required. The second play trough is usually played as a female Shepard, too, just so I can experience another level of voice acting and see the difference between the two Shepards.

Then the play throughs get a little murky. I only completed the above two play throughs on Mass Effect 1, but for Mass Effect 2 I started a third play-through, a pure Renegade FemShep. Never got around to finishing that, because my interest at that point waned (not too unexpected when you’ve already completed the 30-hour storyline… twice).

Now that the background is all out of the way, I can tell you why I haven’t brought myself to continue my second play through of ME3 beyond the first priority mission.

It’s about choice.

You see, dear reader, Mass Effect is all about choice. The Mass Effect series has always been about the choices you make as a player, as male or female Commander Shepard. And that’s why I can’t bring myself to play Mass Effect 3 any more than once.

Let me explain: in the first two Mass Effect games, you have lots of choices to deal with. Some of those choices carry across to the second Mass Effect game, and some of the decisions you make in ME2 carry across to ME3, and so on. Lots of choices, like, literally, quite a few — so many that it’s reported over 100 variables are carried across from Mass Effect 2 to Mass Effect 3. As an aside, the whole concept of continuing the same character across games is a brilliant, ingenious concept that I really think more games should adapt: rewarding players for hanging onto their save files so they can continue the story in future titles is nothing short of brilliant, and doubly so in a role-playing game centred around the story. There are small issues with this approach, one being that there isn’t a way to “confirm” your choices in later games (in case you lose your save file); what I’d love to see is some kind of prologue to each game that makes you make those decisions again, but I can see how that would potentially sour the game for many. Tough call, but I digress.

Okay, so back on track: Mass Effect forces you to make choices. Not necessarily decisions between good and evil, but more subtle decisions: sometimes the decision between being a nice guy and a ruthless hard-ass isn’t as clear as some of us would like it to be. Like whether to free the Rachni queen. Or whether to keep a mad Salarian scientist’s work on curing the Genophage. Or killing Urdnot Wrex on Virmire. And so on and so forth; as a player you’re never sure how the outcome of your decisions will turn out. It keeps you guessing throughout the series, and it’s great.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting: for the most part, you had no idea how these decisions were going to affect future games. Maybe your act of goodwill in letting the Rachni queen live will come back to bite you in the arse in a future title. Maybe Urdnot Wrex turns out to be indoctrinated, I don’t know. The thing is, in the first two titles of the Mass Effect trilogy, you pretty much can do whatever you want without there being too drastic consequences (at least, not consequences you care about, not consequences you actually know about).

Mass Effect 3 changes all of that. Suddenly, you know what the end-game is. Suddenly, your decisions will weigh heavily on you, moreso if you made the “wrong” decision somewhere along the line.

Being the third title in a trilogy must be pretty hard. Even before you rip open the packaging, you know that this is it. After this, there’s not going to be any of a series you have some kind of a vested interest in, emotionally or otherwise. You know that after this, there will be no more. It’s the final countdown. The end of days. The beginning of the end.

Which is why, as you make your choices in Mass Effect 3, you make them damn carefully. Unless you’re some kind of sadist who doesn’t care about the story at all, you’re going to try and get the “best” ending possible. You’re going to try and make peace with everyone. You try to “do what’s right”, to play the hero Shepard everyone seems to think you are. So many times during Mass Effect 3, I sat there for minutes on end, staring at that little dialog choice circle, agonising over the choice I had to make. Because short of saving right before and reloading saves (a practice somewhat frowned upon), there’s no going back. What choice you make will either be the right one, or haunt you until the very end. There’s no sense in being a ruthless, at-all-costs Renegade, because even though you might get the job done, you’re not going to make many friends along the way. And that, ladies and gents, could affect how it all plays out in the end.

Which brings us, somewhat nicely, to the section wherein I talk briefly about the ending that everyone seems to be so upset over. People have petitioned Bioware over the ending in Mass Effect 3, and rightly so, in my opinion. Gaping plot holes and non-sensical cut-scene theatricals aside, the ending is so incredibly unsatisfying it’s an embarrassment. Unsatisfying is probably too light a word; if I’ve invested over a hundred hours into a series of three games spanning a number of years, I want the ending to be to my satisfaction. I’m all for leaving the reader guessing at the end, but the ending of Mass Effect 3 just doesn’t do the rest of the trilogy justice. It’s almost as if Bioware just ran out of time and/or money to put together something as stellar as the rest of the series, and now we have… The Ending That Shall Not Be Discussed. I mean, this is the culmination of everything you’ve been working towards ever since the first Mass Effect, and for what? I wish I could say something other than “a wholly unsatisfactory ending”, but I can’t.

Yes, it could probably be argued that the entirety of Mass Effect 3 is the ending to the Mass Effect trilogy, and in some respects you’d be absolutely correct. That’s not the point though, the point is that the climax of one of the most anticipated games this year, not to mention the entire series, feels like a complete and utter let-down by Bioware. They dropped the ball on this one; not just a small fumble, a complete and utter shambles.

Phew. The good news is Bioware has apparently caved and are planning to re-work things a little. Exactly what that means is still up in their air, but at this stage I’d be prepared to DLC my way to a better ending, whatever that might entail. Bioware, are you listening? I’ll gladly pay for a better ending, one that’s worthy of flying the Alliance flag.

But you know what? Mass Effect 3 is still a fantastic, triple-A title. As a whole, Mass Effect has evolved a little throughout the series, but only to culminate in what is easily the best game of the year thus far.

It’s a passable third-person shooter with quite a decent wave-based co-op multiplayer reminiscent of Left 4 Dead’s survival, or Horde mode in Gears of War, that also features objectives every few waves. The single campaign is where it’s at for the majority of players though, and that’s where Mass Effect shines. The storyline is unparalleled, the pacing, fantastic, and besides that ending that we really shouldn’t be talking about, it has very few, faults.

I’ll admit, there were many times during Mass Effect 3 that I felt something. Reunions with past squad mates in the previous game are particularly heartfelt, as is hilarious dialogue with likeable characters. Mass Effect 3 has managed to pull off one of the hardest hitting emotional aspects of any game I’ve played, and it does it so well. There were times during the game that I sat back and thought: hey, why don’t more games do this? Or, I love how this game manages to evoke some kind of response from the player. The down time between missions isn’t as frantic as the main storyline, and there are periods where you’ll be standing around on the Citadel trying to work out where you’re going/doing next, but it’s all good. All part of the package, if you will. Mass Effect 3 is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of gaming today, whether you think the ending sucked or not.

Mass Effect 3 is the very definition of Role Playing Game, with one of the most epic plots that’s as engaging as it is compelling — triple that if you’ve played the previous games; if you get sucked in, hang on and take a deep breath — you’re in for one crazy ride.

Death, Motherhood and ‘Creatures’

I realized these were all Norns.

I thought about what I had done to these creatures. I thought about how I had wanted to save them.

I was not looking at save dates. I was looking at epitaphs. I was looking at headstones. This was not suspended animation at all. I had made coffins.

I had been paralyzed by my own fear of mortality, and so, one at a time, I’d paralyzed my Norns.

I had not saved them from their own too-short lives. It was exactly the opposite: I was so frightened of watching them die, I had murdered them instead.

via A Constant Furrowing: Death, Motherhood and ‘Creatures’ | Unwinnable.

A great read on exactly the kind of mentality that means we shouldn’t be taking things too seriously. Make mistakes, not for the sake of making mistakes, but because you have many, many more lessons to learn.

And if that means a Norn has an unsatisfactory life here and there, so be it.

Pokémon, Part II: Intermission — The Trading Card Game

Part I: Prologue — The Pokémon Generation is just three posts below this one!

No picture this time around as I can’t seem to find my tiny, almost non-existent, collection of cards from the Pokémon trading card game.

There are many aspects of Pokémon, one being the trading card game (henceforth referred to as TCG). Despite being hugely popular when I was during my upper-primary school years, I never got into it.

Perhaps it was the fact that I was too young at the time to even fathom buying items for seemingly my own enjoyment, or perhaps it was because compared to the video games and the anime and whatever other aspects of Pokémon were popular at the time the TCG just seemed so boring and bland in comparison, I never got into it. Plenty of other people were, but I wasn’t.

I remember other people being awed by collections, and when “shiny” cards were produced people were awestruck. Perhaps one of the most famous cards of all was shiny Charizard, easily one of the most coveted cards of my particular generation.

I remember somehow acquiring a single Japanse card — it was either Psyduck or a Pokémon that I had no knowledge about (i.e. one of the ones introduced in generation III or IV).

I remember knowing the difference between a fake card and a real one, right down to the hue and intensity of the blue border on the back of the card itself, as well as the feel and texture of the card.

Mostly, though, I just remember not getting involved. I’m not sure whether it was the whole “collectors” aspect that didn’t appeal to me or the “battling” aspect that could be performed with the Pokémon TCG, but I just couldn’t care about it as much as I could the video game.

Which is interesting, because it was years later that I started to get into Magic: The Gathering. No real reason, but it seemed to be pretty popular in my early high-school years, and seemed like the right thing to do. I remember sitting the library at lunchtime and duking it out with the self-appointed master of Magic — but that’s a story for another time.

Whatever the reason, Pokémon the Trading Card Game just didn’t appeal to me. Shame.