Archive for the ‘PC’ Category

Review: The Walking Dead

Posted: December 13, 2012 in Adventure Game, PC, PS3, zombies

2012-11-21_00016 The Walking Dead franchise has been a runaway success in all media it has appeared in: first, in comics, then, in AMC’s TV series, and now with Telltale’s adventure game. The Walking Dead doesn’t waste time getting started- you’re put in the shoes of former College Professor and current convicted murderer Lee Everett in a day when his and the rest of the world’s lives change dramatically. He is soon taking care of young girl named  Clementine as he travels through the state of Georgia during the zombie apocalypse.

2012-11-21_00015The game is similar to Telltale’s previous adventure games in many respects; but in some ways it’s the culmination of all the work they’ve done so far. It bears a lot of similarity to Back To The Future in terms of its art style (albeit The Walking Dead is much less colorful and much more grimy-looking). The game incorporates a lot of dialogue, a few inventory puzzles, and the occasional QTE (they use the same buttons throughout the episodes, so randomized instant deaths aren’t really a problem). The core mechanic of the game is the dialogue system, though. Characters remember how you treat them, and this involves how they respond to you later on. There are some other activities to break up the monotony- an early one features you sneaking around a parking lot trying to save someone, and later on, there’s a pseudo-FPS shooting gallery.Strangely, inventory puzzles are all but missing from The Walking Dead.

The episodes offer a variety of dramatic twists and turns, and some of them are genuinely gut-wrenching. Fail to save someone in one episode? You’re probably gonna hear about it in a later one. The series does a good job of making your choices seem like they matter, in particular in regards to Clementine. How you’ve acted around her culminates in the final chapter. It’s excellent to see the little things you’ve said and done making an impact.

2012-11-21_00018Special attention must be paid to the voice acting, which is fantastic. Dave Fennoy voices Lee and does a terrific job bringing everything from soft-spoken words of comfort to a friend who’s lost everything to panic-stricken bouts of profanity a very genuine gravitas. Also of note (and some credit goes to the writers too) to Melissa Hutchison for voicing Clementine and NOT making her the annoying tag-along kid that we’ve seen in so many games, but rather a genuine character that makes us think about how our actions affect others.

The game is not without its problems, however- both technical and creative problems are apparent in the game’s release. The glitches can be as innocuous as occasional slowdown to as serious as saved games disappearing or choices not registering properly.  While my playthrough on Windows has been mostly without a hitch, a friend of mine playing on his Mac had a major choice in Episode 1 failing to register.

2012-10-29_00001More to my annoyance, though, is Episode 4. Before Episode 5 came out, Episode 4 had me worried that the ending was going to slide downhill. It features a very weak plot without any real direction- it just feels like filler taking time before the set-up for the final chapter. This isn’t helped by the fact that it features incredibly weak writing and an annoying new character that appears out of nowhere to steal the spotlight. There were also two Family Guy-esque Star Wars reference jokes shoehorned in for…I have no idea why. I found them jarring, and in both cases they dragged their scene to a halt. These stuck out like a sore thumb in a series that otherwise takes itself pretty seriously. Other than a few scenes early on, the entirety of Episode 4 is disposable.

In spite of this, The Walking Dead is still an excellent game and one of the best dramatic games released in some time, and Episode 4 notwithstanding features some excellent writing and storytelling. It’s good enough that I may even call it my game of the year. It’s well worth purchasing, and I can’t wait to see what Season 2 brings.2012-10-29_00003

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The Slender Man mythos is one of the more remarkable creations of the internet at large. Born out of a photoshop contest on the Something Awful forums, the Slender Man has been the subject of videos, blog entries, stories, and now a game. The character is also one of the best-known examples of the internet-born take on urban legends, the Creepypasta.

But none of this knowledge is necessary to appreciate  Slender: The Eight Pages (although the game’s menu provides handy links to articles and videos on the Slender Man) . Slender is a simple first-person adventure that places you in the woods at night with nothing but a flashlight. Your goal is to find the titular eight pages, which chronicle another unfortunate soul’s encounters with the Slender Man. The location of the pages is randomized, although the layout of the woods doesn’t change from game to game. There are a few sheds, abandoned vehicles, and various buildings scattered about the map and the game leaves it up to the player to find their way around.

One notable feature of the game is its aversion of typical “Hollywood night”. You’re only able to see most things by the light of your flashlight. There are no weapons, no items, just you and the pages and the Slender Man. The game does an excellent job developing its atmosphere. You search, and you are watched, and followed. It builds upon many of the classic horror tropes: the feeling of being far from help, completely isolated, alone in the dark, and tracked by an entity whose motives you can’t fathom. The inherent wrongness of the Slender Man’s appearance- his proportions are just off enough that you know he’s inhuman- gives you a strong natural urge to get as far away from him as possible.

The creators of Slender (Parsec) should be commended for doing so much with so little. The rules and gameplay are simple, and from that simplicity is born a superbly terrifying game. In a way it’s somewhat reminiscent of John Carpenter’s original Halloween film– it favors mood and menace over gore (as in, there is none whatsoever), and the thrills are well earned. It engages the primal fear of what could be lurking in the darkness and triggers an impressive level of paranoia. I wasn’t expecting to be scared- and I was proven so, so, wrong.

Slender is available as a free download, and I highly recommend it. However, I waive any responsibility for soiled undergarments, heart attack or shock, or shouted profanities.

PROS: Absolutely terrifying. Simple but extremely effective. Plus, it’s free!

CONS: Small game world. You may have nightmares.

From the Jaws of Defeat?

World War II’s Eastern Front isn’t one that gets a lot of play in the West, unless it’s a token Stalingrad level. X1 software’s attempt to bring this theater of war into the world of tactical simulations is met with a mix of triumph and tragedy, which unfortunately weighs more on the side of tragedy.

Iron Front: Liberation 1944 is a tactical first-person shooter/simulation built on the ARMA 2 engine. While it definitely lends itself to large-scale conflict and realistic action, it also has the problem of being a very buggy and unstable engine, which was a problem through the entire review process. Unrecoverable freezes tended to end play sessions early – when the first patch came out (conveniently incompatible with my previous save games), the game crashed before reaching the end of the first cutscene. This would have been less of a problem if the cutscenes were skippable, but you have to sit through them.

Once you get to the gameplay itself, it’s initially not too bad. Your first mission on either the Russian or German side teaches you all the basics of combat – shooting various infantry arms, chucking grenades, and operating artillery pieces. It’s also (probably realistically) clunky – the first Russian mission gives you the task of hitching a howitzer to the back of a truck, and since the truck lacks a rearview mirror or any way to look behind (even third-person viewpoint doesn’t help), this simple task took me about ten minutes real time. There were some similar problems with a later mission, which put you in control of a tank – in the commander’s chair, you cannot directly fire, only give the order. When I did this, the tank’s turret began rotating…never stopping to fire, simply going around and around. I suppose I’ll be cutting my gunner’s vodka ration after that.

These guys can hold their breath longer than Guybrush Threepwood.

The missions all seem to showcase one particular aspect of the game: the first teaches the basics, the second puts you in a vehicle or teaches you how to command, etc. While the missions are rather long and the maps large, there aren’t that many of them, so the game comes up rather short. It would seem that the game might be tailored toward multiplayer warfare, but the community is unfortunately very small and dominated by clans on private servers. It seems to me that you’re expected to use mods, or mod the game yourself to get the most out of Iron Front.

The game is definitely ambitious, and the attention to detail and realism is admirable. The vehicles, weapons and uniforms are well-detailed and do a good job of matching up with their real-world counterparts. You won’t find any Call of Duty-styled, overpowered superguns here; most missions find you carrying one weapon at a time, usually a bolt-action rifle like the K98 or the Mosin-Nagant, or lugging a light machine gun around and finding a good place to set it up. While the English language and voice-overs sound pretty amateurish, the actual German and Russian tracks don’t sound bad (although I only speak German non-natively and don’t speak Russian at all – your mileage may vary). The actual cutscenes where these are spoken, however, are quite dull and uninteresting, perhaps in part due to the fact that the engine isn’t really suited to cinematic storytelling. I suppose it does add to the “hurry up and wait” quality I hear so much about from military personnel.

The Final Verdict

Unfortunately, this doesn’t fix its considerable game-breaking bugs and lack of polish. I think that X1, with some improvements, could have a winner on their hands. But as it stands, the $30 price tag is a little too expensive for what it offers. I have to recommend sticking to Red Orchestra II if you want to play a tactical shooter set in World War II. I think X1 might be a studio to watch in the future, though, so don’t count them out due to a rather underwhelming debut.

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Mazes and Monsters

Old-school is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days. By me, by you, by every poseur who liked it before it was cool. Legend of Grimrock is firmly an old-school game, though. It hearkens back to both the earliest PC RPGs like Wizardry, as well as the dedicated dungeon crawlers like Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder. The focus here isn’t on open-world exploration or deep character interaction – in Grimrock, it’s about solving puzzles, putting together clues, and surviving long enough to make it to the lowest levels of the dungeon. It’s about killing monsters, leveling your party and finding better equipment. And it’s about scouring every inch of the dungeon for hidden secrets.

Mastering the Dungeon

Legend of Grimrock drops your party of four into the titular dungeon with just the clothes on their backs. Your party can be composed of any combination of fighters, thieves, and wizards from four races – humans, minotaurs, lizardmen and insectoids. Humans are average jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none types; minotaurs are tough and strong but consume more food; lizardmen are quick but not very energetic; and insectoids are frail but superior mages. A careful mix is necessary, as too many minotaurs may leave your party weak and starving, while too many insectoids may leave them unable to fend off even weak attacks.

The game is played in real time, and the map is segmented into a grid. If you decide to play in old-school mode, the game doesn’t automap for you (meaning you’ll have to break out some graph paper). Basically, it’s  classic dungeon-crawling at its finest. You fight monsters, solve puzzles (many of which require both brains and dexterity on the keyboard) and hunt for secrets. In Grimrock, secrets aren’t just little bonuses – some of the hidden stuff that requires a lot of work to get to can make the game significantly easier. While you’ll find a decent amount of bog-standard longswords and breastplates lying around, the best magic scrolls, arms and armor are well-hidden behind secret doorways and dastardly traps.

The magic system involves clicking a series of runes and then clicking the “cast” button, allowing you to quickly fling up a powerful spell or keep one ready for the unknown that may be around the corner. The game doesn’t include a spellbook; rather, you have to hunt through the dungeon to find scrolls that list the rune combinations needed to cast spells. You also have to have the appropriate amount of ability points put into the particular school of magic (i.e. air, fire, earth) that you want to use.

Which brings us to the leveling system. The leveling is pretty straightforward; you gain experience through battling monsters and when you level up, you gain a few ability points to advance your character’s skills. Depending on the amount of points put in, skills can add more powerful attacks, increase attributes, unlock new magic, or offer the ability to use heavier armors with penalties. Each class has a few unique skills that the others can’t access; for example, a fighter can specialize in swords or maces but not in daggers or throwing weapons, which a thief can. It’s functionally a very simple system, but balancing your character can take a bit of thought.

Between Grimrock and a Hard Place

Despite the simplicity at its heart, make no mistake: Legend of Grimrock is not an easy game. Even playing on Normal difficulty there were times when I could barely scrape out of some encounters with my party intact. Sometimes winning fights is about a well-timed sidestep rather than just swinging away and throwing fireballs. You can’t rest infinitely – if you rest every time you fight, you’ll soon find yourself running out of food. In the lower levels of the dungeon it can be a delicate balance if you’ve been struggling along and not hoarding every bit of food you come across. Grimrock definitely rewards you for mastering movement as well as the leveling system.

As far as technical measures go, the graphics are fine. Nothing groundbreaking, but they do their job. Creatures (especially skeleton legionnaires and mind-flayers) look pretty good, and are well-animated. There is no music in the game besides the title screen theme, instead going for atmospheric ambient sound. The lighting effects are excellent, although these will tax weaker rigs.

The Final Verdict

It’s impossible to overstate my enthusiasm for and enjoyment of Legend of Grimrock. Almost Human did a terrific job bringing the classic first-person dungeon crawl into the modern age. It may not break any new ground, but it’s a game that’s fantastic to play, with numerous well-designed dungeons and mind-bending puzzles. And especially considering its price: I’ve had more fun with Grimrock than with some games that cost quadruple its modest $15 price tag. I hope we hear from Almost Human again, real soon.

The Last Crusade?

Crusader: No Remorse - Missing in ActionMissing in Action doesn’t always bring the action to the forefront. That isn’t the case with Crusader: No Remorse. The brainchild of Tony Zurovec and Origin Systems (the esteemed creators of the Wing Commander and Ultima series), Crusader took the engine of the much-maligned Ultima VIII and made something damned good out of it.

Crusader: No Remorse put you in the combat boots of the Silencer, a one-man army in shiny red armor who finds himself unceremoniously discharged from the World Economic Consortium’s special forces after refusing to fire on civilians; you suddenly find yourself out of a job and hunted by the ruling powers. So what’s a trained killing machine to do? Join up with the ragtag band of rebels, naturally. While they don’t trust you, they’re still more than willing to send you on suicide missions on a daily basis. And from here, the fun begins.

And that fun is a third-person shooter before third-person shooters were really a thing. The game controls with mouse and keyboard (or pad if you’re on the PS1 or Saturn versions) and runs from an isometric perspective. You can roll out from behind cover or shoot through it to put enemies down (just so you don’t go thinking Gears of War or Killswitch invented cover-based shooting). In addition, you’re given a pretty sweet arsenal that lets you spread the kind of mayhem ’90s computer games excelled at. You’re capable of de-facing (literally) enemies with a shotgun, vaporizing them, searing the flesh from their bones with the UV-9. Or, you can get all tactical-like with the spider bombs, which crawl toward a target and explode on impact. Finding the right computers, switches and keycards will also allow you to do things like hack robots to do your dirty work for you. Many of these are features that other games would later reuse (not too surprising, as Deus Ex creator Warren Spector was a producer on Crusader).

Crusader took place in a darkly humorous, corporate-run cyberpunk world much like that of Robocop. It featured an excellent techno/rock score by Andrew Sega. And it had the most gloriously badly acted and produced full motion video sequences the 1990s had to offer. These elements came together to provide a game that was completely awesome, yet never too serious.

Crusader: No Remorse - Missing in Action

The finest actors Austin's community theatre scene had to offer.

While No Remorse received a sort-of sequel in the form of Crusader: No Regret (it reused many of the same assets, the same engine, etc), there was never a full sequel that totally improved on the formula. Tony Zurovec left Origin, and the projected title of Crusader: No Mercy (of which the only surviving information seems to indicate a multiplayer mode) never saw the light of day. I know losing the creator was a major blow, but it’s hard to believe that Origin, as a subsidiary of Electronic Arts (and one of the first victims of the assimilate-and-destroy policies that would come to define EA in the eyes of many) outright scrapped it. For many years, until No Remorse and No Regret released on GOG.com, this was the last peep heard of the series.

It seems to me that EA is missing out on a big opportunity. Third-person shooters are never going to be hotter than they are right now. Gears of War, Mass Effect, and Uncharted have all (presumably) wrapped as trilogies. There is now a notable lack of any major action titles on the market that aren’t either Assassin’s Creed or first-person shooters. So, Electronic Arts…why not create a new Crusader? Since reboots of expired franchises seem to be the hip new trend in games  (Syndicate, X-COM, Command & Conquer: Generals of all things), why not break out the shiny red armor again? Naturally, there’s a lot to live up to here (Crusader is one of the best straight-up action games of all time, and my personal favorite in the genre). The questions to be asked, though, are who would develop it, and could they get Andrew Sega to come back and provide the game’s signature sound? All of these are important. A new Crusader has to be more than a stop-and-pop shooter. It has to include all the quirky gadgets, the destructible scenery, and the over-the-top, vaporizing weapons.

And that’s really where the problem lies. Could EA turn out a fresh Crusader that redefines the standards of the action genre? Or would it just be standard, lowest common denominator cannon fodder?

Mass Effect 3's Alternate Endings

In the past few weeks, there has been quite the kerfluffle raised about Mass Effect 3‘s disappointing endings. Or ending, really, as there isn’t a huge variation in the execution from one to the next. BioWare may be changing it, but that is really beside the point here. The following are merely some possible endings thought up for the trilogy: some silly, some sciencey, and some blatantly ripped off from other media. May contain spoilers. Enjoy.

Everyone Laughs

The final battle has ended. Shepard and crew head to Rannoch to help Tali build her new beachfront house, which is roughly the size of a typical sitcom set. During their off hours, they hang out at the new geth-run coffee shop, Consensus. In addition to romantic entanglements and other shenanigans, they also have to deal with Shepard’s “old buddy” Saren Arterius, the clumsy indoctrinated rogue Spectre. Of course, Saren’s zany schemes never pan out, and the epilogue ends with Shepard and friends laughing, freeze-framing, and cutting to credits.

Mass Effect 3's Alternate EndingsXenophile Extraordinaire

Shepard and Harbinger meet for the final showdown, but things go a bit differently than expected. Rather than find the belly of the Reaper stuffed with the makings of husks and alien tech, Shepard finds it softly lit, with some 1970s Earth-funk playing on its biomechanical speakers. Harbinger bellows out to Shepard, “You have assumed direct control…of my heart.” Shepard then proceeds to add another notch to his interspecies sexual relations belt, distracting Harbinger from giving orders to the Reaper fleet, ending with a mighty white-hot burst of energy into Harbinger’s core. And then the fleet opens fire. Shepard emerges from the wreckage, dusts his armor off, and says, “All in all, I still prefer asari.”

Always A Bigger Cuttlefish

From deep beneath the Pacific Ocean, the Great Old One Cthulhu wakes up with a throbbing headache. Wondering what the annoying, repeating “BWOM” sounds are, he rises out of R’Lyeh and marches along the ocean floor until he reaches dry land. He grabs a chunk of skyscraper and chucks it at the nearest Reaper destroyer.

“Can you keep it down? I’m trying to sleep!”

And he notices, then, that the Reapers have borrowed features of the tentacle-faced Old One’s visage in their own design. Naturally, he doesn’t take kindly to these deep space berserkers attempting to cramp his style, and thus begins the galaxy’s most sanity-destroying bro-down, which leads to the Reapers heading off to find another galaxy. One with really good therapists.

Humanity returns to Earth without a fight. Of course, they are promptly driven insane and devoured, 1D3 at a time.

Mass Effect 3's Alternate Endings

Tangent Universe Crossover

The final battle looks hopeless. Shepard sits on the bridge of the Normandy, waiting for Hackett to give the order. The fleet warps in… to find a massing of identical Normandy SR-2s waiting. Each is helmed by a different Commander Shepard, almost all of whom look completely different from one another. Some are male, some are female. Some have scars, some are fresh-faced. But they’ve done it. They’ve brought an unstoppable army. After all, if one could take down Reapers on his own, a whole army of them could do even more.

The side effects of an army of Commander Shepards after the Reaper defeat, however, are quite grim. Reporters with broken jaws fill emergency rooms, endorsements from myriad Shepards drown out all other sounds, and the small number of remaining batarians in the galaxy are mysteriously murdered within a week. Citizens of the Milky Way are driven insane by being asked the same questions repeatedly by the Shepards. Shepards begin ignoring their teammates and crossbreeding with each other. Soon, the human race has diminished and the Shepards are their own evolutionary branch, ruling the galaxy with an iron fist.

Leaving a lone scholar to wonder: would it have been so bad to let the Reapers kill us?

Mass Effect 3's Alternate EndingsMass-ive Attack

Rather than push their collective resources into construction of an unproven Prothean artifact which, for all they know, is just as likely to house an AI running on insane troll logic rather than being a weapon to kill the Reapers, the people of the galaxy focus on repurposing an already available asset: the mass relays. Fitting them with the finest radio telescopes available as gunsights and readying ship-sized chunks of inert mass as ammunition and then repositioning each one so that the shots intercept a Reaper vessel, the coalition attacks the Reapers in the Sol system with their new network of oversized railguns. While they are unable to hit every Reaper, they manage to make enough of a dent that taking back Earth proves to be much easier than previously imagined.

The Venus Gambit

The salarian STG lives by the mantra of “fight smarter, not harder”. Therefore, they concoct a plan to lead the Reapers over Earth into a trap: Have one or two fleets engage at long range from just outside the orbit of Venus; the distraction fleets draw the reapers close to the planet (well known in astronomy for its inhospitable environment and corrosive atmosphere; the exceptionally solid Russian Venera probe lasted 23 minutes on its surface).

Following this distraction, the second battle group would flank the Reaper fleet, pushing them into the acidic atmosphere. Those Reapers lucky enough to make it out would be easy pickings for the combined fleet. With the smallest number of casualties possible, this is the proposed “happy” ending.

Bookends

After arguing with Anderson and the Illusive Man, Shepard limps down to where he would meet the Catalyst…only to find a shattered mess of holographic chunks on the floor and a lone turian changing the heatsink in his shotgun. Shepard gets closer, to recognize the Spectre that was supposed to evaluate him.

“Nihlus? Aren’t you…Aren’t you dead?”

“I was only mostly dead.”

“How did you get here…I mean, before me and everything?”

“Don’t you ever listen? I said I move faster on my own.”

Nihlus steps forward and asks if Shepard has a way out planned.

“You made it here. I think you’re gonna make a great Spectre, Shepard.”

Shepard shakes his head with a smile. “Man, we have a lot of catching up to do.”

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Right from the beginning, the stakes are impossibly high. Earth and its allies are under siege from the Reapers, and once again the galaxy calls on the talents of Commander Shepard, the first human Spectre, and survivor of numerous encounters with the genocidal machines from deep space. Failure means the end of all sentient space-faring species in the galaxy. This time, Shepard is tasked with much more than the usual “put together a ragtag team of misfits and save the galaxy” – this time the mission involves uniting the galaxy’s civilizations against the Reapers, a task made difficult when many of them are at each others’ throats for wrongs in the past.

The gameplay is further refined from its last iteration, offering improved combat and new elements to deepen the experience and draw you further into the climactic battle for known space. In addition to talking to people normally or striking up romances, you also can solve numerous disputes between pairs of people, as well as bringing information or items to characters. This does two things: firstly, your good deeds as well as your Paragon/Renegade scores stack into your Reputation score; secondly, in addition to these factors, the game keeps track of your “War Assets”, the mass of forces you’ll have available for your final push against the Reapers. Obtaining new War Assets is a major focus of the game, comprising everything from fleets, to bands of pirates that have thrown in, and more.

Reaper in Mass Effect 3

The Reapers have come from dark space, and they *really* mean business.

The combat is heightened in both speed and intensity from the previous game. There are numerous new weapons, attacks, and moves you can use. Weapon mods are back, allowing you to add scopes, extended barrels, and piercing mods to your favorite firearm.  Each class can be developed in different ways; for example, an Adept can develop their Shockwave attack to fire in a wider path or a longer one, or can use a shorter attack that does more damage. Or, let’s say you’re playing an Engineer and upgrading your combat drone – you can choose to give it short-range stun attacks or long range missiles. In addition, you have the much-talked about “Heavy Melee” attacks, which vary from Omni-tool blades with technical classes and Biotic punches and slams with the Adept and Vanguard classes, and can use these to pull an enemy over cover and take them out in one hit. You can also execute a variety of combat rolls that would make Captain Kirk proud (although in multiplayer this changes a bit – salarians hop to the side, asari teleport, and for some reason turians can’t roll at all).

It’s a good thing that combat is so polished, as the AI has received a major overhaul. The enemies are ruthless, and even on normal difficulty they’re at least on par with the original F.E.A.R.‘s much-praised AI. Enemies are all too happy to flank you, toss smoke grenades at choke points, or chuck grenades at you from cover. It’s up to you to figure out how to best circumvent their plans and proceed against the enemy.

There are also a few sequences where you man a stationary turret, and for maybe the first time ever, I can say that these are actually pretty fun – they serve as sort of quick breather events rather than prolonged occurrences, and are rare enough that they don’t wear out their welcome. You also get a few chances to charge around in a stolen Cerberus mech, which can be a real kick to use their own tech against them (although technically I guess the rebuilt Shepard is their tech, too). Unfortunately, we never get to participate in any ship-to-ship combat (which Star Trek Online has left me with a serious taste for), but the new elements are fun and welcome additions in their own right.

Shepard’s Omni-blade is an impressive addition to the Mass Effect armory.

Shepard’s Flock

Now onto the real meat of the game: the story and characters. Depending on your actions in the previous games, you may have a very different playing experience from others.  Just about every loose end is tied up by the end of Mass Effect 3 – every choice you’ve made is addressed. You’ll run into people you saved, people with grudges that are still pissed off, and more than likely, quite a few old friends. The game’s atmosphere is appropriately bleak and oppressive – the galaxy lies on the brink of destruction, after all. You know right from the beginning that you can’t save everyone, and some of your old friends are not going to survive. The galaxy is mobilizing for war (and some of them are already under siege), and loss is inevitable. But it’s not all bad news. You’ll likely be seeing others, even those you didn’t expect, signing up to join the fight. The war scenes are particularly intense, showing the scale of the war and the destruction going on around you. The game manages to hammer home a solid “war is hell” angle without diluting the fun of combat proselytizing: it just shows that the Reaper invasion (and other conflicts in the game) are genuinely ripping worlds apart.

Familiar faces return, but their survival is certainly not assured.

The assumption that you’ve played the previous games in the Mass Effect series is an important one. A big part of the game’s impact (and in some cases, its cruelest twists) involve characters the player has gotten to know over the course of the previous games. I grew pretty attached to some of the crew, and was overjoyed to see many familiar faces, both among party members and briefer appearances, and the revelation early on that just about anyone in the plot could die… well, let’s just say I spent a lot of time worrying when my love interest from Mass Effect 2 was absent for a lot of the game and I was scrounging every bit of information for where I might find her. I literally lost sleep over this.

However, the actual plot is unfortunately quite poor. Everything feels just a little too neat and convenient. Shepard is able to accomplish his/her goals far too efficiently and quickly. Some of the conflicts you solve are centuries old, and you show up in the Normandy and solve them in time to make Happy Hour on the Citadel. It’s to the game’s credit that you get to see all the old faces and visit a lot of the places out there, to me it just all happens far too quickly. It all just wraps up so conveniently before the final battle. I hate to keep talking about it as Bioware has never had great plots (rather, they’re the go-to studio for well-written characters), but you don’t get the sense that the game unfolds over any length of time. It feels like the whole game almost takes place in real time. And this, to me, is a major weakness of the game.

Long Live the Fighters

Multiplayer and its tie-in to your galactic readiness rating is actually a surprisingly fun affair (or a frustrating one, if your team is composed of idiots). It faithfully translates the new and improved Mass Effect 3 combat experience into a team-based co-op setting, and gives you many of the same options for developing your characters as the single-player game does. The “pack” purchasing (done either via credits earned in-game or via microtransaction) gets a bit tiresome, in my opinion – I’d much rather just be able to focus on a new rifle instead of getting another upgrade for a pistol I’m never going to use, although it does keep things interesting. I’m just not one for mystery bag gambles, I guess.

Graphically, not much has changed. The modeling is a bit improved in some cases, and a lot of the textures are much better looking than in the previous games, although the Unreal Engine 3’s trademark slow texture loading is evident pretty often. Load times are often noticeable as well, particularly when opening some doors. The PlayStation 3 version – which I played – has some frequent sound dropouts (a carryover from Mass Effect 2, it seems). There have been quite a few glitches reported across all systems: the face import glitch on the 360 and PC versions, and the firing animations in multiplayer occasionally continue after the character has taken cover, making it look like all the futuristic weapons are suffering from “cook-off”.

The music is good. Clint Mansell and the other composers do a pretty good job of stepping up to the plate after the departure of the series’ main composer, Jack Wall, although the game noticeably reuses a large number of cues and pieces from the previous games. The style is occasionally incongruous, with a few tracks sounding like they were borrowed from Daft Punk’s TRON: Legacy score and the soft piano themes seeming out of place in a science fiction saga. However, I won’t argue that the music, despite the inconsistencies and what might have been had Wall returned, isn’t excellent, because it is.

This Hurts You

The game’s ending has provoked some controversy (no spoilers), as the options presented to you come out of nowhere and are inconsistent with other choices offered, as well as your overall reputation and play style having little to do with the ending. The game essentially hands you a “walk down this path to choose your ending”, and from there provides no real epilogue for what forces you brought survived the final battle. All of the endings are vague, esoteric, and invalidates the choices you’ve made, in a series where your choices influencing the story are a key selling point. As if this was not insulting enough, one of the last messages the game gives you is basically “Buy more DLC”.  Are you kidding me, Bioware?

I suppose I expected more of a “Where are they now” ending to provide closure like Dragon Age: Origins and Baldur’s Gate 2 did. The ending is a small fraction of the game’s time, and can quite easily be ignored (or even explained away, as many intrepid fans are trying to do.), but if you’ve played the series from the start it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

The concluding chapter of BioWare’s Mass Effect trilogy is an impressive tale that falls apart in the homestretch.

The Final Verdict

It’s been a long journey getting here, but Mass Effect 3 provides a stunning, heroic, tragic, often funny end to the saga of Commander Shepard that is marred by a conclusion that feels more like a summer blockbuster than a thoughtful science fiction epic. And if you’ve played all the way through the series, it’s your saga, as well. The game is a massive letdown in the story department, and while it should have joined Wing Commander and Star Control as one of the legendary science fiction franchises in gaming history, it is now ruined by its slapped together conclusion. It’s just a shame they had to throw it all into a black hole in the end. Unless this changes, I cannot recommend putting yourself through the gut-wrenching disappointment that is Mass Effect 2.