Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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.

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Back in the days of the NES, a lot of the higher-profile sequels didn’t set out to simply copy the gameplay of their predecessors. A lot of them tried new ideas in their second games; they were bigger, bolder and more ambitious. Very rarely did they meet with quite the same acclaim as their forefathers did, however. Super Mario Bros. 2 was literally a different game (Doki Doki Panic) repackaged with the Mario characters. Zelda 2 ditched the top-down viewpoint for side-scrolling dungeons and an RPG-style character development system. And Castlevania 2 moved from a traditional system of levels to having an open, explorable world.

Zelda 2 and Simon’s Quest have a lot in common, really. Both are much larger than their predecessors; alongside this they are both excessively cryptic (a combination of poor localization and the small amount of memory available for text on an NES cartridge). And finally, both have kind of become the black sheep of their series (at least Simon’s Quest was until crap like Harmony of Dissonance came along). However, this is where the similarities end- Simon’s Quest retained the side-scrolling, whip swinging action of the game that begat it, where Zelda 2 introduced a completely new gameplay style.

The core gameplay of Castlevania remains unchanged- you strut around the Romanian countryside, whipping things to death. However, Simon’s Quest introduces a day-to-night cycle (WHAT A HORRIBLE NIGHT TO HAVE A CURSE) that complicates this task considerably. Townsfolk are only out in the daytime- zombies roam the streets of towns at night, and enemies in the woods and mountains are considerably stronger by moonlight. By the same token, however, they’re worth more hearts per kill if you fight them by night (hearts serve as money, ammunition and experience points in Simon’s Quest). Early on, you’ll need all the hearts you can get to purchase the essentials for not getting slaughtered. Once you start upgrading your whip and trading crystals the game kicks into gear and develops a sort of rhythm. You’ll fight for a few things you need, then head out into the wilds to find the mansions where Dracula’s remains have been scattered.

The game has a very bleak, lonely atmosphere in spite of the fact that it probably has the most non-monster characters of any Castlevania title (including even Order of Ecclesia). Every time you leave the safety of a town and wander off into the woods, you see the countryside overrun by monsters. Another place you might find the game to be rather empty is in the boss department. There are only three in the whole game, and of those, one is skippable. The other two must be fought to progress but are almost insultingly easy. This is kind of a disappointment- you reach the end of one of mansions and you find that no one’s guarding Dracula’s Spleen?

In any case, the game itself isn’t half as bad as its reputation holds (which is mostly due to the Angry Video Game Nerd’s original review, which points out valid flaws but James Rolfe himself holds no ill will towards the game. and later re-reviewed it as part of his collective Castlevania retrospective). The music is terrific. The cryptic, strange things that so many people say are called out in the manual and I tend to think of as sort of the townspeople being driven mad by Dracula’s curse, or some of them being deliberately difficult with Simon for apparently bringing the curse down on them all. The odd translations like “you now prosess Dracula’s rib”, are more a symptom of localization as we know it today not existing in the 1980’s.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest is an experiment that would later develop into what is practically its own sub-genre. While in a post Super Metroid and Aria of Sorrow world it can be difficult to see one of the founding Metroidvania’s innovations, it stands the test of time as an atmospheric, classic blend of action game with adventure and RPG elements.

PROS: Same Castlevania action, new gameplay elements. A larger world to explore.

CONS: Cryptic messages from lying villagers. Confusing world layout. No world map.

Yeah, I know this is from the Ravenloft module. But Simon’s Quest copied the art, and it’s good art.

Some games are popular during the generation they’re released in, and then fade into obscurity. Then there are others that strike such a chord with players and leave such an impact that we still talk about how great they are, even after a plethora of sequels. Castlevania is one such game that is so revered.

The debut of whip-swinging vampire hunter Simon Belmont occurred in 1986 on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Born from a mashup of classic monsters, gothic scenery, and more than a little inspiration from Vampire Hunter D, Castlevania distinguished itself from its contemporaries with its horror imagery. While most games of the time stuck with the trappings of 80’s action movies or generic fantasy settings, Castlevania took you to the crumbling battlements of Dracula’s castle for a grueling battle.

Just looking at the cover gives you a feel for what you’re in for. Dracula’s castle looms menacingly atop an isolated precipice as the Count himself bares his fangs in a mocking grin. Simon Belmont stands in the foreground, brandishing the Vampire Killer whip and pointing a finger as if to say “I accept your challenge, you bloodsucking punk.” Seeing it on the shelf in the mid 1980’s must have evoked the word “rad”.

After pressing the Start button, we see Simon marching up to the gates of the castle, and the game begins. The first level sets the stage for what became and entire series. These humble beginnings offer us many elements that would become repeated often- the approach to the castle, the entry hall, and of course, the ever-familiar Vampire Killer tune.

The level design is fantastic- although ingenious isn’t quite the right word. Fiendish is more like it, as Konami seemed to deliberately program the game to murder you again and again. Hazards are all over the place- water, spikes, malevolent architecture that takes advantage of Simon being knocked back whenever he’s injured- Castlevania is a place that tests your patience and reflexes at the same time. In addition, enemies become stronger as you proceed in the game, so that knight that took a few hits early on will become a damage sponge in the final corridors of the castle. In addition to the tough enemies, there are the deadly nuisances like the Medusa Heads, the Hunchbacks, and the Bats. They’re annoying because their patterns make them hard to hit and hard to avoid- and they usually show up in those precarious places where you’re going to be knocked back into a death drop. This is responsible for a good portion of Castlevania‘s legendary difficulty (the other portion tends to come from having so many enemies on the screen at once).

I think one of the interesting things about Castlevania– a factor that Metroidvanias abandoned, is that you get to see the boss’ energy meter. In a game like Castlevania, knowing the amount of hit points the boss has left can let you tweak your strategy- if you’ve got plenty of health and the boss is down to one or two blocks, then you can just get in there and throw everything at him and get it over with.  The bosses themselves mostly run a gamut of classic movie monsters- obviously you’ve got Dracula, but he’s also employing the Frankenstein monster and a hunchbacked assistant, mummies, giant vampire bats, and Medusa a la Clash of the Titans. You’ve also got the Grim Reaper, although I don’t know if he’s made that many movie appearances. If I have one complaint it’s that Dracula’s final form resembles something from a more superdeformed game like Ghosts & Goblins.

Castlevania‘s music is the stuff of legend. I’ve written a full article on the series’ music in the past, and the original game starts the series off spectacularly. Just about every track in the game is memorable. It sounds like action oriented video game music of its era, but at the same time it often has a rock beat to it and a gothic or neoclassical sensibility about it. The drum intro for the beginning of the 3rd Level (the music called “Wicked Child”) is impressive and memorable enough that most covers of the song implement it. It’s kind of interesting that for a long time video games had been mostly silent affairs (with the exception of Pitfall 2 and Ultima IV). During the latter half of the 1980s, improved sound hardware meant that games could deliver recognizable music that didn’t make your ears bleed. While earlier games like Mario had memorable music, it was games like Castlevania, Zelda, and Final Fantasy that began to add layers of complexity to the compositions.  Most NES games had music- and that in itself is a milestone.

Castlevania is one of the best remembered games for the NES, and rightly so. It has a far reaching legacy that continues to this day, and it still triggers immediate memories for multiple generations of gamers. If you haven’t tried it…I don’t really know what’s stopping you.

PROS: Divine challenge. Great music. The beginning of a legend.

CONS: Hellish difficulty. Medusa Heads. The corridor before fighting Death.

Castlevania is currently available on Nintendo’s Virtual Console service.

I’ll get this out of the way: I suck at fighting games. ESPECIALLY Capcom fighting games. The key to victory in fighting games tends to be knowing combos, and I’m always at a disadvantage if I don’t have a manual (or if the game lacks a training mode). Part of this is laziness on my part, and part is probably that I’m a PC gamer at heart and I’d rather set a hotkey or create a macro for more complex button combinations. I’m also not very dextrous with a thumbstick or D-pad, so fighting games are commonly on the back burner for me.

With that in mind, let’s talk about Capcom’s Darkstalkers. It’s immediately pretty familiar- essentially Street Fighter II meets the Monster Mash genre, Even the subtitle, The Night Warriors, recalls Street Fighter II’s, The World Warrior. There’s even a dude from Brazil with a green skin tone! It’s a Capcom fighting game to the core, and a rather primitive one at that. But the supernatural characters certainly feel fresh compared to the ubiquitous range of kung fu movie stereotypes that populated Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, and there are a wide variety of them to suit your taste. Even if you’re not familiar with the series, you’ll probably recognize Morrigan from her appearances in other Capcom fighters. There’s also a vampire, a Frankenstein monster, a wendigo, and numerous other classic monsters. Jon Talbain is a pretty cool mix of werewolf and Bruce Lee, and Rikuo the fishman’s name is a shout out to Creature From The Black Lagoon portrayer Ricou Browning. My personal favorite is the metalhead ghoul Lord Raptor, however, who must be a relative of Iron Maiden’s Eddie and Megadeth’s Vic Rattlehead.

The stages are also varied and nicely detailed, ranging from a laboratory, to the top of some buildings in Vegas (is that Nyan Cat?), and a dug-up graveyard. They’ve got plenty of nice details, although the limits of the PlayStation’s resolution means they aren’t drawn particularly sharply, and the graphics suffer outside of the standard definition CRT screens that were in use during the era the game was released. You can’t really blame them for this though- that was just the limit of tech at the time.

As I mentioned, I’m not really a fighting game aficionado, so I may not be the best one to judge the gameplay- but I found the arcade mode to be pretty difficult even with the difficulty cranked way down. Again, this comes down to exactly what I don’t like about most fighting games, and that’s that the game is basically a quiz on how well you know your combos and specials, and all I managed to figure out is that Morrigan has kind of a hadouken type move that used the same controller motion. The game’s AI is pretty unforgiving- the kind that predicts your moves, blocks everything and seems unblockable itself. This is particularly bad against Anakaris, who seems to combine Dhalsim’s reach with Zangief’s size; and Rikuo, who seems to have a counter for everything you throw at him. When you block, you still take damage. When Rikuo blocks, he’s invincible! And then there’s what I assume is the final boss- some kind of robot who can drain half your health from anywhere on the screen. After about 20 minutes of trying and failing to beat him, I just gave up on him and decided “well, there’s another fighting game I’m never gonna beat.”

I like the idea, and I definitely like the cast of characters. I think the problem is I’m not much of a fighting game guy, and when I do play them I tend to fare better with 3D Namco type fighters. Had there been a Darkstalkers beat-em-up, I probably would have had a little more fun.

PROS: Diverse cast of monsters, instantly familiar playstyle, nice visuals. Lord Raptor. Fanservice ahoy if you’re into that.

CONS: No training mode, cheap AI, great characters but  no real plot. Early PSX load times.

Darkstalkers is currently available in its original form on the PlayStation Network as a PS1 Classic.

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.

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.