Category Archives: Review
The Dresden Files (series)
Author: Jim Butcher
Genre: Modern Fantasy
The Dresden Files series follows Harry Dresden, a private investigator in Chicago who also happens to be a wizard. Each of the books follows along the prototypical mystery/whodunit framework, presenting 2-3 seemingly unrelated events that each carry the possibility of death/cataclysm before a resolution at the end. Despite each books’ fairly standard formulaic structure, where the Dresden Files series really shines is with its down-to-earth characters, the witty/hilarious dialog, and straight-forward style. I was at first put off with the “kitchen sink” approach used when presenting the supernatural (demons, fairies, vampires, oh my!) but again, the writing definitely saves what might otherwise come across as convoluted.
Overall, I feel pretty good in recommending this series. Compared to a lot of other fantasy series out there, the Dresden Files are considerably less dense but no less satisfying. I am definitely hoping that book 15 (and beyond) comes out sooner rather than later.
Codex Alera (series)
Author: Jim Butcher
When a friend recommended this series to me, the only thing I knew going in was the following paragraph from the Wikipedia entry:
The inspiration for the series came from a bet Jim was challenged to by a member of the Delray Online Writer’s Workshop. The challenger bet that Jim could not write a good story based on a lame idea, and Jim countered that he could do it using two lame ideas of the challenger’s choosing. The “lame” ideas given were “Lost Roman Legion”, and “Pokémon”.
Reading that will either intrigue you or turn you off immediately, but let me just mention that the Codex Alera series won Jim Butcher that bet, in my opinion.
The series itself follows the life of Tavi, a particularly clever boy who nevertheless was born without the ability to use magic in a world where everyone has an elemental familiar. As with Jim Butcher’s other series, the Dresden Files, the Alera books lean towards a sort of detective model that is very much Butcher’s style; you can definitely expect a lot of long trains of logic and counter-logic. It is not all cerebral however, as there will frequently be 10+ page fight scenes that may or may not leave you at the edge of your seat.
Overall, I enjoyed these books. Like many fantasy series, I felt it started somewhat slow and required a bit of acclimation to the world being presented. I was hooked by the second book though, enjoyed the natural progression, and quickly finished the rest thereafter.
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: ~19 hours
Buy If You Like: Devil May Cry/God of War meets Zelda meets comic book
Darksiders is a 3rd-person action game with puzzle elements that tries to straddle the line between Devil May Cry/God of War demon-killing and the sort of casual world exploration and puzzles of Zelda games. You control War, one of the four horsemen, who gets framed for starting the apocalypse party early, which results in the death of the entire human race. As you struggle to clear your name and/or figure out who was responsible, you kill a lot of demons and four-story bosses while uncovering new items and re-unlocking your prior abilities.
While it seems the most popular comparison is with Zelda games instead of Devil May Cry, I just felt the puzzle elements in Darksiders were curiously out of place. The visually stunning post-apocalyptic landscape is rife with ready-made puzzle elements, but I never got over the fact that War couldn’t just scale that wall with his big-ass metal hand. Are you telling me I can wield a car like a baseball bat, but I can’t just stack some debris in the corner and use that to reach the 2nd floor? Why aren’t I just punching down every door I encounter, especially when I unlock the
Power Glove Gauntlet that lets me punch icebergs? While the puzzles do keep combat from growing too stale, after a while you realize that more than half of your game time is spent in empty rooms moving boxes around (etc). That might be fine thematically for a 14-year old elf-boy, but it never felt right for a horseman of the goddamn apocalypse.
That said, I did end up enjoying my time in Darksiders. The game is incredibly stylistic, the visuals are fantastic, and the action is pretty serviceable in a button-mashing way. Although I just pooh-poohed the puzzles, that is mainly because of the tone of the game, rather than the puzzles themselves being annoying. Indeed, while demon locks do appear on some doors arbitrarily, the majority of the puzzles are based on more “realistic” scenarios. You know, assuming that it’s realistic to punch subway cars into place but not use that same power to knock some tree limbs out of the way.
On a final note, if you play on the PC as I did, the port job is not especially keyboard-friendly; in terms of lazy port, it ranks up there with the original Borderlands for PC. I still WASD’d my way through the game anyway, but it was seriously annoying how anyone thought “Tab + number” was a good button combo to select abilities while running around.
Game: Greed Corp
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score: 76
Completion Time: ~8 hours
Buy If You Like: Symmetrical puzzle/strategy games
Greed Corp is a strategy game that is a lesson in efficient and frugal design. Whereas in an RTS-style game you can have three factions with totally unique units and hundreds of different forms of interaction, Greed Corp is pretty simple; there is one walker unit, one factory that builds walkers, one cannon, one consumable unit that flies walkers to a different hex, one harvesting building, and the resources being harvested is the terrain itself. The goal is to use all of those things to remove your opposition from the map, sometimes quite literally.
Regardless, there is can be a surprising bit of depth to the shenanigans. For example, the harvesters knock its own hex and all surrounding hexes down one level at the beginning of your turn (hexes brought below level 1 crumble apart). There is no way to remove a harvesters other than self-destructing it, which knocks another level off each surrounding hex, along with sinking the main hex down into the abyss. What this can lead to is sending a single unit flying into your enemy’s island territory, plopping down a harvester, and laughing maniacally (or sobbing in frustration, depending) as that whole island eventually breaks apart.
Eventually though, my enjoyment evaporated once the late-game Expert-level AI opponents started demonstrating the weaknesses of perfectly symmetrical maps. Namely that it didn’t matter how clever your own strategy was when all it takes is one of the three random opponents to opportunistically ruin your day. When the outcome of your best-laid plans devolve into “whoever moves last wins,” it is time to move on.
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score: 80
Completion Time: ~6 hours
Buy If You Like: Twitch-based puzzle “platformers”
In essence, Nimbus is a pretty simple twitch-based puzzle-platformer… sorta. You control a ship that has no means of self-propulsion, and thus must rely entirely on environmental objects and inertia to ensure you do not become stranded on the ground (which kills you). Some of those objects are bumpers that always gives you a set amount of boost when collided with, some are speed squares that can accelerate you to dizzying velocity if you loop into them multiple times, and still others are little cannons which give you some respite along with directional control over your exit. The end goal is to touch the exit checkerboard squares as fast as possible, while also grabbing the secret coins hidden (sometimes diabolically) around the level if you are so inclined – doing so can sometimes unlock bonus levels.
It did not take me long to confirm that the old adage of “quick to learn, difficult to master” is fully applicable to Nimbus. While successful execution is the most important aspect of the game, Nimbus does a phenomenal job at keeping each level feeling fresh and unique like a brand new puzzle. Just when you start feeling comfortable with all the deadly spikes on the walls, you encounter a map that requires you to ram into spheres to trigger gate openings like a physics-based platformer. And just as you are getting used to some of the spheres having spikes on them, you are faced with a level where all the walls are made of deadly lasers. And then there are the ridiculous reverse-gravity levels. In short, Nimbus deftly avoids new puzzle elements feeling like gimmicks and more like natural progression.
I did not end up completing Nimbus though, as the later levels quickly outstripped my twitch abilities, even after ditching the keyboard for an Xbox controller. If you are not a fan of twitch platformers like Super Meat Boy, unfortunately you aren’t likely to enjoy Nimbus at all; there are few things more frustrating than knowing what you have to do, but running into that same goddamn spike wall for the 13th time in a row and redoing the entire level from scratch (there are checkpoint cannons, but sometimes only past certain points).
If you do happen to enjoy those sort of games though, Nimbus will certainly give you a run for your money. Not only are there secret coins to collect, but each level has a Steam leaderboard to compare best times as well.
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 69
Completion Time: ~6 hours
Buy If You Like: Amoral cyberpunk FPS bastardizations
Syndicate is a FPS reboot of the 90′s series of the same name. As someone who never played the original series, I became interested after watching the trailer and was drawn towards the dystopian cyberpunk setting as a means of getting through my Deus Ex withdraw. Indeed, at first glance Syndicate has a lot in common with Deus Ex on a thematic level, although Syndicate never really goes any farther than reestablishing the rather brilliant lore of prior games. There are no deeper ramifications to your actions, or introspection on the nature of humanity, or much beyond entertaining gunplay, so… not really like Deus Ex at all.
The premise of the game is that you are Kilo, an Agent of a syndicate named Eurocorp, who just developed a highly-advanced neural implant that grants access to various powers. In this future, industrial sabotage takes on an incredibly literal meaning, with Agents of rival syndicates tasked with infiltrating R&D departments and basically killing/stealing ALL the things. During a mission to do exactly that, a conspiracy is uncovered, reinforcements arrive, boom boom, explosions, lens flare, boss fights, the end.
That sounds facetious, but plot is not at all Syndicate’s strong point.
What is particular strong however, is the gunplay. Syndicate does a great job of making you feel like you are running and gunning in a Matrix-esque movie, including having access to overpowered abilities without making you feel immortal. As the plot develops, you eventually gain access to three main “Breaches”: Suicide, Backfire, and Persuade. Suicide makes the targeted enemy shoot themselves in the head or pop a grenade if they are near others. Backfire causes enemies to fall down (possibly out of cover) and take additional damage for X seconds. Persuade makes an enemy fight on your side for X seconds, before shooting themselves at the end of the timer. Each of these abilities recharge only when you kill enemies, ensuring that you don’t just hide in cover until your cooldown comes back up.
What does recharge is the sort of bullet-time mode that you can use in a more traditional Max Payne/FEAR sense to dispatch foes. In fact, this bullet-time is incredibly important because you frequently face massive waves of enemies who are more than capable of mowing you down in seconds. As you progress, the enemies get smarter, tougher, and many start becoming immune to your Breaches altogether. Along the way, you will face rival Agents as proper boss fights, including extra-long HP bar and various gimmicks. While such boss fights were really out of place in a game like Deus Ex, for some reason they felt alright in Syndicate.
In any case, if you are like me and care more about whether it’s worth $9.99 or whatever than about how much the reboot ruins the spirit of the original games, I would say it entirely depends on how much enjoy cyberpunk settings. Syndicate looks great, it has a solid five hours of mindless fun, and you can almost pretend that there is an in-depth existential plot you are just Spacebaring through the whole time. Indeed, Syndicate has a lot more in common with Hard Reset than Deus Ex in that regard. Times aren’t what they used to be though, and whereas I would recommend Hard Reset at $10, I have a tough time recommending Syndicate at any anything higher than $5… and even then, only if you really dig cyberpunk games.
Game: FTL: Faster Than Light
Recommended price: $9.99 (full) / Bundle
Metacritic Score: 83
Completion Time: ~2.5 (or 25) hours
Buy If You Like: Harsh roguelikes, micromanaging space ships, indie games
FTL is absolutely one of those games which, had I not forced myself to dig beneath the brutal, unforgiving crust, I would have written off as awful after the first four hours of playing. While this may have been par for the course for roguelikes, I had hitherto been spoiled by The Binding of Isaac, which not only had a more generous feeling of incremental progression, but a more direct correlation between skill and outcome. With Isaac, awesome twitch-skills is nearly enough by itself to propel you to success. With FTL, success is largely determined by how many coin-flips you win early on.
At least, it seemed that way at first.
…actually, no, coin-flips are still pretty important.
The basic premise is that you are a Federation ship with secret knowledge trying to outrun the advancing Rebel army. Each “turn” you move to an unknown point on the star map and either encounter an enemy ship, a text scenario of some sort, a Store, or possibly nothing at all. Combat takes place in real-time, although you can pause as much as you like. When attacking, you can choose specific ship systems like Weapons or Shields to disable them, or perhaps continually attack their O2 rooms to suffocate the enemy crew. Meanwhile, the enemy is doing their best to repair your damage and blow you up in turn. Some encounters can take place with environment hazards like asteroid fields, solar flares, or ion storms. Defeating enemies randomly gains you Fuel, Missiles, Drones, Scrap, or even ship components. While combat is pretty nuanced and skill-heavy, the text scenarios are the coin-flips where you either win needed materials, or lose big, without much room inbetween.
Once I realized that the game is meant to be played on Easy instead of Normal though, FTL blossomed like an origami flower. Getting more Scrap (upgrade currency) and less ridiculously-armed enemy ships granted the breathing room necessary to learn about juggling power supply, the importance of simultaneous weapon fire to pierce shields, which weapons can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and so on.
I also was able to get a handle on which events were riskier than others, and how many of them can be mitigated with certain ship upgrades or items. Since failing (i.e. losing the coin flip) events typically results in losing a crew member, I began to understand that outside the beginning few levels (where restarting is less painful), it just wasn’t worth the risk. But it was that precise lesson in risk management that eventually started turning every Easy run into a full clear, and then doing the same in Normal.
At the time of this writing, I have 45 hours logged in FTL. Part of what keeps me coming back is the cohesion of the overall package, from the 16-bit graphics to 16-bit sound. A bigger part is the very randomness I despised originally. When you start the game, you have access to just a single ship. Getting 2 out of 3 ship-specific achievements will unlock a different configuration of that ship type; these alternate ships not only have different room layouts, but also different starting crew races and weapon loadouts. Entirely new ship types, each with their own alternate layouts, are further unlocked via gameplay. There are a total of 9 different ships, which means 18 different configurations.
What all of this combines into is an extremely slick, subconscious form of progression. Your games with the Engi’s drone-focused ship are going to be much different than your Rockmen’s missile-focused ship. While most ships are going to look basically the same upgrade-wise by the time you get to the final encounter – the ridiculousness of the flagship sees to that – the getting there becomes a game unto itself.
That is sort of the whole point of roguelikes, of course.
Ultimately, I am recommending this game at full price or Bundle price because it comes down to how much early frustration you are able to handle before giving up. You have no idea how close I was to uninstalling after I died in the screenshot at the top of the review, for example. If scenarios like that make you leery, I suggest waiting for FTL to hit Humble Bundle or Indie Royale as it inevitably will.
If, however, you are the type of person willing and able to muscle through rough first impressions to get at the delicious marrow in the bones of your enemies, buy FTL right now. Not only will you be getting a pretty ridiculous hour-per-dollar gameplay ratio (get 240 hours from a $60 game lately?), but you will be supporting one of the first indie game Kickstarter successes.
Game: Dead Island
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 80
Completion Time: ~35 hours
Buy If You Like: A melee-focused Borderlands, killing zombies
My initial expectations for Dead Island were low. All that I knew beforehand was that it had one of the best videogame trailers of all time, and that the game itself had nothing at all to do with said trailer. Somehow, hearing that the trailer was misleading was enough for me to imagine the game itself would be bad, since “misleading = bad.” Plus, I heard someone somewhere mention the 4-player co-op had traditional RPG roles like tank, rogues, ranged, and thought “Eh?”
What I was not expecting was for Dead Island to be one of the most interesting games I have played this year.
A “melee Borderlands” really is the best way to describe how Dead Island plays. You start out as one of four character classes whom all have three-branch talent trees, you pick up random weapons with random stat spreads, and you smash zombie face in an almost entirely open-world environment. While it is all done in first-person, all the traditional trappings of action RPGs are there: life bars, damage stats, gaining XP, picking up and completing side-quests from other survivors, and gaining levels. Much like Borderlands (again), the experience feels incongruent at first (“Headshots aren’t instant kills?!”), especially when the default weapon in most every other zombie game is a gun, not a police baton you modified with nails or a machete heated to 200° with laptop batteries, wires, and duct tape.
But after a while? I was hooked. Want to explore the beach? Explore the beach. Want to drive back and forth in a truck, running down zombies and trying to navigate the the debris-strewn roads? Do that. Loading screens are few and far between, zombies are everywhere, and randomized loot ensures that even if there isn’t some kind of specific secret hidden in that forgotten corner of landscape, your time wasn’t exactly wasted. All enemies level with you, with the end result being that you can (and will) die to 2-3 standard zombies as easy at level 1 as at the level cap, if you aren’t careful.
There are really only two major negatives to Dead Island, or just one depending on how much of a curve you grade zombie games. If you are looking for a zombie game that really shakes up the narrative conventions for the genre, A) you will be disappointed here, and B) really? Stop me if you have heard this before: zombie outbreak occurs, you are inexplicably immune, your travels take you to a hidden bio-corporation working on unethical research (may or may not have involved creating zombie plague), race against time to stop/avoid entire site being nuked from orbit. Cliches aside, and excusing the sort of unresolved micro-stories various quests represent (bitten guy wants you to bring insulin to trapped brother, who you never see again anyway), it was unquestionably refreshing to have gone from that special form of insipid RPG questing to doing things that actually make sense. Collecting three crates of food might be superficially similar to collecting 10 bear asses, but at least the former makes sense.
The second negative is not as easy to handwave away. You see, the entire first half of the game consists of exploring the beautiful, open-world resort and city areas doing things that make sense to do in a zombie apocalypse. Inexplicably, the developers decided to switch gears and start feeding you through the cramped, repetitive hallways of sewers, a City Hall built by M.C. Escher, prisons, and abandoned hospital wings. Could we please, like, stay outside? You know, leverage the one feature that sets Dead Island apart from nearly every FPS zombie game ever made? The indoor zones are not bad – aside from the piss-poor decision to not include maps for these areas – but it definitely starts feeling like “more of the same” and “Resident Evil did this better in 1996″ after a while.
I would be remiss if I did not briefly talk about the co-op. While I only actually ever played with one specific friend for 2-3 hours, I can definitely see the appeal. It simply feels good to be surrounded by zombies, knowing that you are severing limbs and curb-stomping back-to-back. And for what it is worth, the developers definitely want this to be the way you play Dead Island. You will frequently get little notices that “ThugLife4Life is Nearby” which means that jumping into his/her game is a single button-press (J) away; dropping out is just as easy and non-disruptive, and you keep all the goodies you might have gotten. Plus, as I alluded to at the beginning, a lot of the various
talents Skills you can pick benefit your fellow players too – from buff auras, to higher Medpac healing, to straight-up MMOish Threat mechanics (Sam B has +30% Threat via Decoy, Xian Mei has -15% Threat via Spectre and can get bonus damage from backstabs).
Ultimately, I found Dead Island to be a perfectly good and oddly refreshing FPS zombie experience, with friends or by oneself as I did for the last 32 hours of gameplay. The visuals are drop-dead (ouch) gorgeous, the loot system way more satisfying than Diablo 3, the melee-focused combat surprisingly satisfying (1-2 seconds of slow-mo when a zombie head is liberated from its zombie neck never gets old), the constant threat of death kept me on my toes, and I had a good time overall. While there is not much in the way of replayability beyond a New Game+ mode, the four characters do end up playing quite differently if one is looking for an excuse to run around Banoi again.
And, hey, it looks like Techland is working on a sequel titled Dead Island: Riptide. So maybe sometime soon we won’t even need an excuse.
Game: AaAaAA!!! – A Reckless Disregard for Gravity
Recommended price: $0.99/Bundle
Metacritic Score: 81
Completion Time: ~3-4 hours
Buy If You Like: Falling simulators, super-twitchy Pilot Wings
It is both easy and difficult to describe AaAaAA!!! as a videogame.
It is an indie game with personality, in which you use the WASD keys (and sometimes mouse) to control your descent as close as possible to floating buildings, through Score Plates, and hopefully landing at the bottom area at a speed somewhat less than 54 m/s. Points are awarded for Hugs (every second spent within a few feet of an object), Kisses (one-time bonus for getting close to individual buildings), giving a thumbs up/flipping off your fans/protestors on nearby walkways (i.e. Left or Right clicking while in range), spray-painting government buildings (pressing Middle mouse button near green-striped buildings), and some other miscellaneous actions. If you land safely, your points are tallied and you are given up to a 5-star rating, which rewards Teeth (the game’s currency) so that you may pay to unlock new levels.
Obviously the above does not begin to capture the adrenaline that comes from a combination of induced vertigo, rocking soundtrack, visual overload, and split-second twitch action. There are 80 levels which can be completed in a relatively non-linear manner, plenty of dark humor, Steam leaderboards, and… well, yeah. AaAaAA!!! does not pretend to be anything it is not, and what it happens to be is a decently entertaining distraction.
Game: Frozen Synapse
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 85
Completion Time: ~18 hours
Buy If You Like: Squad-based, ultra-tactical games
My initial impression of Frozen Synapse was that it was a terrible, terrible game. I am not at all a fan of the sort of Rainbow 6-esque “spend 10 minutes planning a room breach, then instant Game Over within the first 5 seconds” gameplay, and that is almost exactly what Frozen Synapse consists of. Additionally, when you “submit” your moves, the game actually features a 5-10 second loading screen as if my $1200 computer that runs Skyrim on Ultra-max settings cannot handle the AI calculations.
After stubbornly slogging through the game out of spite, I would come to discover that Frozen Synapse is actually a decently good game. And potentially one that would temper my distaste of this sort of ultra-tactical gameplay.
The key to enjoying this game is to understand the underlying rules. There are three basic units that follow Rock-Paper-Scissors rules: Shotguners kill first at close range, Machine gunners at middle range, Snipers at long range. The prior rules are overruled depending on which unit sees the other first (there are vision arcs), obstructions do count for something, and standing units beat moving units in “ties.” Rocket launcher units do not auto-fire, their rockets continue in straight lines, and kills only come from splash damage. Grenade launcher units can bounce grenades off walls, can only shoot over waist-high obstructions if they are nearby.
The real turning point though, came when I understood that the sense that the “computer cheats” stemmed from my not simulating how the computer can screw me. You see, you can spend a lot of time planning out your own moves within the intuitive interface, getting the timing down perfectly to kill the red units… when they are statically standing around. But as soon as the Submit button is pressed, the computer is going to engage in its own plans, and typically it does not include standing around looking at the corner.
So the solution is to plan out what the computer could possibly do to ruin your own plans. If the hostile machine gunner goes to the window instead of the door, will your shotgunner still get the kill? Instead of leaving it to fate and possibly losing a match 10-turns deep, make the computer do that, press Play, and see what would happen. The computer can still surprise you from time to time, but it almost became a game unto itself to see how many loose ends and blind spots my various tactical gambits contained.
It is worth mentioning that 99% of the maps are procedurally generated, and the same with troop placement, even in single-player. The campaign itself is fairly amusing and quite varied, with later missions really turning on the heat with super-units and occasionally not letting you see enemy units unless one of your own has a visual (e.g. typically getting shot at). If you thought planning enemy moves was fun, try doing it to the “ghosts” of units you lost track of for the last six turns. In addition to the single-player campaign, there is also multiplayer and instant skirmishes, although I had got my own 18-hour fill with just the campaign.
Ultimately, Frozen Synapse is not for everyone – it wasn’t even for me initially – and certainly not for anyone at the default price of $24.99. Catch it for $5 and/or as part of a bundle though, and it could definitely be worth your time.
Game: From Dust
Recommended price: $0.99/Bundle
Metacritic Score: 76
Completion Time: ~5 hours
Buy If You Like: Literal sandboxes, water simulators
As a tech demo or proof of concept, From Dust is stunning. Whatever water/physics engine they have running this thing is ready for the mainstream. Water has currents, erodes earthen embankments, and wipes out landmasses in the form of tsunamis quite beautifully; volcanic eruptions spew lava that gradually builds up and up until suddenly it is overflowing into the stream nearby, creating a impromptu dam, and starting a bushfire in the process.
As a game though, From Dust skates the very edge between too simple and frustratingly complex.
The basic gameplay consists of shepherding a handful of tribesmen to the white totems around the map, so they can erect villages. You control a glowing worm-like cursor thing that can pick up sand, water, or lava, placing them in strategic locations to get said villagers across obstacles. Each village gives you more powers, such as the ability to Jellify Water (it turns into almost a solid, letting you part the sea Moses-style), Evaporate Water (lower the water table), Amplify Breath (lets you suck up/dump more matter), and four other abilities. Smaller totems dot the landscape, and getting a shaman safely to them will give each village a “kite” that can Repel Water or Repel Fire, depending on the map.
The learning curve for From Dust is quite gradual, but the
difficulty complexity ramps up significantly towards the end. Special plants start appearing that either soak up water (bursting when too full, or releasing when fire gets nearby), evaporate water (and set fire to nearby plants), or simply explode when near flame (being the only method of destroying rock). Meanwhile, that river of lava you had been ignoring for the last three minutes has “suddenly” changed course and now your third village is aflame. Truly, nothing just suddenly happens – everything follows well-defined logical rules – but you can easily find yourself running back and forth putting out literal fires only to realize that something else you had been neglecting rendered your prior efforts moot.
Ultimately, I found the challenge invigorating, the mechanics sound, and the visuals gorgeous. My problem was just that the game… felt somewhat hollow. It is difficult to describe; perhaps it was almost too much of an emphasis on the mechanics? All that I know, is that From Dust came across to me as a tech demo or proof of concept, albeit one that is quite worth a second glance provided the price is right.
Recommended price: $2.50
Metacritic Score: 70
Completion Time: ~11 hours
Buy If You Like: Playing DDR on your keyboard… with RPG elements
Sequence is definitely one of those “out there” indie games in which the initial concept sounds unappealing, and yet the game is mostly redeemable fun. The premise is that the main character is abducted into the bottom level of a tower, and he must fight his way to the top by crafting keys from the dropped loot of monsters killed by three-panel DDR rhythm battles. The three panels correspond to Spells which you cast to heal/buff yourself, or damage/debuff the monster; a Mana panel which just constantly flows with arrows, with each successful arrow refunding 2 MP for use with Spells; and an Attack panel which represents arrows you need to match, or suffer damage. You lose the battle by either running out of HP before killing your opponent, or if you run out of time. Successful battles gives you XP and item drops, the latter of which can either be equipped right away or combined via “Synthing” into usable items, new spells, or the keys to unlock new floors.
I had a healthy level of skepticism coming in as to how a rhythm game would feel being played on a keyboard, but I can tell you now that Sequence handles itself rather well. I used WASD for the arrows, Q/E to rotate the three different panels, and 1-6 as the Spell buttons. Just like any good rhythm game, there is a decent variety of songs with differing tempos and general arrow densities. The RPG elements of the game also do a decent enough job at making sure you aren’t bored out of your mind in fighting the same enemies over and over again (only 3 different monster types per floor). There is definitely some possible frustration though, insofar as the item drops you need might have a 20% chance and then you end up grinding the same monster 11 times in a row. Also, learning some of the later Spells requires you to achieve a 95% accuracy in a 5 minute song or get 120-note combos (e.g. no mistakes), with failure resulting in losing a ton of XP (since you spend XP to get a chance to learn a new Spell).
Overall though, I had a decent enough time with a fairly unique indie game. I have heard some other reviewers complain about the irreverent storyline filled with pop-culture references, but I enjoyed it. And while my recommended price is $2.50 (which I bought it at during a sale), the default Steam price is just $5. Sequence isn’t necessarily a must-play game at $5, but it definitely will add value to whatever indie bundle it ends up getting attached to in the future.
Game: Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Missing Link (DLC)
Recommended price: <$5
Metacritic Score: 73
Completion Time: ~4 hours
Buy If You Like: Four extra hours of DE:HR
To be honest, the Missing Link DLC to Deus Ex: Human Revolution was one of the first DLCs I have ever played which felt like a legitimate “deleted scene” from the main game. This is both a good and bad thing. Good in that it feels like a relatively seamless addition despite being on its own 2gb installer and featuring the vastly overused (gaming) trope of the hero losing all of his/her powers. Bad in that, well, most deleted scenes are deleted for a reason.
Taking place in the midst of a fade-to-black scene change in the middle of the original game, Missing Link does not add anything of plot value to the game proper aside from, well, around four more hours of gameplay. While you end up getting access to most of the weapons/augments from the main game, I definitely experienced a mental disconnect between the choices I was making, knowing that none of it mattered since no data was going to be transferred. Want to explore every nook and cranny? Okay… but why? No data, no XP, no weapons, no credits, nothing will endure past the final encounter.
Which, incidentally, takes the form of how all the boss battles in Human Revolution should have played out. I was actually kind of surprised when I discovered that I had inadvertently killed the last boss, thinking it was just another dude shooting at me.
Aside from that, and a frustrating amount of pointless backtracking past a 20-30 second in-game “loading screen,” Missing Link is a good enough dessert to the main course that was the original game. Provided, of course, you can snag it for less than the outrageous $15 retail price. Less than $5 or included in a Game of the Year edition would be ideal.
Game: Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War II – Retribution
Recommended price: $0/bundle
Metacritic Score: 80
Completion Time: ~11 hours+
Buy If You Like: Dawn of War II, RTS games minus the resources/base management
In the interest of fairness, I absolutely despise the direction the Dawn of War series took when it dropped the base-building and resource management arms of the RTS genre into Dawn of War II. The original Dawn of War was a groundbreaking work of beauty – to this day, almost all other RTS games feature infantry units as little squads, so they can be shown to be killed individually by vehicle units. I played DoW: Dark Crusade for something ridiculous like 200+ hours. Dawn of War II was fine on its own, and DoWII: Chaos Rising was alright. But as I headed into this particular installment, I began to tire of the 4-5 squad “tactical” gameplay that ends up feeling like a WoWVille iPhone app.
As I understand it, there are six “campaigns” in Retribution, but after completing the Space Marines, it appeared as though every other race uses the exact same scripted maps in the same exact order with perhaps a slight difference in the faction you are fighting. For example, at the end of the first map as Imperial Guard you fight a Tyranid hero; at the end of the map as Tyranid, you fight an Imperial Guard hero. While each race has access to different units and general fighting styles, the heavy emphasis on terrain “tricks” (shoot these barrels, take cover here, approach the turrets from behind, etc) means each map plays out identically no matter what you play as. Technically the same could be said about, say, Dark Crusade, but the difference is that a resource/base-focused RTS at least can play out much differently each time.
While many people dismiss the importance of story in Warhammer 40k’s grimdark setting, I genuinely enjoy that sort of thing. And here again, unfortunately, Retribution fails to deliver. While it wraps up the Blood Raven arc (hopefully for good), it lacks any of the subtlety of even Chaos Rising, let alone Dawn of War II. I can only imagine it was so truncated specifically because they felt it necessary to shoehorn all six races into the same story on the same maps in the same order. Even if there are redeeming plot points in the final chapters of the other races’ stories (which I doubt), I am thoroughly unable to bring myself to slog through the game again to reach them.
I just hope against hope that Dawn of War 3 is more like 1 and not 2.
Game: Mirror’s Edge
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 81
Completion Time: ~5 hours
Buy If You Like: First-person platforming, parkour, novel videogames
I had somehow missed most of the other reviews out there regarding Mirror’s Edge, so when I booted the game up I was a blank canvas upon which the designers could paint a visually-striking first-person platformer that worked (far better than others, anyway). And while I have seen those other reviews in the time after having completed this game, their legitimate criticisms does not change my mind regarding badly wanting Mirror’s Edge 2.
It is difficult to say much more than “first-person platformer” because that pretty much sums up Mirror’s gameplay. You control a Runner named Faith, as she delivers packages and unravels a conspiracy in the unnamed City sometime in the (not so distant?) future. Most of your time is leaping from rooftop to rooftop, vaulting over AC units, scrambling over fences, busting down doors, shimmying up or down pipes, and basically making a circuitous path from Red Point A to Red Point B. Pretty soon, helicopter gunships and trigger-happy police officers are firing on you as you maintain an addicting sort of manic momentum and leaps of faith. Perhaps ironically, I felt more like a ninja in Mirror’s Edge than I ever did in Assassin’s Creed, despite this game being more realistic in terms of your ability to take falls and so on.
Unfortunately, the reviews are correct in criticizing the game’s split personality when it comes to combat. While you have the choice early on to simply run around the police you encounter, by mid-game you are frequently required to take on armed guards with your relatively ineffectual unarmed attacks. There is a disarming method that will take out a guard in a single button press, but the timing is so ludicrously short – even with your recharging slow-mo ability – that most times you are better off flailing at the guards until you or they go down. Once the first guy drops, you can pick up his gun and take out the others with however many bullets are left in the clip.
Ultimately though, when Mirror’s Edge is good, it’s great. Much like Portal 2, you will end up surprising yourself with the solution of “how the hell am I going to get over there?” – and managing to get a few stages correct the first time left me with a metaphorical runner’s high. Other times you will get stuck, shot, or take a flying leap off a building only to realize that wasn’t what the game wanted you to do. If you can accept the (minor) frustrations as the price of admission though, I highly recommend checking out the show.
Game: Space Pirates And Zombies (SPAZ)
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 74
Completion Time: ~38 hours
Buy If You Like: Overhead view spaceship pseudo-RPG action games
Originally, I pooh-poohed SPAZ based on the demo not being not particularly impressive. Having acquired the full game as part of an indie game deal, I decided to give the game proper another shot. And what I discovered, 38 hours later, is both a deeper, more impressive game… and one sorely in need of a larger-than-two-developer crew.
The basic structure of the game is destroying other spaceships, reverse-engineering their designs so you can build them, collecting Rez to build said spaceships, and basically having around seven different
excuses missions to destroy said spaceships. In many ways, SPAZ is sort of like Gratuitous Space Battles aside from being able to control the ships flying around. The underlying problem with the setup though, doesn’t creep up until around hour 10-15: pacing.
The early game is extremely exciting with each new encounter resulting in new ships to pilot, there being many new components/weapons to try out, and so on. Unfortunately, the game becomes considerably less fun when you are piloting the same exact ship you were dozens of hours ago. Then, when you finally get towards the endgame and unlock those capital ship designs, the game’s difficulty evaporates as you steamroll them with a clearly overpowered design. I defeated the last boss in literally 20 seconds of holding the left mouse button down while stationary.
Overall, it’s tough to be too critical though, especially considering the game held my attention for 38 hours. There is a lot to like about the things SPAZ accomplishes well, and rather than being disappointed with some of its failings, I simply wish MinMax Games had the additional resources to polish up on its potential.
Game: Mass Effect 3 + Multiplayer + DLC
Recommended price: $40
Metacritic Score: 89
Completion Time: ~32 hours
Buy If You Like: Mass Effect; story-driven, cover-based sci-fi shooter RPGs.
By far, Mass Effect 3 (hereafter ME3) is the hardest review I have ever tried to write.
There are three entirely different prisms through which this game can be judged. The first is as the 5-year culmination of arguably the most important sci-fi videogame story of our time. The second is as a comparison between the individual components of the trilogy, as in how it stacks up compared to the first two titles. The third is as an independent game, divorced from the accumulated emotional detritus and hype of the series.
The distinctions are important precisely because no matter how grating certain features or design decisions are in isolation, I have found myself literally incapable of escaping the rose hue of the first prism. This is not to say I did not notice the deficiencies, but rather they seemed to matter less in the final analysis. Your mileage may vary.
For example, things feel off from the very start. The Reaper invasion – the nightmare scenario that formed the impetus to action in the first two games – has finally arrived. Earth is under attack. And… I feel nothing. Outside of a Lunar sidequest in Mass Effect 1, this is the first time Earth has ever actually appeared in the series in any real way. My Paragon Commander Shepard has never been fighting for Earth, or even humans specifically, but for the right of all sentient life in the galaxy to exist. Indeed, humanity has almost represented a background bumbling bureaucratic force, a one-dimensional foil to Shepard’s actions throughout the trilogy that lacks the novelty of the alien scenarios.
It does not help that throughout the Earth invasion, throughout your leaping from burning building to burning building, throughout the panning of cameras to the monstrous Reaper capital ships landing among the skyscrapers… there is nothing but an eerie, empty silence. Where is the stirring music? I spent the first twenty minutes of Mass Effect 3 wondering if my game had glitched, perhaps setting the music volume slider at 0%. There are plenty of amazing songs in the rest of the game – the absolutely haunting “Leaving Earth” comes to mind, or the stirring “The Fleets Arrive” – so the lack has to be some inexplicable design choice.
Certainly, it won’t be the last such inexplicable choice.
Once Commander Shepard is back aboard the Normandy though, the game once again feels like Mass Effect. And it really was not until ME3 that I could point out what that even meant. The brilliance of the series, in my mind, is the notion that one ship and one crew can make a difference, in a relatively believable manner – the sort of “right place, right time” effect. At no point did I feel like Shepard was a god amongst men, even as I was performing miracles and uniting species after centuries of war. Flying around the galaxy in a desperate attempt to cobble together a coalition for a final stand against the Reapers… yes, this is Mass Effect.
One thing that deserves special attention is the combat system. Simply put, it’s rather brilliant. For the most part, combat in ME3 is the same as ME2 aside from some subtle, key differences. The first is the inclusion of Carrying Capacity, which I will admit to having a strong negative reaction to at first. Shepard and crew can carry all five types of weapons if they wish, but the lower the percentage of Carrying Capacity utilized, the greater rate at which Biotic/Tech abilities recharge. In other words, if Shepard takes an assault rifle, shotgun, and sniper rifle into battle, he/she may get a -150% modifier on cooldown times. Alternatively, if Shepard only takes a sniper rifle and pistol, he/she may have a +50% modifier. Given the radically increased power of Biotic/Tech abilities this time around, choosing a loadout actually becomes a choice, especially since some guns are balanced around their weight.
On a related note, the gunplay in the missions themselves has never felt more fun and exciting. You will still spend 80% of the game crouching behind chest-high walls, but the obstructions are less obviously arbitrary, and the environment/graphics look amazing. More importantly, the enemies are radically more varied, have a deeply cunning AI that will flank you or flush you out of cover with grenades, and otherwise keep you in the moment and on your toes.
Any review of ME3 would be remiss to not mention what has become, if not the most, at least one of the most controversial endings in gaming history. Without getting into spoilers, the thing to understand about why it is as big a deal as it has been in the gaming media comes down to this: catharsis. Simply put, there was not any. And with as much passion as the franchise has generated, I do not find it surprising in the least that so many people have taken the pent-up energy to the forums and blogs (as I myself have done). As of the time of this writing, Bioware has taken the rather extraordinary step (if you think about it) to begin development of a free, epilogue DLC to be released this summer. If said epilogue is able to honor the choices players have made in this franchise, if it is capable of giving me the catharsis I hunger for months after the fact, then Mass Effect could very well unseat the sacred cows of Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 7, and perhaps even Xenogears in my Top 3 games of all time.
As it stands, there is really no question that you should play Mass Effect 3 if you have at all enjoyed the first two titles in any capacity. Objectively, I think Mass Effect 2 as an independent experience (insofar as that is possible) edges out Mass Effect 3, but… well. To quote Fight Club: “You know how they say you only hurt the ones you love? Well, it works both ways.” Without a doubt, Mass Effect 3 has wounded me in ways no other game has ever done, and that in itself is a remarkable triumph.
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us… We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
The multiplayer that comes with Mass Effect 3 deserves its own special section, because in many ways it is almost a second, complete game. Indeed, its development started originally as a first-person shooter spinoff before it was enfolded into ME3 proper.
In effect, multiplayer is a stand-alone, four-person co-op survival mode. Although winning multiplayer matches increases the Galactic Readiness Rating in the single-player game (essentially allowing you to skip sidequests and still achieve your goals), there is otherwise zero overlap. You pick one of the six classes, one of the five races, a weapon loadout, a difficulty level, and then head into one of the six maps to face one of the three enemy factions. Each map has 11 waves, three of which will consist of special objectives that will be a King-of-the-Hill, activating four beacons, or assassinating four specific enemies amongst the others. Successfully completed maps will take around ~30 minutes, you will gain XP for the class you chose (with a level cap of 20), and Credits.
The replay factor, aside from the entertaining gunplay, comes from the unlocking of packs. Starting out, you have access only to the five most basic weapons and human versions of the six classes. As you earn Credits, you can purchase different levels of packs – Recruit, Veteran, and Spectre – which unlocks new weapons, weapon mods, races, character customization options, and one-use items or buffs to give you an edge. Obviously this can lead to frustration at times, especially if you opt to buy packs via Bioware Points (i.e. microtransactions) instead of Credits, but it does give you an incentive to try and make weapons or classes you would not typically pick, work.
The sort of bottom line is this: if you had fun with Mass Effect’s combat system, you will have a ton of fun with the multiplayer. I have already spent more time playing multiplayer than I have playing Mass Effect 3 itself. And at the time of this writing, there is a free multiplayer DLC (Mass Effect 3: Resurgence Pack) coming to introduce two new maps, new race combinations (including Geth and Batarian), and new weapons. Given that packs can be purchased with real money via Bioware Points, it is entirely possible all future multiplayer DLC may be free.
DLC: From Ashes ($9.99)
From Ashes is the poster-child for everything evil about Day 1 DLC: it is hideously overpriced, lacking in content, and has fundamentally shifted my perspective about the nature of the Mass Effect plot. What you are purchasing is one throwaway stand-alone mission, a Prothean squad-mate (Javik), a new weapon (a particle rifle with regenerating ammo), and a bunch of new dialog between Javik and the other party members (especially with Liara).
The problem is that without the DLC, the Protheans were always this unknown, almost magical race who fell to the Reapers in the last cycle and whose artifacts you spend a lot of time collecting. Interacting with Javik, however, reveals the Protheans as a belligerent, almost xenophobic race that would have enslaved or destroyed the races we have come to love in the Mass Effect franchise. In other words, by the end of the game I honestly felt that the Reapers did us a big favor by wiping out the Protheans.
So while From Ashes is not in any way essential to the plot of Mass Effect 3, I personally believe that its absence radically limits the scope of the narrative. In other words, I consider it both required and overpriced. Then again, honestly, you could probably just read the Mass Effect Wiki and watch the Youtube videos for the same effect, saving yourself $10.