Tag Archive: Video Games


(Author’s Note: Lyrics credit to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” for the headline of this piece. All photography by the author and taken inside of the video game No Man’s Sky by Hello Games.)

My roommate isn’t home.

Joe Manchin is in Morgantown, and my roommate is at the townhall. I wish I was there. I want to let West Virginia’s nominally Democratic Senator know how I feel about him selling my home state out to Big Coal. How angry I am that he’s the latest in a long line of West Virginia politicians exploiting the bigotry and hatred that still infest Appalachia to line carpetbaggers’ pockets. But I’m not like my roommate. I’m not downtown giving Joe hell.

I’m at home.

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Hitman 2016 is a game that does many things very well, but it is also a game that does one thing exceptionally well.

I’ve been feeling unenthused lately about a lot of AAA game narratives because the fundamental disconnect between how the games play and the story they’re trying to tell you became too vast.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a game about guilt and relationships and family but it’s also a game where the main character — a happy-go-lucky treasure hunter — kills hundreds of people and doesn’t really lose his trademark smarminess. Slaughtering people is never interrogated; it’s just how Nate achieves his goals.

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Four Years

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The above photograph is from June of 2011, and it’s a picture of me and my sister at our dad’s place back home in Philippi. I was 22 — I know; it’s hard to believe I’m not a 12 year old in that picture — and my sister was a couple months shy of her first semester of college. This blog was only 3 months old. A lot has happened since then, and I’ll get into all of the opportunities this blog has afforded me in due course, but the biggest change to my life since that photograph was taken is that I can call myself — devoid of any hint of irony or self-effacing humor — a professional writer. This blog saved my life, and I owe the world to any readers who have supported my work over these years. You all have kept me going, and that’s not an exaggeration.

I started this blog on February 7th of 2011. That was the spring semester of what should have been my senior and final year of college at West Virginia University. But I’d spent the two semesters prior to that wandering through a depressed haze. And I don’t mean I was simply sad. I was suffering from depression. I had devolved from being one of the top students in the political science department at WVU — I’d won a major departmental scholarship my freshman year that students at every year level could compete for — to a lost young man quickly entering his mid-20s with no anchor tying his world together.

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Ignoring his discredited Freudian psychobabble, Bruno Bettelheim did more to contribute to our understanding of how the Nazi government attained and retained its power than any other public intellectual of the 20th century minus perhaps Hannah Arendt. By framing fascism as a system of self-affirmation in its subjects through collective rituals that provided positive re-inforcement of the self within a powerful and attractive group, Bettelheim placed fascism in the context of a collective decision to surrender ourselves to the machinations of a state because of imagined utility rather than the solitary evil of a dictatorship. That explanation may lack the simplicity of black & white moralism, but it’s far more representative of the actuality of human nature.

Having entered the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, the true threats to human liberty will not come from power-mad governments; Vladimir Putin’s last grasp for Russian hegemony reeks of the end of realpolitik as a driving social order. No, humanity may have learned the harsh lessons of collective sacrificing our will to the vagaries of nation-states. Instead, we’ve made the conscious decision to lose ourselves in the brands and corporations that have come to define our lives. The average American may be far removed from the Crimean maidan or the Arab Spring, but  ask them about the newest iPhone or the changes to their Twitter feed, and they’ll surely have a response.

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Barring an emergent class consciousness in America (it’s not happening; I promise) and a severe backlash to austerity in Europe (possible but unlikely), the path of the 21st century will be defined by a continual shift from traditional nation state sovereignty to something more akin to corporate autocracy. If you doubt that claim, check campaign spending in the wake of Citizens United and then silently weep into your pillow for the fate of government separation from corporate interests. It’s not hard to imagine a world where the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world hold more sway than heads of state. It’s not hard to imagine because, let’s face it, we’re almost there, and we are responsible for it.

These are topics for academic papers or think pieces in the latest issue of Salon or Mother Jones not video games. Or at least, that was the case before I had the pleasure of playing A(s)century, a cyberpunk text adventure from Austin Walker, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Western Ontario as well as a research associate for the Digital Labour Group. Full disclosure: I’ve known Austin for about a year now thanks to the video game streams of Phil Kollar on Twitch (where he’s a frequent contributor), and it was always clear that Austin was a highly intelligent and socially committed thinker; now, it’s also clear that he’s a hell of a writer.

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A(s)century (more on its clever title in a bit) was a project of the Cyberpunk Game Jam, and it was made over the course of nine days. As I said, it’s a text adventure, so if you’re expecting graphics or modern game mechanics, look elsewhere; A(s)century places all of its chips on the strength of its interactive narrative, and like last year’s Gone Home, the gamble pays off. When the worst thing that you can say about a game is that it might have needed a better copy editor, you know you’re in for a unique and powerful experience.

A(s)century places the player in the shoes of a “runner,” cyberpunk parlance for a freelance agent taking jobs to put a little scratch on his credstick, in the year 2077. After an easy run, you find a prototype program called MindWriter; I’m still not entirely sure what the program does even after playing the game twice but that’s beside the point. The program gets you a gig as a copy writer for a powerful beverage corp, ReKafffe Services. And, thanks to the program, you slowly bend not only the corporations advertising but eventually lead it towards corporate state sovereignty as you acquire smaller companies into your fold.

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I don’t want to spoil the path that A(s)century charts too much (though I recommend at least two playthroughs for cyberpunk neophytes like myself so you can accustom yourself to the jargon), but the game becomes a scathing commentary on the way that modern society subsumes our identity into that of the products we consume. You lead a corporation into global dominance only to see the human costs of your actions: labour strikes broken with lethal precision, puppet-head leaders thrown into office because you paid for it, environmental destruction. And all the while, the people define themselves by your company and your product.

The idea of making the player do horrendous things (in the name of gaining more resources to upgrade your MindWriter program [which, once again, still not sure what it does; don’t think that’s too important though]) is what makes A(s)century so powerful. By placing the responsibility for acquiring a company that can manipulate and enslave artificial lifeforms or one that sells patriotic memorabilia to maintain emotional control of the populace, it forces the player to confront their role in our modern consumer culture. When people lined up around the block to buy Chick-Fil-A after backlash against the company’s anti-gay donations, those Christians may have been re-affirming their religious beliefs but they were simultaneously lining that company’s pocket. And Chick-Fil-A knew it, and on some level, we as consumers knew it as well.

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As an avowed socialist, I am aware of humanity’s need to place responsibility into the collective and for our need to have identities beyond ourselves as a singular entity. But, throughout our history, we’ve managed time and time again to surrender our responsibilities to organizations/institutions that exist to take advantage of us. If there was a point to HBO’s The Wire, it’s that modern American governmental institutions have become (unintentionally) mechanisms for the manufacturing of suffering, and it is our own apathy and the entrenched nature of these institutions that mean we can not find a path to collectively beneficial change.

A(s)century understands this as well. When you make the often cataclysmic decisions you do in the game, they are never with the intent of ruining the world. But, when we entrust our very identities to corporate institutions, we sacrifice humanity to the profit margin. The moment I knew I had fallen in love with the game was one of the inter-act screens with quotes (which are scattered throughout) where Canadian capitalist Kevin O’Leary deifies the 1% as the realization of the American dream. The aspirational fallacy of American economics is one of the most dangerous pitfalls of our life: where people don’t act in their own rational self-interest because we’ve allowed ourselves to believe that the trickle-down will really come and that economic achievement is the most noble pursuit. And A(s)century has as low an opinion of that ambition as I do.

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Before I give the false impression that A(s)century is all doom and gloom, the game has a dry, subtle sense of humor, and it finds plenty of time for jokes in its Infinite Jest-esque hyper-text structure. The title itself is a clever joke about both climbing the corporate ladder as well as the century of history that you shape over the course of the game. Throw in the game’s stellar soundtrack (seriously, buy it here), and any one with a love of cyberpunk and politically motivated gaming has to check it out.

If you’re still on the fence about whether or not you should play the game, here’s the last test. If you appreciate this quote and understand how it relates to all I’ve said before, A(s)century is for you. Karl Marx: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” You can find A(s)century here: https://googledrive.com/host/0B8Vp_6RrfYFmd0FCS3ExbU5jNms/A%28s%29century.html . Take it for a spin; you won’t regret it.

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This is going to be possibly the most contradictory and conflicting review I’ve ever written. On every intellectual level that I can muster, I know that the 2006 Happy Madison production Grandma’s Boy is exquisitely awful. It’s low-brow to the extreme and a consistent affront to good taste and smart comedy at every turn. But, and it’s difficult to express how much it pains me to admit this, I love this movie. Part of a cadre of films that I used to watch religiously whenever they were on HBO when I was younger (others include Beerfest and Anchorman), Grandma’s Boy makes me laugh louder and harder than it has any right to, and there are days when I think there’s something wrong with me for how much I love this film.

Grandma’s Boy is steeped firmly in the stoner/slacker tradition of the Cheech & Chong films but with a decidedly modern bent and a fixation with video games (which explains in part my love of the film as something of an avid gamer). And it isn’t afraid to scrape the bottom of the barrel for jokes, but for God knows what reason, those “bottom of the barrel” gags work here when they never work for me in any of the other modern Happy Madison films (like That’s My Boy). Because let’s face it. Any film that has Shirley “Mrs. Partridge” Jones talking about giving a hand job to Charlie Chaplin speaks to me on some odd, inexplicable level.

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Alex (Allen Covert) is a stoner wasting his life away as a video game tester for a game design studio when he really wants to make his own games and not mindlessly test the games of his obnoxious, robot-obsessed boss J.P. (Avatar‘s Joel David Moore). But, when the company brings in the beautiful and charming Samantha (Brokeback Mountain‘s Linda Cardellini) to ensure that their current game gets finished on time, she may be the motivation Alex needs to finally try and do something with his life. However, Alex has just been thrown out of his apartment (because his roommate spent their rent money on hookers) and he has to move in with his grandmother (Doris Roberts) and her two friends which Alex is too ashamed to explain to Samantha and his best friend Jeff (Nick Swardson).

Alexander Payne this is not. In fact, it’s not even Judd Apatow. The jokes in Grandma’s Boy are as crass and disgusting as you can possibly imagine. At one point, before he lives with his grandmother, Alex stays at Jeff’s for the evening. Alex can’t sleep so he attempts to masturbate to one of Jeff’s female action figures (which he pretends is Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft) and winds up ejaculating on Jeff’s mom when she walks in on him. At one point, Jonah Hill (Academy Award nominee for Moneyball) sucks on a breast (he literally appears to be suckling on a nipple at one point) for hours on end. And fart jokes abound.

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But, and there’s no logical explanation for this, there are moments in Grandma’s Boy that carry some type of moronic genius where the film becomes so stupid, it’s brilliant. Alex’s burnt out pot dealer Dante (Patrick Dante) drags Alex into situations so surreal that they capture some of the absurdist magic of the old Happy Madison films like Billy Madison. And Shirley Jones steals virtually ever scene she’s in as the grandmother’s trampy roommate Grace. And, maybe it’s because I was born and bred on Freaks and Geeks, but watching a drunken Linda Cardellini make a fool of herself to “Push It” is hilarious. Although, Linda Cardellini is way too good of an actress for the material she’s given in this film.

Grandma’s Boy is a bad film. Although, it’s a bad film that I wholeheartedly enjoy (and though it was a disastrous critical flop when it was released, it has become something of a cult classic in intervening years). The movie doesn’t have a sophisticated bone in its body, and when I’m not trying to think about the film critically (as I was forced to during this viewing), that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. If you require your comedy to have brains, avoid Grandma’s Boy like the plague because it smoked all of its brain cells away. But if you can enjoy a stupid but occasionally brilliant stoner comedy, Grandma’s Boy can be a great trip.

Final Score: C+

 

To quote a terrible Staind song, “It’s been a while.” Regular readers know that I’ve been working on a screenplay. I wrote the first draft in less than two weeks, and  a week later, my second draft was finished clocking in at about 128 pages. I’m letting some friends look at it to give me some feedback and then I’ll get to work on third and fourth drafts and so on. After that, who knows? Maybe I’ll actually try to sell this bad boy. I honestly think that with enough polish, it’s something that people would be interested in seeing. Let’s hope so. However, being so committed to my screenplay has led me to neglect some of my other duties for this blog (as I once predicted it would on here if I ever got around to writing again). I.e., I haven’t actually done a real review (other than my Song of the Day) series in over 10 days. Let’s fix that right now.

After the appropriately jaw-dropping cliffhanger at the end of The Walking Dead – Long Road Ahead as well as the emotional roller coaster that was its main plot, I couldn’t be more excited to dive into Episode 4, Around Every Corner. When I finally found the free time to take that plunge yesterday, I was not disappointed. After two straight episodes in a row where it seemed like the biggest threat to our beleaguered group of survivors was other humans and ultimately themselves, Around Every Corner puts zombies right back front and center as the group finally makes it to Savannah, and they quickly learn that it’s not going to be the safe-haven they expected.

For anyone who hasn’t played the other episodes in the story, stop reading now. Shit’s about to get spoilery. If you want an overview of the series, check out my review of episode 1, A New Day. After learning that a man on Clementine’s supposedly broken walkie-talkie was telling her that he knew where her parents were, the group arrives in Savannah searching for a boat and answers to the question of who this mysterious caller is. It doesn’t take long though for things to quickly turn south. Group members die, and even the new people you pick up aren’t safe from the Walkers. With forays into a creepy mansion, a Walker-infested sewer system, and a high school from Hell, Around Every Corner thrusts the players into  a series of classic horror settings, all while delivering the same group-drama centric storytelling you’ve come to expect from this fantastic franchise.

It was interesting. In Long Road Ahead, despite the fact that a cavalcade of terrible things happened one after another to our survivors (including the deaths of half the group and ME SHOOTING DUCK so Kenny wouldn’t have to), you really left the episode knowing a lot of new things about the people that made it through (or even those who you left behind *cough*Lily*cough). Everyone either grew or regressed in significant ways. If I have a complaint about Episode 4, it’s that I don’t feel that the characters make as much significant growth (Clementine being a massive exception). Christa and Omid, the pair you picked up at the end of Long Road Ahead, are still essentially unknowns as the episode progresses, and only a new character, Molly, makes any real emotional impact. However, Clementine finally comes into her own and retains her title as the video game character that I’ve easily become the most attached to over the years. If she doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what will.

This episode does thankfully fix most of the gameplay complaints that I had about Long Road Ahead. The shooting seems tighter, and there was only one section where I died repeatedly because I felt like the game wasn’t responding well (and it wasn’t based on the shooting). The action in this series is never going to be top notch though. But unlike Episode 3, this one always felt playable. There weren’t any moments in this entry where the decisions felt as immediately difficult as say shooting Duck or whether to abandon Lily (I left that bitch behind for killing Carly). However, it was very satisfying by the end of the episode to see the pay-off of how I’ve treated every surviving member of the group and what they finally think of me when it matters most.

At the end of the day, Around Every Corner might not have packed the punch of Long Road Ahead (well, at least not until it’s tragic and shocking final minutes), but it sets up what should be a suitably epic conclusion to a series that will likely become the text-book on how to do licensed, episodic content well. The cliff-hanger that the episode ends on is so massive that the wait for the next episode will be “hiatus between seasons of Lost” painful. Whether you’ve been with the series just they released Episode 1 early in the year, or you’ve become a new convert, The Walking Dead: The Game is an investment you need to make.

Final Score: B+

Man. Just man. I probably just finished the most emotionally intense three hours of video gaming that I’ve ever done (or at least since the final act of Metal Gear Solid 4). For anyone who hasn’t played the first (A New Day) or the second (Starved for Help) episode of Telltale Games The Walking Dead video game series, you should stop reading now because there be spoilers ahead. If you want an overview of the series, check out the link back to Episode 1. I’m going to just assume at this point that you know what I’m talking about. Episode 3, Long Road Ahead, finds the game doubling down on its commitment to story. Although this episode includes more action-oriented elements than in the past, they don’t necessarily play as well. That’s okay though because Long Road Ahead doesn’t pull any punches in its depiction of this post-apocalyptic world and how fragile our group’s lives have become.

After the disastrous visit to the dairy farm from Hell, where (in my story) Kenny smashed Larry’s head in with a salt lick as I tried to help resuscitate him, things are looking to get even worse back at the motel. Although I chose to take the supplies from the car at the end of Starved for Help, it turns out that one of the survivors in the group had been giving supplies to the bandits. As Lily starts to lose control of the group (and her senses after the death of her father), Lee finds himself forced to investigate where the supplies are going and then things go to Hell. I don’t really want to give away any more of the plot of the episode other than to say, nothing will ever remotely be the same.

If I thought that the storytelling in Starved for Help really increased the dramatic nature of The Walking Dead game, I was not prepared for the emotional tour-de-force that was Long Road Ahead. It’s really easy in a movie like Dawn of the Dead or The Walking Dead TV series to criticize characters for not being able to make tough decisions (like shooting someone who’s been infected). There’s a moment early in the episode where Kenny and Lee are on a supply run in Macon when a stranger to the group gets swarmed by Walkers. There’s no way to save her and you can shoot her and put her out of her misery (but, by doing so, draw attention to yourself) or you can let her be the bait that keeps the Walkers off you. In what was maybe a moment of weakness, I chose the latter. By the end of the episode, you will make a decision that is infinitely more difficult (but also more inevitable).

It’s very rare that a video game can make me physically disgusted at myself for a decision I’ve made. Most games with decision systems have a black and white morality system where you can do evil things but they always empower you in the universe. Hell, it can be more fun to play as a bad guy in Fallout 3 than to be strictly good. The Walking Dead does not work that way, and it’s a significantly more fulfilling system for it. There’s a moment in Heavy Rain where Ethan Mars, one of the four protagonists, has to choose whether or not to fatally poison himself in order to save the life of his son. There are two moments in Long Road Ahead that are tougher. One was the single most difficult thing I’ve ever done in a game. I knew it had to be done and that somebody had to do it (and that it should be Lee), but actually pushing the button to make Lee follow through with that action was physically painful. The other moment was more morally grey but I’m still questioning whether I did the right thing.

The episode fell into some old trappings of the franchise though (and created some new ones in the process). The action kicks up a little bit but the controls are so spotty that they didn’t play as well as they should have. I was concerned that something I did caused one of the bad things in the episode later because I couldn’t handle the action well enough, but I was glad to see it was just inevitable. The lip syncing was way off during certain sections of the episode, and at one point, I encountered a game-breaking bug which forced me to reset the game in a key moment. They were small complaints in an episode of what I can honestly call one of the few video games that has ever made me cry. If you aren’t emotionally wrecked by the end of Long Road Ahead, you might be a sociopath.

Final Score: A-

The original Uncharted was, I believe, the very first game I bought for my PS3. The PS3’s launch was infamous for its lack of quality titles at the beginning (at least games you couldn’t get on the XBox as well), and this was the big ticket item to hold me over as I waited for Metal Gear Solid 4 to come out (the reason I bought a PS3 in the first place). It was a fun game. It was gorgeous and it allowed me to live out my childhood fantasy of being Indiana Jones (except with a different name and new friends), but the kill fest of endless waves of enemies got old as did the sloppy combat mechanics. However, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves remains one of my top games of this console generation. It obliterated the line between game and movie like nothing before it, and it never sacrificed fun to do so. That said, my expectations for Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception were understandably high which is why it’s sad to say that in several key ways, the game is a step back for Sony’s premier franchise.

Unlike my Mass Effect 2 review (which required an obscene amount of context for newcomers to the story), the Uncharted games are fairly stand-alone. Nathan Drake is a world-scouring adventurer/treasure hunter on the look for the next big prize, and his best friend and mentor, Victor Sullivan, is never far behind. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception delves into Nate’s history as we embark on the quest that got him in the adventuring business in the first place, the quest to find the fabled “Atlantis of the Sands” which was how Nate and Sully met in the first place. Now, they’re up against an old nemesis, Katherine Marlowe, to beat her to finding this fabled city in the middle of the desert.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Uncharted 3 is the same mix of Tomb Raider style platforming and puzzle solving mixed with third-person shooting galleries that it’s always been. Broken up into chapters like they’re scenes from a movie (and let’s face it, the game is just an 8 hour movie that you happen to be playing), you take Nate and his various companions through one intricately designed set piece after another in search for the Atlantis of the Sands. Whether it’s an epic bar brawl to start things out, a harried escape from a burning 15th century French chateau, or a shoot-out on horseback in the middle of the desert, Uncharted 3 finds an endless supply of action-fueled sequences to get your blood flowing as you bring yourself closer to discover the secret of “Iram of the Desert.”

The series is considered one of the industry standard-bearers for graphical fidelity and Uncharted 3 is even more gorgeous than its predecessors. Though no game on this current console generation (and I doubt the next’s either) will pass the so-called “uncanny valley,” this game’s facial animations manage to nearly match L.A. Noire without making as many concessions in other graphical areas that game did. The environments are stunning which is par for the course for the series. What makes it impressive though is how the game often leaves its comfort zone which are usually lush jungles and forests and crypts. Those places make appearances, but Uncharted 3 has a much more urban feel (as well as desert) and it arguably sets a new bar for how to capture the look and feel of cities. This is without even getting into the huge strides forward the game made in movement animations (although ultimately, it did too well there and sacrificed gameplay to look better).

For the first time in series history, I actually think I’ll remember the story details of this game six months now. As much as I loved the first two games, I often felt like the stories were just excuses to have the player do incredible things. Instead, Uncharted 3 has a real emotional resonance. The characters grow in unexpected ways, and it usually feels like the gameplay and story are servicing each other equally (rather than one part taking over as is the case for most games). Add in that the game sets a new high-water mark for insane things that it has you do, and you’d have had a recipe for one of the greatest games of all time if it just played a little better.

Because sadly, the gunplay in this game is not up to snuff. The platforming is as great as always (although at times, it’s painfully obvious how you’re supposed to proceed) and although the game doesn’t have as many puzzles as I’ve come to expect from the franchise, the ones that are there are top-tier (especially a truly devious one involving casting a shadow on a wall to finish a mural). Unfortunately, the gunplay is more stiff than Keanu Reeves’ acting. There are newer, more realistic motion animations for Nate this time around which look astounding, but the gun reticle doesn’t move nearly as quickly as it should (and you have zero aiming assist. if you’re off by a centimeter, you miss). This results in far too many deaths that I felt were caused not by my lack of skill at the game but simply because it was throwing too many enemies at you and not giving you the proper tools to kill them efficiently.

The game has a multiplayer component, but I didn’t play any of it so I can’t comment on its quality. I’m glad it’s there though because no matter how phenomenal the eight hours in your game are, $60 remains a steep price to ask for a game with limited replay value in terms of its single-player campaign. Like the rest of the series, Uncharted 3 is an essentially linear experience with some variation here and there on how you attack the platforming or the combat scenarios. Still, if you get can past the less than commendable shooting, Uncharted 3 stands as one of the definitive cinematic game experiences of this console generation, and I can only imagine what Naughty Dog will be able to accomplish in the next console cycle.

Final Score: A-

(Quick aside before real review. It has been a long damn time since I’ve done a video game review. The last game I reviewed was (unless you count my failed attempted Review in Progress for Persona 4) back in October of last year and it was El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. Considering how anally I reviewed every bit of pop culture I consumed up until about two months ago when I finally pulled the cord on TV, this means I haven’t beaten a game since then. That’s sad. However, it’s par for the course for me because I have a bad history of not beating video games that I start. Especially RPGs [which are weirdly my favorite genre despite me rarely beating them)] because I just don’t have the attention span to stick with a game for 40-80 hours. I started this particularly playthrough of Mass Effect 2 on August 6th, and I put about 40 hours into the game. I’d beaten it before on the PC [more on that later and why this is strictly a review of the PS3 port] so I’m really surprised I actually stuck with it. Hopefully this is a sign of me actually maturing and being able to finish things I start. One can dream.)

I can remember in the old days of Game Informer that they used to post a separate review for each console’s version of a game. There were such vast differences between the PS2, XBox, and Gamecube that it was mandatory because the games simply weren’t going to be the same (and multi-console releases weren’t the overwhelming rule of the day at the time). They’ve stopped doing that and generally only include a minor aside saying whether one version of a game suffers in the porting. I bring this up first and foremost in my review of Bioware’s science fiction opus, Mass Effect 2, because having played the game both on the PC and the PS3, I can easily say that the PS3 version of the game is one of the worst port jobs that I’ve ever seen in my entire life to the point that it nearly ruined one of the greatest RPGs of this generation of gaming from the undisputed masters of the Western RPG.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise (or who were PS3 owners that didn’t have access to the first game when it was released only on the XBox 360 and PC), the Mass Effect universe is an intricately crafted and indescribably ambitious effort by Bioware to create an epic science fiction saga in the vein of Star Wars or the new Battlestar Galactica. Implementing player decisions over the course of three video games (the third was released this spring and was the impetus for me to go back and beat the second game on the PS3 since that was the system I bought the third game on for complicated reasons), Mass Effect is an experiment in maintaining player choice at a grand and meaningful scale over multiple titles, and it’s a huge success. Only one other game (Heavy Rain) has ever made me weigh all of my choices with so much painful attention or punch me in the gut so strongly with real consequences for the things I’ve done.

This game is like two and a half years old now so I’m not sure if it’s a huge spoiler to delve into some initial plot points. After stopping rogue Spectre Saren Arterius from destroying the seat of galactic government and his army of evil A.I. known as the Geth, Commander Shephard is “killed” when a ship from a race known as the Collectors destroys his vessel, the Normandy. Commander Shephard is brought back to life by the pro-human splinter group known as Cerberus and tasked by its leader, the Illusive Man (Martin fucking Sheen), with discovering the nature of the Collector threat to humanity as well as come up with proof that a race of sentient machines known as the Reapers are on their way to wipe out all of galactic civilization. The game is the second in a trilogy and focuses on your attempts to build a team to stop the combined Collector/Reaper threat.

If you can’t tell from the assorted screenshots gathered here, Mass Effect 2 is a gorgeous game. Although facial animations (even in gorgeous games like Final Fantasy XIII or Heavy Rain) will always be ruined for me now because of the phenomenal work in L.A. Noire, this game’s use of lighting and color is — dare I say it — cinematic in scope. The humans are impressive if not the most realistic in gaming (I’m now playing Uncharted 3 as a break between this and Mass Effect 3 and it’s really setting a bar for overall graphical fidelity) but boy do the alien species look amazing. Whether it’s the salamandar-esque Salarians, the more humanoid but just as amphibuous Drell, or the impossible to describe in animal terms Turiand and Krogan, all of the alien species pass the uncanny valley tests that the human characters sadly fail.

I also hope that the broad plot description above didn’t sound too dull or cliche. The Mass Effect franchise is famous for its mature and philosophical storytelling. Over the course of your nearly 40 hour adventure, you will be faced with choices where what is right and what is wrong is almost never clear. In the first game, you had to choose which one of two crew mates (one potentially being your lover) would have to die to save the galaxy. Here your decisions are just as tough. Do you kill a daughter because she refuses to live by the code set for her by her mother and Asari society (and also kills because she’s genetically coded to)? Do you convince a scientist that his role in sterilizing a species was wrong even though his actions clearly saved trillions of lives? Do you effectively brainwash and pacify a sentient machine race or destroy them? You face decisions like that the entire game.

There were many cries of “Foul!” when Mass Effect 2 was initially released because it toned down many of the RPG elements of the first game to instead make the sequel a choice-driven third person shooter with RPG elements. It was the right call. Combat in the game is smooth and satisfying, and you never feel like you lost a fight because of a poor roll of the dice (which was far too common in the original). The guns handle smoothly and with a healthy selection of powers, you have plenty of ways to attack a situation (though you may come to rely on a few key abilities). Your allies’ A.I. is competent (if not amazing) and the enemy does its best to flank and outmaneuver you although patience is as much the key to victory as twitch shooting ability. Getting rid of the horrid inventory system and the clunky shooting did not harm Mass Effect 2 in the slightest.

Not every aspect of the game (before I get into the porting issues) was perfect though. In order to get the best ending for the game (one where all of your teammates survive), you have to upgrade your ship. In order to purchase these upgrades, you have to farm materials through a boring and usually infuriating mini-game that continually slows down the momentum of the game. As wonderful as the individual stories are for the team members you acquire — which you deepen through loyalty missions and conversations between levels –, the actual main story is far more hit or miss. The Collectors and Reapers pose a grand existential threat to the universe, but the blandness of fighting a race of evil aliens as opposed to a clearly defined bad guy (like Saren in the first game) robs some of the impact and directness that the original’s plot had.

The game simply has one of the greatest casts in the medium. I put it in the same league as Final Fantasy X (which I think wins the title hands down) as well as games such as Persona 4 and the Metal Gear Solid universe. One of my biggest problems with the first game was that the main story was phenomenal but far too many of your crew mates felt poorly fleshed out. In Mass Effect 2, you should leave the game feeling as if you know Mordin, Tali, Thane, Jack, Miranda, or anyone else in your party as well as some of your less close friends in real life. They’ll make you laugh. They might make you cry (poor, poor Tali), and sometimes they’ll make you do both at the same time. You don’t know funny until you’ve seen a Salarian doing a modified bit of Gilbert & Sullivan. It’s comedy gold. How close you become to your supporting players really adds to the drama that any of them can die (for real and be therefore dead in Mass Effect 3) by the time the game closes.

Now with the real issues. The PS3 port is just a hot mess. Mostly, it can be inconsequential stuff like audio. Sentences will seemingly clip off mid-sentence (and if you don’t have the subtitles on, you’re fucked as far as knowing how the sentence ends). There will be no background noise during important cut-scenes. People’s lip-syncing will be obviously off. These don’t disrupt the gameplay itself, but it reminds you that you’re playing a game and not actually embarking on a grand science fiction quest. Other issues are more problematic. The framerate will drop to absurdly low levels. Enemies and players will clip through the environment. Occasionally the game will bug and keep you from finishing a mission and you have to reload. The texture pop-in is really bad (which might have been an issue on the PC too. I don’t remember). All in all, I noticed a million technical bugs on the PS3 that I just never encountered when I first beat the game on the PC.

It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed games and I think I’ve lost my knack for it. It took me probably a year before I began to really feel proud of my movie reviews and it’s been nearly that long since I’ve touched games. Obviously, I have some work to do to improve. Thankfully, I’m going to make sure I keep practicing. If you have the chance to play the game on the PC or 360, you definitely should. Not only can you actually play the first game (instead of the interactive comic book at the beginning of this one on the PS3 to make key choices), but the game simply plays better. I would give the PC version of this game a 9.75. It’s as close to perfect as you can get without actually getting there. However, the Ps3 version of the game has enough flaws to at least partially lower the score but not enough to dissuade you from playing this phenomenal game if you don’t have another system to play it on.

Final Score: A-

So, I’ve decided to replay one of my favorite games of all time. It has this title despite the fact that I’ve never actually beaten it, which should speak volumes about how highly I feel about its story (which I’ve only experienced roughly 2/3 of). After a frustrating experience trying to re-accustom myself to Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 a month and a half ago, I decided to actually go back and try and beat its far superior sequel Persona 4. The two games only share a universe and no major plot points, so it’s not a big deal that I haven’t actually finished Persona 3 either because like Atlus’ other games, it’s absurdly difficult (I’d rather fight certain bosses in Demon Souls because I at least know that game plays fair). So, I’m now replaying Persona 4, and I’ve decided to come up with a semi-novel way to approach my review for the game. For fans of the Persona series, you should know that the games take place over the course of one year, and gameplay is broken up into the discrete unit of a calendar day. So, I figured, what better way to ensure that I beat this game and devote time to it than to come up with a way that ensures I have to write posts at regular intervals in my gameplay (i.e. at the end of each in-game month). RPGs take dozens and dozens of hours to beat and the Persona games are notoriously long. If I approach the games in this method, it’s almost like I’m reviewing a TV series. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the town of Inaba and the murder mystery at the heart of Persona 4.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Persona series, this will likely be the only post you’ll want to read before the later ones become absolutely spoilerrific, so here’s the lay-out of the game. At its core, Persona 3 and 4 are what happens if you take the randomized dungeon crawling of Diablo, the monster catching and training of Pokemon, and then a high school social simulation of (no game whose name I can come up with) and put them in one pot. And it is a glorious, absurdly addicting amalgamation. Over the course of one year, your character (who you name) and his nakama (that’s basically Japanese for a group of very close friends) solve some supernatural threat that is terrorizing the populace of your town. You enter dungeons whose layouts change every night/day in order to get stronger and to capture new demons (known as Persona in this franchise) that you can combine to make even more powerful Persona. During your regular high school life, you create friendships and relationships (romantic or platonic) with your classmates, local children, and even grown-ups that in turn make your ability to create new demons even stronger. Every aspect of the game is interconnected with the other and it adds a wonderful layer of strategy and replay value to this game’s very deep combat system. Combat itself is mostly a standard turn-based affair (though you can thankfully actually control your teammates in Persona 4 unlike 3), but it’s your ability to create Persona just to your needs that gives the game plenty of strategic depth.

The basic premise for this game’s story is a great one, although as someone who’s put more than 60 hours into this game before, I know just how long it takes for it to really reveal its depths. The Main Character (whose canonical name in the anime adaptation is Yu Narukami which is how I’ll refer to him from now on) is a boy from the big city (Tokyo I’m assuming though possibly Iwotadai from Persona 3) who is sent to live with his uncle, Ryotaro Dojima, and his young cousin, Nanako for a year while his parents go away on a business trip. Not long after arriving in town, Narukami befriends three students in his homeroom class, the tomboyish kung-fu fanatic Chie Satonaka, the bumbling comic relief Yosuke Hanamura, and the quiet and reserved innkeeper’s daughter Yukiko Amagi. During the first week that Narukami is in town, the mistress of a local Congressman is murdered. Her body is discovered by another student at Narukami’s school, Saki Konishi, who Yosuke has a crush on. Saki eventually goes missing as well and is murdered (her body grotesquely hung from a satellite dish). The group discovers that if you watch your TV at midnight on a rainy day, you can see someone inside your TV. These are people who have been kidnapped. Unfortunately, the group discovers this fact too late to actually save Saki-senpai (she’s older than our heroes so she’s called Senpai. I’m going to be using a ton of Japanese honorifics in these reviews, just like the game itself).

Narukami-san quickly discovers that he can travel into TVs for reasons not quite explained (yet). Dragging Yosuke and Chie along (who is the son of the manager of the local department store, Junes, which the duo uses thanks to their massive TVs), the group enters the TV world and finds a never ending layer of fog and what appears to be a TV studio. After finding a creepy room with butchered pictures of the first murder victim, the trio run into a mysterious creature in a giant bear suit. His name is Teddie (natch), and he will become their contact in this Shadow world known as the Midnight Channel. Yosuke and Narukami enter the world on their own to try and investigate the disappearance of Konishi-senpai again when they are attacked by beings known as Shadows. Narukami manifests a power known as Persona which allows him to draw a creature out of the depths of his soul to aid him in battle. Yosuke rushes off on his own where he is confronted by his Shadow self which is the reflection of the dark side of his personality. After they battle the Shadow Yosuke and Yosuke accepts this part of his inner self, he gains the ability to summon a Persona as well. When Yukiko-chan is kidnapped, Chie joins the investigation (where she gains the power of Persona as well) to find out who is kidnapping and murdering the people in the sleepy town of Inaba.

Future reviews will likely be devoted to me exploring the plot aspects of that particular month (whether this is the main story or the various people I meet and befriend. Actually the social link stuff will definitely be getting its own paragraph I think. maybe), but I just wanted to give a brief introduction to the game’s story. The fact that I’m calling that a brief introduction should say leagues about the game’s opening hours being ridiculously long. People joke about Final Fantasy XIII having the longest intro ever. No, that award goes to Persona 4. You literally go about 4 or 5 hours before you actually get to do any of the stuff that makes up the heart of the game (social links, real dungeon exploring, etc). That’s the reason this month gets a score of an “A-” instead of the “A” or “A+” I’d be tempted to give this game as a whole. Those opening hours are a bit of a drag. The writing and sharp realization of the game’s characters (which is really the best part of the whole game. This game’s stories and characters are pretty unparalleled) are as strong as ever, but this is a video game and interaction is an important aspect of the whole experience and for four or five hours, you just don’t really interact with the game outside of absorbing its immediately wonderful story.

The Persona games are hard… and even on the Beginner difficulty (which I’m not ashamed to admit I’m playing on because I primarily want to experience the game’s story again more than anything else), Persona 4 isn’t afraid to just completely kick your ass. If the Main Character dies, it’s an instant game over, and while the ability to control your team mates alleviates some of the frustration that mechanic caused in Persona 3, it can still be really annoying if a bad roll of the dice causes you to miss your intended target, and then the game proceeds to rape you with the elemental weakness system. I haven’t even gotten to the point in the game where enemies have actual one-hit kill spells that could easily erase an hour spent crawling around the game’s many dungeons. However, it’s difficulty does mean the game is more tactically engaging than 99% of other JRPGs because you are actually forced to spend time thinking about buffs and elemental resistances. This is without question one of the most difficult JRPGs I’ve ever played, and if you fancy a good challenge, Persona 4 will deliver.

Even though I’ve only been playing the game for half a month (You begin in the middle of April, so yeah, it will probably be a while before May’s review comes up considering I spend a good hour minimum each time I enter a dungeon), the story in this game is light years ahead of other video games in terms of maturity and emotional depth. Perhaps because I’m playing as normal high school students who stumble into an urban fantasy murder mystery (rather than your traditional JRPG cast of princesses, amnesiacs, thieves, rogues, kings, what not), the game’s cast feel like instantly recognizable teenage archetypes rather than your traditional power fantasy RPG heroes. I’ve always thought of the game as a very Japanese take on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, especially since Yosuke is almost a direct expy of Xander. You deal with all of the pains and tribulations of being a teenager while you save the world. Thus, I care deeply more about any of these characters than I do about the cast of any Final Fantasy game and I love the Final Fantasy series. They all just seem so real and authentic, and thanks to the Social Link system, getting to know more about them and developing them as characters is an actual game mechanic. It’s wonderful. And I know just how much better it’s going to keep on getting.

I’m nearing 2000 words on this damn game and I haven’t even gotten into the game’s graphics. This was one of the last games I ever bought for my PS2. In fact, it might be the very last game I bought for it. And in the in-game engine isn’t very pretty. That’s the honest-to-god truth. Atlus cared more about delivering as much possible content into the disc than having cutting edge graphics, and for that reason, it’s just not a good looking game 80% of the time. It makes up for things in terms of a distinct art style, but that can only take things so far.  However, there are instances in the game when it switches to an anime-style for cutscenes, and those are all gorgeous. After the success of Catherine, I’m really excited to see Persona 5 on a current-gen system since they’ve proven that anime style is easily translatable to actual in-game graphics.

Ok hopefully, future posts should be considerably shorter since I won’t have to explain what this game is, give my opinions on the game mechanics (unless something new comes along that I find to be cool or frustrating) or generally rehash anything that simply hasn’t changed since this post. Here are some final thoughts. I want to strangle Teddie. His combat announcements are the most annoying thing in the history of video games (ok, that’s not true. That award goes to Vanille’s voice actor fromFinal Fantasy XIII, well that or Hope. god I fucking hated Hope). Honestly, at this point, that and the ridiculously long intro are my only complaints. I’m hoping that fans of the game will join me in on my ride here. In future posts, I’ll include stories about the social links I developed over the course of that month. Right now, I’ve only really started out with Yosuke, Chie, friends I made playing soccer, and a first-year in the band with me. We’ll be back in a month of game time (no idea how long that will translate to in real time), and I hope that you all return.

Final Score: A-