torstai 30. kesäkuuta 2011

REVIEW - Dead Space (2008)

GENRE(S): Action / Survival horror
RELEASED: October 2008
DEVELOPER(S): EA Redwood Shores
PUBLISHER(S): Electronic Arts

If there is one game in history which came to us at the exact right time, it's Dead Space. Nearly two decades before Dead Space, the survival horror genre was born. Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil popularized the term, and it was the highly acclaimed Resident Evil that led to the insurgence of several survival horror franchises, most prolific of its followers being Silent Hill. During the 21st century, real survival horror games continued to be developed with very unstable critical and commercial success; Sony's Siren (a.k.a. Forbidden Siren) was an anticipated, extremely stylish game, but it was nearly unplayable. Tecmo's Fatal Frame (a.k.a. Project Zero) was greeted with critical acclaim, but bad sales because many people did not understand or simply like its unique gameplay - including yours truly. People thought they could always rely on Capcom and Konami to deliver the goods in the field of survival horror. They delivered the goods... but not survival horror. Resident Evil was the first franchise to change completely, from narrow corridors to wide open areas and hordes of brainwashed cultists instead of zombies and other monsters in Resident Evil 4 - a masterpiece, but only in the action genre. With Silent Hill Homecoming, the new developers of the franchise trashed many of the elements that always made Silent Hill a psychologically rattling and creepy experience, no matter how bad the games were - The Room had good atmosphere, but it was a bad game. Homecoming didn't even have atmosphere on its side. Many survival horror fans were left wondering: how can you mix the modern, action-packed gameplay of Resident Evil with the morbid, "too quiet" atmosphere of Silent Hill in its prime? Then came Dead Space and showed us what it means to be freaked out by a video game for the first time in years.

In space no one can hear you grunt

Tonantzin Carmelo : Kendra Daniels
K.G. Hertzler : Captain Benjamin Mathius
Iyari Limon : Nicole Brennan
Peter Mensah : Sgt. Zach Hammond
Navid Negahban : Dr. Challus Mercer
Keith Szarabajka : Dr. Terrence Kyne
Brian Bloom : Baily / Bram Neumann / Crew Member
Matt Kaminsky : Mining Supervisor Dallas / Game Show Announcer / Crew Member
Christopher Corey Smith : Commander Cadigan
Aimee Miles : Natalie Gauthier

It's the year 2508. USG Ishimura, the largest and most advanced "planet cracker" - a mining ship - sends out an enigmatic distress call to the CEC (Concordance Extraction Corporation) during what seems to be a standard mining operation on the planet Aegis VII. CEC sends out a team to investigate, and all they find is a seemingly abandoned ship with faulty electronics. Suddenly, the team is attacked by grotesque beings that appear to be half-humanoid, half-alien. Only three members of the team survive the initial onslaught - CEC Sergeant Zach Hammond, IT specialist Kendra Daniels and engineer Isaac Clarke, to whom finding out what happened on Ishimura is extremely important due to his girlfriend being a crew member. An escape attempt from the Ishimura utterly fails and Isaac gets separated from his allies. He finds himself surrounded by the abominable creatures, plagued by disturbing sights and swirling deeper into madness as he tries to find out the truth, and an alternate way to escape the ship.

I didn't even read any reviews of the game - I saw two or three screenshots, and I said to myself: I've GOT to get that game. When I did read the reviews, my hunger for the game grew. On Christmas 2008, it boiled down to two choices - LittleBigPlanet or Dead Space. Well, as I've mentioned before, my sister got me the first choice, but luckily my neighbor and good friend got both games. I finished Dead Space off this very extended borrowed time, but I still bought the game last summer, for many reasons. One, it's a game that simply belongs in my shelf with its atmosphere alone. Two, I was (and still am) going for the Platinum. Three, a brand new retail copy cost me less than ten euros. The GameStop clerk almost refused to sell me the game, because he was saving the last copy for himself - he didn't believe anyone was going to buy it, and the usually very calm and reserved clerk anxiously praised the game to high heaven right there. Did I agree with his praises of a masterpiece? No. As a game, Dead Space is a bit shy of a masterpiece - it has splinters which affect the gameplay and my take on it on a personal level. But it still is a damn good, creepy, spooky, scary game - right up there with the best in the genre.

Isaac's thoughts: "I have a pretty good feeling
some shit's gonna hit the fan."
The story of the game is just shameless. Event Horizon, Alien, The Thing - they've all been cited as primary influences to Dead Space by EA Redwood Shores, and it definitely shows. If you're a fan of sci-fi horror, I'm sure you keep picking up bits and pieces of all three movies in better and worse. Alien is one of my favourite movies of all time (although Aliens is even better), and there are not many moments in Dead Space that pass by without me thinking of it. Then again, when have you seen a good Alien game? Hell, when have you seen a good "survival sci-fi" game? The story of the game is still very solid; some holes are punched into it nearing the end, but it keeps you in a constant grip - despite a bad cast of characters. On paper, Isaac is an excellent protagonist. He's a throwback to the good old days of Silent Hill, when the main characters didn't have much to go on when it came to combat training. The game is designed so the player really feels like being in it, but there's one problem: Isaac does not say one word during the game. He just grunts. And screams. I find it very disturbing on a personal level. Also, there are no traditional cutscenes in the game apart from the opening and the closing ones. All NPC conv... excuse me, monologues, are part of the game itself. Isaac just watches and listens as characters speak to him, usually from behind a glass or via an uplink. He shows close to no reaction. It's the player's exclusive privilege to react to the game's events, Isaac just stands there.

The supporting characters in the game are nothing less of annoying. They're well scripted ones, but since Isaac never gets a say during the game, I think you can imagine that in turn, the supporting cast never shuts up. The game forces you to listen to them. You can't skip pseudo-cutscenes or real-time messages via the uplink, and each time you confront an important NPC behind a glass or whatever, all doors around you are locked until the NPC has finally shut his/her yap. I'll tell you more in just a bit.

Technically speaking, we've seen better graphics, of course we have, but the style of the game is just out of this world. Dozens of different nasty death animations are some of the game's most popular unique qualities within the Dead Space fanbase - I believe there are a few video collections of them out. I haven't seen a visually disturbing game quite like Dead Space since Silent Hill 3; huge ominous shadows without a proper source, wall writings in blood, blood trails that lead to dead ends, constantly flickering lights, crew members hanging from nooses, still barely living crew members that have poked their own eyes out in a fit of insanity... it's all there, and there's so much more. Of course, rooms with anti-gravity give full 3D a whole new meaning. Dead Space is an absolute treat to look at if you're a sci-fi horror buff, and the best thing is that it's one of the few current-gen games that truly look good from any type of TV screen. Say what you want about that, but usually, many details are lost without an HD screen. It's refreshing to see that a game that partly lives on graphical details doesn't lose that much when played from an old-school tube. Even the grimy results of cutting off the leg of a Necromorph stunned with stasis hit the spot without reserve.

Isaac's thoughts: "What crappy handwriting."
The sound effects rip another page off the big book of Silent Hill. There's not much music - the effects are what count, and they play all the time. There's not a quiet moment, there's always at least the sound of a broken gust of air coming from somewhere, which is quite symbolic in the game's case, as the Necromorph creatures usually hide in and move through the ventilation systems. At some key moments, there are these single strokes of an off-key violin to make you shit your leggings, screams, and some totally random noises such as screeching sounds and thuds. Once again I'm reminded of one certain room in Silent Hill 3 - I'll remember it forever. A darkened storage room with mannequins. There's nothing there, you just pass through, and when you get to the exit - *click* something drops on the floor. And something drops into your pants. Nothing happens. It's the sight of the mannequin and the totally random noise that disturb you - even worse is that the sound doesn't play on every playthrough. For the next 20 minutes, you think twice before going around corners. The simply unforgettable "knock-knock" scene in the restroom... on the first playthrough, I bit a huge gap into my lower lip and didn't even notice it before I stopped playing. I'm not here to talk about Silent Hill 3, though. Dead Space evokes similar emotions tens, if not even hundreds of times. It's a much larger game than you would imagine by looking at the ship's size - there's a lot of backtracking, I won't lie to you, but you won't really even notice it. Very often there's something new to welcome you back to hell.

Preventing the game's sound design from boldly raising the bar where no bar's been raised before, is lackluster voice acting. I don't know what the priority was in casting people; the face or talent. Dead Space wasn't the first game to have each main character modelled after his/her voice actor - to my knowledge, 24 was the first (you can correct me on that if you want, I'm very interested as you can probably tell). However, Dead Space is very often credited to be a unique game in that sense; nowadays, this procedure is very common. Aside from Peter Mensah, who's perhaps best known as the victim of Gerard Butler's infamous "THIS IS SPARTA!" kick in 300, and common supporting actor Keith Szarabajka, the cast list's full of unknowns who were probably hired for looking the parts. If we're going to be all technical about it, the voiceover work is not exactly bad, but it's very monotonic. Each message from Kendra sounds exactly the same even if the content was completely different. "Isaac... huhhhh... it's Kendra." "Isaac... aahhhh... it's Kendra." That chick loves to breathe heavily. And bitch about something. For the most part of the game, I was just waiting for her to drop dead. The worst part is she rarely gives you all the intel she has at once - meaning, she might contact you three times within five minutes. "Isaac... eehhhh..." Enough. Mensah is probably the worst actor in the bunch. His accent keeps breaking down all the time, and he has a few lines that almost put some of the favourite quotes from the original Resident Evil to shame - that's a true accomplishment! Guess what, Peter Mensah? ...This... is... SPARTAAAAA!!! Kick. Scream. Thud.

Button mapping in Dead Space is very unique, quite daring if you ask me, but surprisingly it works. All of the standard action buttons are in some form of mandatory use, so the left trigger button is used for running. This wouldn't work on any other but the Godfather engine which was used in Dead Space, I think. The square button is used for quick healing, the X for confirming case-specific actions, and the triangle is used to bring up the uniquely real-time inventory, log library and map. The left bumper (sorry if I'm offending someone of being stuck with the X-terms) is used as a universal aiming button - while you're pressing it, you can perform other actions. As per usual, the right bumper is used for shooting. The right trigger is used for an alternate attack which each weapon has. If you're not aiming, the right buttons are mapped for melee attacks. During aiming, you use square for stasis, the circle for kinesis (more about stasis and kinesis to come), and the X to reload your weapon. A single press of the right analog stick controls the deck navigation system; you're shown the route to your destination by a clear line that goes along the ground (I didn't figure this out before my third playthrough!), and each direction on the D-Pad changes your weapon. The whole damn controller is in fine use. This might all sound very confusing, a bit too confusing, but Dead Space is surprisingly easy and pleasant to play.

Isaac's thoughts: "Looks like rain. Oh, an asteroid
field. Well, it's a good thing they have these
conveniently placed covers then."
Some keen players might pay attention to the HUD right away - it's quite unique, since it's on Isaac himself, as a part of his technically advanced worksuit. His health meter goes along his spine, the stasis meter is right next to it as an add-on, the ammo counter's on his wrist, and during sequences in which you need the suit's oxygen tank, the air supply lights up just below Isaac's neck. Of course it only affects the game's style, but nicely so. What a unique idea to go with the deck navigation system I already mentioned. The holographic menu is also very unique. You can go to the menu at any time and continue your business as usual while navigating it. It's not always too practical, especially if you walk straight into a hornet's nest while managing your items, and if you happen to be of the panicking type. There's a real-time 3D map of the Ishimura in the menu too, which you can read the same time as you run or walk around, but I personally prefer the deck navigation system - which I indeed hadn't even noticed before yesterday, and I've been playing the game for nearly three years. This game is going to get a slightly better rating than I originally had in mind, all thanks to the DNS. It is THAT handy.

There are 12 chapters in the game, which consist of varied amounts of mission objectives. For the most part, your primary objective is to fix the Ishimura, as funny as it sounds like. What it means is that there's no immediate escape for you, so you might as well fix the ship's interior and exterior tram and defense systems to keep what's left of your crew safe, and at the same time, explore the whole hunk of junk to find out what exactly happened on the Ishimura, and who's responsible. Finally, Isaac has the serious personal issue of a missing girlfriend to boggle his already unstable mind. Isaac's skills in engineering are the aesthetic key to winning this game. Despite clearly being a quite disturbed individual, he has a brilliant mind for electronics and tinkering with weapons.

Let's talk about the weapons, 'cause they are some of the neatest weapons you've ever seen. The enemies in this game aren't some run-of-the-mill zombies you can just nail between the eyes and continue your journey. They're more like parasitic shells, meaning they have no brain for you to destroy. Even parasites cannot control bodies without limbs, so in this game, you target them - necks, arms and legs. Decapitating an enemy does not mean he's dead. Sometimes, it might not even be enough to decapitate him and bust one in both of his kneecaps. The game will inform you when it's over for a single enemy. Due to the game's fine art of dismemberment, the best weapons in this game are designed for precise cutting, but there are also some traditional ones.

Isaac's thoughts: "I knew Bin Laden was behind
Many people say that the Plasma Cutter, the first weapon you get in this game, is the best weapon in the whole game, and it's hard to argue with that. A Trophy even provokes you to beat the whole game by using the Plasma Cutter only. It's a small "pistol" used mainly for cutting wires, I think. The Line Gun is similar, but it has a radius wide enough to cut off both of the enemy's legs at once. The Pulse Rifle is a quite traditional assault rifle. The Force Gun and the Contact Beam are both weapons with high energy damage, and probably the hardest weapons to learn to use in full effect. The Flamethrower explains itself, and it's quite weak against large enemies, but great for swarms of tiny, annoying bastards. It also works surprisingly well on one certain recurring, moderately tough enemy - I didn't realize this before the third playthrough, either! Last but definitely not least, we have the nastiest weapon in the game - promptly called the Ripper. The name of the weapon tells stories, and using it tells a few sequels. It's probably my personal favourite in the bunch. I'm sure you know what a circular saw looks like. Imagine a remote controlled one. You shoot one single blade, and you can control it yourself for a duration defined by the Ripper's current upgrade level, until your enemy is out of limbs, and there's a LOT of blood on the floor. "Hey, Kendra, you wanted a sample of the creature's DNA? Take a look on Deck 2. The walls've got all the samples you need." "Isaac... uuhhhh... stop playing with the Ripper!" Each weapon has an alternate attack that can prove to be very useful, or utterly useless. I can pretty much bet you will find that changing the orientation of the Cutter from time to time and using the timed mines of the Line Gun will save your sorry ass a few specific times.

Ishimura's systems are fucked up to the point that Isaac's natural talent as an engineer is not enough. Both of Isaac's special abilities and situations outside of the margin are introduced rather quickly into the game. First up, stasis. You can use this to slow down machinery, haywire doors and lifts, even enemies - stasis will prove to be your life insurance on numerous occasions towards the end of the game as the enemies become bigger and faster, I assure you. It can be reloaded at conveniently placed Stasis Recharge stations, or manually with Stasis Packs. Kinesis is just as essential when it comes to fixing stuff and simply fucking around; I don't usually use it in combat. Kinesis is easy to explain: you can move stuff with it, any stuff that isn't bolted on the floor. Think of the Force Grip from any Star Wars media franchise. Yes, you can also use kinesis to shoot the stuff at enemies, in case you're out of ammo or something like that - portable fuel tanks, furniture, dead bodies, hell, even the body parts of their fallen brethren.

Kendra: "Isaac... eehhhh... be careful. There's a
boss in there with you." Isaac's thoughts: "No
shit, woman! It's spread all across the wall!"
Finally, there are two different types of spaces besides the normal, breathable atmosphere; areas with zero gravity and vacuums. Zero gravity's fun as you are granted permission to jump around anywhere in the room in 360 degrees, but it's also a bit clumsy; sometimes, you need to look spots you're allowed to jump on for ages. Fighting in zero gravity is not very fun, as the enemies can move anywhere just like you, and the camera takes good care that you will pop a vein while trying to track down one of those tiny, tentacle-headed, rocket-shooting bastards in zero gravity. Inside vacuums, you have a strict time limit to take into account before you ditch your route and go exploring too much. You can replenish your oxygen at Oxygen Stations, and with portable air cans.

You use workbenches designed for circuit repair to upgrade not just your weapons, but also your RIG, which determines your oxygen and maximum health level, and your Stasis Module, which is used to adjust the duration of the stasis. Upgrading all your weapons and equipment to the hilt with rare Power Nodes in a style very reminiscent of the character development system in Final Fantasy X, takes about two and a half playthroughs. I know it for sure, since I just did it an hour ago. It's a little too long, I think; I would've gladly digested one and a half playthroughs. I'll tell you later why it's so tedious - it's a bit hard to explain, but I'll try. The Store is directly related to the workbench, since you can buy the Power Nodes you need for upgrading equipment from there, in addition to searching for them. They're 10,000 credits each, though - they're not really worth it on the first playthrough. Downloadable suits and weapon skins can be collected from the Store free of charge. You can also sell items and weapons, of course, and place everything you don't need inside a safe. To be able to buy certain items from the Store, you must find the schematics for them first.

There aren't many different schematics. The most important collectable items in the game are those Power Nodes, all points considered, but there are also video, audio and text logs hidden all over the ship for those truly interested in the story to find and enjoy. I'm actually still missing a few, although I thought I've searched every corner of the Ishimura. I even found the fabled Peng treasure by accident!

Isaac's thoughts: "I really hope that thing's not
my girlfriend."
Every element I've mentioned so far is one of Dead Space's best qualities. Then come the ugly spots. First, the save and checkpoint systems suck ass. You cannot skip any speeches or anything reminiscent of a cutscene, not even on consequent tries - good luck in keeping your arteries intact in the final boss. On the top of that, the loading times last forever; luckily the game only loads between deaths and respawns, and chapters. The precision of the checkpoints varies by a humongous lot. Sometimes, you start right where you left off, but at other times, you need to start whole sequences again, and they might consist of two confrontations with NPC's, three to four waves of enemies, and several stasis/kinesis bits. Then, at some point you might figure that hey, perhaps you can collect all those items ahead of you, return to save the game again before the wave, and then return to the checkpoint, maybe you will at least get to keep those items if you happen to die again. Well, yes, that works, but guess what? You will no longer start from the checkpoint, instead you'll be taken all the way back to the save point. Retarded, much?

It pains me to say this since I managed for 18 years without a Trophy/Achievement system, but it is the worst part of Dead Space. Like I mentioned before, I am going for the Platinum, but that doesn't mean I like the build-up. I've finished the game three times now, and I have 79% of the Trophies. Two more Golds would raise my percentage to 97%. What's left besides those? Two Bronzes. BRONZES, which are probably the hardest Trophies to get in the whole game, and simply because they're mostly dependent on luck. That's not why I hate the Trophies, but the fact that if you want to get all of the Trophies without having to see the game through for a million times, you pretty much have to play on Hard from the beginning. For my best friend, that would be no problem at all; he has this belief that Hard always determines the game's true difficulty level, to him Hard equals Normal. It wouldn't be a problem for me either, but the truth is that Dead Space is not an easy game to begin with. You pretty much need that Medium difficulty to test yourself and see what the game has in store before jumping straight into Hard and getting your ass raped by it.

Isaac's thoughts: "Its limbs just grew back. What
would MacGyver do?"
Equipment transfers to your next playthrough, but only within one difficulty level. So, you beat the game on Medium. You couldn't upgrade all of your stuff. You want to go at the game on Hard. Well, you have to start from scratch on Hard; the only way for you to upgrade your old stuff is to beat the game on Medium again, plus four more chapters on a third Medium playthrough. Then, you can start a new game on Hard, to finally unlock the Impossible difficulty setting, and beat that one to finally gain the Epic Tier 3 Engineer Trophy. They could've at least let us unlock Impossible just by beating the game once on any setting. I pretty much have to face the facts: three playthroughs were fine, but I don't have the energy, or the interest in taking on Dead Space not once, but twice more, on these kind of difficulty levels since even the Medium's not a walk in the park. I still haven't got the One Gun Trophy, for God's sake, and I don't believe that's even possible to get without beating the game on the lower levels! But, as far as the record goes, I'm still trying. And perhaps I really will, not in the near future though.

Even with its annoying design problems and a retarded minigame that just doesn't belong (and isn't worth a bigger mention than this), Dead Space is a great survival horror game, and the main thing that makes it so great is that it came like lightning from the blue sky and struck a vein that hadn't been properly exploited in five years. If you don't like sci-fi, that's OK. However, if you do like survival horror, Dead Space is a game you simply must play and see to the end, no matter how tiring it might get at its worst, and no matter how much the characters might get on your nerves.

SOUND : 8.9


GameRankings: 85.84% (PC), 89.07% (PS3), 88.96% (X360)

British comic book artist and avid player, Warren Ellis, was involved in the very early stages of the game's development.

The game was originally intended to be one of the last titles developed for the original Xbox.

Isaac Clarke is named after sci-fi authors Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

The critically acclaimed Italian horror director Dario Argento voices Terrence Kyne in the Italian version of the game.

Supervisor Dallas is named after the male protagonist of the original Alien.

Unitology, a fictional religion in the Dead Space universe, was partly inspired by Scientology.

The first letters of the 12 chapters reveal a very important plot point when combined (a spoiler to those who haven't finished the game).

Return of the Monsters

The only Zombie spared from my
Saludos, amigos!

It's been a long time coming. The VGMania Monster Mash came to an abrupt, yet temporary end with the review of Resident Evil 2 back in February. Well, it's coming back this week, and this run will probably last for a few weeks. I can tell you right now that I am not reviewing any more Resident Evil games (the original inspiration for Monster Mash) until I get a decent TV and that's not possible before August, because in July I'm attending the Tuska Open Air Metal Festival, which will be very unforgiving to my bank account. However, I have eight big titles (in better and worse) in mind for this run. I have received extremely good feedback from my Monster Mash reviews, I quote: "because of my sincere fascination with horror", and I'm feeling quite buffed about going back to those sleepless nights.

Of course, most of these games are for the Xbox 360. In fact, only one of the games has never been released on the 360. Some of the reviews are written based on the PS3 versions, though - not a huge difference from what I've noticed as of late.

I'll probably return tonight with the first review, since it's of a game I already know pretty damn well, but if I don't, have a nice rest of the week. The next random rant will take place on Monday, 4th of July - the day when yours truly levels up.

keskiviikko 29. kesäkuuta 2011

REVIEW - Gears of War 2 (2008)

GENRE(S): Action
RELEASED: November 2008
DEVELOPER(S): Epic Games
PUBLISHER(S): Microsoft Game Studios

Gears of War won numerous Game of the Year awards... in the golden era of multiplayer games for consoles. Despite having a dull single-player campaign, the game is still hailed as one of the best and most important action titles of the century. With Gears of War 2, Epic Games consciously aimed at a deeper, more dramatic story, and they somewhat pulled it off. They also ended up with a much more exciting and surprising game, more of an adventure than a straightforward shooter, with occasionally stunning visuals and crazy plotline twists that guarantee diverse gameplay, and therefore a game even the lonesome may enjoy even if it's still a co-op game to the core. Gears of War 2 is often seen as an equal, consistent sequel to the first game. In my opinion, it is considerably better than its predecessor. It's like the first true GAME in the franchise instead of a bunch of maps. It's definitely not perfect, but it's definitely fun.

Kickin' into higher gear

John DiMaggio : Sgt. Marcus Fenix / Franklin Tsoko
Carlos Ferro : Cpl. Dominic Santiago
Fred Tatasciore : Cpl. Damon Baird / Cpl. Tai Kaliso / Locust Drone / Boomer
Lester Speight : Pvt. Augustus Cole
Nan McNamara : Lt. Anya Stroud
Michael Gough : Pvt. Benjamin Carmine / Pvt. Anthony Carmine
Carolyn Seymour : Queen Myrrah
Jamie Alcroft : Col. Victor S. Hoffman
Charles Cioffi : Chairman Richard Prescott / Maj. Adam Fenix
Nolan North : Cpl. Jace Stratton / Gamma 3 Soldier / KR Pilot #3

Six months after the Lightmass bomb destroyed much of the Locust Horde, the aliens have regrouped and risen against the remnants of humanity again. This time, they've found seemingly unstoppable means to strike entire human colonies at once and literally sink them into the ground. The COG is soon once again on the receiving end of the most casualties of war. The COG devises a counterattack against the Locust, having no choice but to take the fight to the aliens in their home, known to humans as the "Hollow", to find the source of the devastating earthquakes. Delta Squad, consisting of Sergeant Marcus Fenix, his best friend Dominic Santiago, and the bumbling rookie Benjamin Carmine, is on the frontline. Given Fenix and Dom's experience, they might be the only soldiers capable of finishing another chapter in this seemingly eternal war.

After being totally underwhelmed by Gears of War, you can probably imagine that I wasn't exactly thrilled to slap in the sequel less than 12 hours after reading the credits for the first game. Gears of War was not bad at all, but as a huge fan and expert of third-person shooters of all kinds, and a definite spokesperson for single-player satisfaction even in these times when a multiplayer mode is pretty much a priority and necessity in all games. A game has to be quite damn special and specifically designed for single players to not have a constantly patched multiplayer - like non-MMO RPG's. Some developers just don't get it: some people prefer to play alone. Since I disliked the single-player campaign in the previous game, from my point of view it took one Gears of War game for Epic to figure out that there are lone rangers ("how can you pluralize that?" - Airheads rules) out there. Although it might not have been Epic's intention or priority, Gears of War 2 is full of variables that make it a lot more interesting game for a single player to hack through than the previous installment. It's still at its best as a co-op game, I'm sure of that (haven't tried it, at least not yet), but having a friend beside you is no longer a necessity. You could make the typical statement: Gears of War 2 is exactly what the previous game should've been.

Fenix is ready to kick some ass, all by himself.
You can see from the very beginning of the game, hell, even before it begins, that it's not going to be much longer than the first game. The names of all of the acts and their parts are listed in your War Journal, which can be read in the main menu, and which also lists all collectables, unlockables and Xbox 360 Achievements you've nailed thus far. There are just as many "levels" in this game as in the first one, but they are much longer and include dozens of objectives. I usually go over design issues the same time as the graphics, but design does this game so much wonders in comparison to its predecessor I have to mention it now. The level design is absolutely awesome - there are not very many of those mandatory routes, long hallways and complexed buildings in this game. I don't want to go into any specifics, I hope that saying this game is more about exploration than navigation, is enough. The character design is exactly the same when it comes to the humanoids and the basic enemies, but there are some amazing new boss designs in this game. Again, I don't want to go into any specifics, instead I'll just say you should be prepared for some epic confrontations and setbacks...

...Which are shamelessly borrowed from other games, I admit that, but in the game's defense, I can also admit that some of my favourite games that have emerged later, have in turn shamelessly borrowed from Gears of War 2. There's a certain type of survival horror element in this game, which immediately links it to Resident Evil, and moreover, Dead Space. The modern Resident Evil engine was one of the main influences of the Gears of War series, and in this game, that influence sticks out even more obviously than during the Berserker confrontations in the first game. Many elements are swiped straight off Resident Evil 4 - you'll likely see what I'm talking about - but, on the other hand, Gears of War 2 went on to be raped 'n' robbed by Resident Evil 5 in some senses, most obvious of them being the basics of the co-op system. Dead Space came out about a month prior to Gears of War 2, and I can't help but feel that Epic made some final, three-seconds-to-deadline adjustments to the design of the game, influenced by Isaac Clarke's morbid tale. OK, I'll blurt one out: one of the bosses is like Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space combined. That's all I'm gonna say. One whole act in this game kind of reminds me of Fallout 3 - which, for the record, was released about the same time as Dead Space. Enough of these comparisons which are starting to be more like accusations, let's get into the game and see some of the other reasons why I hold it in much higher regard than its predecessor.

The graphics are almost exactly the same on the surface, but the game indeed has a more cinematic and surprising overall look than the first game. Some of the biggest fights are way more visual, like having to defend a gigantic battletank from another one that's been hijacked, and somehow manage to kill the driver to swerve the whole bulk of shit off road before it does the same to yours. One of the best missions in this game is like a long-ass boss fight in itself, in which you have very few enemies to encounter. You dodge, destroy, disable and escape hazards, and navigate through toxic labyrinths in a tense gauntlet run, making your way to your overgrown enemy's only soft spot. It's kind of like something off a certain video game franchise also abbreviated "GoW".

"BOOM!" Boom this, bitch.
Although the story is still very secondary, the voiceover work is great. John DiMaggio pulls off another great performance as Fenix, even better than the last time, and Carlos Ferro has definitely stepped up a little as Dom - the character is still a bit uninteresting even with a personal crisis, but he stands out, thanks to "being there" a bit more. Cole and Baird are quite minor characters in this game, and the probable reason is that they used up most their best character traits and dialogue in the first one. Either way, they're always a hoot to listen to. There are not many new characters or actors, which means all the guys and gals on board pretty much know what they're doing and what they're involved with. One more note: the very white Nolan North does the voice of another black Gear - weird.

The music is amazing at its best. Kevin Riepl left the helm, and got replaced by Steve Jablonsky - a name usually associated with movies rather than video games at the time. He has specialized in horror movie remakes that became standard during the decade, including The Amityville Horror, The Hitcher, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street - hell, almost every movie that Michael Bay's been involved with as of late. Clay Duncan, who has worked with Jablonsky numerous times, worked on Gears of War 2 as an assistant. Since both men have experience composing music for sci-fi, horror and superhero movies, you can just imagine how epic Gears of War 2 sounds in its key moments.

You know, after finishing Gears of War 2, I found myself wondering about two things: one, how moderately little had to be changed about the original game's formula to make it work. Two, was there anything wrong with Gears of War 2? Yes, there was, and I'll get to some of its most annoying problems - but no, you didn't read wrong, and no, I was not in a bad mood when I reviewed the first game. I really think Gears of War 2 is in a whole other league than its predecessor, no matter how similar it looks on the surface. Everything about it is notably better - the setting, mapping, single-player campaign, controls, A.I., enemies including bosses, weapons, even the Achievements. Everything - except for one thing. I'll get to it towards the end.

There's a very short tutorial in the beginning which you can skip right away if you want, only if you do it on the first playthrough, you'll gain an Achievement for it. Just like in the first game, there are five proper Acts in the game, but their length varies by a lot; the fourth one is most definitely the lengthiest one in the bunch. I didn't really concentrate on how long it took to beat the game, but it's definitely hours more than it took to beat the first one. I didn't get bored once, think about it - I was bored almost throughout the last game, from the beginning to the end. I was hoping that a friend would come by my apartment and just happen to have an Xbox controller with him. Me, a not-so-huge fan of co-op or multiplayer in general. I wanted to play Gears of War the way it was meant to be played. I gladly played Gears of War 2 to the end all by myself before I started to wonder what the game would've been like as a co-op game. (NOTE: I'll get a chance to replay both games in co-op next weekend.)

For a surprisingly big percentage of the game, it's just Fenix and Dom. However, they have many supports along the line in some choice situations, and the maximum number of soldiers in your squad is extended from four to five. The path choices work exactly the same as before, there are definitely fewer of these instances, though. Most of them are not even literal path choices, rather a coin toss which one of you will play the decoy for a Locust wave, and which one will climb a nearby rock, flank the whole bunch of uglies and greet them with a refreshing hail of mortar.

A chainsaw duel. Yup, they're possible. Even
The Gear A.I. has improved. Don't go relying too much on it, though. Sometimes, your partner just goes his own way and this brings on a lot of different trouble. For example, you want to stay put and explore at your own pace. You can actually lose sight of your partner this way, as well as the correct route to your destination. Squad orders are completely removed from the game, so you can't call out to him, and the COG radar doesn't help one bit, as it can easily point to a wall. Well, you know this much: your partner's behind that wall. Now, how do you get there? I really got stuck in a situation like this once. In battle situations, your partner can take surprisingly good care of himself this time around - but, the bastard's still hogging your covers, he won't move even at your emergency, and sometimes, he can be right next to you and just choose not to revive you, instead he's trying to shoot at a tiny, momentarily harmless melee bug 500 meters away with very little success. Damn, what logic. Only a few enemies are capable of nailing you with an OHK. Most of even their strongest attacks leave chance for full revival, as long as your partner's A.I. is awake in the right place at the right time.

Enemies can also be revived by their partners, assuming you've not destroyed any of their limbs. Cool? If you shoot a Locust's arms to shit, he can't be of any use in combat to the opposing side, so usually his partners just let him slither along and die of blood loss. If the only enemy in the area is a Drone with one foot in the grave, you can run up to him and make his death a little bit quicker (but also more violent) by punching his face in with your fists, decapitating him by using your shotgun as a golf club, or squashing his brain with your gigantic boot. Or, you can pick up the unlucky alien and use what's left of his body as a shield against enemy fire. Oh yeah, it's neat. There will be blood, more than you bargained for, in fact.

The controls in general are a lot better, and even if the game has buttons mapped just the same as before, taking proper cover works considerably better. Also, there are not any enemies remotely like the Kryll nighthunters in the previous game, so you do not need to fear dark areas or taking cover in them. There are a few unique and detailed enemies, but only in good ways. For example, enemies with flamethrowers can be real nasty bastards if they get up close, and they absorb a considerable amount of firepower, but if you manage to place one good shot into their gas tanks, their heads catch fire, they panic, and finally their weapons explode, leaving nothing behind of the ugly bastards but gallons of blood and shit.

I smell BBQ'd Locust. Can I have some?
In this game, all of the numerous weapons have their good qualities, and since there are so many different combat stipulations, you will find yourself tempted to try out how different weapons resolve different conflicts better and quicker. Each weapon has a unique bonus granted by a perfect active reload; for example, the flamethrower's range temporarily expands, some weapons gain a damage bonus, and some a faster firing rate. There are two different types of grenades: the normal ones, and toxic ink grenades. The game has two portable heavies (the Mulcher and the mortar), which do not take up any slots in your inventory; instead, you carry the weapon until you either run out of ammo or manually change it to one of your normal weapons. You can't get the weapon back once you've changed it. Also, sadly, you cannot jump over covers or do a roadie run with a heavy weapon. Finally, certain enemies carry a portable cover called the Boomshield. You can pick that up and use it as a cover at any spot, and also as a melee weapon.

There was only one vehicle mission in Gears of War, and it sucked. Here, there are plenty of exciting "vehicle" missions. However, one (luckily short) mission requires you to use a similar small tank you had in the first game, and the controls of it are simply HORRIBLE! Think Mako in Mass Effect, and multiply the reek of its controls and the environment you have to use it in by ten. Up 'til that point in the game, I was pretty sure Gears of War 2 would easily end up one of the top rated games on the blog. It has many other weak points, but that's the lowest one. The abrupt ending of the game comes pretty close. I know this is supposed to be a trilogy and all that, but after killing a totally effortless, nearly automatic boss, the last thing I thought to see was a game completion Achievement light up in the corner of the screen. Really? That was it?! You've got to be fucking kidding me! I mean, I didn't exactly want to deal with another RAAM, but I expected even a little challenge or at least a little bit of excitement. The cliffhanger ending's quite epic as far as cinematics go, but I would've liked some actual gameplay instead.

Saving the worst for last: Epic didn't do SQUAT about the checkpoints. If possible, they're even more misplaced than before. The worst part of it is that there are a lot of sequences in the game in which all you do is wait around, even during boss fights. Imagine simply not figuring out what to do to a boss, dying numerous times and having to sit around, and simply wait for the boss to show up over and over again. The waiting's tense and cool on the first time around, but not on the 13th try.

I have to admit the game is very easy, since it doesn't have any sort of climax. The regular battles get harder towards the end, but I don't remember getting stuck for more than three to four tries in any of them. It's quite simple to just pick a strategy and go with it; I think the levels themselves, especially the "gauntlet run" and the research lab, including the surrounding area, pose more challenge than any actual combat in Gears of War 2. For me, the most important thing is that it's FUN to play alone, and I'm sure it's damn near phenomenal with a friend.

Hoffman is finally doing something, instead of
barking orders like any stereotypical colonel
who has watched Full Metal Jacket way too
Replay value? I'm not so sure about that on a full scale. After beating the game, you can replay any chapter to go on a hunt for the missing collectable items, which include COG Tags and different memos left behind by different people. There are 41 in all - you get Achievements for collecting 10, 20, and finally, all of them. The Achievements make so much more sense than the ones you got from the first game, that I could just scream out of joy. Well over a half of them are single-player Achievements, mostly related to advanced combat skills and killing enough folk with certain types of weapons. This game does not reward you for beating each and every chapter on each and every difficulty level like the first one. It rewards you for making progress on any setting, and for the completion of the whole game on each. If you beat the game on the Hardcore level, the game rewards you for Casual, Normal and Hardcore, all of them at once. This is how things work in the modern Trophy/Achievement whorebase, and we love it! The "Seriously..." Achievement has upgraded, to "Seriously 2.0". This time, you need to kill an accumulative amount of 100,000 players. Sick, but you can do it in any mode, including the single-player campaign. After one playthrough, I ended up with something like 1,200 kills. Happy hunting... if you're really into this game, it will stick on you for quite a while.

Gears of War 2 is such a notable improvement over the first game, that I was almost prepared to compare it to Assassin's Creed II and its improvement over its predecessor. However, it's not nearly as drastic (and now I'm teased by the thought of a Gears of War sandbox...). Instead, it's a very impressive showcase of how little you have to do to a decent game to make it a very good one. Not fantastic, though. The A.I. is still not up to the task, the game is moderately challenging at best, and it hits a brick wall. The single-player campaign lacks important replay value, but the most important thing is that it's consistent fun to play through once. Gears of War 2 is a very recommendable game to people who love the smell of napalm in the morning.

SOUND : 9.5


GameRankings: 93.32%

tiistai 28. kesäkuuta 2011

REVIEW - Gears of War (2006)

GENRE(S): Action
RELEASED: November 2006
DEVELOPER(S): People Can Fly (PC), Epic Games (X360)
PUBLISHER(S): Microsoft Game Studios

Gears of War is yet another video game franchise that was originally promoted as an Xbox 360 exclusive, but eventually made its way to the PC. The first game in the series, derived from Unreal but mainly influenced by Capcom's masterpiece Resident Evil 4 and Namco's lesser known Kill Switch, was a very straightforward action game with two prominent gimmicks to make it stand out from the rest; realistic military tactics and a somewhat revolutionary multiplayer system, with several different deathmatch types for players to engage in, as well as a solid co-op campaign that preceded Resident Evil 5's similar and almost equally praised campaign by nearly three years. Gears of War is indeed some very entertaining co-op sci-fi action, but how much can a single player get out of the experience? That's what I'm looking to find out.

No man left behind 

John DiMaggio : Pvt. Marcus Fenix / Franklin Tsoko / KR-64 Pilot
Carlos Ferro : Pvt. Dominic Santiago / KR-61 Pilot / Agitated Stranded / Victim #1 Stranded / Drunk #2 Stranded
Lester Speight : Pvt. Augustus Cole
Fred Tatasciore : Pvt. Damon Baird / Locust Drone B / Victim #2 Stranded / Berserker
Robin Atkin Downes : Lt. Minh Young Kim / Old Man Stranded / KR-25 Pilot / Factory Stranded / Johnson
Jamie Alcroft : Col. Victor S. Hoffman
Nan McNamara : Lt. Anya Stroud / KR-25 Pilot
Carolyn Seymour : Queen Myrrah
Michael Gough : Pvt. Anthony Carmine / Drunk #1 Stranded
Dee Bradley Baker : General RAAM / Locust Drone A / Theron Guard / Berserker

Decades ago on Sera, a planet with strong resemblance to Earth as we know it, a scientist discovered that a moderately rare liquid substance known as Imulsion could be used as a source of energy. Several nations fought in a war over a monopoly of Imulsion. 14 years ago, an alien race known as the Locust attacked the already war-torn and vulnerable humans in an event people remember as the "Emergence Day". COG (the Coalition of Ordered Governments) is the only human government left, and they're losing people fast in the still ongoing war. COG Private Dominic Santiago goes rogue and frees his best friend Marcus Fenix from prison after a four-year long incarceration, believing the hardened soldier and natural-born leader would be the salvation of the struggling humanity.

I went into Gears of War with great expectations, having more than decent memories of a brief co-op session between me and my friend a couple of years back. Only under an hour into the game, I figured co-op is the only way to go in this game. It just didn't stick, plain and simple, and before I knew it, the game was already over. The story has some nice points to it, such as your main character being a misunderstood ex-con and all that, but it never picks up. They tease us with the possibility of the story going somewhere at a few opportune gaps, but it never does. In the end, you're left wondering if there even was a story. In a more positive turn, the characters are great. I don't get the graphical style of the game, the characters being huge guys with chins the size of Texas and all, but the banter between the four main characters is awesome. Marcus is one of the most bad-ass protagonists there have ever been, he's kind of like Duke Nukem with social skills and some faint sense of humility. Dom is his quite neutral sidekick, Baird's the cocky asshole of the game, a self-proclaimed God's gift to the COG, and Cole is a surprisingly stereotypical, humorous black dude - all four character types are some of which you'd expect to see in any decent sci-fi action movie or war flick.

I do not like the formal term "third-person shooter", but that is exactly what Gears of War is. Aside from punching a few switches from time to time, this game is all about navigating maze-like urban and forested areas, and shooting the shit out of possibly thousands of aliens, and a few bosses that require some strategy aside from just taking proper cover. The game has a few tricks of its own standing in for puzzles and conversing with NPC's, but they're all related to all-guns-blazing type of combat in the end. Those expecting for some additional thrills to go with the smell of gunpowder and blood are better off elsewhere. Those looking for some tense, occasionally extremely hectic action with as few stops as possible, have got the right game here... but only if they brought a friend to the party. Gears of War is a good game even as a single-player experience, but it's far from special.

Our two heroes are ready for your co-op session.
Technically, the game outshines many of its peers especially on the Xbox when it comes to graphics, but like I said, the style of the game fails to impress me. I'm more into realistic humanoid characters than these bulky marines that look like they could eat their meals off their chins and use trucks as weights for working out. Somehow, I'm not surprised at all that there is only one female working for the good guys in this game, and we only see a glimpse of her throughout the ordeal.

Sound is the game's forte. For starters, the sound effects are great. For the most part, the game has awesome voiceover work on its side, especially when it comes to the main characters. John DiMaggio totally owns as Fenix; the last time he was cast as a main character, I pretty much critically butchered him and his characters (Wakka and Kimahri in Final Fantasy X). I didn't know who the hell Lester "The Mighty Rasta" Speight was before I read about him in Wikipedia and IMDB, and I still don't remember him even from the shows and movies I've seen, but he does one hell of a job as Augustus Cole. Black characters usually stand out for me, especially in video games as sadly, there are still moderately few prolific black characters in video games. I'm revolted of the slightest chance they are removed because they could affect sales - look at Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and reconsider that statement, all of ya. Fred Tatasciore does yet another "normal" role, and this time, as one of the lead protagonists instead of a villain. Finally, Carlos Ferro does a smooth job as Dominic "Player Two" Santiago, but he's also the least standout guy from the fatal four. I believe I read somewhere that the developers acknowledged this and gave him a whole lot more personality in the sequel. I'll have to wait and see.

The music, well... the in-game music is downright excellent. However, I'm personally very dismayed at whoever was in charge of sound design. There's this little band I like, called Megadeth. Dave Mustaine reportedly heard that a game called Gears of War was in the making, and he was so inspired by the title alone that he wrote a song called "Gears of War". Upon hearing this, Epic Games contacted him and asked him to contribute the song for the game's soundtrack. Dave agreed, but due to conflicted schedules, they could only work an instrumental demo version of the song for the game. The question remains: where is it? The song starts off the official soundtrack CD of Gears of War, but I don't remember hearing it once in the whole game. I was expecting it to explode into motion during the final credits and leave me with a good aftertaste and all pumped up for Gears of War 2, but all I got was some damn repetitive hip-hop drivel. Blech. Well, at least the original music works - it's written by Kevin Riepl, a relative newcomer who previously worked on the Unreal series - which actually gave birth to the Gears of War franchise.

Like all modern games, Gears of War has an intro mission which works as a tutorial for most of its duration. That's why I'm going to skip the whole bulk of it, you're not in charge of your squad yet. What's funny, though, is that the brief tutorial and Act 1 combined is the longest mission in the whole game. There are five proper Acts in all, and the game really isn't very lengthy. Act 1 might seem like it goes on forever and ever, but after that, it's smooth sailing to a very abrupt end; I played the game one act at a time (including the tutorial), took breaks that ranged from 15 minutes to whole hours, and still, I managed to begin and finish the game within 12 hours of one day.

A rare occasion of ganging up on a potentially
volatile enemy.
From the very beginning, Gears of War promotes itself as some serious co-op madness, and just a decent, one-time single-player experience. For the most part, Marcus and Dom work together as a team. However, when two additional members are inducted into the squad, things get a little more complicated and interesting than just pushing back swarms of armed aliens and melee space bugs. The game has path choices, which are partially scripted, in other words it's up to the game to decide how the group splits up. At some times when the whole group is located in the exact same place, they just need to find their own routes to the destination, whoever controls Marcus leads group number one, and whoever might control Dom, leads group number two, in two totally different environments - the groups cannot come to each other's aid. This is the coolest part of the co-op system in my view. However, usually Marcus sticks with Dom, and vice versa, with Baird and Cole on a whole different mission. It's you two fighting the biggest fights, including the one against the final boss; which is a nerve wrecking experience from a single player's view - all thanks to the A.I..

It's funny that I just reviewed Mass Effect (the first one) and some of the biggest flaws of the combat system in that game emerge in Gears of War as well, as if its own bumps weren't enough. Sometimes, I can't figure out my squad at all - it looks like they're even trying to cover me. Seriously, one time I was in an open area with the full squad; every other alien was down, but there was this one persistent Locust coming straight at me around a corner, and I couldn't do shit about him. My last visual before my inevitable fall, was of my squad. They were standing in a circle around me, just staring as the bastard cut me in pieces with a chainsaw, kind of like silently applauding the abomination. These idiots also tend to steal all the best covers and get in your way on a regular basis, usually to eat up all the bullets aimed at you - which might sound good, but keep in mind that if a member of your squad dies in Gears of War, it's game over. Also, it's up to you to ensure their survival. That means, whenever a squad member falls down on his knees out of pain, becoming an easy target for the larger enemies that are able to finish him off, you pretty much must leave your cover and run out to pep him up. Your guess is correct: in the more strategic boss fights, your partner is more of a nuisance than a true help. He won't listen to your orders, he goes straight at some armoured enemies that point blank shots simply cannot harm, and ends up getting his ass served on a plate - I just pretty much described that final boss fight I mentioned a spell back. There's more to it, though - a whole swarm of the most annoying enemies in the world buffing the boss. I nearly needed duct tape for the controller.

Taking cover is the most essential part of all combat in this game, and unfortunately, you can take cover behind each wall of most obstructions in the game. If you're being too urgent about it - which you need to be from time to time - you're most likely going to make a roadie run to the wrong side on more than a dozen occasions, since roadie running and taking cover are both mapped to the same button. This might not seem like a big deal, but it is. You can't imagine how rapidly your health drains in this game just by playing the intro mission. One hit from an enemy chainsaw or a shot placed well enough will kill you instantly. The final boss' buffs are these bats that will swarm up on you and downright eat through your flesh in nanoseconds if you happen to take cover in a dark or shadowy corner, even by accident; the game doesn't give two shits about these accidents of yours. If you kill an enemy at close range, the screen is splattered with blood and it totally obscures your vision. It's a cool effect, but a very unpractical one. If you turn it off, you also have to say goodbye to all the gore and bad language in the game, so it's a no-go. Just stay focused, it's a war out there...?! Suck my COG.

It's really hard to review a game that is this short and simple without spoiling it. There is one vehicle mission that also deals with those damn bats. It's far from my favourite mission in the game, naturally, and mostly due to its clumsy single-player mechanics, but it offers up some slight diversity to the gameplay which, again, consists of shooting, taking cover, pushing switches and opening doors.

This little thing is called a buzzkiller. It buzzes,
it kills.
Switching weapons is easy enough to handle. You can carry four grenades, two different rifle-sized weapons and one pistol at a time. Grenades are mostly used to cave in the aliens' emergence holes to end the swarms quicker, but they can also prove to be your one and only salvation in a lot of different sticky situations. Each time you pick up a new weapon, you must take good care of what kind of a boomstick you have equipped at the moment, since your equipped weapon is replaced with the one you pick up. Don't be surprised if you often find yourself without one decent weapon in your inventory, if you don't keep your eyes open. The weapons' effectiveness is very case-specific. Weapons like the Torque Bow and the almighty Hammer of Dawn (a satellite gun) are extremely effective against bosses and single, large, slow enemies, but not against active swarms. As it tends to be nowadays, unfortunately, a shotgun's quite useless since if you want to stay healthy, you will not take the fight to a range close enough to use it efficiently.

There's one very cool, unique combat feature in the game called active reload. Reloading's automatic, of course, but you can also manually reload your weapons with the right bumper. If you can hit the right bumper at the exact right moment for a second time (also during automatic reload), you can reload your weapon in under a second and get back into action with a damage bonus on your side. If you don't attempt the active reload, you reload at a normal pace. If you do attempt it and fail, the reload takes forever, especially in the case of heavy weapons, and that can sometimes be your downfall. Another cool thing about all the weapons in the game is that you can melee with them, as long as you don't have the aforementioned failed active reload in progress. You can use the bayonet on the assault rifle (the most recommended weapon in the game) as a chainsaw clearly influenced by Resident Evil 4; it's very slow to use, but it kills your enemies instantly in killer animation. Yeowza.

One more thing I absolutely have to note about this game, is one that I usually don't, but it's about time. SHITTY CHECKPOINTS. During the beginning of the game - the easiest part of the whole damn thing - you're lucky to take two steps without seeing "Checkpoint" flashing in the corner of the screen. Near the end of the game, you might have to pull the plug on three or four waves of enemies before reaching the checkpoint. I don't mind that at all - the more killing, the better! What I do mind is that you have to do all sorts of tedious crap; listen to the same damn bits of dialogue, wait through the realistic but tiring waiting sequences of the game, collect decent weapons and ammo, and simply move across long stretches of plain playfields with no enemies in sight. All these completely non-challenging errands, over and over again, if you happen to get run over by a surprise OHK out of nowhere, or take cover in the wrong corner by pure accident. Or both.

After all this criticism, it's probably hard to imagine, but I like it all, I really do. However, due to the lacking A.I., I just can't get any special kicks out of the single-player campaign, especially since the game is so straightforward. If I can get someone to sit down with me and bear my occasional incompetence (and admit their own mistakes from time to time!), I might go at the game again, and I'd probably enjoy the whole ordeal a whole lot more. As a single-player game, Gears of War is almost utterly non-replayable.

That's "almost". If you absolutely don't have any friends and you're an explorer eager to raise your Gamerscore, you might want to replay the game for the sake of COG Tags. There are 30 of these war trinkets scattered all over the game, and many of them are hidden damn well. I've got to admit that even I, the explorer I am, didn't find more than nine of them on my first and only single-player run. No, they don't have any practical use - they are purely there to grant you Achievements, one for each tenth Tag found. Of course, harder difficulty levels (and Achievements for conquering them), and different path choices are there to raise the replay value for hardcore fans of the game, which I am not.

Blind fire is naturally an option. Not the most
practical method, but the safest one.
The batch of Achievements for this game has got to be one of the most boring batches of retail Trophies or Achievements I've ever seen. Let's start with a fact: I beat the game and got 9 out of the 49 retail Achievements. I had earned two of them a long time ago during me and my friend's co-op session, so that leaves only 7. In other words, it's perfectly possible to finish the game one time with an extremely lousy amount of Achievements. How is that possible, you ask? Well, only 28 Achievements are available for single players; all the others are either co-op or online Achievements. Hmm, convinced of the alleged importance of multiplayer yet? There are a few Achievements related to flashier combat than usual, but most of the single-player Achievements consist of conquering a chapter, a boss or the whole game on a certain difficulty level. "Completed Act 1 on Casual", "Completed Act 1 on Hardcore", "Completed Act 1 on Insane", etc. etc. Boring. I think I'll settle with what I have. It's not likely I'll have an active LIVE account for too long, anyway. Some of the multiplayer Achievements are just "batshit insane" (thanks for the metaphor, Fenix!), like having to frag an accumulative total of 10,000 players.

I myself have grown tired of saying this, but Gears of War is an outstanding co-op game. However, I'm here mostly to defend the honour of games with equally entertaining single-player campaigns. In my honest opinion, all video games are supposed to offer at least as much fine in-game hours to a single, unemployed bachelor as they have to offer small groups of dedicated players. I've read many reviews of Gears of War, and even the lowest scores have closed in on a niner. If this review was based solely on co-op, I believe I would rate the game similarly, but it isn't. I'm putting my head in the meat mincing machine here: Gears of War is severely overrated.

SOUND : 9.3


a.k.a. Unreal Warfare (working title)

GameRankings: 87.29% (PC), 93.89% (X360)

Epic Games began developing the game as an Unreal spin-off focused on vehicular combat.

November 7th was Emergence Day, and also the game's North American release date.

"Sera" is "Ares" - the Greek god of war - spelled backwards.

Many of the Achievements are namely references to miscellaneous popular culture. One of them requires you to kill a Berserker on the Hardcore difficulty, and it's called "My Love for You Is Like a Truck". This is a reference to one of yours truly's favourite movies, Clerks, in which a fledgling Russian metal vocalist sings "My love for you is like a truck, berserker!".

maanantai 27. kesäkuuta 2011

Tale of survival

Discussing the similarities between
and The Elder Scrolls.
Even on vacation. And still I wonder
why I'm single.
I survived the midsummer madness and returned home yesterday, to stumble on a real awkward problem. I was utterly certain of what I wanted to do next for the blog, but once I started playing, I lost interest in record time. I slammed in almost every other Xbox game on the shelf for five to ten minutes, only to realize that I couldn't find anything to stir my creative juices. Well, when I woke up this morning, I made a call for a couple of more games and now I'm back on track. I have the next five games lined up, from three different franchises, and this time around, I have to take a single sidestep to the PS3 - which is good, my PS3's been totally ignored since I took my personal advantage of Sony's Welcome Back program. I hope it still works - an YLOD would be the crown jewel of my recent mishaps with the PlayStation 3. One of the games is the game I already mentioned as the latter option in the previous entry.

Since I forgot to mention it earlier, I got WipEout HD Fury (I previously had the conditional Plus subscription of the game, which didn't have the Fury expansion) and Ratchet & Clank: Quest for Booty out of that Welcome Back deal. The decision was quite easy, since I already own retail copies of inFamous and LittleBigPlanet, and I've heard mixed opinions regarding Dead Nation. Ignoring the game this one time around does not make me a lousy Finn, I think.

The most important underlying theme of the next few weeks is that I'm going to take a break from RPG's on the behalf of mostly straightforward action. Yep, I was supposed to hack through a whole variety of RPG's and I was going to up 'til yesterday morning, but as it turns out, I'm exhausted of role-playing right now and just the thought of having to slap at least five more RPG's in the near future silly, gives me the creeps. Besides, there are some games which take way too much time to just comprehend; you could say I'm not ready for them, or at least I'm not ready to deliver quality reviews of them - so believe me, it's in everyone's best interest that I take a little break from them, yours and mine.

Tonight will definitely be game night, and I can pretty much guarantee that the next review(s) will turn up within the next two days. May this be the monthly rant entry, since I don't know what kind of tricks my friends have up their sleeves to take up my time as we're closing in to my birthday - I have some faint suspicions.

torstai 23. kesäkuuta 2011

Midsummer madness

This weekend: the inevitable fate of every
copy of every Bubsy game ever made.
As some of you surely know, this weekend we celebrate midsummer here in Finland, and I'll personally celebrate my 27th birthday (which is still 11 days away, in reality) which means I will be completely out of action for a few days - hence my extremely long, latest gaming session with the goal being finishing and reviewing the phenomenal Mass Effect 2. I think I've never consumed that much coffee during 24 hours. I hope you liked the reviews. The game broke into the VGMania Top 15, and was the first game to do so since the original version of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, reviewed in February. A great big round of applause to BioWare.

I don't know how often you check out the Top and Bottom lists, but anyway, I fixed it some a couple of days ago. Before, all games sharing the same conclusive rating were in alphabetical order, which of course was stupid and unfair. So, I remade the lists with averages calling the shots. If two games share the same average as well, they are ranked by playability alone. If they share the same playability rating, I just go by personal instinct - the last resort, and I haven't had to use it so far.

The title of the next game or franchise in the "X-Thon" is still hidden behind a layer of smoke. I had something in mind, but now I'm not really sure of it because of the limited time I have with the 'Box - I can't do a full marathon of the franchise I had in mind. I have all the games I need for a respectable marathon, but clashing through the first ones might take a little too much valuable time away from me and the 'Box. Still, it's the most probable option; I might flush my principles this one final time, just review the games for the 'Box for now, and the earlier ones at a later date.

Also, upon finishing Mass Effect 2, I have been "granted permission" to borrow, play and enjoy the one game that defines the Xbox's occasional exclusive greatness for me on a personal level. I won't get my hands on the game before Tuesday or Wednesday, so it's the less likely choice for the next review. However, a review of the game is coming, as soon as possible. Actually, I've already reviewed a part of it, while just watching my friend play it.

See you next week, people! Don't rightly know what's coming, but I'm sure it's something good.

REVIEW - Mass Effect 2 (2010)

GENRE(S): Action / RPG
RELEASED: January 2010
PUBLISHER(S): Electronic Arts

I love Mass Effect, but there's no way around the plain fact that the game is not perfect. When I wrote a review of the game, I purposedly overlooked a few flaws that really bothered me about it and still, I ended up with a whole bunch of peeves. However, I was very fair to the game as far as numerical ratings went, because it was the whole experience that really left the final, great impression on me. After finishing Mass Effect, I wasted no time in going into Mass Effect 2. I haven't read one even slightly reserved review of this game; everywhere I look, Mass Effect 2 has been described as the gold standard of modern video gaming. The only thing it has been criticized for is that it's less of an RPG and more of a traditional action game spiced up with mild role-playing elements - but still, an extremely impressive one. Like the first game, Mass Effect 2 was supposed to be exclusive to the Xbox 360, but it ended up being released on the PC, and due to Sony's very strange contract with BioWare and EA signed in 2009, it was also released on the PlayStation 3 an exact year after its initial release. Although the PS3 version has been called technically the best possible version Mass Effect 2, I'll go with Microsoft on this one: only on the Xbox will you be able to experience Mass Effect to its fullest... and what an experience Mass Effect 2 is. A true RPG or not, Mass Effect 2 is one of the best games I've gotten familiar with in the last few years.

Better. Stronger. Faster.


Mark Meer : Commander Shepard (Male)
Jennifer Hale : Commander Shepard (Female)
Yvonne Strahovski : Miranda Lawson
Adam Lazarre-White : Jacob Taylor
Martin Sheen : The Illusive Man
Tricia Helfer : EDI
Seth Green : Jeff "Joker" Moreau
Brandon Keener : Garrus Vakarian
Steve Blum : Grunt
Courtenay Taylor : Jack / Kalara Tomi

A month after Commander Shepard and his squad prevented the Reaper Sovereign from destroying all organic life in the galaxy, he's still scouting planets for any remaining geth activity. A sudden attack on the SSV Normandy prompts the crew to abandon ship. While rescuing the last survivors of the initial attack, Shepard gets thrown into outer space seconds before Normandy utterly falls apart. He is declared dead. In reality, he spends the next two years on an operating table in a facility owned by the company specialized in biological research he used to fight against, Cerberus. After regaining consciousness, Shepard heads into a confrontation with the mysterious chairman of the company, after which he reluctantly decides to join Cerberus in their fight against a new interstellar threat - the Collectors. To stand a chance against these enigmatic aliens, Shepard needs to recruit specialists from both sides of the law and assemble a new squad, twice as efficient as the one he led to victory in the battle for Citadel.

After the shocking intro to the game was over, I was like "hell no, you are not going to make my Shepard the Six Million Dollar Man!", but unlike Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2 starts up real quick and in just a few tens of minutes, you'll forget all thoughts about clichés, and be so into the great cast of characters and intriguing storyline, that you'll be going over all of its information in your sleep and on the toilet over and over again. Mass Effect had a great story, but part two... damn! It's been a while since I've enjoyed a story this much, counting out Red Dead Redemption, of course, which is a pretty much unbeatable game, a monument if you will, when it comes to storytelling in a video game throughout history. The most important reason why I personally think that the PS3 port of Mass Effect 2 was totally unnecessary, is that in the Xbox and PC versions you can import your own Shepard from the first game. There are many expansion packs and sequels that are boasted to "be influenced by your decisions in game X"; in Mass Effect 2, that influence is very concrete. If you do decide to import Shepard, be prepared to experience some amazingly detailed results of your actions in the past - it's like there never was a gap between the two games! Also, your class (which doesn't hold that much meaning in this game) and Codexes are carried over from the completed Mass Effect file on your HDD. I can't even begin to describe the kicks I got from starting up Mass Effect 2 right on the heels of the first game and seeing the Shepard I've grown very fond of, picking up right where he left off, dying in under ten minutes into the game, and then being reconstructed piece by piece by a shady corporation that needs his help so bad that they invest most of their finances in just bringing him back to life - just the way he was before getting minced in the attack. Yeah, it might sound like it's got Six Million Dollar Man or Knight Rider written all over it, but it goes deeper. Way deeper.

The Citadel has changed some since your last
I don't think the game is quite as dark or bleak as Mass Effect was at some key moments - in fact, it takes a turn to satirical every once in a while, and I like it! I think BioWare somewhat wanted to test the most keen fans of the franchise by adding in subtle jokes vaguely reminiscent of the all-out satirical styles of Fable and Fallout, with stereotypical dystopian scenarios, the media and today's pop culture as some of the main themes of these conveniently placed jabs - even today's gaming fads get it, including World of Warcraft. The dialogue in this game is simply awesome and BioWare removed many restraints they had when they were making the first game to really invest in the authenticity and smooth flow of communication. Yes, among other things this means that there's some really bad language in the game, but it's not rubbed in your face like it was in Fallout 3. Instead of "shits" and "fucks" and "shitfucks" flying all around every passing minute, Mass Effect 2 makes extremely fine use of diverse language, only coming out with it all when it means something and when it has impact, or when bad language is simply part of the character and positively affects his/her performance, such as in the case of Jack. I enjoyed listening to conversations in the first game, in this game I don't want to miss one sentence (at least not yet). The dialogue is that good, and so is the story.

The cast of characters in Mass Effect 2 is by far the most interesting RPG crew since the days Final Fantasy build-ups had some significance. In the first game, your squad had six additional members at the most; in Mass Effect 2, you can hire up to ten squad members - 12, if you're holding the DLC. In the first game, you didn't even have to talk to all members of the squad to fully complete the game. You could just hire them and let them do their jobs on the battlefield - why should you get friendly with bombfood, huh? Well, antisociality simply isn't the way to go in Mass Effect 2. To fully complete the game, you need to get familiar with each and every member of your squad. Every single one of them has a sidequest of their own, which doesn't only serve to prolong the game itself, but the resolution of their personal problems grants you their loyalty, and to them, additional skills and an alternate outfit. (Loyal members might even be easier to get into bed. Just saying...) The sidequests in general are nothing like those in Mass Effect, in which you just took the Mako, explored a planet until you found a building, entered the building, killed aliens and got the hell out of orbit - the case was closed. Very often you won't see the difference between a sidequest and a plot quest in Mass Effect 2; it all belongs here. Also, even if Mass Effect 2 is more of a straightforward action game than a "real RPG", the content of the sidequests is always surprising, diverse, and adventurous on BioWare's part; they took risks with Mass Effect 2, risks that paid off. Bomb rigging/defusal, murder mysteries, Shepard as a makeshift lawyer, Shepard stalking an assassination target from the rafters with intents to save him from a hit... hell yeah, Mass Effect 2 has plenty of ammunition. There are no identical quests in this game. The best bit of news? Mako isn't even in the game. More about how the sidequests and general exploring go down without a vehicle, later.

Going through all the identities, even the species of Shepard's squad on this mission would be a spoiling trip like no other. Suffice to say, you're going to meet a whole lot of old friends, some of which might have changed sides during Shepard's absence, and whose perception of Shepard in the now is pretty much up to how you've treated them in the past, all the way to the beginning of the saga. Starting to get the factor of awesomeness when it comes to the old save file, yet? As a matter of fact, some loading screens already remind you that each decision you make in Mass Effect 2 will have an impact on the events of Mass Effect 3 - I've never seen a game promote its yet unconfirmed sequel quite like this. You're going to meet a lot of new folk, too, and I must say that I absolutely love over a half of the squad. The divide between the species is pretty much the same - in the retail game, there are four humans (whereas there were three in Mass Effect), one quarian, one krogan and one turian. There's also an asari who you can actually replace with another one depending on whether you want to go at it as a Paragon or a Renegade, and even a salarian. Throughout the game, there are also representatives of species that were just briefly mentioned in dialogue in the previous game, or not heard of at all. One of them's a member of your squad - the assassin Thane, who is a drell; a "frog-man" with a photographic memory. Thane is one of the most fascinating new characters in a thoroughly fascinating cast, and he's among the best speakers in the game, when it comes to both conversation and random field dialogue. Since I already mentioned Jack before, it probably won't hurt to describe her. Jack sticks out like a sore thumb from the crowd. Being a biotic specialist myself, I don't use her that much in combat, but I enjoy talking to her. She's a former test subject of Cerberus (which makes her a bit difficult to work with), a drug addict and a convict with incredible biotic powers and tattoos that cover about 90% of her well-over-a-half-naked body. Jack is not a very polite person and those tattoos are a bit too extreme for a female, but something about her fascinates my Shepard (maybe even his little Shepard), and of course it turns out that she's not nearly as bad as she makes herself out to be up 'til her personal quest. Last, everyone knows Miranda Lawson - the gorgeous woman fighting at Shepard and Thane's side in the game's cover art, and who's been featured in most promotional material for Mass Effect 2. She's brilliant; definitely one of the most charismatic female characters I've ever had the pleasure of conversing with in a video game... and as many casual players would say, romancing Miri is one of the primary goals of Mass Effect 2, assuming your Shepard's male. That's pretty much true, in fact, since you cannot do it before nearing the end of the game. So, if you're up for some really, really softcore video game sex with the sexiest character of the bunch, you'll have to fight for your reward.

Why do the nightclubs with alien strippers
always fascinate me so?
There's just no way around the fact, that the game looks like Dead Space. Very much so. The character modelling is somewhat similar, the Husk and Abomination enemies are quite like Necromorphs, and once in full armour, Shepard looks just like Isaac. Of course we also have the obvious point of comparison to consider: both games take place in outer space, partly on starships and space stations. I'm not complaining, this only means that Mass Effect 2 looks good - and to go a little bit further with this matter, it looks amazing. The game is one of the most beautiful and graphically detailed games released on the 360 thus far. The astounishing visuals bring on two problems: the need for two discs and unhealthy loading times, but they're problems that can be coped with over time. Even if you suck the most out of the game by importing Shepard, his/her face goes through a mild filter, bringing the facial details up to speed with the rest of the game's standard. Also, he/she has scars in the beginning of the game, which you can optionally heal later via a medical upgrade, if you want to make your Shepard look just as smooth as he/she was upon creation.

The voiceover work was amazing in Mass Effect, but in Mass Effect 2, the slightest technical errors have been scrubbed out - the cast does a near-perfect job. Who we've got here is another reason to be awestruck. All the actors and actresses (whose characters survived in your personal game of Mass Effect) reprise their roles. Yvonne Strahovski didn't just do the voice of Miranda, she also lent her likeness to the character - it's a crime people that beautiful exist. Michael Hogan and Tricia Helfer (of neo-Battlestar Galactica fame), and Carrie-Anne Moss (of Matrix fame) are in as the mandatory science fiction veterans, filling in for Marina Sirtis and Lance Henriksen from the previous game. As the cherry on the top of the cake, we have Martin Sheen - that's Martin Sheen - as Shepard's new boss, the Illusive Man, who resembles a younger Sheen quite a bit. There are more video game voiceover staples here than one can count; there are 95 actors et al, and about 70% of them are some of the most sought names in the business. Basically: name them, they just might be here. This is seriously the first game I've played in months that doesn't have Quinton Flynn, though. Thank the Maker.

David Kates replaces Richard Jacques in Jack Wall's team of composers, but otherwise, you are safe to expect a soundtrack just as magnificent, even better than that of Mass Effect. The cues are right on the mark and you're in for some epic action/sci-fi scores heard in way too few games nowadays. No standout licensed tracks this time around, only as a background tune I can't quite remember.

That Commander Shepard, where will (s)he go
next? Wherever the f'k (s)he wants.
Everything I've said about the game thus far points to the number 10, but Mass Effect 2 is imperfect just like its predecessor, only a hell of a lot closer to perfection. It's pretty much the best game I've experienced for the first time in a quite lengthy while, but the gameplay does have its brief slip-ups. I hope to acknowledge them all, or at least most of them, and by way of comparison, I will also attempt to point out some more things that were wrong with Mass Effect. So, you're in for a long review here - if you want the short version, here it is: regardless of what you think about the game as a role-playing experience, Mass Effect 2 is, in every way, a huge improvement over Mass Effect, and one of the best games of the decade - a decade that has brought us three magnificent Metal Gear Solid titles, three Grand Theft Auto masterpieces, the God of War, Uncharted and LittleBigPlanet franchises, the rebirth of Resident Evil, Final Fantasy X, and Red Dead Redemption. That's a lot coming from me, as I'm sure you know. If you want the long version... let's get started.

The first thing you do in this game is determine whether or not you want to (or can) import your main character from Mass Effect. You cannot modify the character at this stage and very soon, it is made clear why: you die. However, death and even the total obliteration of the most important human organs cannot keep a Shepard down, especially not since his/her floating bloody mass "just happens" to be intercepted by Cerberus, who have the best medical technology money canNOT buy. You'll be yourself in no time, however the total destruction of Shepard's facial features among everything else of course calls for a total makeover in practice, if you are in need of one. If not, you can easily keep your old face, with a few nasty burn marks/scars decorating your cheeks. You cannot change an imported Shepard's class, however you are in no need of special skills such as electronics or first aid - you can use everything that is truly important to your progress the whole time, and my Vanguard has apparently learned to hack and bypass even the most advanced electronic panels himself. Vanguards and other biotic specialists do get the shortest straw, though - almost every potential squad member is a biotic. There are very few no-frills combatants in this game, naturally even fewer if your Shepard's not one.

The mission computer (main menu) is exactly the same as last time around, minus the equipment menu (whew). However, you don't have to constantly keep track of when you can level up. Each time you take on a mission of any kind, the game politely prompts you to level up by bringing up the squad screen. Leveling up is not as essential as the case-specific build-up of your squad. Leveling up is only used to make your skills stronger and your chances of survival about 5-10% better, and easier - in other words, you can take on any unlocked mission and conquer it, wear any type of unlocked armor and wield any type of unlocked weapon from the beginning. Having a balanced squad helps, but in the end, surviving a mission is pretty much up to your personal combat skills as a player, and knowledge of what to do with each weapon and biotic skill. You don't really "equip" armour and weapons in Mass Effect 2, you just unlock them, and upgrade them throughout the game. You can choose between a few armours for Shepard as you make progress, though - all of which have different perks, and a totally different look.

Robot, I told you not to mess with the mininuke.
You can customize Shepard's looks on the field, and onboard the ship via a locker in his personal cabin. Like I said, there are a few armours to choose from - you'll have to find special upgrades to acquire the additional armour - and you can decide every tint of colour yourself regardless of the armour type. I'm a big fan of a combination of red and grey, so I coloured up Shepard's armour according to that in the very beginning of the game. You can also choose whether or not to wear a helmet even in civilized environments with breathable air - some of these helmets give you diplomatic perks, such as bonuses to your Charm/Intimidate skills, but I'm not into wearing helmets, so I chose a visor that affects Shepard's maximum health on the battlefield, and doesn't get in the way of civilized conversation too much. The options for Shepard's onboard attire are quite ridiculous, like this "biker gang" look, so I personally stuck with the default setting throughout the game.

Let's start with how the combat works, and as tradition goes, I have good and bad things to say about it. For the most part, the combat is amazingly dynamic and in-your-face, and once you master all there is to it, there's no better smell for you than the smell of flesh burnt by an incendiary bullet. However, mastering combat is nearly impossible because of some deadly errors. Taking cover is much, much harder than you would think. This time, your party members quickly get out of your way if you want to swipe their cover, and that's OK, that's an improvement. The cover also indeed covers you from everything else but the Harbinger's powerful missiles which knock you back. However, sometimes Shepard just twitches in place when you try to shoot from the cover, and the only way to fix it is to move a little and then move back to the original spot if need be. Also, he tends to uncover from time to time, all by himself, and also move by himself. Vaulting over your low covers works on half the certainty all the time. The cover system's filled with strange, occasional glitches - but luckily they're occasional.

What's not occasional is your squad's unstable A.I.. How shall I put this? In narrow hallways, your squad's absolutely dominant. They can take care of themselves quite proficiently, and even better care of enemies. They aim their weapons and biotics primarily at the optimal targets for their attacks - for example, Overload breaks shields, so they automatically use Overload on the shielded enemies first. When you get to big, open areas with a lot of potential places to take cover in, you very often find yourself in trouble. First and foremost, for some odd reason, your squad members tend to get as far away from you as they can and focus on enemies that are not a direct threat to anyone. You can give orders during battle, but they work just as good as in Mass Effect - not too good! You might hear your squad member acknowledging your order, but chances are you won't see them doing anything about it if the area is big enough. To put it simply, even if you're in huge, direct trouble - like if you have a whole army of those annoying Husks surrounding you and you have no chance of escaping them, hitting them or even shooting them (I know you're thinking "use a shotgun", and I would if they weren't so useless even in short range combat), don't expect help if there are much further enemies involved in the fight.

Can you fly, Bobby?
From every other angle, I love the straightforward combat system. No massive planning an RPG hater would find hard to comprehend, no fancy tricks, just simple action that really isn't too far from Uncharted - and, if nothing else helps, you can always turn to your special skills, there's always something that works. You can count on it. Sometimes, even if you're not a big fan of "magic" or anything equivalent to it, you must resort to using your skills. You see, in Mass Effect 2, weapons do not overheat - they work on ammunition this time around. Don't worry, extra ammunition comes in fair amounts. To me, using actual ammo is better, 'cause I love rapid firing - what can I say, I'm a KILLER! - and the overheating got on my nerves a "few" times in Mass Effect. Of course using ammo brings in the terror of having to reload your gun at the worst of moments, but you'll get used to it - it becomes a natural part of the game very early on. Health regenerates automatically and you only use medi-gel to revive your squad using the Unity skill, the medi-gel is directly tied to the skill. However, via another medical upgrade, you can use medi-gel for traditional healing, if you happen to find the need for some. You most likely will, during the last few missions, or throughout the game on a higher difficulty level.

After recruiting a scientist via the main plot - you absolutely do not have to recruit all the members into the squad if you don't want to, but he's pretty much mandatory - you can indeed upgrade everything. That's everything, from your ship to weapons to armour. Most of the reasons why you need to upgrade the ship are revealed very near the end of the game, but there are also some upgrades to the ship that affect parts of the gameplay. You can find weapon and armour upgrades everywhere, and these upgrades need to be researched and activated in the ship's tech lab to mold them into perks for Shepard, certain squad members who have specific weapons and skills, and occasionally the whole squad. Casual players and non-RPG fans will most likely love this system, since it removes every bit of worry about equipping your squad just right. Every perk you gain is permanent. Hell, you very rarely need to switch your weapons yourself, because the game always switches to the most powerful option automatically. However, in some rare cases, power does not stand for effectiveness in combat; as dastardly awesome as a mininuke is, it's extremely slow, takes up shitloads of heavy ammo, and won't guarantee you smooth sailing in tense combat situations quite like a basic missile launcher. Even if the game takes good care of character development for you, be on your toes.

Mentioning character development once again reminds me of leveling up, and like I said, leveling up is not that essential. Let's see... first, we have Shepard. He has the most skills out of all the characters, naturally since he's the only one you control and he needs to be somewhat balanced. Depending on his class, he has a specific special skill. I'm a Vanguard, so he has Assault Mastery. Upon reaching the highest level of the special skill, you can choose a specialization, identical to the ones in the first game. Every skill has four levels, and each of those four levels requires a corresponding amount of squad points, which the EXP turn into. Upon finishing a teammate's sidequest, Shepard gains his/her loyalty, as well as the skill which is unlocked via loyalty. You can choose only one of these skills at a time. Changing it any time with another acquired teammate skill is perfectly possible via an upgrade, and if you do change it, the squad points you have appointed to your previous skill up 'til that moment are automatically transferred to the new one. Also, after getting yet another of these much-spoken upgrades, you can nullify all of Shepard's skills at any time, to reorganize the whole bulk of them. One more time: I do agree that the game was not made for RPG fans, but a wide, casual audience. However, Mass Effect 2 is such a fantastic game that even RPG fans can't turn away from it. Don't even try.

Interfere with asari business, leave with a
broken neck.
I'm betting a lot of those RPG fans are most into the diplomatic side of the game. At first, it seems simply exploring settlements and conversing with people is exactly the same as before, but it has changed quite substantially. Almost each conversation in the game, be it mandatory or optional, has effect on things, and that's why you should carefully think how you treat people and what you say to them. Thanks to the improved Paragon/Renegade system, the dialogue is always fun to engage in. Almost every conversation in the game gives you Paragon/Renegade points according to how you behave yourself. The more Paragon points you have, the more likely you are able to reach diplomatic solutions to even the most difficult situations, and the more Renegade points you have, the more likely you are to scare people out of whatever they're planning, innocent NPC's and enemies alike. Finally, there's the new system they call Interrupt. During cutscenes, you are sometimes prompted to interrupt the situation by taking a Paragon or Renegade action. I have examples for both. As a Paragon, Shepard avoids killing at all costs, even if the receiving person would definitely deserve to die according to one of Shepard's companions. When the Paragon prompt lights up, you can stop your companion from shooting their rival and talk some sense into them. As a Renegade, Shepard just doesn't care and he wants to do things his way - usually the quickest and most selfish way. During an interrogation with a less co-operative criminal, you can tell Shepard to bash his face in until he talks. Missing a prompt is never the final solution - you cannot fail missions because of it, but I do hope you comprehend that these decisions make nearly every Mass Effect 2 experience different from the last, just like the decisions that are made possible by the dialogue itself, and every other one of the million ways in which you can customize the experience. It's awesome.

Let's talk about exploring. Not in general - but exploring your ship, which you'll be doing a lot more than you would think at first glance. Your ship has four decks, and you travel between them by elevator. Do not worry, this time loading screens replace those slow and awkward elevator sequences that bored you out of your brain in the last game. Deck 1 is Captain's Cabin. This cabin's your hiding place from the rest of the world, a place to relax in, listen to some music, go over your armour setup, feed your fish, cuddle your hamster... wait, what? Yeah, in some choice settlements, there are souvenir shops, from which you can buy pets, as well as miniatures of starships from the Mass Effect universe. The miniatures and the hamster are pretty much just for show, but you need to feed the fish every time you come aboard if you want to keep them alive. Seriously, I think I whimpered when the first batch died... and then went back to buy replacements for them. I forgot to feed them too, luckily there's a person in the ship's crew that offers help in feeding the fish while Shepard's on a mission. Cool. No more dead fish in my tank. Also, you can go over upgrades, the squad's status, and even the system-specific achievements you've gained thus far on your personal terminal.

Deck 3 (Crew's Quarters) and Deck 4 (Engineering) will be filled with your squad members by the end of the game. Most of the time you spend on your ship, you spend on Deck 2, in the CIC - Combat Information Center. There you're informed of all your new messages and new developments within the squad, in other words just by speaking to one person periodically, you find out if there are any sidequests or unique conversations with your teammates available. You have close to no need to be constantly checking up on them. You can contact the Illusive Man from here, and both the tech lab and armory are on this deck. Also, the good ol' galaxy map's on this deck, which brings us to what I believe a lot of players are curious of: we need materials and minerals, how do we get them without having to take the Mako and curse our way over the mountains to find yet another sample of mercury that has no practical use at all? And what use do these materials have in Mass Effect 2? Well, let's get that out of the way first. Materials mean everything when it comes to upgrading your ship and equipment. They work as credits in the development process. Almost every planet in this game has massive quantities of minerals required for your upgrades. You can find them from the field, but mostly, you collect them by simply using the planets as dartboards for probes. You have a scanner that goes completely haywire when you strike a vein of an element, for example element zero: just shoot a probe, and you nail shitloads of eezo. You can continue all the way until the scanner says "Depleted". It's that easy. No more driving around like a moron, and searching for these minerals is clearly separated from actual, constantly unique assignments.

Thane is kind of spooky when he goes into that
"memory zone" of his, but he's really a nice guy.
Flying the ship between systems is a bit more realistic than before, and at that, highly tedious. You need to have a steady supply of fuel and those probes all the time if you wish to scan and perhaps even explore planets. I don't understand why, because the fuel is so ridiculously easy to get! Just fly back to the system that houses the mass relay and stock up on both fuel and the probes from the local fuel depot! There's nothing else to it. Just flying from one system to another can easily devour half of your fuel, it's a waste of valuable time and credits to be constantly filling up the tank. What happens when the fuel runs out? Haven't you guessed already? Correct, next up are the materials you've worked so hard to get. So, go fill up the tank. It's the lesser of two evils.

Finally, as far as gameplay goes, the hacking "minigame" has gone under one huge surgical blade. There are actually two different types of hacking puzzles, and no, neither one of them is simply about matching up button patterns like a zombie (or rather, like a Husk?). These ones actually require some brains, and a good pair of eyes. The first one is a labyrinth of code. The game gives you a code pattern, and you need to navigate this automatically scrolling list for an exact match. Hit an empty node or pick the wrong bit enough times, or fail to solve the puzzle within the time limit, and the system locks down. Usually, there are no second chances. The second one's a matching game, in which you need to bypass circuits by connecting two nodes with an identical icon. You can see every icon by moving the cursor over them, but once you pick a node, every other icon vanishes and you need to remember where the matching one was. Pick the wrong one just once, or once again fail to meet the time limit - tough luck. Way more interesting than just pressing the right buttons like an assembly line worker, in my opinion.

I reserved this space for two more additional "yays", and two more additional "boos". Yay: the game has an autosave feature that you can definitely rely on. The game still counts your saves, which is disheartening (I had something like 187 saves in the first game), but the only times you really need to save the game are the times you quit playing. Of course, if you want the storyline to take a specific direction, you'll probably want to save more often. Another yay: you can continue the game right after the ending, even though it clearly paves the way for the final part of the trilogy. This allows you to build up your characters even more, go on assignments that you missed and play the DLC without having to start the game over. Boo: well, I pretty much went over the worst parts already, the flaws of combat and the fueling system. They are by far the only things that bother me about Mass Effect 2. But, since I have to come up with something, I'll just blurt out that changing discs during any game is an obsolete errand in my books, and you have to do it multiple times during this game. When looking for something a bit more concrete, I guess I should also mention that at some occasions, I got Renegade points for no apparent reason at all, while trying my absolute best to maintain Shepard's perfect Paragon status.

Last but not least, the most famous screenshot
of the game.
On to perhaps the most interesting part to a lot of people - the difficulty level and lifespan of Mass Effect 2. Some might say that if the key to survival is mastering the dynamic combat and not necessarily leveling up like it is in just about every other RPG, Mass Effect 2 is probably a breeze. Well, it is, sort of, but the choice of difficulty level is still very much intact, and it still makes quite a lot of difference. Also, the final chapters of the storyline are not kind to people who didn't go out of their way to do at least a majority of the sidequests. Either way, the final boss is a total pushover, that much I'm willing to admit. About how long one playthrough is: well, it took me 41 hours to complete the game, which is almost exactly an hour more than it took me to conquer the first one. Once again, though, there are a lot of options at hand - like importing Shepard or creating a whole new one, his/her gender, Paragon/Renegade status and all that. Importing Shepard makes collecting about 90% of the Xbox 360 Achievements on the first playthrough perfectly possible, yet also perfectly unlikely. I got 41 out of the 50 base Achievements; I missed a few effortless ones, but also a couple of really difficult ones. Probably the most difficult Achievement to get is a 75G Achievement that requires perfect concentration on everything you do before, and during the final mission. I won't describe it further, but believe me, it's difficult... in a fun way, at the very least for those who are really into BioWare's decision-making schtick.

Mass Effect 2 rules, and upon beating the game, I unfortunately have to part ways with it for now, but I'm planning to buy the game for the PlayStation 3 some day after it becomes cheap enough, and I'm definitely hyped about Mass Effect 3 - which, of course, I pretty much have to play on the 360 to allow my dear Shepard's legacy to continue. I knew I was heading into a good game when I slapped in Mass Effect - but I had no clue of what kind of a masterpiece I would be blessed with by its sequel. It still has some splinters, but there's no doubt about the greatness of the whole experience. Again, double that if you're playing as an imported character. I just can't describe the kicks.

SOUND : 9.6


GameRankings: 94.48% (PC), 93.17% (PS3), 95.66% (X360)