The difference between clever and cunning.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Indie Micro Reviews

If you’re not aware of Indie Royal and the periodic bundles their website offers they’re worth keeping an eye on. The gaming industry has loads in indie talent that can sometimes get buried under all the AAA hubbub, and the site is a great resource. I picked up a number of their recent bundles for pocket change, and we’ll be taking a look at a few of the standouts.

Mutant Mudds

Mutant Mudds (MM for short) is a 2D side scrolling platformer, a genre I’m forced to admit I don’t have a lot of experience with. My first console was an N64 and the golden age of the 2D platformer was a bit before my time. The game has a strong retro/classic feel. If you cut your gaming teeth on Nintendo’s early platformers you’ll feel right at home.

Controlling the blond bespectacled protagonist is easy to learn but challenging to master. He comes equipped with water cannon for blasting the titular Mutant Mudd monsters and a jetpack that allows a precious second or two of hover time. Understanding and exploiting the idiosyncrasies and limitations of both is key to success. 

MM’s graphics are made up of colorful and charmingly detailed but deliberately heavily pixeleated sprites. A soundtrack of catchy chiptunes accompanies the action as you hop and shoot your way through level sets with such timeless themes as “ice world” and “lava world.” The controls are extremely tight and responsive and I always felt in complete control of the character. This is critical, because bad controls would have changed the high difficulty level from tough to tooth-pulling.

Many level have you hopping between the fore and background.

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the forgiving nature of modern design philosophy, but Mutant Mudds feels like a very challenging game. Even brutally so. You can sustain a mere three hits from enemies per level. Falls and most hazards spell instant death. 

While you have unlimited lives you’re rarely more than one or two slight mistakes from the restart screen. Fortunately the game isn’t strictly linear. If you find yourself completely stumped on one level there will always be several others you can attempt at the same time. Many of the more challenging levels might take dozens of attempts.

The gameplay is compelling enough that you’ll usually want to jump right back in, but after the tenth time replaying the same sequence you might, not unreasonably, start to wish for a checkpoint system of some sort. Power and progress in MM doesn’t come from leveling up or finding better weapons but from memorizing level layouts and understanding the behavior of enemies and hazards. One timed sequence stumped me to near hair-pulling frustration until I checked a video-walkthrough and learned the exact animation frame to start my jump. Once I knew that I had it mastered in minutes.

While levels are short the game still feels slow and deliberate.  The pacing is more Mario than Sonic. There are no time limits. It’s usually safest to pick apart enemy groups without exposing yourself to risk and to stop and carefully observe a hazard before flinging yourself into it. This is a game that rewards per-pixel precision and split second timing. 

Mudd Mutants are dangerous but predictable. Learn their patterns and pick them off.

Your goal in each level is to collect the giant “Water Gem” at the end. Each first tier level also contains one hundred “Golden Diamonds”. You don’t need to collect them all in a single run of the level (indeed doing so usually puts you in even greater risk) but you’ll want to get them all eventually because they’re needed to unlock three different and mutually exclusive upgrades.

You’ll ultimately be able to swap between a faster and farther firing water cannon, an extended hover for your jetpack, and a powerful vertical boost. The boost in particular is great fun. Intelligent use can allow you to skip whole sections of some levels, although there’s always the risk of ceiling spikes. 

The unlockable upgrades also let you reach the second tier of levels. These are even more challenging than the first set and usually test your mastery of some specific skill or mechanic. Collecting every Water Gem and Golden Diamond in the game allows use of all three upgrades at once and unlocks a final tier of bonus levels that demand nothing less than perfection. 

As tough as they are the levels are well designed and extremely satisfying to finally beat. There’s a clever mechanic where jump pads can launch you into the foreground or background, allowing you to enter areas you can see in the distance. The game is also good about educating you on new hazards and required maneuvers, letting you experience them in less dangerous scenarios before combining them and amping up the challenge. 

There are a few rare occasions where the game forces you to jump blind from one dangerous scenario into another with no chance to stop and see what’s next. You will then almost invariably die. You’re already dying a lot, but these deaths are the only ones that feel unfair. At worst at least you now know the second hazard is there and can play accordingly.

The ultra-tough "Grandma" levels allow you to use all power-ups at once. You'll need them.

Finally a boss fight or two would have been a nice way to tie off the game, although narrative, combat, or bosses isn’t really what MM is about. Anyone who enjoys high-challenge platforming should check this delightful indie gem out. More casual games might find themselves put off by the intense difficulty level.

Reasons to Play: Extremely tight, responsive controls. Well built levels. Charming retro graphics and sound. Precision platforming bliss.

Reasons to pass: Extremely high difficulty level. No boss fights to cap off game. Occasional unfair blind jumps.

Pineapple Smash Crew

Pineapple Smash Crew (PSC) is a top-down “dual stick” style shooter in the vein of the Cannon Fodder series. The art style is charmingly retro and the chiptunes that provide the soundtrack are catchy. Notably the game was developed by “RichMakeGame”, a company consisting of one man, or possibly a talented man-shaped robot. 

The player controls a group of four tiny-headed, meme spouting and heavily armed mercenaries, moving with the keyboard and shooting with the mouse. Your mercs always move and fight in close formation. In practice they’re less a tactical squad and more a single body with four discrete guns and health bars. 

Gameplay is fast and furious. You race your team through a series of randomly generated derelict ships at breakneck speed, blasting and exploding every robot and monster in their way and grabbing up the power-ups and experience cubes left behind. There are a handful of basic mission types, but they boil down to killing or smashing everything in a particular room. Levels have a tight time limit on all but the easiest difficulty level. Exceed it and your squad starts to suffer constant damage, killing them in short order.

Combat has some interesting twists in that your guns aren’t actually very strong. It can take concentrated fire from the entire squad and draining the regenerating ammo bar to drop many mid and late game enemies. Superior firepower and tactical depth are provided in the form of a host of grenade style deployables, hurled with the right mouse button. These range from destructive grenades and rockets, to support items like healing fields and defensive shields, to more exotic fare like teleporter beacons and lasers that can punch through walls. Each character can only carry one item at a time. 

The best place to shoot an enemy is from around a corner.

The emphasis on these remote one-shot weapons is what sets PSC apart from most twin-stick style shooter, and much effort was clearly put towards making their use and control feel natural. When you fling a deployable item the camera zooms out, allowing you to rotate and guide the device in mid flight before triggering it with a second click. You can (and should) move your squad at the same time. Deftly splitting your attention between using a remote turret to blast a nest of enemies while maneuvering to safety feels just about perfect.

Deployables are scattered plentifully through the environment and dropped by enemies. Leveling up your squad lets you choose to unlock one of two new randomly selected items. Your selection then has a chance to spawn alongside all your other unlocked choices. It’s all quite random, with no guarantee you’ll be able to find or even unlock a particular item. It’s up to you to make use of what the level generator gives you on a room by room basis.

PSC isn’t a particularly deep game. By design it’s well suited to quick bursts of frantic fun, playing a mission or two at a time. This is great in the early and even the mid-game, when levels take only a few minutes to complete. Unfortunately it starts to break down as the game wears on.

The size and difficulty of later missions start to push them out of the “bite-sized” range. While PSC’s enemies aren’t particularly smart they become exponentially tougher and more numerous, sometimes taking a ludicrous amount of damage to kill. I would often find myself exhausting an area’s supply of items before its population of enemies. 

Bosses are protected by modular layers of guns and armor, each of which can be destroyed.

This is especially annoying when fighting PSC’s modular bosses, who seal you inside the room with them to fight to the death. Once you’ve used up all your grenades and shields and whatnot these fights are reduced to circle strafing around the boss over and over until your guns finally wear them down or the level timer kills you. Having additional power-ups spawn in continually would have helped a lot.

Experienced mercenaries become more damage resistant, but are still ultimately expendable. If slain they’re replaced with raw level one recruits. (Unless you’re playing on hard where they’re not replaced at all.) It’s possible to lose an entire veteran squad and have to press on with a bunch of squishy noobies. 

Losses can easily lead to more losses, creating a self-reinforcing death loop. It would have been nice to be able to use the cash you earn on missions to resurrect dead mercenaries, or at least train up new recruits to near the squad’s average level. As it is money just functions as a sort of score, or to buy cosmetic hats. 

For a game developed entirely by one man (soundtrack excluded) PSC is a significant accomplishment. Tuning and balance is tricky enough with an entire play-testing department. The game plays smoothly, never crashed or bugged out on me, and is perfectly suited for a quick five-minute action break. It’s just unfortunate that the pacing starts to grind.

Reasons to play: Fast paced action. Interesting use of grenade types and mechanics. Rocking chiptunes.

Reasons to pass: Punishing time limit on all but easiest difficulty. Gameplay gets repetitive after a few missions. Boss fights become a chore. 

They Breath

They Breath is a quick play and a strange one at that, almost more of a demo than full game. It only took me about 45 minutes to complete. A disproportionate amount of that was on the game’s final encounter, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The premise and gameplay is simple. You play as a frog, controlled from a 2D side view, descending down into the depths of a flooded forest. You can move in any direction and tap the spacebar for a little burst of extra speed. That’s the extent of your abilities and the information you’re given on how to play. 

As you work your way down through the flooded forest you’ll quickly discover a bizarre ecosystem based around oxygen. O2 functions as both a time limit and your health and requires constant replenishment by collecting the bubbles drifting up from below. You’re not the only creature in the water though.

Gameplay is strictly linear. Waves of creatures of various types swim onscreen. Each interacts differently with you, each other, and the vital supply of oxygen. Since you’re a frog and not a killing machine you survive by evading and manipulating creatures as you come to understand more and more about the sunken ecosystem. Once every creature in a wave is dealt with, one way or another, you resume your descent. If you suffocate or meet a worse fate you simply restart at the beginning of the wave.

Those aren't moose.

They Breath quickly becomes a sort of wordless, interactive biological horror story. I won’t do you the disservice of spoiling the twists, but I enjoyed them. The sparse but ominous music and ambient sound design help create an eerie atmosphere.

The game makes for a good case study in teaching the player mechanics without cumbersome tutorials, intrusive onscreen text, or somebody yelling orders at you via radio. Nothing is ever explained, only demonstrated. It’s up to you to figure out the relationships between the different creatures and how to deal with them through experimentation and observation.

The final encounter of the game is memorable and even subtly horrifying, but took me almost as long as the rest of this very short game combined. Most players will need to repeat it anywhere up to a dozen times. A smoother difficulty curve would have been better for They Breath’s pacing and prevented frustrated. It’s also possible and even necessary to swim off-screen during much of the game, and the camera should really zoom out during the later encounters with larger numbers of creatures.

Reasons to Play: Fascinating wordless horror story. Good case study in teaching the player mechanics unobtrusively. Cheap.

Reasons to Pass: Very short. Aggravating final encounter. 


Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Banner Saga Interview

Stoic Studios is a new Austin based indie development studio. They’ve been hard at work on their first release: the beautifully illustrated and Nordic themed tactical strategy game The Banner Saga. John Watson, Stoic’s Technical Director, has agreed to share some of the details with us.

Stoic is made up of ex Bioware employees. What made you decide to set out to create a game with deliberate, tactical turn-based combat at its core, so different from games like The Old Republic and other traditional Bioware staples?

There are definitely a couple reasons for this. The first is that I've been a huge fan of turn-based games growing up ever since Final Fantasy Tactics, so making a game like this has always been one of the things you work toward in your career. Conveniently, it's also a genre we can produce with a small team, but this really is a labor of love and I think most developers have a couple ideas that they always think "one day I'll make that". We've been incredibly lucky to be in that position.

You’ve stated that one of your goals with The Banner Saga’s single player component is to tell a mature story based around human (and giant) relationships and tough decisions.  How do you plan to get the player emotionally involved with the characters and their struggles?

One of the tricks we did pick up from BioWare is how to make compelling dialogue in a role-playing game. The story is largely conversation-driven, and when you talk to people it's in a cinematic, movie-quality sort of way, which works perfectly with our art style. You can see the person you're talking to look around, blink, breathing mist in the cold air, and it makes a big difference. The story we're writing is about connecting with these people who are traveling with you in a caravan, and that's our second key component. You're not just worried about being the lone hero saving the world, you're not just a team of heroes, you're actually traveling with an entire society of people and you get to know them as a whole along the way through lots of events, similar to King of Dragon Pass.

Combat looks highly tactical. For example balancing attacks between striking enemy armor to make them more vulnerable and striking enemy strength to weaken them offensively looks very important. Are there any other similarly cool and elegant systems you’re excited about?

Actually, yes, there are a couple things that are very exciting to me as a player and a designer. We originally set out to make a "simple to learn, hard to master" sort of game and found out that we had made something a lot more deep and complex than people expected. In fact, it's been difficult explaining the system as a whole because as you understand one system at a time it kind of peels layers away to a bigger picture, and we've been really focused making sure that players understand just to top level so far.

Willpower lets you add bonus points to your actions so you can do more damage or move further, but your pool of willpower is finite, making the use of it very strategic. Exertion determines how much willpower you can use on each turn, so you can throw three will into an attack to really cripple someone early. The tradeoff is that you have a limited number of upgrades when creating your character, so upgrading exertion and willpower means you'll have lower strength and armor. I think our greatest strength of design is that we've made every stat equally important even though they all do wildly different things.

One of the most important game changers is that each character moves according to his initiative but you always have a guaranteed turn, so as your characters die, you discover that your surviving characters act more frequently. At the end of a match if you're down to one powerful character in good health he could easily mop up an opponent who has four characters left, all on the verge of death. We've created a really unique system in which on top of all the decisions about hitting strength or armor, whether to add willpower and deciding when to use your abilities, it's also vitally important to know when to maim and when to kill. Sometimes it's better to leave an enemy with little strength than killing him outright, and knowing which is better becomes a skill within itself.

There are a lot of subtleties like this that emerge when you really get into playing the game that are hard to describe in a single sentence.

What’s been the biggest challenge so far in establishing an indie studio and creating Banner Saga? Have there been any positive surprises?

The biggest challenge by far has been promotion and dealing with large numbers of people interested in the game. It sounds weird to say but if you think about it, we have a lot of experience making games, and not much interacting with the public. Marketing has got to be at least 50% of your success, and if you don't have a budget for marketing you have to make all those connections yourself. That's why Kickstarter and Factions have been invaluable for us - it's insanely important that we foster a community and keep players happy, and it's hard work. I probably spend about half of my time producing updates, videos, interviews and talking to people. The rare occasion that we get to spend a whole day just working on the game is like relaxation.

If I had to pick something in production though, the clear winner is UI. With a relatively complex game your UI (user interface) and usability has to be perfect and we went through a lot of iteration to get it to the point where people can just sit down and figure out how to play the game without reading any guides. It's not a matter of making it looks pretty, but how do you present information in a clean and intuitive way that doesn't confuse or overwhelm the player. It's incredibly tricky.

The art and animation in this game is gorgeous. Aside from the obvious Norse and Scandinavian influences what sources did Stoic draw upon to create the world of Banner Saga?

Our biggest influence in the art style has always been Eyvind Earle, an American master painter and the art director on Sleeping Beauty. We take a lot of cues from that movie, in fact, often deciding that something we designed wouldn't fit in that world. We spent a lot of time early in the project researching different art styles and the second we saw Sleeping Beauty we knew that's what we wanted to do. Making a 2D game allows to make it look exactly how we paint it and create a look that many people have never seen before. It also helps that we have Arnie Jorgensen as Art Director, who has literally done all the non-animation art in the entire game. There aren't many people out there who can do what he does.

You’re releasing the combat engine as a free, stand alone multiplayer game: Banner Saga Factions. Any tips on emerging triumphant in battle?

Definitely. If you're just starting out, remember that knocking down armor, especially early in the game is probably even more important than damaging strength. Make some characters who are dedicated armor breakers and other characters who are good at doing strength damage. A well balanced team actually dominates min/maxing in The Banner Saga. And make sure you know how exertion works before hitting the battlefield! Each page has a question mark button that tells you how everything works. Good luck! 

For more information check out: http://stoicstudio.com

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mass Effect Retrospect, Part Two

Welcome back to our Mass Effect series retrospect. We continue with the second game in the series, which features cleaner and more tightly focused gameplay but shifts to an even less linear story and narrative structure.

Mass Effect 2 (ME 2 for future reference) wastes no time in upping the stakes. Within the opening few minutes the Normandy is attacked by a malevolent bug-like race called the Collectors.  Most of the crew escape, but Shepard perishes in the battle and the Normandy is destroyed.

The scene is all the more effective by having you actually play through part of it. I’ve long maintained that the strength of games as a medium is in letting you experience things first hand rather than absorbing it passively. It’s one thing to see the Normandy being shot up in a pre-rendered cutscene, but guiding Sheppard through the burning and breached ship yourself drives home the seriousness of the situation in a way nothing else could.

We can Rebuild Him

Shepard’s default face is all over the box art, so it would be unusual if Bioware left the commander dead and forged ahead with a replacement lead. Instead the body is rescued by a radical pro-human organization called Cerberus. They spend the next two years rather improbably bringing Shepard back from the dead, which provides a convenient justification for you to choose a new appearance and even character class if you chose to import a character from the first Mass Effect. Sheppard having literally been dead comes up surprisingly little, and Sheppard remembers nothing between death and resurrection. All this also has some potentially disturbing theological implications that never come, but so it goes.

Your mysterious benefactor and leader of the morally suspect Cerberus.

Those of you who did a lot of the side content in the first Mass Effect might remember that Cerberus was a minor antagonist faction. Most of their plans seemed to revolve around trying to control or breed various alien killing machines, then acting surprised when they lost control and were devoured. Their leader, the sharply dressed and charismatic Illusive Man, hand waves away past misdeeds before sending you back into the fight. He did just spend a gazillion space-bucks snatching you back from the icy talons of death and building you a bigger and even more advanced replacement Normandy, plus it’s hard to get too mad at anyone voiced by Martin Sheen.

Casting Call

The basic narrative structure of ME 2 has you building up a team of specialists, mercenaries, scientists, and a few psychopaths thrown in for flavor. Once you’re staffed up Shepard will then pursue the Collectors beyond the ominous “Omega 4” relay and confront them on their home turf. The game is at least as non-linear as its predecessor.  Missions are loosely divided into a few different acts, but for the most part you can tackle them in almost any order.

As we’ve come to expect with Bioware games your growing crew is made up of a diverse array of humans, aliens, and more. Standouts include a fast talking and hilariously written ex-special forces scientist and a Geth scout who provides some fascinating insight into the nature and culture of that race of aggregate AI’s.

Moradin steals the show as best recruit able team member.

The bulk of ME 2’s missions are based around either recruiting a new character or resolving some sort of outstanding issue that’s troubling one you’ve already obtained. Once you’ve helped them gain whatever vengeance, redemption, absolution, or revelation they needed Sheppard secures their Loyalty. Earning a character’s loyalty unlocks an additional power and has important implications for the final mission.

None of these missions or the characters they’re built around is outright bad in terms of story and gameplay. Some missions are a bit stronger than others, but all are at least entertaining and devoid of any obnoxious mechanics. You’re free to tackle them in almost any order and there can be a half dozen or more waiting for your attention at once by the mid-game.

Clear up any outstanding business before heading to the derelict Reaper.
(Level design courtesy Ridley Scott)

All this has the effect of making the game feel like a collection of only loosely related character driven vignettes, rather than a single sweeping story with galactic level stakes. The structure might be better suited for a more freeform game where you play as a pirate captain or mercenary commander putting together a crew to explore and pillage. It would have helped if the main villains, the Collectors, had appeared more frequently.


For example for much of the game you’re fighting either generic security robots or one of the various color coded mercenary factions. They’re enjoyable enough to shoot at but have nothing to do with the central story. In ME 1’s main missions you were battling the minions of antagonist Saren at every turn. Here the Collectors hardly appear at all. You don’t even get to fight them until the beginning of the second act.

If, as the story implies, the Collectors are so interested in Sheppard they don’t put a lot of effort into showing it. During the opening mission why do you find yourself fighting boring security bots, rather than a Collector strike force sent to make sure the newly revived Sheppard stays dead? Why not have them drop in to attack you during unrelated missions, reminding you that they’re still out there and gunning for you?

The Collector general “Harbinger” could have been an interesting antagonist. With his ability to directly possess any of his followers he should have been a constant presence in the story, taunting and trying to thwart Shepard at every turn. As implemented his only memorable trait is over-clocking a random Collector in combat, making them moderately more dangerous.

The Collectors will need to work harder if they want to be worth Grunt's time.

While Saren could have had more appearances in ME 1 at least he managed an interesting characterization as a powerful and driven individual slowly being subsumed by an even more powerful and terrible force. A good “save the universe” story needs a good villain. Harbinger really doesn’t get the screen time or character development necessary to be one.

Past and Present

One of the more unique and exciting features the ME series promised was the ability to import a finished save file to the next game. In theory your decisions in the previous game affect the story in the sequel. I chose to import my file and found, while it does have a notable impact, it’s not as dramatic as I was expecting.

It’s understandable but slightly disappointing that the effects of importing a save are mostly in the form of small bonuses, side quests, and minor narrative deviations. For example if you chose to spare the Rachnai Queen in ME1 you receive a brief message from her, but the Rachnai don’t actually show up anywhere in gameplay or the central storyline. I guess it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to pour valuable development resources into content that a player might not even see based on previous decisions.

A great many characters from ME1 return, assuming they survived the events of the first game. It is pretty cool to see a character you had the chance to slay but didn’t still alive, and it gives a bit of weight to the decisions you made a whole game ago. The impact of other decisions is only hinted at via newscasts or background conversations, but it’s nice to see the nod to what you’ve done.

While most of your old team from ME1 pop up at some point or another Garrus and Tali are the only characters to actually rejoin you. Seth Green also reprises his role as “Joker”, the Normandy’s skilled but brittle boned pilot. While a relatively minor character he’s clearly having a great deal of fun with the part, and the scenes where he interacts with the Normandy’s experimental AI are always entertaining.

The "Blood Dragon" armor is a Dragon Age DLC bonus.

ME2 still tends to resort to showing cool stuff in cutscenes rather than letting you do it firsthand more than it should, but the new dynamic Interrupt system helps. During a conversation you occasionally see brief prompts that a Paragon on Renegade interrupt is possible. Tapping the appropriate mouse button and Sheppard leaps into action while the other party is still blathering.

Paragon interrupts have Sheppard heading off violence or offering a shoulder to cry on. Renegade interrupts are of the bad-ass “Han shoots first” variety, allowing Sheppard to end the conversation in a flurry of gunfire or fling the offender from a great height. They’re a tremendously fun addition that makes conversations more cinematic and dynamic. Sometimes it’s just better to shoot the villain in the face while he’s in mid-rant.

Lessons Learned

Character progression has been trimmed down and streamlined. Every class has a handful of powers that share a collective cooldown and so can’t be spammed one after another. Each power has only a few ranks, but the difference each rank makes is significant. Unlike ME 1 there’s no scaling, so even a +10% damage bonus means a lot when mercenary grunts don’t magically get tougher as you level up.

There’s no random loot either.  Some upgrades can be purchased, but others must be found and then researched in the Normandy’s lab. ME 2 leaves you with less flexibility to shape and specialize Shepard and your team, but individual upgrades and power ranks are much more meaningful.

The Mako is gone, as is dropping in on unexplored planets and wandering around to see what you could find. While ME 1’s unexplored worlds were mostly poorly made terrain and a whole lot of nothing ME 2 loses a bit of the sense of size and scale of its predecessor. The carefully scripted missions are one of the ME 2’ greatest strengths, but there’s no denying they’re very linear.

Hard cover (or bulletproof glass in this case) beats the best shields and armor any day.

Combat is tighter, deadlier, and much more cover based than it was before. You can tell when a fight is coming just by looking for the chest high walls, and you’ll want to get behind those ASAP before you get shot to pieces. Shields and health are easily stripped away but both regenerate quickly. Guns have been downgraded to needing ammo in the form of “Thermal Clips”, but remembering to reload and grabbing the occasional ammo cache isn’t that big a deal.

The relationship between defenses, weapons and powers is more complex and interesting, with a rock/paper/scissors element. Tougher enemies have multiple defensive bars layered over their health that must be stripped away in sequence. Against a robotic foe you might use the Overload power to knock out its Shields, exposing the lumbering machine’s Health bar and leaving it vulnerable to being AI hacked and turned against its allies. Krogan protected by Armor forge ahead relentlessly until you burn their protection away with Incinerate, letting biotic powers toss them across the room.

All this creates a welcome level of tactical depth and gives you incentive to think carefully about what squad-mates to bring and what selection of powers and weapons you’ll have during a given mission.  Your HUD tells you what powers an enemy is currently resistant to whenever you target them, removing guesswork and letting you focus on the fight.


As tightly constructed as the core combat and missions are its unfortunate that you’ll spend so much time staring at a loading screen between encounters. ME 2 has load times so lengthy and frequent I started keeping a magazine near my computer. Even just moving to a different deck on the Normandy requires sitting though a load screen, and it really drags down the flow of the game.

Probing planets, the primary way to find resources for researching upgrades, is also dull and tedious. Fortunately you don’t actually need that many resources to research everything, and there are plenty of mineral rich planets scattered around.  You can likely stockpile everything you need in about half an hour total and then forget about it for the rest of the game.

ME 2 wraps up with an epic, multi-stage mission that feels like a Stargate or Star Trek season finale. It’s possible to launch the finale with a bare minimum of characters recruited, but realistically you’ll want to spend as much time building up your team, ship, and arsenal as possible. Your choices during the final mission and level of preparedness beforehand determine who lives and dies. It’s probably safe to assume characters that perish in the final assault won’t reappear in ME 3. It’s even possible to finish the game with Sheppard dead for the second time, in which case presumably you won’t be able to import that save.

As per gameing bylaw #412 you do shoot zombies on occasion.

Finally ME 2 has a solidly implemented postgame. Assuming you and any of your team survive the final mission you’re allowed to go back and travel the galaxy cleaning up any content you missed. This includes any DLC, which is handy if you discover some that interests you after finish.

Speaking of which ME 2 has gobs of DLC.  A decent amount of it is free if you’re willing to register on the appropriate website and have bought a new copy of the game. The game came out nearly three years ago though, and much of the DLC is still being sold individually and at full price. Games like Borderlands and Fallout 3 at least had the sense to roll everything into a “Game of the Year” edition to try to tempt new players.

If Bioware and EA had any common sense they’d have bundled all the DLC together for a single payment of $10 bucks by now or included it with the latest edition of the game. They apparently don’t, because everything is still being sold piecemeal for too much money and I honestly can’t muster the energy or burn the cash to deal with it. The free DLC was decent but nothing spectacular. I enjoyed the bouncy hovertank. 

Illium. Like Coruscant, but with even more blue women.

Ultimately Mass Effect 2 is a good game but not quite a great game. Bioware was able to smooth out a lot of the rougher edges to the gameplay and write a host of interesting characters, but weren’t able to make as strong a core story or antagonist. Still, the third game promises a true Galactic scale war, much lamented ending an all. I might as well take my save file and finish the fight.

Reasons to Play: Strong writing and characters. Tightly balanced cover based combat. Interrupts make conversations more dynamic and let you feel like a badass.

Reasons to Pass: Too long and too frequent load times. Weaker core story and villain. DLC hasn’t yet been bundled yet. Save File import feature less exciting than it initially appeared.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.