Following the defeat of Sovereign at the end of Mass Effect 1, Shepherd and crew find themselves in the midst of a grand denial. The Council attributes the unprecedented attack against the Citadel to the Geth and a rogue agent, blissfully happy to believe that the danger has passed. Meanwhile, they still treat the true threat, the Reapers, as myth. Shepherd finds himself in a waiting game; without Council support for a full investigation of the Reapers, there is little else to do but wait for their next move. When a mysterious ship appears and attacks the Normandy, Shepherd find himself injured, presumed dead, and cut off from the Alliance--at least temporarily.
The highlight of Mass Effect 2 is unquestionably its story and universe, which builds upon the first game's fantastic universe with a tremendous deal of depth and new revelations. Many of the races that were only hinted at are given far more treatment this time around. With Shepherd working outside the Alliance, we get to explore the outer rim systems. It is a realm that ranges from semi-ordered to lawless, and most of its residents are happy to operate outside of Council space. The Quarians, courtesy of a companion character, are given a tremendous amount of development, including a visit to the migrant fleet. And, in a surprise highlight later in the game, we even get a healthy dose of new insights on the Geth. Several other races also are featured heavily, many of which received only a brief mention in the first game.
The story is fast-paced throughout the game, with the feeling of tangible threat growing each step along the way. It is a good length--I finished the game in 52 hours, and I always play slowly--just enough to feel like you can sink yourself into the story without every feeling like the game was dragging. It was a very satisfying experience, and yet I was wishing for more by the end.
The combat and RPG system is still fun in Mass Effect 2, but it is definitely different. Many of the classical RPG elements were streamlined from the first game, which was a little disappointing. There is very little, if any, choice to be made about equipment, with the exception of one's preferred rate of fire for shotguns. Furthermore, decisions about abilities are largely relegated to deciding which of four skills (five for Shepherd) to forego. Controls were similarly simplified, with you needing basically three buttons outside of movement: your trigger, the pause-the-game-breathe-and-trigger-abilities button (I live and die with this button), and the run/take cover button. It took some getting used to, but by the end I found that combat was pretty fluid, fun, dynamic, and rarely over-dependent on "twitchy" player skills.
The biggest addition to the combat system was a paper-rock-scissors (sort of) system of defenses. In addition to health, enemies can have up to three other types of defenses: armor, shields, and biotic barriers. Each defense is best targeted by different kinds of weapons and skills. Shields, for example, can be attacked by semi-automatic guns of Warp biotic abilities, whereas armor is better penetrated by heavy pistols and fire-based biotics. I really enjoyed this addition; it made weapon switching important in combat, and, best of all, encouraged me to take along different companions depending on the types of enemies I expected to face in a given mission.
Also gone in this game were the planetary exploration missions of the first game. You never get the equivalent of the mako tank missions where you get to drop down on a planet and battle your way to a mercenary base. Instead, in this game, the mission just starts at the door to the base. The mako's controls might have been bad at release, but by the time I played the game, it was vastly improved and, frankly, really fun. I LOVED the opportunity to trek across alien landscapes of random planets, many of which weren't directly tied to the main plot. ME2 seemingly replaced the mako experience with something far less fun: painfully slow, boring scans of planets for resources. Those scans are mandatory, too, if you want to get enough resources to upgrade your weapons and ship sufficiently to take down the bad guys in the endgame. I have no idea what the designers were thinking with this part of the game; more than once, they ended my late-night gaming session because I was nodding off trying to find a little bit more iridium.
In the end, ME2 is a terrific game. Its main failing is that it probably isn't quite as good as the original, which has an argument for best RPG of all time. If you compare it against ME1, you probably have to take off a star. But compared to other games, I just can't do that. ME2 is a blast to play, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to others. It's not perfect, but it's a 5 out of 5.
(sorry for no screenshots on this one; I took them, but they seem to have been deleted from my Steam screenshot directory!)
Sunday, August 7, 2016
Sunday, June 19, 2016
The concept of the virtual world of OASIS is well-realized in this book. Against the backdrop of a dystopian future United States, it makes sense that so many people would opt to instead find release from their bleak world by logging into a virtual universe with nearly endless new places to explore. But the heart of this book is how its characters make use of OASIS to revel in and experience the rich array of 80's culture that is infused into the novel. It was a walk back down the memories of my childhood. Ferris Buhler. Goonies. Joust. Zork. Rush. Lord of the Rings. All of it is described and delivered with so much zeal by the author that you can tell how much he loves that source material.
If that weren't enough to compel the narrative forward, the book becomes even more of a page-turner as the stakes get higher. Along the way, we see Wade's character develop and mature, along with several of his closer friends and companions that he meets while pursuing Halladay's quests. It's a fun, wild adventure, and at the same time a very satisfying trip down memory lane. One of my favorite books of the past several years.
Saturday, May 7, 2016
|Not all monuments in this game hail from before the war|
In a lot of ways, Fallout New Vegas is the answer to that. The timeline has advanced from fallout 2, and NCR has expanded in both power and territory. As they encroached into Nevada, they got the Hoover Dam running, only to encounter another massive, heavily-armed force of fanatics coming from the east, all hailing under the banner of someone who calls himself Caesar. And right in the middle of it all, a mysterious character named Mr. House, has somehow gotten the old Las Vegas strip running again, complete with four major casinos, right in the middle of the Mojave wasteland. The Strip is the biggest urban center for miles around, but there are a half-dozen smaller towns scattered through the area, with varying allegiances and agendas. This is the wide-open sandbox world in which you get to play.
|Lovely NOVAC, my first real home base.|
|NCR propaganda directed at their troops|
A few notes on modifications. There is a critical bug that causes endless loading screens and corrupted saves that plagues Fallout 3. There is also a catastrophically bad design decision to have your character hounded by absurdly-powerful hit squads that respawn and attack every few days, which can really run your character's resources ragged and badly sapped my enjoyment of the game. Fortunately, fixes for both the loading bug (both of these) and the squads are available and pretty easy to apply from community sites. Kudos to those folks for saving what would have been an unplayable game otherwise.
|This facility featured one of the best side-quests in the game.|
More Screenshots below the jump. Warning, some involve major spoilers.
Saturday, April 23, 2016
So begins The Martian, a fantastic survival story by Andy Weir. Much of the story is told through first-person logs that Mark uses to document his step-wise puzzle through each problem. The tremendous appeal of this book, beyond the thrilling survival story, is that Mark makes use of a lot of real-life science in this tale. His food problem comes down to a strict issue of calories: he has vitamins and protein tablets, but how can he produce the precise number of calories he needs in time to be rescued 4 years later during the next Ares mission? Traveling to the next Ares site becomes a problem of power: how can he maintain his life support system and still have enough energy to power the rover using his solar cells? If that doesn't sound like gripping reading, perhaps that's the genius of this book: despite its sometimes technical nature, its pacing, humor, surprises, and quality writing make it a gripping tale that kept me up many nights far past a reasonable bedtime.
Like many people picking up the book now, I read this after having watched the superb movie last year. The movie is extremely true to the book in many parts, even down to extended stretches of the dialog. But in other places, the movie deviates substantially from the book. While I was initially concerned that reading it would be too much of a rehash of the movie, it quickly became clear that there was a lot more in this book to sink my teeth into. And even those parts that do match up to the movie are just so thrilling that they still will keep you up late reading.
The movie was the best film I'd seen in years. This book is right up there with it. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
This is most definitely Bean's book. While his tale certainly overlaps with Ender's, and there are common characters, this isn't really just a retelling of the original novel. A great deal of this book happens away from Ender, beginning with Bean's early childhood on the streets of Rotterdam, or in different parts of Battle School. By being told from Bean's perspective, even the climax of this book, which directly overlaps with the conclusion of Ender's Game, feels different. We learn a great deal more about what was going on during those events, much of which happened outside of Ender's frame of reference. Bean is a fantastic character with a great deal of depth, and it was fun to live in his mind.
The book was a very fast read. While other novels might take me over a month to pick through, I read this one cover-to-cover in about two weeks (I'm not a fast reader and have a busy life, so this is about as fast as it gets). It's lively and fun, and I enjoyed it immensely. If I have a criticism of the story, it's that huge chunks of the novel are long descriptions of what was going on in Bean's mind. These introspections are often interesting and certainly drive the narrative forward, but I think they were a bit overdone in the book and certainly ventured into the realm of "telling, not showing." Granted, it'd be difficult to tell the same story without them, because Bean as a character is incredibly secretive, introspective, and, for much of the book, very introverted.
This is apparently the first book in a series of six(!) books focused on Bean and his family, not all of which have been released. I'm not sure if/when I'll dig into that series, but I certainly would recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed the original and wanted another chance to explore Orson Scott Card's Battle School.
Sunday, March 27, 2016
I'm of two minds on this book. On one hand, this book does more to establish the culture of Faerunian dragonborn than any other work yet published by Wizards of the Coast. Evans' dragonborn society is rich in tradition, history, and culture, and this book really dives into it. You learn about the high politics of how leaders are chosen in their militaristic society, and how that tightly interfaces with how the daily lives of individuals play out within their complicated family structures. It's a society that feels fresh and unique, distinct from anything I've seen before in the Realms (and probably elsewhere). It's tight and detailed, and is brought alive with small details, expressions, and mannerisms unique to the dragonborn. And yet, it still leaves room for individuals to distinguish themselves from others or, at times, reject the dragonborn society altogether.
On the other hand, in the end, I can't help but feel like not a lot really happened in this book. There is an immediate concern in the novel, and that is ultimately solved. And along the way, there are dozens of small plot points that are introduced, some of which grow in stature such that they loom very large by the novel's end. But ultimately, the book seems largely there to set up the story in the next, which (if I'm understanding correctly) may well be the ultimate book in this series. Some of this problem in direction may stem from the fact that apparently about half of the critical events in this book were dictated by the game designers and their publisher. The story Ms. Evans really set out to tell is what will be in this next book.
I did enjoy the book. But the more I think about it, the more I think that the interventions of the WotC team really did hurt this novel. It doesn't have the tight, satisfying feel of Fire in the Blood, and as a result it's not a strong a book. Nevertheless, that doesn't dampen my enthusiasm for the series or its characters, and I'm very much looking forward to the next book in the series.
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
I've long felt that one of Scull's greatest strengths was his ability to craft deep, unique, and interesting characters. While we got to meet each of them in the first novel, it is in this book that they really start to shine. Each has depth, biases, and just enough nobility to keep them likable despite their deep flaws. Kayne was my favorite character from the first novel, and in this novel we re-live his storied life at both its high and low points. Kayne is part hero, part pragmatist, and part seasoned warrior well past his prime. For all of his flaws and weaknesses, and they are many, he has become one of my favorite fantasy characters.
There are many interesting themes that are explored in the novel as well. What price is really worth paying for free will? At what point should an honest, brave man surrender in the face of an unstoppable foe? When a town full of scum and lowlifes is slaughtered by an invader, who is in the right? There aren't firm answers provided to these questions, but the narrative lets you wrestle with them as you watch Scull's characters do their best to achieve their goals--and often fall short.
This is a genuinely excellent book. While it certainly sets up a dramatic conclusion(?) to the story in the third book, I honestly have no idea what is going to happen, who will survive, or even what "victory" for the characters might actually look like. Nevertheless, I know that it's going to be exciting to find out.