Sunday, August 7, 2016

Review: Mass Effect 2

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, June 19, 2016

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Wade Watts lives with his aunt in a trailer stack on the outskirts of a US metropolis in 2044.  Both of his parents are dead, and his aunt hates him.  She only allows him in her trailer because she gets his food vouchers.  During the day, however, Wade is someone else.  He attends high school in a virtual reality online world known as OASIS, which he interfaces using a visor and a pair of haptic gloves provided by his charter high school program.  Wade does well in school, and yet his primary focus is on something else.  The creator of OASIS, James Halliday, began a contest at the time of his death.  Whoever is the first to find an easter egg within the immense OASIS universe will inherit his preposterous fortune. To find it, contestants will have to be versed in Halliday's personal interests, which revolve around 80's pop-culture, and especially nerd-culture: video games, movies, books, music, TV series, anime, cartoons, dnd, and japanese monster flicks.  Wade has spent the past several years as a "gunter," an easter egg hunter, and has immersed himself in that universe.  And, with a few lucky breaks, he might just be about to make a breakthrough.

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

Review: Fallout New Vegas

Not all monuments in this game hail from before the war
Fallout 3 was a landmark game.  It brought new levels of immersion into the fallout universe, and let us explore the nuclear wasteland to a degree of visual detail, at least, that eclipsed the original pair of isometric, turn-based combat games.  It was a challenging, fun, gripping game.  Nevertheless, there were ways in which one could argue it drifted too far from its roots.  While there were a handful of settlements in the D.C. wasteland, most were pitifully small and desperate.  Humans just weren't doing that well, and there was plenty of reason to think they might be exterminated altogether.  And so you ended up spending most of the game delving through the ruins, only occasionally running into any kind of organized groups, and certainly nothing resembling any level of society.  There were no towns on the level of New Reno or the Hub, much less anything remotely resembling the New California Republic.

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.
There is still plenty of wasteland to explore, complete with ruins of old warehouses, mines, and, of course, the Vault-Tec Vaults!  But while I often found myself feeling completely alone in shambles of an extinct society while playing Fallout 3, New Vegas provided opportunity for a lot more social interaction.  There are an impressive host of companion characters available, each of which has both personality and their own goals and quests.  Each town you visit has at least one major quest, and there are often several side-quests.  And finally, there several important factions around which the main story revolves.  Will you support the expansion of the NCR, take advantage of the power available to you by allying with Caesar's legion, or play the two against each other by working for the enigmatic Mr. House.  Somehow, no matter who you choose, you ultimately get to visit most locales and interact with most of the key NPC's, but the choices you make in the endgame will have a lasting effect on the game world--far more so than the scant choice you had in Fallout 3.  Best of all, while there is a clear "evil" path that one can take in the game, there are several viable paths that seemed within the realm of what my character might pursue.  It was tough to decide who to support.  Ultimately, I liked the plot of New Vegas a bit more than that of Fallout 3, mostly on the strength of the meaningful choices you get to make.

NCR propaganda directed at their troops
A few things weren't done as well as Fallout 3.  While there is no shortage of interesting locales to visit, most of the "random" ruins and such that were such a pleasure to explore in Fallout 3 are significantly scaled back in Fallout New Vegas.  There are lots of small, one or two-room shacks, some of which just have nothing in them.  The Vault dungeons continued to be some of the most interesting in the game, but with one exception they couldn't hold a candle to the amazing (and often disturbing) vaults of Fallout 3.  James Friel, who wrote an excellent walkthrough for this game, noted that Fallout New Vegas sometimes "lacks imagination."  However, if it fails to put as much effort into its "filler" locations, I thought it more than made up for this with its core story and featured characters.  Finally, I'd estimate that I maxed out my level about 55-60% of the way through the game.  While I was loosely following a walkthrough, as I often do in sandbox games, I had a ton more to do yet.  It's a silly thing, but I missed not getting those little xp rewards every time I succeeded in a skill check, cleared a quest, or took out a raider.

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.
This is the game that I've been playing since January, more or less.  It's a huge world to explore, and the Steam guilt-o-meter says I sank a good 115 hours into it to play start to finish.  It was time well spent, as the experience has left me we scores of special moments that will stay with me for years to come.  An easy 5 out of 5.

More Screenshots below the jump.  Warning, some involve major spoilers.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Review: The Martian by Andy Wier

In the not-so-distant future, Mark Watney was one of a crew of six astronauts to land on Mars in the Ares 3 mission.  But just as their mission began, tragedy struck: a dangerous storm came upon their landing site and caused the team to abort their mission and flee the planet.  While the crew evacuated to the launch vehicle, Mark was struck by debris, launching him far from his companions, knocking him unconscious, destroying his biomonitor.  After a desperate, fruitless search, his crew was forced to presume him dead and leave the planet without him.  Despite all odds, however, Watney survived and made it back to the Hab.  The only problem was that he was stranded on a desolate, inhospitable planet with a finite supply of food and no way of communicating with with Earth.

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

Review: Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game was a book about Ender Wiggins, a genius among geniuses, and the boy who, almost unwittingly, became humanity's great hope in their battle against a powerful alien race.  Ender's Shadow is the story of Bean, who probably had a more remarkable mind than even Ender, but was just a few years behind him and played a less well-recognized role in the fateful events of that story.

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

Review: Ashes of the Tyrant by Erin Evans

Having aided Raedra and saved Suzail from conquest, Farideh and her family venture to a land that weighs heavily on her and Havilar's upbringing, despite them never setting foot there: Djerad Thymar, the center of dragonborn culture in Faerun.  While the tale begins as a simple answer to a summons, the family quickly becomes swept up in the mysterious murder of a dozen young dragonborn.  All the while, Dahl is on the other side of the world, coming to grips with the fact that he might never be able to see Farideh again--the price of saving his family.

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

Review: Sword of the North by Luke Scull

The first book in this series, the Grim Company, was full of massive, shocking, world-changing events.  Scull built us a fascinating world and then wasted no time in tearing it down in breathtaking fashion.  Sword of the North unquestionably has its one share of realm-shattering changes, but, as its title suggests, this novel a bit more focused on its characters.  The headliner story follows Brodar Kayne and his companion, Jerek the Wolf, as they return to his homeland to help Kayne's son and wife.  Along the way, we learn about their past, and through the eyes of other characters introduced in the first book, see glimpses of what is transpiring in the North.  Meanwhile, Scull's other characters tell the tale of what is happening in Dorminia after the fall of its Magelord, and start to uncover the mystery of the City of Towers to the east.

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.