Thursday, December 24, 2015

Review: X-Com - Enemy Unknown

The call goes out in the middle of the night: far away, on the other side of the world, strange sightings have been made.  Reports of destruction.  Previous squads sent to investigate are missing.  It's time to send in your team.  X-Com: Enemy Unknown is a sci-fi, squad-based combat strategy game in which you take command of an elite group tasked with stopping an alien invasion.  With funding from countries around the world and the ability to deploy within hours to any major city in the world, you are perhaps the world's best hope to oppose a covert invasion of aliens.  It's a fantastic game that mingles a terrific turn-based combat engine with a low-key resource management and technology tree game to create a really compelling experience.

The turn-based combat is highly tactical.  You have four major classes of units at your disposal.  Assault units are your close-combat fighters, capable of running into the midst of heavily armed opponents, surviving their reaction fire, and blasting them with shotguns or (my preference) assault rifles.  Heavy units carry heavy weapons, and (as they advance) are capable of firing multiple times per round and wielding ammo that can take down robotic units, some of the toughest enemies in the game.  Support troops are mobility specialists, effective in combat while also providing medical and cover support for their squadmates.  Finally, snipers are your long-distance specialists, capable of holding back at one side of the map while picking off any enemy in visual range of their squadmates, provided they have line of sight.  Each unit has a number of choices that can be made as they level up, so its possible to have each unit specialize a bit as they develop, although I usually found that some choices were clearly better than others.  Still, your success in the missions will depend on your ability to get the right troops into position, take advantage of their talents, and protect them from the enemy's deadly counterattacks.

Take cover!  But mind the cars; they explode after
they've been hit.
This is a challenging game.  Cover, positioning, and use of all your soldiers' skills are necessary for survival.  Make the wrong move and you can easily be swarmed by several enemies at a time, and they are flat-out deadly.  If an enemy moves up your flank, or even gets a lucky shot on your character when s/he is behind cover, you can easily lose a character with a single shot.  Advancement along the promotion and technology trees can make a big difference in your troops' survivability, but as you advance you will increasingly encounter tougher and tougher units.  As a result, despite significant gains in my troops' capacity, combat missions almost always were played out with a palpable sense of fear.  Just as you start to feel comfortable, the game has a tendency to throw a new threat at you, and you are suddenly left wondering how you can possibly survive.  Fortunately, at least on normal difficulty, you can save in the middle of missions, and the game even autosaves every few rounds for you.  There's no shame in reloading when you're favorite unit gets greased.  It really is manageable.

Raiding an enemy ufo
The game has terrific atmosphere.  Aliens are appropriately mysterious and, well, alien.  The graphics are excellent, with wonderful flourishes of animation on key shots or maneuver that keep your adrenaline flowing and keep it feeling fast-paced, despite the fact that it's turn-based.  Sound is really well-done as well; playing with equipment provides satisfying feedback, and ambient noise and music keep the mood going as you battle your way through urban or rural settings.  Missions vary from pure-kill missions to rescues.  Some of the most intense are those where you are sent into an urban setting and are tasked with saving as many civilians as you can from the enemy threat.  Aliens in these missions regularly will attack civilians just out of your reach, prompting you to advance across the map at a rate faster than is comfortable.

The game is designed to be replayed.  A complete play-through takes something on the order of 30-40 hours, I think, and is long enough to be a satisfying experience.  That's all I've done thus far, but there are options to play again in the Second Wave, which allows you to customize the settings of the game to provide more of a challenge: weapons can cause a wider range of damage, units can be created or advance with different statistics (they are normally very consistent), etc.  Despite still having several other games calling for my attention, I'm feeling compelled to continue on with this game.  It's addictive, maddening, and crazy-fun.  An easy 5 out of 5.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review: Freelancer

One of my first major game obsessions was Wing Commander.  From the moment that I read the review of the game in my glossy PC Gamer magazine, I knew I was going to love it.  It didn't disappoint.  I lived and died with the game, firing afterburners and pivoting past the disc-shaped Kilrathi fighters and locking in on their six**.  It was the reason I got my first sound card, and gave new life to my joystick, which had been untouched since my long foray with F-19 Stealth Fighter had come to an end.  Later incarnations of that franchise included Wing Commander Privateer, a game that took the formula of the game and placed it in a sandbox world, where you could explore a network of star systems as you saw fit.  The ships could be upgraded with a diversity of weapons, and you could choose a life of a merchant, pirate hunter...or a pirate.

**For the record, despite his character's appearance throughout the series, Maniac *always* died in his first mission in Wing Commander I.

Freelancer, published by Microsoft in 2003, is a direct descendant of Privateer.  Designed by Chris Roberts, the same man behind the Wing Commander series, you take on the role of a freelancer pilot much like in Privateer.  As the game opens, your character is immediately swept up in a plot that threatens to destabilize the entire region, and potentially could threaten all human life in this part of the galaxy.  The game walks a balance between forcing you down a plotline (which is well-developed and fun, though basically on rails and can't hold a candle to the story of a game like Mass Effect) and freeing you to explore systems as you go.  As you advance through the plot, you frequently encounter roadblocks in which the story will not advance until you amass more experience (which is simply measured via your net worth).  The solution?  Take bounty hunter missions, transport cargo, and explore.

The game's galaxy is enormous.  During a good chunk of the plot, you only have access to a few systems at a time, each of which might contain a couple of planets, along with 4-5 other space stations, battleships, etc.  In most cases, you can dock with these installations, trade goods, repair your ship, get new missions, and then set off for your next destination.  Nevertheless, this rarely gets old, because the game's plot moves you from system to system.  I usually found that by the time I'd finished exploring a particular region, the plot was ready for me once again.  Upon completing the main plot, the entire galaxy is open to you.  There must be at least 50 systems in this world, and while I spent a good week exploring after finishing the story, I know there was much more to see.  Furthermore, I'm still only part of the way through the ship advancements.  There are at least three more classes of starships that I can purchase (not to mention weapon and shield upgrades), if I can amass enough credits and find the rare station that sells those elite items.  This RPG-style progression provides a tangible sense of advancement in the game; when you upgrade to a new ship, the impacts on your effectiveness are palpable.

The core of the game is its space combat simulator.  I found it to be a very natural game to control.  Unlike other games that relied on a joystick, Freelancer is mouse driven, and it works great.  There are two modes of flight control.  You can play in an "autopilot" mode, where you select a destination in your nav computer, and your ship will pilot you there by the most efficient combination of jump gates and travel through open space.  While in this mode, your main guns will pivot about to fire upon anything in front of your craft (tracking your cursor), or you can jump back to your turret and defend your rear.  Alternatively, you can take total full control of your ship (the ship will follow your cursor).  I generally found that, whenever enemy ships were about, it was important to avoid a straight flight path, and so it was far more important to control the ship than to control weapons separate from flight.  Dogfights in this game are often frantic affairs, requiring on to constantly be turning, firing afterburners, ejecting countermeasures and seeker mines, and managing your weapons' energy consumption as you fight.

Beyond the game's success in modeling space combat, it almost succeeds in creating fantastic atmosphere.  The graphics, particularly while in space, are superb, even compared to today's hardware.  Furthermore, they did a great job with sound.  As you cruise about space near a battleship or science station, you'll hear constant communication traffic as freighters request passage through the current system, or law enforcement patrols scan cargo holds for contraband.  It's a lawless universe, with frequent pirate raids even within protected space.  It is not uncommon to launch from a battleship to see the local fighters skirmishing with a band of ruffian fighters.  Often times, neither side is looking to engage you, which lets you head to the nearest jump point while the two sides pummel one another...or you join into the fray.

There are critiques that one can levy at the game.  The voice acting ranges from decent to awful.  The plot is generally done well, but some of the unnecessary side conversations that you can have with random NPC's in bars are abysmally awful.  They would have been better left as text only conversations, if they were included at all.  The space environment, for all its triumph, is essentially laid out on a 2D plane, which simplifies the space map but is a little jarring.  Combat difficulty can be uneven; randomly spawned pirates, especially off of trade routes, can be insanely hard compared to the "galactic threats" you encounter in the game.

Nevertheless, this game's successes easily exceed its failures.  While finding a copy can be hard (I still somehow have my DVD copy from ages past), the game holds up extremely well today and may still be the best game of its kind published since 2003.  Until something else surpasses it, this game will have a permanent place on my hard drive.  It is beautifully consumed in anything from 30-minute or 2-3 hour play sessions.  4.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Class choices in Mass Effect

With most games that I play, I spend some time reading through the many outstanding resources at  I always appreciate the time it takes people to write those strategy guides, not to mention the walkthroughs (whether I use them, as I did in Fallout 3, or not, as with Mass Effect).

If you read the guides for Mass Effect, however, they all seem to recommend that first-time players to Mass Effect sign on as a Soldier class.  They cite its survivability (which is definitely true), as well as its lethality (also true).  Soldiers are the only class permitted to use an assault rifle, which most agree is the most well-rounded weapon in the game.  It also has the unique ability Immunity, which provides the soldier with short-term damage resistance that makes it almost impossible to take down in a fight.  Its certainly true that they are a powerful and tough class.

However, while you see nods to the Vanguard, I think its underappreciated as a class.  The Vanguard is sort of the equivalent to a fighter/mage: it has skill with shotguns, a lethal close-range weapon, and yet still has access to powerful biotics to enhance its capabilities.  The downside is that it does not get access to heavy armor, and is limited to the shotgun and thus not good at ranged combat.

In practice, these shortcomings are overstated.  I found the shotgun to be effective even out to medium range pretty much from the start of the game.  While there are some cases in which long-range combat was emphasized, most combat in Mass Effect occurs at medium-to-close range.  And unlike the assault rifle, which requires you keep the barrel pointed at a foe while you pump it full of ammunition, many kills with the shotgun require only a single burst.  This allows you to quickly get back behind cover, hit space, reassess the situation, find the next target, and then unpause to fire again.  In a lot of games, I often find that it is sometimes easier to aim effectively when you have just one large shot at a time, rather than a constant barrange, and this was the case here as well.  I found that I really loved the shotgun, as just as I did in Fallout 3.

Furthermore, I am not at all sure that medium armor is a limitation.  Medium armor does, on average, have lower damage resistance and, depending on the armor, lower shield ratings than heavy armor.  However, it almost always also has superior biotic defense ratings, which makes you better able to resist damage from your opponents' biotic powers.  While its true that only a handful of opponents use biotics, it is handy to have those defenses.  Furthermore, the key biotic ability for the Vanguard is Barrier, which creates a powerful energy shield around your character capable of soaking more damage than any heavy armor can provide.  When maxed out along with shock trooper, you can use barrier almost at will, as the ability will recharge within a few seconds of the previous barrier disappearing.

Therefore, the Vanguard might sacrifice a tiny bit of durability and ranged weapon attacks for a great deal of flexibility.  You have a lot of different options for how to deal with a foe, from effective medium-ranged fighting, to biotics, to in-your-face close combat.  Therefore, a typical skirmish in the game would go something like this:

  • Encounter foes and get behind cover.
  • Start shotgunning down any nearby foes.  Use Throw or Lift to disable anyone packing too much heat, or getting too close for comfort.
  • Activate barrier, leave cover, and charge around the cover of any remaining combatants.
  • Shotgun them in the face.
Ah, so much fun!  And by endgame, you can start that sequence with a Barrier and expect to be able to re-activate it mid-fight.  Fortunately, all of this never got grindy, because sometimes there wouldn't be cover, or some other factor else would keep this approach from working.  The most problematic enemy were Krogan, who have an annoying tendency to activate immunity and then charge into melee range.  Melee attacks are not resisted by shields, and Krogan, being so large, are resistant to abilities like throw unless you put a lot of points into maximizing its force.  Vanguards don't have a lot of HP, so getting within melee range was really the key to taking me down.

Another advantage is that, as a Vanguard, you can readily take the most interesting NPC's in the game along with you.  Since you have no tech abilities, you have to take one of the two "tech" companions: Garrus or Tali.  Garrus frankly does all the tech he needs to, plus he wields an assault rifle and is good in a fight...and is a cool character in an "ends justifies means" sort of way.  And then you have another party slot that is pretty much wide open.  I usually took Ashley, for the durability and firepower, and because I enjoyed her spunk.  Wrex also slotted in just fine in that role, without any problematic redundancy.  He brought biotics along with him, and a great deal of attitude.  On Noveria, I even took Liara so she could face off with Benezia, and didn't really miss a beat.  Her support abilities meshed very well with my vanguard's offensive abilities; the team functioned differently when she was present, but not really any less effectively as long as she could stay alive (sometimes a challenge).  In contrast to this flexibility, if you play as a soldier, you really need some biotic and tech help, and so you can't really take Ashley (unless, I guess, you punt on combat for one NPC and take Kaidan).  If you go as an infiltrator or engineer or adept (or sentinel!), you probably won't want to take Garrus or Tali or Liara, because you'll want NPC's like Wrex and Ashley to hide behind.  

The other "multiclass" type class in the game is the Infiltrator, which is what I played during my first play-through.  That class is a mixture of engineer (which focuses on support abilities, though with some useful abilities to jam opponent weapons) and soldier, in that you get to play with sniper rifles.  Sniper rifles are really fun in mass effect, but ultimately are far less practical than the traditional shotgun.  I fond that I had to use my pistol more often than naught while playing as an Infiltrator, because its rare that one can be completely comfortable using a sniper rifle to pick up foes from afar.  I'm sure it's possible to play that character all the way through the game, and there would be some situations in which you'd have a tremendous advantage.  But a tough, in-your-face magic user like a Vanguard seemed to fit the typical combat situation far better than the at-a-distance character like the infiltrator.

Long story, short (too late)?  Try out the Vanguard.  It's fun, powerful, and you won't regret it.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Review: Mass Effect

Meet the Normandy, the pride of the Alliance fleet.
In Mass Effect, Bioware's space epic (released 2007), you play the role of Commander Shepherd, an elite Marine of the Earth's Alliance space force.  Assigned to the Normandy, a prototype frigate in the Marine Navy, you are sent on a covert mission to recover a strange artifact recently discovered on the human colony, Eden Prime.  On that mission, you face a threat that was thought to have retreated to the other side of the galaxy: the Geth, a race of sentient robots who overthrew their creators, the Quarians.  While the Geth were known to exist on the other side of the Milky Way Galaxy, they hadn't invented space overseen by the allied races of the citadel in years.  Disturbingly, their emergence this time seemed to revolve around the Prothean artifact, a relic of an advanced alien species that built an empire across the galaxy, and then mysteriously disappeared.

Explore dozens of systems in the Milky Way Galaxy
That's the hook for what becomes a tremendous story that will have you jumping between dozens of star systems across the galaxy.  It's a beautifully written and skillfully executed tale that gradually peels back at the layers of its mysteries, only to reveal a deeper and more nuanced one underneath.  I found it very original and full of surprises, and yet nothing felt contrived.  Furthermore, despite being the first of a trilogy, a lot happens in this game; by the end, you feel as though you've really accomplished something.  You are forced to make hard decisions in this game, and your decisions really do matter.  I was impressed at how much of the dialog and cutscenes must have been crafted for my character's choices; had I chosen otherwise, entirely different animations and spoken dialog would have been necessary.  This didn't just happen one or two times; this happened repeatedly throughout the game.

The Citadel, the center of the allied races' galactic
civilization, is an enormous space station of
mysterious origin.
Accompanying you along your journey are a wonderful cast of characters.  Some are bystander NPC's that never fight along side you, but are nevertheless so well written and developed--and voiced!  The voice acting is SO GOOD!--that they nevertheless had a great impact on my experience while playing.  The depth of some of the six NPC's that accompany you varies; some are fairly superficial and exist largely to introduce you to their particular race.  Others are deeper, with their own backstory and motivations that inform their reactions during your missions.  Several characters have missions that are clearly designed with them in mind, which encourages you to take them along and vary up your party composition.

This is the second "shooter RPG" I've played in recent years; the first was Fallout 3.  Like Fallout, Mass Effect has features designed to help ease along those like me who aren't particularly twitch-oriented gamers.  Most important is the ability to pause the game.  By holding down the spacebar, you can collect your thoughts, select powers, and even aim your weapon at a foe before releasing the spacebar and pulling the trigger.  It's a big help and takes away some of the steep skill requirements needed in other shooters, while still requiring that you move, dodge, strafe, and fire your weapon in real time.  Furthermore, cover is really important in this game, especially early on.  The secret to many fights is getting yourself behind cover, defending your position, and yet still knowing when to take the fight to the enemy (they'll be using cover too!).

While this is not a space combat game, there are some
amazing cutscenes.
I played through the game as a Vanguard, which is designed as a character who combines close combat with "biotics," which are the Mass Effect universe's version of magic.  It's a great class; you specialize in shotguns and have access to biotics like Barrier, which creates a powerful shield around you to complement your armor's own inherent shields.  On top of that, you have enough points to invest in a few other offensive biotics.  I primarily invested in throw, which is a "jedi-style" power that permits you to toss would-be assailants away from you, knocking them down for a few seconds.  Others, such as lift or singularity, were even more powerful, but I opted to stick to Throw along with my "martial" powers and barrier.  I found the game challenging, but rarely frustrating.  There were really only two fights that required more than a single reload for me to completely, and in one case I'd simply stumbled upon a sidequest designed for a higher-level character than my own.

Ashley, a compassionate, yet hot-headed infantry soldier
is one of many outstanding NPC's with which you
experience the game.
The most maligned aspect of the game, at least upon its release, was the use of the Mako tank during outdoor missions.  Subsequent patches must of done a world of good to improve the Make controls, because I found this part of the game exhilarating.  On super-rough terrain, as exists on many of the planets you'll explore, the Mako does get tossed around quite a bit, making one wonder what kinds of inertia-damping the harnesses inside the tank must have allow someone to survive.  But the worlds you explore are breathtaking.  Each has its own unique description, and that description is manifested in how the world is rendered.  Personal favorite worlds included planets that orbited binary stars, moons around gas giants that take up most of the sky, and even a "binary" world--a pair of similarly-sized planets that spiral around one another as they orbit a star.  Most worlds, as one would expect, are desolate.  But a small few harbor their own, native, multicellular life, and much of the background writing about the worlds focuses on past or current attempts to colonize, terraform, or mine these distant worlds.

Scenes like this never get old.
I bought Mass Effect in 2008, not too long after its release via direct2drive (my first digital game purchase!).  For reasons that I don't remember, I stopped about a quarter of the way through the game.  I remember that it was getting hard; I hadn't chosen a great class, and I remember struggling with the shooter aspects of the game far more than I did this time.  My 100+ hours of Fallout 3 were great training, even though I played Fallout 3 on my Xbox and Mass Effect on my PC.  This time around, I finished the game in about a month, despite the fact that I simultaneously went through my end of semester crunch.  It's not an incredibly long game, maybe 40-50 hours or so.  But it has plenty of depth and plot to make for an extremely satisfying experience.  I'm itching to dive straight into Mass Effect 2, but I don't want to risk burnout.  Therefore, I'm going to play a couple of other titles I already own in the meantime (namely, X-Com, Witcher II).  Nevertheless, I'm already itching to return to this universe; I'm sure that it will not be long.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: Pillars of Eternity

What's this contraption?  Mechanical-magic structures
play an important part in this game world.
While it wasn't the first RPG that I ever played, Baldur's Gate was my introduction to DnD.  It, and frankly all of the Infinity Engine games, were terrific.  They combined diverse character options, party-based gamemplay, a fun, strategic "realtime with pause" combat system, and an engrossing story.  That's a formula that was forgotten for a while as games transitioned to 3D.  And while there have been some phenomenal games that have come out using other paradigms, to be sure, the success of the Enhanced Edition games has demonstrated that the Baldur's Gate formula is still popular and desirable.

Seeing this opening, Obsidian kickstarted Pillars of Eternity, a Baldur's Gate-style isometric game designed for modern PC's.  The interface, graphics style, etc, were all built directly upon the principles of the Infinity Engine games, and the story was designed for a mature audience.  While they did not have a DnD license, the style of the mechanics are largely inspired by DnD.  And the result?  It's a really good game.

Lots of great times exploring large wilderness maps,
just like in Baldur's Gate.
The world the game is set in feels like someone's home-brew campaign world, in a good way.  It's full of mystery and therefore a few layers of history beyond the ones that the modern-day people of the gameworld still know.  Somewhat reminiscent to Baldur's Gate (although only in the loosest sense), the story begins as a personal mystery that ends up being intertwined with a local political crisis, and ultimately has ramifications for the gods themselves.  The pacing, in my experience, wasn't the best.  The first half of the tale plays out pretty slowly, but it picks up good speed in the second half of the game and has a terrific finish.  The story does a good job of stressing gray, rather than black and white: you are often faced with decisions without a clear best answer, and I enjoyed the opportunity actually roleplay a character rather than just stick to the designer's preconceived "good" or "bad" responses.

Some towns, like this one, are struggling just to survive
The graphics are fine.  They used the paradigm of what were effectively sprites (though 3D-rendered ones) moving about on a pre-painted background, a la Infinity Engine.  It worked then, and works now.  Some parts are genuinely pretty, though occasionally some of the painted backgrounds got busy enough that, along with the use of a black-out fog of war in unexplored areas, I had trouble interpreting what I was seeing.

The combat engine felt familiar, but was definitely its own animal.  Like DnD, there's an attack roll and a damage roll.  Unlike DnD, there are a number of things that can happen on a hit.  Miss the target's defense by even a decent amount and you can "graze" them, inflicting a small amount of damage.  Hit them easily and you crit.  Furthermore, again unlike DnD, damage resistance (i.e. soaking damage) plays a big role in this game.  By the end of the game, even decent 1-handed melee weapons inflicted only a pittance of damage; most damage output occurred via the slow, heavy-damage ranged weapons like arbalests and rifles, as well as spells.  This actually got pretty annoying, as some characters became almost useless when monsters had damage reduction against certain damage types.  Thankfully, I opted to play a cipher, which consistently manages superb damage throughout the game with both spells and his ranged weapon.

It's a drake, not a dragon.  But there are dragons.
While there are AI options for combat, I found that these rarely did what I want and was compelled to micro-manage all combat in the game.  It was tolerable, but sometimes felt like a grind because most fights worked the same way: open with my cipher's paralyze ability, make sure the tank aggros everyone else, and then start picking foes off one-by-one.  90% of the time, that's the solution throughout most of the game.  Combat difficulty did not progress smoothly. Early on, it was pretty challenging, though usually in a good way.  Later, it became a cake-walk, except for a handful of key foes that seemed designed to test one's mettle.  Those were so much more powerful than anything else I'd encountered that it was bewildering.

In any case, despite the nitpicks, this is a really fun game with a neat story.  It's a long game that can be very engrossing.  I enjoyed the strategy in the combat (despite the grindy nature of it at times), and really enjoyed the emphasis on quests that require the player to make hard, imperfect choices.  It felt like a game targeted at adults, which is exactly the target audience of a title like this.  I give it a solid and warm 4 out of 5.