Commentary – Mass Effect: Looking Back, Looking Forward

In just a few weeks we’ll be seeing the third and (theoretically) final installment in Bioware’s Mass Effect series. A recently released demo gives a brief look at the story that I poked at sparingly to try to get the right balance of getting a taste and avoiding spoilers. It’ll be interesting to see how it holds up to people’s hopes and expectations.

We’re probably well past the statue of limitations, but just in case, spoilers ahoy.

The first Mass Effect (2007) was a game with a lot of big ideas and enough budget to make a decent number of them happen. The goal was to give the player an entire galaxy to explore and lots of interesting opportunities to roleplay in it. In traditional Bioware form the player joins a powerful secret society and gathers eclectic allies to bring two at a time to confront a nebulous threat of tremendous scope and possibly get hooked up with a party member. It’s the same story they always tell, but they tell it well (usually).

There’s no denying that they didn’t quite hit all the bases they wanted to. For a Bioware game it seemed kind of small at times; there were only a handful of ‘towns’ and large non-copy-pasted adventure areas. There’s a lot of side missions but an exhausting majority of them involve driving around craggy landscapes to go into near-identical buildings and shoot near-identical mercenaries.

At the same time, a lot of love went into this game. Even though you can only land on one square mile of one planet in each star system, every single planet in the game was given a neat bit of tasty flavor text. Those who enjoy crunchy sci-fi technobabble to chew on found their codex continually filling with new snacks. The moral choice system suffers at times from being forced to fit all the decisions onto a binary good/evil axis but a handful of the decisions made me put down the controller and think for a minute. The various alien worlds could have more detail, but what they do have is impressive.

There was this one time I was driving all over some craggy landscape or another, for the most part as generic as the last. Sometimes they’re blue, sometimes they’re white, sometimes there’s green dust motes around. Just for the heck of it I looked up as I crested a hill and saw a great red boiling sun hovering low in the sky. Just sat there watching it for a bit because it looked neat. I’m not 100% certain but it looked like this wasn’t just some animated image. It looked like someone had taken the time to make a realistic physics object of the swirling boiling burning gas clouds. The game is full of stuff like that, shadows cast by the game they wanted to make.

I got pretty well absorbed into Mass Effect 2 (2010), possibly due in part to three feet of snow dropping on my house every few days when I got it. Inbetween waiting for my xbox to cool off and tunneling my way out to my driveway I found a game like an oreo with really terrible stale cookies around an incredibly delicious creamy filling.

Instead of a band of heroes, this time around I filled my squad with an interesting bunch of mercenaries and socipaths. Dangerous people, but hopefully I could make them more dangerous to my enemies than to myself. The various recruitments and the side missions to secure their loyalty were my favorite part of the game, each one seasoned with interesting choices, diverse environments, and good quality Bioware storytelling. In particular the character of Jack (Courtenay Taylor) has some of the best writing and voice acting I’ve seen in a game.

While I disagree with how they got Shepard away from his old crew and ship and such I think the end result, as far as giving the story somewhere new to go with old crewmates, was pretty good.  Just think of a friend you used to see every day who moved away and then you didn’t see him at all for years.  In two years someone can come back a completely different person.  In Garrus’ case there was a stretch during his loyalty mission where I thought he might actually shoot me.

The best part of Mass Effect 2 unfortunately also serves to highlight some of its worst parts. Many good stories are told about Shepard’s crew, but on the whole everything more happens around him than to him. In part 1 he learned about the Reaper threat and stepped up to do something about it, growing from a military squad commander into the role of a heroic leader by the end of the game. In part 2 he’s in the same place at the beginning as at the end; the Reapers are still coming, the council still doesn’t want to help, and there’s still no concrete defense to be mounted.

A majority of the game’s problems can be summed up in one word: Cerberus (and if one were to add a second word, the Collectors). The weakest parts of the game are easily the beginning and ending where everything has to be contorted to shoehorn these plot elements into place. It doesn’t make sense to force the player to join an organization that in ME1 was only slight less effective than Cobra Commander, especially with the Shadow Broker already established. Same goes for some of your former crew to sign on with terrorists on the vague justification that Cerberus is composed of numerous cells and some of them aren’t so bad. Nor is it necessary to vaporise Shepard and then resurrect him with soft science magic all in the first five minutes of the game when there’s about a dozen easy ways for someone to disappear for two years in the far reaches of space.

And then there’s the ultimate goal of the Collectors; turning humans into goo to build a giant robot shaped like a human to ride inside a space squid robot makes the Matrix human battery system seem downright reasonable by contrast. The big final decision of whether to blow up the giant enemy facility choc full of extremely valuable technical data on Reaper/Collector defenses or to hand it over to the terrorists is similarly goofy.

Hypothetically, here’s how I would have run Mass Effect 2. Shepard being out of contact for awhile is still useful to the plot because it gives his former crew time to go their separate ways. While out on patrol the Normandy is ambushed by a Reaper scout ship. They barely escape but Shepard goes overboard in the fighting, presumed dead. In truth he’s recovered by agents of the Shadow Broker who manage to hold him for two years before he successfully breaks out. Jacob and Miranda are SB agents who defect (or do they?) to help Shepard escape (or to monitor him). On his way out he finds that the Broker has been busy; two years has been plenty of time to make a trail of faked evidence painting Shepard as a rogue Spectre working for the Broker. This could facilitate the setup of Shepard reluctantly using the Broker’s intel to gather a team with the end goal of either breaking free or signing on with him full time. Trade the Collectors for new and exciting robots to blow up and replace the weird illogical ‘human reaper’ with some kind of intact superweapon to study or an advanced AI to capture. Ideally something that provides a decent boss fight and also makes some kind of progress towards the eventual third act Reaper showdown. It ain’t perfect and it’s basically a find/replace trading ‘Cerberus’ to ‘Shadow Broker and ‘Collectors’ to ‘Reapers’, but I for one would rather shoot more killer space robots than annoying bug monsters.

Now, you may look at all that above and think I hated this game, and there’s plenty wrong with it, but there’s plenty right too. The sloppily handled framing device is thankfully a very small part of the experience, a majority of which I spent doing stuff I liked rather a lot. It’s a little more of an action game with rpg elements than a full rpg, but the combat engine took some big strides from one game to the next. There’s also some tougher decisions to make, especially during the loyalty missions when you don’t know for certain if your actions will jeopardize the primary mission. The final mission (right up until the finale, anyway) was also an interesting series of tactical decisions that simultaneously solved the usual rpg plothole of ‘why doesn’t my entire team fight the last boss together’.

And that brings us to part 3 coming early this March and to be honest I could kinda go either way on it. Like a lot of folks I’m likely to pick it up pretty early on simply because of the momentum of playing the first two acts and I want to see the finale. Got a fair bit of worries though.

1) Bioware telling that one story over and over again gets even more obvious when they tell it back to back with the same character. Hopefully they’ll stretch out a bit the third time around.

2) I was disappointed with how Shepard’s importance changed from ‘because he knows about the Reapers’ in ME1 to ‘because he can singlehandedly beat up the entire invading alien army’ in ME2. The premise of ME3, that Shepard is a public icon who can diplomatically (or intimidatingly) rally the galaxy to work together, is something I can get behind. The demo, however, seems to be going the ‘badass super soldier’ route in which the galaxy’s only hope is Shepard punching all the bad guys in the throat. So, we’ll see how that goes.

3) It could be quite a challenge to get a cohesive story together for the finale of a series founded on having the player make meaningful decisions and still make the dialogue all work. My Shepard isn’t your Shepard isn’t his Shepard isn’t her Shepard. I have a feeling some folks are gonna find their avatars acting out of character to try to appeal to everyone.

4) I really hope a solution to the Reaper problem comes up more complex than ‘shoot them a lot’. After establishing early on that a single Reaper can nearly decimate the main battle fleet at the Citadel, it seems like when a few hundred or thousand show up something other than a direct suicide charge is required.

5) I dunno about the rest of you but I’m looking forward to having ME3 be another season of the best tv show that never existed, Wrex & Garry: Buddy Cops.


Image credit to anniezard, who draws neat stuff about Mass Effect and other cool things.

Commentary – Solar 2

I’ve decided to make a bit of a shift in the way I do game reviews around here.  5×5 made for an interesting writing exercise, but as far as trying to editorialize on games and provide useful criticism it was at times like trying to pack for a trip in a bag with a multitude of very small pockets.  There’s so much to say about some games that cramming stuff into a small pocket has words falling out all over the place.  Then there’s some games that there’s so little to say about them that I’d have difficulty really using all the pockets.  One such game is Solar 2.

Solar 2 places you begin in the role of a humble asteroid floating through the endless void of space.  The art design is simple and sufficient to the task, and the music is suitably unobtrusive, gradually shifting to fit the mood.  In the end…  well, there really isn’t an ending.  The overall goal?  Whatever you want it to be.  There’s a handful of side missions and little achievement-like bonus objectives to chase, but to me the soul of the game is in the adventure of that tiny insignificant asteroid.

Everything in Solar 2 has its own gravity relative to its mass, and this simple mechanic gives the game life.  As that asteroid you barely have any gravity at all, but by slamming yourself into other asteroids you can add their mass to your own.  Keep at it long enough and you can gain enough mass to become a new planet.  Now we’re getting somewhere.

Now the little asteroids orbit you.  They can make a fine little halo around you if you let them stay, or you can consume them to increase your mass and thus your power.  On a large enough world life may begin to evolve.  Little green men will dart about in your vicinity and blow stuff up for you, and maybe even protect you with a force field.  This is quite handy because soon roving space nomads will try to destroy the little green men living on you, and if you’re not quick about it you’ll soon find yourself a dead world host to naught but ash.

But if you are vigilant, increasing your mass and protecting your world, you’ll grow greater and greater still.  You may feel a twinge of sadness as you realize the inevitable.  If you keep adding mass to your planet you’ll reach the next stage, but the life there will be consumed.  But who could get this far and not want to go further?

An asteroid belt or two later and your world is engulfed in flames, collapsing super condensed matter bringing atomic fusion and giving birth to a shining star.  Simple asteroids now tumble towards your growing gravity well.  Planets, you’ll find, can now orbit your mighty sun.  And these planets can find their own orbiting asteroids and, if you nurture them well, life.

If you’re lucky you’ll have some time to build up before the nomads return.  If not, a single lucky gunship may swoop in and loose two deadly missiles into your system.  If you’re quick you can just barely outrun them, and there’s nothing quite like the frantic feel of trying to throw your body between those planet-cracking warheads and the vulnerable populi of your worlds.  Sometimes you’re not fast enough and your people die, and your only recourse is retribution.  It must be quite a sight for the survivors to see invading aliens consumed by the sun like a vengeful god.

Perhaps you may gather more worlds under you benevolence, tiny green swarms of life forms swirling about your system.  Maybe you’ll continue to feed your worlds until they become stars as well, from binary to trinary and beyond.  Maybe you’ll just continue to consume until you become a black hole, eater of worlds.  Or maybe you’ll just tear ass across the endless void of space to see how far you can go.

That’s my story.  What’s yours?

Five by Five – Rock Band 3

Since their founding in 1995, Harmonix has always been an innovator in linking music and interactive entertainment. Their early console cult hits FreQuency and Amplitude in 2001 and 2003 respectively were some of the first and very few games in which a player’s gaming skill was rewarded with music while also allowing for a modicum of creative input. From there they pressed onward with their goal of making games in which a non-musician could experience something akin to playing an instrument, and in 2005 was born Guitar Hero. After a sequel and a half Harmonix had ideas of going even farther with the idea, not just guitars but a full band with drums and vocals as well, and in 2007 we saw the first release of the Rock Band series. A sequel a short while later showed a handful of small but much-needed interface updates, but rode mostly on its backwards compatibility with all but a tiny fraction of the songs from the first game. The third iteration of the series is now upon us, and packing a bit more than just a new paint job. Time for a reunion tour.

Killer Riffs

Something Bigger, Something Brighter: The gameplay of the Rock Band series is about the same as it’s ever been, and that’s a good thing. Hit the right button at the right time to make music come out, but with an increasing focus on recreating the feel of playing real music via the new pro mode (which has its own easy-medium-hard-expert settings, and on average easy pro is a step above standard expert). The game can be played with the same guitars, drum, and microphone you’ve always used, but now there’s more options. Vocals as always are just regular singing, but now with the addition of two- and three-part harmonies on select songs if you’ve got extra mics. Drums can be played with a standard four-pad set, but if you shell out for the triple cymbal pack you can step up to pro mode for a seven-part drum set. As always, guitar and bass physically play something like a one-string guitar, with two- and three-fret hits representing power chords. The hurdle to pro mode is greatest here, requiring one of two new peripherals. The less expensive version has a hundred and eight buttons to cover all the possible string/fret combos, while the ‘deluxe’ package is an actual Fender Squier guitar modified to have controller parts inside. The new addition to the team is the keyboard, equipped with 25 keys across two octaves and a midi-out jack. Standard keys let you play like a keyboard or as a keytar with only five buttons to worry about, while pro keys gives you the real deal. Training modes are included to teach one how to play the various instruments, but be warned that the road to true musical skill is a long and difficult one.

I Love Rock & Roll: The music library for the Rock Band series now totals over two thousand songs, with a few more added every week. The selection covers a massive variety of tunes, a majority of which were chosen because they give every band member fun stuff to do, but also including songs for folks who want a steep technical challenge. Backwards compatibility continues on with almost every track from almost every previous Rock Band title, so even if you don’t get into the DLC the exported tracks alone can bring your library into the 100-200 song range. The set on the disc also does a fine job of showcasing the new instruments, featuring lots of support for keys and vocal harmonies throughout. The Rock Band Network (created to help with the bottleneck of internal track production) has been merged with the regular marketplace, and the rating system now works with all songs. Handily, the rating system affects how often (or not often) various songs appear in random setlists, as well as using the data to make marketplace reccomendations. The old ways of sorting and scrolling are also vastly simplified with the new filtering system, an absolute necessity if you’ve been regularly stocking up on DLC since the first game. I recently hosted a Rock Band party for my church people and the filter made it exponentially easier to find the right music for the right people. With just a few clicks I could filter it to only show songs that supported all instruments, family friendly tunes, modern tunes, classic tunes, stuff with harmonies, and even which game a tune was exported from. A few quick clicks on multiple filters and you’ll have just the right tunes.

Everybody Wants To Rule The World: The new overshell system also severs to keep things moving quickly. Any player can hit start to bring up an individual menu for adjusting things like difficulty and lefty flip and no-fail, all without having to jump out to the main menu. If halfway through a song you find that you should have turned the difficulty down you can pause, switch, then keep going with the rest of the song (though your score only counts if you restart). On a side note, they also nicked the bit from Guitar Hero where when you pause and continue it rewinds the song a few seconds so you can keep your groove.

Get Up, Stand Up: Drop-in drop-out multiplayer has come to Rock Band 3. Now if someone has to take a phone call in the middle of a song you can just kick their instrument out and then they can jump back in after with the song still going. There’s also now an option for all-instruments mode, which has the mics active without being attached to a controller. In this mode the vocals don’t count for points or build up overdrive, but it also doesn’t negatively impact score or band health if nobody feels like singing the current tune. With all mics always active you can also make your own backup vocals (or just shout incoherantly in amusing ways).

Good Vibrations: I really like the new presentation. Though I’ll miss the rock trivia, I dig that you’re never sitting looking at a static loading screen. Your characters are always walking around doing stuff, reinforcing the feel of you and your friends being roving rock stars. Customizing said characters is also quicker now, as you no longer need to save up cash to have a diverse wardrobe; you start with a sizeable selection and unlock more by doing the new road challenges (which replace the old world tour mode). On the plus side I like the little cutscenes you can unlock showing your current roster getting into shennanigans, and the assorted tour locations do far more to incorporate your entire library than the old way of visiting an assortment of cities to play through all the disc songs. My only complaint here is that the challenges are entirely devoid of the flavor found in the previous installment. Instead of stuff like ‘do a free benefit show for the fans’ or ‘add a tough drum song to impress a record label’, it’s just generic ‘deploy overdrive a whole bunch of times’ or ‘get a long note streak’.

Off Key

20th Century Boy: Be warned that the value of this game depends quite a bit on whether or not you’re into the online music store. If you only have offline play you’ll have just the several dozen tracks on the disc to amuse you. They’re quite good, but no match for the experience had by folks who’ve been with the series since part 1 and have been steadily stocking up over the years (my library is soon to reach its 600th song).

Get Free: Feature upgrades can be just a little bit costly. Alas there doesn’t appear to be a plan to patch harmonies and keyboard support into old songs. Instead, you’ll see tracks on the marketplace marked as the Rock Band 3 version. Then for an extra dollar you can ‘update to pro mode’ for guitar/bass. I wouldn’t mark this as too big of a complaint because it does take quite a bit of work to make a Rock Band track, and then on top of that to re-create it for the pro guitar with accurate fingerings and strums across six strings, but we always wish we had more free stuff.

Killing Loneliness: It’s been said elsewhere and it’ll be said here that some songs only bring the keyboard in for ambiance. Though there are some great key-centric tunes, there’s a few where you’ll just be playing a fairly basic pattern over and over or only tapping away for a tiny fraction of the song. Keys can also sub in to play the note track for guitar or bass, but you can’t have two people playing the same note track so only tracks with specific keys support can bring in the full band.

Imagine: And now for assorted interface nitpicks. I wish that on tracks where your instrument only plays for a small part of the song the note track would fade out and then fade back in when you’re maybe two measures away or so. I wish it was possible to change instruments between songs in a setlist, so if I start on keys and then go to a song with no keys I can keytar through a guitar track. I wish the marketplace had an option to sort by price. I wish I could still use the stage kit in all instruments mode. I wish the instruments shot lasers and magically summoned mosh pits when you use overdrive. Well, we can’t have everything.

Need You Tonight: This last bit isn’t actually Harmonix’ fault, but still I lament that Beatles: Rock Band is still incompatible with standard Rock Band. You may have noticed that there’s no drum fills and no guitar effects in the Beatles game, which is because as part of the lisencing agreement the players are not to be allowed to modify the way the songs play. This unfortunately seems to mean that the Beatles will forever be segregated to their own game, unable to mingle with the grand library. Hopefully they’ll reconsider someday, as I’d rather like to see them added to the library with keyboard support.

The Final Word

If you already have Rock Band 1 and/or 2 chances are you already snagged 3 on launch day. If you’re already entrenched in the Guitar Hero series it’s a harder sell, since you’d be starting over with a new library. In my opinion the Rock Band library far outdoes the Guitar Hero one in both volume and variety. As for which to grab if you’re starting completely fresh on both franchises, well that’s a bit bigger question. If you prefer a more metal-focused on-disc track list, higher technical challenge, or guitars that click, Guitar Hero may be your thing. If you want to build a custom library with a great variety of fun party tracks, aren’t terribly picky about a challenging experience, or prefer the wider flat guitar frets for easier sliding up and down the neck, Rock Band is the way to go. For my money, Harmonix is still the king of music games and Rock Band 3 is a must-have for fans of the genre. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to go play Sister Christian again as loudly and awesomely as possible.

Rock Band 3 was played on the Xbox 360, and is also available for the Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii. An alternate version is available for the Nintendo DS that uses the design from Rock Band Unplugged for the Sony Playstation Portable. The console version released at $59.99 for the stand-alone game or $129.99 for a bundle that includes the new keyboard controller. The ESRB has rated this game T for Teen for Mild Lyrics, Mild Suggestive Themes, and Use of Alcohol. Rock Band 3 is developed by Harmonix and Backbone Entertainment and published by MTV Games. All game and music copyrights property of their respective owners.

Five by Five – Dead Rising 2

The first Dead Rising was one of the great early titles for the Xbox 360. Three days in a zombie-infested mall was more than enough to sell me on it, and then they go and put a cool story in on top of that. The sequel has a similar formula, tasking you with guiding motocross superstar and expert zombie slayer Chuck Greene with surviving three days in zombie-infested Fortune City (think Fiddler’s Green crossed with Vegas). And now, with hopefully not too many casino puns, let’s ante up. (Oh who am I kidding, casino puns ahoy.)

High Rollers

53 uses for duct tape: One of my favorite parts in the first game was scavenging for weapons. Sometimes I’d skip the strategy of inventory management and just pick up whatever was at hand, pummel zombies with it til it broke, then grab the next nearest item and repeat. Dead Rising 2 improves on the formula with combo weapons, many of which range from kind of ridiculous (knives taped to boxing gloves) to absolutely ridiculous (a car battery taped to a Blanka mask). It’s a hoot to track down new weapons and combos just to see in what over-the-top way it’ll dismember the undead. Granted the bat-with-nails-in-it and the fire-axes-taped-to-sledgehammers are found right by the safehouse and good enough to get you through pretty much the whole game, but having the option to kill zombies by strapping dynamite to lawn darts is good solid wacky fun. Fie and a pox upon all this realism I say; the real world has enough of that.

Double down: Another big addition in this installment is multiplayer. You can drop into a friend’s game, playing through the host player’s storyline and gaining money and prestige points (though only the host player gains zombrex and story progress). You also show up in whatever wacky outfits you’ve accquired. For myself I go with gray hair, swat armor, and snazzy red sunglasses, on the premise that when I join someone else’s game I’m a time-travelling Chuck Greene from the future come back to avert the zombie uprising. Another positive is that you don’t necessarily have to play the game co-op. It makes the boss fights a good deal easier since they’ll have someone else to chase around, but with good weapons you’ll do alright on your own. I do wish however that you didn’t have to stay in the same zone so that you could split up to take on multiple objectives. I also dock mojo points for lacking LAN play. I can understand not doing split-screen because they need the processing power for the horde, but there’s never a good reason not to have LAN play.

Zombie slaying à la carte: There’s a lot of stuff to do, and thankfully this time around you can generally tell from the mission heading whether it’s a psychopath or a survivor. Almost all of the boss fights are optional, and if you do take the time you often get some nice rewards like new combo cards and/or survivors. Likewise it’s made pretty clear which missions will get you the zombrex you need to advance the plot. In short, you can get through the game while playing mostly what you like and a minimum of what you don’t.

City of sin: Capcom did a great job of making Fortune City a new and distinct setting seperate from the Willamette mall, and they did it with a hearty helping of sleaze. The city tempts you to stop and gamble and gorge at every opportunity, surrounding you at all times with lights and glitz and glamour. Also, as the old saying goes, sometimes the real monster is man. Psychopaths aside, even some of the survivors aren’t exactly nice neighbors. I get the feeling these folks were already trying to screw each other over on a regular basis before the zombies came. The apocalypse just gave them an excuse to be upfront about it. The cutscene cameraman seems to be in on the joke as well, missing no opportunities to pan generously over all the things that give this game an M rating. I wouldn’t say you could get totally hammered by doing a shot every time they switch to cleavage-cam, but you could probably get a good buzz going. Even Chuck himself seems a little bit off. Unlike Frank West, caught up in unexpected terror, Chuck Greene is a zombie-killing pay-per-view superstar who is apparently accustomed enough to the violence to spout amusingly cheezy one-liners after every boss fight.

Let it ride: A lot of what’s good about Dead Rising 2 is what was good about Dead Rising 1. Dozens upon dozens of zombies crowd every area. A ticking in-game timer keeps you on the move as you explore a pretty big game world looking for hidden surprises. Rescuing survivors still feels pretty awesome. The option to restart from the beginning with your leveled-up character is still great for replayability. Some improvements have been made, such as allowing three save slots instead of one. It’s not without flaws, though.

Snake Eyes

Zombie games are for zombie killing: Unfortunately, boss fights in Dead Rising 2 still kinda suck. They’re not the epic black holes of suck of the psychopath battles in the first game, but they still vary from industrial vacuum cleaner to small ocean whirlpool. I can’t think of a single boss fight that was really fun. Generally my thought upon completing one wasn’t ‘that was cool’ but rather ‘well I’m glad I’m done with that jerk so I can go do something fun like kill more zombies’. Shooting controls are still kind of weak, and the controls that work great for hacking your way through a ravenous horde don’t quite work right when you’re only fighting one guy. They’re also a little short on flavor when compared to part 1’s cast. Though there’s a modicum of people who are just using the outbreak as an excuse to be jerks, a majority of them are on the theme of ‘guy who went crazy and is trying to do whatever his job was before the outbreak except in a crazy way that involves killing people’.

(Un)death waits for no man: The pacing could be a bit better. If you want to get everything done (and you do want to do everything, because the ending you get if you didn’t do all the missions sucks) you’ll have to stay on the move for pretty much the whole game, taking care of any shopping and exploring in scant moments rushing to and from objectives. It’s good that you’re never sitting around doing nothing waiting for the next objective to pop up, but I would have liked to have been able to explore a little more. I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the stuff hidden in Fortune City, but to find anything more I’d have to give up on the story. This also means there’s no real rising and falling action, just constantly rising. I actually put off playing it for a day at one point because I’d just spent all day at work constantly hustling back and forth to get all my errands done and it didn’t seem very relaxing to do the same in a game (even though it’s more fun when zombie slaying is involved).

Self-saving survivors: Survivor A.I. has had a marked improvement over the first game, perhaps too improved. In part 1 you really had to babysit your survivors to keep them alive, which could often be q bit of a pain but it gave a great sense of superheroic accomplishment when you got a big group back home alive. In part 2 as long as you arm your survivors you can just run for it and there’s a pretty good chance they’ll make it to you safe and sound. Leveling up comes easier but it dulls the sense of accomplishment a tad.

Get on with it (again): It would have been rather nice if there was an option to restart a psychopath battle at the start of the fight instead of going back to your last save so you don’t have to spend time running all the way back there and possibly re-gathering supplies. This is especially true of the last boss, whom you have to fight barehanded with no inventory items. If I’m going to be empty-handed when I get in there anyway, why not just let me restart over there instead of jogging fifty yards with a backpack full of gear I won’t get to use?

Overtime underdone: The story is unfortunately not quite as good as what the first outing offered. You go looking for a guy who sends you looking for a guy who sends you looking for a guy or some such thing, and the primary antagonist doesn’t seem to have much motivation beyond being a total dick. Also, as mentioned above ending A is kind of lame. Even if you go for the S ending (for which you’ll need to complete every single objective), the ending to Overtime mode is only kind of okay. I get the sense the third act was a little rushed. DR1’s Overtime had a whole extra leg of the story to explore and a lot of stuff going on. DR2’s Overtime has you running around to get a gaggle of items for no particular reason beyond that this guy says to go get them, followed by the aforementioned unarmed boss fight (in which the boss naturally is quite well armed). Insult to injury, there’s also no Infinite mode to unlock like in DR1. I will say this for them though; the answer to the mystery that kicks off the game is actually pretty logical. I won’t say what it is or isn’t to avoid spoilers, but when they did the big reveal I gave it some thought and yeah it actually does make some sense for once.

The Final Word

There’s a lot to like about Dead Rising 2. Improvements are to be found in old things and new. They also gain some bonus mojo points for listening to the fans and allowing three save slots instead of one, being willing to sacrifice a little bit of their vision to make it more fun for the fans (the first game’s single save slot was intended to force the player to plan and act more carefully). Likewise I dig that this game is no ‘middle child’; it neither expects part 1 to prop it up, nor expects a forthcoming part 3 to wrap it up. If they keep making them this good and better I’ll buy Dead Rising 3 4 5 and onward. Tangentially, one thing I might like to see in future editions is product placement. Not that I specifically want product placement, but rather that it’d be an excellent way to bring the cost of the game down, what with you always being in a mall-like environment. The only reason I can think of to not get it is if you have a big preference for gunplay in your zombie-slaying and/or if you prefer fast zombies. Me, I’m a fan of shamblers and I love scavenging for random melee weapons. Co-op’s always fun too. As for the various platforms, 360 has a bit of an edge in DLC. Dead Rising 2: Case Zero is already out, and at five bucks is a pretty good litmus test for what you’ll think of the full game, and there’s more DLC to come. You might want to give it a rental first, especially if you won’t be playing the online co-op. I managed to play through to the S ending in less than a week, but there’s also a wealth of hidden whatsits and combo weapons I haven’t yet seen and tried out. I’m probably going to get it eventually for the same reason I keep the first game around; it’s never a bad time to go nuts in a free-roaming environment where anything you can pick up and carry can be used for zombie mayhem.

Dead Rising 2 was played on the Xbox 360, and is also available for the Playstation 3 and PC. Initial retail price was $59.99; average retail price at time of review is between $40 and $50. The ESRB has rated this game M for Mature for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language, Sexual Themes, and Use of Alcohol. Dead Rising 2 is published by Capcom and developed by Capcom and Blue Castle. All copyrights property of their respective owners.

Five by Five – Red Dead Redemption

Quick-draw duels at high noon where life and death are decided in a heartbeat. Gunfights in adobe homesteads surrounded by blood and gunsmoke. Bullets flying in dramatic chases across the desert on horseback. It’s a wonder there aren’t more games set in the legendary wild west, a setting packed with dramatic stories and violent conflict. Rockstar seems a natural fit to bring the adventures of a wandering gunslinger to life in a free-roaming adventure game. Their flagship GTA series has had increasingly massive and detailed cities with each new iteration, but how will they handle the great open plains of the old west?

The Good

The Far Country – With Rockstar’s open-world games there’s always a tremendous effort to craft a great sweeping living world. The county of New Austin is vastly different from Liberty City or San Andreas, with rolling plains and rocky mesas only sporadically dotted with frontier towns. You would think something this big would be procedurally generated but as far as I can tell the madmen actually assembled this by hand. The world is somehow both large and small at the same time; the wilderness is massive enough that it could take several minutes to ride from one end to the other, but it’s also choc full of landmarks and recognizeable terrain. You never feel like you’re just riding through endless generic wilderness. When you get up on a peak and you look across a gorge and see another mesa on the other side, you can ride over and stand atop it. The immersion of the world is also quite impressive. The land and the people will soon have you with a hand on your gun whenever someone gets your attention (tangentially, I find it quite nifty that you can switch which weapon is equipped without having to draw it). Additionally, though not being a graphics guy myself I am quite impressed with the overall look of the world. Many times I’ve been distracted while riding between settlements and looking at the way the sun comes through the clouds and the cacti cast shadows and everything. There are a few uncanny potholes along the way of course; without great buildings to hide scenery behind the player can look over miles of terrain at a time and there’s clearly evident pop-in if you watch the horizon, but it’s easily ignored with the football-field’s-worth of ridiculously-detailed scenery in your immediate vicinity.

For A Few Dollars More – Though not quite perfect, the fame/honor system in RDR seems to me to be a step in the right direction for morality systems, not far removed from the endlessly diverse and adaptable faction systems found in many MMOGs. A higher fame rating will have more people asking you for help, but also more people looking to make a name for themselves by taking you down. You can even wear a bandanna if you want to be sneaky about your reputation. You can also perform various honorable or dishonorable actions, which in turn will affect how honorable and dishonorable people react to you. If you make yourself out to be a knight without armor in a savage land folks will give you a discount in shops and even give you the benefit of the doubt if you get into a little trouble with the law. If you make yourself a terror, however, you’ll find not only the law but wandering bounty hunters chasing you down.

Once Upon A Time In The West – Rockstar’s writing is top-tier as always, predictable at times but always entertaining and filled with interesting characters. While New Austin is set in the fictional and far more exciting version of the frontier popularized in italian westerns they do also take their usual social commentary jabs at the real prejudice and brutality of the time. The days of the free-riding cowboy deciding right and wrong with his gun are coming to a close as ‘civilization’ spreads from east to west. The frontier folk see it as trading one devil for another, and the gunslingers such as protagonist John Marsden are finding themselves without a place in the new order. The well-made cutscenes seem a bit shorter than they were in GTA4, possibly in an effort to minimize time you’re not personally at the reins and keep you immersed in your story.

How The West Was Won – The scripted events used to tell this story also appear greatly improved, though it may help that the environment makes it less likely for something to mess them up. I lost more than a few mission in GTA4 because after a cutscene the getaway car I brought with me (because it seems you always have to get away from something) was traded for a different slower car or disappeared altogether, or because the enemy the tutorial pop-ups claim I need to be chasing and shooting at is invincible until we reach the necessary checkpoint and equipped with Mario Kart technology to always be X distance ahead of you no matter how fast you drive (and will speed away beyond hope of catching if you take just one corner the wrong way). In RDR I’ve had some hectic chases and gotten shot down more than a few times, but thus far a vast majority of deaths and failures were because I made a bad decision or wasn’t fast enough on the draw, challenges of gunslinger vs outlaw rather than player vs programming. Near as I can tell they’re letting the Euphoria engine do more of the work for them, which I applaud.

The Quick And The Dead – The free roaming multiplayer has a pretty good swath of options. There’s a leveling system that gives XP for pretty much anything you choose to do and leads towards assorted fun unlockables. Up to eight people can form a posse in rooms of up to sixteen players and tear around the entire game world. There’s gang hideouts full of npcs to clear, hunting areas to patrol, and of course other players trying to shoot you in the face at random. You can also use markers in the towns to jump into the assorted multiplayer modes in that particular town, or just go to the menu to hit a game and town at random. The game modes are the the usual set of deathmatch, team deathmatch, and single- and two-flag versions of CTF (dressed up as shootout, gang shootout, grab the bag, and hold your own respectively). There’s also a fun hectic free for all version of grab the bag in which everyone is competing for randomly spawning bags of gold to be delivered to assorted drop-off points in the level. I played a round of this with a gang of nine in a village at night in the rain and lightning and it was intense. The improved cover system (now actually worth using) also helps the battles look more awesome. It’s slick enough now that I can run down an alley and as I round the corner pull the stick back and hit the cover button, and the game will be smart enough to understand that I want to take cover against the corner looking back down the alley I came from. Massive bonus coolness points are also in order for for also including a system link option, sadly lacking from GTA4. There are some hitches, however…

The Bad

Nothing Too Good For A Cowboy – Compared to GTA4 the multiplayer can be somewhat clunky and lacking in options. Everyone sets their own preferences for overhead icons and aim assist, and you can’t control what weapons are on the map nor npc density. I would have also liked to have seen more interesting and/or setting-specific multiplayer modes. DM/TDM/CTF is pretty standard fare, even with the added option of carrying two bags instead of one for slower movement but a greater score. I’m always more interested in the unique modes a game’s multiplayer has to offer. I would have loved to see a train robbery mode, or perhaps have two teams fighting over a carriage on the road between two towns, trying to get it back to their home base. Free DLC is on the horizon that may indeed add something like this, but I can’t give full marks for late arrivals. I also kinda wish the lasso was available in multiplayer, but I can forgive the decision because I imagine they tried it and found it to be extremely annoying to get lassoed and dragged around for miles. Still when in doubt I’d rather have the option to turn it off and on instead of it just not being in at all, and you could always let the player cut their way out with the knife. Furthermore, it’s highly vexing that you can’t specifically pick what sort of game mode you want to play, only whether you want it to be free for all or team based. Always always always let the players pick what they want to do. Leave an option in there if folks just want to use matchmaking but dangit if we want to play a particular mode let us go do it.

The Decoy – Random events crop up on the map as you travel and the first few times you see them they add a little nice flavor to the overall stew of immersion, but there’s kind of a small variety of them and often they mean trouble. The old ‘our stagecoach broke down please help us because we’re totally not an ambush’ gag seems to show up a lot for me, though it may just be memorable because despite claims to the contrary I have never seen a non-ambush version of it.

Find A Place To Die – Like GTA4 before it, the controls still don’t handle well in close quarters. Luckily this doens’t come up often in the wide open wilderness and when you’re in town it’s usually mitigated by the smartly improved cover system, but when it does mess up it will probably end with you getting ventilated. It also tends to have bouts of bugginess, strangely possibly more common after the patch. At time of writing I’ve died at least five times now due to Marsden suddenly becoming a man of peace and deciding he doesn’t want to fire his gun anymore, standing out in the open and getting shot to death.

Forbidden Trails – Rockstar continues to perfect their worlds like finely polished gems, and though it continues to shine brighter with fewer flaws the few that remain unfortunately stand out even more. At time of writing an early patch somehow seemed to add more bugs, characters occasionally turning invisible or being absorbed into geometry. We once had to finish a gang hideout by tossing dynamite on a hill because the last outlaw was underground (but still able to shoot and kill us). Luckily the splash damage got him. I’m also vexed by a small number of slopes that aren’t climbable even though they look less steep than other slopes that are climbable, especially when the impassable slopes are knee-high. Sometimes you can vault them with the jump button but usually not. We should really be past the age of impassable knee-high walls by now; if you don’t want me to go that way, use a nice tall rock wall that’s clearly impassable.

Old Gringo – Early on John Marsden may seem like a bit of a blank slate character akin to Solid Snake or Commander Shepard with the intention that the player imprints their own idea of the character rather than seeing a pre-made story play out. Some may find the character development lacking early on and indeed my first impression was that Marsden’s development was a little lacking, but about a third of the way in it actually really picks up.

The Final Word

Let’s be honest; this entire review could be replaced by the phrase, “The Grand Theft Auto guys made a western,” and you’d be in line to pick it up. The world is well designed, the story is interesting, the gunplay is dramatic and exciting, and for the most part everything fits together well. It’s got its small list of flaws, but it does more than enough right to excuse them. It may be just a little bit too short (I’m over a quarter of the way through at time of writing), but that could work in its advantage; with the fame/honor system and the less herculean effort of completing the game I may play it twice to see how the other half lives. Both the singleplayer and multiplayer games are strong enough that they could probably make it as stand-alone games at a lower price, and the complete package is a darn good deal. Between the two versions, the PS3 version only runs at 640p to 360’s 720p, but mechanically they play the same. This one is definitely worth owning, especially if you’ve got friends to jump into multiplayer with you. Saddle up.

Red Dead Redemption was played on the Xbox 360, and is also available for the Playstation 3. Initial and current retail price is $59.99. The ESRB has rated this game M for Mature for Blood, Intense Violence, Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, and Use of Drugs. Red Dead Redemption is developed and published by Rockstar Games. All copyrights property of their respective owners.

Review was edited on 5/25/10 to reflect a retraction of an earlier opinion regarding character development.

Five by Five – Super Street Fighter IV

Super Street Fighter IV is an update to the original SFIV released just under two years ago. Both versions have the return of all twelve of the classic characters from Street Fighter II, and this update introduces ten more to the roster. The format is familiar to anyone with experience in the tourney fighter genre that Street Fighter II helped to define; an eclectic gaggle of martial artists get together to be the tar out of each other for vaguely-defined reasons. Should you put your quarter up for this one even if you have the original? Let’s step into the ring and find out.

Get ready… Fight!!

Make new friends and keep the old – The updated version of 2008’s classic roster ups the number of fighters to 35, supplementing the original dozen with characters from Super Street Fighter II, Street Fighter Alpha, and Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, plus two new faces. Better still, every character is unlocked right from the beginning. All the fighters are also reasonably balanced, which is no small feat with so many characters. Numerous tweaks have been made to characters old and new to keep everything square.

Here comes a new challenger – Like SFIV before it, SSFIV has a solid ‘easy to learn difficult to master’ fighting system. A feature I find to be key to good pick-up-and-play fighting games is a simple one-press universal counter, and the one in this game also charges up the bar for your big finisher. Said bar also goes up when you take damage, so if you’re getting pounded yours will charge up quick (though likewise if you fire off your big attack and the opponent survives, his big gun will be coming after you). While being user-friendly for new players the game also maintains the deeper combat that fighting purists crave. I still don’t know what FADC means, but if you do you’ll find a suitably smart fighter.

Everything old is new again – SSFIV takes graphics forwards by taking them back. The characters and many of the stages are designed to be 3d emulations of the classic 2d graphics (and gameplay) of Street Fighter II. Watching the faithful emulations of the classic attacks and animations will make you feel like you’re back in the arcade, putting your quarter up for nexts with one hand and balancing greasy pizza on a paper plate on the other. I also like that the game doesn’t move as fast as games like Street Fighter II Turbo or Marvel vs Capcom 2 so that you can actually see what’s going on. Even when you’re losing it can be a fun fight to watch.

I got next – What really sets SSFIV apart from the previous iteration is the online functionality, especially the addition of Endless Mode. Up to eight people can gather in a lobby ‘winner stays loser pays’ style just like the old days, a feature bafflingly missing from the original SFIV. Capcom also went the extra mile and added a Team Battle mode wherein you can take a team of your friends online and try to fight your way through opposing teams. There is a bit of lag now and then but even on my finnickey connection having only two lagspikes out of a hundred matches isn’t half bad. Additionally, almost everything in the game can be unlocked by just playing online a lot.

Welcome back – Knowing that a lot of folks who are eyeing this one already have the first Street Fighter 4, the starting price for this show is $40 instead of the usual $60. Still a little bit higher than I’d like, but then I’m the sort who usually waits for used games because I don’t like paying more than $30. Niftily, any extra costumes you bought for SFIV are useable in SSFIV, and two extra costume colors are made available only to players with a save log from the original game.

Back to the Flowchart

What button does what now? – As is the case with most good games, finding five things at which to point the finger often involves nitpicking. So here’s nit number one: less-than-perfect interface. For some reason the move lists take the form of an assortment of menus instead of the snazzy fight cards like in SFIV. Also it would have been a big help if, like many other fighters (Street Fighters included) before, it showed you the input notations when you’re choosing which of your two Ultra Combos to take into battle. Should I use the Bushin Muso Renge or the Bushin Goraisenpujin? New players had better take a crack at Training mode first or have a webpage open with the moves. If I had my druthers I’d flash the move list on the VS screen before the fight starts so you can try to memorize one or two.

I’m pressing the button as hard as I can! – Maybe it’s just me but I find a majority of special move inputs involving the upward arc unusually difficult to pull off. This goes double for double-diagonal inputs like Guile’s Ultra Combo and triple for 720-degree rotations like Zangief’s UC. That said though, there does seem to be a nice balance that the moves that are nearly impossible to use cause massively rewarding damage when/if you ever get them to work.

So many faces to kick, so little time – One might say that there’s almost too many characters. Thirty-five characters can be a lot to pick from for new players who don’t already know and love these guys from past Street Fighter games, and as above the enigmatic names of the Ultra Combos generally don’t help newcomers figure out what to do.

Yay capitalism – I suppose this one isn’t so much a gripe against the game as it is against the company. As with the previous iteration there’s extra costumes for some of the characters available on the marketplace, with costumes for the rest of the gang soon to come. Also as with the previous iteration, I’m pretty sure that somewhere down the road there’s going to be a pack with all the costumes at a discounted price. I can see the financial logic in snagging a few extra dollars from the fans who just have to have the new stuff on day one, but still it vexes me.

One is the loneliest player – Some folks may be a bit bored with the lack of unlockables. If you’re playing solo there’s nothing in particular to be gained from going through everyone’s Arcade mode (aside from seeing the laughably tangled mess that is Street Fighter’s story at this point). But then again, if you’re looking for single-player fun why are you playing a tourney fighter?

The Final Word

If you already have the original SFIV this one is probably still worth a shot due to the bigger roster and added online modes. If you don’t have SFIV, this is what that game should have been two years back, and if you don’t already have a solid 2d-esque fighter in your stable than this is the one to snag to bring to parties. The full roster unlocked from the beginning means nobody has to tirelessly slog through Arcade to unlock everything for the gang, so it’s a sound rental for a weekend. Folks who enjoy climbing leaderboards will find this a fine purchase as well. Amongst the consoles this decision is heavily dependant upon where your friends play online and controller preference, with game performance comprable across the board.

Super Street Fighter IV was played on the Xbox 360, and is also available on the Playstation 3 and as an arcade cabinet. Initial and current retail price is $39.99. The ESRB has rated this game T for Teen for Alcohol Reference, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, and Violence. Super Street Fighter IV is developed and published by Capcom, with additional development work from Dimps. All copyrights property of their respective owners.

Five By Five – Dante’s Inferno


In the early 1300s the poet Dante Alighieri penned a three-part epic called the Divine Comedy about an amazing journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven.  It was a controversial piece in its debut, and to this day remains an interesting source of debate and philosophy and the inspiration much of the modern ideas of Christian afterlife.  Naturally this is excellent source material for…  a third-person brawler nicking most of its gameplay from the One True Franchise that all third-person brawlers must now emulate by law for some reason.  On paper this seems like about as good of an idea as turning a short story about the moral quandries of artificial intelligence and self-awareness into a sci-fi action flick about killer robots, but how shall the final product of Visceral Games’ and A2M’s efforts be judged?

Salvation


Best book report ever? – Anyone worried that the epic poem was simply harvested for some simple monster and level ideas and then tossed aside, worry not.  The development team went through the Divine Comedy cover to cover and found ways to use nearly every part of it.  Taken as written one would think the poems would best take the form of some kind of point & click adventure game (or the best theme park ride ever), so making a brawler out of it required a few changes to the story.  Rather than a poet, the Dante of this game’s story is a knight in the Crusades who tears hell a new one in search of his gal Beatrice, advised along the way by ghostly tour guide Virgil.  Further, the levels and enemies that populate them are all designed after or at least inspired by the poem.  There’s even a bit of tangential learning afoot, as after completing the game I decided to seek out a bit of research on the real Dante’s Inferno, as well as the other two parts of the Divine Comedy.  Not many video games can say they inspired me to research 14th century Italian poetry.  The bonus features menu even includes the complete Inferno, for the curious.

Hellish – If this game is any indication, hell is a very unpleasant place, crafted in an art style intended to unsettle and unnerve.  There’s a few parts that stick out in my mind that folks may say is going a bit too far, but also remember this is hell we’re talking about; by definition it’s supposed to be the most horrific place imaginable.  And this isn’t modern ‘don’t be a jerk and you’ll probably go to heaven’ afterlife.  This is old-school ‘if you don’t cover your mouth when you sneeze you’ll burn for eternity’ afterlife.  The environments are choc full of folks suffering assorted terrible torments for various offenses, and each circle is a bit more messed up than the last.  The sound design gets in on it too; hope you don’t mind listening to the cries of the damned for the next several hours.  In case you hadn’t guessed this is about as mature as mature-rated games get, choc full of nudity and violence.

No sympathy for the devil – In the first two minutes of the game you die and are greeted by Death, come to take you to you final resting place.  A minute or two after that you kill Death, steal his scythe, and dive into hell to make a ruckus.   The action continues on in this fashion of epic with lots of flashy visuals.  The special moves you unlock are also niftily cinematic; the holy powers are all glowy and smitey, and the unholy powers cause all manner of evisceration.  As a Catholic, I also must say there’s something kind of awesome about sprouting glowing wings and punching the devil in the face with a glowing laser cross.

Once more, with feeling – Thus I bestow upon ye another of my Commandments of Game Design: thou shalt incorporate new game plus whenever possible.  One of my favorite bits of any game where I level up and get more powerful along the way is to savagely destroy the early levels with my endgame abilities, and upon completion Dante’s Inferno allows just that.

Good, bad, I’m the guy with the scythe – Games about religion often run a big risk of driving out the fun and driving away players by beating the audience over the head with the point.  Perhaps the best move for this game then was that the development team didn’t start off intenting to make a game about religion, but rather they set out to make a fun Dante’s-Inferno-inspired brawler and let the religious aspects come in where they needed to.  Nor does the story try to hold up Christians as infallible moral paragons; there’s sinners and saints amongst all peoples, and in fact the story (of both the game and the poem) can also be a critique of what happens when organized religion is twisted by the ignorant and/or malicious (for example, the Crusades).  Wisely the game doesn’t try to preach to the player, but rather tells the story through Dante’s own failings and quest for redemption.  The protagonist is not a very nice man, perhaps well-meaning but easily tempted to pretty much every deadly sin, and he’s got almost as many skeletons in his closet as he does facing him in battle.  In this way I actually find him a more compelling character than fan-favorite Kratos, because for him the problems caused by a lifetime of brutal violence can be solved by causing even more violence on a ridiculous scale.  Dante indeed hacks his way through countless legions of hell, but he also seeks a higher calling.  He wants to fight for some greater cause, and both his past misdeeds and his future attempt at redemption involve him trying to figure out what that cause is.  Whether or not you personally believe in heaven and hell and whatnot, you can enjoy the story of a deeply flawed protagonist on a journey that will cause him to question his faith, his self-worth, and basically his entire worldview.  If you do share the ideas of Christian afterlife the game can be thought-provoking as you walk through a game world filled with people who gave into various vices and ponder what shennanigans the player has been up to in their own personal life.  Look up Daniel Floyd and the power of Video Games and Tangential Learning at the link below for a bit more on the matter of expanding your mind through gaming.

Damnation


Saint or sinner, but nothing inbetweenDaniel Floyd has crafted some very insightful videos on this topic; in short, many games that tout complex moral decisions really just end up presenting uncomplicated binary selections, and often only absolute good or absolute evil (clear choices which rarely exist in our real daily lives).  Along the way you find assorted famous dead folks and can choose whether to absolve them of their sins or punish them and make them even more dead than they already were or something.  Absolving leads to a mini-game where if you’re patient and have a good sense of timing you can net a lot of bonus souls (upgrade currency), while punishing just gives you a quick mid-size soul package.  Most enemy types can also be absolved or punished, and again the punishment option is just one button-press while absolving requires a bit more time-consuming event of repeatedly mashing a button.  Absolving or punishing also nets extra holy or unholy points to unlock more levels of powers on the respective skill trees.  This unfortunately tends to take roleplaying out of the equation and change it from a choice (choose between options of indeterminate value) into a problem (choose the option that assure success).  If you want to max out either skill tree on your first play-through you have to stick to either just absolving or just punishing for most of the game.  Instead of ‘does this sinner deserve absolution’ or ‘should I risk getting hit to absolve these minions’ it comes down to ‘which powers do I want’.  The superheroic feel of holding back on my attacks to try to save the enemies who are doing their best to destroy me was neat, but overall this mechanic doesn’t achieve its full potential.

Evil pockets (of broken immersion) – In the poem there is a part where Dante and Virgil must traverse ten bolgie, great stone ditches with stone bridges spanning them.  In the game this translates to a series of challenge rooms.  These would feel right at home as a bonus feature or something you could visit from an overworld map to go rack up some more souls, but shoehorned into the main game like this they just feel like artificial padding.  Unlike the detailed and varied environments before and after it, the bolgie are a simple series of cut & paste rooms with only the slightest variations between a repeating pattern of a small corridor and a large room with a floating platform.  Also unlike the rest of the game the challenges seem to have little to do with the sins associated with each area.  I’m pretty sure there’s nothing in the poem about folks being punished for fraud by maintaining an air juggle for eight seconds.

Quick time events can go die in a fire – Another Commandment of Game Design: Thou shalt either use quick time events very carefully or not at all.  I wouldn’t mind in the slightest if this game mechanic was taken out back and shot but it seems its here to stay so that developers can continue to essentially make cutscenes that you can fail at instead of either letting you do cool stuff or letting you relax and watch cool stuff happen.  There is at least a slight darkening at the edges of the screen to let you know QTE is afoot, but the button to be pressed doesn’t always have a logical attachment to the action you’re supposed to be performing.  Of particular note to PS3 players is that it’s a bit more difficult to make out which button they want you to be using because you’re looking for a symbol rather than a bright color.  It’s not the worst application of QTE, but it still vexes me.

The beatings will continue until morale improves – Those hungry for deep combat tactics will go wanting.  There’s little in the way of combos or strategy beyond ‘hit it a lot’ and ‘hit it really hard’.  Most of it comes down to watching enemy attacks and either countering or dodging, and I spent a majority of the game just pressing Circle over and over until everything in the room was dead (or absolved).

Press X to roll the stone up the hill again – I can think of exactly one point in the game in which I thought ‘I’m glad they put the checkpoint right there’, and many more where I wanted to bop some level designers on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper.  There’s quite a few points where a checkpoint would have better been placed somewhere midway through a complicated sequence instead of back at the beginning of it, requiring some frequent repitition of complex (and often instant-death) trials.  A particular favorite involves moving a gear on a lever back and forth to raise a platform while flames gradually envelop it.  Go a little too slowly and 2-3 minutes of smashing and pulling must be redone in a mild case of what Shamus Young has coined DIAS (do it again, stupid) gameplay until you suss out what you were supposed to have been doing while you were engulfed in flames.  This is time that could possibly better be spent smiting more demons.

The Final Word

After how much I disliked the demo I went into this expecting to tear the final product apart, but it was a pleasant surprise overall.  At times the combat was bland and the puzzles vexing, but getting to play as a Christian character smiting demons instead of using allegorical characters in a fictional setting.  You could easily trounce this one in the weekend, maybe a week tops if you really dig in to unlock all the powers and find all the hidden items.  The subject matter also might just not be for everyone because it doesn’t pull punches with direct refrences to prominent figures and events in Judeo-Christian dogma.  However, as mentioned above, the game isn’t trying to preach.  It’s just an old story about love, death, betreyal, miracles, failures, redemption, and other classics, with a protagonist who has a higher goal in mind beyond ‘just keep stabbing things in the face until the situation improves’.  It may not be a good buy unless you’re a completionist, but it’s certainly worth a rental.  Between PS3 and 360, the former has nicer shading but the latter has marginally better texture and smoother animation, and as mentioned above more easily discerned QTEs.  The PSP version compounds the PS3 version’s problem with QTE, vexingly makes tutorial popups take up most of the screen, and tones back the graphics as appropriate to the hardware, but otherwise appears to retain the same storyline and largely the same combat.

Dante’s Inferno was played on the Playstation 3, and is also available on the Xbox 360 and the Playstation Portable. Initial retail price was $59.99, and current prices are about the same or slightly lower.  The ESRB has rated this game M for Mature for Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, and Sexual Content.  Dante’s Inferno is developed by Visceral Games, ported to the PSP by Artificial Mind & Movement, and published by Electronic Arts.  All copyrights property of their respective owners.