Challenge Pissing: Sonic & Knuckles

Hey all. This is my first blog for the site in a long while. I doubt there were any expectations, but if there were, then allow me to do my damndest to undershoot them entirely.

"Challenge Pissing", ideally, will be a series of opinion pieces on (not at all) relevant issues/topics/sexual innuendos in gaming. As we all know, opinions are sort of, well, everywhere. So offensive, not offensive, completely agreeable; whatever the case, you should take solace in knowing Challenge Pissing shouldn't amount to more than piss in the wind.

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Sonic the Hedgehog has been a staple of my gaming life since the early 90's. Gaming life in general, I ought to say. But really, for me, Sonic has been my platforming mascot of choice for the last decade and a half. It's probably worthwhile to preface this with: I haven't played a lick of the Sonic games post 3D-Blast, and, on that note, worthwhile to say "gaming icon" of choice in the stead of "platforming mascot."

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 stands, to this day, as one of my favorite 2D games on any platform, much less the Genesis. And I hold it as the crowning achievement of the Sonic legacy. Simply put, the game plays to Sonic's strengths. The level design is, for the most part, superb; the sense of speed is both blinding and controllable; the game has a blistering pace, and aside from the occasional dread of being underwater or that godforsaken Metropolis stage, Sonic 2 rarely feels stagnant. Always fluid.

Shifting gears a bit--I have only vague memories of Sonic & Knuckles, the "sequel" and/or second half of the Sonic 3 two-act narrative. If you can call the game's progressions "narratives," that is. I remember the mechanics of Sonic 3. The flash strike Sonic can unleash with a second tap of the jump button and Knuckle's ability to glide and sink his gauntlets into sheer cliffs. I remember the Bonus Stages wherein your one goal was to collect blue spheres. Red spheres be damned. Even if they are Knuckles's color (he's clearly aware of his place as second-billing, because he didn't complain about collecting Sonic-hued spheres). I remember Knuckles toying with Sonic along the whole path. And Chickens. I remember Chickens that blew gale-force winds.

Seeing Sonic & Knuckles for its Xbox Live Marketplace price (400 Microsoft Points) led to curiosity, and curiosity led to me caving entirely. 400 points is relatively painless. Relatively.

Sonic Team to Producers: So, here's what we're thinking.

So, after having played Sonic & Knuckles, I realized why I had only fleeting impressions of my childhood experience with the game. I had repressed the knowledge I bore of even playing the fucking thing. Because, now that I look at it, I realize that Sonic & Knuckles is a filthy aberration of everything 2D Sonic represented. If Sonic & Knuckles were a rapper, it'd be Vanilla Ice. A soda, Pepsi Blue. A notable sexual criminal, Brian Peppers.

I maintain that Sonic & Knuckles is the weakest, lowest-quality marquee Sonic the Hedgehog title on the Sega Genesis. And don't you dare say Sonic Spinball was worse. Because Sonic Spinball fucking rocked.

First off, let's explicate Sonic the Hedgehog a bit. Sonic is fast, that's his gimmick. He's the animal kingdom's Usain Bolt. One of the coolest moments in The Matrix Reloaded--the scene where Keanu Reeves flies (fully clothed) through the city fast enough to tear the Matrix apart at its very seams--was based on a real event perpetrated by Sonic the Hedgehog.

Given Sonic's one undeniable, unforgettable, totally distinguishable trait (aside from his being a hedgehog), the design philosophy around the games is admittedly simple: allow the players to completely exploit his speed. Not all the time, of course, because then they will grow complacent, and the game will cease to be engaging. But ultimately, make Sonic fast. Give him environments where he can outrun a Corvette often enough, make the aforementioned environments aesthetically appealing, write catchy music that fits the tone of land-speed-record-breaking, and the game will basically produce itself.

So begat Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, and to a lesser extent, Sonic the Hedgehog 3. In another sense, especially Sonic 3. In fact, there's a sense in which Sonic the Hedgehog 3 just tells the player to set the controller down once Sonic gets enough momentum. The ensuing wave of colors is so oppressive, you'd swear you were watching Speed Racer.

But then there's Sonic & Knuckles. Sonic & Knuckles is the child who got neither the brains of Sonic 2 nor the looks of Sonic 3. And, Sonic 1 is the eldest child, so it gets everything it wants anyway.

Near the tail end of Sonic 2, at the Metropolis stage mentioned some paragraphs above, the Sonic Team decides it'd be cute if they put not one, but two enemies, both of whom are impervious to direct assaults, in obscure places the player cannot see until they are running full fucking blast down the corridor. Cue ring spray, cue cursing, cue a complete and utter shattering of Sonic's sense of speed.

Moreover, when the stage doesn't want to hurl Sonic headlong into an adversary, it takes away Sonic's lateral movement altogether. The majority of the level is spent bouncing vertically off yellow pinball flippers and carefully dodging spike-shooting Staryus.

Metropolis is, far and away, the most tedious and unenjoyable of the Sonic 2 stages because it forces Sonic into a realm of verticality, which happens to be Sonic's least favorite realm. That is, unless he's running up a goddamned wall. And it compounds this claustrophobia by preventing Sonic to gain any lateral momentum whatsoever, as the enemies are too deftly placed for the player to feel comfortable exploiting his sneakers. And did I mention (or did you remember) that Metropolis had three Acts? Totaling in at an average ten-to-twelve minutes. Ten to twelve minutes to complete a stage in a game completely contingent on speed.

Take the time, then, to imagine an entire game designed with the Metropolis motifs--enemies planted in wholly inconvenient locations, overtly vertical, complex, overwrought stage design. If you've imagined it correctly, then you've imagined Sonic & Knuckles.

From the outset, the game's philosophical issues are clear. Clear and present. Mushroom Hill Zone has several types of baddies, but only one can be killed with a direct assault. One. And it's a goddamned butterfly that zips nimbly around without a real pattern, making it a testament to a player's accuracy if they can hit the thing. Compounding the issue are chickens that spout gusts of wind, withholding Sonic (or Knuckles, I suppose) back for a number of seconds.

Let's just get something clear. Metropolis in Sonic 2 skirts away from any real criticism because it was, basically, the last "real" stage in the game. Mushroom Hill Zone is the first level of Sonic & Knuckles. The first level. Traditionally, Sonic games let the players go all out in the first stage because, well, hell, it's the first stage. Let them get hooked on the game's significant qualities. Right? Right?!

Abound in Mushroom Hill Zone are a number of vine-traps that ensnare Sonic and hold him in place until a spin dash is performed. Which, okay, keep the spin dash relevant, that's fine. But it further reinforces the notion that--for Sonic & Knuckles--the direction in which the Sonic Team delved was not at all coherent in the philosophy of Sonic the Hedgehog. A slow Sonic the Hedgehog is like a walking Stephen Hawking. Established status quo be damned.

But that's just the design of the first level. I haven't enumerated the problems with the second level (which smacks uncannily of Metropolis, go figure) or the third (a completely uninteresting sand-stage whose second Act relishes in being an infinite loop), or any of the levels past that. Kudos, I suppose, for writing Robotnik--not sure if he's Eggman at this point--in character. Of course he'd put Sonic in a claustrophobic space to take away his one advantage, but these are 2D plaformers. Story and character need not be relevant past the point of appearance. Hell, there are triple-A games released today whose stories make as much sense as a soup sandwich, yet they're still highly praised because the gameplay holds true.

The biggest insult atop the mountainous injury, however, is the lazy production. The game's music is a significant step down from the compositions in Sonic 3 (and, of course, an even greater discrepancy when compared to Sonic 2's immaculate 16-bit score). And the environments are just bland. Unengaging. They all keep too closely to a singular color, where the earlier Sonic entires thrived with an abundance of contrasting hues. Even Metropolis was interesting to look at, with its brick reds against industrial greens and browns.

The Sonic legacy, obviously, is in a sort of miry place in modern gaming. 3D has been ungenerous to Sonic, the transition has been difficult and clunky. This argument has been made before, that Sonic's strength is in fluency, not in complexity. And there has been no truer argument for the hedgehog's cause. If Mario is about precision platforming, then Sonic is duly about sheer adrenaline and inertia. Not cheap enemy placements or convoluted level design or, God forbid, bad music.

But I don't believe the problems began when Sonic jumped to 3D. I feel the problems manifested earlier, at the height of his power. In the way all memorable icons orchestrate their fall.

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Faces Both Familiar and Indistinguishable: Mass Effect Diary 4

-When last I left you, I was orbiting the recently-invaded planet of Feros, laughing at the poor luck of its under-militarized inhabitants.  You would think, at this point of the civilization's life, with a hostile, unpredictable machine race like the Geth lurking on the fringes of the galaxy, the Council would consider it a wise decision to arm every colony with a base minimum of security (and hell, maybe they did, but the evidence of such a commitment is surely lacking).  Eventually, I cease with the schadenfreude and land on the planet itself, which is an interesting choice in art direction; if I had to point at a parallel in popular science fiction, I would say it looks like Mygeeto from Revenge of the Sith, where Ki-Adi Mundi (the Jedi with a banana-shaped face and a Klingon-esque grimace) is killed when Order 66 is given.  Aside from the raised platforms and daunting towers, the planet is covered in bleak, depressing clouds, swirls of congealing water vapor and utter darkness.  Even the sunlight casts a shade of gray on the buildings.

A clear sufferer of Post-Sniper Depression.

-Well, that didn't last long.  After jumping off the Normandy, being shadowed on both sides by Garrus (resident bad-ass) and Wrex (a.k.a. "Walking Genocide"), I encounter a frightened man named David-something.  He reiterates everything I already knew -- that the Geth were attacking this already self-deprecating planet -- and is promptly blown into a unrecognizable heap by a nearby Geth sniper.  Thanks, pal.  Your information may not have been worthy but at least you exposed the sniper's position. 
 
-A few small battles bring us to an outpost called Zhu's Hope.  There we meet with Fai Dan, the outpost's leader, and he expresses very little (a stray, "Oh, thank God you're here," maybe) before we're, once again, under the barrels of antagonizing Geth Forces.  Fai Dan yells over the skimming plasma bolts, informing us the Geth have overtaken the tower, to which I hear Wrex's stomach growling.  Either that, or he finds Fai Dan appetizing.  

-At this point, I haven't been micro-managing my characters as much as I probably should be.  I know about the upgrades to the armor and the weapons, but I don't change them often (in fact, once I find a health-regenerating module for armor, that's usually the last thing to ever be equipped into it).  Though it's mostly because I'm lazy, it's also because I'm too conditioned by shooters to be a successful RPG player on the first attempt.  My unconscious ideology on inventory?  Find something powerful, hold onto it until you find something more powerful.  Even I remind myself of Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now.  Despite that, I'm starting to show signs of growth -- knowing that the Geth will likely be my only enemy for the next few hours, I equip everyone with ammunition more dangerous against synthetics than organics.  Immediately after, a fleeting sense of pride washes over me, but it is smothered by the need to spill some Geth blood . . . or . . . oil?  

-So, we're in some tunnels now, and we've come across a guy who I'm pretty sure is functionally retarded.  Ian Newstead.  The Geth are down here in pockets, nothing serious, but this guy is losing his mind (or has already lost it).  I offer to kill him, to "put him out of his misery," but Newstead manages to talk me down from my particularly Renegade-like action.  Now, I didn't come down to the tunnels to find Ian, or to complete the water supply mission (Wrex literally tuned to me and, with his booming voice, said, "We ought to turn on these valves, since their water supply is down."  How the fuck do you know their water system's down, Wrex?), but because I cannot manage to find my way out of the tower, back to Zhu's Hope.  I just can't do it.  It's about time to start inspecting for strangely built corridors. 

Oh, okay. This isn't quite a screenshot of the Mako on Feros, though it does wear a nifty hat.
-The last thing I expected to do was drive a Mako on these damaged catwalks, but here we are, steering precariously between debris strewn about and the corpses of fallen Geth Armatures (the imperial walkers I mentioned in the last go-'round).  I notice a refugee camp hidden in plain sight near a few Geth troopers, but I don't stop for them (I am a heartless commander focused solely on the job, right?).  My radio picks up their chatter, and I hear a woman, the one in charge of the camp, presumably, say that we have a surprise ahead.  Since I'm certain the refugees aren't their own entity and won't attack me, I can only assume the veiled foreshadowing meant a large battalion of Geth ahead.  Not a problem, really.  Not with the Mako.

-. . . But, of course, that's just it, isn't it?  In a strategy I've seen before, the path is blocked by an immovable doorway, and there is only enough space for a person to squeeze through, but no transport.  The few Geth in there are hardly a "surprise," much less a threat.   

-That's just cheap.  After dropping down from a collapsed hallway, the squad and I meet Lizbeth Baynham, a scientist who tells us about a creature called "The Thorian," though she knows relatively nothing about it sans it name.  It sounds threatening enough.  Once we close the conversation, however, we are immediately attacked -- and I mean immediately, couldn't she have given us some warning? -- by these dog-like creatures.  Varren, they're called.  Their power doesn't match their ferocity (or their manners, for that matter), but it is still a pretty uncouth trick on Bioware's part.  Bastards.

-Let me get this straight: The Thorian is a plant with telepathy?  And it has been passively seizing the minds of the colonists here on Feros?  Well, at least it's original.  By the way, the Virtual Interface telling the Krogan he had a queue building to use the terminal -- that was a clever way to introduce the battle.  Very funny.  

-On the way back to confront the Thorian, we stop at the refugee camp, where we learn that, not only has the Thorian taken a firm hold on the colonists at Zhu's hope, but has awakened a legion of long-possessed humans to halt our advance.  This thing really does have telepathy.  Lizbeth's mother gives us a modification for our grenades, which alters their content into tear gas that nullifies all motor functions of any one possessed by the Thorian's pheromones, and pleads with us so that we spare the lives of our still-human attackers.  Though I concur entirely with her logic and motive, I respond with an unpromising "We'll see."  

-The first batch of Colonial puppets we run encounter includes one Ian Newstead.  I grenade everyone else in the area, and Garrus and Wrex stay near the Mako.  Ian fires at me twice with some sort of generic pistol, which overheats after the second shot.  I use Storm, charge to his position, then promptly use Biotic Throw (which is a Force Push, essentially) and heave him off a ledge, onto the burning carcass of a recently-destroyed vehicle.  Six colonists thus far: Five successfully tranquilized, one completely annihilated.  In the words of the great Simon Pegg, when asked what "TFU" stood for -- "The Fuckest Uppest."
Amazingly, it is both the best shotgun ability and the worst Spider-Man villain.

-The Thorian is fucking huge.  And, to make matters worse, that Asari clone has ended me several times already at the time of this writing.  The fucking endless waves of Thorian Creepers (which, admittedly, aren't as bad as Geth Husks -- no radial attacks to be found here) are really annoying.  I have devised a powerful strategy against the shotgun-wielding clone, however.  The time between her spawns is long enough for my Carnage ability to recharge.  When the Twi'lek wannabee charges through the door, Wrex hits her (it?  Aren't Asari hermaphroditic?) with Stasis, and I use Carnage.  One-two punch, baby.  

-Saren tricked the Thorian into giving him the means to organize the Prothean visions.  Gotcha.  Shiala also has the Cipher because she shared the single consciousness with the Thorian, therefore absorbing the Cipher.  Okay.  The story is still contrived, though.  Why don't we take her along?  If she shared the mind of the Thorian, wouldn't she have assimilated the bulk, if not the entirety, of its knowledge?  Couldn't she, with that vast knowledge, be immensely useful to us?  Grr.  Bioware.  Really, guys.  This is not helping your case very much.  It studied the Protheans.  What more do we need?  Purportedly, the Thorian is older than the Protheans, which means it knows what killed them, and therefore, not only would it validate Shepard's entire argument, but it would prove beneficial when we, you know, have to stop the Reapers from returning to, I don't know, wipe the galaxy clean.  It's befuddling.  

In any case, we move on.  Noveria next.  Wish me luck. 

-Carsten
    
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Religious Rockets of Racism: Mass Effect Diary 3

-Landing on an uncharted planet and fending off bloodthirsty subterranean animals is one thing, but I would classify landing on a planet swarming with Geth and charging headlong into enemy lines as something else entirely.  Thus far, the Mako is not as annoying a ride as I'd expected (the only problem I run into consistently is the thing's relative inability to reverse smoothly), and I can't imagine the Mako's control scheme designed any other way.  While in the Mako, I manage to mow down the Geth forces without a bevy of trouble, but it is when the path grows too narrow for the rover's six-wheeled carnage, when Shepard and his squad mates (on hand, I had Garrus and Ashley) are required to trek on foot, that things get gnarly.  A few small gunfights against Geth sentries erupt, nothing that the squad can't handle, before we arrive at a massive gorge.  At the bottom of this crater-like encampment, two Geth heavy soldiers -- both carrying shoulder-mounted rocket launchers -- begin pounding at our cover.  We hide behind stationary boulders, but the incessant volleys of rockets, not to mention the dual snipers perusing the lip of the gorge and the small group of androids chipping away at the three of us with their assault rifles, slowly drains our health.  We retreat to gain our composure and equip ourselves with a plan, much less suitable weapons, but the Geth, knowing we're on the run, chase us through the cliffs.  I deplete my supply of grenades, and the Geth gun us down after an extended stalemate.  Time to reload and start again.

-Charging into the fray once more, this time armed with as many expletives as bullets, we promptly die once again.  Damn rockets, I swear. 

-On the third try, I make it past the gorge.  There is a quick cutscene in which the Geth deploy their best imitation of an Imperial AT-AT (though a bit smaller).  The ensuing battle quickly becomes an epic clusterfuck ("What the hell was that thing jumping about?  And why the hell is my health green?"), but the squad manages to survive.  No thanks to my prolific referencing of biblical figures, at least ("Jesus fucking Christ!"). 

-Mass Effect's story continues to lose me.  At this point, I'm searching for a person (an alien, I'm guessing) named Liara T'soni, but I have no idea why.  I'm sure the journal and the codex updates probably give some clue as to her place in the game's story, but I'm having an even harder time sifting through the myriad walls of historical prattle.  All in all, it just doesn't seem like the story is being told in as fluent and clear a fashion as Knights of the Old Republic.  I mean, sure, that game had data cards with the history necessary to compound all of the player's knowledge into one cohesive time line, but it was not a bulk of the game's narrative voice.  With a dialogue mechanic as fun as Mass Effect's, there should be no reason for this consistent a need of plot refreshment.  It might exacerbate the situation that I am trying to keep a running blog on the game, so I'm simultaneously filtering events and information into these write-ups, but I don't like to fall back on that scapegoat.  

-We have reached Liara, and given the nature of her containment (she's surrounded by dual fields of blue energy), I'm pretty convinced she's going to be the last member of our team, and a biotic user, at that.  Now, I've just got to find a way to release her. 

-Released Liara, and now we're fighting a group of Geth lead by a Krogan Battlemaster.  Big frog-looking bastard has a nasty habit for falling down, looking dead, then standing up again when I'm trying to take out his robotic buddies.  I wish I had a grenade to stuff down his amphibian throat. 

-The Prothean ruins collapse -- but, of course, we get out just in time -- and, back on the Normandy, the racial tensions are starting to well to the surface of my characters.  Funnily enough, the human characters onboard are the most bigoted.  Ashley, especially, is quite wary of alien species, a trepidation that was passed down to her by her strict, right-wing military parents.  Further investigation reveals she is extremely religious, and is unafraid to defend her faith aciduously when challenged (or rather, what she deems as being "challenged" -- I have a feeling she is an aggressor character, and that religion is a smokescreen behind which she can hide her veritable talons.  Hey, the story might be flaky, but the characters seem deep.).  Also, Wrex reveals that the Krogans are dying out because of a disease that the Turians unleashed during a war between the two races -- the war has long been over, but the effects of the disease are slowly extinguishing the Korgan race.  Apparently, only .1 percent of all Krogans survive birth after the disease.  Wrex estimates that a majority of said survivors leave the homeworld when mature, putting an increasing strain on the world's self-sufficiency.  Interesting.  I wonder if that will pop up later.  

-Now, after retrieving Liara, I have two major objectives to complete, and I've already decided where I'm heading next.  Feros, to thwart a Geth attack.  Huzzah!

-Carsten 

(Pictures will come at an, as of now, undisclosed date.  Fuck you.  I'm tired and it's a quarter after six in the morning.  Fuck you.  Srsly.)

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Is it massive? Is it effective?: Mass Effect Diary 2

Culkin, 8, with a look of shock after witnessing Nihlus's brutal death.
-The biggest, most unexpected piece of news?  Nihlus is killed after, maybe, a whole five minutes of game play.  I'm guessing the other Turian spectre who killed Nihlus will be the game's primary antagonist (Bioware is known for their twists, yes, but they have a tendency to find a villain and pump them with the narrative-equivalent of steroids), and the soulless murder of my favorite character is a good way to get me jacked up to hate him.  Grr. 

-After a series of gunfights along some catwalks, I reach a cutscene where Shepard has a moment of clairvoyance with the beacon the other Turian wanted.  Two things are repeatedly cycling through my thought processes: The pacing of the game is really weird.  I don't say 'bad', because it's not, per seMass Effect's game play is neither clunky nor downright slow, but the running speed seems awkward, to state it rather lightly.  I keep wishing for a Gears of War-esque sprint feature; the "Storm" maneuver only works when enemies are in the vicinity.  Secondly, the story is getting more and more complicated, and I am following it less and less.  Now, it's pretty obvious Bioware wants to throw a layer of haze over the villain's motives, but I'm still a bit cloudy on how he managed to coerce this reportedly-hostile group of androids (no more flying robots, by the way) into allegiance.  Maybe later?

-The Citadel.  That thing is crazy huge.

-Okay.  So, I'm at the Citadel's Council, listening to the three of them preach about Saren's sincerity and devotion to the Alliance.  This game is stuffed full of concepts lifted from other pulp science fiction masterworks.  The sheer scale of the game, for one thing, feels very Star Wars, very George Lucas.  Bioware is not afraid to try and impress the player with ridiculous size.  On the other hand, I'm getting vibes that smack very much of Joss Whedon's Firefly universe -- here we have an Alliance that has been forged from the disparate races all struggling for expansion in the empire.  The history fueling this game is deep, and xenophobia (along with a strange, sci-fi iteration of neo-colonialism) stands prominent as one of the game's primary commentaries.  The humans are the new kids on the block, and the veteran races all cast sideways glances over their shoulders at us.  The Geth, this savage machine race, is relegated to the outer rim of the galaxy, much like the Reavers in Firefly, and that seems to be a motivating cause for their push inward.  This whole business with Saren, specifically the bit where Shepard is the polarized force against Saren's antagonism, seems like Blade Runner, and of course Bioware lets the player fulfill the Harrison Ford role. 
Ford Role (n); narrative position in which character is sympathetic bad-ass caught in hunt/hunted relationship with maniacal antagonist

-Gunfight in a bar beneath the Citadel's capitol city.  In all actuality, that was an unexpected event -- I figured this Citadel would be the token 'place of ceasefire and ultimate peace' -- but a cool one at that.  I snatched myself some Renegade morality points by killing Fist.  His turrets nearly killed me!  Also, the story has ironed itself out, but I'm still a little flimsy on all the alien races.  Turians I've managed to remember only because they are the most inspired of the races.  I seriously can't think of a creature that resembles the Turian race at all.  

-I want to take this moment, paused while receiving a side-quest, to tell you that I'm getting that feeling of minimalism; just like my first steps of freedom in Oblivion, my every action makes me feel more overwhelmed by the utter depth to this world, much less the story itself.  I don't like that feeling, whenever I get it, but it is usually a sign that the game has a robust enough environment to keep me entertained and -- most importantly -- interested for the entirety of the game.  And, while I can still see certain shades of the design tendencies of Knights of the Old Republic, this game is much more open, certainly. 
 
-After finding more characters to round out the rest of my squad (new Turian, yay!), ascending to the rank of Specter, and finally being assigned to hunt down Saren, I am now in command of the Normandy and am given free reign over the galaxy.  One of my favorite things about Knights of the Old Republic was traveling through space in the Ebon Hawk.  There was a neat sense of isolation about it.  Mass Effect's space-faring mechanic is similar, but expanded, and the overwhelming sense of freedom is more apparent now, with an entire galaxy's worth of planets within reach, than it has even been before.  

-Death.  It's not a fun experience.  I get my first crack at it after landing on an uncharted planet near our first objective, where a distress beacon has been recently activated and a squad of marines are "marooned," though they've been long dead by the time I arrive on the planet's surface.  Driving toward the husk of their escape pod, I am greeted rather ingloriously by a massive fucking sandworm, which bursts from the ground beneath the Mako and flips it.  As I try to escape the serpent, it slams its tentacles down once upon the Mako, effectively destroying it.  

-I reload, meet the damned Thresher Maw again, drive in circles, and kill it with rockets.  Huzzah!

I figure death is as good a place as any to bid you adieu.  Next up: the first objective.  

-Carsten
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All In The Waiting: Mass Effect Diary 1

So, I know I'm several months late on any sort of Mass Effect coverage, but, as of today, I have finally mustered the courage (and the money) to get the game.  As a little trip down Impression Lane, I'll be charting my progress through the game with level updates, character news, and all the trite, tired jokes you can handle. 

So, as Criss Angel would say: Are you ready?

-----------------------------------------------------

-Booting up the game, I'm already impressed by the aesthetic design of Mass Effect.  Even from the Menu screen, it is clear that Bioware has gone through some great lengths to create an epic feeling of space that Knights of the Old Republic lacked.  This is punctuated mostly by the massive hemisphere of Earth (or some planet bearing striking resemblances to Earth) rotating slowly on the bottom of the screen.

John Shepard's Childhood Idol.
-I was totally misled by the option to change Shepard's name.  The moment I saw that option, I expected the ability to change his last name, too.  Guess that's a bit more integral to the character than most RPG's I've played.  My John Shepard is a hard-as-nails Vanguard (because who doesn't want a purple aura and an orange glove?) who has never lived on a single planet for more than a few years.  His military reputation precedes him -- during a dramatic war-time mission, Shepard sacrificed most of his platoon in order to complete his objective, a move which marks him as simultaneously efficient and apathetic.

-Wow, cutscenes?  Firstly, I really underestimated the visual detail this game would have.  Mass Effect looks really good, and the custom character template animates well in the cutscenes.  The branching dialogue is a great way to allow the player access to their character, since it was the player who decides their character's history.  It's fun to live up to the reputation.  Also fun is picking favorites among the characters -- I can tell Nihlus and I are going to be quite close.  One more note: The orchestral score is great.  Subtle, so far, but great.  The soft violins and gentle, synthesized undertones smack of a John Murphy composition (Sunshine was a good example -- youtube it), at that sort of score works perfectly with the premise of this game. 

-The cutscene in which it is revealed the mission is more than a simple dead-end job adds a lot of tension.  I'm thinking of the one shot where Shepard, Nihlus, and Captain Anderson are staring at the motionless hand grasping toward the planet through the clouds.  Epic.  Now, keep in mind that I know relatively nothing about the story.  Obviously Bioware has taken the extra step to write a backstory complex enough to support a massive RPG epic like Mass Effect, and with the "First Contact War" only a mere shadow of the past, I wonder if those sorts of 'racial' tensions will come to fruition in terms of character conflicts.  In a way, they already have -- no one on the ship trusts Nihlus.  No one.  He's like the Boba Fett of the group, thus far. 

These dudes are totally discussing their plans for the weekend.
-So, first actual combat situation.  I want to throw this out before anything else happens: I hate fighting flying robots.  Fucking hate it.  Hopefully they'll go away after a few minutes and never return, but I'm supremely disappointed in Bioware's choice for the game's first enemy.  Starting small, I guess, may be the way to blow the player's mind.  But seriously.  Flying robotsWith lasers?  Is anyone else thinking of Maximum Carnage.  Green Jelly's in my head already. 

More later.  Gotta play.

-Carsten
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