My thoughts on XCOM.

XCOM is a superb game.

While I never played the original, or any of it's spinoffs, I was totally excited for this remake because it seemed like a unique premise; and honestly who doesn't want a new Firaxsis RTS game? I honestly never had much issue with the difficulty level throughout my first play, which was on Normal. I only failed one mission, which was the last one and only because I stupidly moved one of my squad members too far forward without backing her up with the rest of the unit, which quickly got her killed. I don't want to spoil anything, but this particular person had to stay alive during the last mission, so that is why this one death caused me to fail it.

Anyways, I'm sure people have had enough of reading praise about XCOM by now, so I won't gush on anymore. Suffice to say that this is an excellent game that anyone with a passing interest in RTS's should try. That being said, there are a few issues that bothered me...some of which haven't really been mentioned by the GB guys yet.

Firstly, I don't like the autopsy animations. I actually think the original XCOM did it better with the static image of whichever alien species you were examining at the time displayed along with a short summary. The recycled animation with the short voice-over by the scientist lady used in this game isn't as good in my opinion. And speaking of voice-overs, that is another weak area of this game. Actually, just the whole story in general isn't really all that great. The only thing that was really well done in terms of writing was the little write-ups that accompany research and tech upgrades.

My third issue, which has been mentioned a few times by Ryan and others is the whole problem of items staying equipped on people who aren't in your active squad, and not having any idea who has whatever item you're looking for. The only way to find it is to cycle through each of your guys until you find it, which--with a cap of 99 total soldiers you can have--can take a long time. And it happens often enough that it can become quite frustrating.

Lastly, another problem mentioned by Ryan is the fact that enemies get a free movement whenever they are discovered. This is stupid, unfair, and quite annoying. I don't get a free move when I'm discovered, why do they? Granted, most of the time they just run to cover, but when I roll up on a group of Mutons or those mother-fucking Chrysalids all clumped up together, I want them to stay that way so I can launch a rocket up in there and blast those fuckers to oblivion. But noooo, they get to run away and hide somewhere or go off out of my line of sight only to return with five zombies in tow, which will eventually turn into five more Chrysalids which will repeat this whole process until my squad is wasted. So, yeah. Not fair, not fun. Also, I just fucking hate Chrysalids. They are easily the worst enemy in the game.

But despite these issues, I still love this game. It's easily a contender for GOTY 2012.

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What do Prototype 2 and children have in common? (Blog post)

I'll tell you what: They both do the same thing when they learn a new word; that is, use this word in every sentence they speak with little to no regard to context or grammatical structure. Prototype 2 does this gratuitously with several words, but most often it is these two: "Fucker" (and all it's variants) and "Motherfucker" (also with variants). There are, of course, numerous situations in which "damn", "hell", "shit" and even "cunt" are used. But, by and large, "fucker" and "motherfucker" win the day. I'm not sure why there is so much cursing in this game. It's almost to the point of being funny, but not quite. I guess they were trying to make it seem "tough" and "gritty", but ultimately it just came out awkward. It's kind of sad because there were points when they were obviously trying to be funny, and they succeeded. I was laughing out loud and wiping the tears from my eyes during the computer scene early in the game. If they had perhaps focused on this aspect of writing more it might have made the game's script stronger.

There is also a disproportionate amount of military jargon used. As gamers we are pretty well versed in the more common elements of this strange language, but Prototype 2 takes it to a different level; taking every available opportunity to inject jargon into almost as many characters' dialogues as they do with cursing. I'm not a soldier, nor have I ever been, but I'm pretty sure they don't say "I'm Oscar Mike" EVERY SINGLE TIME they need to tell someone they are in-route to whatever destination they were ordered to go to.

Now, what does this have to do with the game-play? Not much. It's just something that stands out so much that is became my prime focus of attention during the later stages of the game. Why? Because there is pretty much no challenge whatsoever to this game. You can pretty well get away with just mashing the attack button until everyone is dead. And if you start to run low on health, you can either run away and lose your pursuers, which is remarkably easy, or eat someone, which is both disturbing and remarkably easy. Now, don't get my wrong, this game is leaps and bounds better then Prototype 1, (pun intended) not to discredit the original, because I thought it was a pretty good game. It just would have been nice to have some semblance of challenge in the game.

I must also make mention of how incredible weak the story is at this point. It would be safe to say that I did not even once care about what happened to the main character or what was happening to him throughout the game. The main driving force for you at first is to find out what the hell has happened to you, then it shifts to finding your daughter who has magically been found out to be alive, not dead, as stated during the opening scene. Yeah. It's that black and white. We are offered no back story about this daughter of his, nor given any reason why we should care about her other then the fact that she is your daughter. The result? Zero interest, no care whatsoever on my part, I guess it's to be expected, since the game is so action-oriented. But still, it might have been just as effective to throw us in the game and say "kill stuff," because that's pretty much all we want to do anyways.

Other then that, and the almost funny use of language and jargon, it was a pretty good game. I'm also quite pleased with the amount of and intervals at which DLC is being provided.

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Short Story inspired by Journey (Minor Spoilers)

I will never forget my perilous journey up that snowy mountain...

It was made with a nameless companion. I had met him at the base of the mountain, taking shelter behind a headstone. I tried to get his attention by casting a quick spell. After a few casts, he responds with a spell of his own to let me know he has noticed me. I move forward to his location, and after a few seconds spent behind the headstone we silently agree to travel forward together. We soon learned that it was best to stay close to each other for warmth. Several times during the trip we were blown back and against each other in fierce gales that threatened to wipe away any progress we had made throughout the trek if we didn't quickly find shelter behind one of the several headstones that littered the landscape. At some point during the trip, my companion was torn asunder and thrown several feet back by giant dragon creatures that flew overhead. I, having barely escaped the same fate, sought out shelter from the winds and another possible attack inside a stone structure that was partially covered in snow. It was here that I waited for my companion to make his way back to me. After a few minutes, we meet back up and continue our journey up the mountain.

Of course, the most emotionally powerful scene was at the end of our journey...

Both of us covered in snow now, our bodies barley functioned anymore. Each movement was made with extreme labor and only covered a fraction of ground we were able to cover at the base of the mountain. The winds certainly didn't die down the further up we went. After several hours of climbing we have both been reduced to an agonizing, slow pace forward; still staying close to each other for whatever warmth may be left in our snow-covered bodies. Clearly there wasn't much left, for we were both shaking fiercely.

We now more closely resemble ghosts then our normal appearances; a dull red robe with gold trimmings, our necks adorned with what was once long flowing golden scarves that were now reduced to mere inches of cloth, having been torn by the dragon creature that attacked us earlier and ripped and covered in snow by the strong winds. The scarves could no longer function in their capacity of a spell casting aid, which under normal circumstances enabled us to soar through the skies for durations directly related to the length of the scarf. They would have been indiscernible had they not glowed slightly when communicating with my companion with quick-fired spells; not intended to accomplish anything but let the other know that we were still alive. We were not made for these kinds of land; our homes are in the desert sands, not these snowy peaks.

Soon we were surrounded by white in all directions, any semblance of forward progress made moot by both the fierce winds and our inability to move our bodies any further, not to mention the fact that we cannot tell which way is forward anymore. But it doesn't matter, we cannot continue in this state. After a few seconds, my companion collapses. On the way down he resembled a person being turned to stone. He didn't collapse in one single motion, he fell to the ground slowly in fits and starts, several times looking like he would freeze in his current shape during his descent. His body is promptly covered with snow until I can no longer make out where he had fallen. I fall next, mere seconds after him, but what had seemed like an eternity.

And then, the entire screen goes white....

This is how you make powerful gaming experiences! I think developers can learn a lot from thatgamecompany and Journey. Sometimes a story without any words tells it's tale best. Actions do indeed speak louder than words in this instance. And actions needn't be huge overstated set-piece battles with little thought given to context. In Journey, understatement is key; context is king; and in this world, actions define the story and the stories write themselves.

Thank you, thatgamecompany, for continuing to creating unique games and for giving me a gaming experience that I will never forget for the rest of my life.

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Mass Effect 3's Ending (Spoilers for all games in series)

****Fair warning, the following post is both very long, and contains massive spoilers for every game in the Mass Effect trilogy. You have been warned.****

After a 42 hour journey, I finished Mass Effect 3 this weekend and finally got to see the much-lauded ending. I have been playing the series since the first game, and my character has always been a Paragon FemShep. (Named Eve, oddly enough) As the series progressed, I would import my character from the last game and continue on, unwavering from my Paragon alignment. As such, the choices one would expect a paragon to make were made. Here is a rundown of every major decision I made leading up to the ending in ME3.

In Mass Effect 1 the following choices were made:

  • Saved the Rachni Queen, allowed her to live
  • Saved the colony on Feros, along with Shiala the asari taken by the Thorian
  • Did NOT kill Wrex on Virmire
  • Kaiden dies on Virmire, Ashley lives
  • Sacrificed the Council, Destiny Ascension destroyed
  • Anderson made new Councilor
  • Liara romanced
  • Didn't complete any dlc (Bringing Down the Sky) ((This doesn't really matter, but it always made me mad that I never got to play this))

In Mass Effect 2 the following choices were made:

  • Completed all loyalty missions, As a result:
  • Destroyed the Genophage research lab in Mordin's mission, but saved a backup of the cure data
  • Tali was accepted back into the fleet
  • Zaeed & Kasumi recruited and their loyalty missions completed
  • Everyone from ME2 survived the suicide mission
  • Samara is alive, Morinth is dead
  • Legion was activated and is alive
  • Grunt was woken up and is alive
  • All Normandy crew members saved from the Collector base
  • All N7 and other special mission completed
  • Thane Romanced (sorry Liara....)
  • Collector Base destroyed
  • All DLC completed, as a result:
  • Liara is the new Shadow Broker (This takes place anyways)
  • The Batarian system was destroyed
  • David Archer saved and sent to Grissom Academy in Overlord

As for ME3, there are far too many choices to list here, but suffice to say that:

  • All N7 & side missions completed
  • Every war asset that can be acquired through planetary scanning and side missions gotten
  • Mordin dies curing the Genophage (Thereby removing any Salarian war Asset except Major Kirahee's STG Unit)
  • Wrex is alive, Eve survives (Krogan support ensured)
  • Legion dies rewriting the Geth (I also managed to meet the conditions that netted me both Quarian & Geth support)
  • Thane dies
  • Ashley saved and recruited back onto the Normandy
  • Liara romanced
  • Pretty much any choice that is either Paragon or Renegade, Paragon was chosen regardless of it's impact on War Assets.
  • When the final strike was commenced, I had about 5k EMS.

Now, going into the final few minutes on the Citadel I pretty much knew what was coming: I was going to have to open up the Citadel arms then fire the Catalyst, killing Shepard in the process but wiping out the Reapers and saving Earth. BUT Bioware decided to throw a monkey wrench into the whole operation.

Now, let me preface what I'm about to say with the following: I don't hate the ending for ME3. I think it wraps the series up in an acceptable fashion. I don't, however, care for the way we are presented with our options at the end. I also don't care how nothing but the War Assets and EMS make any impact on these endings.

So, after the scene with Anderson at the console, and at the point when the Illusive Man shows up is when things start to get a little strange in terms of Paragon/Renegade choices. When The Illusive Man takes Anderson hostage, you are given a prompt to kill the IM taking a Renegade hit in the process. I find this a bit strange. Shouldn't this be a Paragon option? I'm saving Anderson here and killing an evil, indoctrinated man. Why is this considered a Renegade action? Are Paragons not allowed to kill people? Either way, I take the hit to my Paragon score and go ahead and kill the IM, thereby saving Anderson; I figure a little Renegade points at won't really matter anymore. I am correct.

Next, after the weird, and in my opinion, pretty stupid and corny scene with the kid revealing that he IS the Citadel and he created and controls the Reapers, I am faced with my last choices. (I'm not even going to get into how much is wrong lore-wise with this HUMAN kid being the Citadel and creating the Reapers) I can either do the following:

  • Destroy the power core, thereby destroying all synthetic life. (including the Reapers, Geth, EDI, etc. AND the Mass Relays.) If your War Assets are over 2k, Earth will also be saved but Shepard dies. If your War Assets are over 4k, Shepard lives. if they are under 2k, Earth is destroyed. If they are in the 3k range, Earth is heavily damaged, but still stands. (This is made out to be the Paragon option.)
  • Take control of the Reapers. Everything else is pretty much the same as above. (This is the Renegade option)
  • If you have over 2,800 War Assets, there is a third option: Synthesis. This will rewrite all organic DNA with synthetics, and is "the last step in evolution." The Reapers will never come back, but the Mass Relays are still destroyed and Shepard dies no matter what. (I guess this is supposed to be the "grey" option)

Now, naturally I was inclined to chose the first option of Destroying the Reapers. But this didn't seem like a very Paragon-like choice to me. I mean, the kid tells you that The Reapers will just be created again and this is pretty much a temporary fix. Also, I think it is weakening the Galaxy by cutting everyone off from each other when it destroys the Mass Relays. Sure, they will probably be rebuilt, but The Reapers constructed them in the first place, and no-one, save the Geth (who were destroyed with this option) have the understanding of technology required in order to build them. So the organics are pretty much screwed with this option. Also, Joker will be a sad panda since EDI is now dead. :( I was not in favor of this choice after thinking about it.

The second choice is pretty much the same as the first, so take your pick.

The last choice seemed like the best choice. The Reapers would never come back, and all organics will achieve their ultimate destiny by being rewritten with synthetic DNA. This option also seems to have the highest number of lives saved, both organic and synthetic. BUT the destroying of the Mass Relays once again screws everything up. However, the Galaxy will be in a better position to reconstruct them since all the synthetics survive, and they are also much smarter now they they have synthetic DNA in them, presumably. This seemed like a better option for a Paragon then the first one for sure. But the fact that Shepard dies, no matter what kind of sucks. But I was expecting Shepard to die in all of the options honestly.

I wasn't really sure what to pick. So here is what I did: I picked all of them, and made a final save for all three options. Let me elaborate: Right before you make your last choice, the game auto-saves. So I went into the game's save directory (I'm playing on PC BTW) and made a copy of the auto-save, so I wouldn't have to replay the last 30 or so minutes when I went back to make a new choice. (because the game auto-saves right after the credits, thereby rewriting the previous save before the last choice) Then after I made one choice and went through the credits, I'd be back on the Normandy, so I'd save there, reload my auto-save backup, then make a different choice. It's not perfect, but it covers all the angles.

In the end, I'm left not knowing how to remember the game ending. I have three endings, and each one is just a slightly different outcome. Sure, I'd prefer some more closure and also some more clarification on the impact of the choices I made in this game. Like:

  • What is going to happen with the Krogan? Will their numbers get out of hand again? Will they rebel again? What happens if Wrex of Eve dies and they are left with no-one to keep them in check?
  • What will happen with the Geth? They have Reaper code in them, will they eventually try to harvest organics?
  • What about the Quarians? Will they succeed in repopulating Rannoch? (It sounds like they will, especially if the Geth are helping)
  • The Rachni? Will they start another war?
  • What will become of Earth? What about the rest of the Galaxy if I picked an option that destroyed all the Mass Relays? Will they resort to a primitive society? Or, if I made choice one, will they eventually create synthetic life again, thereby warranting the creation of the Reapers once more?

There are too many loose ends left untied for my taste; too many unknowns, too many variables. It also seems like all the choices we made in ME3 don't matter, or at least we don't get to see what sort of impact they will have. I'm sure this isn't the main issue people are having with the ending, but this is my main issue.

I don't like how I don't know how to remember the game for ending; I don't like how my Paragon/Renegade options were flipped on their head at the very end; I don't like how nothing but War Assets matter in ME3; I don't like that the only way to raise your Readiness rating is by playing Multiplayer; I don't like all the loose ends; I don't like the corny citadel/kid hook; But I did enjoy the journey. Very much so. Though probably not as much as Mass Effect 2, it was still a great ride and I still think Mass Effect 3 is a great game, and an even greater franchise with a staggering amount of potential.

The end.

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In-Game Achievements, Yay or Nay?

Achievements are a relatively new phenomenon. Some people love them, some people hate them, and some people are outright addicted to them. It's funny, because they don't really mean anything, cost almost no time to put in games and don't really contribute anything to the overall game. Sure, some of them might encourage you to go off exploring areas you might not have done so if there weren't an achievement attached to doing so, or you might play through a game again on a higher difficulty level when you probably would have just played through it the one time. But recently, a new breed of Achievement has popped up: (no pun intended) The in-game Achievement.

If regular achievements tied to Xbox Live and Playstation Network Accounts don't contribute to anything, then these take that a step further. Because, effectively, no-one but you or anyone playing your game is going to see these in-game accomplishments. Isn't that missing the point of achievements entirely? Some argue that achievements are just "bragging rights" and I can see this. The more you earn, the more points or gamerscore or levels you get, and this in turn is seen by anyone who you play with online or anyone who see's your forum signature that has these items tied to it. But how do you show off in-game achievements? With a screen-shot? That's no good because this can easily be faked. These in-game achievements are in a limbo world where they are known only to you and don't contribute to some greater goal.

I, personally feel they are worthless. If you like achievements because they encourage you to do things you wouldn't otherwise do in a game, then I can see where you might be indifferent towards them, or maybe even like them. But as a person who likes achievements that contribute to a larger entity of score and accomplishment, I don't see their point. Many people even feel the same way about Steam Achievements.

Steam is a huge digital distribution service for PC games. The largest, in fact. Within the past few years it has seen an enormous surge in growth and also recently introduced it's own version of Achievements. Now, the thing with these achievements is that they DO tie to a larger entity of accomplishment and they ARE seen by other people besides yourself. Yet why do most people feel they are inferior to Xbox Live's and PSN's equivalent? It can't be because of the popularity of Steam; it rivals both of these networks. But I'm getting beside the point. In-game achievements and Steam achievements are both straddling the line of acceptance and validity by the community at large. One, however, I feel has the upper hand; and it isn't the in-gamers.

Will we soon see a dissolution of all achievements in general? Probably not, they are too popular right now to just do away with. (Some say they even influence their decision of purchasing a game or not) But in-game achievements I can see being done away with in the future. If other people can't see them, what's the point? That's my stand at least. What's yours? In-game achievements, yay or nay?

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Kingdom's of Amalur: Reckoning and it's Lorestone bugs.

One of my favorite activities in Kingdom's of Amalur (henceforth referred to as "KOA") was scouring the landscape looking for all the "Lorestones." Which are these magic stones constructed by the Fae that are placed in areas of importance to them and their history, and when activated, whoever placed the stone will tell you a tale related to whatever the stone was placed to commemorate. All of these stones recount their tales in sets, and there are hundreds of stones and several sets. Once a set is completed, your character get's a permanent stat boost. (Such as +10% Health and Mana, or +10% Damage to Fae) Many of the stories are told as poems, some as straight up fairy tales and some as songs. (And one particular set has been hijacked by humans who use them as personal diaries) My favorite were the fairy tale ones.

An annoying aspect I encountered though was that the volume of the actor's recounting these tales was drastically lower to all the other sounds in the game; so when I activated a stone, I would need to crank the volume way up, or just read the subtitles, which had their own quirks. Oftentimes, the subtitles would be vastly out of sync with the audio. Sometimes it would be perfect, but more often then not, it would show one section of text for far too long while the actor was already way ahead of what was being shown, and in some cases it would show you a large section of text for a split second, then jump ahead to where the audio was at the time, sometimes skipping entire sections of the story. A small bug, but an annoying one. (I should also mention I played this game on PC, so I'm unaware if this bug is present in the console versions)

One more annoying feature related to the low audio of the stones was that if you had any interest at all in hearing the story, you would need to make sure the area was clear of enemies before activating it. Because the combat audio is so much louder than the Lorestone audio, it would be completely drowned out; and you would have no time to read the subtitles while in combat, even if they happened to work properly. Unfortunately, sometimes (albeit rarely) activating a stone spawns a group of enemies around you, pretty much robbing you of any chance to hear that stone's tale.

But anyways, this was just something that annoyed me. You can kind of tell that towards the end of the game, with the last zones of the game, their stones tend to work the best in terms of subtitle sync. So they must have started to figure it out towards the end of development and didn't have time to go back and fix all the others before launch. Even though, most developers will make the last zones of a game first and the first levels last. I don't think that was the case here. I can forgive this, since 38 Studios is owned by a former Baseball player. He's still learning the ropes.

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