There's an awful lot to be said about Mass Effect 3. (I should know: the night after I finished the game, I sat down with two of my best friends and discussed it for almost four hours straight.) Here, however, I'll attempt to be brief, mentioning just a few of the title's most noteworthy strengths and weaknesses.
The Good: Characters from both previous Mass Effects return to fight - and, in some cases, die - alongside Commander Shepard. The fates of several species - including that of humanity itself - hinge upon decisions that Shepard makes. Combat is the best it's ever been, with new ways to maneuver, new skills to unlock, and new enemies to defeat. And lastly, the game's final sequences - although initially bizarre - become ever more compelling upon further reflection.
The Bad: Two of my favorite alien races, the hanar and the elcor, are almost completely absent. Long loading times persist while moving from one section of the Citadel or the Normandy to another. Scanning distant worlds for resources isn't any more fun in ME3 than it was in ME2. It seems damn near impossible to max out one's "war assets" without turning to multiplayer. And apparently, the game's epilogue simply won't make sense until some DLC is released!
The Stand-out Moment: Condemning an entire alien race to death.
Twelve hours deep into ME3, I feel as though I've only dipped my toes into this giant pool. Everywhere I turn, familiar faces remind me of my past successes, my past failures, and my future fate. It's rare that I care so much about characters or the choices that I make in a game. I'll be bummed when this one's over!
The Good: The protagonist's progression through a series of alien powers (such as "Warp", "Frag", and "Echo") is fun and impressively organic. The game's antagonist, reminiscent of several Metal Gear Solid bosses, is surprisingly memorable. Level and sound design are terrific. And the game only costs $10!
The Bad: Gameplay relies perhaps too heavily upon trial-and-error. Most challenge rooms are unnecessarily difficult, set in environments where it's too dark to see the action clearly. Power-ups require too much of the game's collectible currency. And the whole experience ends less than four hours after it begins!
The Stand-out Moment: "You imbecile! I said make a death trap, not a fucking obstacle course!"
The Verdict: 8.5 (out of 10)
One final note on the game's difficulty: Judging by Warp's leaderboards, about 25,000 people have played the game. Of those 25,000, only about 2,500 - or 1 in 10 - have managed (or bothered) to complete the game. And of those 2,500, I land at about 500th place for "best clear time". That suggests that I rank among the top 2% of all Warp players in the world... and even I found the game to be frustrating at times! (But if it had been easier, it would have been even shorter!)
It's been a long wait since I first got my hands on a demo of Warp back at last year's PAX East. I'm still not sure how best to describe this "puzzle-based stealth action game", but any title that can remind me of Shadow Complex, Portal, and Metal Gear Solid all at once must be doing something right!
The Good: I don't think I appreciated this back in 2001, but Ico remains a superb study in opposites and the effects that can be achieved by contrasting them: panoramic camera angles make it clear from the outset that our hero is a tiny cog in a gigantic machine; this weak and lonely human protagonist is faced with a legion of monstrous enemies; he ventures back and forth between sprawling, sun-soaked courtyards and claustrophobic dungeons. With simple controls, simple rules, and a simple goal, Team Ico's first and eponymous effort maintains both its elegance and its effectiveness more than ten years after its release.
The Bad: As I noted earlier, Ico's beauty and originality are no worse for a decade's wear. Nevertheless, the title's few blemishes continue to hold it back from perfection. When Ico gets knocked down, it takes too long for him to pick himself up again; it's excruciating as a player to be forced to complete lengthy puzzles all over again just because some shadow demon bowled Ico over at the worst possible moment. Minor pathing issues and animation glitches persist. And sadly, the entire experience ends just a bit too soon; even without rushing through the game, it isn't difficult to reach the end credits in under seven hours.
The Stand-out Moment: Making the connection between holding R1 and holding Yorda's hand.
I first played Ico in September 2001, when a demo for the game was included on Official US PlayStation Magazine's first-ever PS2 disc. Back then, Ico's gorgeous environments and unique gameplay took my breath away; more than a decade later, the re-mastered PS3 version has me stunned all over again!
Arkham City is not only the best Batman title, but the best superhero title of all time. (Only its predecessor, Arkham Asylum, even comes close.) Batman and his enemies look and sound just right; every encounter between the Dark Knight and his super-villains satisfies, whether facing off against the Joker with his fists, the Riddler with his brain, or any number of other rogues with both. As the main playable character, Batman also moves like a dream; whether grappling between gargoyles, gliding over rooftops, or simply lurking in the shadows, the Caped Crusader and his gadgets fit Gotham like a glove!
With all of that said, even if I hadn't already been familiar with Batman and his world, Arkham City would've blown me away. It offers the best combat I've ever experienced in an action game. Its controls are perfect. Its score is evocative. Its voice acting is top-notch. A wealth of unlockable character bios and audio recordings make even Gotham's lesser-known deranged denizens come alive. If I hadn't already been reading Batman comics, Arkham City's sheer level of awesomeness would've compelled me to start, and that's the highest praise I can conceive of bestowing upon any superhero title!
The Bad: Just once, I needed to turn on "hints" in order to solve a counter-intuitive environmental puzzle. A couple of the optional cases became frustratingly directionless midway through. The third-act plot points involving the al Ghuls didn't make much sense. And some of the Catwoman gameplay felt tacked-on. But in the grand scheme of things, none of that mattered; I didn't rest until I'd completed every side mission, and I'd gladly do so again!
The Stand-out Moment: Paying respects in Crime Alley.
Considering the welcome that Arkham City has extended to me thus far, I can only imagine the number of hours that I'll have spent prowling it by the time I set my controller down for good. The level of immersion that Rocksteady has achieved here is simply unreal: I'm Batman, and I'm loving every minute of it!
The Good: This Cut the Rope sequel's second and third worlds force players to re-learn the workings of its eponymous ropes. Thereafter, its fourth (and - as of yet - latest) world imbues otherwise pokey puzzles with unprecedented speed. Plus, the Professor adds welcome humor with occasional voice commentary.
The Bad: As I noted earlier, Experiments' first world is little more than a remix of its predecessor's simplest puzzles. And the whole thing ends too soon!
The Stand-out Moment: Activating a series of candy rockets for the first time.
The Verdict: 8.0 (out of 10)
However, if I had reviewed this title in its original, 75-puzzle form, it would've earned a 7.5.