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A Game I Played in 2010: Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect 2 wasn’t just a game I played in 2010, or a game I liked in 2010. I loved  Mass Effect 2. It was my favourite game of the year, by a healthy distance. In fact, it recently became the latest in the odd collection of games of which I own two copies, thanks to a Steam sale and my desire to have access to this game wherever I am in the world, ever. Seriously.

Let’s go over some of the reasons I love  Mass Effect 2.


The  Mass Effect games do space really well. Space should be all about cool space ships, groovy space helmets, mildly techno rock music or mildly rocking techno music, and the freedom to fly to that star system, over there, right now. There’s a newsagents being pressured by local ruffians and we need to fly there and shoot them in the face with lasers.

The first  Mass Effect was a really great game. It had characters, story, a fantastic ending, and all of the spaceness that I just described.  Mass Effect 2 does an even better job in almost every case, particularly in regard to the use of lasers to shoot aliens in the face. Which brings me to…

  • Badassery

Mass Effect 2 is flat out more badass than the first game. That’s all there is to it. More than one character returns from the first game with considerably more impressive presence in conversation and an edge to their personality that makes the character feel new and refreshing, while still familiar to people who enjoyed interacting with the non-player characters in the first game.

The game feels like a shooter in its own right, rather than an Role-Playing Game with shooting mechanics. The action doesn’t let up, but doesn’t interfere with the central RPG core of the game. I know there are people out there who prefer the first game but I love the fact that the game keeps you moving, keeps you going on from one plot point to the next…

  • Momentum

I have always liked RPGs but I have had a serious problem related to playing RPGs for just as long: I give up on them. I play about twenty to thirty hours of the game and I just get drawn to something else. I’m still impressed with myself for finishing  Fallout 3(although it the ending itself was an unpleasant experience).  Mass Effect 2 eradicates that problem for me. All I want to do is get back into it, shoot more lasers and listen to more awesome space music. There’s a feeling of momentum, this feeling that the character is always progressing, the story is moving, something has to be done, right now. I feel all of that, even when flying through space recruiting various miscreants and heroes for the team rather than deal with the main story.

Mass Effect 2 is not perfect. The ending in particular was a downer, especially after the amazing ending to the first game. It is, however, my favourite game this year.


A Game I Played in 2010: Halo: Reach (Winners Use Colons)

I have a weird relationship with the Halo franchise. I own but have yet to play the original Halo, past the first level. Halo 2 was the video game that finally convinced me to return from the barren wastelands of extended bouts of Championship Manager and the occasional Minesweeper session to actually play video games again. I always enjoy playing Halo games, though I'm not very good at them. I play Halo multiplayer, at least since Halo 3, though I shy away from most other multiplayer games. I get very excited about Halo games for months before they come out, but I begin each game having completely forgotten what happened in the previous one.
So, I never got indignant about Halo 2's ending (I actually really liked it) or the limited extent to which it felt like "Earth" in the first half

I have a weird relationship with the  Halo franchise. I own but have yet to play the original  Halo, past the first level.  Halo 2 was the video game that finally convinced me to return from the barren wastelands of extended bouts of  Championship Manager and the occasional  Minesweeper session to actually play video games again. I always enjoy playing  Halo games, though I'm not very good at them. I play  Halo multiplayer, at least since  Halo 3, though I shy away from most other multiplayer games. I get very excited about Halo games for months before they come out, but I begin each game having completely forgotten what happened in the previous one.

So, I never got indignant about  Halo 2's ending (I actually really liked it) or the limited extent to which it felt like "Earth" in the first half of  Halo 3. I've never been invested in  Halo to the point that I would be frustrated by the series, or feel let down by Bungie. Honestly, this is a pretty good way to be about fictional universes in general. With  Halo, I've been happy by accident.

It doesn't mean I have no standards though. Playing  Halo games has been fun, except for the Flood parts, because Bungie makes a really good first person shooter. Over the last few years, the games evolved (for me personally) from guilt free quality shooters to guilt free quality shooters with interesting plots to go along with the overall fiction. I found the idea of an intensely religious confederacy of alien races bent on destroying humanity appealing from the start. Talk about going big. Bungie has been open about making the franchise a grand project from the start.  Halo: ODST showed that the developers were also open to delving deeper into the side stories that sprung up from the larger fiction.

Halo: Reach was the beneficiary of both of these approaches. First and foremost, it was a  Halo game, and a very good one. It was also the best  Halo game ever made in terms of story. The fiction of  Reach is a big deal for major  Halo lore fans. I couldn't have cared less about  Reach before I bought this game, but by the end of the game I had been converted. Bungie took a major keystone in their overall story and told it from the perspective of a group of characters that had never been heard about before, but became more meaningful to me as a guy playing a video game than Master Chief or Cortana ever did. It was inspired stuff. I also got to shoot dudes in space.

ODST made an effort with characters, and I felt it mostly succeeded. Before  Reach, though, I thought of  Halo characters I liked in terms of people who did the voice work. In this case, Nathan Fillion and Keith David. Ultimately I realised i just liked Nathan Fillion and Keith David.

In  Halo: Reach, the player encounters a cast of characters who have distinct personalities. The characters interact with each other. The player's character feels like a member of this team. Jorge is the classic Jesse Ventura style mini-gun toting beast, but proves to be a softer touch than the rest of the crew. Kat's prosthetic arm contributes to excellent art design that tells you what you need to know about the character: she's tough, she's experienced, she's been through more than most members of the team. Her gender is irrelevant, and I think that's a great thing. Emile has a really cool helmet.

Maybe it was just another  Empire Strikes Back thing and I'm a sucker for a doomed conclusion to a storyline. Or maybe Bungie decided to take a game that could have been the ultimate piece of fan service and make it something even better.  Reach is a goodbye to  Halo fans, and the ending of the game especially feels like a tender goodbye. I mentioned earlier, I'm not the biggest  Halo fan. When playing  ODST I had no idea what the Master Chief was up to; the events of  Halo 2 seem like a distant memory and I never finished the first  Halo game. However, I still am a  Halo fan, and  Reach felt like an intimate and grateful goodbye. I rarely get those feelings from people who make games expressed so freely and so well. What a great experience.


Flying home for Christmas... with games!

 My flight home usually takes about 20 hours or so, including waiting times at various airports. So, at least once every year, my handheld consoles justify their existence: last year I made significant inroads into Square's The World Ends with You. I still haven't finished that game.

For me, travelling requires very particular types of games. I'm terribly fidgety on long flights. I have trouble sleeping and I can't read for very long or keep my concentration very well. So, I need two broad genres at my fingertips: arcade-style bite-sized games and RPGs.  Japanese RPGS are especially useful.  I play the arcade-style game for twenty minutes or so, fidget, settle down into an RPG for an hour or so, get restless, then break back into the arcade stuff.

This system works pretty well, and makes a ten hour flight bearable.  Not to mention the waiting times at the airports.  This year, much to my surprise, the PSP dominated the reigning champion DS.  My loyal DS Lite, who had so easily seen off the challenges of my first PSP, cowered in fear, clutching to<em> New Super Mario Bros.</em> in hope as my shiny new PSP rocked my world, and let me watch THX 1138 for the first time in years.

         Phantom Menace becomes MORE mystifying as the years pass...     
         Phantom Menace becomes MORE mystifying as the years pass...     

 The playlist for this trip:

Sega Genesis Collection
Metal Slug Anthology
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona

Things worked out beautifully. I went completely scattershot through Metal Slug Anthology without really making a dent in any particular game. It ate up a decent amount of time.  The Sega Genesis Collection was a ton of fun.  I've been talking myself out of buying this (on various platforms) for what seems like forever.  I messed around with all the non-RPG games in the collection, and settled into a nice playthrough of my favourite game, Sonic 2.  After all these years it's the only game I can go back and play again and again and never get tired of it. 

 Metal... Slug?
 Metal... Slug?

In between all of this, I introduced myself to the Shin Megami Tensei universe at long last. I bought the game thinking it would set me up for future Persona games on PSP that feature all this social link stuff that isn't present in the original.  However, so far I'm really enjoying the game.  There's a bit of a grind involved but it is a JRPG.  Mostly I like the characterisations and the rather nutty cutscenes.  The skinny Japanese guy with a porcelain mask doing an odd impression of Morpheus is my favourite. 

 No one can be told what Persona is...
 No one can be told what Persona is...

Now that I'm home, sans consoles, will I continue with my handheld adventures or just get back to some Steam-sponsored Dragon Aging and so on? It's a tough call.  I could go for some more Sonic 2 right about now...    

Space (I believe in)

I am fighting the urge to sign up for EVE Online.

This makes no sense on several levels.  First off, I’ve been so busy the last few weeks that my video game playing is at a dramatically low ebb.  I don’t even have time to write blogs about video games! Secondly, I don’t really play multiplayer games, and the word on the street is that “soloing” World of Warcraft style is less viable a strategy in EVE.  Finally, I’m loathe to resume paying a monthly fee for anything related to video games.  Xbox Live is annoying enough as it is.

So why oh why would I play a game like EVE Online? A game that offers the kind of free form gameplay that WOW can only dream of, at the cost of gameplay tailored to a hardcore audience.  Not a Ninja Gaiden 2/Demon’s Souls/Henry Hatsworth type hardcore, but a “I think I’ll spend my lunchbreak perusing some of my spreadsheet documents” type hardcore.  The fact is, it’s unlikely I’d ever become a major EVE Online player. HOWEVER…

I like spaceships.
I like ambient mildly space-like music.
I am totally okay with setting a ship to mine on its own while listening to mildly space-like music and then working on other stuff.


So, the way I plan to play this game barely resembles “playing” a video game, at all.  I am considering paying money to set a little mining ship on autopilot and get back into work, checking in on the guy every five minutes or so.

Really, I should just buy some ambient mildly space-like music.  Alternatively, I could download EVE Online music for free

 Space!!...... um, ok.  Bring back space music.
 Space!!...... um, ok.  Bring back space music.

I have to handle this with some kind of an attempt at control.  I have to count to ten, several times if necessary, and then sleep on it.  And then think about it again.  The age of digital distribution, though a massive step forward in video game retail, is crippling for someone like me.  Don’t get me started on how much I love Steam, or for that matter, how much I completely hate Steam.  Well, my wallet hates Steam.

Still EVE Online sits there, looking cool, and incredibly geeky.  It’s calling to me.

“You can play on your own time!”
“Now you’ll have two games to play on your Mac!”
“Space!!! Music!!! Space music!!!”

I’m counting to ten.  I am counting to ten…


What price for a Gamecube game on the open road?

 I haven't blogged in a month, which is pretty poor even by my own shoddy standards.  Of course, the golden rule of blogging dictates that talking about yourself is boring.  So, rather than bore everyone with my time at sea battling pirates and writing the next great American novel only to have the only manuscript gobbled up by an angry school of porpoise, I'll talk about video games a little.

Specifically, the weird experience of paying to play video games on a television at a Washington D.C. hotel (the boat wouldn't bring me back down to the Gulf Coast and I had to make my own way).  I walked into the room to see a Gamecube controller sitting in front of the television set, alongside a room services guide that rather amusingly touted the availability of "Playstation" games via the television's media menu.  I took a moment to reflect on this pronounced example of irony, a Nintendo console being referred to using a standard cultural term "Playstation"  when in my youth we would all go over to Chris' house to play "Nintendo" on his Commodore 64.  I then realised, not for the first time, that I am a huge nerd.

 When Men were men.
 When Men were men.

Once I'd gotten over this minor post-modern experience, I got excited.  Very excited, actually. I immediately turned on the TV and browsed past the standard offerings of movies, television shows you can see for free on Hulu, and pornography.  Up to this point, I was still harbouring a concern that for some odd reason Embassy Suites expected me to play Playstation 2 games with a Gamecube controller.  It turned out however, that they had practically every Gamecube game I ever played or even wanted to play.  Including Geist.


 Dr. Manhattan looks perturbed.
 Dr. Manhattan looks perturbed.

I never played Geist when it came out, though the concept of possessing dudes and shooting other dudes has appealed to me since Messiah.  The game eventually came out around the time I took the fateful step of buying an Xbox and thus owning two video game consoles simultaneously for the first time in my life.  I played some Halo 2 and some Crimson Skies, but no Geist. Here it was, though: surely this was fate.  The price read $6.95.  I was stunned.  I could finish Geist overnight.  That wouldn't be a problem.

$6.95 an hour.

Now, I think it's very cool that you can play Nintendo Gamecube games on your TV in your own hotel room.  I love the very impressive selection of games.  I REALLY dig the fact that for some obscure reason the service offers Gamecube games, rather than Playstation 1 games or lame poker apps.  And maybe I would have been able to live with paying seven dollars for an hour of Mario Kart: Double Dash or something.  But at that price, I really don't know why they would even offer games like Geist, or even any of the RPGs on offer.

I did the mathematics.  Geist is probably 4-5 hours long, maybe 6.  So, we're talking at least $35 to play the game.  In one sitting.  Bathroom breaks would become frantic, phone calls would be ignored, meals skipped.  No, sorry.  Can't do it.  I'm sure I could grab a copy of the game somewhere and play it on my Wii. 
I still feel a bit silly talking about playing on my Wii.

 We'll look back on this and laugh... right?
 We'll look back on this and laugh... right?

So close to work travel heaven.  It's lonely living out of a hotel for a week.  If only they had a flat rate to use the Gamecube service per night.  Travelling researcher: reads books in foreign languages by day, shoots dudes (aliens, when possible) by night!

Oh well.  Next time.

No games and no blogs makes John go something something...

I am broke at the worst possible time of the year. I knew I’d have to make tough decisions in October and November but I had no idea the toughest decision would be the one to choose against buying games at all. Uncharted 2 sounds awesome. Brutal Legend seems a little flawed (as I expected) but still worth playing. These are preconceptions, built on reviews. I have no chance to play these games myself. Because I’m broke. Sigh. Now this week brings still MORE games that look fantastic. 
On the bright side, those games will all be there in a couple of months, and I’ve been too busy with work to play as much as I wanted to anyway. Or blog, for that matter. 
For the record, Demon’s Souls continues to be completely awesome, when I have had some time to play games. I’ve also recently been turned on to the imminent release of Torchlight, a hugely Diablo-influenced title that is going to become a free-to-play MMO next year. I’m most attracted by the editor; I think a nice solid game with basic concepts like this one might be a nice beginning point for modding.

  Just think of it, a Magnum P.I. themed dungeon crawler.  It's happening.
  Just think of it, a Magnum P.I. themed dungeon crawler.  It's happening.


This is Hardcore: Demons and talking bunnies, dogs, raccoons…


I should clarify from the start: I’m not a great example of a “hardcore” gamer. Well, maybe in some respects: I own multiple game consoles and spend way too much money on games. On the other hand, I’m not threatening to rival Ice T’s prowess in Call of Duty 4 any time soon.

I bought two video games this week, Animal Crossing: City Folk and Demon’s Souls. One of these games occupies that odd grey area between ultra-casual and slightly nutty hardcore, offering to take only five minutes of your day but willing to take many hours more. The other is a staggeringly difficult game that involves sticking sharp objects into demonic monsters or soulless humans driven insane, shortly before dying and starting all over again. Guess which is which?

 He will cut you, fool.
 He will cut you, fool.

 I’m still waiting for City Folk; I ordered it on Amazon, caved when I saw they were offering it for half price. I can’t find my gamecube copy of the game. I more than likely had it sealed away to save myself. There’s only so much fishing you can do before you crack. I grabbed Demon’s Souls as soon as it was available, spurred on by some small section of my video game playing ego that decided that “old school difficulty” was an appealing concept.   

 Defeat the mighty dragon using only foul language.
 Defeat the mighty dragon using only foul language.

It has proved to be so. It took me quite a while to reach and defeat the boss of the first area in the game. The main issue in Demon’s Souls apart from its natural difficulty is the fact that when you die you lose all the souls you’ve collected up to that point. It just goes right back down to zero. This is fine if you can get back to your “bloodstain” but if you can’t make it back to the point of your last defeat, goodbye forever to the only currency in the game for buying weapons, upgrading equipment and improving character stats. 

I thought this would drive me crazy, and I think it has, a bit. This game is well worth it though. I don’t typically go looking for “challenging” games. I’ve never played Megaman 9 and I’ve had a lot of frustrating experiences with the GBA-based Metroid games. The only game I’ve ever played and thoroughly enjoyed that I can compare this to is Ninja Gaiden. The secret to both games, I realised, is that although they will drive you up the walls with the level of concentration required, neither game becomes cheap at any point. The end result is that once you’ve figured out how to defeat a certain type of enemy or negotiate a certain type of scenario, you can do it again. And again. And again…

Animal Crossing does not exactly overflow with such moments. Still, the game has its own way of drawing you in, whether it’s collect various fish or be at the right place at the right time. The genius of the game is the adherence to a real world clock. I always knew I could cheat at the game on Gamecube just by changing the game clock, but this was one game I didn’t want to ruin. Ok, I’ll more than likely never see the New Years party in the game. It’s become one of the great appeals for me, a central facet of this wonderful illusion that there is a living breathing town going on whether I decide to play or not.

So, this week, I am going hardcore in every which way. Loving it, too. Now excuse me, I’m off to battle evil demons in the dark and maybe get a hair cut, if I can afford it.

    Tom Nook gets his money.
    Tom Nook gets his money.

Movies and video games

 Last night I went to the cinema and watched a movie.  It wasn't just any other movie, either, but the excellent  Zombieland , which pleasantly exceeded my expectations.  The opening credit sequence was also a delight incidentally, surpassing the pretty cool opening sequences of  Wolverine  (which was attached to an insipid movie) and  Watchmen .

It occurred to me about three quarters of the way through that after years of video games imitating movies, the film industry is finally returning the favour, for lack of a better term.  I'm not talking about some kind of  Dead Rising vibe, or the weird recycling of  Resident Evil B movie sensibilities into actual  Resident Evil B (or maybe C) movies.  I think some of the shots and a lot of the action in  Zombieland owes a lot to video games.
James Cameron's  Avatar is another example.  Clearly, the whole concept of the film owes a lot to looking at how people interact in indirect methods (i.e. the Internet) including video games.  The concept of the avatar is, of course, an instantly recognisable one to anyone that plays games.
More than that though, and this is what I'm getting at with  Zombieland, even the short scenes in the trailer betray a video game type sensibility, in regards to the larger than life actions of some of the characters and the spectacular battle scenes. I'm afraid my severe fear of spoiling movies is getting in the way of my point here; I have several friends who take great steps to avoid seeing trailers of big movie releases they are waiting to see.  I can say this, though:  a lot of the action shots in  Zombieland and in the Avatar trailer struck me as particularly reminiscent of a lot of video game sensibilities, particularly some of the fast paced and large scale action often associated with so-called "AAA" titles.  Things have come a long way in a short space of time.  Not so long ago somebody thought shooting ten minutes of a video game movie entirely in first person and completely mimicking gameplay would be a cool idea.
Maybe this is the next step to video games and films resting a little easier alongside each other.  My money is on a slightly different outcome.   I think that the film industry is going to completely skip any kind of a step that involves films based on video game IP that don't suck, and just start making more big budget movies that borrow set piece ideas developed in video games.  So, no  Halo movie, but some kind of Tom Cruise vehicle called Massive Ring Starfight or something.  Or  Avatar.

Afraid to Play with Others


I’m afraid of playing against people online.

What a ridiculous statement.  However, it’s true.  I play World of Warcraft as a single player game, I never play any FPS online except for Halo 3, and I completely shun anything team based.  Always.

I do have a couple of reasons:

  • Despite being really into video games, I suck at video games.  I have completely given up ever trying to play a sports game or RTS online ever again.  It’s just frustrating and humiliating.
  • Following on from that, in a game like WOW, I am continually concerned I am going to screw up and cause a wipe, thus ruining any fun for everyone.  I have never ran an instance with anybody, ever.
  • Some people in WOW are jerks and I don’t want to deal with that during my leisure time, because I get worked up and it’s exhausting.  The jerks are a minority but they ruin the experience.  Xbox Live on the other hand, the other main avenue for potential online fun, is infested with idiots who think racist slurs are somehow valid when playing video games.  Hence, Halo 3 on mute.  Though team based slayer is as co-op as I get.

Now, this is crippling in many ways.  I have to make an utterly ridiculous confession: I bought Left 4 Dead on the PC.  I really liked playing Left 4 Dead on the PC.  I think it’s an amazing game.  I love the pacing, the artwork, the character design decisions.  I have never played Left 4 Dead with another human.


My reasoning is simple.  I would suck, and ruin it.  Also... I find it awkward to be talking to dudes I’ve never met and will never meet.  It’s just weird.

So, my fear of multiplayer is so crippling that I have yet to enjoy one of the best multiplayer experiences released in the last few years in its true form.  I spent weeks playing a game exclusively intended for online multiplayer completely on my own.  The game was so appealing that I wanted to play it, and I could thanks to the magic of bots.  I'm clearly not getting the whole experience.  In fact, I miss out on the multiplayer aspects of most games.

So, am I missing out on the whole point?  I’m not sure I am.  The single player experience still shapes my enjoyment of video games in general.  My favourite things about video games tend to be story-related in any case. The visceral competitiveness of most FPS online modes or even the chase for leaderboard position in arcade-style games like Geometry Wars really does not appeal to me.  So, for this guy at least, multiplayer options tend to be a bonus if anything.

The one exception is when multiplayer options are successfully linked to my irrational and completely insatiable desire to level up in a game.  Forza 2 thusly drew me into a lot of online playing.  Modern Warfare 2 is extremely appealing to me, especially as I never played the original.  In the aforementioned (and much mentioned, in this post) Halo 3, I was driven to push myself to get to an officer rank.

So what’s the answer?  Levelling up in Left 4 Dead?  Clearly, that would be weird.  I’m happy though, playing my video games on my own, or grinding online for a level or rank with the mute button soldered down.  I can be afraid for a while longer.


Irrational, irresponsible, nonsensical... I want to buy a PSP Go.


I have a problem.

I want to buy a PSP Go. 

I should explain my “problem.”  I don’t have a problem with Sony as a corporation.  I don’t want this short post to devolve into a complaint about fanboys, but I don’t believe in loyalty to enormous companies that just want to make money.  My problem is specifically this:  when the PSP Go was first leaked/announced, my gut reaction was completely negative.  It looked ugly.  They hadn’t changed enough to get me interested.  The price was way, WAY too high.  The whole thing felt like a huge misstep on Sony’s part.

Now I want one.

I’m willing to spend money I really shouldn’t, money I’ll be lamenting later in the year when I read about other people playing Brutal Legend or Forza 3 or whatever game I couldn’t afford to grab.  A brand new PSP 3000 is considerably cheaper.  It also has a UMD drive.  I have fallen hook line and sinker for buying a new shiny thing and playing PS1 games on it.

  Suikoden on the go? ROCK IT.  Ignore the fact I could rock it for 80 bucks less.
  Suikoden on the go? ROCK IT. Ignore the fact I could rock it for 80 bucks less.

The craziest thing is, I used to own a PSP.  I traded it in, because I never played it!  And here I am, back at square one.  I have to assume that I am the worst example of a consumer in an economy as messed up as this one.  I could satisfy my desire to play PSP games and still get a cheaper option, without even having to go second hand.  Yet, I feel the need, the burning desire, to own the new model.

I wondered, when the PSP Go emerged into the spotlight, what Sony thought they were doing exactly.  Well, now I know.  Whether or not I actually get the thing, people like me are the problem.I I
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