You may have noticed that a Rather Big Deal game by the name of Mass Effect 3 was released earlier this month. The third and final instalment in this series charting Commander Shepard and company’s war against the Reapers is certainly the biggest of BioWare’s ME titles to date – but is it the best?
Yes, it is, and more on that in a moment. Meantime, below find some teasers to tingle the senses.
Scheduled for a September release, Gearbox’s sequel to their hit comic-book-visualed title of 2009 looks to improve upon every aesthetic and audio facet of the original: it’s brighter, it’s bolder, and there are a load more guns. The gameplay remains largely unchanged based on reports – it’s a four-player co-op adventure with RPG elements woven around FPS-styled mechanics, with each character possessing distinct traits affecting the player’s progression (siren, tank etc) – but then why change what was a perfectly fluid experience at the first time of asking? The menu set-up of the first game was clunky, so clearly there’s room for improvement in that area of presentation – but Pandora is sure to be rendered more blindingly brilliantly than ever before, so a treat for the eyes is expected. Earplugs: optional.
TRAILER (age restricted)
This delayed next-in-line of the True Crime series – originally titled True Crime: Hong Kong – has landed in the laps of the fine folks of Square Enix, who are bringing the game to completion with no little anticipation building for it. Due later in 2012 across PS3, 360 and Windows platforms, it’s a sandbox offering in the mould of GTAIV, albeit with inspiration taken from the Infernal Affairs films. Gritty, graphically explicit and definitely one that the kids need to be tucked in bed before playing, it pitches its central protagonist, police officer Wei Shen, into combat against a Triad gang on some beautifully constructed virtual Hong Kong streets. Combat flows like that of Batman: Arkham Asylum, with a tap of a button repelling an enemy’s attack and plenty of potential for building combos. Here’s hoping for an end product that is more in keeping with Niko Bellic’s Liberty City misadventures than something like the Shanghai-set Kayne & Lynch 2.
Capcom’s forthcoming action-RPG, due in May, is more hack-and-slash than some genre peers, but offers a similar wealth of modifiable player characteristics, as well as an epic storyline to rival the Skyrims of this world. Playing as an individual who’s had their heart ripped out by a dragon, the game begins as a revenge quest – but, inevitably, side-mission distractions will paint the game world in greater detail, and it’s said that up to 100 hours of gameplay are achievable. Although it’s a single-player title, the ‘hero’ of the piece will be accompanied by recruitable companions, and these NPCs can be instructed to do the bulk of the fighting if the player would prefer to let the story play out without the pulse-raising combat. That’d be silly, naturally – but you’ve got to admit, this is the kind of gorgeous-looking game that’s very easy to just sit back and watch.
Mass Effect 3
Developer: BioWare / Publisher: Electronic Arts
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows
Every preview for the conclusion of Commander Shepard’s galaxy-spanning adventures pointed towards the epic – and Mass Effect 3 delivers all the twists and churns, thrills and kills of a major Hollywood blockbuster, albeit one with brains to rival its brawn. But it begins so very close to home, as the Reapers – gigantic, biomechanical ‘squids’, ostensibly, residing beyond the fringes of known space for time immemorial – come to Earth to wipe our planet of organic life. This is what they do every 50,000 years: spread across the stars, cleansing until life needs to begin from scratch (presumably they target only intelligent, predominantly humanoid life, or else the fossil record would be very different indeed). The cataclysmic scenes which open ME3, of innocents slaughtered by towering behemoths from the endless black, set a tone which rarely brightens: this is a dark, distinctly mature video game.
Events on Earth lead Shepard away from his (or her, if you prefer to play Shepard as a woman; arguably, the voice acting is better when ‘FemShep’ is used) home planet and on a quest for help. First (space)port of call: the Citadel, home to the Council of myriad alien races, who work together to ensure peace reigns throughout the systems. Unfortunately for humankind, the alien species at the very peak of council powers aren’t entirely sympathetic to the plight of Earth. Cue: lots of stealing from Peter to pay Paul, frenzied battles on faraway moons, laboratory raids, bug-hunts and all sorts of complex question-and-answer scenarios, in the name of uniting the galaxy against the Reapers before every last being with a few brain cells to rub together is scrubbed from existence.
The story is every bit as affecting as those who’ve played Mass Effects 1 and 2 will expect – sure, it’s got it’s share of corny dialogue, but think of this as a summer sci-fi cinema release, with a muscled action star in its central role, and such lines become part and parcel of proceedings. Indeed, they – like other shortcomings, like drops in frame rate and some poor collision detection (at one point my Shepard’s head got lost in a vending machine) – are overlooked easily, as the player becomes easily immersed in a plot that winds around strange planets and hulking spaceships, its climax always looming, closer and closer: the showdown to end all showdowns. Should you prefer, following the main missions will reward you with an ending inside 25 hours; but explore the numerous side-quests and not only with this game’s detailed story grow even deeper, but Shepard will acquire valuable assets to assist against the Reapers. Each good deed comes with its rewards – from a few extra Paragon points (essential when playing as ‘good’ Shepard) to the support of a fleet.
Combat has been refined from ME2 – although its simple elegance comes unstuck when things get a little too heated. Duck-and-cover (and return fire) dynamics familiar to anyone who’s seen a third-person shooter this side of the original Gears of War are typically the order of the affray; but there are moments where Shepard and crew – missions are undertaken, as with ME1 and ME2, with two squad-mates along for the ride – are forced into the open, and here the game crackles with real energy. It’s into these arenas that the co-op option most easily slips – up to four players can participate. But, much like its predecessors, this is primarily a single-player experience, and one unlikely to be forgotten soon. Hours pass like minutes; soon enough there’s 24 hours clocked up and the game doesn’t feel like it’s reached its mid-point, such is the desperation driving the protagonist and his/her trusted few to convince the many of direct action. ME3 becomes an obsession, perhaps even more so than ME2 – and that ate up a lot of my 2010.
The RPG elements are not so complicated as to put off those usually left cold by such titles – menus are clear and easily navigated, weapons are modifiable at the start of each mission, and the player is reminded to level up at regular intervals. Compared to the clutter of a game like Oblivion, or even its refined follow-up Skyrim, this is a lean package that lets the player do much of their talking with guns and ammo. Of course the dialogue trees, and the choices taken via them, are more important here than ever before; but BioWare know that this is going to be the first Mass Effect game played by many, much like Fallout 3 was for that series, so similarities with shooter-specific titles are pronounced without ever being rendered as pastiche. And nobody would mistake this for a Modern Warfare affair – combat, combining biotic powers and simple firearms, has more in common with the semi-sci-fi BioShock than it does a ‘real world’ equivalent.
Naturally, all of the above is written from the perspective of someone who has played, and loved, the previous two Mass Effect games. If ME3 is your first time, expect to be a little lost by conversations between Shepard and certain NPCs (many of whom are familiar faces from ME1 and ME2, providing you kept your crew alive at the end of the latter), as well as his crew – but know that there is masses of information available via the game’s pause menu, fleshing out both past and present, and new-to-the-series character James acts as the conduit through which up-to-here context is siphoned, as he questions Shepard on his adventures to date. On the subject of NPCs, some appear under-detailed compared to the primary characters – which is fine, given how little is seen of certain side-quest sorts, but a lifeless face doesn’t half ruin the impression of a rip-roaring space opera.
Again though, the odd last-gen-quality NPC doesn’t detract from a magnificent end product. As a Mass Effect fan, I can tell you this game’s 10/10 scores are deserved, but that if you’ve yet to play one of these games, do try to at least complete ME2 before this, as it’ll paint the experience so much brighter. Which is a real bonus, given its overriding atmosphere of chasing after what is, surely, a lost cause… Or is it? Truthfully, one game is certain to be different from the next, as a plethora of minute options are triggered by both in-game decisions and those made in ME1 and ME2 (oh, the Rachni, how I knew you’d come back to literally bite me in the ass – and if only one could have ended the Illusive Man in ME2) accumulate to present a plot that’s elastic, albeit always with a snapping point. And when it finally breaks, well… the ending’s worth it. For me, anyway. If you played like a right bastard throughout the three games, well…
BONUS: SKY LARKIN’S NESTOR MATTHEWS ON MASS EFFECT
Because drummers have feelings too… for deep-space hook-ups between blue-skinned single-gender aliens and Earth-born soldier types entrusted with the future safety of the known universe. Perhaps. I spoke to Nestor Matthews, arms-flailing-face-gurning brute of a sticksman for acclaimed Leeds indiesmiths Sky Larkin, ahead of the release of Mass Effect 3 about his affection for the series. Warning: these words contain “SIDE BOOB”.
You’re a busy man. This much is clear. Yet you find time to get involved with these ME games – a case of them sucking you right in? What makes these games so very addictive – the action, the story, a mix of elements?
NM: Oh, I'm definitely at the mercy of Mass Effect. In fact, I'm not sure it's ever been a conscious decision to devote so much time to ME; all too often I'd power up my console for a quick blast after lunch and then I'd notice that it had somehow become quite dark outside... I think it's the finely honed balance between the action and the story that sucks up the hours and it's proved by the evolution of the story/action balance between ME1 and ME2. BioWare listened to the franchise's fans and tightened up the package even further, creating a cinematic fluidity to the game. BioWare are grand masters of the roleplaying game so they have years, if not decades, of experience in crafting involved narratives which, when coupled with the relatively recent technological ability to make a lot of things explode in high definition glory, creates an experience that is, in my opinion, pretty chuffing hard to put down.
The ME universe has been expanded into novels, comics, downloadable content etc – how much of this have you experienced? Do you see the ME universe as being as well-rounded and as well-realised as something like Star Wars, or Star Trek?
NM: Admittedly, I've only dabbled in ME's extra-curricular activities with the occasional bit of DLC every now and then, but I think that's part of the excitement of it for a lot of people; that it's happening right now. The Star Trek and Star Wars universes are staggering feats of imagination and community that are still thriving today and yet they will always be of their time. The Mass Effect universe is still being written and I think it certainly has the potential to become this generation's sci-fi anthem, especially with today's encouragement within the modding community, just as long as those involved don't forget its predecessors...
Is it fair to say ME/ME2 (and ME3 for that matter) feature plots more in keeping with a high quality HBO-style series than video games of ‘old’?
NM: Absolutely. With the continuous cross-medium and cross-platform smorgasbord of digital media people are only going to be truly captivated by something that isn't confined by convention. The ME narrative delves far beyond the iconic “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!” rinse-and-repeat and the monotonous puzzle solving of traditional RPGs; instead, like many of the better TV shows of the last decade or so, the plot becomes a constant flow of subtext and second-guessing. I suppose in that respect it's about realism, as movies and television draw you in with captivating and manipulative plots unfurling in their own believable universes. Well, what about a believable universe that Mass Effect makes very clear is yours to capture and yours to manipulate? Yes please.
Sci-fi has a certain stigma attached to it, a lack of playground cool… does ME adhere to this, or do you think the games reach out beyond typical sci-fi audiences because of its qualities – the writing, the action etc.
NM: I think science fiction and video game culture are kind of synonymous on a technological and social level, so it's definitely on the up – take the Halo series for example. But the term 'sci-fi' itself still conjures images of James T. Kirk and Spock getting groovy on the surface of Mars... I think BioWare recognised the archaic sci-fi stigma and took great care in bringing it forwards; contextualising that goofy classic integrity and then carefully weaving it into the infrastructure of the game rather than just throwing it in your face. Mass Effect isn't just about aliens (although it kind of is), it's about a universe where humans are coming to terms with coexisting alongside a sprawling mass of extra-terrestrial life-forms for better or worse who all just happen to be under an apocalyptic threat from something even bigger, and I think that sense of scale and the palpable trepidation within the human dialogue of the first two games is a conscious technique used by BioWare to allow players to decide how much 'sci-fi' they want to experience. For example, I spent a fair chunk of time submerging myself in the lore of the last two games, talking to creatures big and small, fully embracing everything the game had to offer no matter how alien; but others took great relish in just blowing stuff up and saving the world from unknown assailants and the game works beautifully both ways. Of course there will be some people who just don't do sci-fi in any way, shape or form and that's fine; it's their loss.
Just how much side-boob does one need to see before a game gets a 12-cert slapped on it?
NM: Ha! I have been wondering whether ME3 will become victim to its own minor soft-core scandal actually, but I have faith in BioWare to make it contextual and, for the most part, tasteful. I actually found it very liberating that if you chose to pursue a relationship in ME1 and ME2 you could do it with any gender of a variety of alien races, but if you didn't want to, you didn't have to; much like real life really, except for the alien bit. Anyway, whether ME3's extra-terrestrial courtship will raise more questions than it answers (wow, how does that work? etc) remains to be seen, but I trust BioWare will treat it with the respect it deserves and not tarnish the ME canon with anything too 'exotic'. Oh, and in answer to the question: it's probably dependent on just how many boobs the particular character has, right? Right?
Given that the individual player shapes their own Shepard, much of the story is driven by the characters around him (or her). Do you think these characters are memorable? Do you have a favourite? Did you let anyone die at the end of ME2?
NM: For me, the characters are what make the narrative. If it wasn't for Garrus' valiant stoicism in the face of death upon his introduction in ME2 I'm not sure I'd have pulled through! The central characters of ME are the player's direct link with the universe and the lore, so if the characters aren't believable then really none of it is, which is where a lot of otherwise spectacular RPGs stumble, making do with lacklustre voice acting or back-stories peppered with plot holes. I managed to keep everyone alive at the end of ME2 and I can remember being genuinely chuffed about it, which is further testament to the importance of character depth. Equally, the option to import your bespoke Shepard from ME1 to ME2 can unexpectedly make that sense of camaraderie between reoccurring characters, though artificial, seem even more genuine and I'm intrigued to see the impact it'll have on ME3 too.
ME3 is gonna be huge. Would you welcome a Mass Effect film? Apparently there is one in the works.
NM: Erm, you have seen DOOM, the movie, right? (Nope – MS) Nah, as long as it's taken seriously then I can't see the harm, it's more adaptable and inspirational lore for the ME universe. Thanks to advances in technology and the onslaught of digital culture, video games are being seen as a form of artistic expression in their own right rather than derivatives of film and television, so as long as the effort and consideration put into creating the game is reciprocated in adapting it for the big screen then it can only be a good thing. I hope.
Developer: CyberConnect2 / Publisher: Capcom
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Like comics? Like quick time events? Asura’s Wrath is the title for you, friend. Essentially a series of cut-scenes requiring the barest of controller interaction to drive them towards the next spectacular crashing of bony fist against fleshy torso, this bonkers-of-plot offering does its best to pretend it’s a God of War-beating brawler. But the instances of actual, progression-threatening combat are few and far between, and the whole thing appears to be an exercise in how to make an incredibly pretty ‘game’ – inverted commas, because aren’t you supposed to be able to play these things?
Don’t get me wrong: this looks gorgeous. And developers CyberConnect2 do their utmost to make the ‘player’ (again, blah blah blah…) respect the amount of time that’s been spent buffing the end product to an alarmingly brilliant shine. Loads of concept art is unlocked as the story unfolds, both CGI and manga in style. Watch it over a shoulder and it’s the most baffling but beguiling anime flick you’ve seen since… erm… whatever the last utterly insane animated export from the Far East was; but sit in front of the goggle-box with controller in hand and it’s a patience-sapping crawl through conversations with golden spiders, flashbacks to the narrative catalyst of the (very, very angry) hero’s wife coming a cropper, and bashing the thumbs of gigantic (like, bigger-than-the-planet huge) bosses so that their arms crack apart and they run away like great big Buddhas late for a daily dose of enlightenment. Yeah, every now and again you press the attack button a few different ways and smash open some heads; but even that grows repetitive. Amazing, given how infrequently one actually does anything.
But… credit where it’s due. Asura’s Wrath is a remarkable feat in one respect: it’s a game that isn’t, perhaps the first true interactive movie, albeit presented in episodic style. It’s closer to the spirit of a small-screen epic then either Alan Wake or Heavy Rain, despite its frankly ludicrous plot about gods and monsters. And it really does look pretty, all of the time. And it isn’t so long that your thumbs are going to fall asleep; although it’s unlikely that anyone picking this up will play it twice, despite the scores presented at the end of every stage (rating combat style and speed of stage completion). Let a friend rent it, head over to theirs and sit back with some popcorn. But don’t be too surprised if your pal passes out before the climax.
Street Fighter x Tekken
Developer and publisher: Capcom
PlayStation 3, Xbox 360; Windows and PlayStation Vita forthcoming
Honesty being the best policy, here’s a confession: I never cared for Tekken, or any 3D fighter, my heart forever belonging to the side-on scrappers I pumped loose change into as a kid. And the king of those arcade cabinets? The one that said Street Fighter II on it, and had a pair of sticks complemented by six buttons per side. When the game made its leap to home consoles, most notably on the Super Nintendo, oh my… the hours lost, and the joypads broken Personally I think that Super Street Fighter II for the Mega Drive is the best of the 16-bit incarnations of the series; but each to their own, and the SNES original is a certifiable classic.
So when Street Fighter IV arrived: jaw on the floor, friends. I still turn to it now, to kill those 15-minute chunks in the day where starting something fresh is too much hassle but finishing a job properly is, similarly, a pain in the arse. It is the standout of the Street Fighter series, perhaps; a winning combination of classic 2D combat with chunky, sort-of-but-not-really three-dimensional rendering. It. Looks. Shit. Hot. And Street Fighter x Tekken looks just as amazing in motion, fluid and brutal and silken and sexy, although some of the characters in the menu screens look a bit odd. A few of them seem to have contracted gout between releases, while others are positively wasting away. And Ken’s hollow, soulless eyes. Oh dear, poor Ken…
He’s still my favourite fighter, though – and much like the sublime Marvel vs Capcom series two combatants are selected by each player, and can be switched between mid-combo to rack up additional strikes. This means that, with the right pairing, double-figure combos come quicker to the player than acute arthritis of the digits (which, surely given this player’s hours sunk into Street Fighter, is just around the corner). Teaming Ken up with Akuma produced some cracking combos; likewise Ken with old partner in crime (kinda) Ryu. All told there are 55 playable characters in Street Fighter x Tekken, but you’d have to be more committed to the cause than I am to play with them all. While testing this title I’m afraid to say I didn’t touch a Tekken character, but they look and move the part when I’m smacking them down on the way towards a climactic battle against Ogre. He’s from Tekken, too, so my face when he descended in the Antarctic, looking for a kicking: puzzled. Much like it was by the mammoths, and any other ‘story’ aspect of this game. Don’t worry about it, really – let the fists do the talking.
A new feature is the gem system. When picking their character, the player also selects a gem set-up. These gems activate during the battle, to provide perks – increased speed, greater strength, etc – and the character glows the colour that corresponds to said gem. Does it make this a better game than SFIV? No, not really. The gem system can balance matches; but it can also turn the tables truly in a strong player’s favour. Also new is the Pandora mode – whatever this Pandora is, it drives the narrative, such as it is. If a player is getting their backside handed to them, with 25% of their power meter remaining they can switch to Pandora mode. This makes you an immediate bad-ass, but for a strictly limited time. Fail to KO your opponent in said time and you lose. Again, it’s a quirk that some gamers will enjoy, but I only used it once, and then just to see what it’s like. Makes the characters look kinda cool, I suppose; but unless you’re second-nature with your x Tekken-specific moves, it’ll be an accidental occurrence rather than a deliberate gameplay choice.
If you own SFIV, the need for this game to be in your life is lessened, rather. If not, well: it’s Street Fighter, awesome, and there are all of these characters from another massive fighting game franchise included too. It’s manna from beat-em-up heaven, surely? Although Hugo still looks shit. Street Fighter III: probably best erased from the record books. And Tekken? Perhaps I’ll give it a second chance…
FANTASTIC FIVE – TEETH OF THE SEA
North London noisy instrumental sorts Teeth of the Sea are Bloody Good at making music – but just how good are they at playing Bloody Good games? Well, Mat Colegate, him what plays drums in the Rocket Recordings-signed four-piece, has gone and told us: yes, a bit, and here are five that really rather stand out. Thanks, Mat! If you dig TOTS, be sure to check them out at this summer’s Green Man Festival, and ahead of that at Sounds from the Other City in Salford. Dates here.
Killer 7 (Wikipedia)
Confession time. I am not a serious gamer. I couldn't care less about Halo's 'perfected combat dynamics' and my total inability to slow cars down while traversing corners has ensured that the GTA games are forever lost to me. What I want from games is worlds; exquisite environments obeying their own weird logic and leaving it to you to make sense of them. In this regard Killer7 is king. It's frigging WEIRD. Who's that locked and screaming in the safe? Why is that life-sized puppet wearing bondage gear? What the bloody hell is going on? “Operation Wolf directed by David Lynch” is the best description I've heard so far. In director Suda51 gaming has it's very own Burroughs or Jodorowsky, and I'm thankful for every new lightning bolt from his Mekon-sized cranium.
TimeSplitters 2 (Wikipedia)
The best first-person multiplayer shooter, ever. GoldenEye? Pah! If your idea of fun is guiding a queen-and-country misogynist around a maze, all the time being shot in the head while desperately trying to find a weapon to defend yourself with then by all means, go for it. I'll be a cowboy on a spaceship shooting zombies with a rocket launcher, thanks.
Golden Axe (Wikipedia)
For this child of the 80s the adverts for the Dungeons & Dragons RPG on the back of the comics I was into were possessed of an otherworldly glamour. Sadly, the experience of actually playing RPGs was a bit of a disappointment. I think I would've much preferred actually smacking someone with an axe to hurling dice around pointlessly. (This crosses over into my gaming. I only have to read the words “turn-based combat” and I fall into the kind of doze usually only capable of being conjured by a level 10 spell caster.) Thankfully Golden Axe (and its little brother Gauntlet, which is still the first thing I think of when I hear the term 'Ghost Box') was on hand to remove the boredom from high fantasy once and for all. When villains entered stage right to challenge my merry band, did I check for traps? Did I roll to determine my armour class? Nay! I charged at them and proceeded to frantically button mash until they lay in bits at my feet. Then I did kick a pixie in the face. 'Twas most awesome.
You may know it as Contra, but I know it as “the game that made my humble Amstrad CPC feel like a proper GAMING MACHINE”. It loaded in the twinkling of an eye (approximately 25 seconds) and once loaded made all the other games I had look antiquated. Charging about with arsenals of weaponry, spaffing raw firepower at a ceaseless army of drones, robots, massive laser cannons and force-fields. If it was in your way, you shot it. If it wasn't bothering you in the slightest, you called it a pussy and shot it anyway. And it had this music that went, DU DU DU DU DUHRRR DUHHHRRR DUHHRRRR over and over again until your mum put pencils up her nose. Adolescent Valhalla.
Because despite all the intervening years of constant innovation in gaming NOTHING will ever be as scary as the first time you played Doom.
AWESOME GAME ENDING(S) OF THE MONTH
I was tempted to put a Mass Effect ending here, from the first game, to bring newcomers up to speed – but they’re too long, too complicated, and contain too many SPOILERS. So, instead, for no reason whatsoever: what about some classic Street Fighter II closing scenes? Good? Good! YOU WIN.
CLOSING FYI: Next month is a retro special. Pretty excited about it, to be honest. See you then.