Friday, 23 March 2012

The most Underrated Games I can Think Of: Metro 2033

"There can be no shitty games, only not enough money"

To kick off what I hope will be a regular thing where I dole out some love to games that didn’t quite get the praise they deserved, let’s examine Metro 2033.

The mind of a video game aficionado is funny and infuriating for everyone involved. When you think about it, game snobs will shirk and abhor a mediocre but functional AAA title, despite all the money and effort that went in to produce it. But unfortunately, people like us will always favor the game we found in a bin at FutureShop or whatever; or at least, that's how I feel about Metro 2033 against other gritty shooters.

Yes, I did find Metro 2033 in a bin at FutureShop, and I completely understand why it was there. The enemy AI seems to be programmed to “Yell the same line over and over again while standing still” mode, the NPC models are uncanny as fuck, many of the levels and environments look kind of samey, and many of the fringe gameplay elements are arguably 100% vestigial to the overall experience. So yeah, that sounds like a real turd on paper, but if you go into the game with the right mindset and the right research, you’ll be presented with a game that oozes charm out of every pore for the most immersive, albeit short, experience that you’ll find among the Xbox 360 exclusives.

The first point of interest about Metro 2033 is that it’s based off of a novel by Russian sci-fi author Dmitry Glukhovsky. I’ve never read this book myself, but I think it’s interesting that a popular novel got adapted to the medium of video games rather than film. It presents a possible paradigm shift, and the medium is finally getting some much-deserved recognition from an older artistic medium. When you look at novel-to-film works such as Night Watch or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it provides a pause for thought and juxtaposition about whether or not video games can serve as a potentially more viable option when deciding to bring a piece from pages to pictures (or rather, pixels.)

Metro 2033 tells the story of Artyom, a young man born shortly before the world had a whoopsie and was forced to flee to the underground Moscow metro. It is here and only here that humans can be safe from the toxic radiation on the surface. 20 years after the blast, horrible mutants have started to outnumber the metro-dwellers, and are slowly becoming the dominant species in the new, irradiated world. Thus, humanity is slowly trickling away- soon to be completely eradicated from the Earth, which now favors the hideous creatures wrought from the destruction.  In this world, Artyom must embark on a foreboding quest through the dank, dangerous metro tunnels to investigate how he can preserve the lives of his friends and father back home.

Home Sweet Home

The basic presentation of the story is fairly straightforward and simple- which in my opinion is the best course of action. Metro 2033 goes about the Fantasy Apocalypse setting akin to the Fallout series, I Am Legend, or Reign of Fire over the imminent cataclysm method like many games and movies have been using for cheap, easy shock value. It’s easy to get someone emotionally invested with the destruction of the world at stake, but it has been overdone to the point where most global cataclysms have become hackneyed and riddled with plotholes.

Fantasy Apocalypse tends to feature monsters and other unexplained creatures; they are sometimes rationalized with bioweapons or nuclear radiation, but it doesn’t really matter. The dark approach Metro 2033 features shows the slow, choking death of all mankind. From his own hubris, he has created a world that he can no longer dominate, and now must suffer as his unintentional Frankenstein monsters violently and mercilessly inherit the new world of pain, hopelessness and vitamin D deficiency.

From this setup, the player can easily emphasize with Artyom- but this can be achieved by simply reading the novel. What does the medium of video gaming do to really help the player get into his shoes?

As soon as you are given free rein to explore the actual station, you’ll probably find it to be immensely frustrating. The corridors are too narrow, the rooms are tiny and have nothing of value in the time, there only seems to be one path to follow through what you’d think to be a “sandbox” level and for fuck’s sake, will any of these people shut the hell up for a few seconds?! That’s called immersion, and Metro 2033 has it in spades. It really fits the theme of squalor and oppression when you need to shift and squeeze past all the faceless crowds just to get to the shops. All around you people are living packed shoulder to shoulder with only enough to survive. They talk to each other at full volume so they can hear each other through the ever-present rabble making your ears sore while you try to decide whether or not you’ll need the silenced SMG for the next mission or not.

Artyom is a silent protagonist, but we do learn a bit about him as time goes on. We know his father loves him and that he has friends who care about him. Other than the fact we know Artyom collects postcards of famous pre-blast landmarks and he can play the guitar, we never learn much about the man himself. This could remind one of Half Life, where we are projected *into* a character as opposed to *onto* a character. The game presents a hypothetical scenario where they sit you down, hand you a dossier and say, “You are part of *this* world, you have *these* skills and you will be recognized and fit into the society. How will you react/feel?” 

The Postcards on Artyom's Wall

Metro 2033 is one of the few examples of a game being improved by realism; this is mostly due to the game’s central tone of being the weakest in any and all potentially dangerous circumstances. Artyom is equipped with crude, homemade firearms and airguns, while all antagonistic organized groups are equipped with AK47s and mounted turrets; mutants are either incessantly tough or uncomfortably numerous, placing strain on a fairly modest supply of ammo compared to most shooters; and if the environment is devoid of enemies, you can guarantee that there will be radiation, the threat of falling into an abyss or just the cold, lonely wasteland, only livened up by howling winds and the roars of flying mutants in the distance.

The levels allow for scavenging and exploring- that’s how Artyom’s people can survive in the first place. This feature raises the question on whether or not Metro 2033 was meant to be an open-world situation like STALKER or Fallout as opposed to the linear experience it turns out to be. On the surface, the idea of having to spend military-grade 5.45mm (assault rifle) bullets on new weapons or extra supplies seems like the incorporation of an RPG element or paradigm; You find them all over the place, and society treats them as their main currency. I, however, like to think of the MGR as a unique gameplay system in and of itself. If you break the shops down into their base concept, you have a mode for acquiring upgrades. Without some form of economy or other system to directly relate the functionality of in-game currency to real-world currency, a money/shop system is no different from the system used in say, God of War where you use the souls you harvest from killing enemies to upgrade your favourite toys. Alternatively, you can choose to use your upgrade points as a temporary damage boost that can only be replenished through more exploring.

This works perfectly fine on paper- we’ve seen similar ideas in many games before this one, even if we haven’t made the connections. The point is: if the player CAN upgrade, they need to be able to acquire the means in one of two ways:

1) The core experience
2) The fringe gameplay elements

Scavenging is not part of the core experience, it merely contributes. If the core experience is to defeat enemies and follow a dark, miserable storyline; the player can achieve both organically from the gunfights and the setting. By using the exploration elements, the player can facilitate both by taking the time to scrounge and scrape up every bullet they can. The gripe I have with it, however, is that modded weapons can also be found through exploration. This doesn’t sound like a negative thing, but if you treat weapons as items rather than upgrades, it defeats the purpose of having MGR (military grade rounds) in the first place.

"Bullet Exchange!"

The only time it is ideal to actually spend your MGR is when given the opportunity to buy one of two unique armor upgrades, one of which unlocks a completely different style of gameplay. Because you can find your AK-2012s and awesome crossbow-minigun things, you never feel the need to actually spend your money on the more mundane upgrades, and the shops merely serve as a pre-adventure pit stop to make sure you have what you want before you move out.  For me, it devalued gold ammo, and I had a good 200-300 bullets just sitting there, making my bandolier look awesome (not really.) You can also spend bullets on extra provisions such as medkits or gas-mask filters; but because your health regenerates, and the game can’t force you into a situation where you can’t continue.

This is all so much fringe gameplay that is great to brag about, but is more suited to a game with a bigger world and overall, longer experience. Then again, the system does contribute to the overall charm and aesthetic, but it feels as though the developers didn’t get the opportunity to make the game they really wanted to make. To me it seems like Metro 2033 suffers from problems relating to the initial scope. It seemed like the development team was divided on the best way to convey Artyom’s experience to the player: a STALKER-inspired open world action RPG, or a focused horror-shooter with a linear plot and staged encounters.

Fortunately, Metro 2033 is getting a sequel; Metro: Last Light scheduled for 2013 with no hard date. Show some love and appreciation for a unique game with a lot of heart and go buy it. It’s available on Steam for $19.99 USD, or over XBLA on games on demand for $29.99 USD; if that’s too much, consider that you’ve probably paid a lot more for a lot less. If we show a budding development team enough support, maybe their resources will be able to expand, and with any luck, we’ll see their vision of creating immersive experiences flourish into some great titles.

Monday, 12 March 2012

2012: A Space Odyssey; A Mass Effect 3 review

I am what the Internet may deem a “Mass Effect fanboy. I’ve played the first two more times than any person should, I have strong opinions on the series’ lore and characters and I’ve even given brief thoughts about reading the tie-in comic books. Therefore, it wouldn’t be too out of place to assume that the release of Mass Effect 3 would be one of the more iconic rays of light in the tedious mire of the first twenty-year slog of my existence.

Although it hails from the mutant-baby graduating class of 2007, BioWare’s Mass Effect was an exemplar of the company’s creative origins and showing the potential of the epic adventures that the Western RPG genre has so skillfully provided since its nativity in the pen-and-paper days. While the game’s presentation rendered both RPG and shooter fans somewhat lukewarm for the haphazard mixing of the respective genres' individual elements; the core mechanic of trekking across a galaxy of limitless potential and unparalleled danger with nothing to count on but the loyalty of a group of misfits and hard-asses was enough to make the dreams of a thoughtful stargazer or hardcore science fiction fan sink their teeth into what being part of galactic civilization might actually feel like someday.

While I’ve heard many shooter fans criticize Mass Effect for its slow, clunky movements, dodgy cover mechanics and Shepard’s infamous “crab-walk” when crouching coupled with core combat relying on thoughtful uses of biotic and tech powers rather than baser gunplay; I always found that once the surface was scratched, Mass Effect provided a very compelling and deep action RPG experience. It’s always nice to see a situation where the outcome of a firefight can be decided beyond the means of who saw who first, or who was smart enough to bring an assault rifle instead of relying on the pretention of having skill. The original Mass Effect implemented powers to disable enemies’ weapons or biotics, throw the crates they used for cover across the room with telekinesis, and distinguishing NPCs as organics and synthetics to ensure that the player was encouraged to round out their team so they never painted themselves into a corner.

However, Mass Effect 2 postulated that the level of depth its predecessor provided was a bit too obscure or overlooked that it decided upon tightening the cover-based shooting mechanics to ensnare a bigger audience for its face value. In theory this is a clever and practical skill to make sure players don’t get turned off from your game before the developers get a chance to show off some of the more artful and skillful applications of the combat-biotic-tech trifecta iconic to the series. Mass Effect 2 however, doesn’t succeed in doing this, and any and every situation can be handled in the same manner, by any class and with any combination of squadmates. This perpetuates the trend in many modern games where you *can* ploy different tactics, but why would you want to when the direct method is faster and just as, or more effective?

The reason I’ve provided a somewhat spartan rundown of the first two games before talking about the one I’m actually reviewing, is because after the dizzy meandering the series has gone through in the gameplay department, Mass Effect 3 has finally done what the series has been trying to since the beginning.

I respect BioWare’s move to take mechanics from Gears of War and build their own game from the rudimentary experience that Epic Games provided. While Gears receives more than its fair share of flak for being one of the flagship grey-brown shooters of our day; gameplay wise, it epitomizes its genre. Therefore, Mass Effect 3 enjoys tight cover mechanics and exciting firefights. Many critics would certainly say that because of this, Mass Effect 3 has conformed to the standards of the modern day and that BioWare has "sold out;" but by working the cover mechanics into the action-RPG style strategy necessary for survival, a satisfyingly rich experience awaits anyone willing to give it a chance. While you can simply fire across a “no-man’s land” against other gun-toting troops; the game offers a damage bonus to weapons in close-quarters, NPCs employ a number of techniques to flush the player from cover and shields will only recharge efficiently when the player is completely safe from attacks. Due to this, combat can be exciting and hectic, and the player must always be attentive and keep moving in order to avoid a faceful of space-bullets.

What Gears of War doesn’t have, however, is the ability to modify and personalize an array of weapons. The earlier games also included this feature, but ME3 managed to combine the sheer variety of combinations and tactics that Mass Effect provided with its weapon modification system, with the streamlined design philosophy ME2 proposed. Instead of navigating a tedious interface after every hour and a half in gameplay or combing the galaxy for every crumb of platinum; players simply buy new weapons, mods or armor pieces and merely upgrade the ones they prefer. These amenities can also be found in missions, thereby creating a rudimentary exploration element to the game. This upgrade system feels much more organic as time passes due to equipment being available through spending in-game credits earned through missions or side-quests; thus, removing the laborious grinding and in turn, making the Reaper threat feel more urgent.

 The inclusion of biotics and tech attacks add much more flavour to the Mass Effect universe, but also create a phenomenon I’ve never experienced in another game. After the rigmarole of running, gunning and doing the Pokemon/Fire Emblem thing where you use the right power to strip the right form of protection, I started to actually read my talent tree nodes and the choices offered when certain powers branches off. This cultivated a scenario where I would try to invent new combos to compete with the speed and efficiency of merely sniping enemies silly. For example, I played as an infiltrator, and enjoyed cycling through a number of different strategies. My favorite tactics were using cryo attacks to snap-freeze foes before launching incinerate to create a large explosion of razor-sharp ice shards, and employing my tactical cloak with a specially-crafted pistol to ambush confused enemies with a barrage of melee strikes.

One thing I can say about the gameplay is that due to the sheer number of abilities that are available to the player at any given time can mean that many will probably go unused. I would blindly invest talent points into powers that would gather dust in the radial menu because only three powers can be mapped to the Xbox 360 controller at a time. Squadmates are given a single mapped power with the left and right buttons on the D-pad. However, because the D-pad is a little awkward to use in high-action gameplay, moments where it would become necessary to use my cleverly planned strategies would never be executed as elegantly as envisioned. Radial menus have always been accompanied with a merciful pause in gameplay in most instances they are used; but in a piece that relies on fast-paced shooting, it means that the flow suffers significantly. Therefore, it is oftentimes better to simply let your squadmates manage their own abilities.

So yes, Mass Effect 3’s gameplay only really shines when reflected on Shepard. The only time you will notice any difficulty curve, the value of a tactical approach to combat and the wide selection of weapons and mods will be on the player character. This was cemented when I was five or six smoothly executed missions in before I finally noticed that I could actually manage my squadmates’ gear. After that I tried to be clever by providing my team with uniquely augmented weapons for handling specific situations, but I’d often get lost in my own experiments on the battlefield to even remember my minions carried guns in the first place.

The review has focused heavily on gameplay because there isn’t much to say in the story department. A BioWare game is predictable as the tides; the narrative will always be creative, the characters will be interesting and well-rounded and you can be certain that there will be equal amounts of laughter and tears. Say what you will about any hated BioWare game of your choice, but narrative is something they have done consistently well since the very beginning. Mass Effect 3 is no different, and even scores extra points in the emotion department for having built off the relationships and story elements from the previous two games. Hell, for the first three quarters of the game, ME3 is the perfect Mass Effect experience; it really feels like the game the team wanted to provide from the start.

And then...

The last stretch of the game is retarded. I’m sorry, but when placed against the brilliance the game opened with, I cannot feign any sort of amiability to the inclusion of Kai Leng, the subplot about Miranda’s father and of course, the ending.

I haven’t read whatever Kai Leng was introduced in, but I feel that many Mass Effect fans will support his presence in ME3 due to him technically being a pre-existing character. Cerberus’ role in the series was quite interesting- a good example of how the effects of Reaper indoctrination can manifest in different ways, in this case, The Illusive Man's delusions that he could control the Reapers like he controls his nefarious business. But Kai doesn’t really have anything to *do* with this bottom line, and radiates a sort of Shepard 2.0 vibe. He isn’t well characterized or presented in the game, and is basically a talking version of the nameless assault troopers you face in any Cerberus-centric level. His final confrontation in the Cerberus HQ was jarringly out of place for the series, and all-in-all, equates to something from a terrible anime they used to play Friday nights on YTV. If I were to be generous, however, you could interpret Kai Leng as an example of a character who has a symbiotic existence between organic and synthetic; but due to how it is handled, I sincerely doubt it.

I spent a lot of the ME3 hype-phase speculated about the return of my favourite and not-so-favourite squadmates. I was pleased to see that everyone was dealt with creatively and in a compelling manner. The characters actually had *lives* outside of Shepard; they moved on and did things, developed new relationships and cultivated their own problems and achievements. Their encounters with Shepard were mostly coincidental foregoing the knowledge that we all knew they were going to be in-game anyway. This is why I found Miranda’s presence so infuriating. She contacts you several times just to chat- she talks like she’s begging for your help, but then denies she needs you at all. It feels like the writers really didn’t know how to include her in the game, so they tacked on something due to her being a love interest and therefore “needed” to be there in some way. The escalation of her investigation of her father’s “dynasty” doesn't quell any of these feelings either; to me it just proves my point due to the clumsy over-compensation and info-vomit about some shady Cerberus experiments proving what we already knew- that they're evil.

Let us wrap this up with that lovely topic about how the ending is shitty. Now, I’m not one of those petition-signers demanding that BioWare somehow change the ending. Personally I thought mine was fairly unique and my brain did chew on it for a little while after. But let’s be honest people, we all knew the ending would be retarded. How could you not? When the series had been building up that mecha-C’thulu and his cosmic buddies were coming to fuck everyone up, how could you *possibly* solve it without a deus ex machina? I won’t dwell on it anymore, but I find that Shepard’s story on the whole has left BioWare in an awkward position in terms of continuation of the franchise.

Mass Effect’s familiarity is based on what we have seen in the three games-, which is a story of impending doom at the height of galactic civilization. Therefore, a story before Shepard’s time would exhibit a universe that isn’t as developed as the era where Shepard existed, and probably wouldn’t have the same feel to it. A concurrent story where you play a pirate or soldier that isn’t involved with Shepard at all would be a hollow experience knowing that all of your efforts and the things you experience are going to grind to a fiery halt to the hands of cosmic monsters. And of course, due to the glaring difference between the possible endings of ME3, a sequel would alienate the fans who didn’t choose the ending BioWare might choose to build off of.

Oh, also, the N7 patch was made of fucking Velcro. 

In summation:

-          A great game that is probably a candidate for my Top Five Games of 2012

-          If you haven’t played the first two games, PLAY THEM FIRST. Mass Effect as a series has a fairly time-consuming barrier of entry, but if you want the richest experience possible, you need to pick up the first two.

-          Long time fans have already played it and formed their opinions on it, but if there’s even half a person out there who has played ME and ME2 and *hasn’t* yet played ME3, you should check it out for the closure at least. Everything you know and love is intact and I can guarantee that the majority of the game is worth the noticeable dip at the end.