Sunday, May 31, 2020

Mass Effect 3 - Thoughts

BioWare's contentious climax to the original Mass Effect trilogy isn't... really... all that contentious. Sure, there's the phenomenally underwhelming ending that makes some wild leaps in logic, but besides that Mass Effect 3 is undeniably the successor to 2. I don't think it's as masterful as the Collector-hunting-comrade-collecting journey, but it's riddled with great character moments, tense dilemmas, and energetic firefights. Whatever failings it may have (of which there are quite a few), I honestly feel that the team at BioWare did the best they could.

The worst part about Mass Effect 3—and an aspect I believe is more detrimental than the unsatisfactory ending—is that everything revolves around the ongoing galactic war. On one hand, it absolutely makes sense within the confines of the story. It avoids classic RPG tonal dissonance of, say, breeding racebirds while an apocalyptic meteor descends upon the planet, but it robs Mass Effect of its leisure and gentleness. Gone are the innocent times where you could stop by a store and inquire about an alien race's history; now you'll eavesdrops to garner war assets and convince old friends to become statistics in your army. Every conversation, every expedition, and every interjection is designed to further aid you in the war.

I'll reiterate that while it's understandable in universe, the galactic war becomes a black hole that saps a lot of joy out of the series. On every mission people constantly radio in to tell you to "HURRY UP", leaving you no room to soak in some of the prettier backdrops. Puzzles and minigames have also been entirely removed, reducing the gameplay loop to "gear up -> shoot shoot shoot". The silver lining is that the downtime in Mass Effect 3, where you're allowed to sit back and chat with your companions, feels a lot more well deserved. This is part of the reason why the Citadel DLC (where you're on shore leave) is so unanimously well-loved, and remains the crowning jewel of the Mass Effect experience. But even if you happen to play the game without it, there are still a lot of small character moments that'll put a smile on your face.

Perhaps the greatest improvement Mass Effect 3 holds over its older siblings is that your crew actually interacts with one another. To people that haven't played the series this may not seem like a big deal, but your squad is central to Mass Effect experience—if not the driving force itself. It's honestly kind of strange thinking back on the previous two games that, outside of a few exceptions, the soldiers on your ship never strike up a conversation. Mass Effect 3 remedies this by peppering in various radio chats you can eavesdrop on, as well as some unique lighthearted banter that'll pop up during a mission. It makes the crew feel more alive and cohesive, rather than guns for hire that only respond to their captain.

Unexpectedly, there's also more character customization than in Mass Effect 2—something that I honestly didn't expect (or remember). Fully upgrading an ability lets you pick three of six enhancements for your power, which can make your squad feel more specialized... even though you'll likely just choose "damage up" every single time. But what really surprised me was that Mass Effect 3 allows the player to carry any weapons they want into combat—at the price of slowing power recharge speed per armament. This had a significantly larger impact on how I played than any of the dopey mods from the first game ever did. With each weapon carrying its own magazine size, fire rate, damage, and specific weight, I had a lot of options to play with.

When it came time to storm the battlefield, I found myself having roughly as much fun with the combat as I did in 2. There are significantly less enemies protected by armor and shields in Mass Effect 3—turning my singularity into a potent anti-cover weapon—but this is offset by foes tossing grenades as frequently as their Uncharted 3 brethren. While explosives are a good way to de-trench the player from their favorite piece of cover, all it really served to do was slow down the gameplay as I bounced back and forth from one waist-high rock to another. I wrote in my entry on The Division how natural it felt to zip around cover, and my point of comparison was Mass Effect 3; far too often the game rewards you for staying stationary and simply shooting enemies before they can shoot you.

I would still classify most of the combat as entertaining (even if you get into routine habits), which is more than I can say for the mission structure. There's been a mass exodus of missions unrelated to the main campaign, creating of a drought of creativity in the level variety. Missing are the strange and unique side missions found in 2; Mass Effect 3 has you shooting Cerberus soldiers at a civilian base in one mission, and then shooting Cerberus soldiers at a Cerberus base the next. Side missions aren't the biggest draw to the Mass Effect universe, but they were a source of mystery in the previous games. Here, there's no time to tickle your curiosity—there's an enemy that needs killin', and a war that needs winnin'.

I've saved discussing the story for last again not because I don't have a lot of opinions on it, but mainly because it's impossible to discuss without delving into spoilers. Suffice to say, I don't think the ending is that bad (again, a big part of the experience is the journey, not the destination), though it's a lot better on replay when you're prepared for the blindside. The other big story beats are interesting and engaging, though it can border on embarrassing how easily galaxy-wide turmoil is wrapped up, or how quickly old friends make themselves scarce (hello David... bye David...) But I give Mass Effect 3 a pass largely due to the fact that it had a lot of ground to cover and variables to account for. Honestly, the one thing I cannot overlook is how essential the DLC is to the experience: Javik, the Leviathan, and the Citadel content all add some excellent flavor to the game's universe, and hiding the first two behind a $10 paywall is naked greed that spits in the faces of the fans.

I've read and understood plenty of arguments calling Mass Effect 3 a disappointment, but it was always going to be hard reaching Mass Effect 2's heights. 2 was a connective story that had a lot of freedom, whereas 3 had to play it by the rules and wrap up any loose ends. How well it does this depends on what characters you've grown attached to, how fascinating you find a galaxy-wide war, and whether or not you're okay with Shepard's dialogue options getting massively pared down (goodbye middle choice!). Beyond that (and the ending [and the crushing seriousness of the war]) there's not that much to hate. The character writing is as sharp as its ever been, the planets and vistas are genuinely jaw-dropping, and the gameplay remains fun long after you've downed your 1000th Cerberus lackey. Mass Effect 3's reputation may be visibly troubled, but the game is a solid product that—at its worst—occasionally skirts mediocrity.


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Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Division - Thoughts

I have no idea where I stand on Ubisoft's The Division. My biggest roadblock to forming an opinion is that the game performs abysmally on my computer for some reason. I met the game's specifications—an i5-6600K, GTX 970, 8 GB of RAM—but my playthrough was rotten with unloaded assets, to the point that The Division wouldn't even allow me to take cover behind its low poly vehicles. I bumped my settings down as low as they could possibly go but it wasn't a cure-all: Times Square was still littered with incomplete shapes and menu icons outright refused to load even after a minute of waiting. I'd classify my time spent with the game as "fun", but I can't overstate how frustrating it is to play something that "kinda sorta works but not really".

The biggest (non-graphical) hurdle to getting into The Division is that it's missing a unique, gratifying hook. The first Destiny had the same exact problem—the gorgeous exterior belied a shallow interior devoid of a compelling plot. The campaign supports over twenty hours of playtime, but by that point you'll have seen almost most of what the game has to offer. That includes abilities, weapons, enemies, locations, and modes—basically everything barring the DLC content and raids. And while I was curious about the latter, one youtube video was all it took to extinguish my fascination; The Division's raids still looked to be in their formative years.

Plus, the game is all but dead in 2020. My only expedition into the tense and chaotic Dark Zone—an area where players were allowed to kill one another for loot—was so anticlimactic that I didn't bother trying it again. Nary a single other player showed up to waylay my team; in fact, I didn't encounter another player (besides my brother) outside of the hub area for my entire playthrough. Even the traditionally boisterous chat box was inhabited solely by Chinese players dropping dubious hyperlinks. There's a chance people were hanging out in the max level zones, but my desire to play the game vanished well before I could get there.

The main reason why I didn't want to continue is that The Division is shamelessly repetitive. There's only a handful of mission types and enemy factions, all of which blend together after a while into a lukewarm "shoot guy in hoody" broth. The Division taught me something important thing about my tastes: I really dislike shooters where similar-sized humanoids are your only enemy. Specialized foes are denoted by an icon next to their health (like a grenade for a grenadier) but you still approach them the same way you tackle everybody else. It's probably the reason why I never fell in love with franchises like Uncharted or Call of Duty—I can only handle two hours of shooting dudes in the head before I start to get bored.

Like with Destiny, the polished gameplay at least helps to obscure the repetition. The absolute coolest thing (which was accentuated for me after recently playing the Mass Effect games) is that going to and from cover is as natural as slipping on a pair of loafers. Entrenched enemies are easily countered by zig-zagging your way around bits of cover to flank them, a process made effortless thanks to the way the A button auto-sends you to wherever you're looking. If you haven't played The Division before, you don't know what you're missing; playing without this system feels as cumbersome as not being able to move and shoot at the same time. Being able to vault over a car and dash into nearby cover, without a worry that the controls will muck up your actions, is The Division's greatest strength bar none.

The gunplay is excellent as well, but not nearly as varied as I would've liked. Once I found the 100 bullet magazine LMG, I had no incentive to switch off from it even when I found weapons of a higher level. And I don't think it's because the LMG was perfect for me as much as sniper rifles and shotguns didn't have the stopping power I wished they had. Every single enemy in The Division is shockingly tanky, demanding up to a full magazine of damage to drop. The most effective method, in my experience, was loading an extended magazine onto my LMG and stabilizing my sights over the enemy's noggin, allowing me to drop an elite baddie in one go if they remained stationary. I came to adore the LMG's ferocity during my time with The Division, but it was largely a bonding out of necessity, not choice.

Likewise, I appreciate how many abilities are crammed into the game, though I felt little to no need to experiment. The problem is that enemies are as dangerous as they are beefy, requiring you to focus on 1) healing allies and 2) stunning foes. And with only three ability slots available to you (one of which is on a ~10 minute timer), you're likely going to prioritize things like a full heal over a minimal damage boost while in cover. Thankfully you can choose which heal you prefer and which stun you like (I was a big fan of the flashbang roly-polies), but once you find your winning combination it's easy to forget about the other options entirely.

I jumped into The Division to preface myself for The Division 2, and I don't really regret doing so. It was kind of a dumb idea since my game ran like crap, and they're mostly similar experiences anyway (yet another apt Destiny comparison!), but I liked seeing The Division's bold blueprint for an MMO FPS devoid of class types. I also enjoyed unearthing the game's pitiful shortcomings, thanks in large part to the ingenious cover system that kept the combat engaging even when the missions were not. It's tragic that the first game in the series is little more than a bygone relic of... four years ago, but having played The Division myself, I totally understand why it was ultimately abandoned.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team - Thoughts

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is a decent RPG infested with text boxes. What's great about it is that it's bright, light-hearted, and fairly creative... none of which alleviate the text box plague. The animations are fluid and lively—unlike the text boxes—and the game is surprisingly challenging, which helps to keep the combat exciting—though I can't say the same about the text boxes. Beyond that however, there's not much left to praise; honestly there's quite a lot to bemoan, like... what was it? Oh yeah, text boxes! And if you want to shout "look, I get it!" well... let's just say we're just getting started.

Because it's hard to refrain from shouting "look, I get it!" the entire game. Dream Team is downright mired in superfluous dialogue every other screen. You're saddled with not one but two chatty caretakers, neither possessing characteristics beyond being short tempered. People thought Navi was unbearable, but her prompts were mostly optional; Dream Team's aides are far more similar to Fi from The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, taking every opportunity possible to point out the most obvious stuff in the world. I know to press the R button to access my abilities, I know a red button should be hit with a hammer, I know the one path I can go down is literally where I need to go! And it's not just endless tutorialization—your guides tell you what to do every step of the way so that you're practically on rails for the entire of the game.

Plus the game is long too. Mario & Luigi titles occupy this sweet spot of being action RPGs not only in style but length, rarely lasting beyond 24 hours. But when I had eclipsed a full day of play time in Dream Team, I still had two large zones to explore with god knows how many text boxes lying in wait. And still—still!—the game had the nerve to explain what a shortcut was at the 30 hour mark! I found myself hoping the experience would end soon, not just so I could play something else, but because it was impossible to have fun. There's just no feasible way to make a Mario & Luigi game endearing for this length of time: the simplistic story line doesn't support the play time, locales & obstacles become repetitive, and the combat system loses its luster the longer you engage with it.

Everything else in Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is decent for the most part, though each of the game's positives come with their own negatives. The delightful animations are probably the best part about the game, although it's not like the charming art style was absent in previous entries. Combat is as engaging as it's always been, but the endgame boils down to "spam your best Bros. Attack on annoying enemies/bosses, jump on everything else." The colorful foes and their tricky counterattacks are fun, but there's roughly two enemy types per area, which gets stale incredibly quickly. The lore behind Pi'illo Island is mildly interesting, but the main villain is dull, forgettable, and takes a backseat to Bowser (snore). And the dream sections provide a brilliant idea blueprint, continuing the gameplay dichotomy introduced in Bowser's Inside Story but giving it a clever twist. However, Dream Team barely does anything with this concept, which is a damn shame.

Diving into Luigi's dreams to explore his version of reality is promising ground for some humorous hijinks, but the game treats it as a simple 2-D mirror of the zone you were just in. Dream-version of allies manifest to aid you, but they're exactly like their real world counterpart, and even "Dreamy Luigi" still uses the same old Luigi sprite. In certain rooms Luigi can control the background to give Mario more traversal options, or multiply himself to provide Mario... more traversal options, but that's the extent of the "dreaminess" the game delves into. Combat is nearly identical—which is a huge disappointment considering in the last game you could control Bowser—and the giant dream boss battles look nice but are WAY too goddamn long! Like, there's no RPG elements involved in them, so why would Alpha Dream make them last over twenty minutes?!

I also have some major gripes about the final boss (it was the worst endgame struggle I've had since Final Fantasy III on DS), but my agitation for this entry has reached its limit. All I'll say is that giving a boss the ability to 1) become invulnerable, 2) heal nearly 20% of their health, and 3) spawn enemies that provide the boss immunity until they're dispatched, is a bunch of bull—especially since there's no limitation on how often this ability can be spammed! Halfway through my first attempt on this colossal pain in the ass, they re-used this ability until they healed back to full health—and there was nothing I could do! A day later and I'm still flabbergasted at this absurdly obnoxious design choice.

I've complained a lot about Mario & Luigi: Dream Team in large part because I've always been a fan of the series. I adore the first game on GBA and think highly of Bowser's Inside Story (the second game is ok). But all Mario & Luigi: Dream Team did for me was affirm that I'm not interested in picking up Paper Jam any time soon. There's still a lot to like about the game, and a few moments that will elicit a good chuckle, but the slow pace coupled with a crushing length is a poisonous combination. Throw in a drought of enemy variety, a poorly explored dream premise, and an asteroid belt worth of text boxes, and suddenly Dream Team takes Mario & Luigi from a great alternative to Paper Mario to "maybe only play it if you're a fan... a fan with plenty of time on their hands."

Images obtained from:,,,,