Video Game Ranting

From Out of Nowhere: Seven Kingdoms 2 HD

sk2hd I had just mentioned in a previous post how every game from the last twenty years was getting a remake of some kind. I just happened upon this one when I noticed that GOG.com was giving me a free update to a game. Little did I know that one of my favorite strategy games of all time was getting an HD remake with some new features, new support (a new patch has just been released), and the music finally works (the previous version offered by GOG.com had some problems there).

But what is this Seven Kingdoms 2, and why are their more than seven kingdoms you can play?

The first Seven Kingdoms was released in 1997, when RTS games were entering their heyday. Command & Conquer, Warcraft, Starcraft, and Age of Empires ruled the scene and featured fast-paced base building, direct control over villager/peon/constructor units to gather multiple resources, and, aside from a smattering of diplomacy and “trade” in some cases, you sent your assortment of units into the fray and hoped they came out of battle victoriously.

Seven Kingdoms was one of the first RTS games to feature elements more common to turn-based strategy games, like a more robust diplomacy system, enhanced and functional trade for resources, and even espionage. Combat was straight forward with just a few types of units and you made critical decisions in real time.

Seven Kingdoms 2: The Fryhtan Wars is the sequel and features a 3D terrain engine, several more human cultures, and the ability to play the evil Fryhtans, which appeared in the first game as monsters who hoarded treasure. In the sequel, they boast one of the most notable new features. The Fryhtan cultures each have their own distinct feel and abilities, but otherwise they are more combat oriented, so they provide a nice change of pace from the more involved gameplay of the human cultures.

Human gameplay revolves around trade, combat, research, and espionage, most which have received upgrades from the previous game. Trade for resources is essentially the same. Build a mine to gather raw materials. Build a factory to make refined products. Sell them at a market to your own people or to other kingdoms via trade caravans. This trade opens up more diplomacy where you can make friends, allies, or enemies, and even make some money selling excess food, or pay tribute to keep an aggressive neighbor at bay. sk2gameplay Combat has been revamped significantly. You train soldiers at forts, which also can serve as defenses with their missile towers, and as you keep soldiers in forts they gain more skill in combat to become better fighters, or even in leadership to become good generals or even kings if your current one dies. Each kingdom also has a unique unit that represents its cultural heritage such as Egyptian chariots or Celtic druids, and a unique deity to summon occasionally whose temple also provides a unique bonus. Combat is relatively simple, with no rock-paper-scissor mechanics worry about. However, a mix of ranged attacks and melee allows for some tactical variations and other machines of war like catapults, cannons, and more can be researched and built to augment your forces. Hero units and carry-able artifact that provide bonuses and abilities also provide a unique way to specialize your units.

Research also leads to other things besides new war machines, unlike its predecessor, like improved unit tactics and better espionage skills. Espionage is one of this series’ most notable features, and few other games, if any, have developed anything similar that can even compare. In this game you train spies that can infiltrate other kingdoms and towns where they can create unrest, steal technology, sabotage buildings, or even become soldiers and generals. From there they can bribe other units into your web of spies, or attempt to assassinate enemy generals or even kings. The most prestigious achievement in this game’s espionage is to have your spy become promoted to an enemy general. With that general/spy or any other you can assassinate the enemy king, and have your own spy become the new king. With that you can turn over control of an entire kingdom to your own, all without having to fight a single battle.

There are a couple of drawbacks. First of all, there are no oceans and seas like in the previous game which means no new continents to discover full of untapped resources or undiscovered kingdoms to befriend or fight. I will say that once you get fully involved in the gameplay, you won’t even notice a lack of water since things keep moving pretty briskly. New towns emerge, as well as new kingdoms, and you’ll be zig zagging across the map in pursuit of new acquisitions and resources. There are also impassible mountain ranges that can alter the composition of the random maps, but there is still nothing like sending a fleet of ships across an ocean to engage in battle or carry villagers to new lands.

Secondly, the included campaign mode is mostly just random maps with some occasional objectives and the story it follows is not memorable. Still, it offers something like Rise of Nation’s world domination campaign, so it’s worth one or two play throughs.

Overall, this game is a jack of all trades and truly a master of none (except espionage, where it excels!!!). It is, though, a master of being a jack of all trades. Very few games have succeeded in providing this much gameplay. Rise of Nations and Sins of a Solar Empire come to mind as the only other games that have had success with this type of gameplay. Still, Seven Kingdoms 2 carves out its own niche that neither one of those games can claim. It’s great to see one of my favorite strategy games from the past get a glorious HD makeover (well… makeover is a little strong, but it still looks good). Maybe there is more in store for the future of this series, but even if not, there is a lot here that I have been missing. You can find this gem either at GOG.com, or on Steam. sk2title

Homeworld Remastered is Here

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It seems like every game is getting remade nowadays. The Curse of Monkey Island got one. Tomb Raider got one. Age of Empires 2 got one. Even Baldur’s Gate got one. So it was only a matter of time before a high profile series like Homeworld got one.

Released in 1999, and spawning a stand alone expansion and a sequel, the Homeworld series is a fully 3D real time strategy experience that features a free moving camera in an outer space environment where you can watch your space ships pew pew each other in glorious freedom. At the time, its interface was revolutionary and allowed you to zoom and twist your camera to view the gameplay in unrestricted ways.

Now that it has been remastered, you can play this game on modern rigs and relive the days when this game was an RTS king. The graphics are wonderful, and combined with its top notch story and production values, you’ll get a beautiful tour through the galaxy.

My original experience with the game was hampered by a PC that couldn’t handle the graphics. I had to choose between poor graphics or poor gameplay and eventually gave up on both. Now I can finally sink my teeth into both and still get updated features. Furthermore, Homeworld Remastered includes the sequel so you can go all the way with the story, and even the original games if nostalgia bites you.

The gameplay is just as you remember (Almost. The first game has been remastered with the sequel’s engine, which alters certain features accordingly). In fact, I actually got bored with the first couple of missions because they were just like before.

Speaking of gameplay, it is of the RTS kind, which features the same kind of rock-paper-scissors unit assortment you’d expect with various weaknesses and advantages. The focus, however, isn’t on base building and complex resource gathering, but rather showcases tactics. Most of the time you must manage your resources and units carefully from mission to mission as you don’t always get the chance to rebuild everything from scratch.

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This kind of gameplay works well in the 3D environment, which is good, because that’s about all there is to the game. Tactical engagements are the main focus here. Build your units, send them to battle, and watch them fly around space. This means that your time will feel bipolar, switching often between slow resource gathering and manic battle.

At the time of this game’s original release, this was great since it’s interface and graphics were second to none. Now, we have games like Sins of a Solar Empire which feature the same kind of gameplay, but with added features from turn based strategy games that really flesh out the whole experience. Homeworld’s gameplay isn’t bad, it’s just very focused, which can seem limited compared to today’s offerings.

I still have fun exploring the story, and the wonderful soundtrack and graphics really sell the game. Even the skirmish mode adds some intense gaming sessions. Most of the time I still find myself yearning for more complex gameplay after a while.

Add Homeworld Remastered to your list of anniversary, HD, enhanced versions of classic games. It’s a fun game to play through, especially if you missed out on it over a decade ago. Don’t expect anything groundbreaking compared to what we have now. Homeworld already did that back in the day. This ride is purely for nostalgia’s sake.

Star Wars: TIE Fighter is on GOG.com

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Released by Lucas Arts and Totally Games in 1994, Star Wars: TIE Fighter is the excellent sequel to Star Wars: X-Wing, and one of the best games ever released in the entire Star Wars franchise. It’s combination of story, gameplay, and production values make it a winner to this day, and you can get it now on GOG.com.

I remember playing X-Wing and it was a dream come true. Long had I desired the chance to experience what it would be like in the cockpit of a starfighter, and that game have me that chance to carrry out daring raids and rescue missions to my heart’s content. Then came along TIE Fighter, and I wasn’t too keen on it. It was about the bad guys…  

I was such a good kid.

Once I delved into TIE Fighter, I was entranced. There was more of everything. More variety in the missions and spacecraft, advanced weapons, tractor beams, better graphics, brand new starfighters to test, there was always something new to experience. And my qualms about flying for the enemy quickly dissolved since I got to fight lawless pirates and Imperial traitors just as often as I got to fly against that Rebel scum.
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Superficially, TIE Fighter is a space combat flight simulator. You spend most of the game in a cockpit tweaking your joystick, shield and weapon settings, and blessing target after target out of the stars. However, there is so much more going on than this. While you may spend time flying around outer space shooting things, there is also a larger story going on around you, and you always seem to be in the epicenter.

The story of TIE Fighter is what really makes it shine, and it’s one of the first Star Wars games to draw extensively to the Expanded Universe while also contributing significantly itself. Grand Admiral Thrawn, Lord Vader, and even the Emperor himself have designs and plans that involve you. By the end of the game, not only are you a hot shot pilot to rival the Skywalker clan, but about half of the Empire owes you a favor due to your fancy flying. Whether you are uncovering conspiracies or protecting the Emperor himself, you’re always uncovering more and more story.
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Missions are presented to you in the form of objectives, and most of the primary objectives you face are relatively straightforward and sometimes challenging. It’s the secondary goals, or even the elusive bonus goals that will keep you on the edge of your seat in order to defy the odds to inspect that one container before it gets torpedoed, or trying to keep your craft together through wave after wave fierce opposition so you can identify that mysterious shuttle at the mission’s end.

These things aren’t necessary, but they add a great value to the gameplay, and since most missions rarely replay exactly the same way, you’re bound to get some replay value. Furthermore, there are always tidbits of story presented to you between missions, or even in f un little FMVs that show informing cutscenes. Their quality is rather dubious nowadays, but they’re still well made and worth a view if you want to keep up with the Byzantine inner workings of Imperial intrigue.
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I have one quibble with the version of the game I got from GOG.com.  First, I must say I’ve been a fan of that site for years and they work diligently to bring us updated versions of classic games that run on our modern rigs, and my complaint in no way regards the folks there.

For the price of one, you get two versions, the original 1994, and an updated 1998 release that features updated textures and orchestral music by John Williams as featured in the next installment in the series, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter. At first, these sound like a bonus, and in a way they are.

However, the 1996 CD ROM version of TIE Fighter is the one I grew up with. Though its Gouraud Shading isn’t as accurate as the newer textures when compared to the films, its metallic-ish sheen was sleeker, and in my opinion aged a bit better. Also, the original soundtrack was outstanding as well, and it reacted to events in the game to alter the musical mood accordingly. It’s a shame that the effort invested into those amazing features is overridden by the version we have now, but maybe the Good Old Games team will get that for us sometime down the road.

Overall, it’s been great to revisit one of the best games of my childhood, one of the best games ever. It’s synthesis of features gives one of the most engrossing, satisfying experiences a PC gamer could ever ask to have.  So get out there and clear the galaxy of those filthy pirates, insidious traitors, and that ever irritating Rebel scum.

The Saga of Crusader Kings 2

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Crusader Kings 2, released by Paradox Interactive in 2012, is a grand strategy game in which you choose a person, from count to king, and lead him and his descendants through the medieval era through wars, intrigue, and rivalries against hundreds of other in-game personalities. Sound overwhelming?

It is.

And this game isn’t my first rodeo, but it is where I finally managed to rope the bull or whatever. I began several years ago when I picked up Europa Universalis 3 on a whim. I was intrigued but quickly overwhelmed. I returned when Europa Universalis: Rome was released. It and its expansion Vae Victis entranced me with the ancient Mediterranean setting.

I finally got Crusader Kings 2 on Steam, where you have access to all kinds of medieval methods to victory, and this game is the best iteration of this formula I’ve yet played.

For example, in my recent game I played as The Republic of Venice, or more specifically as House Participazio, a patrician family of power among others in the republic. When I wasn’t the Doge, I could still lead my family with a great deal of independence. I made it my mission early on to establish myself in southern Italy.

This led to centuries of on and off war with the Byzantine Empire. They were a looming giant in my game and there were several wars between us and we each had our share of wins and losses. In fact, after one war, my leader lost all but two counties to the Byzantines. That was about two centuries of work. But I didn’t give up.

My leader, who also became Doge, exacted his revenge with assassins. After about five Byzantine emperors fell to my scheming,, and several heirs too the empire finally fell into disarray and civil war. That’s when I regained my lost territories, but my assassinations continued with other European leaders, which led to the strange of affair of Ireland becoming a Europe-spanning kingdom for a brief time.

You see, you may be the only player, but all of the other in game personalities are carrying on, too, with getting married, getting killed, plotting rebellions, or being possessed by devils. Somehow my series of assassinations royally screwed up some successions and once Bulgaria regained its territory, it held sway over most of Ireland for the rest of the game.

Byzantium, too, defied history. Turks never came, and the Greeks converted to Catholicism. Thus anytime the east posed a threat, the west was happy to help their brothers under the cross, and a great foe never emerged to challenge the Greeks. Maybe if the Byzantines had really converted…

Oh and then there was the Aztec invasion of Spain and Norway. Even after they were repulsed, lingering Mesoamerican culture continued to influence those areas until the end of the game. Yes, Aztecs.
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By the end of the game, Venice controlled the lower half of Italy, but it had survived several dire moments. I may not have conquered the world, but the experience was better than anything.

I can even export my game to Europa Universalis 4 and continue this alternate world into the modern era, however the converter is currently not functioning with new patches as of December 2014. But, hey, at least this game continues to get patches and expansions. Lots of them.

And that’s where this game really succeeds. I’ve played several strategy games from the Civilization series and it’s spinoffs to some of the Total War series, and even some RTSs like the Age of Empires series, but very few of those games have come close to matching the varied and rewarding gameplay in Crusader Kings 2.
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As I get older I’m less interested in material or superficial things, and in my games I look for experiences that will last for more than a quick trip to the victory screen at the end of a thirty minute game. You may spend most of your time looking at maps, but Crusader Kings 2 tickles a certain strategy fancy in the most fully satisfying way.

Civilization: Beyond Earth, Alpha Centauri’s Successor?

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Released just last week, Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth is the newest addition to the Civilization game series. For over two decades the series has brought us world domination realness in the form of turn-based gameplay that has evolved as much as we have throughout history. Now Beyond Earth (BE) presents us a vision of the future, like we’ve never seen it before. Kind of.

BE takes place in our future after an ominous tragedy, The Great Mistake, of ambiguous nature. Regardless of its causes or circumstances, the result is that humanity is reaching out through interstellar space to colonize a new home for humanity, and you get to choose your faction, your roots, your hopes, your plans for humanity’s future, and your ultimate method of victory.

The options are numerous upon start up, with each faction based on a different backstory and culture/nation/region/philosophy. You get to customize your game bonuses to suit your style, or in true pioneering fashion randomize the bonuses and deal with the randomness like a pro. From there, you choose your technologic research from a web which gives you flexibility in your path. Focus one direction and reap the benefits of advanced tech, but miss out on other benefits if you research more broadly. Research too broadly and you may miss out on technological wonders that provide bonuses to your factions.
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Engage in trade and espionage to reap more income and production bonuses for your colony, or steal research, techonology, or even sabotage with your spies. These additions were added via expansion to Civ 5, and I’m glad that they were added to the base game instead of being withheld.

As you play random events occur that are actually quests which give you choices that will affect you for the rest of the game. I really enjoyed this feature. Random events always provide a nice meta-challege to strategy games, and the choices you’re given really give you a chance to roleplay your faction or tweak your stats.

There are numerous paths to victory, some of them based on your “affinities” which are essentially philosophical paths you determine as you play. You don’t have to choose one, but you won’t get the best bonuses if you diversify too much (like with the tech web), and reaching a certain level with them opens up more victory conditions.

The game’s factions are pretty interesting as well, though many of their bonuses are left to the player upon startup. I enjoyed the international diversity they presented, but it wasn’t until late game that any motivations game to the forefront as each colony ventures farther into their affinities which can upset other faction leaders. For instance, in my game some were horrified at my attempt at harmony with the planet, and despite my eventual victory via transcendence, I can imagine watching my people evolve into some alien-human hybrid species was disturbing.

Lastly, the game’s environment was sufficiently alien and while I eventually “decoded” the tiles to see forests and deserts and plains, it retained its foreign-ness. On the other hand, the color palette was a bit too terrestrial and “pretty”.

Overall, there are so many options and configurations that replay value is tremendous, perhaps one of the best in the series.

Having said all that, it is time to acknowledge the elephant in the room: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri is one of my favorite games. Ever.

In fact, every Civilization game since has let me down in some way, with Civ 4 and Civ 5 each getting close to the mark in different ways. Beyond Earth gets the closest, but there is something about SMAC that just hasn’t yet been reiterated in a superior way.

Here are some notes:

  • The factions are richer, more detailed, more motivated. It was easier to love and/or hate them.
  • Wonder movies! The FMVs that played upon completion of the secret projects were almost more rewarding than the gameplay bonuses provided. They were well produced and featured in game lore that really fleshed out the experience by exploring the philosophical depths that the factions were faced with while colonizing a new world and dictating our future.
  • Immersion, immersion, immersion. From the numerous data windows, graphs, faction leader profiles that always scrolled throughout the interfaces, to the interludes that narrated developments in the game world, SMAC really drew you in. Beyond Earth came close with its voiceovers and quests, but SMAC still takes the cake on this one.
  • Unit designer! I’m sure the Civ 5 engine Beyond Earth isn’t suited for this kind of thing, and upgrades are implemented cleanly if a bit too simply, but the ability to design almost every component of a unit from armor and chassis, to weapon and special ability was amazing. Customizing your troop to engage against alien lifeform units or breaking international law by equipping nerve gas pods hasn’t been matched in the Civ series by a long shot.
  • Planetary Council! While I appreciate the developers for integrating so many features into the base game, you know that an expansion is inevitable, and I can just see that being voted Supreme Leader of the council will be added in a future pack. The planetary council was an amazing asset to SMAC that has actually been added in other (inferior) ways in the Civ games. What was great about SMAC’s version wasn’t just the diplomacy, it was also being able to vote on world policy such as banning or allowing atrocities, or even melting polar ice caps! Such a dastardly thing to do if you manage to protect your bases with domes that repel the rising seas while everyone else in the world drowns. I hope this makes a triumphant return to Beyond Earth.
  • Numerous gameplay options such as Blind Research (don’t choose specific techs, just broad categories and deal with the future tech realness!), though the randomizing of Beyond Earth’s options does shake up things quite well.

Beyond Earth does feature virtues, similar to Civ 5’s trees of culture-based bonuses. These fleshed out the values of your culture and gave you bonuses, but nothing has ever come close to the give-and-take that was involved in SMAC’s social engineering. While you could customize your society to be a Cybernetic Democracy with Green economics, there were drawbacks with each option.

Playing with different combinations to get the right balance of bonuses and penalties was much more fun that choosing from straight up bonuses. While helpful to gameplay, the trees reminded me too much of an MMORPG, and just reinforced the depth present in SMAC that developers seem to have been shying away from for the past decade.

Overall, SMAC was a deeply engrossing experience with so much packed into it that it took me years to peel away the layers of complexity. An expansion was also released for that game which added a few new improvements and new factions, but overall SMAC stood on its own without the X Pac, but that was a time when expansions, though common, were never a promise. Now it is all but a given, with only the most terrible of games missing that opportunity. How times change.
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While SMAC remains a treasure in my heart that will likely never be replaced, Beyond Earth is one of the most promising efforts to live up to such a magnificent legacy. In these days of neverending expansion packs, I look forward to my adventures beyond earth to be enriched with more sci-fi strategy goodness, but until then I have one hell of a base game to play, and that is more that can be said for many top tier titles nowadays.

By the way, get Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri at Gog.com.

The Sims 4: Evolution

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In the deep past of the Earth, there were millions of years of all kinds of life. A common point of reference is the age of the dinosaurs, a time when large, kingly beasts roamed the world and competed for food and shelter and sexual dominance. Unfortunately, the dinosaurs’ days were numbered, through no fault of their own. Smaller, more versatile animals became the order of the day in order to survive harsh climate changes, catastrophes, and so on. While it’s easy to think of evolution as things getting bigger, better, grander, more expansive, there comes a time when things can get too large to continue to sustain, and a new method of survival must be adapted.

The Sims 4 has been released recently by EA (Electronic Arts) and Maxis. It’s received numerous acclaims to its new mechanics, and at least as many complaints about features missing from the gameplay. If you’ve played a Sims sequel before, then you know the drill. You get a brand new base game stripped of all expansion content, some new features are added that are specific to the sequel as a sign of progress. Then you have to wait over the next few years for all of your favorite content to come back one way or another in the form of re-imagined expansion packs.

The problem many are having with The Sims 4 is that, compared to The Sims 3, there are many lapses in content and choices of gameplay mechanics that seem to be a step backward. Some content, like life stages such as toddlers, and Sim amenities like swimming pools, dishwashers, mail men, firemen, just to name a few, are absent with no promises that they’ll return. Another major issue is the return of loading screens, a feature met with revulsion by most Simmers who have a long standing history of associating loading screens with interminable waiting time, in favor of the open world of The Sims 3.

What is going on here with The Sims series’ newest entry, and why does it seem so… low on its needs?

 

The Sims 3

Let’s look back briefly at the previous entry. It was a polarizing experience upon its release as new things always are, but it boasted a brand new open world feature. While people complained of rabbit holes (buildings with no interiors), the world was mostly open to you at a given time, and at first this was the biggest selling point for me. While I greatly enjoyed The Sims 2, it was exhausting sitting through lengthy loading screen after loading screen just to change lots. It was a huge damper of the flow of the game, and made me want to avoid all travel sadly. So for me, the open world meant smoother, less interrupted gameplay more than anything else.

There was, however, that initial loading screen that continued to slow down as more and more expansions were added. I was looking at upward of five minutes of loading sometimes. Craziness. The expansions began slowly with their attempt to interest me (World Travel and Ambitions were neat but meh), finally hooking me me like a fish with a few strong entries (Late Night, Seasons, and Generations), and then leaving me a litter underwhelmed the rest of the time.
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At the end of the day, the problem I ran into with the Sims 3 is that I had access to a lot of content, but none of the “neighborhoods” or “towns” could ever support my attempt to access all the content at once. My favorite town was Late Night’s Bridgeport, a gorgeous Manhattan-esque theme city with urban apartments and suburban dream homes. Good luck, however, trying to play Bridgeport with your Werewolf guitarist, who also moonlights as a solo singer, provides interior design tips, dabbles in horseback riding, time travel with his dog, and Egyptology, all while taking care of his multi-generational family, who run a succesful resort hotel while attending college. There simply was no room on the map for all those things at once, and even if there were, the initial loading time would have been tremendous and the gameplay full of stutters and freezes. No fun.

The open world was an impressive feature, but also a liability.

The Sims 4
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There’s little to say about The Sims 4 that hasn’t been said by others already, but it’s fair to say I was skeptical once I discovered just how many features were missing. Sure, the inevitable expansion packs will replenish the Sim world with opportunity and variety again, but it’s hard not to feel that you’re doing without. And yes, The Sims 4 does have new core mechanics that stream line gameplay. Sims can multitask, loading screens are back but they are thankfully a percentage of a fraction of the loading time of previous entries. The world, despite not being open, is still beautifully detailed, even if it’s nothing more than a backdrop. What The Sims 4 really provides us, unless the developers “eff it up” is a chance to a better future for this game.

The Sims 4 doesn’t start out with itself painted into a corner, but at the start of a long road. The game world can now be added onto easily and modularly, which indicates that as new features are added you won’t have to stop your gameplay in Sunset Valley to play your superstar Sim in Starlite Shores, or switch to a different map for your ghost hunting witch. You can just click and go. Hopefully.

The Sims 4 may not be the behemoth that The Sims 3 was, but at least it won’t collapse under its own weight. It’s a more stripped down, versatile entry. It’s more evolved in that it doesn’t have unnecessary features tying it down. Humans no longer have tails, and we don’t lament that fact because we currently have no use for them. Evolution is about what makes things better for the future, though it can sometimes be very difficult to let go of the past.

Mass Effect: Things That Didn’t Make the Short List

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There was just so much I had to cover in reviewing Mass Effect that I resisted geeking out on every single thing I liked. So here’s a list of other parts of Mass Effect I liked in no particular order.

1. Marina Sirtis as Matriarch Benezia! Marina effing Sirtis! Okay, so she still sounded like Troi, but it was still awesome.

2. Driving the Mako was more fun that I’d like to admit.

3. I kind of regretted playing an engineer because the biotic abilities look like a lot of fun.

4. The music that played aboard the SSV Normandy was just incredible.

5. The weird montages that played when the Prothean beacon transmitted stuff into Shepard’s mind were really kind of disturbing.

6. I wanted to see a Prothean.

7. I couldn’t stop thinking of Kaidan Alenko as Carth Onasi from KOTOR once I figured out the same voice actor did both.

8. I used the rocket launcher thing maybe about 10 times.

So there are some random things I liked or that occured to me while playing. List some of your own, if you like.

Mass Effect Review: Pouty-Lips Jane’s Regrets and My Satisfaction

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I finished Mass Effect the other day. I usually need some time after a good book, TV series, or good game to ruminate on my thoughts and feelings. Depending on the extent of said feelings, sometimes I have a bit more to sift through. Video games can be complex sometimes, with Mass Effect combining experiences of a great novel, an engaging TV series, and cramming those together into a video game.

At the end of the day, I almost regret not playing Mass Effect earlier. It has two sequels now that are practically begging to be played (in fact, I’ve already started Mass Effect 2 at the time of writing this since Pouty-Lips just wouldn’t shut up about it). Had I played it earlier, I may have had much more time to replay, and re-replay the game, exhausting all options of stories, then replaying others to remind myself of their conclusions.

Released in 2007, it’s hard to believe so much time has passed since then. Until I saw some of the textures. It’s true the graphics are not up to par, but I was surprised that some of the textures seemed a bit muddy, mostly clothing. It was easy to get distracted by the rather beautiful graphics shown by the characters faces. I can tell Bioware spent a fair effort in making sure the faces, even the most alien ones like Wrex, were “alive” enough to warrant some kind of engagement.

Otherwise, the graphics did their job quite well in most other ways, and I can certainly see myself booting up this game again and not being turned off by the older graphics engine, and part of me can’t wait. While I consider myself a junkie for PC RPGs, I rather enjoyed the fast-paced gameplay presented here. The 3rd-person running and gunning kept me on my toes and didn’t get too cumbersome, even if it flatlined in terms of complexity about half way through.

Mixing in the vehicular combat via the Mako, turned out to be a welcome change of pace in many of the missions, even if its controls were often a bit wonky. Learning the controls was all part of the fun, and we “older” gamers did our fair share of making due with terrible controls all through the 90’s in some cases.

The gameplay was well suited for experiencing the story and giving me a tour around the galaxy and the setting constructed for this experience. If there’s one thing Bioware does exceedingly well, it is that they know how to integrate the setting and gameplay so that you definitely feel like the game you’re playing is a “natural” way to experience the setting. Whether it’s an adapted setting (like D&D or the KOTOR games) or more original fare like Mass Effect, they rarely have left me feeling like my gameplay experience and the story or setting were disjointed in a game-breaking way.

The most attractive features to this game, for me, turned out to be the ones I was most skeptical about, and those are the setting and its story. I’m wary of sci-fi and fantasy settings in my games nowadays, because its been done so many times that they some times fail to feel exotic or fantastic as such settings should feel. Mass Effect did not fail here.
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Almost immediately (even character creation was immersive!) I enjoyed the setting, and all throughout I always anticipated “resuming my career” from my previous save to see what was next. Characters, mostly, really popped but this time Bioware outdid itself with its characters. Very few of them veer too far into the extremes of stock characters like the cutesy innocent type, or the clumsy but heart-warming type. No, in Mass Effect I felt like I was among like-minded professionals and felt they deserved some respect.

Perhaps it was the militaristic feel and backdrop, but the entire setting had a professional sense to it, and some may find this to be a bit stuffy or drab, but I quite enjoyed it. It reminds me of the professionalism seen in the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation compared to the swashbuckling style of Kirk & Kids from the Original Series. Again, some may be bored by it, but it was right up my alley.

There were a few points that didn’t quite sit well with me though, but nothing tragic. First of all, the inventory system was a mess. I actually felt anxiety when I got warnings that I was approaching some arbitrary maximum capacity. While the action based gameplay allowed for a bit more skill-based gameplay, it was nice to have some stat-juggling with the inventory and items. I just felt like I was acquiring gear for the entire crew of the Normandy, not just my squad mates, and having to take five or so minutes to sort through was distracting.
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In fact, despite the presence of numerous merchants, I never shopped in my play through. Not once. Maybe I missed some pretty good gear, but I wasn’t really hurting for it, and beat the game with what I picked up as loot.

Another minor off-key note was that the planetary exploration missions. I liked the whole concept and it really made me feel like I had some leeway to roam the galaxy. The side-quests issued by Admiral Whatshisname also feel inline with my character’s role in the fleet so that I didn’t feel like the objectives were too trivial compared to the main quest. However, the missions got a bit grindy and I’m glad they lasted only about 10 minutes or so.

Finally, the character customization was a bit underwhelming and I wound up with Jane having a nearly permanent duckface (and that’s not a type of alien I’m talking about) after I unwittingly boosted her lip size with space collagen or something. Just standing around, she reminded me of a sorority girl roaming around space stations looking for places to pose for a selfie.

#duckface #livindaspacelife #imaspectrebitchez
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Accompanying the setting were other great productions values like dazzling effects (though the mood lighting seemed a bit crazy sometimes, shining right though peoples’ heads), superb voice acting, and a wondrous soundtrack. The song that played over the ending credits (M4 by Faunts) chilled my spine and provided the adequate eargasm climax to this experience.

Aside from her sometimes humorous disfigurement, the story that Pouty-Lips Jane starred in was a rather good one. One of Bioware’s best perhaps, at least among its more recent games. There were no big surprises here, but it’s how it was done that impressed me so. Ancient foes returning from outside the galaxy, mind control, the greater good, it all came together in such a way that mixing in some character development and romance had me hooked liked some kind of TV show on Netflix. I just wanted to shotgun the whole thing, which I nearly did and had to force myself to slog through some of the side quests.

The branching storylines (Kaidan or Williams? How can I choose?!), Paragon/Renegade paths, and even multiple endings left me wanting to replay just to explore other options, and even regretting how I handled things at the end. The show must go on, however, and the ability to import Pouty Lips Jane Shepard into Mass Effect 2 means she has to deal with her regrets as well as whatever other galaxy-threatening problems pop up.  The structure was the tried and true 3-main locations for main quest/good or evil choices/romance chats/sidequests Bioware has perfected over the years, but it’s wheel that worked just fine on this road and needed no reinventing.

Quite early on, I realized that this was a more entertaining game that many TV shows I’ve tried to watch. I’m glad there are sequels to play, excited that I can replay it, and even surprised that gameplay elements I don’t normally associate with RPGs succeeded wildly in keeping me engaged while other typical RPG elements fell by the wayside. It’s modern classic to be sure.

If you’ve played this game, share some of your favorite memories or experiences from the game in the comments below. I’d love to hear about them!

And here’s some of that end credits goodness for you:

Now Playing: Mass Effect, First Impressions and Pouty-Lips Jane

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After my previous post which highlighted the history of Bioware’s RPGs, I finally broke down and got myself a copy of space opera Mass Effect. It had been the only series I hadn’t played, so I’m getting my chance to see what I was missing.

After a few adjustments to the graphics (the default settings were too low), I jumped into creating my first character. Having played plenty of Bioware games before, the process was familiar. I chose a female and used the default name Jane, and picked a class.

This is where my unfamiliarity with this series showed up. I had no idea what these classes were, but I guessed that tech, biotic, and combat were at least similar to soldier/rogue/wizard classes in other games. My only hang up was not being aware of how future party members’ skills would balance out with my own, but then I stopped thinking so much about it and chose an Engineer.

My final step was to customize the look of Jane Shepard (not Shepherd?) from assorted body types and facial structures. The mannequin provided during this process didn’t seem to accurately portray the adjustments made with my sliders, and as soon as I started the game, I was surprised to see Jane had quite a big kisser on her face. Seriously, her lips looked like they had some space age collagen. I think drag queens would be jealous of them. Overall, I could tell that the game was from 2007 since the options in customization weren’t as, ahem… fleshed out as newer titles.

I didn’t really have time to think about her huge lips much more because the story picks up right off the bat. I listened to some introductory dialogue, made my way through the first mission which also served as a tutorial, and saw a couple characters meet an early death.

By now I’m at least part way through the story, have all of the available party members, but have only used a few, and I’ve explored a few of the side quest planets.

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Overall, I’m enjoying the game. The setting is pretty slick so far, and I like that humans aren’t depicted as the primary species of the galaxy, but instead are newcomers (the rather arrogant aliens of the galaxy seen to have learned English rather quickly though).

Inventory and skill points are a simple affair, simpler than in KOTOR, and leave me plenty of time to experience the story. Perhaps, though, these features don’t seem inviting enough for me to care too much about them, but if I don’t see numbers and statistics out in the open to crunch on, then I won’t go looking for them.

The planetary explorations are pretty different and remind me of the Mechwarrior games from the 90’s, but only in superficial presentation. That’s not a bad thing, but I laugh constantly at the implausibility of the vehicle’s ability to traverse jagged terrain and, like a cat, always land on its feet, or wheels, or whatever.

Streamlined gameplay is the theme here, and I’m ready to see Pouty-Lips Jane save the galaxy. Stay tuned for any further updates about my play through, and the review when I finish.

Bioware Games: A Retrospective

I’ve been a fan (more or less) of Bioware since the dawn of the millennium. Okay, that makes it sound much longer than it really is, but it’s true. Now know as a powerhouse game developer, it’s easy to sit and wonder if Bioware can continue to hold up its reputation as a mastersmith of RPGs.

Some may say that since the founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk have retired that perhaps the studio has lost its spirit. Perhaps this is true. We don’t know what future holds for Bioware, but I certainly remember its past. So let’s take a look. It’s easy to divide this history into the three parts, which I’ll call: The Beginning, The Rise, and Success.

  • The Beginning

Baldur’s Gate Series (1998-2001)

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Baldur’s Gate is just one of those great gaming phenomenons that should never be forgotten. It not only resurrected an ailing RPG genre on PC (RPGs in the late 90s were dominated by consoles and were especially popular if they began with “F” and ended with “-antasy”), it introduced us to Bioware.

The series features gameplay based on Dungeons & Dragons rule sets, stellar character development, interactive party based tactical combat, epic plots, and overall awesomeness.  I still play these games to this day (which are currently experiencing a renaissance being released as the Enhanced Edition for PC, Android, and Mac).

Almost every RPG released is explicitly or implicitly compared to this series.

Neverwinter Nights (2002-2003)

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Following up on the heels of Baldur’s Gate and its Icewind Dale spinoffs was Neverwinter Nights. It featured a brand new 3D game engine and adopted D&D’s Third Edition rule set. The game also included developer tools for player-made content. This was supposed to provide a “modern” and flexible gameplay experience.

Unfortunately, things didn’t quite come together for this game. The storyline included in this game was bland, trite even, the graphics were never pretty, and everything lacked cohesiveness, so unfortunately lightning didn’t strike twice for Bioware on this one.

At least in those ways. Remember those development tools? They are still popular today, and the past decade has seen countless player-made campaigns and mods released. So in this way Neverwinter Nights is remarkable because few games after included such things.

Neverwinter Nights did spawn a sequel but its developer Obsidian Entertainment is different than Bioware, and likely deserves its own post.

Thus were Bioware’s beginnings established, and the farewell to this era was a hard one.

  • The Rise

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)

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So what’s the difference between a beginning and a rise? About nine years and a switch to console. 2003 saw the release of one of the biggest RPGs of all time in scope, ambition, success, and popularity. Bioware crafted a unique period of Star Wars history all to suit its purposes of providing us with an engaging story and to help dissolve the bitterness that George Lucas’ prequel films left on Star Wars fans’ palates.

Well, it worked. Even though it was eventually released to PC, I was playing more console games at the time, and let me tell you, this game was just incredible. It made Star Wars enjoyable again. It had a bit more complexity than NWN and had that essence of epicness that made Baldur’s Gate so good. It stood on its own confidently.

Baldur’s Gate may have been Bioware’s claim as masters of RPG development, but KOTOR was the confirmation.

Even today, KOTOR is seen as the new standard for RPGs much as Baldur’s Gate had been previously. Its new cinematic style, instead of isometric, is still favored today.

Jade Empire (2005)

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Surprisingly, Bioware didn’t pursue development of a KOTOR sequel (leaving that once again to Obsidian Entertainment) and instead focused its efforts on something different. That turned out to be Jade Empire, a martial arts themed action RPG. Almost mirroring NWN before it, Jade Empire features some differences from KOTOR that individually were superior, but failed to coalesce.

Superior graphics, a more open-ended storyline, and a martial arts combat system really set this game apart from its predecessors. I found it to be immensely enjoyable, even if it wasn’t quite as immersive as either Baldur’s Gate or KOTOR. Another stand-out feature that is even a controversial thing today is that same-sex romances were available for both genders.

That’s right. You could shack up with a dude or a chick as a dude or a chick. At the time, I wasn’t aware of these options, mostly because they weren’t broadcasted loudly, maybe to avoid negative press, but as a gaymer myself, I find this fact especially endearing. Even now, this romance feature is still met with a lot of resistance in current games because of stupid reasons, but that is material for another post.

Jade Empire proved to be more of a sidestep for Bioware, but it did provide a chance to flex its creative muscle when creating entirely unique settings instead of using D&D or Star Wars elements.

  • Success(?)

You’ll understand the question mark is a bit. After Jade Empire, Bioware embarked on it’s most profitable and controversial chapter yet.

Mass Effect (2007-2012)

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I haven’t played Mass Effect, to be honest, and I know that I should. In fact, it’s been on my short list for several weeks now. If only Steam would put it on sale…

Still, Mass Effect has three entries by now (rumors of a fourth abound, I bet), and this series has been both lauded and criticized for its features. A Sci-Fi action RPG, the game also included lots of mature character development.

It’s hard to be objective about a game I haven’t played, so let’s just say: I really want to play this game before I die. I am afraid of being letdown, though, since player complaints with latter installments of this series have been widely publicized.

Dragon Age Series (2009-2014)

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Truth: I only played the first one, Dragon Age: Origins. It was more my style than Mass Effect. It was labeled the spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate. It featured another unique setting and rule set from Bioware, and promised to be the beginning of an exciting new RPG franchise.

I gave this game a chance. I really did. It had a lot of great elements. The story (as much as I saw of it) seemed pretty good. I liked the characters even if they seemed more generic and filled general roles within the plot instead of having their own unique identities. The game even featured same-sex romances! (I was single at the time, so any kind of gay romance would have eased my lonliness).

DA:O kind of dropped the ball though. I didn’t really care for the combat system. The setting was a bit bleh. And the gay romance was with a minor character whom I thought was extremely annoying. Why couldn’t it have been one of the main character NPC’s?

I also heard the sequel was disappointing, which removed any desire to finish the first game. There is a sequel coming out this year, though, so I bet people are lining up in hopes it will be a good one. Not this guy. I appreciate what Bioware was trying to do here, but I feel like they lost their touch on this one. That may be why I’ve been hesitant to pick up the Mass Effect series.

Star Wars: The Old Republic (2011-present)

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Bioware finally went to the darkside and released an MMO. One of the biggest MMOs ever, in fact. And one of the biggest let downs. It went free-to-play relatively quickly, and they couldn’t quite convince me that they were doing so nonchalantly. It’s a copy and paste affair of MMO gameplay elements (i.e. a Star Wars skin for World of Warcraft), which a whole bunch of single player quests that really disrupt the flow of how MMOs play.

They even said they were including same gender romances, but back pedaled on that. So if you want to be out of the closet to the community around you in TOR, then you either have to be a chaste loner, or play a your opposite gender to snag a boyfriend or girlfriend.

No it’s not as big a deal as other failed aspects of the game, but it would have been nice to have a welcome home within a community that the gameplay itself provides. But it’s the game’s overall blandness and its arbitrarily derived development that gave a pretty but neutered MMO experience. There are other MMOs that do things better, even if they aren’t Star Wars.

  • The Future

By now you may begin to understand that question mark. With Bioware’s success also developed an unfortunate tendency for things to slip through the cracks, as it were. Gone are the days where the studio produces tightly wound and efficient products, and instead they put out massively produced sagas that are vulnerable to the occasional iceberg.

I’m still a fan, but is it fair to say as an older fan of theirs, I fear that they may alienate me if they veer too far from where they came? I don’t want them to release Baldur’s Gate year after year and call it something new, but whether it’s called Mass Effect or Dragon Age, aren’t they just releasing KOTOR year after year?

Maybe it’s time for some intrepid young adventurers to take up arms within in the gaming industry and show the big boys some new ideas for RPGs. It’s what Bioware did not too long ago…