Thursday, September 30, 2010

3-Sentence Reviews: September 2010 Television (part 1)

It's that time again: television premiere season!

The ultimate irony of House is that as it's become more ostensibly character-driven, the characters have become less interesting; Thirteen's "I have Huntington's; should I stay or should I go?" two-dimensionality is a good example.  But the nail in the coffin for character-driven House, the premiere episode of season 7, and potentially for the series as a whole is "Huddy": watch that miserable excuse for a scene where House opens the champagne bottle, and ask yourself if it is ever okay for House to smile with genuine affection and happiness.  On a more positive note, the season's second episode was very strong, giving me hope that the writers have figured out how to balance "Huddy" with the House that we actually want to watch.

When you brand your show as "24 meets Lost," as The Event has done, you're not only marketing your show directly to me, you're setting some impossibly high standards as you compare yourself to my two favorite shows of the last decade.  I'm enjoying it so far: I actually like the copious nonlinearity, though I appreciate that it won't be everyone's cup of tea, and I'm not sure I needed the explicit confirmation of aliens as early as episode 2, but I'm optimistic that I'll warm up to it.  The biggest stumbling block I foresee for this show is that it could forget the Lost paradigm of characters first, mythology second.

I've never been particularly excited about theme-tribe seasons of Survivor, because they mostly end up as gimmicks.  In that one season where they divided tribes by race, it's not like we actually learned anything about racial dynamics or differential ability; in Fans vs. Favorites, we never did get a conclusive answer about whether Survivor novices or veterans are better at the game; so in this edition, I don't expect any grand revelations about old people or young people being better at Survivor.  But there are enough big personalities and potentials for explosive conflicts that I think it'll be a great season anyway.

Some seasons of Hell's Kitchen are good because the contestants are legitimately good chefs.  Others are good because they're terrible chefs.  This one looks to be good because all the contestants are complete morons, and there's no telling how much crap they're about to take from Ramsay because of it.

Criminal Minds continues to be criminally underrated by my demographic.  It's one of the best procedurals on television today.  In its sixth season, it's still excellent, and the psychological chess matches are only getting more intense.

Check back soon for shows from the rest of the week!

Currently listening: "The Bleeding Heart Show," The New Pornographers

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Extra Lives

Paste Magazine, which to my dismay recently suspended its print run, isn't just an indie music rag--it's an indie book/game/movie rag too!  In their June/July issue, they reviewed an interesting-sounding book called Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.  I figured it had a colon in the title, so it had to be good, and in an overwhelming display of whiteness, I decided to check it out from the library.

In it, Tom Bissell recounts his experiences playing ten or so video games, giving his reaction to each and interspersing interviews with game designers, critics, and other video-game luminaries.  Finally, he tries to relate his experience with each game to some sort of social convention or human emotion, explaining why the game succeeds or fails as art.

Bissell's tales of playing through each game are by far the best parts of the book, especially if you're a gamer, and even more so if you've played the game he's discussing.  These anecdotes are hilarious, accurate, and instantly relatable to anyone who's sunk triple-digit hours into Oblivion or suffered the misfortune of listening to its dialog.

The book is weaker when it's trying to make connections or prove a point.  Bissell can't quite decide if he wants to apologize for his love of video games, defend it, or just revel in its geeky glory.  In truth, he takes each of those three positions depending on his audience--the same game he praises for being innovative and absorbing, he starts criticizing as soon as his girlfriend does too--and he loses some credibility to that constant change of mood.

About the only other flaw in the book is its style.  Bissell apparently has not learned the writer's lesson never to use a million-dollar word when a ten-dollar one will do (or however Strunk and White phrase it).  He has a propensity for inserting Latin phrases just to prove that he knows them, and his sometimes-creative, sometimes-baffling bending of the conventional usage of words makes me wonder if he's writing for gamers or for other writers.

Although Bissell at times tries too hard to suck up to the smugness of the art crowd, it's clear from reading his stories that he's a gamer at heart.  If you are too, you will certainly appreciate how Bissell memorializes your favorite games and sheds some light on their conception and production.

Currently listening: "Jackie, Dressed in Cobras", The New Pornographers

Monday, September 20, 2010

Three Dudes at a Paramore Concert

Admit it: however rational, respectable, and artistic the rest of your musical taste is, you have that one musical guilty pleasure hanging out on your iPod.  Disco?  Kylie Minogue?  50 Cent?  I won't judge--I can't--because I too have a musical guilty pleasure.  It's pop-punk, in all its shapes and sizes, but in particular the angsty, high-school, half-assed-rebellious glory that is Paramore.

And I'll be the first to admit it: Paramore's music is not really that special.  Their biggest hit, "Misery Business," is about as lyrically creative as an emo fifteen-year-old's Xanga account circa 2003.  Their electrically driven brand of pop-punk hasn't been original since Green Day gave us Dookie in 1994 (back when they were still good and hadn't started whining about politics).  And they only know how to write a handful of musical tempos and dynamics: loud and fast, loud and sort of fast, quieter and really slow.

Paramore transcends that heap of mediocrity to become just plain good in a way that's difficult to express or even make sense of.  They're credible musicians, if not necessarily virtuosos.  Their songs are infectiously catchy in a way that makes you want to listen to them over and over again, even though you know you're not going to get anything more out of them the second (or seventh... consecutive) time.  And Hayley Williams, the group's feisty and fire-haired girl singer is legitimately talented.

In fact, it's Hayley (yes, apparently she and I are on a first-name basis) that gives the band any distinction at all.  Without her, they'd be a competent but forgettable addition to the middle-2000s slate of pop-punk bands and entirely overshadowed by the likes of Fall Out Boy, Motion City Soundtrack, Sum 41... and just about everyone else who was making music last decade.  It's no secret that I like rock music with girl singers--in fact, I have a Pandora station called Awesome Girl Singer Stuff that prominently features Paramore (also Eisley, Vedera, Rilo Kiley, and a handful of Scottish female singer/songwriters).  It's a nice aesthetic, and it gives me an instant celebrity crush, so what's not to like?

And it was mainly the promise of seeing what sort of antics that Hayley would come up with live that got me excited about going to see Paramore in concert.  One day in May, I stumbled upon a television commercial advertising their coming tour (try finding a television commercial proclaiming the Decemberists coming to town) and I knew I'd be going to that show.  I half-jokingly floated the idea to a few friends... and four months later, there we were in downtown San Jose, three twentysomething dudes going to see Paramore in concert.  Better yet, although I was genuinely excited about seeing the band, I could still play it off as hipster irony if anyone really pressed me on it.

Nothing about the concert disappointed.  From before we even parked, we knew that our anticipation of the demographic was hilariously accurate: teenagers abounded, with about one in three concertgoers looking to be a seventeen-year-old girl or her barely-fighting-the-scowl boyfriend (who was probably secretly into the music anyway).  In true signs of the times, the massive screen above the stage showed closeups of the band during the show (which is incredibly helpful in such a massive venue as the HP Pavilion), and during the set changes, it was filled with "<3"-laden texts from high schoolers.  (Our plan, fueled by a handful of beers, to start trolling the text board with messages touting the superiority of Berkeley to their high school, never quite came to pass.)  And once Paramore actually started playing, an alarmingly piercing shriek resounded from the audience, many members of which knew every single word of everything Paramore played.

The first surprise at the concert, a pleasant one, was the sheer amount of music we got to experience.  The tickets said 6:30, but we weren't sure if that was the door time or the show time, so we arrived fashionably late at 7:30... only to find ourselves in the middle of the second of three opening bands.  Usually, "second of three opening bands" spells certain obscure doom, but in Paramore's case, they'd managed to bring along New Found Glory, a band that everyone has at least heard of.  The third opener, in a slight breach of concert protocol was the lesser-known Tegan and Sara.

I've heard about three songs each by both New Found Glory and Tegan and Sara, and I find concerts a miserable venue to learn new music, but both bands put on the sort of performance that if I were a fan, I would have enjoyed immensely.  (The best thing that Tegan and Sara did was be dryly hilarious in a way that the teenage audience didn't necessarily pick up on.  The best example was when they proclaimed that Paramore would "rock the shit out of this place," an amusingly inappropriate sentiment to deliver to a bunch of fifteen-year-olds.)

Paramore themselves came on at roughly 10:00 and played at least a solid hour of music.  Minus set changes, that meant I got three and a half hours of music, and I would have gotten another hour or so if I'd bothered to show up on time.  Unsurprisingly, the set list was weighted toward more recent material--they played nearly all of their 2009 album Brand New Eyes, a handful of the better-known tracks from 2007's Riot, and a song or two from their freshman All We Know is Falling, released in 2005.  I have a new-found appreciation for both "Emergency" and "Pressure" (from Falling)--it's amazing what six years of touring and maturation do for your sound.  The album cuts of both songs almost sounded like lo-fi garage rock in comparison to their live performances.  Unfortunately, I couldn't gain the same respect for tracks like "Misguided Ghosts" and "Playing God" (from Brand New Eyes), which are still boring even live in concert... and "The Only Exception" (also from Eyes) is still boring and infuriatingly angsty.

Paramore played a few acoustic versions of some of their songs, which I could take or leave--though I understand the necessity for slowing the tempo and lowering the volume in the middle of a high-intensity show.  They only played one cover, and it was Hayley singing a country song.  Normally, I like covers, especially if they're of super-obscure songs that I happen to know.  Not being the world's biggest country fan, I couldn't tell you if the one Hayley sang is well-known or not--but it turns out she's a pretty darn good country vocalist.  I said so to one of the guys I was with during the show, and he admitted that "she's a pretty darn good vocalist in general."

Yet another part of the concert that didn't disappoint was the appearance of several of the top concert don'ts.  Six-foot-three guy, totem pole couple, and spilling your beer all happened.  Elbowing your way to the front and "you mind if I squeeze in here?" probably did too, but in our advanced age, it wasn't like we were rocking out on the floor next to all the really enthusiastic fans.  The good thing about going to a concert populated with a bunch of only-mildly-rebellious high schoolers?  No weed cloud or getting in fights.  It seems there are worse people to sit down and listen to some generic pop-punk with.

One striking part of the show for me was  its unabashed corporatism.  It wasn't a Paramore tour, even, it was the "Honda Civic Tour with Paramore and Tegan and Sara".  It was certainly the first concert I've been to that was headlined by a car.  During set changes, we had to watch commercials for the Honda Civic--I'm not even making this up--prompting one of my friends to lament that we were "paying to watch a commercial."  "Yeah, we are," I responded.  "I'd love to see them try to get away with this in the East Bay."

For a lot of reasons, the unabashed corporatism being one, and the immense scale of the venue and the performers being another, this was not a concert that could have happened in the East Bay.  On the other hand, it was one that I was perfectly happy having to travel to the South Bay to be able to go to.  It might not be bleeding-edge indie cool to be a fan of Paramore... but it's also impossible to deny that they put on a fine show.

Currently listening: "Viola", This is Ivy League

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Salsa Connoisseur: Primavera Organic Roasted Tomato Chipotle Salsa

One of the (many) oddities of living in California is the apparent easier availability of organic over "regular" products.  Often, I have to double- and triple-check that the bunch of bananas I'm holding is a normal bunch of bananas, not a "have fun paying twice as much as you should with no real benefit" bunch of bananas.  But sometimes, it slips under the radar, and I end up purchasing something organic in spite of myself.

Oh, California.

Texture: a little watery.  It's true that I like my salsa fluid rather than chunky, but that comes mostly from the fineness of the vegetables.  This salsa has roughly the consistency of soup, but it holds on a chip surprisingly well.  Much better a little watery than "thick and chunky."

Heat: a solid "medium" to "hot".  There's no description of this salsa's heat anywhere on the package, which is a little odd in a market dominated by cartoons of chilis and bright colors loudly proclaiming how much heat is supposed to be packed into the salsa.  Ironically, a disproportionate number of salsas that advertise their heat think they are "medium-hot"; this salsa hits the nearest to "medium hot" of any that I've tried lately.

Flavor: definite smoky taste at the beginning, which comes from both the chipotle peppers and roasted tomatoes.  That flavor fades to generic--but good!--salsa pretty quickly.  It's slanted away from tangy yin of vinegar and tomato and toward the yang of salt and garlic, but it's certainly not overwhelming.  The ingredient list for this salsa is pretty simple: tomatoes, onions, jalapenos (which, once they are smoked, magically become chipotle peppers), garlic, oil, vinegar, and sea salt.  That's right: if it weren't hipster enough already to be eating an organic salsa made in Sonoma bought at the local independent supermarket, now you're eating one made with sea salt.  Overly complicated saline aside, the simplicity and conventionality of the ingredient list is what makes the salsa work.

Available at Berkeley Bowl; 10.5 oz for $3.29 (31 cents per ounce).  This is a fine fresh salsa that has a smoky, roasted flavor as its exactly one distinguishing characteristic.  But that's enough to make me enjoy it and want to buy it again.

Currently listening: Hurley, Weezer (with review probably to follow soon)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Metroid: Other M

The Metroid series may have shot itself in the foot by insisting that all its titles conform to the same unified chronology.  For a comparison, look at Nintendo's two other massive flagship franchises, and let's start by talking about Mario.

Does anyone ever debate whether Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Sunshine comes later in the timeline?  Is there any intrigue over the degree to which the universes of Galaxy and Galaxy 2 overlap?  No, because it does not matter.  We don't even know if any Mario game is a sequel, a remake, or a reboot of the game preceding it--all we know is that Bowser has done something dastardly again (often involving the Princess), and it is up to Mario to stop him.  In Mario games, we're not looking for a great deal of character development or series interconnectivity; we're looking to jump on platforms, throw Koopa shells at Goombas, and kick Bowser's ass.

Zelda functions in basically the same way.  There actually is a prescribed Zelda timeline, but nobody outside of a few dozen Zelda geeks and a handful of Nintendo employees knows it, because again, it does not matter.  The vast majority of fans are content to treat every Zelda game as a reboot of the series, accepting that it's a new retelling of the hero Link fighting the great enemy Ganon with the power of the Triforce.  In Zelda games, all we're looking to do is solve some tricky dungeon puzzles, bust out some fancy swordplay, and kick Ganon's ass.

Why can't Metroid do the same thing?  Metroid fans are looking to explore every nook and cranny of an alien planet, establish a massive arsenal by finding weapon pickups, and kick Ridley's ass.  It sounds awfully similar to Mario and Zelda... but for whatever reason, unlike those two, Metroid can't leave good enough alone.  The first three games (Metroid, Metroid II, and Super Metroid) form a logical trilogy--though Super Metroid played enough like the original Metroid that nobody would have cried foul if it had simply been presented as a remake.

The Prime games clearly formed another logical trilogy, but these games' story and style were so distinct from the original trilogy that they seemed more like a reboot than a prequel trilogy.  They didn't need to be prequels to make them fun, and them being prequels didn't enhance the series' earlier games.  In fact, they set the precedent that seemingly unrelated Metroid games need to exist in the same continuum, which rather than establishing a universal and coherent story, has led to a frustrating amount of shoehorning in every other Metroid game.

It's most apparent in Other M, which tries incredibly (at times desperately) hard to be both a sequel to Super Metroid and a prequel to Metroid Fusion.  Combine that with the Wii's fervor to be one giant logroll of a console for everything good that Nintendo has ever done.  The result is a game chock-full of references to the earliest parts of the series, with Metroid II remake bosses taking center stage, and Super Metroid enduring an almost amusing number of namedrops, from the ubiquitous Mother Brain and Zebes to the lowly Tourian, just to provide longtime fans of the series with a wink and a nudge.

The ultimate irony of Other M, then, is the vast amount of criticism leveled at it that it is "not a Metroid game".  Here's a game that's practically built on fanservice to the most beloved title in the series, and the fans are turning on it?  But speaking as a fifteen-year veteran of the series, it's easy to understand the complaint.  It has nothing to do with the combat, the graphics, the story, or even the (miserably bad) characterization.  Instead, Other M institutes a handful of gameplay mechanics that unfortunately rob Other M of seeming like a classic Metroid title.

The most egregious (and most universally lambasted) of these is the "item authorization" mechanic.  In earlier Metroid titles, one of the highlights of the game was finding new and awesome things on the alien planet or spaceship that made your character, Samus, better.  Sometimes they made you tougher, sometimes they enabled you to explore new places, and sometimes they augmented your weaponry.  So much of the joy of playing Super Metroid came from figuring out exactly what your new item let you do and where you could go that you couldn't before because you had it.

All that is out the window in Other M.  In an attempt to reconcile the need for progressive improvements to your character with the inconvenient reality that Samus is pretty damn formidable after she's been through Super Metroid, the game arrives on what was undoubtedly seen as quite the clever solution: Samus already has all the items she'll ever need (minus a few that are mostly conveniences anyway), but she can only use them after certain pre-determined points in the plot, when she is authorized to do so by a superior officer.

It's given a great deal of plot justification, with some back story about how Samus is doing this out of respect to her father figure and to prove to her squadmates that she can follow orders.  But Adam Malkovich's voice saying "huh, looks like you need some deus ex machina to complete this puzzle" is just nowhere near as satisfying as thinking "grapple beam?  Does that mean I can go back to that one room and get across it now?".  Worse, much of it doesn't even make sense.  Adam is worried about authorizing Samus to use too much firepower, which I can almost halfway buy.  Explain how that translates into barring the use of the totally non-threatening Varia Suit (which serves the sole purpose of making you not die in a hot environment).

Other infringements on the free-exploration extravaganza that ought to be Metroid include a baffling preponderance of locked doors.  It's always been standard Metroid fare to lock doors until you've met a certain condition, like killing all the monsters in a room.  Other M takes this miles further and locks doors simply because it doesn't want you going that way yet.  A third frustration in this vein is the restriction on free movement that some rooms unnecessarily impose.  If I'm in a massive cavern-style room, and I see a far-off ledge, I should be able to jump to it.  Getting halfway there and slamming into an unseen wall is incredibly disheartening.  Finally, there's the third-person over-the-shoulder style rooms, which serve no apparent purpose other than to make you handle like Bowser from the original Mario Kart.  In an oil slick.

Other M's other great failure is in its characters.  Ordinarily, it would be patently unfair to a Metroid game to judge it on its characters with the same intensity as its gameplay, but Other M makes no bones about putting its characters at its forefront.  Look no further than the menu screen: right next to the map and the list of awesome things you've found are "story" and "characters".  In the past, Samus has had very little definition to her character, so any contribution that Other M could make would be an improvement, right?  Not when it's to make Samus fraught with both mommy and daddy issues.  On top of that, she's clearly regressed in the feminist department--she's gone from a strong and capable fighter who happens to be a woman to a whiny, insecure girl.

The only characters who have any shred of humanity are Malkovich, the scientist Madeline Bergman, and (ironically) the android virtual intelligence MB.  Even they are flat: two-dimensional and static.  Anthony Higgs, who could have been far more interesting, exists only to provide Samus with a hint of sexual tension.  His squadmates, though, perform a remarkable feat in character-building: if Anthony is one-dimensional, these other characters are actually zero-dimensional, possessing no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever.

Earlier Metroid games have made use of voice acting, but Other M uses by far the most of any title in the series--and it's by far the worst.  Samus's lines in particular are horrid, scripted by someone who seems to have no idea how people actually talk, in the style of a somewhat-precocious fifteen-year-old who is intelligent enough to have a reasonable vocabulary but not wise enough to use it responsibly.  They're melodramatic, cringeworthy--and delivered in a detached style so wooden it makes the Trojan horse animated in comparison.

Does that mean Other M is a big pile of failure?  Thankfully, no.  The story, which seems overbearing and forced at first, actually unfolds into something decent, and it becomes worth caring about more as the game progresses.  The game splits up its difficulty oddly: in other Metroid games, boss fights were the only parts of the game where you were in real danger of dying, and the difficulty came in the often grueling treks between save points.  If you did die, you were in big trouble.

Now, you can expect to die on every boss, and you're in mortal danger from almost every mini-boss and some normal fights as well.  But you can continue much more easily.  Apparently this is a very Ninja Gaiden mechanic--fight the same impossibly hard fight half a dozen times before you finally figure out how the heck to beat it, and move on to the next one--and that makes sense, given that "Team Ninja" developed Other M.  But this redistribution of difficulty isn't necessarily bad, it's just different.

Rest assured that there are plenty of things about Other M that are legitimately good.  I'll be the first to speak in favor of the more combat-oriented Metroid.  Tough battles in the original trilogy pretty much followed the script of "fire missiles at it until it dies."  In the Prime trilogy, this became "fire a whole lot of missiles at it until it takes on its next form and throws some more hideous attacks at you."  But in Other M, there's a bit more strategy--and a whole lot more style--involved in a lot of the fights.  And it's much less satisfying to "fire three missiles at it" than to "fire two missiles at it, run toward it, grab its neck, and slam it into the ground."

(Overblast and Lethal Strike, the two cinematic combat elements that Other M introduces, are a bit tough to use at first, especially to Metroid veterans.  "Let me get this straight, I'm supposed to tap buttons to dodge rather than run the hell away, and then run toward it and jump on it rather than blast it from a distance?"  Yep.  Once you're over it, it becomes doable... then it becomes a whole lot of fun.)

The switch between first- and third-person control works much better than it has any right to, though like most of the control scheme, it can be a little awkward at first.  Other simplifications to the controls work very well, like making wall jumping actually possible and eliminating the need to ever do needlessly complex Morph Ball bomb jumping puzzles.

And it would be a shame to overlook the greatest strength that Other M has: it looks really pretty.  It's obviously the best-looking Metroid game to date, and it probably has some of the best graphics of any Wii game.  Samus finally looks like she should have twenty-five years ago (now that shoulder pads have been firmly out of style for ten or fifteen of those years), and Ridley looks downright scary... in a way that makes you completely respect him and the rest of the game.

Other M is not an instant classic in the same way that Super Metroid was.  It's probably not even as good as the Metroid Prime trilogy; in fact, it may even be among the worst of the Metroid games.  However, that's as much a praise of the rest of the series as it is an indictment of Other M.  It's not a long game--roughly 8 to 12 hours, depending on how good you are at it and how much effort you want to put into being a completionist (but remember that Super Metroid's ultimate goal is to finish in 3 hours).  The questionable voice acting and shallow characterization are not going to win any awards or even much praise.  If you're a Metroid purist, you will balk at parts of the game.

But the game is fun, and that's what counts.  As long as you can get over "this isn't a Metroid game," you will enjoy playing Other M.

Currently listening: "Knights", Minus the Bear

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Mass Effect: A Discussion of the Mako Tank

My last post was a review and discussion of Mass Effect, and my conclusion is that I like virtually every part of the game.

Except for one:

I am convinced that I am the worst Mako driver in the world.  A blindfolded three-year-old could easily drive this piece of trash better than I could.  If you've played the game, you know how difficult it is to flip the tank over.  I've managed to do it.  Multiple times.

My relationship with the Mako didn't exactly start out smoothly: even though almost every single button and control was explained to me perfectly reasonably, the one that never made its way into the tutorial was "how to leave the damn tank." 

On an early assignment, I needed to go to some God-forsaken planet and look for some escape pod.  Before I found the pod, I had to engage something monstrous called a "thresher maw," which translates to "Mako tank-sized mouth that, oh yeah, spits acid at you, on top of one hundred feet of neck."  Come to find out, it has the ability to burrow under the ground and instantly kill you by resurfacing directly under you.  As if the acid spitting weren't enough.

But finally, I outwitted the thresher maw and found the escape pod... then couldn't do anything with it.  I quit and reloaded the game twice to make sure that it wasn't a bug or glitch.  Still, nothing happened.  I resorted to an online walkthrough--the first and only time--and it told me to "leave the tank" then investigate the pod.  After scouring the list of controls for a few minutes, I finally found it: you press the "q" button.

Fast-forward to Feros, one of the main-plot worlds.  There's a part of Feros called the "Prothean Skyway".  Sounds cool, right?  Sure, except until you realize that "Skyway" is actually a euphemism for "highway suspended hundreds of feet in the sky."  I died more times driving my tank off the side of the Skyway than I did on all the rest of Feros combined.

A little while later, on some other planet, I drove into an ambush and saw my tank take a ton of damage.  A more reasonable player would have driven away and tried to repair the vehicle, right?  With as little faith as I had in the Mako, my plan was abandon the tank and sacrifice the admittedly greater firepower just to be rid of the thing.  (It worked.)

Finally, even after playing the game, there are some controls on it that I simply do not understand.  The first is the spacebar, which engages some mysterious thrusters on its underside that seem to be good for ejecting me from the slope of a hill and little else.  The second is left click, which fires the machine gun.  Here's a scenario: robot armed with rocket launcher is walking toward you.  Do you spray it with your dollar-store Super Soaker knockoff, or do you obliterate it with Right Click of Exploding Doom?

I really hope all these mechanics are fixed in Mass Effect 2.  Except for Right Click of Exploding Doom.  I'll keep that one.

Currently listening: "Black Magic Woman," Santana

Mass Effect: Debrief

It's true: it's taken me until now to play through Mass Effect.  Yes, it's been around for more than two years--in fact, I think I got some sort of second anniversary discount when I bought it back in May.  Yes, a veritable legion of my friends has tried to convince me to play it for those last two years--and friends whose video game opinions I generally respect.  Yes, I pretty much adore Dragon Age: Origins--and in the grand Bioware tradition, Dragon Age is basically just Mass Effect dressed up as fantasy.

I don't know why it's taken me so long.  Part of it was probably my lack of time over the last two years; part of it was that I anticipated the game having too much shooter influence for my tastes--even though shooters are de rigueur in video gaming these days, I haven't played one I really got into since Perfect Dark back in 2000.  Of course, my friends were completely right on this one.  Mass Effect is a very good video game.

I've argued before that every Bioware game plays the same, and Mass Effect is no exception.  It follows the now-familiar structure: a short in media res prologue that gets the action going; Act 1, which takes place in some beacon of civilization, establishes the central conflict of the game, and builds your party; a massive Act 2 that occupies the majority of the game and features four parallel main quests in the far reaches of the setting; a climactic Act 3, which features some major plot revelations and sets up the final battle; and a short Act 4, which is basically the final battle with a short lead-up.  There are lots of side assignments you can do, many of which involve your characters and getting to know their stories better--including some that lead to romance subplots.

At around 35 hours, Mass Effect is a little shorter than I expected it to be.  Maybe that shows the background that I game from--I grew up on JRPGs like Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy series that, even back in 1995, routinely lasted for 50-60 hours.  I sunk 110 hours into Final Fantasy X, 120 into Oblivion, and I don't even want to know how many (but probably at least 150) into Morrowind.  I didn't explore every nook of every isolated planet to find every side quest in the game, but I did put reasonable effort into finishing all the ones I bumped into.  You could probably stretch Mass Effect to 40-45 hours if you dragged a fine-toothed comb over it, or you could probably speed through it in as few as 20-25.

But that would be a mistake.  Bioware might come across as the poor man's Bethesda when it comes to crafting open, dynamic, and explorable worlds, but they're still far and away better at it than virtually everyone else in the business.  There's a lot going on in Mass Effect, between history, setting, and characters, and it's worth it to explore as much of it as is feasible.

Mass Effect doesn't suffer from nearly as many difficulty issues as would plague Dragon Age: Origins just a year later.  Both games scale their difficulty, so that your enemies get tougher as you do--except that the only thing that happens to your enemies is that the numbers go up.  As you become more powerful, it's not strictly about the numbers, it's also about the additional things you can do.  My mage character in Dragon Age was very much tilted toward "things" rather than "numbers," so the beginning of the game was unreasonably difficult (I would routinely die to a wolf ambush), while the end was almost trivially easy (because of all the resources at my disposal, I never felt seriously threatened by the final boss). 

It might be a different approach to the character that I took in Mass Effect that made the difficulty more even throughout, or it might be that Mass Effect is just balanced better.  Either way, the difficulty is appropriate at virtually every stage of the game, and I definitely felt seriously threatened by the final boss here.

Aesthetically, the game is decent to good.  The music is passable, but it's no Jeremy Soule soundtrack (a la the Elder Scrolls games).  As for the graphics, I turned the resolution up to 1280x1024 and all the other settings squarely to "medium," and I think it struck a nice balance of looks and performance, at least on my system.  (My computer is only about a year old, and relatively powerful--but by no means a gaming rig.  If you have a machine legitimately built for gaming, you'll be able to crank all the settings up with no problem.)

The controls are reasonably intuitive and mostly explained over the course of the "prologue" act, with a the exceptions of a handful of the minigames and a couple vagaries of the Mako tank.  (In fact, there are plenty of vagaries of the Mako tank.)

But what you're really playing this game for is the story, which is executed brilliantly.  It unfolds entirely sensically from the prologue to the final act, and even though you're clearly dealing with some world- (or galaxy-) changing stuff, you never really feel overwhelmed or in over your head.  The plot toes the line between a self-contained story with an exciting climax and satisfying resolution and a first installment of a trilogy that's obviously part of something much bigger than itself.  It works on both levels, and the best sign of its success is how excited I am about playing Mass Effect 2.

Currently listening: "Somebody Told Me", the Killers