Saturday, July 23, 2011

Game Review: Dragon Age II - J.D.

Game: Dragon Age II

Developer: Bioware

Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X

Released: 2011

Reviewer Platform: Microsoft Windows


First things first. I would like to extend a formal apology to anyone in my life who may depend on me for anything whatsoever. It’s just that when Bioware releases a new game, I am compelled to play it. Don’t tell them this, though, if they knew they had effectively direct access to my bank account, they would quickly ruin me. Melodrama aside, however, it is safe to say that I was, at the very least, excited about Dragon Age II before it came out. It is also likely an understatement of most prodigious proportions. This feeling of expectancy continued until the demo was released mere days before the release of the game. By this time, the game had been so preordered, that it probably violated some sort of time continuum law. The demo however, changed my feelings toward the game mostly for the worst. For some incognizable reason, Bioware decided to turn the opening sequence, and also, one of its worst sections, into the demo. So vast were the changes wrought upon the series since the first installment, I believe I suffered from a minor case of shell shock. While I could have cancelled my pre-order, I chose to give Bioware the benefit of the doubt. I should probably mention that I am a HUGE Bioware fan-boy, so overcoming this pang of trepidation was no great feat. Suffice it to say, threat inappreciable or not, I’m glad I did.

The Story (Spoilers)

This is not a sequel in the strict sense, as it takes place mostly concurrently with the original, and with a few notable exceptions is only loosely connected to the original. Fleeing the Blight, which was overtaking Ferelden at the time, the main character, Hawke, decides to take his family to Kirkwall. Kirkwall is located to the North in the Free Marches, not much is said of the city, other than having a brutal and bloody history. Hawke’s mother left the life of luxury as a noble of the city to marry Hawke’s father, an apostate, which is basically an unregistered or illegal mage who was from Ferelden. He died three years prior to the beginning of the story, leaving the care of the family in Hawke’s hands. This being the case, Hawke’s mother figures that they can get a welcome and a home safe away from the blight in her family’s house. On the way, one of Hawke’s siblings (depends on the player’s class) dies fighting an Ogre. Regardless, the family, joined by Aveline, who they met on the road, and who would also become one of Hawke’s truest companions over the next three years in which the rest of the story takes place, eventually make their long way to Kirkwall. Upon arriving, they realize that they are not the only ones with the same thought. The city is full to bursting with Ferelden refugees, and it is then that they find out that not only will they not be allowed to enter, but also the Amell, (Hawke’s mother’s maiden name) family is in ruins due to the financial mismanagement of her brother, Gamlen. Seriously, can’t uncles EVER do anything right? Thankfully, he has a plan to get the family into the city. Depending on your fancy, Hawke, and his remaining sibling either join a group of smugglers, or up with a band of mercenaries. End prologue.

The stage has been set. The rest of the game will be set within the confines of Kirkwall, and the surrounding areas. While not really a problem in itself, it does mean that it lacks the epic scale that its predecessor enjoyed. Not including the prologue, the game is separated into three “acts”, each building on the events of the one before. The first act starts light-hearted and innocuous, however, as Hawke’s fame begins to grow, so does the ever growing pile of problems you face. Each act, beginning approximately 3 years after the previous, ups the ante, as it were when it comes to what is at stake not only for the hero and his companions, but also for the whole city and all of its denizens. Unrest, political and cultural, tensions rising among the populace, these factors set the table for catastrophic events. These events take place in the form of worst case scenarios not once, but twice, and it falls to Hawke to save the city both times, earning him the title of “The Champion”. The master-stroke? The whole story is told after the fact from the perspective of the dwarf Varric, one of Hawke’s friends and companions throughout the story, who was being subjected to an inquisition of sorts. It would seem that the Chantry suspected that Hawke had some hand in creating all of the trouble Kirkwall saw over the course of the 9-10 years he had been there.

You might think that I have spoiled the whole story by now, but don’t worry. Also, stop being such a whiner, you chose to read this review. Anyway, I really haven’t spoiled anything. You will see the events coming long before they actually do. I don’t think this is predictability, necessarily, merely the inevitable coming to fruition. Plenty of things will also happen which you won’t be able to precognize. Of this I am sure. It’s the mark of great storytelling, and this game certainly possesses that. It’s this aspect of their games which keeps true fans of Bioware coming back. Dragon Age II was no disappointment. Origins was, and still is, one of my favorite game of all time. I played it four times, and I still feel like I’ve left something unfinished. As such, I was skeptical of any game’s ability to eclipse the quality of its story. I was proved wrong, however. Dragon Age II’s story is every bit a match for Origins, and in some cases, even surpassed it. It earns a near perfect 9.5 out of 10. Minor repetition, and a cast of some rather unlikeable characters are its only flaws. Even so, when compared to the video game industry in general, the characters are of surpassing quality. It is only when they are viewed through the biased eyes of someone who has played, and more importantly, immensely enjoyed, every game Bioware has put out in recent years, that the characters in Dragon Age II become…subpar. All else aside, I am a self-proclaimed connoisseur of great stories, and I can safely say that this one was one of the best I have ever read, played or seen.

The Gameplay

I have one word to describe the gameplay: polish. The level of polish this game sports has seen only rare exposure; it, like Bioware’s other famous sequel, Mass Effect 2 (review possibly forthcoming) just felt done. As if, they had had the final word, and there was nothing else to be said. This came at a price, if that is what you want to call it; the gameplay was drastically different from the original. Almost every negative comment I have heard has gone something like this: “it’s just not the same”. Unfortunately, it would seem, many fans had a hard time getting past this initial shock, to see the game behind it. A shame, really. Yes, it was different, but it was still fun. People who expected Dragon Age II to be a carbon copy of Origins were deluding themselves. That is simply not the way that Bioware operates. Despite this, however, I liked the gameplay, and specifically, the combat in Origins better. It set a far more realistic pace, which afforded the player a greater degree of control over the battle. Oh, and gore. Dragon Age II is gory, to the extreme, ridiculously so, in fact. There is no rational reason why someone should explode when they are hit with a sword, not unless the person wielding the sword happened to be Thor, or perhaps He-man. But yeah, like I said, no rational reason. In terms of weaponry, we have the standard RPG increasing order of magnitude system, same as in Origins, with a few improvements. Most notably, blade-staff, which are basically magic staffs, with, you guessed it, blades on the other end. This is the standard weapon for mages, and as a result mages are no longer defenseless in close combat. Bow-wielding rogues do something similar, using physical attacks until they can distance themselves from their opponents, and resume shooting. This is a vast improvement over the original. It also makes for some pretty awesome combat animations. I like to view the changes in the combat systems as a give and take situation, which is unfortunate, especially since it didn’t have to be. Is it really too much to ask for a developer to do everything right?

On the contrary, the UI was phenomenal. No more developing eye-strain while trying to discern the difference between two similar-looking items, no more spending several days polling experts in the field for consensus on how to get the bulky menu-system to do what you want it to. Unfortunately, it too suffers from problems of its own; minor problems for me, but apparently deal-breakers for others. With simplicity also seemed to come a lack of customizability, which is a traditional and rather integral part of the RPG experience. To put it succinctly, Dragon Age II is a great game, but not a great RPG, and as long as you know and accept that, I think you’ll have a good time playing it. All things considered, the gameplay gets a solid 7.0 out of 10.

The Setting

Here is the one area of the game that is difficult for me to review. I liked Dragon Age II, I really did, but why did the fine folks over at Bioware insist on using the same exact half-dozen maps over and over again? Does it really cost that much to hire some map makers, turn them loose, and give the game some desperately needed variety? This is not an exaggeration. After a few hours, I had actually memorized the layout of nearly every map in the entire game, and for a game of this scope, that is truly a travesty. I could have, perhaps, overlooked this too, were these few maps not largely prosaic. Maybe they thought the upgraded graphics, which, granted were, a massive improvement, would cover up this crime, but judging from people’s reactions, I think it’s safe to say that it didn’t work. Saved, in part, by the rich history and back-stories infused into nearly everything you can see and/or interact with, and by the fact that the graphics were actually good this time around, the setting receives a decent 5 out of 10.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Dragon Age II was an excellent game, if not Bioware’s best effort. It manages to largely avoid most clichés from which other games in its genre suffer. It should be mentioned that I played it when it when the ink was just drying on the…disk. There have probably been numerous patches to address some of the game’s problems since I played it. Also, any improvement in graphics this made over its predecessor would be largely trivial. Origins was not a pretty game, however, the graphics in DA II actually hold up to scrutiny when compared to contemporary titles. Once again, I’ll give you the objective score, based on the analysis above, a solid, if disappointing 7.2 out of 10, as well as my subjective score of 8.9 out of 10. As I’ve said, I enjoyed it immensely, probably more than it deserved. I also look forward to the spades of extra downloadable content that Bioware has promised. As of writing, the price is still a rather absurd $60, so it’s probably worth waiting for some downloadable content and a few price drops before picking title up to play for yourself.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates: On Stranger Tides.

My opinions on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is shared with a large quantity of people. I liked the first one, didn’t care for the second, and hated the third. The reason for this is mostly because the story in the last two revolved around the most obnoxious characters in the films. They still did well though, in part due to Orlando Bloom’s following at the time, Depp’s portrayal of Sparrow, and the over-the-top action sequences. While I did see the latter two in theaters, (almost exclusively because of the action scenes) I was fed up with it by the millionth hour of the third movie. (Seriously, why was that movie so long?) When I heard that they would be making another movie without the franchise poisoning romance, I was excited. I saw this as an opportunity to return to form. I had always said that the Pirates movies should be akin to the Indiana Jones movies. Each should have been their own tale, with Jack Sparrow filling the main role, and only a few minor characters appearing to help or thwart Sparrow. This movie promised me exactly what I wanted and I walked into the theater ready to be entertained.

Spoiler Warning: Scroll to bottom of post if you want my spoiler free final thoughts (This particular review is mostly spoiler free, but no promises.)

The core plot of Stranger Tides is a textbook quest to find obscure magical location/item X. If this was all it consisted of, I think it would have been a better movie than it ended up being. When you’re trying to reboot a franchise that is view by critics with a negative eye, it’s good to focus on a simple plot and just do it well. Tides looked like it was going to do exactly this, until we boarded Blackbeard’s ship. The movie was plagued with the same virtually meaningless side plots as the second and third movies. Whether or not Angelica is Teach’s daughter, whether Jack and Angelica were going to get together and the odd side-story with the priest and the were-mermaid are examples of plotlines that, while connected to the main plot, are mostly pointless. It would have been better to focus the time spent on these stories elsewhere, preferably the main plot of finding the fountain. Even if the writer wanted a less obvious form of conflict in the story, he should have picked one of these and stuck with it. While the plot was convoluted at times, I found certain clichés that they could have gone with done in a more refreshing way: Instead of wanting eternal life, the Spanish just were zealots; instead of getting the girl at the end, Jack does what he thinks is best for her; the fact that Barbossa and Jack are more than willing to help each other. I honestly expected them to go the way of the cliché in these areas, and to my pleasant surprise, they didn’t.

Overall, the plot was convoluted and unoriginal, but not totally cliché: 5/10

One of the main areas that was improved from the last two Pirates movies is the area of characters. No performance bogs down the movie, and this fact alone makes Tides exceptional in comparison to the other three. However, very few performances are anything special, and I got the feeling that some of these actors weren’t giving their all. Depp and McShane are fantastic, but the list of notable characters end there.

No dreadful performances, but nothing special either: 7/10

The action scenes in the Pirates have always been my favorite parts. While I called foul about fighting in the rigging of a ship while it is being swallowed by a whirlpool, I enjoyed the ridiculous fight scene on the watermill. Tides toned down the ridiculousness a bit, but not so much as to make the movie a bore. The swordplay and action sequences are what give these movies their charm. The plot is less than admirable, the characters are quirky but little else and the setting is an acid that creates its own plot holes. The action (and the music, more about that later), however, is the focus of the films. This movie, like its predecessors, is all about the action, but the choreography seems a little sloppier than before.

Action is still good, but lacks the polish of the earlier films. 7/10

I could write a dissertation on why the Pirates franchise’s unique mythology should be toned down and ret-conned until it is impossible to see much similarity between the original and the end result. I’ve always found it to be simultaneously too shallow and convoluted to be truly engaging. While Tides fairs better than the last two, it still suffers. The music, however, more than makes up for the issues that the other environmental elements miss. Zimmer’s music is amazing, giving the viewer desperately needed queues about the mood of the scenes in question.

While the setting still needs an overhaul, the music is still fantastic: 8/10

Overall, the movie is a lot of fun, but nothing more. As long as you aren’t there for a spectacular story or amazing acting, you’ll have a good time. These movies are in the spirit of the old musketeer movies: Silly and predictable, but still a lot of fun.

Overall Score: 6.75/10


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Dawn of War II

Started playing Dawn of War II at a friend's prompting a few days ago. So far, it is really, REALLY good. Going to be writing a review for it, probably as soon as I finish it and the expansion packs.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Game Review: Red Faction: Guerrilla-J.D.

Game: Red Faction: Guerrilla

Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3

Released: 2009

Reviewer Platform: PC


It is likely that this review will be about as chaotic as the game it rates and describes. So be it. It is my sincere and likely misguided hope that it will be half, nay, one quarter as fun. This title was one of the few I have ever pre-ordered, and a part of an even more elite group: games for which I have paid the full price. Which, believe me, is a veritable aristocracy. At the time, there was a promotion, which, when RF:G was purchased, the first two offerings in the franchise were included for free. The first one was quite fun, but unfortunately equally un-memorable. For those fans of the Half-Life franchise, especially the original, this is a good title, and certainly worth playing. I may even end up reviewing it eventually. The second one was…gimmicky. Review NOT forthcoming. On with the review proper!

“Destructibility”, I was intrigued by this word. Well, not word so much, but concept, certainly. I believe this really was the principle driving force behind my decision to spend the then immoderate sum of 40 USD. In retrospect, I believe the purchase was not only justified, but wise. I have been disappointed more than once by promises of revolutionary, or even novel, game-play experiences, however, Red Faction: Guerrilla did NOT disappoint. Not in the least.

The Story (Spoilers)

The year is 2120, Earth’s resources running low, the Earth Defense Force or, “EDF”, have imposed the equivalent of martial law on the residents of Mars, colonized and terraformed years before. History has taught us that situations like this inevitably turn violent. Thus is born, or re-born, the Red Faction, a group of freedom fighters intent on the liberation of Mars from any oppression. This is one of the few good points with respect to the story, which is, overall, tepid. It is odd to see denizens of our beloved planet earth portrayed as villainous in any sort of inter-planetary conflict. However, their ignobility is never once called into question. This, I suppose, is the mark of a great villain. Once again, this is probably the story’s strongest point.

Enter Alec Mason, the protagonist of the game. Hoping to find his brother, and escape some sort of unspecified trouble on earth, he quickly becomes embroiled in the denizens of the Red Planet’s struggle for equality and freedom. After the obligatory training sequence, which, thank heavens, doesn’t break the fourth wall, Mason’s brother, a member of the Red Faction (surprise, surprise) is killed in an EDF raid of the area in which the brothers Mason had been “training”. With help of a Red Faction counter-attack, Mason escapes with his life, but not before being branded as a member of the Red Faction himself. And oh, what a member he would become. One rather predictable thing follows another, and Mason finds himself saving first, most of the Red Faction, and subsequently, the lives of a large portion of the innocent citizenry of Mars. A final mountain-top battle involving artillery, tanks, and other various machines of war, and the hero manages to destroy the enormous EDF airship which had been, for lack of a better phrase, keeping the man down, and threatening to destroy anyone who dissented. All pretty typical villain-y stuff. As I’m sure you can tell, I was not a big fan of the story in general. In fact, I give it a rather unenthusiastic 4.0 out of 10. However, it had very little impact on the amount of fun this game has to offer. A lot of the finer points of the plot and environment are left purposely vague above, for the simple reason that I frankly believe them to be largely inconsequential as far as the overall quality of the game goes. I will say this though: I would have rated these aspects even lower, had they not provided an adequate engine for tying sequences of game-play together.

The Gameplay

Ah, yes, game-play. Oh, the possibilities. Rare are the times when one can describe the amount and quality of fun in a game as literally limited only by one’s imagination. Red Faction: Guerrilla is one of a very few games about which this is true. Coming back to destructibility, virtually everything that is man-made can be destroyed. As a result, the fun is nearly endless. As one might expect, driving a truck laden with explosives over a make-shift ramp comprised of debris, and the dead bodies of fallen EDF soldiers and into some sort of EDF command center, only to bail out and run away frantically just before detonation never really gets old. Neither, I think, will being able to crush a full meter of concrete with nothing but a sledge hammer. I’ll leave up to your imagination what it does to humans. Honestly, other than mentioning that the whole game takes place in a massive sandbox, which really contributes to the amount of fun you can have, there really isn’t much more to say about the game-play. The format is a third-person action/shooter, and feels quite smooth and polished, the UI is good, but not great, which is to say, it was just kind of…there. It neither interfered, nor greatly aided the experience on the whole, with the exception of the Mayhem meter, which kept track of the amount of damage you have caused, and more specifically, the amount of money you have cost the EDF throughout the entirety of the game. THAT was a good touch. Also, something must be said for the side-missions, not a single one of which was tedious. Spread throughout the game, there are many, many side-missions which one may choose to complete. I chose to complete all of them. However, even if you aren’t inclined to do so, there really is something for everyone here. Not only that, but there are plenty of each type of mission, usually with its own unique twist or aspect. Most of the missions involve racing against the clock, whether it be completely destroying a building the time provided, with limited materials, or literally racing…in cars. Every good part of the game-play experiences is herein represented, a rare feat for any video game. For these reasons, and others which are difficult to describe, I give the game-play a perfect 10 out of 10. You should buy it, and play it. Right now.

The Setting

The game takes place on Mars, not much more needs be said. The light is harsh, the landscape barren and desolate. However, even this, in its own way, lends a sort of credibility to the game. It genuinely looks like a sunburn waiting to happen, which is how, at least I imagine Mars looking like, even after terraforming. However, it does get rather dreary to look at. There is also the issue of each distinct zone of the map having its own atmospheric hue, which, although not a fatal flaw was…odd…Overall, I give the setting a rather mediocre 6.0 out of 10.

Final Thoughts

My overall impression of this game is rather deceptive. I think this is because I really had a lot more fun with it than I think I should have. It is a thinking man’s game. You, as the player, have the sole responsibility of keeping it interesting. This, I think, is why I am having such a hard time being honest with myself. The objective overall score for this game is a positively lackluster 6.7 out of 10, this, however, is not really reflective of the game’s true potential. That is why I will add my own subjective score of 9 out of 10. The game, now a few years old, and aging splendidly, is a bargain at approximately $20, depending on the platform and condition you choose to purchase it in. That is why I think you should buy it, play it for yourself and see if you come to the same conclusion I did.