Saturday, January 26, 2008


What happened to the cinematic? What happened to finally blasting through some controller-destroying boss fight and being rewarded with a chunk of the finest computer-animated cinema that money could buy? When did it become acceptable to just render things in the game engine, no matter how shonky or poorly animated said engine might be?

Yet another trailer for Grand Theft Auto IV has been doing the rounds, and putting aside how increasingly unexcited I am about this franchise serving me another giant sized helping of more of the same, the trailer on its own merits falls considerably short of amazing. Line after line of cliché-ridden Russian-accented mobtalk is being delivered by in-game character models with significantly less expressive range than a sock puppet. It’s never been clearer that when the only body language you’re capable of delivering is a firmly upthrust middle finger, there’s a whole range of dramatic possibilities you’re just not competent to explore.

I’m an unabashed fan of the cinematic. I happily bought the Blizzard DVD that has all the Starcraft footage back to back. I used to sit there and watch the second act epilogue in Diablo 2 again and again. I can describe the entirety of The 7th Guest as “thoroughly entertaining” and keep a straight face.

Good cinematics can conceal any number of gameplay faults. Look, for instance, at Dragon’s Lair. I dare you to walk near an arcade stand of that machine and not put in whatever ridiculous fee it wants to charge you for a game. Decades on, and people are still being suckered into experiencing its almost complete lack of interactivity.

Cinematics can be so important, indeed, that if you get a well known director to film 90 to 180 minutes of cinematic with well known actors, you can screen it in a theatre and not a single person will complain that it didn’t have an online component and the multiplayer was weak.

I think this was a lot of the reason I felt let down by Warcraft 3. It started off with these gorgeous films of beautifully rendered orcs smacking the living crap out of armoured knights, and then you get into the actual game and you’re being emoted at by what are effectively low-polygon plastic soldiers. That, and the plot, script, and gameplay were rubbish.

I firmly exhort the A-list developers of the world to not let the cinematic fall by the wayside. Spare me from another meandering rant through the games of my misspent youth, and put in the hard yards to deliver a quality multimedia experience. After all, you’ll appreciate it next time I’m comparing your game to a trip to Auschwitz but stop to add, “but, much like the Nazi propaganda machine, it has top notch cinematics.”

Friday, January 25, 2008


You have to ask why any developer would waste hundreds of thousands of dollars and the time of a crack development team to bring out a moving work of immersive storytelling like the tragically underappreciated Eternal Sonata (which I'm currently playing), when consumers are going to have exactly as much fun interacting with some two-dimensional drivel about an Incan frog that shoots balls from its mouth.

It's PopCap Games that are at fault. As a developer, they've set their sights firmly on making oodles of money by selling these repulsive "casual games" to women, the elderly, and other minorities who don't know any better. There are billions of these gaming parasites sitting in front of their computers right now choosing to purchase PopCap's low-production-value dross and by extension depriving wonderful creators like Quantic Dream or Double Fine of the piles of currency that should be rightfully theirs.

I'm playing Zuma right now. I can't stop. It's the aforementioned game about the ball-spewing frog, and tearing myself away from it is becoming a physical impossibility. It's like the McDonalds of gaming, and like McDonalds it tastes foul, is bad for me and diminishes my interest in experiencing anything of genuine quality.

Basically, you're a frog, see, and you sit in the middle of a looping path, along which flow a progression of coloured balls. You can insert balls into the path by shooting them from your mouth, and when you create groups of three or more balls of the same colour they vanish and score you points. The vanishing can then let more balls link up, making more sets of three, et cetera. All the while the balls march relentlessly towards the end of the track, and if they reach it, you lose. You can roll the whole line back by getting combos, and once you hit a certain number of points on a stage new balls stop joining the line, giving you the ability to finish the stage.

Zuma's got just that mix of responsive controls, rewarding sound effects and shiny colours that makes games like this click, and before you know it the thing will be squatting in the pleasure centres of your brain and playing you like a fleshy marionette. You can get it from XBox Live Arcade, but getting rid of it will probably require a priest and some holy water.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Amped 3

Crazy doesn't even begin to cover Amped 3. It covers, like, a small portion, possibly one of its feet, and then the rest is just left out there fully exposed to the burning light of what-the-fuck.

I mean that in the good way. This is the charmingly-random-tinfoil-hat kind of crazy, not the cooks-children-in-an-oven sort. Amped 3 meanders its way through its increasingly incomprehensisble brand of drug-fuelled narrative, and you just smile and nod in a way that says, "I have absolutely no idea what's going on, and I love it!"

Technically Amped 3 is a snowboarding game, which seems exactly the sort of thing the XBox 360 was made to host. It's got the usual array of snowy mountains and rail-grinding ramp-jumping reality-defying tricks, which just makes the hysterically bizarre trimmings all the more inexplicable.

And here I'm talking about the plot, because unlike most games of this genre it professes to tell a story. It's a story of you and your friends, who get together to ski at Northstar, when out of nowhere your money gets stolen, and then... some stuff happens. There's a yeti, and a snow god who likes scrapbooking, and a Canadian sock puppet, and some robots, and an evil game corporation, and the ski patrol (who are for some reason a set of talking bolshevik hands), and a boy band, and there's brainwashing and an evil dark lord and a disembodied pig's head who works in marketing. Also you're a ninja. Maybe. I think.

This stuff has to be seen to be believed. You get the feeling that it all has to be the work of one person, because there's no way that someone could explain this to a co-worker in a sufficiently lucid way as to get them on board to implement it. It ends, by the way, with a big musical finale, which seems to me something that should be made industry-standard.

All that wackiness is reason enough to play Amped 3 right there, but it turns out that the story is wrapped around what's actually a pretty awesome game. Now, I'm not someone who's played a lot of snowboarding games, but Amped 3 seems to me to be everything that I'd want from the genre. It's got a simple trick system, the highlight of which is probably skill tricks, which require you to use the "analog" part of your "analog stick" by not pushing the stick all the way to the rim. That's something that's very rarely used to good effect in games and it's absolutely perfect here.

There's some 250-ish different challenges to play, spread across maybe 10 different sorts of event, all of which more or less combine the concepts of passing through gates and/or doing high-scoring tricks. There's also a bobsled event where the idea is to achieve the most painful crash possible, which is a stack of fun.

Amped 3 doesn't short you on peripheral content, either. The events are spread over seven mountains, some of which have multiple regions to unlock. There's a ridiculously large pile of clothing and boards to unlock for your rider, along with some hilarious alternate costumes such as a yeti and an evil gnome, and of course there's alternate sleds (including a hang glider), some bling, and new music to be found.

Speaking of the music, Amped 3 has an absolutely first class soundtrack of around 100 licensed songs, and while I'd never heard of any of the bands involved prior to playing the game it never failed to get me stoked for snowboarding with each new song it fired up. This game is up there with the Grand Theft Auto and Wipeout franchises for some of the best licensed music in gaming.

As is normal for games off this sort, there's a huge amount of advertising and product placement, but it's all reasonably in context and more or less inoffensive. The game's difficulty falls mostly on the easy side of the spectrum, which is absolutely fine by me, and even relatively unskilled gamers should have little trouble in finishing the story mode. Game length clocks in at 13 to 25 hours, depending on your experience and your willingness to chase after gold medals in the various events.

Amped 3 is a sadly underappreciated work of mad genius, and even in the unlikely event that you're not won over by its insane charm it remains a deeply memorable excursion to the lunatic fringe of snowboarding.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


It's difficult to say much about Cloverfield without spoiling the plot or raising inaccurate expectations about the movie, so suffice to say that it is absolutely brilliant and you must see it at your first opportunity.

As those who've seen the original Japanese version of Godzilla (Gojira) know, Godzilla was less about a radioactive dinosaur than it was about the Japanese experience with World War II, so hopefully you'll understand me when I say that Cloverfield is a giant monster movie about September 11.

The whole thing is shot on handicam from the point of view of a civilian witness to the proceedings and comes across a little like a much cleverer daikaiju-themed Blair Witch Project. That's probably going to turn a lot of people off and cost the film some mainstream appeal, which is a shame, because the handicam gimmick is handled superbly, used to clever effect, and forms an absolutely integral part of the movie's tone. Director Matt Reeves hasn't previously done much of note, but he ably distinguishes himself here.

This is likely to be one of the better films of the year so grab some friends with some taste in cinema and catch this one as soon as possible.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Fuzion Frenzy

Videogame puberty is a stressful and distressing time for all concerned. Those franchises that were once innocent, carefree and unchallenging suddenly start talking in a deeper voice and growing hair where previously no hair had been. They start mouthing off, staying out to all hours and playing that loud rap music. It’s an effort to get them to respond to even the simplest of control inputs and they’re moody and angst-ridden beyond all proportion.

We all rolled our eyes when mascots like Jak & Daxter and The Prince of Persia began noticing girls and experimenting with alcohol; we all slumped in despair when a generation of young franchises adopted GTA as a role model and started hanging around with those disreputable free-roaming environments that all the papers were talking about.

But in amongst all the foul language and unwashed clothes we may have overlooked a little game called Fuzion Frenzy, that was cruelly led astray by its older brothers and became an unsung casualty of a desolate decade of decadance.

Fuzion Frenzy was a simple game; all it wanted was to be a collection of high-energy minigames. It tried to be equally suitable for both small children and their older siblings, but ended up suitable for no-one. It longed to be loved like a toy, but instead it was loved like a loose woman. One cold December morning, it came face-to-face with a pair of drug-crazed beat-em-ups, who lured it into the old junkyard across the train tracks and locked it inside the airtight refrigerator of “attitude”.

Police were never able to determine what Fuzion Frenzy had looked like while alive; all they had to go by was the remains of its mutilated corpse. Its once innocent minigames had been transposed onto a gritty urban future, where high-impact rave DJs fought to the death for the entertainment of the masses. Its childlike sense of wonder had been drowned forever beneath a wave of low-quality hip-hop and atmospheric lighting. Sassy avatars talked trash to each other as they ground their opponents beneath their Reebok-shod feet, and where once the gameplay was accessible and understandable it was now a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in sarcasm and illiteracy. A unique and beautiful flower had been trampled beneath the boots of market-testing until it was little more than a cheap, grunge-ridden “party game” for up to four players.

A child lost in an adult’s world, it appears that Fuzion Frenzy tried to do for minigame collections what Wipeout did for high speed racing, but instead it did for minigame collections what Mark David Chapman did for the Beatles. Thanks to the Xbox Originals program this alleged classic is now available for download directly to your 360 at a budget price, but you need to be aware that the horribly desecrated cadaver of this game may be far too disturbing for some viewers. Approach with caution.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Jam Sessions

If you’re the sort of person who’s inclined to buy Jam Sessions for the DS, you probably think you already know what you’re getting yourself in for. You think you’re buying a freeform guitar simulator, clearly less cerebral than the act of actually playing a guitar and yet a good tier more creative than yet another iteration of Guitar Hero. What you’re actually buying is, effectively, an empty box.

See, where you went wrong was that you saw that the developer was Ubisoft, and went ahead and spent money anyway. You poor, misguided fool. I paid $15 for this thing out of a bargain bin, sold it to a friend a week later for $10, and still feel like my wallet has been intimately violated. Owning this thing is a stain that won’t ever wash off, no matter how long I leave my DS to soak in the kitchen sink.

What’s in Jam Sessions feels like something that never made it out of beta. It may not have even made it into beta. It’s not a game, it’s not an application, it barely even qualifies as a screensaver.

Basically, Jam Sessions lets you map a handful of guitar chords to the face buttons, and then play them by holding the appropriate button while “strumming” the stylus across the DS touchscreen. Strumming up or down produces different effects. If that sounds awkward and unappealing, it’s because it is.

This is normally where I’d go on to tell you how this core concept is then used in a variety of game modes, challenges, freestyle options, and possibly multiplayer. Unfortunately Jam Sessions doesn’t have any of those things. You can map the chords, and then play them. That’s it.

To be fair, the game comes with a bunch of songs of varying quality. More accurately, it comes with the Jam Sessions equivalent of sheet music for a bunch of songs of varying quality, which you can play along to – or not, as the game can’t tell whether or not you’re playing them correctly. You can get the game to play the chords for each song to show you how they go; sometimes these renditions are even recognisable as the songs they claim to be.

The game also provides the lyrics, but if you don’t already know how the vocal track to the song goes then there’s no guidance here. You’ll have to get the song off the internet and listen to it or something if you have aspirations to sing along.

There’s also no band backing – you get lead guitar, and that’s it. No drums, no bass or rhythm, just strumming until you weep bitter tears of hatred into the barren cartridge slot of your DS. You can record a certain amount of your misshapen efforts to the cartridge, including any vocal stylings you may have directed at the microphone, but really the only reason you’ll want to do this is to engage in some sort of weird Pavlovian conditioning when you play them back later, in the unlikely event that the name “Ubisoft” doesn’t already make you flinch and cower.

Don’t think that this is nevertheless something you will enjoy; it is not. Don’t think that you have the patience to extract enjoyment from this unfinished waste of code; you do not. If you absolutely must generate freestyle electronic music, I strongly suggest that you take advantage of a large variety of freeware available at your local internet, and leave Jam Sessions sprawled unappealingly across your game retailer’s half-price table like the drunken smelly hobo that it is.

SoulCalibur IV Bonus Characters

The entire internet has been lining up in single file to tell you this, so if you haven’t heard it by now you’re either a very poor listener or you’re frighteningly skilled with a high calibre rifle. Either way, you need to know that the SoulCalibur franchise has returned to those golden days where each platform got its own unique character. When SoulCalibur IV rolls around, we’re apparently to be treated to Darth Vader on the PS3 and Yoda on the Xbox 360.

Man, sticking the Soulblade through that little green goblin is going to be the sweetest moment in gaming history. I’m going to have to take pictures, and maybe commission some sort of gilt-edged commemorative plate. It’s really the little things like this that allow me to continue my slavish devotion to an ageing franchise in the face of insultingly mediocre spin-offs like SoulCalibur Legends. Take notes, Koei.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Scene It? Lights, Camera, Action

There’s nothing quite like pulping your friends into a crying mush with the sheer force of your intellect, and when a game claims to deliver that heady thrill it’s something that should be investigated posthaste. Scene It? Lights, Camera, Action delivers exactly that sort of academic emasculation of loved ones.

The computer trivia game is a feisty and often ill-conceived beast. For every You Don’t Know Jack that marches proudly forth from the primordial soup, there are a dozen hideous mutants that choke to death on a fetid mix of their bilious internal fluids. Sometimes the gaming public is served tasty trivia cuisine, and sometimes the development chefs just vomit forth their own stomach lining and call it "Buzz!”.

Indeed, the purchase of an electronic quiz game is something that should not be undertaken lightly; potential consumers should go to gaming stores equipped with a razor-sharp machete, impassive native guides, and a fearsome proficiency with a high-end bullwhip. The unwary could find themselves going home with a perfect arcade emulation of Quiz & Dragons; upon such potent cautionary tales are the foundations of gaming society set.

This is all by way of explaining that when I discovered that Scene It? Lights, Camera, Action was able to run without crashing, had answers that more or less matched its questions, and showed no obvious intention of molesting small children, I immediately acclaimed it a runaway success and asked it to have my babies. Brutally low expectations infinitely simplifies the process of making lifelong friends.

If you haven’t guessed by now, Scene It? LCA is a movie trivia game. It’s for the Xbox 360 and it’s the natural extension of the DVD-based trivia game of the same name. For about the price of a regular top-shelf game you’ll take home the game itself plus its four unique trivia buzzers. The buzzers won’t work with your regular 360 wireless – they instead communicate with a dedicated infrared port (included) which plugs into the 360’s USB hub. It’s a cheap way of dodging Microsoft’s absurd wireless licensing policy, but the winner in the end is the consumer, so rolling with it is not a hassle. You’ll be pleased to know that they’re more or less completely functional 360 controllers, so you can probably use them to do bizarre things like play Dead or Alive if you’re masochistically inclined.

The game lets you and up to three friends engage in your standard film trivia nonsense. All questions are multiple choice; some let everyone have a go, awarding more points for faster answers, while others will require you to buzz in and then face the challenge alone. A standard game, which lasts about half an hour, will move you around a fictional film lot, where each randomly chosen location is the home to a certain type of question.

The screening room, for example, challenges you to answer questions after watching an iconic scene from a movie, or asks you to identify a movie based on certain of its more unique film credits. The art department demands that you name a movie based on children’s drawings of its contents (seeing Freddy Krueger rendered in ham-handed Crayola is enough to warm the cockles of your icy, icy heart). Other question types see you identifying movie posters, sourcing famous quotes, or playing “before they were famous” with A-list celebrities. There’s an absolute buttload of these things, regardless of whether you measure your buttloads in imperial or metric, and the number of questions in each category is sufficient to last the number of games you’d expect of something like this.

The questions themselves are clever, and have enough depth to please a film buff without being so obscure as to frustrate newcomers. Over the eight or so games I’ve played I’ve never felt the need to argue with the questions or dispute the answers, which is good, because ultimately the game is only an inanimate disc and it would likely sneer in my face while haughtily ignoring my complaints.

At the end of each “round” (of which there are three per game), there is a wrap-up of the scores so far, and then a bunch of arbitrary awards are handed out for accomplishments like “slowest correct answer” or “answering correctly after three other players have been wrong”. These things are surprisingly good for numbing the pain of being in last place, and act as a thin and tasty jam smeared liberally over the game’s trivia-related bread and butter. It’s worth saying again, though, that the questions are really the star of the show here, and are well balanced and excellently conceived.

In fact, Scene It? LCA would be well on its way to being a king among trivia games, were it not for the game’s announcer, who, much like a terrorist, appears to have unexpectedly grabbed the yoke of this otherwise high-flying game and steered it straight for the nearest iconic monument. His grating voice introduces every set of questions, and recaps the scores at the end of each round, repeating the same lame jokes in a horrible affectedly nasal Californian accent until you’re just begging to take him to Guantanamo and beat him with a wet newspaper until he tells you where he bought the fertiliser.

It’s really a shame that the top-class work that’s gone into researching and writing the questions is wrapped in such unappealingly soggy vocal packaging. Still, it’s not the worst abomination in the history of gaming audio, and providing that you’re not intending to play this thing in epic 72-hour stretches you’ll likely be able to tolerate the mouldy crust in order to get to the sweet, sweet fruit-flavoured innards.

If you’re the sort who likes trivia games, and you’re also the sort who has friends, you’re first of all a lucky and rare breed, and secondly you’re absolutely the sort of person who should pick up a copy of Scene It? LCA for immediate deployment to your living room or entertainment area. This game is exactly what you’ve been looking for, and in the name of all that is holy, buy it quickly, before someone makes you play Buzz!.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Tokyo Game Show 2008?

Does anyone know of firm dates for the 2008 Tokyo Game Show? “Second week in October” just isn’t good enough to plan an international trip around.

Some acquaintances and I are thinking of possibly maybe going, providing that the dollar signs are in alignment. 2006 TGS was a blast and the only thing that could make that sweaty melange of gaming magic more entertaining is sharing it with friends. Plus that sort of thing gets cheaper when you have people to split accommodation costs with. If I can get a lock on a specific calendar window I’ll try and post some prices up here in case you want to join our oriental electrosafari.

I’ll likely do the same thing I did last time I went, which is to say totally scam my way into the business day and avoid the horrible tourist crowds. Also, in case anyone asks, this is a professional game news site, I’m an accredited journalist, and my requirement for free samples and press kits in order to properly prosecute my Pullitzer-winning brand of hard-hitting prose is so powerful as to have inspired no less than three strikingly emotional human interest documentaries. Try practicing that sentence a few times right now; it’ll make it easier to say with a straight face later.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Battlestar Galactica (360 Live Arcade)

I should warn you about the 360 Live Arcade Battlestar Galactica game. This thing has taken a beating in the gaming press, and for the most part deservedly so. It goes to all the trouble of letting you get behind the joystick of a Raptor and go hunting some Cylons, and then ruins it all by giving the whole thing a fixed overhead perspective and filling the difficulty bucket all the way to the top.

The developers seem to be aiming for that small niche market known as “casual gamers with godlike twitch reflexes”. If you’ve never encountered this demographic before, feel free to attempt to fire up a multiplayer game of this and go head to head against all three of them. It’s all in the context of Battlestar’s more recent incarnation, of course, and while the original score, art assets, cast, plot, scriptwriting and direction of the new series are all missing in action, at least all those other things you loved about it are intact.

Aliens vs Predator Requiem

It seems that everyone wants to be Johnny Depp these days, so it’s no surprise that in Aliens vs Predator Requiem the titular Predator is doing its bow-legged finger-wiggling best impression of Captain Jack Sparrow through scene after tedious scene. It matches up firmly with the movie’s Aliens, who don’t quite seem to have gotten the hang of the “killing humans” idea, and instead interact with their victims largely by looming over them, running around them in circles, licking them, and stroking their pretty, pretty hair. The concept of Aliens vs Predator is inherently a fine one, but the “versus” part really implies that the competition in question is going to be the combative sort, rather than some kind of all-comers no-holds-barred parade of camp.

For the most part AVP Requiem is pretty much interchangeable with Michael Bay’s recent Transformers-esque movie, where you can swap the characters, action, and dialogue back and forth with no significant loss of quality. It feels very much like the AVP licence was obtained at a late stage and the off-world lifeforms in question were shoehorned into what was originally intended to be a run-of-the-mill zombie outing. Shotguns, sheriffs and cheerleaders are the go, and it’s the sort of movie that has an unhealthy obsession with town squares and truck-stop diners.

This time around it appears that those dastardly Predators were getting up to what might be referred to as “science” with everyone’s favourite aliens, creating one of those Predator-Alien hybrids that franchise fans lovingly refer to as a “Predalien”. Naturally, things go awry, and the science vessel on which all this malarkey is taking place crash-lands on Earth, discharging face-huggers and Predalien alike into the Colorado wilderness. Soon the wee beasties come across a townful of unsuspecting humans, and hilarity ensues. One lone Predator from what I choose to refer to as “Predator Planet” somehow is informed of the goings-on and travels to Earth with the never-quite-explicitly-explained motive of hunting him down some Aliens.

It’s all just an excuse for a chest-bursting acid-flinging head-biting gorefest, and not in the good way. The movie repeatedly dives into some internal ocean of tedium and comes up dripping wet; it’s one of those flicks that’ll leave you consulting your watch and wondering how much longer it can possibly take for them to get around to nuking the site from orbit.

On the plus side, the Predator himself is mostly handled well. You’ll see the full array of Predator weaponry used to passably good effect, and for those who’ve played the wonderful and deeply underappreciated Aliens vs Predator 2 game, you’ll likely be wanting to dig up a copy and reimmerse yourself in that classic title. It certainly beats sitting through the quasi-cinematic nonsense on offer here.

There’s the usual gallery of awful directorial decisions, ranging from shaky camerawork to sub-par lighting and plot points that repeatedly insult the intelligence of five-year-olds, but really the movie’s greatest sin is that it completely fails to hit any of what make the AVP franchise such a wonderful piece of fanwank. Marines, people. Marines. It needs jarheads with guns, on a desolate world, falling in love with the mythos of both Aliens and Predators for the first time all over again.

If you’re wondering what the “Requiem” bit of the title was all about, you’ll be happy to know that it’s just an effort to make the film sound more pretentious than it otherwise might. The movie trudges the length of its narrative wasteland without ever once sighting what might possibly be a requiem in the extreme distance. It’s like the antithesis of the school of movie-naming which produced Snakes On A Plane.

Really, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’re a fan of Alien, or Predator, or the Alien vs Predator franchise. You may have enjoyed the AVP books, or comics, or videogames, or you may or may not have some particular opinion about the last AVP movie. It doesn’t matter – this is a mind-numbingly dull movie that won’t be of interest even to fans who stay up late at night salivating over mind-numbingly dull movies. Let us never speak of it again.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Starcraft: The Board Game

With your desire for steamy Zerg/Protoss slash fiction whetted to a keen edge by the forthcoming release of StarCraft 2, you may have found yourself in your local game retailer, face to face with one of the cyclopean boxed sets of the associated board game and quietly exclaiming, "My God, it's full of stars."

A mere $160 AUD will make you the proud possessor of StarCraft: The Board Game, and in the interests of the enlightenment of my fellow man I've made the necessary sacrifice to acquire myself this oversized item of merchandising.

Carrying the thing is a bit of an enterprise in itself. I’ve seen ten year old children that are smaller than the box this thing comes in. By the time you lug it back your domicile or place of abode you’ll be wheezing so hard that you'll barely be able to make humerous references to spawning more Overlords. It’s entirely possible that your last words before keeling over from a massive coronary will be “Left heart ventricle... requires more... vespene gas!”

The perpetrators of the boardgame, by the way, are Fantasy Flight Games, who by and large have an excellent history with licensed boardgames. Their War of the Ring remains one of the finest strategy games I have ever played and comes highly recommended. So it’s a bit odd that Starcraft: The Board Game comes across more or less as a mish-mash of reasonably original ideas with no clear focus or genius. It’s deeply hit and miss, and while fortunately the hits outstrip the misses, the sheer quantity of glaringly obvious game design errors it makes is sufficient to induce epilepsy in small children.

It’s got a lot of pieces. It’s got a LOT of pieces. If you’ve dealt with one of FFG’s previous licensed efforts you might have an idea of what you’re in for, but Starcraft still completely outstrips even the massively epic War of the Ring for quantum of ridiculous minutiae. Each of six players will get a double handful of plastic miniatures, a deck of 40 odd cards, 15 cardboard worker tokens, a score marker, cardboard bases, cardboard buildings, cardboard modules, cardboard dropships, and cardboard order markers, and that’s before we get into the shared card decks, giant cardboard planets, space connectors, z-axis markers, first player tokens, score tracks, rulebooks and other detritus that FFG have shoved into the box.

There’s actually too much in the box. Literally. Some of my plastic pieces came pre-broken, because they’re quite delicate pieces, and to fit them in the box they needed to be jammed in there by (I presume) some kind of piston-driven robot. The flying pieces in particular have ridiculously fragile stands that they sit on, and a great number of them were snapped like the flimsy mass-produced pap that they are.

The surviving pieces look pretty great, though. Hydralisks and Dragoons look notably wonderful, and the Ultralisk model is almost worth having all by itself. Pushing them around the board is exactly the sort of fun that makes you want to pay $160 in order to have it.

The game gets off to a promising start by not attempting to perfectly recreate its computer-powered parent. Instead of fighting intricate battles planetside, you’ll instead be looking at things from a galactic perspective, and attempting to take territory on a variety of different colonies.

The board is created dynamically by linking together planets to form a map in a manner reminiscent of something like Settlers of Catan. There are six different factions to choose from; as Terrans you can play Jim Raynor or Arcturus Mengsk. The Zerg get Kerrigan or the Overmind. Protoss are stuck with choosing between Tassadar or Aldaris. Each race gets a couple of reasonably interesting special rules, and each faction of each race gets a slightly different starting setup.

You win by achieving either a normal victory or a special victory. A normal victory is achieved by reaching a certain number of conquest points, which are gained by holding key territories at the end of a turn. Special victories are different for each faction, and this is probably the biggest problem with the game, in that some factions have special victory conditions which are just flat-out better than others. Tassadar in particular is incredibly cheap, requiring him merely to be in the lead at any time during the endgame in order to win. We’ve played about five games now and we’re talking next time about removing special victories entirely before we’re forced into fisticuffs over who gets to be Tassadar.

The best aspect of the game is probably how orders work. You have three types of orders, being build, research, and move, and in one round you’ll lay down a combination of four of these orders around the board. Where it gets tricky is that each order has to be assigned to a planet. Orders on a planet stack, so that when you place an order it sits on top of all orders already assigned to a planet. Also, orders are executed in a last-in-first-out manner, so that you have to plan backwards by placing the things that you want to do last down before the things you want to do first. What’s more, players take turns placing orders, so that your orders can get buried beneath someone else’s, so that the build order you desperately need won’t get executed until the jerk to the left has used his move order to attack you. It’s a wonderfully deep tactical exercise that’s responsible for the majority of the game’s success.

The game does reasonably well at stopping itself from focusing exclusively on an optimal first economic turn. Very tight unit limits and a reasonably flexible build system mean that a subpar opening does not necessarily lose you the game.

The game’s second major weakness, after victory conditions, comes from the way it handles technology. To research a technology, you have to spend a research action. You then must pay the cost of the technology. Technologies come in the form of cards that are placed into a deck of combat cards which you use to resolve battles. As technologies are only effective on at most a couple of types of unit, you’ll only want to research technologies for units you’re actually using, or risk diluting the power of your combat deck. What’s more, a large number of the technologies are just bad, requiring very specific scenarios in order to be effective or providing little advantage.

Some units (notably detectors and support units) are completely unable to do anything until you’ve bought them technologies. This doesn’t mean you’ll by them technologies – it means you’ll ignore the units. I’ve yet to build a Zerg Defiler or Zerg Queen, and I haven’t seen anyone bust loose a Templar or a Science Vessel yet either. The game seems to contemplate an ongoing cloaking vs detection metagame that never really emerges, largely because cloaking is not really useful even when there’s no detectors about.

Still, if you’re prepared to slice off large sections of the game as not worth your time, what remains is pretty decent. The three races seem reasonably balanced once you discard the special victory conditions, and there’s no doubt that what you’re playing is recognisably Starcraft.

One thing that seems a bit cheap is that there’s none of the characters or units from Brood War present; it’s a move that seems calculated entirely for the purpose of selling an expansion, and it’s just coldly commercial enough to feel annoying. Still, you’ll forgive the game’s makers each and every time you build an Ultralisk; deploying your top end units is just that satisfying.

The game works best with about four players, although the two player variant is not entirely without charm. Games go for about two hours at the four player size (once you’ve already sorted the pieces and learned the rules) and the rules are clear and require little interpretation. The game looks and feels gorgeous and it’s not hard to see where your money went once you examine the cornucopia of full-colour crap inside the box. It’s just a shame that the tech cards and the special victory conditions are so obviously and deeply rubbish.

Is the game worth $160? Probably not, unless you have a lot of friends who are going to want to play a lot of this game. If you’ve got the crowd, however, Starcraft: The Board Game might well be worth the investment.

Edit 14 January 2008: It turns out we've been playing one of the rules a little wrong, so in light of us now understanding it, I should say that Special Victory Conditions are not quite so extremely unbalanced as depicted above. They're still unbalanced, and the tech tree is still broken, but it's just a little bit better than we had thought.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ron Gilbert Developing Deathspank

Via PalGN:
Ron Gilbert is finally returning to the forefront of comedic game development with his brand new project, DeathSpank. Described via amusingly-written press release in a peculiar nutshell as "Monkey Island meets Diablo", DeathSpank will be the first game Gilbert will develop as a new Creative Director at Hothead Games, who in turn will be handling the publishing of the title.
It's like speaking of the man summons his unspeakable spectre. You can never tell when the brilliant old coot is creating real-honest-to-God games and when he's just violentlly pulling the gaming community's collective leg. I wait with totally unabated breath.

Blue Wizard Needs Sleep Badly

Sweet jeebers I need sleep. Red Bull is not the answer. Or rather it is the answer to a point, and then after that point you will find me in the lounge room at 3 am playing Bioshock on the hardest difficulty and attempting to finish the whole thing within ninety minutes “because angels don’t wait for slowpokes”. There will be uncontrolled twitching.

If anyone sees that parasite who invented daylight saving and then forcibly applied it to the Australian Capital Territory, would you kindly beat him to death with a golfclub for me?

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass is interminable. “Oh,” you will cry, while attempting to slit your wrists with the frayed edges of a popcorn box, “why in the name of sweet zombie Jesus will it not end?”

It’s like someone with a short attention span had read a copy of Phillip Pullman’s novel The Northern Lights and then attempted to explain the plot to an intellectually-challenged friend. It rambles from scene to scene without direction or purpose, omitting important plot points and jumbling others together with a total lack of regard for narrative continuity. Some scenes are rendered in lovingly gratuitous detail, while others futz around like small brain-damaged children trying to find a wedding dress in a blizzard.

The film follows the adventures of Lyra, a girl with a mysterious but unexciting past and a mysterious but vague destiny who sets out to find a friend who isn’t very interesting and an uncle that she never actually ends up locating. Along the way she hooks up with a variety of poorly-explained characters on an epic quest to stop a possibly-maybe war between some as yet-unidentified factions, which threatens to destroy an infinite number of parallel worlds that you never actually get to see any of. The whole thing comes to a jerking halt some several chapters short of where the novel ended with a kind of bashful “sorry folks, we’ve run out of time” air pervading the finale.

There’s quality to be found here, to be sure, but the process of looking for it is like an unrewarding cinematic Where’s Wally? The Ice Bears, which the film’s posters have made much of, look absolutely fantastic, and the two set-piece scenes starring the CG-animated Iorek Byrnison are far and away the strongest parts of the movie. The Ice Bears are essentially what you’d get if a civilization of Tolkien dwarves grew fur and paws, but that doesn’t stop Iorek from being the best armour-smithing orc-smiting gold-mining Gimli ever.

Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman put in plucky performances as Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter respectively, but Craig’s total time on screen can be counted on the fingers of both hands, and despite a strong attempt in the role by Kidman she is brutally miscast as the aging authoritarian Coulter. Child actress Dakota Blue Richards is more or less competent as Lyra but you’re unlikely to be starting fan tributes to her any time soon.

The pacing is appalling; Lyra spends much of the time floating dispassionately from one scenario to the next with no clear mission or motivation. It’s not clear what she’s ultimately trying to achieve and most of her allies seem to just be killing time rather than pursuing any vital objective of their own. In my imagination, entire scenes of the script simply read, “Lyra languishes. Those around her look pensive.” In the session I saw, small children were asking their parents if the movie was over yet, and then crying when told that it wasn’t.

The film is not so generically bowel-threatening as to be without charm for all audiences. Those with a lot of patience and a deep-seated love for talking animals may well wring a couple of hours of entertainment out of the thing. It’s reasonably visually accomplished and looks quite good when no one in it is moving or talking, and the whole thing is set to one of those simperingly inoffensive epic fantasy scores that we’ve come to expect in post-Lord of the Rings Hollywood. Also, while the movie totally failed to justify its own existence, it quite successfully sold me on the idea that I might want to read the book it was based on.

I can’t say that you should avoid this movie like a crossdressing vampire, no matter how much I’d like to, and if you think you might enjoy it you should probably pony up the dosh necessary to be disabused of that opinion. But if you were already unconvinced of The Golden Compass’ alleged eloquent charm then this is almost certainly not the movie for you, and you probably haven’t seen the really rather good Stardust more times than you can stand yet, so you should go and rewatch that instead. Right now.

Sam & Max - Season One

It’s widely held that the last great point-and-click adventure was Grim Fandango, the final game to be produced by LucasArts using their famous SCUMM engine. Oh, sure, there were some more Monkey Island games of varying degrees of quality, and it took the Myst franchise a bit longer to die than it probably should have, and occasionally you’d see some backwoods European developer getting up to mouse-driven malarkey in the bargain bin, but really Grim Fandango was unarguably the arbitrarily designated nail in the coffin.

When LucasArts stopped making original games and went back to lame franchise cash-ins, and when the Tim Schaeffers and Ron Gilberts of the world had moved on to greener and ultimately less profitable pastures, the fans of the genre were left to make their own way in the world, much like the surviving members of a doomsday cult following the mass suicide of all their friends. Some moved on to “mainstream gaming”, some left the hobby entirely, and others banded together like junkies in a crack den to mainline obscure Russian detective games and slurringly reminisce over the good old days while cockroaches crawled unnoticed over their babies.

It’s with that pleasant image in mind that Telltale Games enters our story. They exploded onto the gaming scene with the devastating force of a poorly-made Christmas cracker, promising all and sundry that they were going to bring back the golden age with a mix of episodic PC gaming, oddball humour, and a development team that were maybe possibly related to friends of the people who lived with the cousins of the people who made the LucasArts classics.

That was a fine ambition, one not to be instantly sneered at, and it was met with some anticipation and wary optimism by the gaming public. A slow drumroll began in the collective subconscious, building in power, momentum and intensity over the months, which finally culminated in Bone: Out from Boneville, an adaptation of Jeff Smith’s comic masterpiece which completely failed to capture the spirit of either “comic” or “masterpiece”. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, very, very bad. Very, very, very bad.

So when Telltale announced that it had obtained the licence to Sam & Max and was going to make a game of it, most people interpreted “make a game of” to mean “dig up and have sex with the corpse of”. I know I did.

And that’s basically what they did. But where it became surprising was that the corpse wasn’t exactly struggling, if you know what I mean. It turned out Telltale was one fine romancer of corpses. When their first episodic Sam & Max instalment hit the streets, not only did it not smell of the grave and shamble insistently in the general direction of our brains, but it was actually injected with the life and mayhem that we expect – nay, demand – from our Freelance Police-related antics.

Over the following months, Telltale did six of these things, which they loosely referred to as Sam & Max: Season One, and you can now buy all of those episodes together on one disc as what amounts to a single full-length point and click odyssey. I’m happy to tell you it’s well worth buying.

Sam & Max, for those who don’t know, are a pair of unlicensed crimestoppers created by Steve Purcell. Sam’s a dog in a suit and fedora, and Max is a naked white rabbity-thing with a lust for mayhem. They fight crime! They’re tasked with protecting the values, decency, and collected kitsch of America from the rabid forces of unreason by using a combination of suave dialogue, improbable physics, and extreme violence.

Over the course of the six episodes contained in Season One, you’ll lock horns with embittered child stars, cheat at poker, elect Max as President, set the disembodied stone head of Abraham Lincoln up on a date, and destroy the internet, among many other unlikely acts of mayhem. The jokes are fresh and delivered in the instantly recognisable verbose style of Sam & Max, the set-ups are inherently amusing, and the puzzles generally combine just the right amount of logical cause-and-effect with ridiculously exaggerated off-the-wall consequences.

The first few episodes, it must be said, are a little slow, and the puzzles are so easy as to put small children to sleep. In addition, the first four episodes re-use a lot of the same dialogue and art assets to the point of frustration, presumably to reduce Telltale’s development costs. But both the quality and quantity picks up sharply in the back end of the season, and as a result hilarity quickly ensues.

As far as I’m concerned Telltale are so far the only developers to have really wrapped their heads around episodic gaming in a successful fashion. They’re bringing out new games very regularly, at reasonable prices, and delivering exactly the sort of results that gamers expect at that pricepoint. Upon finishing Sam & Max Season One I immediately went looking for the first episode of Season Two, and am pleased to find that they’re following up their initial success with games that are bigger, better, and more fun – and you don’t even need to stuff around with all that Gametap snake oil they were trying to sell you before.

Ultimately Sam & Max Season One shows very clearly the fingerprints of a developer finding its feet in a new marketplace with a non-standard delivery model, but if you’re one of the dispossessed generation deprived of their point-and-click satisfaction lo these long years then you’ll be absolutely tickled pink by how accurately Telltale has hit the target in this effort, and you’re likely going to come out eager for lots, lots more.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Midway / Eidos Merger

Is anyone else laughing themselves silly at the rumoured Midway / Eidos merger? I can’t help but feel we’re well served as a gaming public by consolidating all of our mediocre under a single corporate hat.

Well, actually, I’m a little confused as to the current state of Eidos. On the one hand, they produced the original Tomb Raider, but most of the people associated with that have now left. On the other hand they created the appalling game adaptation of Deathtrap Dungeon, but most of the people associated with that have now left. There’s been some saga of buyouts and management changes and for all I know the company could now consist entirely of Ian Livingstone sitting alone in a warehouse in Montreal single-handedly coding the much anticipated new Deus Ex game.

There’s a good chance that there’s a sad little demographic of people out there shaking with quiet fear at this gaming news. I imagine them to be the shy diminutive clan who dutifully forked out their money for those iterations of Tomb Raider which could charitably be described as “somewhat disappointing”, and who thought that the Hitman franchise was “really rather good”. In my mind I see them clustered together in a poorly-lit basement somewhere giving each other group hugs and reminiscing over their Eidos memories; in the background a lone bugler nobly executes The Last Post.

There’s also probably another group who are still busily ripping Liu Kang’s spine from his body again and again and think that a high-pitched voice yelling “Toasty!” is the height of gaming humour. They have a little shrine to Gauntlet: Dark Legacy in their bedrooms and they keep their copy of BlackSite: Area 51 in its original shrinkwrap so as not to spoil its value over years to come. They can’t understand why a top-class publisher like Midway would NEED to merge with anyone, and they’re blissfully unaware that they’re about to be catapulted headfirst into the basement of that Eidos group and forced to make ugly, deformed babies with them.

In any case I call dibs on naming rights for the new merged company. I was bitterly disappointed that I was unable to sell people on the concepts of “Namdai” or “Blactivision” and therefore wish to get my foot in the door early this time by welcoming “Meidwos” into the gaming world.

Osu! Tatake! Ouendan! 2

It’s worth mentioning also that I recently picked up a copy of Osu! Tatake! Ouendan! 2 for the DS (full title: Moero! Nekketsu Rhythm Damashii: Osu! Tatake! Ouendan! 2), which I’ve now had the privilege of playing a little of. I still can’t read Japanese, so there’s not really a lot to say except that it’s largely identical to the first time around, with the gameplay, setlist and stories being pretty much identical in quantity and quality to the original.

If you haven’t played the first Ouendan, then you need to know that this is the series that was adapted to the English-speaking world as Elite Beat Agents. You play three male cheerleaders who are drawn into a variety of off-the-wall situations by downtrodden citizens of Japan and must use your magical powers of coordinated dance to save the day. This consists of tapping circles on the DS screen in time to a song. It’s a heapin’ helpin’ o’ fun.

Ouendan 2 sees the original cheerleaders going up against a new blue-clad bunch in what is apparently the Japanese equivalent of Bring It On. It would have benefited hugely from the inclusion of Kirsten Dunst and Eliza Dushku, but whatever works. You play, at various points, both teams, but as far as I can see all this rivalry only amounts to a cosmetic difference, with the basic circle-tapping action playing out in exactly the same fashion as always. The difficulty is once again set firmly to “crippling”, with the developers sneering at the pitiful gaijin whose brutish fingers are not worthy even to hold this gameplay masterpiece. Despite me having reached the highest difficulty in Elite Beat Agents, Ouendan 2 has me struggling manfully to even complete the “tutorial” difficulty. Oh, those wacky Japanese.

Anyway, if you’re a fan of male dance posses and nun-punchingly difficult gameplay then Ouendan 2 is absolutely up your alley and you should acquire yourself an import copy posthaste. Posthaste, I say.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Mass Effect - Dust Forms Words Game of the Year 2007

It’s inevitable at this time of year that people ask me what I thought was the 2007 Game of the Year, and when I’m asked that question I answer honestly. It’s similarly inevitable that I then have to defend myself for some hours with my trusty shotgun, because my answer to the question isn’t Portal.

In the late part of 2007 when everyone was busily patting themselves on the back about how clever they were with a portal gun and informing random passers-by that the cake was not entirely truthful, a little outfit that you may not have heard of by the name of BioWare were engaged in sneaking a new product into retailers via the back door. They did it stealthily, with the acumen of ninjas, depositing little green boxes of mysterious happiness onto store shelves like a team of catburgling Santas. Shoppers worldwide were exposed overnight to a strange indy XBox 360 release by the name of Mass Effect, and a select few of them warily wagered their cash by purchasing a copy of this intriguing new title.

That’s exactly how it happened, I swear.

Well, okay, it’s possible that every man and their dog were salivating over the impending release of BioWare’s new game, and that I was indeed the only living human who had not heard of it until immediately prior to its release. But if you compare my gaming record to that of BioWare I think you’ll cut me some slack. They’re the company that made Baldur’s Gate, which despite revitalising AD&D as a computer gaming franchise completely failed to thrill me. They did Knights of the Old Republic, which was allegedly some sort of gaming tour de force, and Jade Empire, which by saying nothing about I can imply was in some way substandard. They did Neverwinter Nights. Neverwinter frikkin’ Nights.

I played and loved the Ultima series. The collected works of Lord British more or less completely fill the mental space I have available for tediously long bug-riddled western RPGs. Besides, only by occasionally casting veiled and unsubstantiated aspersions upon the works of a much loved developer can I maintain my longstanding gaming cred.

Anyway, I’m about to do an abrupt about-face on all that BioWare-hatin’, because Mass Effect is a game so amazing in it both its ambition and execution that I must instantly fall to my knees and worship the divine beings who presumably created it.

If you’ve played Star Control II, or Fallout, or Wing Commander: Privateer, you may have some idea of what I’m talking about. Of course, Mass Effect is in no way similar to any of those classics, and yet at every turn it’ll have you remembering the fun you used to have back in the days when you made a boot disk for each new game and could reasonably enjoy an epic sci-fi odyssey without reference to a walkthrough. Make no mistake; this is the finest western RPG produced in a very long time, and it is very easily the best game of 2007.

You’ll begin by creating a character, which is refreshingly free of stat-tweaking and revolves largely around picking a character backstory and then creating a physical appearance. My experience creating Captain Abigail Shepherd, earthborn infiltrator, suggests that the character generator has a disturbing obsession with making your character resemble Clea Duvall. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just a little odd. Then again, maybe it’s just me.

Once you’ve tooled yourself up an avatar you’ll be plunged into a gripping military-political space opera in which Earth is the red-headed stepchild of a galactic federation run by a Council of alien races. Not only is humanity not the leader of this council, but they don’t even have a voice on the damn thing, and try as you might you can’t find a single alien mystic who’ll suggest that humans have some kind of unique destiny among the stars. Naturally, this has human nationalism running on the high side, backed by a related wave of xenoracial tension, but before you can really get to grips with Mass Effect’s stunningly well-realised backstory you’ll be flung headfirst into the path of the Geth, a sentient machine race on a mission of conquest. Becoming the first human inductee into the Council’s elite police force, the Spectres, you’ll be pitted directly against the Geth and made the focus of human/alien relations at a turning point in history.

Mass Effect hits all the right notes for classic space opera: devastating alien invaders, interplanetary manhunts, dramatic galactic politics, psychic powers, ancient secrets left by extinct civilisations, space piracy, and romance with improbable non-human females. It does it all while putting you at the helm of a battleship and giving you command over a crew of not-uninteresting personnel. You’ll be bombarded with crucial decisions at every step of the plot, most of which have significant consequences and all of which are inherently interesting. What’s more, it handles these well.

If you’ve played a game that purports to offer you significant moral choices before, you’ve probably been frustrated that:
a) You’re not given enough information to make a choice based on the principles that matter to you;
b) That one choice is rewarded by the game significantly more than another;
c) That none of the outcomes feel appropriate for your character; and/or
d) That picking certain choices will prevent you from seeing some parts of the game later.

Mass Effect sees all these problems coming, and deals with them with an efficiency and charm that makes you wonder why no one was able to get it right before. For the first time in a computer game you’ll genuinely feel like you’re roleplaying, and not just guiding an avatar through a series of opportunities for power gain. It’s a thrilling experience and one that justifies the game all by itself. You’ll probably want to tell your friends about who your character is and what they’ve done, and that’s one of the keenest signs there is that a game is doing something right.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. When you’re not butting heads with alien politicians or negotiating the release of hostages, you’ll be schlepping around the galaxy in your aforementioned battleship and exploring a surprisingly staggering amount of distant planets. Both your primary questline and the large number of sidequests will require you to land on planets, which is where you get to try out the Mako. The Mako is a lunar-lander type buggy with a large gun and some questionable physics, and by using it you can cover a massive amount of ground quickly and take down some of the game’s larger and better armed enemies. You employ it in an exploration-style game mechanic wherein you’ll be uncovering such things as buried artefacts, lost data probes, and hidden space pirate bases. The Mako handles like a balloon, has jump jets, and can fall an infinite distance without suffering, even if you “get air” off the top of the planet’s highest mountain. Driving it is a blast.

You’ll of course regularly have to go toe to toe with enemies, usually on foot, and this is where the game breaks out another can of awesome. In your basic combat you’ll control a squad of three (yourself and two buddies chosen from a party of up to six). Combat is largely in real time and works a lot like a first person shooter with dice rolled behind the scenes to reflect accuracy and damage. It requires more hand-eye coordination and tactics to land a shot than games like Tabula Rasa or Auto Assault but it’s more loose than your average FPS. You can also pause combat at any time by bringing up the heads-up-display menu, and you can reaim your weapon while paused. You can also use your “biotic abilities” and issue commands to your teammates while paused. Using this pause menu to full effect is absolutely key to engaging the game at its intended difficulty, and this fact isn’t well explained, so casual gamers could easily get frustrated while learning.

Biotic abilities, by the way, are also a little confusing, as they’re all based on manipulating mass (hence the game’s name). You’re limited to making things lighter, heavier, more or less solid, pushing things around, and creating singularities. That may not sound like much but once you realise how it all works it’s pretty awesome. The game heavily emphasises cover (to the extent of having a Gears of War-style “snap to cover” mechanic), and there’s nothing quite like making the crate your enemy is hiding behind float off into space to give you an instant edge. Pulling baddies out from behind cover with a singularity is great too. However, the game does a poor job of explaining all this, so if you’re like me you may not even realise what all this biotic tomfoolery is about until the final third of the game.

Oddball learning curve aside, once you know what you’re doing combat is more fun than sticky-taping kittens to each other. It rarely feels tedious, and you’ll often be spoiling to get into a fight just for the fun of shooting things. This is great, as a lot of the sidequests are of the “go to Planet X and kill Target Y” variety, and the fact that killing Target Y is inherently fun really makes the game pacing run very smoothly. Besides, Target Y is a jerk. I hate that guy.

The game looks great, although it’s not necessarily an artistic tour-de-force. Character costuming is ripped straight from genre classics like Star Trek and Babylon 5, and environments are functional more often than eye-pleasing. I want to say, though, that the bog-standard planet surfaces you’ll explore look amazing. Considering that there’s really only two textures at work, being a ground texture and a skybox, they will nevertheless absolutely blow you away. On some planets you’ll just want to stop playing and take it in for a while.

The music is absolutely appropriate for an epic space-opera, and while not quite falling into gaming’s greatest soundtracks it remains a worthy accomplishment that adds a lot to the game. Sound effects are generally great, and the voice acting is wonderful. Much has been made of the presence of Seth Green and Marina Sirtis in the game, so I should say that their roles effectively amount to mere cameos, but the other actors who you probably haven’t heard of who do the bulk of the voice acting rise amply to the occasion.

Probably the worst flaw in Mass Effect is that, like pretty much every western computer RPG ever, it has some unfortunate bugs. Notably, you’ll regularly get stuck on the level geometry, occasionally to the point of needing to save and reload. It’s not crippling, but it’s disappointing.

The game clocks in at about 30 to 40 hours of play, which, by the way, is how long games of this sort SHOULD go for. 120 hours is not a good length. I’m looking at you, Square-Enix. That 30-something hours is also completely grind-free. Every last minute is relevant and inherently fun. You’re not going to feel obliged to do something dull in the expectation of a reward later. And, if you absolutely must use up two non-stop weeks of your waking life on a single game, there’s enough replay value in Mass Effect to sustain a couple of repeat playthroughs, seeing as you’ll probably want to see what happens if you make different choices, and try out another backstory, career speciality, gender, or squad makeup (all of which have significant impacts on the course of the game). The game unfortunately makes you choose between keeping your levels and progress for a second playthrough OR playing a character that looks different and has a different backstory, but it's a reasonably minor fault in the scheme of things.

A lot of RPGs, by the way, drop the ball when it comes to pacing the ending, sticking the majority of the game’s grind immediately prior to the climax. Sometimes that results in an ending that isn’t properly reflective of the pacing and scale of the remainder of the game. Mass Effect, so that you know, has an absolutely fantastic ending, with sublime pacing, and alternate resolutions based on your actions which all feel rewarding and appropriate. It’s absolutely true that Mass Effect has great gameplay, but I need to say a number of times that it’s the story and character that are what make this game excellent.

In 2007, Portal aimed at a relatively easy to achieve target, and absolutely nailed it. If Mass Effect is slightly less perfect in its implementation, that needs to be seen in the context of the exponentially more ambitious goal it has aimed for. This is the game that western RPGs have wanted to be for nearly thirty years, and if you own an Xbox 360 you have absolutely no excuse not to get a copy.