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The Redemption of Diablo (DIII Reaper of Souls Review)

I don’t particularly understand why I picked Diablo III back up, but I did.

Up until my re-download of the game, I had forgotten about the rumored game-changing patches and new Reaper of Souls expansion. Mine was a pick-up based on no hype, just a desire to run through some dungeons on a mad three-quarters-perspective loot grab. Such has been the case with Diablo games for me in the past; I just get that craving and there’s nothing that can satisfy like the real name brand.

It was easy to pick up where I last left off, probably more than a year ago. Thanks to the battle.net debacle, I still had my case of characters and a fair amount of gold in my pocket and a clutch of gems, dyes, and items stashed. I took a moment to assess the damage from the closure of the Auction House, realized that I had left about a dozen auctions running (none of which sold) while I was away and spent time scraping up the errant yellows I had put up for grabs.

My thought was that I would start anew with a Demon Hunter and be able to use most of my salvaged stash to kit out a lowbie with some sweet starting gear.

I quickly realized that most of it could simply go out the window because, while I was gone, the Loot 2.0 patch had swept in like a cleansing wind and severely changed the playing field.

Diablo III, even without the Reaper of Souls expansion, plays like a brand new game. You’re not going to get anything but your standard run from Act I through Act IV as far as content goes but things certainly have changed. Like moving out of town for a year and then coming back to visit; the scenery is largely the same but there’s a coffee shop where that Radio Shack used to be and they put in new pumps at the gas station. Also, there’s a new Subway… because there’s always a new Subway.

Going back to DIII now and playing an old character guarantees that, within approximately the first half-hour of gameplay, you will gear up in just about every slot. Loot 2.0’s sweeping changes cause less quantity with item drops, but higher quality and better targeting. If you’re running around as a Wizard, it’s likely you won’t see many quivers or mighty weapons or awesome wands with +ridiculous strength. You’ll see gear dropped, about 90% of the time, which is gear for your character; actual, usable things which will cause less anger at the futility of repetitive runs and more indecision as to which exact yellow helmet out of the seven you have in your inventory is the best investment for your future development. And, oh, by the way, you just found an orange.

When Blizzard blew up the Auction House, all those items were scattered throughout Sanctuary and are sitting there waiting for you to rediscover them.

They’ve also changed the way difficulty works and made the game much better for solo players. Rather than forcing you to continue running through the tiers of difficulty, the enemies and loot now scale to your level even if you leave the game set on Normal for the rest of your career. You can, of course, boost this to give yourself (or your party) more of a challenge, but only if you want to. Normal, Hard, Nightmare, Hell, and Torment are the settings and they advise you on where you should be in your development before you decide to make a change. You can also tweak this on the fly, so, if at any point you find yourself bored or facing down a particularly tough situation, you can seamlessly, mid-game, raise or lower the difficulty level by one step.

This means that the consummate solo player, like myself, does not have to bother themselves with twisting friends arms (or, indeed, having their own arms twisted) in order to make runs to improve their gear. Soloing remains possible indefinitely on the lower difficulty levels and will always produce newer, better items as you continue to rise in experience. This beats the shit out of getting as frustrated as I’d been with some classes around the 30-40 level bridge because they just weren’t cutting it when it came to solo boss battles and actually encourages me that playing every class will be a fun and rewarding experience.

I enjoyed leveling my new Demon Hunter and had just finished my second run (putting me around L55) when payday struck and I decided to buy Reaper of Souls (after having most of its features flaunted temptingly in my face all over the front-end of the game). I jumped right into the new Act V.

The story continues nicely from the end of DIII proper, allowing for some mourning of the dead before charging forward into battle once more. The new Act is rife with side-quests and events and ends on a note which could either allow for an Act VI or could be positioning for Diablo IV. The latest rumors have Blizzard probing the market via selective survey regarding another DIII expansion. If they can do as well as this one, I’m all for it.

Beyond the story and the additional playtime, the game also introduces a new vendor in the Mystic. If you love customization, then all your gold will be spent here. Not only does the Mystic allow you to “re-roll” any one stat on an item but she can also transmogrify your gear to give it a different appearance. Like the new armor you picked up but hate the way it looks because it clashes uncharacteristically with the rest of your set? Transmogs will fix that. You’ll also gain Transmogs for every Unique (orange) item you pick up. Though these cost significantly more gold to swap, I found Blind Faith for my DH and love the look so much that I’m willing to spend the G it takes to retain the badass appearance, if only for my own enjoyment.

Re-rolling stats is rather handy, but has a degree of randomness which may make the expense steep. You are given a long list of possibilities but, in the end, are only allowed to select from the original enchant or two random others from the initial long list. It will not be perfect every time but it can help you get the skill bonuses you want to match your current spec.

After Act V is done, the game presents you with Adventure Mode which is where the whole new world of fun begins. Adventure Mode presents you with a series of five “bounties” per zone (act). These bounties bounce you around the map doing varied quests from killing a specific boss mob or elite to killing x amount of enemies in a given area to doing an event/sidequest. Each completion rewards you with XP and gold. When all five are completed, Tyrael gives you a pack full of crafting materials and items which can include up to orange and set items.

It doesn’t stop there. Throughout the bounty completions, you amass both blood shards – a new currency allowing you to purchase random magical items of any type from a new vendor – and special coins of which five can be redeemed to open a Nephalem Rift. These Rifts are portals to dungeons which combine random tilesets with random lighting effects and random enemy pools to create entirely unique areas populated heavily by blue and gold elites as well as chests and treasure goblins. Kill enough enemies to fill a gauge and it triggers a boss fight where you will see another ton of incredible equipment drop. You’ll have to portal back about halfway through because your inventory will be full of ridiculous yellows and you’ll wind up having nothing much to do with them but sell or scrap.

There’s also the addition of the Crusader class. Haven’t toyed with it yet but I’ll probably start one soon. Reports state that it plays like the Paladin from DII which, if that’s the case, I’ll feel quite at home.

One of the main headlines surrounding Reaper of Souls is: “Can Blizzard Save Diablo III with $40?”

Yes. Yes it can and yes it did.

DIII now feels less like hopeless drudgery and more like an actual game. I feel much more rewarded for the time I’m putting in now that an orange drop isn’t something so incredibly rare that your first thought is “how much can I sell this puppy for on the AH”, rather, it’s an exciting moment where you can be legitimately excited that you’ll probably be replacing something after you identify it. My DH (L61) currently has four oranges and two greens (set items which were crafted from a set of found plans, something I didn’t even know was real before). It looks to get even more badass as my level climbs.

If you played DIII before and lost your taste for it, I recommend picking it back up again for the Loot 2.0 patch at least (it’s free!). If you like what you’re playing at that point, I strongly recommend investing in Reaper of Souls. With these two improvements, Blizzard has taken a game which was the butt of many jokes after release and reworked it into something more akin to the classic Diablo we all know and love. For that, I say good job boys. Looking forward to Act VI.

Bidula’s Last Word – 9/10

Keep fighting the good fight.

—end transmission—

Spoils of War

It has happened to us all at one time or another.

You’re out at night and your DVR is running. By the time you get home, the latest episode of one of your favorite shows has been recorded and is waiting for the mere touch of a button in order to play. Maybe it’s late. Maybe you have other stuff to do. One way or another, maybe you don’t get to watch it until the next day.
Regardless of when you watch it, you will likely sit down in front of your computer or use your phone to browse Facebook or Twitter or your other social network of choice before you get the chance.

And there it is.

“I can’t believe (character) died!!!” or “OMG, (character) did (horribly unpredictable thing)!”

Right at the top of your feed. As unavoidable as death. Staring you right in the face. You’ll try to will yourself not to read it the minute you realize what it’s about, but you’ve already seen and cannot unsee.

You’ve been spoiled.

This has been especially prevalent over the past few seasons with shows like Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, where character deaths and crazy twists could be lurking around any corner and may surprise you even if you are a student of the source material.

Even though we live in the DVR/On-Demand era with most of our favorite shows at our fingertips, some of them available immediately after their original airing, social media has helped to keep these late-views to a minimum. It has also increased the availability for discussion of said shows thereby generating groups who will actually physically get together to watch a show or even do an online hangout so that commentary can be made while the show is actually being viewed.

I believe that these first-run viewings and their associated discussion groups, live or virtual, have come about due to the prevalence of spoilers popping up in full public view on a consistent basis. In essence, Facebook, Twitter, and the like are contributing to Nielsen numbers and are making it easier for networks to continue to track ratings with fair accuracy without as heavy demand on adjusted numbers for recorded or downloaded episodes.

More people are making sure to watch their favorite shows in real-time because it provides for a more pure experience. Once an episode is aired and in the zeitgeist, it becomes almost palpable. Even though you may not see any spoilers posted, you realize that the information is out there and is close enough for you to touch. People will reference it. People will discuss it off-hand. It may happen in person – you may overhear someone discussing it – but, it is most likely you will see something referenced on social media or in a meme or in a meme posted on social media which will reveal a detail that you would have preferred to get from the source.

This is also attributable to the current trend of serial television. Yes, I realize that most television has always been serialized but when you look back on the 80s and 90s, you realize that shows back then could usually be taken as independent episodes. You didn’t need to know the backstory to realize what was happening. Some shows running multiple seasons in the modern era don’t even bother to name the characters out loud, even in the season openers, because they expect that the viewer base is a returning one and will know the story up to that point. We rarely even see flashbacks anymore, unless you’re seeing something in season four that you may not remember from season one.

Even sitcoms are following the recipe of continuity more heavily than they have in the past. Most sitcoms in the past could be watched at face value no matter where you came into the series. Kids may get older, neighbors may move away, the main characters may switch jobs or even locations, but not many of them had story arcs or characterization deeper than the surface. Roseanne is an example of a prototypical serial comedy as there were story arcs with building tension and sometimes even a big reveal. It did this better than any other sitcom on the air at a time when most big twists in a comedy were advertised with the prefix “A Very Special Episode of…” This was usually when a main character, typically a child, was caught using drugs or joining the army or dying or another reason I can’t think of that could be used to escort a rapidly aging child star off the show because their appeal was down.

Then there are sitcoms such as 30 Rock and Big Bang Theory which, while easily digestible in a single serving, are much more satisfying when you come for the entire meal. Something always looms in the background and is usually brought to the fore in a one-hour season finale. Spoilers can ruin the final punchline just as easily as the big cliffhanger.

Television’s initial fears about the prevalence of downloading and how DVR can affect ratings should be largely allayed by the egregious amount of spoilerific material permeating social media (and even legit media, if they show is big enough).

Sundays are a very busy television day and, if I don’t get the chance to watch one of the two or three shows airing at the same time that very night, I know that at least one of my Facebook friends is going to blow any potential surprises I may have received watching it live. I am at the point where I will begin ignoring or deleting those who must constantly spoil.

I am declaring a moratorium of three days. No spoilers, no discussion on social media for three days after any given episode has aired. At that point, if you didn’t see it, it’s your own fault. There are a number of avenues available for you to watch an episode within three days (unless you’re on vacation away from the internet, as I have been before). After that, blab about who died or who killed who or whatever insane twist as much as you want. You have my permission.

Spoilers, for me, are incentive to absorb things as soon as possible. Movies, video games, television, books… I feel that if I’m not first to the finish, it will be inevitably ruined by some schlub who blabs about it on the internet. I’m sure that my particular brand of paranoia helps contribute, at least a bit, to first-air ratings and opening weekend box office totals and so on. It’s a marketing tactic we, as social media addicts, have brought upon ourselves. It is a very beneficial side-effect of internet assholes, at least to Big Entertainment, and gives me and those like-minded a reason to do it right away rather than put it off.

Oh, and in case you didn’t hear: Vader is Luke’s father, Bruce Willis is a ghost, “Would you kindly?” is a trigger phrase, and Dumbledore dies at the end of Book 6.

Keep fighting the good fight.

—end transmission—

Let The Circle Be Unbroken: Bidula’s Last Word – BioShock Infinite

I’m walking through a park and I hear something familiar; something that sounds proper for the period but doesn’t seem to really belong. A barbershop quartet is belting out something in typical four-part harmony, perfectly normal for 1912, except that the tune is that of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”.

Stunned, I stopped what I was doing and listened to the rendition. It was a complete anachronism. Of course, standing in a city kept aloft some twenty-thousand feet in the sky by the sheer will of steampunk-tech in the middle of 1912 wasn’t quite out-of-place enough. They just had to throw in that little musical cue which had me tilting my head like a confused puppy while simultaneously bringing a sly grin to my lips.

Little details like this only slightly increase the already rich experience that is BioShock Infinite.

Though we’re no longer in Andrew Ryan’s underwater dystopia of Rapture and the days of “would you kindly” are far behind us, this is very much a BioShock game. I heard complaints that it shouldn’t be called BioShock since it distinctly lacks the submarined setting and early photos showed a distinct lack of the dark, dingy settings to which we had become accustomed. I believe it was a perfect avenue for change. It was nice to run around a slowly decaying dystopia in the daylight and the open air for once.

Yes, we’re above the clouds now. Replace Rapture with Columbia, the promising utopian brainchild of a religious zealot, one Zachary Hail Comstock – this version’s Andrew Ryan with different non-Randian baggage.
You play as Booker DeWitt – a member of the 7th Cavalry who served at Wounded Knee and a former Pinkerton detective-cum-private-eye. In his depression following the “horrible things [he’s] done”, he ran up a large gambling tab. In order to satisfy this, he is sent to go to Columbia to “bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” This statement is a key theme to the game, especially upon meeting your co-protagonist, Elizabeth (“the girl”).

The relationship between Booker and Elizabeth is a very interesting sort of reverse Stockholm syndrome in that he kidnaps her from captivity and she sticks with him, forming a quick if not tenuous friendship with him. This bit seems a bit rushed if you’re not taking into account psychology of the fact that Elizabeth has been held in a tower all her life and not allowed into the outside world, even within the constructed utopia.

As she is with you, she scouts around for items and money pickups you may have missed leading to the mechanic shown in the release trailer where she throws Booker a shotgun just in the nick of time. These sort of things (kinda) happen in the game; she’ll throw you health or Salt (the new EVE or MP for those not familiar with the other entries in the series) or ammo when you’re running low.
Her true power, however, adds a much more interesting mechanic to the game. Elizabeth can open what are referred to as “tears” to other versions of Columbia, allowing her to throw cover into an open kill-zone or draw weapons, ammo, health, or even a friendly turret or automaton into battle. You choose what she draws over and most battlefields are literally littered with useful tears. Consequently, this telegraphs when a major attack is going to take place, as it’s usually only the battlefields where there are numerous tears available for your reality-warping pleasure.

My only disappointment with combat was that, unlike the originals, there was no constant roaming threat, like a Big Daddy.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some severe heavy hitters in Columbia like the Motorized Patriots and the Handymen, but they are not as abundant and random as the Big Daddies which, to me, was part of the challenge of combat in Rapture. At any point in the originals, a stray shot could turn a routine firefight into a life-or-death situation if a Big Daddy happened to be moseying through.
Aside from that small loss, there are still Plasmids (known as Vigors here) and a variety of firearms as well as upgrades for both enough to keep things fresh right until the very end.
You are limited to carrying two weapons in a sort of Left 4 Dead style, making you think about what’s around the corner and whether or not you should pick up that RPG when you’ve already got a sniper rifle and a machine gun available. The interesting part comes when you run out of ammo for your favorite weapons and you’re forced to improvise with whatever has been dropped by the enemies you’re fighting. It pays to familiarize yourself with each gun as you never know what you’ll have to fall back on should things go dry.
Also, in place of some of the utility plasmids, there is gear – four slots (hat, shirt, pants, shoes) that add different effects when equipped. Simple, yet effective.

Columbia starts out as a bright and shining beacon – a place that, unlike Rapture, appears to be an actual utopia – and gets darker and darker as the story goes on. Things turn from a brighter Boardwalk Empire look to something more akin to slums of Victorian London and every setting is masterfully done. Columbia appears even more grandiose than Rapture with its amazing architecture and gigantic monuments.

The plot here is thick, which made me very thankful that the protagonist actually has a voice unlike Jack or Subject Delta. The banter between Elizabeth and Booker gets to be very organic and makes them feel authentic. Also, there is no radio to constantly bark objectives (would you kindly?) into your ear, giving you instructions. When you talk to someone, it’s usually in person again adding to the authenticity of the characters.

Jumping back to the beginning of the review, the barbershop Beach Boys moment was not the only time familiar music shows up. Keep an ear open for 1912-styled versions of other modern songs (it makes sense in the end, trust me). It’s funny when you realize what you’re hearing. It sounds vaguely familiar then you hear the lyrics and you are spellbound and you won’t move from the spot until the song is over.
The rest of the soundtrack is haunting. Be prepared for chills when you hear “Let the Circle Be Unbroken” during your first moments in Columbia, it really sets the tone for the game.

My main problem with this game is that it seems far too short. I clocked in somewhere around 12-15 hours and I was stumbling around every nook and cranny, opening every single container I could, as I typically do in games such as this. Also, the game promised that you could return to previous areas, however, I didn’t find myself wanting to veer much off the path because the plot is so compelling. I suppose it’s the gaming equivalent to a page turner and, in the end, you realize you spent a decent amount of money for a relatively short amount of time and even though you got the payoff you were looking for, you’re still somewhat sad that it all ended so soon.

The only other problem is that this game is governed exclusively by AutoSave. There is no manual save feature which means that, if you want to quit in an odd spot, you can’t just put it down and walk away without potentially losing some progress. You need to make it to the next checkpoint before you can drop it and walk away. This is likely to lose some casual gamers (who Ken Levine said they were trying to attract) but isn’t likely to cause much issue for the intermediate to the hardcore.

There’s also some DLC in the works as they’re offering the newly popular “season pass” option for US$20. It’s a linear story but, in the end, you find out why DLC will be cruicial to expanding that story. That means there’s a crazy twist. It is a BioShock game, after all. I wouldn’t expect less.

I believe that this is almost assuredly going to be Game of the Year award-winning over multiple publications. It is an absolute must have and, although there are a few easter eggs thrown in for you Rapture veterans, it can easily be played and thoroughly enjoyed by the five or so people who didn’t play either of the first two BioShock games.

I’ll shut up now so you can go play.

Bidula’s Last Word – 9.9/10. I just wish it was a little longer…

Keep fighting the good fight, would you kindly?

—end transmission—

Bidula’s Last Word: The Pinball Arcade (or, How I Avoided the Obvious Reference to The Who in My Title)

Emulators are God’s gift to retrogaming.

Most of you already know this, though there are those among you who have since ranked-out of the gaming world. You may not realize that, through the right channels, you can download emulators which will allow you to play just about any game across any system ever invented without the necessity of a trip to the used section of GameStop or a weekend expedition to the Flea Market. The only downshot to this method of play is that, to get the good stuff, you have to go to the internet equivalent of the classic shady dirt mall and what you download may not be what exactly you wanted. Caviat Emptor. Or, in this case, Caviat Ereptor.

Emulation is usually associated with console or arcade gaming. In my normal course of farting around research, I realized that there was a different type of emulation which completely blew my mind: Pinball Machine Emulators.

Pinball is a lost art. Many enjoy playing, but few are made and even fewer are made available. Usually you can’t get a good game of pinball without specifically seeking it out. Even at that, some places may not have the specific machine for which you are searching. If they do, there’s a good chance it’s in some random state of disrepair.

Thanks to the magic of modern physics engines and next-gen graphics, you can play an emulated table from the comfort of your own home.

While there is a decent underground community dedicated to building every pinball machine ever made within an emulation program, this is still a black market thing. After some additional searching (due to the fact that I didn’t want to deal with any bullshit with the internet dirt mall) I found that there are a few white-market fully endorsed pinball emulators, though they cost some scratch to get.

Specifically, Farsight Studios’ The Pinball Arcade. This game, available for download through most consoles, iPad/Phone, and Android currently has a total of 14 machines available for play (Android only, consoles and iProducts are waiting for the expansions). Most of them are available as a “free version” that cuts your game off when it reaches a certain score. Once you realize the reality of this, however, you won’t see much of a problem with shelling out the necessary dough to get some of your favorite pinball machines of all time in a perfect working state and on-demand.

Machines include the “greatest hits” of Bally, Williams, and Stern including Black Hole, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Theatre of Magic, Bride of Pinbot, Cirqus Voltaire, Funhouse, Monster Bash, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. 8 more titles are lined up for future release including such favorites as Attack from Mars and Star Trek: TNG.

While these titles are all well and good (and also very fun to play), the main attraction for me was what may be the greatest pinball machine of the modern era: Medieval Madness.

The attraction here is that it’s rare enough that you find a Medieval Madness machine to play on and even more rare when you find one in full working condition. Medieval Madness was extremely fun in the flesh but was also very prone to breakage. Some triggers wouldn’t fire when passed over, some had trolls that were imbedded into the board and unable to lift, and let’s not even get into the mechanics of the castle…

I once told myself I would never pay for any app on Android, however, I had to violate my own rule for the thought of getting this table unlocked (free cuts you off at 7,000,000). To have a carbon copy of that machine miniaturized and on my phone, available for play at any dull moment was too big a temptation to resist. Let me tell you, I can smell the coffee and cigarettes of the Oakland Beehive every time I play.

Tables cost $2.99 a piece and are usually sold bundled with one other table for $4.99. I went the bundle option and got both Medieval Madness and Bride of Pinbot in their full glory. I am tempted to pick up some more tables, but I’m content with the two I have for now.

For those of you who need to game on the ultra-cheap and want to take this puppy for a test run, fear not. Android users have the advantage of one table being named “table of the month” allowing full version play of that table. No scoring cap and only a short billboard ad between games.

Controls are interesting. The console versions make use of the trigger buttons for flippers and the shoulder buttons for nudging the table. Android and iUsers simply touch the lower left and right of the table for flippers, the upper parts for nudging. There is also a setting (at least on the Android version) to allow a shaking the phone to nudge the table. You can tilt, so be careful and don’t get too violent.

Multiplayer (though not online yet) is available allowing the max number of players that would normally be on every table. Understand that I am very serious when I say that these are exact replicas of their respective tables in every way. Popping up trolls can toss the ball into the glass on Medieval Madness. They seriously thought of every aspect including the score screen (which hovers in the upper left hand corner of the screen, small enough to be out of the way but big enough to watch).

The game also offers a pause feature – one of the many things I would have loved as I stood in the old ‘Hive pinball room with an ashtray on the glass and a smoke dangling from my lip.

My only problem with this masterpiece? Lag. I play on a Samsung Galaxy S II, which is a fantastic phone for this sort of thing given its dual-core processor. However, I must always remember to clear the RAM before running this game. At best, it’s smooth and lifelike. At worst, it’s only slightly choppy but the flippers may not respond with the proper timing for which you had hoped.

All in all, for nostalgia’s sake, I strongly recommend this game. It’s fully licensed and has very few problems. Also, based on the update schedule on my phone, I can see that the developers are very attentive to any issues.

Though I miss the days when I could play the tactile version (and trust me, there’s a curve of adjustment), this does very well in recreating both the elation and frustration of real-world pinball.

Bidula’s Last Word: 8.5/10. Repect to the Oakland Hive. May she ever rest in peace.

Keep fighting the good fight.

—end transmission—

I Sense a Soul In Search of Answers… (Bidula’s Last Word – Diablo III)

As a cheap-ass gamer, I typically don’t buy anything upon release.

Lately, I’ve been thriving on backlogged titles picked up during the big sales on Steam or the rare used or borrowed Xbox game.  I have become exceedingly good at this, even going so far as to mooch a login so I could mess around with Minecraft in single player just for something to do (thanks, Janna).

There were three games for which I knew I would pay full retail within 2012: Mass Effect 3, Diablo III, and Bioshock: Infinite.  Now that one of those titles has been pushed back to 2013, I suppose I’ve hit my quota.  Or, I’ve got room to fit one more retail release into my budget before the year is out.  Either way, my main purchases are already done.

I knew that picking up Diablo III would certainly not be a waste of money.  If it was anything like its predecessors, I was looking at a game I would be playing hardcore for the next three months minimum, but probably off-and-on for at least a year before putting it down for a while and picking it up again six months later for another fresh playthrough.

I was not wrong.  Stay a while and listen.

Yes, this is a game I’m going to be playing for a very long time.  With a unique experience within all five classes and, of course, the ever-random maps, ever-random drops, and sporadically occurring events, it will take some time to become truly bored.

The big question which was on everyone’s mind when this was first announced was: “Is DIII going to live up to its predecessors?”  Most notably, the question was would it live up to Diablo II, which persevered within the gamer underground long after its sell-by date.

I think it has the potential to do so, however, DIII is a much more controlled experience.  Blizzard, gleaning a bit from that small-time indie MMO of theirs which is still underground and never really met with much success, has tightened the reins on this iteration of their franchise.  They have also used their MMO experience to help determine what works and what doesn’t in a good game, resulting in a list of pros and cons as long as Deckard Cain’s beard.

Firstly, Blizzard has found the sweet spot in their financial game: Expansion Packs.  WoW, over three (soon to be four, I understand) different retail expansions has taught them how to use choke points to limit progress while still keeping the player base challenged and interested.  Sure, there are level caps, but then there are achievements, tiers of armor, honor points, faction credit, heroic dungeons, 40-man raids… things like this keep a hardcore gamer interested without making more than a few simple changes to the game.  They can prove their l33t-ness without actually seeing an increase in their level.

While DIII sheds much of the MMO aspect (notably opting to drop the first “M” and just go with “MO”), it retains a lot of the tricks.  There is a level cap.  There are increasing levels of difficulty (added to give that end-game challenge).  There are, within each class, different play styles though they don’t resemble the ones in DII or WoW in the sense that you’re not limited to one specialization within a three skill tree system.  Your spec can change at any moment.  You can drag and drop abilities into your hotbar at will.  You don’t need to spend time planning how to build you character, you can do so on the fly and change it at will.  There are no more skill points, no more attribute points… instead, everything simply unlocks at certain levels and your gear can help flesh out the rest.

I’ve heard some complaints that this system is simplified.  Duly noted, however, you have to see Blizzard’s angle here.  They have the opportunity to cash in on a more casual market which may have felt alienated by the set-in-stone skill choices of the past.  Now, you can see how everything works without having to spend 50 levels getting that one skill you thought would be cool only to find out that it is about as effective as shooting rainbows and has the damage capabilities of a feather pillow at point blank range.  Hardcore vets of Diablo and WoW are used to careful build planning, where to put points, how to construct the perfect character for just what they want to do.  The option is still there, but this time you get to pick from everything instead of being limited to just that one specialization.  Every gamer has had that moment where you get to a point in the story and you mutter “damn, if only I would have spec’d up in (blank) this would be so much easier.”  Well, now that lamented lost ability is only a mouse-click away.  Not a bad thing, in my opinion, but I could see it as nails on a chalkboard to some.

You’ve also got the ascending difficulty chain, which, it seems, Blizzard is more actively encouraging this time around.  I’m a seasoned gamer but I realize that to have the most fun with things, one generally stays away from difficulty settings named “Nightmare” or “Hell”, at least on the first playthrough, to keep things more enjoyable and less frustrating.  In DIII, these settings must be unlocked by completing the game at the difficulty below.  They’re also actively encouraging total completion by making it extremely difficult to hit the level cap within normal difficulty.  From what I can see this time around, it seems as though Blizzard has wisely geared the game toward this.  With every level I progress, it seems that the game scales in difficulty to match my new capabilities much better than any past release.  This keeps things challenging and doesn’t allow for the sheer dominance provided by a second-normal playthrough on DII.  Slightly less satisfying (because you can’t just romp about one-shotting things into oblivion) but definitely more engaging.  The increase in challenge feels organic.  Natural.

The main flaw is that out of the box with a level cap seems like a ploy for more money.  Yes, I understand the marketing of it.  This is the downside of what made WoW such a great game.  Once people reach the end of that challenge phase, they’re going to get bored.  And, oh, what’s this?  Uncle Blizz just showed up with some more shit for you.  Here, have Level 70.  Here, have a bit more content.  Here, maybe a few new classes will help you stick around longer.  It’s pure genius, really.  Our culture (meaning gamer culture, of course) is so devoted that, most times, we’ll buy whatever they’re selling, damn the cost.  We just want to get some more mileage out of the game we love.

Set items, socket runes, and other aspects of DII were left out specifically for this reason.  Can’t say I blame Blizzard for doing so.  I’ll be among the first in line for the expansion (of which, Blizz says, there will be many).  My main problem with DIII, and mainly with gaming in general at this point, is the marketing and selling of incomplete games for beaucoup bux with the foreknowledge that gamers will happily plunk down US$40 more on the additional material for the game they’ve already spent US$60 buying.  This trend is rampant and it will never stop.

That’s another rant for another day…

Is DIII fun?  Yes.  Is DIII worth your money?  Absolutely.  Will I give you my B.net ID so you can play along with me?  Probably, but remember, I’m more of a single-player guy these days.  Don’t expect me to run with you every night.  I left the MMO world so that I wouldn’t have to plan my life around this stuff.

Another big question is “Will DIII run on my computer?”  The answer is yes, unless you’re running some 10-year-old shit box.  I’ve got a 4-year-old lappy running it just fine.  A little lag when the destruction gets heavy, but nothing too shocking.  I almost dropped 800+ on a new performance machine just because I thought the thing would crash my current computer.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that it runs and looks just fine, even though some of my settings are a bit lower than I would like.  If you’re in it for the game and not for the pageantry of graphics (as in, needing to see all shadows and every blade of freaking grass), then you’re good to go.  I’ll still probably end up picking up a new rig, but the ability to run DIII on my machine without issue has lengthened my time table significantly.

Bidula’s Last Word – 8.5/10  Get this game.  It’s fun as hell.

Keep fighting the good fight.

—end transmission—

A Long Road to the End: 2700 Words on the Ending of Mass Effect 3 and Why it Actually Works

Be warned: This post will be full of spoilers. For those of you that didn’t play the Mass Effect Series, move along. There’s nothing for you here. This is one man’s attempt to rationalize the perceived “shitty ending” to a large-scale gaming franchise. If you did play the ME series and you haven’t yet finished the game, do not read beyond this paragraph unless you want details.

That said, here’s why I think Mass Effect 3’s ending hides awesomeness among the bullshit most people seem to see.

I’ve read and watched a few theorists bring the thought of the “indoctrinated ending”. According to this theory, as Shepard is struck by Harbinger’s laser while running toward the Citadel transit beam, he is knocked unconscious. What follows is the result of Reaper indoctrination.
Before you throw this theory out the window, remember this: indoctrination is not conversion. Indoctrination is not what creates husks, brutes, banshees, etc., Reaper conversion is. The main difference between the two being that indoctrination is able to influence people to think the Reapers are correct in their motivation. Indoctrination is a tool to subdue the populous and make the job of the Reapers easier. It is also used to control non-converted beings.
Matriarch Benezia. Saren. the Illusive Man, the doctor from Arrival whose name escapes me at the moment… these people were not acting of their own free will the entire time. They believed that they were and each was brought to a realization of Reaper control and fought against it in their last minutes. Even Saren and the Illusive Man, though partially Reaper converted, could fight against indoctrination, ultimately deciding to end their lives rather than continue to serve the Reapers and the ultimate destruction of all organic life (a nice sort of full-circle scene from 1 to 3, if you took the Paragon options).
Back to the subject, indoctrination does not require any implantation or noticeable manipulation. Indoctrination is transmitted through a field given off by Reaper artifacts and, most notably, Reapers themselves via prolonged contact.

No, the Citadel and the Mass Relays do not count. Indoctrination is not necessary until the end of the cycle. The Reapers are too smart to pop that one too early.

Being that he was within close (Reaper relative) contact with Harbinger during the time of the blast and, as the screen went white, possibly knocked unconscious, this leaves Shepard off-guard and ripe for indoctrination. Also, it can be argued that evidence of indoctrination shows before this through the dream sequences and the little boy who Shepard can’t seem to forget. Some may even argue that Reaper-tech was used in Shepard’s rebuilding or that, due to his prolonged interactions with the Reapers and their agents, Shepard sees things that aren’t there or that the Reapers want him to see.
The theory continued that everything happening beyond the white out when the laser strikes was an indoctrinated vision wherein Shepard communicated with the Reapers and, as the defacto representative of all galactic civilization (including even the Geth and the Rachni if you played your cards right), Shepard is given, by the Reapers, the ultimate choice of the fate of this cycle.
Speaking with the Catalyst (who I’ll get to later), you’re given two paths (possibly three) meant to confuse you as the player. If you pay attention to what the Catalyst says and does, this is very apparent.

The Catalyst represents the “creator” of the Reapers and reveals that their goal is to wipe out all advanced organic life to bring order to the chaos of the galaxy. Shepard, uncharacteristically, listens with intent to the propaganda that his ultimate enemy is spewing. The Catalyst reveals that, at this point, two things are certain: 1. Earth will be spared, and 2. The Mass Relays and the Citadel will be destroyed. No matter what you do, these are inevitable. At this point, you’re given a blue path, a red path, and potentially a green path. Blue, as you’ve been lead to believe through three games, is the Paragon way to go, however, it allows the Reapers to survive and also elicits a suspicious expression from the Catalyst when this option is taken as he stays online enough to have Shepard look back and see him sort of smirk. Is this really the blue/Paragon way to proceed? Shepard “controls” the Reapers at this point and, because we all know what kind of guy Paragon Shepard is, he’ll probably manipulate them while he’s still able to reconstruct some of the mass relays and possibly even the Citadel. Happy ending, right? Space is still traversable, everything goes back to status quo.
Until the work is done. Given that the Alliance with all the help in the galaxy could construct the Crucible from nothing but some ancient-ass Prothean blue prints and raw materials in the span of, say, a month while Shepard’s out in space? Two months? Six, tops? How long is it going to take the Reapers, the most advanced synthetic species in anything ever ever, to rebuild the relays and their giant, live-in death trap? Give it a year or five… maybe.
Once the work is done, the Reapers disappear into Dark Space never to be heard from again… until the next cycle, 50k years from the end of ME3, when hundreds of thousands of generations have come and gone thinking that the Reapers would never return. 50k more years for Prothean markers to be further pushed into obscurity. 50k years without ever thinking a warning is necessary. So, the Reapers skip a cycle. When you’re an undying, nigh-invincible, gigantic machine race that can survive outside of the galaxy, all you have is time. By then, Shepard’s personality will be just another voice in the endless chorus of souls inside the Reaper enclave.

Then, of course, there’s the red/Renegade option. The indoctrination theory contends that, as soon as Shepard begins to do real damage to the power conduit that will destroy the Reapers forever, the Catalyst image fades away, almost as if it is upset with Shepard’s decision. This, in my mind, proves that what Shepard is doing in this sequence is right for the galaxy at large, but very wrong for the Reapers.
If they’re all dead, the Catalyst’s continuation of the cycle dies as well. What we see here is that Blue and Red have stopped being what’s good or bad for Shepard, the galaxy, and anyone out there fighting the Reaper threat. Blue has become what’s good for the Reapers, red has become their downfall. The only way that these choices would appear as such to Shepard would be indoctrination.

There’s also the matter of the green beam. The merging of synthetic and organic life which is referred to by the Catalyst. While you may read the above and think this is the happy middle ground, think again. This is just another Reaper trick to win. If synthetic and organic life forms are merged and balanced, the cycle is complete. Order is wrought from chaos per the Reapers’ MO and they leave Earth and pull out of the galaxy until the next cycle, but they’ll be back in 50k years to settle the score when shit gets out of line again.

If you have enough resources tapped and you take the “destroy” or “synthesis” options, you also get the little bonus scene of Shepard’s chest plate with the N7 dogtag gasping for breath in a pile of rubble.
You will notice, first, that this pile of rubble is made up of concrete and other clear pieces of decimated Earth city. Some contend that Shepard “fell from the Citadel” but I think that’s going a bit far. Shepard has survived a lot, but a plunge from upper Earth orbit back to the ground, landing on your back in a shattered cityscape and somehow not dying of suffocation or burning alive upon re-entry? Simply, no. Indoctrination while KO’ed in London is the logical fit in this instance. Oh, and the “control” option doesn’t get this ending because Shepard merged his consciousness with the Reapers, so he’s dead-dead-dead.

There are a few other details that support this. The fact that Anderson was “right behind you” yet somehow winds up on the Citadel FAR ahead of you, slogging through the same dark hallway you’re in, opening the same giant door to the same bright chamber you enter (without you seeing any evidence of light) and also Anderson’s general stature while working the console. He looked very robotic and strange while the Illusive Man moved as fluidly as he ever did.
Also, you’re running with your squad and they don’t show? You’re probably running with any weapon other than a pistol but it’s the only one you wake up with IN YOUR HAND ALREADY? Too much left undone. Too much missed. Indoctrination.

In conclusion of part one, the Indoctrination Theory holds some weight. However, I have developed an alternative theory based on the post-credits scene which seems to make perfect sense and also explains the fate of the Normandy after the blast begins destroying the relays.

The Grandfather didn’t know the full details of the end of the story. Plain and simple. This explains why things were nebulous and unexplainable. Everything that happened after the laser hit Shepard as he ran was all purely speculation or fabrication. Except the Reapers dying/leaving and the synthesis if you chose that option.

The history of Shepard is extremely well-documented within the ME universe. The Alliance has a file on him detailing all of his exploits. So does Cerberus. So does C-Sec and the Citadel Council. On that turn, all the Citadel Races probably have a copy of whatever file as well if not investigations they’ve done on their own. There’s also the matter of the logs of the Normandy and the Codex Shepard probably left behind in his quarters. Every element in all three games is logged, stored, and filed away in multiple places… except those last few minutes after the Harbinger beam hit.
The impression you get from the old man and the kid in the field after the credits is that this is a story to which “the details have been lost to time”. The details were probably very well known in generations prior. The details of the main portions of the game could have been accounted for in any of the aforementioned historical and accurate archives. There would probably even be the (disappointing) picture of Tali’s face stowed away in there if you happened to choose that romance. Proof. Evidence. Facts which have since become legend, passed down since the end of the cycle.
In order to get some closure to the facts and figure out what happened in those missing last moments of the Battle of Earth, people did what they always did when confronted with an unknowable question: made that shit up. Seeing as no one could know the full details except Shepard himself, they grafted on the ending as a way to close everything out. Illusive Man dies (possibly in a more noble fashion), Anderson dies (also in a noble fashion), and Shepard “dies” in the most noble fashion possible.
Much of history now is a misconception and remember also that history is written by the victors. If they were going to build a Shepard statue on Earth or Akuze or wherever to commemorate his defeat of the Reapers, people would want details of what happened and wouldn’t care if those details were slightly on the false side as long as it sounded awesome. And it did. And Shepard became a legend.
This also explains the wreck of the Normandy, who survived, and where they ended up. The Normandy could have been completely destroyed or never left Earth orbit but, in order for the Old Man to give some significance to the story for the Kid, he made the Normandy crash on their planet. You’re always more interested if it’s got something to do with where you live. It could have been a total fabrication or it could have been told to the Old Man by his own Old Man when he was a Kid. You don’t see the races of these people, though the voices sound decidedly human as far as ME voices go. Personally, I think the Normandy crash was part of the legend told by the Old Man, not the facts.
The facts were probably much more simple than your squadmates abandoning you and somehow getting to the Normandy in space without a shuttle or pilot and under heavy enemy fire and beating the beam through the Charon Relay. It did not take Shepard long enough to decide the fate of the Reapers to allow all those things to happen. It makes for a better ending when you’re telling a kid about it. If you’ve ever told a kid a story, you know how sad they get if people die. Sure, Shepard “dies”, but Shepard is the legend. You have to give them hope that the legend lived on through his friends, who happened to crash land on your home planet. It’s the Old Man giving the Kid something to fantasize about.
Given that the crashed Normandy had bunches of humans on it in order to propagate the species, we’ll assume that the Old Man and the Kid are, indeed, human. Do remember that asari can reproduce with any species and that Garrus and Tali (beyond making out on the gunnery deck before the Battle of Earth if you didn’t romance Tali) are both the same dextro-amino configuration and, since Tali has the Geth suit upgrades allowing her to soon be able to go without the suit completely, meaning we could possibly have half-Quarian/half-Turian kids running around somewhere. Showing any amount of little blue girls or crazy Russian-accent, flanged-voice, half-bird things would tip us off to the fact that this was, for sure, the place where the Normandy landed.

To summarize, no matter how you might interpret the ending, the simple fact is that another Mass Effect game, at least in the same era with the same characters, is probably not going to happen. Bioware confirmed (though, it wouldn’t surprise me if they went back on it at some point) that this was the absolute last ME game involving Commander Shepard. Even if you got the N7 chest-heave before the credits hit, I believe this to be true. They’ve already done the “bring Shepard back from the dead” thing, they’re not going to use that twice.
If the destruction of the Mass Relays holds true then you’ve essentially cancelled the entire space opera. No faster-than-light travel makes for a pretty damn boring jaunt around the galaxy. Based on the physics of the galaxy map, you’d run out of fuel before making it half way to the next system from Earth let alone Palavan or Thessia or, God forbid, Rannoch.

Was I satisfied with all my choices boiling down to three different colored effects? No. Was I satisfied with the ending overall? Sorta. Would it have been nice to have some more closure on my squadmates and the rest of the galaxy? Yes, especially considering that without the Mass Relays, you have a WHOLE lot of alien fleets chilling in Earth orbit after the Reapers go away/are destroyed. Granted, there’s a lot less people on Earth when all is said and done, so all those Turians, Quarians, Drell, Hanar, Geth, Asari, Volus, Elcor, and the Merc Groups from the Terminus Systems are going to have a place to stay and build a society. Earth just became the galactic melting pot from which there is no escape and I’m interested in how that will go down in the future. Maybe that’ll be the plot of ME4.

I hoped for more and I’m sure you did, too, but all the people who just didn’t get what BioWare was (hopefully) getting at as mentioned above are the ones railing against the wall and petitioning for a new ending. More closure would be nice, but if you take anything above into consideration, it might wrap things up a little nicer for you.
/end dissertation
Keep fighting the good fight.

—end transmission—

Mass Effects, Mass Consequences

If you have any ounce of geek cred, you’re probably a fan of at least one sci-fi TV show or movie series. Wars, Trek, Galactica, Doctor Who, Firefly, Babylon 5, Farscape, Stargate, the list goes on and I know that you’ve watched at least one of these shows with some intensity. Even if high-tech space drama isn’t really your thing, you’ve probably watched some genre drama (Buffy, Angel, Lost, Walking Dead, etc.) with what is or could turn into an ensemble cast and you were really into it. You probably complained at some point because the episodes were intermittent or there weren’t enough seasons before it got cancelled or X character didn’t get enough screen time and they show too much of Y character. You may even think that it went on too long and they wound up beating a dead horse. These are the perils of genre drama fandom.

Now, have you ever wished you could interject in these shows? Have you ever wished that a particular scene could go a different way? Have you ever hoped and prayed for a character to change so you’d like them even more? Have you ever wished that you had some control over who lived and died? Have you ever wanted one character to punch that other really annoying character right in the face?
If you haven’t met yet, friend, I’d like to introduce you to the Mass Effect series.

It’s not a usual thing where I jump out for a video game as soon as it’s released. My only recent notable exception was Portal 2, but everyone needs Portal 2, and if you don’t, you’re a blood-sucking communist pig.

Mass Effect 3 was probably my most anticipated title of the year. More than Bioshock Infinite. More than Diablo III. I wanted ME3 because, the more I thought about it, I would essentially be buying season 3 of one of my favorite sci-fi TV shows.
The Mass Effect Series follows the ongoing adventures of Commander Shepard and the crew of his ship, the SSV Normandy, as they fly around and save the galaxy from a super-ancient enemy race known as The Reapers. Decent enough logline for a TV show pitch, right?
The original Mass Effect was gripping though it caught some flak by hard-core action gamers because the game is very (read: VERY) dialogue heavy and very character-driven. There’s quite a bit of mayhem along the way – shooting things, disintegrating people, blowing stuff up, battles against crazy blue psionic commando women, giant sand worms, and one particular robot space squid of doom – but there’s also a lot of political intrigue and moral quandary in which you can participate. You can choose a romantic interest (with an actual developing relationship, unlike some other games). You choose who lives or dies (well, let’s be frank, you choose who dies). You control your destiny and the shape of the galaxy by the time the game is over and you watch Shepard and his companions evolve from their former lives into known galactic heroes.

Mass Effect 2, same deal, improved combat system, even more character development both for Shepard and his companions. Many new faces appear, many old faces show up again, new threats arise, and old threats are presented in new ways. Again, you have the ability to control the fate of your companions as the game introduced loyalty missions corresponding to each character. Most of these missions helped to expand a particular characters background and drew you to become more attached to that particular character, not to mention the conversations you’ll probably wind up having with them on the Normandy during your time between missions. It also opens up new romantic possibilities, allowing you to pursue something now or stay true to your love from the first Mass Effect. Also, every choice you made in the first game has relevance here. If you decided to save X, X is back and has something to do with the plot. If X died in ME1, X is replaced by Y, who you may or may not know as well, and the story may play out differently for you than it did for the person who saved X or did X or didn’t do X. Your final ME1 save game file is imported and everything you’ve done along with it.

Then, we get to ME3. Slated to be the final Mass Effect game, ME3 takes into account tons of variables from both ME1 and ME2, if you played them, which you should have considering jumping right in to ME3 is like jumping on to a TV show when it’s in its final season and you haven’t done your proper homework.

Everyone you’ve ever met or helped or who ever ran with you ever ever is back in this game. Everyone important, anyway. That is, as long as they survived through ME1 and ME2 (very possible none of them could have). It’s a special treat as you play through, seeing all the old faces, seeing how people have changed and grown over the past three games. Again, much life and death, and much dramatic conclusion to be reached. I really can’t say more than that for fear of spoiling you. I don’t want to spoil you for anything in this series because it’s all so awesome (except maybe the ME3 ending, but don’t let that stop you from playing, it’s still REALLY EFFING GOOD).

Each mission in the Mass Effect Series plays out like one episode of a TV show. From the Pilot (Eden Prime in ME1) to the Finale (The Battle of Earth in ME3). Each has its own supporting cast, its own themes, and its own part to play in the overall storyline of the series.

For anyone out there looking for a show to latch on to seeing as most of the good ones are either over, soon to be season-ended, or currently on a long hiatus, forget Netflix for one second, dust off the ol’ Xbox, and get the Mass Effect Trilogy. It’s more well-written than most shows, the soundtrack and sound effects are killer, and the animation doesn’t look as crappy. Where something would obviously be after-effect’s in and look like garbage compared to the real actors, this is a video game, and it all goes together seamlessly.

Yes, the writing is killer. Yes, the voice acting is awesome. Yes, Martin Sheen plays one of the villains (ME2 and 3). Yes, this is totally worth your time.

If you were to purchase the Mass Effect Trilogy, it would require approximately 100 hours of your time. Not for straight story, but because you’ll want to do every little innocuous sidequest and use every possible dialogue option because of the treasures, both gameplay- related and character-related, you’ll uncover. Plotline only, you’d kick it around 75 hours or so, which is about three seasons worth of a TV show (coincidentally).

Right now, you can pick up ME1 and ME2 for practically peanuts. They’ll take you enough time (playing casually) that, by the time you’ve got your ideal save file for ME3 ready to rock, it’ll probably be less than $60.

One last thing… Was I disappointed in the ending? There’s been quite a bit of backlash on the internet about this one with people saying it was unsatisfying.
I feel satisfied. That’s all I’ll say. I’ll let you make your own judgement. This is not one of those LOST situations where the ending sucked the whole way ‘round. This is purely a matter of opinion.

Grandpa, tell me another story about the Sheperd…

BTW: Bidula’s Last Word on Mass Effect 3 – 10/10. All the way.

Keep fighting the good fight.

—end transmission— (Hackett out.)