Listening to many gamers and critics prattle on about Mass Effect 2 is kind of like listening to a teenager talk about their first love. The game, they say, can do no wrong. It’s a pure, perhaps even blind sort of love, and at first glance, it’s well-deserved. But no videogame – no matter how much of its dialogue is delivered in Martin Sheen’s seductively raspy warble – is perfect. Problem is, many of Mass Effect 2’s detractors are picking on the wrong “flaw.”
For Mass Effect 2, the word of the day that’s got nitpickers screaming like they’re on an episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is “streamlined.” Or, in many cases, its more derogatory cousin: “dumbed-down.” “Mass Effect 2’s not even an RPG anymore,” many of them hoot and holler. “It’s just a shooter with RPG elements!” Now, ignoring the fact that large chunks of Mass Effect 2 see Shepard holstering his sticks and stones in favor of words so that the player can -- you know -- play a role, streamlining the game’s combat doesn’t diminish its effect. In fact, I’d even argue that it allows for greater strategic depth. Problem is, many gamers still cling to dusty, archaic notions of what certain genres should be, which – in my opinion – is keeping those genres stuck firmly in the Stone Age.
There are a few signature characteristics of Call of Duty games—at least, the ones developed by series-creator Infinity Ward. First, the games feel real. The story unfolds as you play through a conflict as a few normal soldiers—regular guys on the ground who find themselves thrust into extraordinary events. They aren’t supermen. The campaigns are plausible, even if they’re fictionalized or set in the near future, reinforcing the feeling that the experience could take place in the real world. The third characteristic is that there’s usually a deep, engaging multiplayer experience thrown in the game for free. Unfortunately, in this outing, Infinity Ward whiffed on all three counts, much to our dismay.
Let’s start with the seven-hour single-player campaign. Instead of playing as normal grunts in this year’s entry, you end up playing as junior varsity supermen—an American soldier who’s always in the wrong place at the wrong time and the protégé of one of the characters you played in the first Modern Warfare. While none of the characters you play are named Jor-El, they’re a long way from the untrained Russian conscript who was handed a single clip and chained to the guy with the rifle at Stalingrad in the first Call of Duty. This creates a sense of unreality that’s reinforced by the game’s ludicrous plot twists and completely unbelievable characters. (Warning, spoilers appear in the next paragraph!)
In some ways, Mass Effect 2 is the anti-Dragon Age. Whereas Bioware’s other RPG is an overwhelmingly expansive epic that consumes serious role-players, this sci-fi sequel (part two of a planned trilogy) is a cinematic adventure that propels players through its character-driven story with a sense of urgency. In that sense, it never feels like the same game Bioware released only two months ago, and surpasses the original Mass Effect in its ability to draw you into its mythology.
Like the first game, Mass Effect 2 is equal parts Roddenberry and Lucas—a space saga that combines the interplanetary politics and heroic adventuring of Star Trek with the gritty personality and blaster-duels of Star Wars.
Borderlands is an undeniably fun game with a killer concept, innovative game mechanics, a gorgeous art style, and kick-ass cooperative gameplay, but it also includes some frustrating design choices that require the player to bend to the limitations of the game. If you can do that, and you enjoy shooters and Diablo-esque action RPGs, you’re going to love this game.
The sales pitch for Borderlands is simple: It’s first-person Diablo… with guns. While exploring a large, open, post-apocalyptic world, you complete quests, collect loot, and go on adventures with up to three of your pals. While it may sound like Fallout 3, Borderland’s shooter heritage is obvious—the combat is fast and furious without the maddening influence of a random-number generator to take your shots off target. The game feels more like Quake than any RPG.
Id Software didn’t develop the latest Wolfenstein, but the sequel to its genre-founding 1991 classic Wolfenstein 3D absolutely captures the meaning of the studio’s name: an impulsive, stimulating shooter full of gory, colorful, mindless gunplay.
Wolfenstein embraces over-the-top action like a summer blockbuster movie. As U.S. super-operative B.J. Blazkowicz, you’re tasked with foiling the Nazis’ latest evil archaeology: They’ve dug up ancient medallions and energy crystals to build some scary sci-fi weaponry. The medallions let their holders access a shadow dimension called the Veil, and when B.J. gets his hands on one, it grants him a set of powers that augment his gunfightin’—slow-mo, a personal shield, enhanced damage, and turquoise-colored “Veil sight” that lets him see in the dark.
Though these Veil abilities operate similarly to BioShock’s plasmids, they aren’t the focus of Wolfenstein. Nor is B.J. himself. Instead, it’s the arsenal: Nazi-melters like the particle cannon, a Ghostbusters-like hose that sprays gallons of disintegrating blue-green energy. Or the Tesla gun, a spinning iron coil that feels like an exposed power transformer and sends deadly jolts through anyone you point it at. Basic firearms like the MP40 and KAR 98 are also available, ready to pop the limbs off endless identical Nazi privates.
Does the world really need a Left 4 Dead sequel already?
We love killing zombies. When Left 4 Dead came out, we feared that eventually we’d tire of returning the walking dead back to the hell from which they spawned, but it turns out we didn’t. However, we did quickly tire of the lame “optimal” ways that hardcore gamers developed to beat Left 4 Dead campaigns in the most efficient—yet boring—manner possible.
Enter Left 4 Dead 2. The biggest change to the established formula is the redesigned finales and crescendos—those mid-level events that attract unending hordes of zombies. Instead of simply finding a good closet and holing up for 15 minutes, popping out only to kill the occasional tank, the crescendos now require you to keep moving—either to reach a goal or collect and deliver items. The zombie closet is no more, and we don’t miss it at all.
We’ve been saying it for years: The moment they stop messing around with rushed, under-funded movie tie-ins and make a real Batman game, we’ll have a huge hit on our hands. With Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady has proved us right—this game finally does justice to the Dark Knight by recreating the monstrous foes, the dark, gritty atmosphere, and Batman’s legendary fighting skills to near perfection.
Arch nemesis Joker, in particular, is a masterpiece. Voiced by Mark Hamill (reprising the role from Batman: The Animated Series) and modeled and animated with some astonishing detail and lighting, he’s genuinely convincing as the deranged, murderous clown who turns the tables on Batman by seizing control of Arkham, Gotham’s supervillain lock-up.
To the shooter enthusiast who laments auto-aim, refuses regenerating health, tires of over-protective cover systems, balks at recoilless rocket launchers, and rolls his eyes at infinite respawns, Arma 2 is a love letter perfumed in cordite.
You’re a member of Razor Team, a Marine squad deployed by the United States to assist the Chernorussian government against a well-armed insurgency. Your fire team hits the ground with weapons and equipment modeled after real-life counterparts, tackling objectives with patient tactics as the conflict evolves into a full civil war.
But narrative (even if it’s more of an asset to Arma 2 than its predecessor) isn’t the draw. For gamers who grew up with titles like Comanche, the original Rainbow Six games, and Operation Flashpoint (which was also created by developer Bohemia Interactive), Arma 2 is a platform of comprehensive war realism that appeases those who value complexity, don’t mind obscure keyboard shortcuts (hit Enter on your Num Pad to change between first/third person), appreciate accurate audio modeling (if a tank explodes a mile away, you’ll hear it five seconds after it actually blows up), and know that an M-16 can’t kill someone from three miles away (hello, Call of Duty).
Not many games let you turn your arm into a long steel blade and cut people in half—top half going this-a-way, bottom half going that-a-way. Even fewer let you turn your hands into giant claws to cut off your victims’ legs, too. And as far as we know, not one has ever let you run diagonally up the side of building, skitter over a collapsing fire escape, and take a leaping vault off the roof as your hand—now a 50-yard whip—tags a hovering ’copter and reels you toward the cockpit to the horror of the doomed pilots. Such is the awesome power you’ll wield in Prototype, Activision’s apocalyptic and wildly entertaining third-person action-adventure.
Events begin grimly, as Alex Mercer wakes up in a morgue. He quickly discovers that he’s become a nearly indestructible shape-shifter capable of creating weapons out of his flesh and disguising himself as anyone he consumes, among other interesting abilities—such as making giant spikes pop out of the ground to skewer his enemies. So, when the amnesiac Mercer wanders topside into a plague-ridden Manhattan and finds himself pursued by crazed pedestrians, the military, and genetic mutants, he doesn’t hesitate to break out the cutlery.
It’s been nearly four years since the Xbox 360 helped consoles get their graphical groove back, which – of course – kicked off the current console generation. Time flies, doesn’t it? The Xbox 360, then -- if we’re going by Tech Standard Time (TST) -- should now be on its last legs. A dinosaur on its death bed, facing extinction by the meteoric approach of a new “next-gen” Microsoft console. But it’s not. In fact, if Microsoft and Sony have things their way, the current console generation will keep on chugging along for another five years.
Not long ago, for us PC gamers and our beefy, ever-evolving rigs, this would have been a moot point – or even a nice bit of superiority to hold over console gamers’ heads. “Our graphics are prettier than yours! Neener-neener-neener!” But times have changed. PC exclusives are few and far-between, and many are only one mediocre first week of sales away from being ported to consoles (*cough*Crysis*cough*). The large majority of games are unable to take full advantage of PC hardware, because consoles and their aging innards are holding everyone else back. Sorry state of affairs, ain’t it?