Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Caribbean Dictators in SPACE!: Reviews of some videogames.

I'm sure that most of my readers friends you guys have long since deducted that I have a mildly crippling videogame addiction, both from the subtle hints that I include in just about everything I write and the less subtle fact that I never leave the house. Your Holmes-like intuition has proved correct once again it seems as, yes, I do engage in tons of "any-goddamned-thing-BUT-real-life" simulators; and yes, it impacts on my already lazyness-marred productivity something fierce.

I've always wanted to write proper pieces about the activity that eats up the vast majority of my free time, but I've aways had the niggling sensation at the back of my mind that the infinitely cool members of my friends list just wouldn't care.
I mean, seriously now: VIDEOGAMES! Just think about the enormity of how much you don't care right now. Go on, just think about it.
Scary isn't it? You see what I'm working with here?

However, after having finally come to the inspiring conclusion that No-one cares about ramblings regardless of their subject matter, I've decided to share my thoughts on the latest four dastardly software-contributors to my eventual total emotional death anyway!

I recently bought Mass Effect and Tropico 3 for dirt cheap online, having heard good things about all of them. I'll give my thoughts on how they measured up:


"So uh, after we kill these dudes and save the galaxy from an army of robotic dreadnoughts bent on the total extermination of organic life, you wanna catch a movie or something? If we're not killed in some contrived plot twist I mean.

Mass effect is one of the newer games to be released by Bioware, the studio who developed Baldur's Gate and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Bioware are widely regarded as the kings of the Role Playing genre (i.e. games where you decide how your character develops as the game progresses, both in combat style and how he/she reacts to in game situations), but although character development, equipment arranging and conversation play a large part of Mass Effect's gameplay, the core combat revolves around cover-based shooting from a third person perspective a la Gears of War.

As in most RPG's, you choose a class for your character that caters for your preferred methods of inserting bullets into certain undesirables' faces. You have the soldier, who can use all types of weapons with which to shoot people in the face; the Biotic, who has a wonderful array of psychic ways of knocking people over so someone else can shoot them in the face, and the engineer, who throws explosive mines with a variety of effects that aid in the shooting of guys' faces by you and your somewhat useless companions. There are also hybrid classes that mix aspects of the existing base three (e.g. Soldier/Biotic or Engineer/Soldier). As you complete objectives, resolve problems and of course, engage in face-shootery, you gain "experience points" which allow you to gain combat abilities or upgrade old ones, once again, standard fare for a Bioware RPG.

The combat itself is where Mass Effect differs from the Dungeons & Dragons based battle systems that Bioware utilized in its other games (feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you're familiar with third-person cover-based shooters). When attacked by guys with faces deemed shootable by the game's moral code, you'll have to use cover to survive the deadly gunfire of your assorted opponents. taking out your weapons will make your character automatically stick to walls where, once attached, you can press the fire button to pop out quickly and shoot (before automatically ducking back into safety) or press the aim button to stay out of cover and shoot accurately using your weapon's sights for as long as you feel your face can risk it's consistency.

Fairly unique to shooter-gameplay is the ability to pause the game to issue orders to your two squadmates and queue an ability to be used accurately when you un-pause, so you can respond to threats tactically. Many missions also require exploration and combat within an armored buggy, which has some satisfyingly bouncy controls, but isn't used to do anything particularly interesting.

The combat is decent fun and keeps you on your toes both in terms of reflexes and tactical reasoning, and fighting your way through the often gorgeous setpieces is as thrilling an experience as you're likely to find without prying your gargantuanly lazy buttocks from your safe, comfy chair.

The stories of Bioware games are usually top-notch and defy the standard videogame premise of "There's aliens or terrorists or some shit and YOU (alongside your wisecracking ethnic sidekick) are the ONLY ONE who can STOP THEM!. In Mass Effect, a particularly unpleasant member of the galactic secret police has gathered a massive robotic army behind him to serve his mysterious agenda, while you (the only human member of this group) and your mostly alien squad have to...Waaaaaaiiit a minute.

Ok, so the premise isn't exactly oozing originality, but it certainly has its high points, not least of which is your cool, sinister antagonist, and a twist which brilliantly and hilariously both explains and parodies the game's own spotty sci-fi setting. More critical players may find some plot points to be a bit contrived and manipulative of one's emotions, but for the most part, it's Bioware doing what Bioware does best, making you genuinely give a shit about the lifeless polygons on your screen. Of course, the heart of every Bioware game is its characters, and fans of the studio's previous efforts will find learning about the game's universe through exploration and conversation with the game's great cast of characters to be as entertaining and fulfilling as ever, even if said characters lack the usual emotional depth seen in the studio's other efforts.

The conversation system itself, one of Bioware's signature features, which almost always appears in one form or another, is not without its flaws. Whereas other Bioware RPG's let you choose from a list of fairly complicated responses for your character that non-player characters (NPCs) will respond to (provoking your response and so on) Mass Effect provides a radial menu (seen in the following screenshot) with shorthand indications of the lines your voice acted character will say.

For example: Here's a screenshot of a conversation with the ruggedly handsome Wrex, one of your companions/squadmates/guys who hopefully die before you do. One of the ridiculously vague conversation choices for your character to say is "keep talking". Now, the dialog your character produces (and the direction of the conversation) only roughly follows the tone of the option you choose, and connotation-ambiguous stuff like "keep talking" can and WILL be interpreted in ways that you don't intend. You might choose "keep talking" thinking it means you'll say "Go on, I'm interested in your tales of reptilian badassery and want to be BFs-4-LYF" while the game might interpret it as "Tell me everything you know or I'll blow you back to the discovery channel!" or worse: "Oooh, keep talking, I like the way your sexy lizard lips move." You pretty much have to roll the dice at each turn and hope desperately that you don't get boned one way or another.

There are some other minor issues: The non-linear progression on the plot screws with the game's pacing in that you can inadvertently get too much conversation and too little action (or vice versa) in one stretch depending on order in which you do missions. The game is also a tad reliant on the lacklustre non-essential missions that have nothing to do with the main plot, since the missions on the main storyline can be very difficult if one hasn't gained the combat skills and equipment that these "side quests" offer.

Overall though, the game is great, and though it may be Bioware's worst game: calling it the worst thing to come out of the studio is hardly a major knock on its quality.
It's combat is fun and satisfying, it's world is great to fall in to, and its story, although somewhat mediocre by Bioware standards, is miles above most other studios' attempts to pull at your heart-strings.
4 pairs of space pants out of 5


I'm sure most of you have played some sort of simulator in the past, whether it be a game about the building of an expansive metropolis in "Simcity" or the micro-management of The Sims' pointless little lives. Tropico 3 takes all the best aspects from other simulation titles and combines them into a complex but relatively easy to learn sandbox of political buggery that will finally answer the age-old question of how how things would be "if only I was running things!"

You take the role of a small Caribbean island's new "El Presidente", and can subsequently either lead your small island nation to a future of prosperous democracy, embezzle your way through your own personal brand of dictatorship, or anything in-between; all within the context of the cold war-dominated mid-20th century. The game has a great sense of parody around it, and everything in the game, from the light-hearted propaganda spouted by your island's radio station to the loading-screen quotes by real-life dictators, seems to make fun of the kind of "democracy" that sprang up during the last century's dingier periods.

Where Tropico 3 really shines as a strategy/simulator is its ability to cater for any type of playstyle by offering the choice of many entertaining solutions to the many problems your island might face. For example, say it's early on in the game and the island's religious faction feels neglected because your burgeoning farming nation hasn't built a full-on cathedral yet: You can either tighten your belt and build the darn thing (after appealing for foreign aid from the USA by letting them test their nukes on your pristine tropical paradise), ignore the protestors and build up your military to fight off the inevitable rebel uprising, bribe, arrange an "accident" for the faction's leader or stage a public book burning and/or order a contraception ban to appease the rioting devout at the cost of education efficiency and a huge influx of job-requiring, food-guzzling, for-you-probably-not-voting youngsters respectively. Every choice has (highly amusing) consequences for your island, and the game has a great way of mixing in unforeseen consequences so you'll never fall into bored complacency in between show trials.

Aside from balancing approval of different factions on your island, and keeping the ever-looming forces of the USA and the Soviet Union from deciding to practice their invasion techniques on your dictatorial buttocks in the name of "democracy", Tropico 3's core gameplay revolves around construction of infrastructure and the managing of your Island's economy. Unlike most building sims, which tend to revolve around "build magic money generating structure X so you can build a few of non-profit building Y", Tropico 3 has a much more realistic system to be exploited in the interest of keeping the presidential slush fund healthy. Structures have to be built by hired construction workers, and goods produced from your farms, mines and other resource generating structures must be picked up by teamsters and shipped to your dock for export before the sweet caress of cash can fill the nation's coffers. More advanced industries (and their more advanced profit margins) require said resources to function, and must be staffed with educated employees, who must be either educated on the island or hired from abroad. Managing the different aspects of your country feels really stimulating, and as in most large-scale simulators it is immensely satisfying to build from this:

(Gotta love how every cent of the island's wealth has so far been invested solely in your presidential palace while your loyal subjects have barely a handful of shacks to their name.)

to this:

*Disclaimer: This republic was in no way contributed to by the selling, eating or concept of bananas.

You can also take direct control of your own avatar, who can boost buildings' efficiency and help out in military skirmishes with any rebels that don't buy into the idea of your presidential perfection.

The graphics are beautifully vibrant, the the engine remarkably optimised so that your island will be breathtaking at any level of zoom, while keeping the strain off of your computer's hardware. Foliage sways, buildings catch the sunlight with a realistic gleam and your citizens perform the myriad actions in their daily lives with realistic animation (even though you'l spend the majority of your precious presidential time hundreds of meters above them,where you won't see it).

The level of complexity might feel overwhelming for some, especially those not used to gaming problems that require more complex and premeditated solutions than "click on these bad guys with your death-laser equipped." Luckily the game features a tutorial and a set of campaign missions that will teach you how to deal with a variety of situations, while introducing all the wonderful ways to toy with the lives of lesser mortals. The game also features a level editor and a thriving online community with which to share custom scenarios and compare mission scores.

Overall, Tropico 3 is brilliant. It's beautiful, functional and entertaining at every turn, and the gameplay's economic and political depth will definitely satisfy the control-freak nerds among you. But that's also a problem. This is a game for nerds. Big nerds. The kind of nerds who watch Dr. Strangelove and discuss the political allegories of Watchmen in internet forums while fantasizing about revolutionary income-tax systems: My type of Nerd. Many might not derive the same level of fun from the game, but if you have the patience to discover it, the inner workings of Tropico 3 will give you everything you've ever wanted out of a management sim, while its lighthearted sense of satire will keep you chuckling throughout.
5 defrauded elections out of 5 (Though it might not be your cup of tea)

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