Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Blog Post: And the fans are shot down.

Not much else to say here but to express my complete disappointment with Nintendo's decision not to localize Xenoblade, The Last Story, and Pandora's Tower for North America. I purchased a Wii at launch as I did with the Gamecube. By choosing not to localize some great hardcore games that their system desperately needs, Nintendo's spitting in the face of what might be one of the biggest movements behind a Japanese title in quite a long time. It's an insult to their fanbase, a show of where their non-casual fans stand to them, and a decision that proves that Nintendo's quite cold-hearted. They thank us for being "incredible fans," but I don't feel like much of a fan right now.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Blog Post: An amazing thing to see (Xenoblade/Last Story/Pandora's Tower)

Well, look at that, people do want these games! Years ago, Nintendo acquired Monolith Soft from Namco. They were the studio responsible for the Xenosaga series of video games, and under Nintendo, they released Disaster: Day of Crisis and, more importantly, Xenoblade, regarded by both Japanese gamers and importers as one of the best Japanese RPGs developed this gen. Xenoblade was released in Japan....last June, and has (finally) been announced for Europe for release. Nintendo of America has remained silent.

In other related news, Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy) and his studio, Mistwalker, partnered with Nintendo to release The Last Story, another strong-looking RPG title that seems to have been developed with worldwide appeal in mind. Released in Japan at the start of this year. Sakaguchi recently let slip that there are plans to release it in Europe. Once again, Nintendo of America didn't say a word. Both games were absent from E3, as was any mention of Pandora's Tower, another Japanese game being published by Nintendo.

I've been complaining for years about these games being total no-shows, both on Nintendo of America's release calendars as well as in any of their press events. Each and every E3 when these games were ignored, (well, Xenoblade was technically announced at E3 as Monado: Beginning of the World, but since then has never been mentioned again by Nintendo of America) I would complain and beg others to do the same, but all too often, it felt like I was one of just a few. Others would tell me that Nintendo was taking their time to announce the games like they always do, and that it wouldn't be worth it to get upset about it.

Well, something happened: A Nintendo of Europe representative recently let it slip that Nintendo of America is not planning on releasing any of these games in North America. Whoops. It sure took a while, but it looks like finally, the gears have been set in motion.

Operation Rainfall was formed, a group dedicated to bringing attention to this issue and demanding North American releases for these games. Immediately a campaign was put under way. People are being asked to pre-order Xenoblade from (Where it's listed under its original title, Monado: Beginning of the World) and amazingly, it has become the #1 selling video game on the site. When was the last time a Japanese RPG has been the #1 selling video game on When was the last time a game with no planned release date has EVER been #1 at any retailer?

Needless to say, this turned some heads. Prople from both Monolith Soft and Mistwalker have tweeted their happiness at this campaign, as well as the spamming of Nintendo's Facebook page,  which has also taken place.  Operation Rainfall's encouraging fans to plan to send letters in to Nintendo of America via snail mail. This is all very exciting and pretty newsworthy, as it has gotten attention both in the gaming media as well as with gamres in general; Xenoblade's message board is more active than it has ever been, for example.

As a fan of Japanese games, I'm thrilled to see so much support being thrown behind these titles, especially considering the fact that the Wii is, for all intents and purposes, dead, mostly thanks to decisions like these. Nintendo of America comes across as both clueless and uncaring due to their handling of these RPGs from two of Japan's most acclaimed video game developers, and this perception of them can only be a good thing. In a gaming landscape dominated by casual games, first person shooters, and licensed garbage, it's more important now than ever to let companies like Nintendo of America know that there's still a market for quality Japanese-developed games. It's a hint that other publishers should take and certainly, Nintendo should learn from.

I encourage everybody who has an interest in buying Xenoblade to go ahead and preorder the game. If you live in Europe, especially, you should do this at your local shops or wherever you buy your games from. You're being given a great opportunity here and it's now, more than ever, important that we send the message across that there is a market for these types of games in the West. That way, we won't have to wait years to play Tales of Graces, we won't have to miss out on games like Valkyria Chronicles 3, and of course, we won't have to beg to play the latest games from the creators of Final Fantasy and Xenosaga.  Head on over to Operation Rainfall's Twitter page (or their Blogspot) and see how you can help. Now may be our last chance to get these games over to North American shores. Nintendo is apparently aware of this movement, and let's bug them till they announce frigging release dates already. It's been long enough, right? Let's do this.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Blog Post: Backlash against Duke Nukem Forever

Wow, I can't remember the last time I've felt so sorry for a game developer. 3D Realms had spent something like 14 years developing this game, and throughout that time it has been cancelled multiple times. The latest cancellation felt like the final nail in the coffin, but lo' and behold, Gearbox stepped in to finish the game. The long-awaited day was finally here, and wow....reception has so far not been friendly.

I have to say, I sort of saw this coming, but even I didn't predict a 49 Metacritic score, an even lower user-rated Metacritic score (4.2) and an Customer rating average of 3/5 stars. People do not seem to be digging the game, and I can only wonder how its developers feel, having devoted over a decade of their lives into something that's now getting trashed by gamers and critics alike.

The question which of course begs to be asked is how much of this is due to the game's infamously long development time, which may have vastly increased expectations and skepticism among the gaming and critical community, and how much of it is truly based on the game's own merits, or I guess lack of them? It's something that I don't think I'll personally ever know, since I've never really even liked Duke Nukem and certainly never planned on buying this game. Still, its release marks the closing of a pretty bizarre chapter in the gaming landscape, and the product not delivering, especially after such a long period of development, makes the situation even weirder.

Only time will tell if this is truly the end of Duke Nukem or if other installments are planned, but that'll depend on sales figures, I assume, and with such bad word of mouth, I have to wonder how good those will even be, even with all the apparent anticipation that surrounded the title's release.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My thoughts on Nintendo's E3 2011 Press Conference

The last of the Big 3 to deliver their press conference was Nintendo, and they were in the position to completely dominate this year. As the only one to be releasing a new home console anytime soon (2012) and with their recently-launched 3DS handheld, they definitely had the most potential to impress. Unfortunately, I have to say, this ended up being a pretty forgettable conference overall, with Nintendo putting all of their eggs into the Project Cafe basked (now officially known as the Wii U) without having anything truly compelling to show for it.

Things started out on a fan-related note with a full orchestra playing Zelda music, some of it off the upcoming Wii Zelda game, Skyward Sword, which was otherwise completely absent from the conference. Nintendo made some exciting announcements for Zelda fans and the series' 25th anniversary, including free downloadable goodies and upcoming soundtracks CDs and nationwide performances. Okay, good stuff, but where's the trailer for the new Zelda game, Nintendo? The one that's coming out this year for your Wii system? There was a noticeable lack of the Wii at this press conference, with expected titles like the new Kirby game, and the long-awaited Xenoblade and Last Story announcements, totally absent. Instead, Nintendo jumped right into the 3DS, with a truly mixed bag of a showing. Mario Kart has some cool new track features but otherwise is looking like the same old Mario Kart.

The upcoming 3DS Mario game looks like it'll contain some more of the amazing platforming we saw in the Mario Galaxy series, though the art direction, to me, doesn't look quite as nice. Star Fox 64 we didn't get to see much of, but I'll assume it's Star Fox 64 with a new paintjob and 3D visuals.

They also surprise-announced a followup to Luigi's Mansion, a pretty cool idea that can be fun in 3D. Interestingly, they also mentioned that there would be multiple mansions to explore, which I think suggests a bit more of a linear, level-to-level structure than the exploration-heavy first game in the series. I guess we'll have to wait and see how this one plays out

The game that actually looked truly awesome and definitely caught my attention was Kid Icarus: Uprising, a title that looks like such a fun and epic adventure that, if the 3DS had more games like it, I might be more compelled to throw down the $250 for it. Voice acted, cool visuals, likable-looking characters, and fun flying action, it's looking like a must-have title that hopefully demonstrates the types of games Nintendo will bring to the system in the future. Granted, I like Mario as much as the next guy, but I'm getting to a point where I want to experience something new. And driving a go-kart underwater isn't really cutting it.

Anyway, moving to the heavy-hitter of the show, the Wii U, as it's now called, and it got its big reveal this morning. We only got to see the controller itself, not the system, but even the controller looks like a lot to take in. It's a device loaded with potential and clearly something that can push console gaming forward; there's nothing else like it. Some things definitely bothered me, including its use of analog sliders instead of analog sticks, which seems like a big step down, but at least there's 2 of 'em. There's a lot of potential for the touch screen, and the way it communicates with the TV is cool to say the least. Definitely not a VMU clone.

I guess what bummed me out a bit was that the games shown for it were underwhelming. We got a tease for an HD Zelda (another Zelda game already...) which looks really cool, and the announcement of an upcoming Smash Bros game, which will undoubtedly be amazing. But then, all Nintendo had to show were Mario-related (sigh) tech demoes. One of which demonstrated the power of the system, and it looked really great. The others were pretty gimmicky. I guess I was just hoping for something a little more concrete, though the system is still a year away, I suppose. What nearly saved the conference for me was a montage of upcoming Wii U titles, proof that, at the very least, the system will be getting some 3rd party multiplats, a huge improvement over the Wii. The focus on hardcore games shown from 3rd party developers was refreshing, and I can't wait to see what Ken Levine and his team at Irrational have planned for the system.

But then....the conference ended. Nothing really new for the 3DS except a Luigi game, really no announcements from Nintendo on a price for the Wii U or their software, nothing at all about the Wii itself, and at the end of the day, I have to say, Nintendo had the potential to blow everyone out of the water at E3 and instead they merely put on a show that just felt With the Wii U not arriving until 2012, it would have been nice for Nintendo to show us what we'll be playing on our Wiis until then, and no luck. And the 3DS, which looks like it'll be making Nintendo fanboys happy with more franchise titles, isn't offering much else for people who want something new.

Grade: C+

A bit disappointing, only because I felt like it could have been so much better. Nintendo teased a new system, which looks like it really has potential, but it would have been nice not to see the Wii forgotten. Still a decent press conference to watch and definitely better than Microsoft's. Nintendo knows casual gamers, and they also know their devoted fans, and they know how to appeal to these groups. It'd be great to see them branching out and trying to appeal to a wider audience of core gamers. The Wii U seems positioned to do that, and hopefully it's successful.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Blog Post: My thoughts on Sony's E3 2011 Press Conference

It's never the content at a Sony E3 press conference that's the issue....well, with the exception of their infamously bad PS3 reveal, of course. Sony always packs their press conferences to the brim with announcements, trailers, and plenty of montages for both its portable and home consoles. The biggest issue has always been the presentation itself, which to me feels incredibly dry and tends to run for far too long. I always find that while Sony usually has the most to announce at their conferences, they do it in the most boring way possible.

This year we saw Sony make an effort to spice up their presentation a bit. We got an (incredibly lame) pre-show, and they stuck a pretty pointless performance at the very end, but hey, gotta give them credit for trying. At the very least, this presentation, while it still felt a tad too long, was far better paced than in the past, and they really did announce and show plenty of titles for all their platforms: the PS3, the PS Move, 3D gaming, and, of course, the reveal of the new PSP, the PS Vita. Sly Cooper 4 was a pretty great announcement, as was having Ken Levine up there to tell the crowd how his studio was eventually sold on motion controls. Sony also went through great lengths, like last year, to secure exclusive content in multiplat titles, something that will definitely make PS3 fans happy.

Though they spent a little too much time on the Playstation Move (damnit Sony, watching someone play a sports game is boring) it's good to see that they, like Microsoft, won't be abandoning their Wii-competing device, even though the Wii seems to be no longer competing (more on that tomorrow). It's also great to see that, unlike Microsoft, that device hasn't become essential to playing all of Sony's new games.

Regarding the Playstation Vita, the visuals on that thing look nice. I wouldn't say they totally blow away the 3DS, but they definitely look like a step up. The system also seems to have its own features, like back touch screens, so props to Sony for not just ripping the 3DS off like they could have. The games they have coming for it also look much more impressive than most of the stuff they were putting on the PSP, making it look like Sony will really be pushing for North American success, something the PSP really never achieved. I also have to give Sony credit for competitively pricing the PS Vita.....yeah, it's sad that we're in an age when $249.99 is considered competitive pricing, but, lo' and behold, that's what Nintendo's charging and Sony's definitely met that price.

There are a couple things I would have liked to have seen, like a trailer for the upcoming Twisted Metal game and Final Fantasy 13 sequel, but hey, can't have everything, and the show ran long as it was. Sony overall put on an impressive show and though the presentation could still use some tightening up (and Sony, let us know the names of the games in your montages!) they definitely showed Microsoft, Microsoft used to do a press conference.

Rating: B

Sony's confident that the PS3 will become the hardcore gamers' system of choice, and after seeing Microsoft's conference, it's hard to argue. How Nintendo's Cafe will fit into this, well, tomorrow we'll find out.

Blog Post: My thoughts on Microsoft's E3 2011 Press Conference

It's that time of year again; E3. For video game fans, pretty much the place to be for new game announcements, surprises, and, of course, a giant celebration of the hobby that we all know and love.

You wouldn't know this from Microsoft's press conference, which was overall pretty much more of the same from last year. This time, they opened the show with Modern Warfare 3 instead of Black Ops, they showed off some 3rd party multiplatform stuff, including a demo for the new Tomb Raider (which isn't coming until Holiday 2012, which is a lonnnnng way off, MS) and the likes of Mass Effect 3 and a new Tom Clancy game, with demos both highlighting these games' new Kinect voice recognition features...not a whole lot to get excited about. Mass Effect 3 will undoubtedly be an amazing game, and is one of my most anticipated of the year, but did anybody seriously think that the Mass Effect series needed voice recognition? Did anybody think at any time while playing Mass Effect 2, "Hey, this game would be so much better if I could voice my dialogue choices instead of selecting them with an analog stick" ?

Therein lies my biggest problem with the Kinect and Microsoft's conference in general. I just don't think the Kinect is particularly necessary. We haven't yet seen a real game that's truly benefited from Kinect controls; it's all been substitutes for controller usage that add nothing to the experience except a novelty and some gimmicks. Games that really benefit from Kinect support are games that can only be played with a Kinect, and I just don't think there are a ton of *actual* games that can be played without a controller.

To give Microsoft credit, the Kinect is great for younger audiences, something they're obviously well aware of, having spent a large portion of the show demoing (though the demos were either fake or incredibly laggy, watch for a seriously delayed golf swing in Kinect Sports 2) Tim Schafer's upcoming Sesame Street game, a Disneyland Theme Park Adventure title, and some other new Kinect features involving importing and tracing objects....all cool stuff, and if I had kids, something I'd consider getting them if they were good,  $150 is still a lot of money to spend on a toy...and that doesn't include the price of the system itself.

For gamers, the Kinect again leaves us out in the cold. Is a rail shooter really the way we want to play a game like Fable? Again, I have to ask the question; did anybody ever think, while playing a Fable game, that a more immersive Fable experience would have been created if we were locked on rails? I doubt it. I also doubt that a Kinect game was what many people had in mind when Crytek's Codename: Kingdoms was revealed last year, now revealing itself to be an M-rated, melee-driven Kinect title.

For the controller, Microsoft showed off more of Gears of War 3, and for Gears of War fans, I'm sure it'll be a great piece of more-of-the-same action. I've never been a huge fan of the series, and the demo didn't do a whole lot to change my mind. The long-rumored Halo: Combat Evolved remake was also showcased, undoubtedly a quality game but a pretty big sign of the sad era we're in; when games only 10 years old are being remade just so a publisher can have a new franchise entry out every year. Halo 4 will be arriving next year, (Winter 2012) as was revealed at the end of the conference with a pretty cool trailer, making the Halo 1 remake seem even more unnecessary. Halo's a fantastic series and Halo 4 will definitely be great, but it's hard to shake off the feeling of "more of the same." Microsoft's newest, most "exciting" features are all on the Kinect. If nothing else, this press conference made clear that those looking for controller gaming on the 360 should accept the fact that we're just about done with that era. Why not buy a PS3 (or upcoming Project Cafe, which we'll see in all its glory tomorrow) to play future 3rd party multiplatform titles? What does the 360 have to offer that its rivals won't?

Outside of Kinect games, none of which (I feel) look like they'll be particularly compelling among gamers over the age of 10, and the likes of Halo, it's clear that the Xbox 360, from a 1st party perspective, is done with. It's cool to see Microsoft jumping eagerly into Kinect, their determination to avoid a SEGA CD-like fate being pretty admirable. I just wish they weren't leaving the rest of us out in the cold. I actually thought the Kinect Adventures showing last year was pretty fun, but this year, none of the Kinect reveals looked even remotely compelling to me. Kinect Sports 2 and Dance Central 2 are blatant attempts to grab another $50 from people for content that should be downloadable, the kids games are just that; kids games, with likely little to offer for anyone outside that age group, and the hardcore Kinect titles shown are more of the same rail shooter-type experiences that we've been playing for years on the Wii.

Meanwhile, for the controller, no surprises.

My rating: C-

Not a trainwreck, just not a whole lot to get excited about.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Review: Mass Effect 2. A Western RPG that I like? Must be the end of the world

To my surprise, I really enjoyed Mass Effect 2, and coming from me, a Japanese RPG fan, that’s pretty high praise. Since my first exposure to the RPG genre was with Japanese RPGs, having devoted tons and tons of hours to them during the PS2 era, Western RPGs have never felt natural to me. At the very least, it has always been a love/hate relationship. I really liked Fable and got into one of Bioware’s previous RPGs, Jade Empire, but then on the other side of the coin, I wasn’t a huge fan of Knights of the Old Republic (which I did play and beat) and open world Western RPGs annoy me so much that I got fed up and traded in Fallout 3 after only a few hours of playtime. I also couldn’t stand what I played of the original Mass Effect. Right now the industry seems very much divided over what type of RPG style should win out, with Western RPGs now taking over, both from a sales and critical perspective. Bioware, the developer of the Mass Effect series, has been quite vocal over Western RPG superiority, going as far as to say that Final Fantasy isn’t even an RPG….comments that just make me cringe.

So hopefully you can understand how hard it has been for me to root for the Western RPG subgenre. It’s a credit to how good Mass Effect 2 is that I was able to get past my preference for Japanese RPGs and enjoy what happens to be a really well put together game, both compelling in its storytelling and also solid and accessible in its gameplay. Granted, it’s not perfect, but it’s a game that I’d still definitely recommend everyone, even fans of Japanese RPGs, give a try.

Graphics and Audio: Bioware deserves credit for knocking it out of the park as far as the visuals are concerned. Mass Effect 2 not only looks better than the first game, but performance-wise, it blows it away. Mass Effect 1 ran so poorly on my 360 that it felt to me like a completely unfinished product, whereas Mass Effect 2, though it still has Bioware’s trademark long load times, runs so much better that it’s like night and day. They’ve really gotten the hang of the Unreal Engine and the game looks great, and, in some instances, even awe-inspiring. The facial expressions may not be quite on par with something like Final Fantasy XIII but they still look incredibly convincing, and you really feel like you’re having a conversation with real people while you chat with the locals and your party members. On another note, I only found myself getting stuck on the level geometry once (and for a Western RPG, that’s very good) and I was able to get out of it by mashing buttons; didn’t even have to re-load my save. Awesome.

The voice acting’s also nearly perfect, as all actors deliver their lines with complete and total conviction, despite a slightly irritating accent or two. The movie-quality soundtrack also deserves praise, and the atmosphere felt when wandering through the game’s cities is perfect, especially as you hear news of the game’s events being reported on televisions and sound systems above you, Lost Odyssey style.

Narrative and Storytelling: This is the heart of Mass Effect 2 and it’s what makes the experience so unique. As is typical with Bioware games, the majority of cutscenes take place in the form of interactive conversations, with the events frequently pausing to give you the option to select the bits of dialogue you will use to respond to any given situation. At times, you’ll also have the option to perform direct actions in cutscenes, such as choosing to walk forward to comfort a crying character or, in one of the game’s cooler sequences, to punch a character through a skyscraper window. The choices you make in conversations not only give you a great deal of control over your likable main character, Commander Shepherd, (whose backstory, as well as gender and some physical traits, you choose at the start) but they also can dictate your relationships with others in your crew and the people you interact with, both friend and foe. Mass Effect 2 does a great job of giving you a wide range of selections with lots of gray area, so it never feels like you’re just going through the motions of “okay, good choice vs evil choice,” a complaint I have with a lot of Western RPGs. I also have to offer praise for the quality of the dialogue, as Mass Effect 2’s really stands as some of this generation’s best. While there’s certainly a lot more to the gameplay (the combat system takes the form of a 3rd person shooter, after all, which I’ll get to later) I found my favorite parts of Mass Effect 2 to be the ones where I got to stroll through either the Normandy (my ship) or the various cities, talking to my party members and interacting with the locals. Truly the game’s standout feature and what I feel is a personal best for Bioware doing this type of RPG.

The story itself is certainly not on the same level as its character interaction (I still feel that Japanese RPGs are by far more imaginative in this category) but the tale still has its share of compelling and intense moments. It may not offer anything we haven’t seen before in countless sci fi space operas, and it could be a bit better at reminding us of key terms from the previous Mass Effect, especially for those of us who didn’t get too far in it. Still, the story, which involves building up a top-notch crew to head on a suicide mission to save the human colonies from invasion by the evil Collectors definitely will, at the very least, hold your attention. The rivalry between characters like the Normandy’s pilot, Joker, (voiced by Seth Green) and his AI supervisor, EDI, is very entertaining, and there’s all sorts of little touches like that that add personality to the storyline and characters. Their interaction and some great action scenes help bring it all to life.

This is a story you have a sizeable amount of control over. You can choose to collect all of your party members over the course of the game, or, you can choose not to. Throughout the game, the characters you do add to your party will ask you to do them a favor by going on an optional, and personal, mission with them. Successful completion of these missions (and yeah, you can fail them, and once you do, that’s it) will make these characters more loyal to you, which gives them an increased chance of survival during the game’s final (and deadly) mission. Depending on your relationship to your characters and the choices you make, and whether you choose to do optional ship-building work, anyone (and everyone) can live or die, including Shepherd.

This has its strengths and weaknesses. Due to the nature of an RPG like this, there’s a large cast of playable characters, and though several will leave a definite impression, others inevitably get completely screwed over. Garrus has little to do beyond his introduction, Jack comes across as nothing more than a whiny and unpleasant addition to the crew, and Legion literally has no development whatsoever. As far as the character deaths are concerned, this is different from a Japanese RPG. In that type of narrative, where the story is set from the start and therefore a death can be built up to and made a very emotional occasion (Final Fantasy VII) a Western RPG like this, where anyone can die based on your choices, lacks this buildup. Because of this, when (or if) Mass Effect 2 mercilessly kills off your characters in the final mission, it feels more irritating than emotional, there’s no way around it. Western RPGs, as far as I’m concerned, have never been able to capture the emotion and power of a pre-defined story, such as that of a good Japanese RPG, and Mass Effect 2 is no exception. That’s not to say that there’s no emotion to be found in this game, there certainly is, but the fact that several of my characters being killed off didn’t affect me at all emotionally is something that rubbed me the wrong way. That’s probably the only weakness to Bioware’s style of storytelling. Otherwise, though, Mass Effect 2’s story and character interaction proves both compelling and entertaining, and that’s certainly nothing to be scoffed at.

Gameplay: Mass Effect 2 is divided into two very distinct sections. There are the RPG sections involving character interaction, then there are the combat sections, where the game essentially becomes a third person shooter. This doesn’t mean that it loses its RPG aspects entirely; you can freeze the action at any time to bring up a wheel from which you can select special attacks to use, or which weapons to change to. Your character does gain EXP and level up similarly to an RPG, and you’ll often come across a character or two who you can talk with even during the shooting segments. You can still evolve your weapons and armor, and you can hack doors and databases even when in the shooting segments. The leveling up system and much of the game’s interface has been greatly simplified from the convoluted Mass Effect 1, a change that I think is definitely for the better, though I’ve of course heard some grumbling that it’s been “dumbed down.” Bioware’s clearly learned that if you’re going to make a game a “shooter,” you have to go all out and make it a shooter. Mass Effect 2 features a true third person shooter combat system, one which feels much less clunky than the 1st game’s. And shooting only seems to take place in designated areas (you always know when you’re headed into an area where gunfire will be involved) so unlike the original Mass Effect, when you could be randomly ambushed by enemies when wandering through town, the shooting is much more divided from the RPG aspects of the experience. Gunplay’s quite easy to get the hang of, and on the standard difficulty, not too inherently challenging, save for a couple cheap sections that occasionally rear their ugly heads.

The shooting, solid is it is, actually ends up being the thing that keeps Mass Effect 2 from being quite as excellent as everyone says it is. Granted, there’s nothing wrong at all with this shooting system, which plays well and can often be a lot of fun. The problem is that it’s so ….standard. This is your very basic cover shooter despite some cool powers, multiple characters and weapons, and environmental hazards to shake things up; you still have very little choice in how you deal with your enemies. If you step out from cover in the midst of a gunfight, you’ll find yourself dead very quickly. Your health meter’s small, though it does regenerate if you avoid taking damage for a few seconds. What that means though is that you’re stuck playing Mass Effect 2 as a cover shooter; if you want to have your teammates fire from cover and you want to, say, run up to the enemies and engage them directly, chances are, you’ll die. As far as cover shooters go, this is a serviceable system, but it lacks the freshness or choices of something like Vanquish, where, hey, you could get out of cover, jump into a power slide, and go after those giant mechs up close. Mass Effect 2, besides a half-heated Adrenaline mode, doesn’t give you much freedom to do stuff like this.

It surprises me, then, that Bioware put such a generic shooting system at the forefront of almost all of the missions. When you go on any sort of mission, 9 times out of 10, it’ll have shooting at its front and center. It’s unfortunately reminiscent of a lot of RPGs nowadays, even Final Fantasy XIII, where every issue in the game seems to be resolved only by your characters taking out their weapons and killing stuff. As with Final Fantasy XIII, this works a majority of the time because the combat system (in this case, shooting system) is fun, but Mass Effect 2’s system lacks the strategy and variety present in Square-Enix’s title. The way you fight enemies at the end of the game isn’t much different from how you’ll fight them at the start, and some of these repetitive shooting sequences end up going on for just a bit too long.

It’s in this way that Mass Effect 2 ends up being an odd balancing act. Though so much of this game happens to be excellent and really stands out, Bioware weakens their product by forcing you to spend so much time with what’s, conversely, a pretty unremarkable shooting system. Again, it certainly doesn’t break the game, but it’s sort of like being at a fancy restaurant where you’re served a world class meal, only to find that the bits of chicken in it happened to come from the local 7/11. And hell, I love my 7/11 food, don’t get me wrong, but it just wouldn’t be quite on par with the rest of the world class dining experience.

As far as the game length itself, doing all the characters’ loyalty missions and the occasional sidequest, it clocked in at around 21 hours for me. It can of course be much shorter if you choose to skip out on the character missions entirely (not recommended) but it can also be much longer if you take the time to do some of the game’s many sidequests, build up your ship, and explore the expansive galaxy available to you.

Verdict: Mass Effect 2 is a game that I’m glad I played, and it’s actually the first Western RPG I’ve thoroughly enjoyed since the original Fable back on the Xbox (haven’t played Fable 2 or 3, maybe I’d like those too, who knows). Filled to the brim with incredible dialogue, lots and lots to do, fantastic interaction with your party members, an exciting (if a bit unoriginal) story, and fun (much more accessible) shooting action, Mass Effect 2’s a great experience. The visuals and audio are also some of the best this console generation, and the game performs much better than the original Mass Effect did. That said, it’s not a perfect experience, as I still find it harder to get emotionally attached to Western RPG characters, who are so defined by you that they’re hardly able to be defined by the game itself. The romance system’s implementation still feels a little sloppy to me, and the shooting, while fun, doesn’t really offer much you haven’t played before (but better) in actual shooters. These flaws aside, though, Mass Effect 2 proves to be a compelling ride that’s very much worth your time, regardless of what you thought of the first game, or Western RPGs in general.
Presentation: Long load times can get irritating, as does the occasional glitch, but Mass Effect 2 looks and runs much better than the original. Cool story with very interactive cutscenes and some tough decisions to make gives you the feeling of being in control.

Graphics: A few bland corridors aside, this is a beautiful-looking game with some amazing atmosphere.

Gameplay: This might be the best use of Bioware’s Conversation system to date, and a true step above the rest of the Western RPG subgenre. The shooting’s fun and serviceable but overall nothing too special. I wish Bioware focused a little more on the former and less on the latter.

Sound: Top-notch performances and a Hollywood-quality score, plus great atmospheric touches, give Mass Effect 2’s audio category top marks.

Value: Length of the campaign depends on how much you choose to do. Still much shorter than a Japanese RPG but not bad overall. Lots of side stuff, and you’re able to access this even after the end credits roll.

Overall: 8.0/10

(Note: My reviews go on a .5 scale)