Thursday, March 29, 2012

Review: Mass Effect 3's a fun game worth playing for fans without hitting the heights of Mass Effect 2; Bioware can't help but place too much weight on frustrating shooting.

Mass Effect is a series that has been known amongst the gaming industry for its quality. When listing the excellent new franchises to come from the HD era thusfar, most people have Mass Effect in there at least somewhere. Despite being a gamer who far prefers Japanese RPGs to their Western counterparts, and despite my dislike for what I played of the first Mass Effect, I found Mass Effect 2 to be a great game, one that integrated choice so well into what also happened to be a compelling storyline. The cover-driven 3rd person shooting that made up the game's combat may not have set itself apart like the rest of the experience managed to do, but it was solid, at times incredibly fun, and the great interaction with the characters and world in between the shooting parts more than made up for it.

I still encourage you to seek out Mass Effect 2 if you haven't already, and while part 3's held back by some bad decisions on the part of Bioware in the gameplay department (the much-discussed endings I thought were fine, to my surprise) that should by no means stop you from stepping into this deep and compelling RPG universe. Just start with Part 2.

Graphics-wise, Mass Effect 3 carries the same look of its predecessor, though it no longer packs the same punch as it did back then. It's still a pretty-looking game despite occasional glitches that rear their ugly heads and the typical load screens. It all runs well, especially if you install it to the HDD. The characters, especially the various alien races, all carry with them very distinct appearances and detail, while the cutscenes look and animate far better than anything Bioware's done to date. These cinematics may not have the same level of flair that their Japanese counterparts do but Mass Effect 3 undoubtedly raises the bar for story presentation in a Western RPG.

The story told here picks up from where Mass Effect 2 left off....sort of. It starts off on a weird note, making the assumption that those playing it have delved into the content/comics released between the two games (I didn't) but it overcomes this rather quickly and gets the gamer mostly up to speed with where we're starting off from. The showdown with the Reapers is finally almost here, and Mass Effect 3's story centers mainly on preparing for this conflict. I don't want to go too in-depth here because I'd hate to spoil Mass Effect 2 in the process, but former friends become enemies, and Mass Effect 3's story has no shortage of dramatic moments and intense battle scenes. A new villain named Kai Leng is introduced, one who apparently stepped right out of The Matrix movies, and he proves to be a worthy (and fun) adversary. All in all, the storyline itself in Mass Effect 3 serves as a compelling and action-packed backdrop, while at the same time missing much of the intrigue and some of the subtleties of Part 2's plot.

It's flawed, there's no doubt. While Kai Leng's a fresh face who spices things up, much of the rest of Mass Effect 3's new additions to the cast are bland beyond belief. James seems to have been designed specifically with the intention of being the most boring "1st character you meet" in gaming history, and others you run into are, for the most part, placeholders replacing the characters who got killed in my Mass Effect 2 game. Edi, the Normandy's entertaining AI, gets to take on the form of a metal human this time around, becoming a full-on party member while losing much of her personality in the process. She and returning character Liara (who I used just because she has the same voice actress as Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII) made up my party members for about 90% of the game; I couldn't be bothered to try out anyone else. It's not that the cast is totally without merit, as there are still some great conversations to be had, both in your ship and when wandering the Citadel (a helpful map tells you where each character is as you explore it) but a lot of the spark is gone. And it's too bad because in Mass Effect 2 I remember always making it a point to wander my ship between missions to speak with almost everyone in my party, something I rarely ever felt compelled to do here. It's true that I got a lot of my favorite party members killed off during Mass Effect 2's deadly suicide mission, but to say that Bioware didn't bother to find worthy replacements is almost an understatement. Even many of my surviving characters play only minor roles in Part 3; just my luck, I guess.

I feel it also should be noted that Mass Effect 3 features an ending (or endings) that many series fans have taken issue with. To be honest, I loved the ending, and thought it wrapped things up beautifully, though after taking the time to read some of its criticism, I can also see where it falls apart under scrutiny. I'd say that if you're someone who just plays these games for fun, you'll probably be okay with the ending. If you're someone who considers yourself to be a die-hard fan and who knows all the series' lore inside and out, you'll probably have major problems with it. I liked it, and I guess that's all that I can really weigh in on the subject.

What I found to be a far more crippling issue with Mass Effect 3 is its gameplay, and Bioware's continuing belief that they have developed a great 3rd person shooter here. In Mass Effect 2 I saw the combat as something I had to deal with; the shooting wasn't as good as what you'd find in dedicated third person shooters such as Vanquish, and the "walk forward, get in cover, clear enemies, walk forward, get in cover, clear more enemies," formula was repetitive and standard, but it wasn't something that hurt the game as much as I feel that it does here. Mass Effect 3 introduces many new creatures to face off against, some of which are impossibly agile and fast. They've set up many of the shooting set pieces in the form of battlefields, where enemies can run at you from any angle at any time. They've made it so that you can be fired upon from above, giving enemies the ability to hit you even when you're in cover. All of these changes make sense in theory but where they fall apart is in practice; this is just not a shooting system that's well equipped to handle this type of combat. Take the Banshees, for example. They fly around the battle area at warp speed, can send wide-ranging fire at you, and if they happen to grab you, it's an instant kill. This can create some exciting intensity, as you must sprint around, leaping behind and out from cover, doing all you can to keep yourself as agile as they are while you whittle down their HP. Unfortunately, the Cover button is the same as the Sprint button, which is also the same button that you use to pick up health, to do a combat roll, and to revive fallen characters. So when running from a Banshee, a difficult task in and of itself given the stiff Gears of War-like controls, you stick to cover objects like glue (since you're holding the Cover button to run) stopping you dead in your tracks and leading to almost certain death. On the other hand, countless times I tried to get into cover, only to instead roll directly into enemy fire. Whoops. And it's not even that Bioware will occasionally throw a Banshee at you, it's that they'll throw two of them at you, or even three, often with other enemies in the area firing bullets left and right. You can't run backwards, and you can't leap backwards over cover. To top it all off, the game no longer enters a helpful slow-mo mode when you run low on HP, taking that advantage away from you as well. What results is that the shooting system went from "serviceable if not exactly outstanding" to "tedious and frustrating" in the span of one game. Though Mass Effect 2's corridor-style shooting may have gotten repetitive, you'll long for those moments when Part 3 throws yet another one of these large-scale battles at you where you'll die countless times.

The sad part is that, at heart, this is a solid combat system. Leveling up is simple but customizable, the combat wheel where you select the powers you can use is intuitive, and a lot of the powers themselves are fun. But by the end of the game, where you're dealing with a climactic battle that goes on and on like the worst Michael Bay movies, it's no longer any fun. In trying to emphasize and evolve the shooting system, Bioware hasn't taken into account that A; many RPG fans aren't great at shooters, and B; it's not fair to introduce agile enemies while the players' characters still run around like tanks, even with a sprint button and a powerful new Melee move. It just doesn't work.

Probably Mass Effect 3's biggest misstep is that it puts so much weight on its shooting; like with Part 2, almost every mission involves gunning down countless enemies and hitting switches, though unlike Part 2, which featured several cities to explore and NPCs to interact with both between and during these missions, Mass Effect 3 is almost all shooting once you begin a mission. You go in shooting, you leave when all enemies are dead. It's strange that Bioware doesn't seem to understand that their biggest strengths with these games are the RPG elements, especially the interaction with other characters. When exploring Mass Effect 3's only city (the Citadel, returning from Mass Effects 1 and 2 in a much smaller form) the atmosphere's mindblowing. You can hear galaxy news reported on the TVs, there are countless inhabitants around to talk to (or listen to) there are many quests to pick up, there's party members to chat with...this is all fantastic stuff. Interacting with other characters using the Dialogue Tree system is addictive and fun, with conversation feeling natural and you feeling like you have plenty of control over it. I wish Bioware would realize that this is the stuff that makes these games so amazing to so many people; the shooting's fine, it's "the shooting," but what makes Mass Effect so incredible is the lifelike world we get to explore, the level of interaction we have in the conversations, the immersion we get from getting to run around these alien cities and take on quests in them...

Why are they so convinced that the shooting is more compelling?

The audio on the other hand is top-notch, with mostly strong performances from the cast and film-quality music all throughout. The atmosphere can be very strong, and a big portion of this is due to the incredible sound design, which is as strong as ever this time around.


Verdict: All in all, Mass Effect 3 is a continuation of Mass Effect 2, and it's a must for fans of the series who want to continue the story. It lacks much of what made Part 2 great, mainly due to frustrating shooting segments and a decreased focus on character interaction, which makes this far less friendly to those new to the series. It doesn't make Mass Effect 3 a bad game; all said and done it's a fun journey that I'm glad I took, but it definitely makes it a bit of a disappointment.

Presentation: Some menus (like the loadout and War Map) aren't great, but the way this series allows you so much to do while keeping it out of the way in case you don't want to do it is one of its biggest strengths. A great example of accessible depth. Story's exciting, even with a few corny lines and less intrigue than its predecessors.

Graphics: Great-looking characters. Some beautiful areas with stunning art direction, along with some not so great-looking areas. Occasional glitches, load times, framerate drops, but for the most part it runs well.

Gameplay: Conversations, the Citadel, and the easy to use Map system all return in top form, though much is de-emphasized in favor of shooting, which remains a solid, but unremarkable, element of this series. Mass Effect 3 sees several additions that make this a good deal less fun than it was, but all in all, a fun, if frustrating, game. The way lines are blurred between main quest and sidequests is another plus.

Sound: Quality voice acting as is always the case in Bioware's titles. Great music, great sound effects.

Replay Value: There's the promise of future DLC, of course, for those interested in that. The main adventure lasted me a little longer than Mass Effect 2, though that may be due to all the times that I died. 24-28 hours with optional quests undertaken and lots of dying.

Overall: 7.0/10

Note: My reviews go on a .5 scale. This is a review of the 360 version.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Blog Post; Binary Domain's sales woes and the difficulty involved in marketing new IP

It's never an easy thing to sell a new property. Looking back at Binary Domain's ride to release, it was certainly on a road rife with ups and downs. The game's first trailer was not received well, to put it mildly. The script, voice acting, and character designs, often a tricky thing with games coming from Japan, all came under immediate scrutiny, and for a different reason than is often the case; this was a game that tried, maybe too hard, to appeal to Western tastes. It was a game intended as a worldwide hit, and probably a new franchise for Sega, whose own Toshihiro Nagoshi (Yakuza, Super Monkey Ball, F-Zero GX) headed up its development. But even so, very little was done in the West to establish and promote Binary Domain as a must-have title. Though future trailers unquestionably got better, this never was positioned as a potential hit, its marketing never established its own identity, and it didn't, I feel, do enough to highlight its distinguishing features and to make it stand out from the crowded market of third person shooters.

Once released, reports of modestly successful sales in Japan were clouded a good deal by what can only be described as a complete sales tragedy in the UK, and the game is already being discounted at several retailers in North America; never a good sign, especially for a title developed for worldwide tastes. Binary Domain, it's sad to say, was an example of the difficulty often experienced by publishers to release and promote new franchises, especially when a Japanese studio is attempting it in the West. This is what I personally feel could have been done better in this case. Keep in mind, I haven't played this game beyond the demo (Mass Effect 3 came out this month, more on that later) so this is coming, I'd like to think, from a place of non-bias. I'm a gaming (and gaming industry) fan and a Sega fan, certainly not one with marketing experience or the knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes at companies like Sega. But this is what I feel, as an observer, were the flaws in the marketing of Binary Domain and many other new franchises which stumble out of the gate.

Target Demographic
Before anything else is accomplished, before a game is even finished with its development, I feel that deciding a target audience should always be the first step. If this is accomplished early on, it then allows a publisher to immediately begin to focus on interesting this audience all throughout its development. Binary Domain's focus was always tricky; was it targeting fans of Japanese games or fans of Western shooters? Was it targeting sci fi heads or the more mainstream Gears of War fans who likely think of sci fi as nerdy? It really was just never clear what type of game this was, with some trailers highlighting a heavy focus on story while others showed off Binary Domain's various gamaplay systems. But little was here that made this game pop out to anybody who wasn't already looking out for it. And very little to alone attract any sort of strong following in any particular demographic.

Take a game like Skylanders, for example. For all intents and purposes, this was a new IP that just happened to feature Spyro the Dragon; the planned sequel will be removing Spyro from its title entirely, which just goes to show how much the Skylanders have become their own entity. Never was an effort made to cater to Spyro fans, and I definitely never saw any commercials for Skylanders during the shows that I watch on TV, but the kids the game was targeting all had seen them and were well aware of its release. Activision has clearly managed to market well to their target demographic of 8-13 year old kids, and the game has become a massive hit. Had Sega West picked a demographic for Binary Domain and focused on appealing to that group, rather than the sometimes confusing "who is this game for" marketing direction that we ultimately received, I think we would have had a stronger-selling title.

The Game Itself
To be fair, not all of this may be Sega West's fault. Some aspects of Binary Domain's confusing transition to overseas markets may have more to do with its own developers. It would definitely surprise me if Sega West was not asked for any input throughout the development of this game, especially with the developers' focus on Western markets, but then again, that's the only conclusion that I could reach when I first saw the laughably stereotypical and overly "macho" cast of characters. People, especially gamers, tend to be cynical, especially when they see noticeable attempts to be "catered to." From the start this was a stumbling block with Binary Domain and though I definitely don't believe that the West should have any input on games being developed for Japan, or a large amount of input on Japanese-developed games in general, a game being made for Western audiences I feel should have been graced with a little bit of at least, "hey, I don't think these characters will go over well with the audience you're trying to attract." The second your potential fanbase thinks "there's a 3rd rate Gears of War," then your game's in trouble.

Delay and no follow-up

What I found so strange about Binary Domain was that the amount of media coverage it was receiving didn't increase as it neared release. You wouldn't have known, from Sega's and the media's treatment of the game, that this was a major title. Instead, I'd compare its handling to that of a small Japanese title coming from a company like Xseed. When a game hits its release date and arrives in the marketplace, that's when the publisher is expected to follow its hype up with a marketing blitz, or at least a moderate bit of awareness raised. Binary Domain didn't have this, and in fact, its situation was complicated by a last minute delay from January to February, which made the little ad campaign it did have (which was mainly focused on internet ads) completely worthless. Internet advertisements are booked far in advance, and I remember being surprised when I began seeing Binary Domain advertisements with relative frequency on game sites like IGN and even movie sites like in January, after the game had been announced as delayed until the next month. February then rolled around, and at that point, nothing.

Delaying a game at the last minute is rarely a good business move, especially when it's moved into a month where it then finds itself in competition with the highly-anticipated Mass Effect 3, which likely stole a good portion of its potential audience, myself included, I have to say. Not a great move.

TV campaign

Television is of course an expensive brand of advertising and not one that works for all types of games. There is a demographic, though, that TV advertising has done very well with, and that's with games like Gears of War; who doesn't remember those chilling commercials? Certainly action game fans did, and that new franchise did incredibly well.

Marketing's important, there's no doubt about it. By their nature, people cling to what they know. If they enter a store to buy a video game, it's likely going to either be a franchise that's proven itself with them in the past, or a game that "they've heard of." If they haven't "heard of" Binary Domain, why buy it? Commercials are a big way people "hear of" video games, in my experience, and while Binary Domain may not have deserved a gigantic advertising campaign, at least something to get its name out there would have helped. Bayonetta had a North American TV commercial and that game did fairly well here for such a Japanese title. It helps, more often than not.

To sum up

It's never easy to guarantee success with new IP. It's entirely possible that Binary Domain could have had all these things and still flopped majorly on these shores, we don't know. Some things, like its decidedly less-than-great Metacritic average, are areas that the game's actual developers over in Japan bear the bulk of the responsibility for. But these general failings on the part of Western publishers to know how to market or to understand Japanese-developed IP are very common. But it's my opinion anyway that you never know unless you try, and when a company like Sega has Sonic to fall back on financially, it would have been nice if they had tried a little harder with Binary Domain.