Monday, July 30, 2012

What Makes World of Warcraft so Special?

After all, it is a worthwhile question to ask. A game that has been going strong for eight years now and is close to releasing yet another highly successful expansion is an obvious success story. What then, has made World of Warcraft so popular with players?

As someone who (somewhat regretfully) admits playing WoW on and off again for five or so years, I feel I am overly qualified in making an assessment for why WoW had remained an engaging experience for so many for such a long time.

Without further ado...

Forks Over Knives Review

Forks Over Knives, as you may or may not know, is a documentary detailing the health benefits of an entirely vegan diet. If it's main goal is to make you feel bad about eating poorly, then it succeeds in a monumental fashion.

If however, it's goal was to convince people that eating an entirely plant based diet serves as a cure for cancer, heart disease, and other ailments, well, it missed the mark by quite a bit.

How to Build a Gaming PC Cheaply (For Novices)

I am always amazed by the fact that so many people remain misinformed about PC gaming. Is it more expensive to get a gaming PC than a console? Probably. Is it hundreds of dollars more? Not at all, at least as long as you aren't expecting the top of the line in every category. But then again, if you were considering a console in the first place, that isn't really your priority now is it?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Tale of Jack Martin - Part 2

Link to Part 1:

            It was dark. The air smelled of sulfur mixed with crushed pine needles. The car Jack found himself in was of middling size, probably a van of some sort, though he was too out of it to be sure. At the wheel was the mysterious man who took him from the museum. He was humming along to the car’s radio.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Tale of Jack Martin - Part 1

As promised, here is the first part to my story. Look for frequent updates in the near future!
--- --- --- ---

            The alarm clock rang incessantly. Time to get up. It was another day for Jack Martin, age 21, a recent graduate from the University of California. He shambled out of bed, dragging himself towards the shower. Once he was done with his morning preparations, he inspected himself in the bathroom mirror. He was a man of slightly above average height, medium build, close cropped black hair, dark eyes, and olive complexion. After running his hand through his hair to get it looking just right, he sauntered towards the apartment door and walked outside.
                 Living on the first floor, Jack only had to walk a couple of feet to reach his beat up Honda Civic. He got in the car and started the engine.
Ever since graduation, life had been a drag. Finding a job was difficult, and even if you were successful in doing so you most likely received an entry level position that made your College degree seem worthless. Jack himself worked at a local museum making barely above minimum wage, a job he only acquired due to familial connections. He was mainly tasked with menial tasks such as filing papers, and entering data into spreadsheets. Ironically, Jack may have preferred this ho hum existence to the one he was about to assume.
“Jack Martin, on time again. I can always rely on you,” stated a kindly looking older man.
Jack smiled. “Thanks for the compliment Dan. You know I live to serve. What’s on the to-do list for today?”

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Witcher: Review & Commentary


I will be honest in saying that I let the sentiment of the general public get to me when it came to choosing whether or not to play The Witcher. Indeed, I had assumed that this game wasn't worth playing mainly because of what I had read about it on the internet.

After paying the huge sum of $2.50 for The Witcher: Director's Cut, I fired the game up and expected something that, as I had read from reviews online, was unpolished, had a horrible combat system, and lacked in so many other areas that I would be convinced to skip it entirely and play The Witcher II instead.

Thirty hours into the game, I can tell you that most of these accusations are overblown or downright incorrect, and that it would be a severe mistake to pass up on the first Witcher just because the second one is an improvement.

First off, one of the primary complaints I heard of this game was that it had amateurish voice over dialogue. While it is important to keep in mind that the game's developers, CD Projekt Red, fixed many of the original voice over errors in the enhanced edition that I bought, I still feel that the complaints about dialogue were overblown.

From Geralt's menacing growl, to Detective Raymond's suave baritone, to Siegfried's unique dialect, nearly all of the important characters in The Witcher have voice overs that get the job done while drawing you into the universe. Though you won't find Bioware like quality here, I'd argue that the voice actors in this game, at the least, match what is done in Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series.

Though there are times when dialogue is recycled and the generic NPC's voice overs make you cringe, all in all I'd say that the voice acting in this game serves as a positive more than it does a negative.

The second major complaint most seem to have about The Witcher is its combat system. I'll admit, it isn't the best. It can get very frustrating when you are fighting a pack of enemies and the combat system causes you to die, as opposed to a lack of skill or preparation on your part (and this is coming from someone playing on normal -- I could only imagine the pain felt by those playing at the hardest difficulty).

Is it game breaking? I don't think so. As long as you upgrade your weapons, make potions, and choose decent talents, you should be able to get through the game's combat just fine.

In case you're wondering why the combat system is so controversial, it's because it's centered around a rhythm based mini game that the player has little direct control over. Essentially, when you engage an enemy, you click on them, and Geralt (your character) will run towards them and begin attacking. While he swings his sword, your cursor will flash from blue to orange periodically. When it's orange, you click your mouse and Geralt will begin to chain together multiple attacks.

If you miss this flashing orange prompt, Geralt stops attacking and you have to begin the rhythm game once more. This becomes annoying in large battles, as the game often gets confused as to who you're attacking, leading you to miss your rhythm prompts constantly, resulting in Geralt standing there being pummeled by enemies without you being able to properly respond.

Situations like that, however, are few and far between. Though The Witcher has a poorly thought out combat system, it does get the job done the majority of the time. Like I said, the main issues occur during large fights, which are fairly infrequent.

Though it is easy to dwell on the lacking combat system, The Witcher offers so much more that should not be overlooked. For instance, CD Projekt Red is able to do what Bioware never could: create areas that contain a certain amount of freedom of movement and exploration.

While Bioware has a talent crafting cities and towns in their games, they are rarely able to craft open areas effectively. The Witcher not only has impressive towns and cities (with the main city of Vizima rivaling Denerim and Kirkwall), but it also includes many open zones that are fully explorable and contain monsters, locations, loot, and more.

While the level of openness is more akin to Fable than it is to Skyrim, it's still much better than anything offered in Bioware games made this generation.

As an aside, the reason I compare CD Projekt Red to Bioware is because the latter is still considered to be the cream of the crop in terms of western rpg developers.

Lastly, I have one more reason for why the Witcher is such a great experience, namely, the fact that there is a huge amount of choice in the game.

I remember near the beginning of the game I made a choice to help a certain group, and near the middle of the game this group came back to screw up several important quests I had (I am being vague purposefully). If I had eliminated them originally, who knows how my game would have turned out. The fact that The Witcher makes you feel like your decisions have an impact on the game world is a major positive in my book.

To wrap this up then, all I have to say is that The Witcher is the rpg fan's dream. If you can get past its wonky combat, what lies beneath is an incredible world filled with decisions, betrayal, intrigue, drama, depth, complex characters, and places to explore. Additionally, as a huge Bioware fan, I can safely say that anybody who enjoys their games will find something to love about The Witcher.

It would be a shame to skip this game just because its sequel made improvements, and at such a low price, you'd be a fool not to give it a try!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Knights of the Old Republic: Still the Best

I am writing this not because Knights of the Old Republic (or Kotor for short) is the hottest game out on the market right now (it came out in 2003 after all) but because it is one of my favorite games of all time and I would like to convince you all to give it a try.

First off, Kotor is a role playing game which tosses your character, a run of the mill soldier/scout/scoundrel, into a galaxy wide conflict taking place between the Sith (lead by Darth Malak) and the Republic.

While on your quest to stop Malak, you'll join up with memorable companions and engage in countless adventures which can lead to rewards, consequences, and everything in between.

As is typical of Bioware, Kotor's developers, there are a number of twists and turns within the story that will keep you up into the early hours of the morning and are sure to compel you to play through the game multiple times.

Compared to some of Bioware's latest entries in the role playing world, like Mass Effect 1 and Dragon Age: Origins, Knights of the Old Republic still stands as the the most polished, influential, and fun game to play of the three.

I know that there will be many who disagree with that statement, and therefore I'll try to explain my reasoning. First of all, compared to Mass Effect 1, Kotor is a more lengthy and well rounded experience. Included in the game are a near ten hour long prologue, a fifteen hour main quest, and a five to ten hour long ending. Compared to Mass Effect 1, which has a main quest that can be completed in a matter of hours, you can begin to see why I prefer the older game.

Also, the planets in the ME universe are nowhere near as fleshed out as the ones in Kotor, with every single world in the latter game having the same complexity and detail applied to them as all of the main quest planets from ME1 combined.

Additionally, the dialogue wheel featured in the ME series lacks the versatility and complexity of the traditional style utilized in Kotor, causing it to feel like a much more streamlined experience.

Dragon Age: Origins provides a more compelling case for being a better game than Kotor. It boasts numerous fleshed out regions, towns, and cities, doesn't have a dialogue wheel, and has at least ten to twenty more hours of content than Kotor.

What Kotor has over Origins, in my opinion, is a better storyline and universe. Bioware did a wonderful job crafting Dragon Age's lore and plot, but it just can't hold a candle to what they manged to pull off in Kotor. Malak is a better villain than Loghain, your companions in Kotor are better, and the Star Wars universe itself is far more engaging.

Dragon Age: Origins is definitely one of the best RPGs of all time, however, I still feel that there are certain aspects of Kotor that have yet to be improved upon in these newer franchises. Perhaps if Bioware found some way to meld the polish, gameplay, and story of Mass Effect with the complexity, length, and detail of Dragon Age, we would have ourselves a proper successor to Knights of the Old Republic.

As of now, even with the releases of Mass Effect 2, 3, and Dragon Age 2, I have yet to come across a Bioware game which matches the magic of their masterpiece from 2003. And once you've played the game and have experienced its enigmatic characters, deep storytelling, visceral gameplay, and weighty decision making, I believe you will come to feel the same way.

Luckily for you, Kotor is often on sale for less than $6 on Steam. Buy it if you wish to engage in one most incredible role playing experiences of the past twenty years.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Endless Space Review

It has it's issues, to be sure, but Endless Space is well worth it if you are into 4X space games.

If you are a space junkie who enjoys strategy games, you are out of luck in today's day and age. Sure, there's Sins of a Solar Empire, but overall, there is a dearth of space themed strategy games.

It's a shame really, especially since there are so many of us out there who would enjoy more of a variety of games of this type to choose from.

Luckily, Amplitude Studios heard our pleas and has created a game which, though it may not be perfect, helps satiate our space deprived appetites.

One of the main strengths of Endless Space is its ability to take out the clutter and micromanagement typical of the 4X space genre and replace it with a streamlined presentation which keeps the action going at a swift pace.

Though fans of intensive micromanagement will feel slighted, overall I feel that this was a beneficial design decision that is certainly an improvement over Endless Space's predecessors. Games like Galactic Civilizations II (which came out six years ago), while fantastic, often became bogged down by their sheer complexity several turns into the game, ruining the overall fun factor

Endless Space never has this issue, though at times, this can be a negative. The game can be simplistic to a fault, such as when invading a planet or when modifying your ships. In the case of the former, planetary invasions are accomplished simply through the click of a button.

During invasions, your fleet will bombard the enemy system, and after a certain amount of turns, you will take the system. It isn't very interactive and the only way to stop the process is for an enemy fleet to come and destroy the ships you've ordered to commit to an invasion.

In other words, ground defenses and planetary upgrades have no real effect in repelling an invasion force other than causing it take more turns. If you don't send a fleet to repel the enemy, you will lose your system no matter what.

As for modifying your ships, Endless Space offers relatively limited options. You can change what weapons, defenses, and support modules are on your ship, but you have no say in their visual appearance (neither for the ship itself or for its modules). This is an annoyance coming from Galactic Civilizations, but by no means is it a game breaker. In reality, it just means you'll be spending more time playing the game instead of fiddling around in the shipyard adding new fins to your custom cruiser.

The research in Endless Space is pretty standard. There are four branches, each offering different ways to advance your empire. Unfortunately, different races don't have varying tech options so don't expect too much of a different play style when choosing another race to play with.

And just so I don't end this review on a bad note, I will say that the battle system in Endless Space is amazing. To me, it provides a great solution to the problem of boring Civilization-like combat in 4X games. I don't really like the idea of real time battles in the turn based genre as I'm more into Empire management than I am into combat strategy, and Endless Space's card based system works well to provide a middle ground of sorts.

Essentially, the manual battles take you to a cinematic view of your fleet engaging the enemy, with you being able to choose certain strategic cards which provide some sort of benefit to your ships. These benefits can be negated or enhanced based on what the enemy chooses, so it's important to put some thought into your choice. Do you boost your offense at the cost of losing defensive capability? Do you risk disrupting the enemies weapons instead of increasing the power of your shields?

Questions like these will be asked frequently in the heat of battle, and often times the right card choice is the difference between getting wiped out and beating a technically superior enemy fleet.

Overall, Endless Space is a worthwhile space 4X game that will keep you up well into the early morning with its addictive and uncomplicated turn based gameplay. Though sometimes the game can become too simplistic compared to its contemporaries, the spectacular combat system and non-migraine inducing Empire management features more than make up for that.

Endless Space isn't the game of the year, nor is it the best 4X space game of all time. However, it will definitely please fans of the underdeveloped space strategy genre.

If I had to give it a number, I'd say this game is an 8/10. Not perfect, but still a great experience. And for thirty bucks, it's well worth the price.

With further community and developer support, there is no telling how much this game will improve in the future. For Endless Space, the sky truly isn't the limit!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The 3DS has no RPGs!

Last year I bought a Nintendo 3DS with the expectation that I would be using it to play all of the rpg series' I missed out on during the DS/PSP era.

Exactly 11 months later, the only rpgs that I have played on my 3DS are Pokemon Black and Chrono Trigger. Notice something off about that? If not, you should, because both of these games were made for the original DS, not the 3DS.

Luckily, it seems like the amount of rpgs being released for the 3DS will begin to ramp up in the coming months. Kingdom Hearts, Heroes of Ruin, Fire Emblem, and a few others should be out by the end of the year.

Still, it's sad that I've had to wait this long to finally get a decent selection of games to choose from. The fact that the 3DS XL comes out next month doesn't help either, as I could have held off on buying the 3DS altogether and waited for it's newer iteration if I had known there would be zero rpgs released for the system up to this point.

Don't get me wrong, it's been fun playing DS rpgs and Mario Kart ( I have Ocarina of Time as well but I find it extremely boring, sorry old time gamers), but I feel like its taken much too long to get the 3DS rpgs out onto the market.

Thankfully, it still appears I made the right choice in choosing the 3DS over the Vita, as the latter looks like it will be even worse than the former in terms of being able to provide handheld rpg experiences.

Hopefully by this time next year I'll have plenty of reasons to fire up my frequently dusty and underused 3DS.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Mass Effect 3's Extended Cut - Not a Perfect Fix

Warning: This post contains spoilers about the Mass Effect series.

If you happen to be a fan of role playing games or gaming in general, it is likely that you heard about the uproar this past March in regard to Mass Effect 3's endings.

Simply put, many players were put off by how Bioware handled the series' final moments. Most of the complaints centered around the idea that the trilogy's main antagonists, the Reapers, were made to look impotent.

Essentially, after building up the Reapers to be the main threat in the Mass Effect universe throughout the series, Bioware decided to, at the last minute, turn them into simple tools for another antagonist, known as the catalyst.

This catalyst character gives the player a brief monologue about how the Reapers are actually the Galaxy's saviors due to their role in preventing what is known as a technological singularity, or the creation of A.I.'s which exceed the intelligence of their organic creators.

He then provides the player with three choices which all center around utilizing the crucible (a super weapon of sorts) to either destroy the Reapers, control them, or synthesize your DNA within he weapon's energy in order to fundamentally change every organic and synthetic creature in the galaxy.

Does that last option sound confusing? It should. Essentially, through some form of space magic, the crucible (using your DNA) would emit energy that would merge organics with synthetics and create an entirely new organism that is "perfect," according to the catalyst.

Apparently, this new race of hybrid organic/synthetics would get along with the Reapers and they'd form a nice little utopia in the Milky Way where everyone always gets along and conflict is a thing of the past (at least until this hybrid utopia becomes bored and decides to invade the nearest galaxy).

Bioware really tries to push you into picking Synthesis, not only through having the catalyst paint such a pretty picture of it but because it only becomes available if you pick all of the right options in the game up to that point. Personally, I felt that it offered too creepy and ambiguous of a solution and instead chose to destroy the Reapers, as that is what I've been freaking waiting for since 2007!

Many people seem to agree with me, not only for the previously stated reason but because destroy is the only ending where Shepard actually (possibly) survives!

Phew. Well that's how the original ending went down. After all the complaints, Bioware decided to make a free DLC called the "extended cut" which would expand upon the original endings in order to provide clarity. It would not however, provide any truly fundamental changes (such as getting rid of the catalyst completely).

After playing through it a couple times on Tuesday, I have to say that I am more pleased with this ending than I was with the original. The main difference between the extended cut and the original ending is that the catalyst is given significantly more dialogue, which is used to better explain its role, the origin of the Reapers, and the nature of the crucible (though we still aren't told exactly how it works its space magic).

It also fleshed out the catalyst's descriptions of the three ending options, and surprisingly added a fourth option: refusal. This isn't really a true ending though in comparison to the others. It seems instead more like a jab from Bioware to its player base for rejecting their artistic vision, as if you decide to refuse the catalyst's three options, everyone you know ends up dying, you die, your fleets fail, and the Reapers aren't defeated for another 50,000 years (which is portrayed through a very brief -- at least compared to the other three -- ending cinematic).

Though the refusal ending left a bad taste in my mouth, the new five or so minute long cinematic for the destroy option was very well done. It provided the sense of hope and accomplishment that was missing from the original, and tied up a lot of the plot holes and loose ends which had me scratching my head the first time I completed the game back in March.

Is it the type of ending that a fantastic trilogy like Mass Effect deserves? No, I'd still say that it falls short of that. Though the endings provided were fleshed out greatly, some of the same underlying issues remain.

For one, there are still only three real endings, which is pretty pathetic for a trilogy spanning half a decade and whose sole focus lied in story telling and making difficult decisions which were supposed to have a major impact.

Secondly, all three endings are still rather melancholy. No matter what, Anderson dies, the Illusive Man becomes indoctrinated, Thane dies, Mordin dies, you have to deal with the catalyst, and your character dies (unless you chose destroy, and even then it's debatable whether or not that is Shepard at the end).

For a series like Mass Effect, where the player's choice is supposed to matter, the fact that so many of these story points are set in stone is disappointing.

How amazing would it have been if you could convince the Illusive Man to join you? How spectacular would it be to reject the catalyst and be able to fight the Reapers conventionally -- and win?

If you put in the hard work over these five years to make the best Shepard you could, how fantastic would it have been to see that culminate in your character living to see the Reapers destroyed?

Then, the game could have shown a cinematic of you celebrating with all of your companions, and perhaps might have portrayed a scene of you directing the galaxy-wide rebuilding process, before finally closing with an inspirational speech by Shepard which you could control through the dialogue wheel. How epic would that have been!

Unfortunately, many of these potential endings or branches to the story were nixed in favor of Bioware's "artistic vision" for the trilogy's conclusion, which took a decidedly melancholy turn and removed the player from much of the decision making process.

That being said, I believe that the extended cut itself was a great gesture by Bioware to its fans, and greatly enhanced the endings that came pre-packaged with the game.

In closing, I still feel that the end to this series is lacking even with the extended cut, and in my mind, Bioware truly missed an opportunity to do something special.

About The Author

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Nicholas Garcia (M.A.) is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Davis. He is also a Co-Founder of the Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies. Previously, he contributed to and the Davis Humanities Institute.