Sunday, March 28, 2010

Game frenzy

I've been playing a lot of single-player games recently.  There's no particular reason, though if I had to hazard a guess it's a combination of the fact that Jason's been spending a lot of time away playing Final Fantasy XIII on the big TV, and also I don't have a lot of new stuff to do in World of Warcraft right now other than a couple hours on the weekends.

I was pretty excited to get into Mass Effect 2 after finishing Dragon Age, and it was absolutely phenomenal.  It's certainly better than Dragon Age in just about every way, and one of the best games I've played.  Mass Effect 2 sheds the ideas of inventory and stats and skill points, and might as well get rid of experience points since you basically just go up one level for every mission you finish.  I and many other people feared that this would dumb down the game too much, but it hasn't done that at all.  Sure, it feels more like a shooter than an RPG in parts, but basically what it boils down to is the role-playing and character development elements of a great RPG like Baldur's Gate, and the strong action gameplay and micro-storytelling of Gears of War.  While Gears of War's overall storyline was pretty much the standard sci-fi/fantasy "someone bad is going to do bad stuff to us so we have to stop them" story, it did a good job of keeping you immersed and focused with shorter episodes of a story,.  Mass Effect 2 is the same way—think of it as a season of a great TV show, where there's an overall goal and storyline that's always on your mind, but the episodes are mostly self-contained and interesting in themselves.  I could go on for a long time about how great Mass Effect 2 is, but I can pretty confidently say that both Mass Effect (1) and Dragon Age were good games, and Mass Effect 2 has everything that was good about either of them with none of the bad.  It's a great RPG and it's a great shooter, and very few genre-crossing games can manage something like that.

Torchlight is also excellent, and if you manage to catch it this weekend on Steam, it's only $5, which is pretty incredible for a fairly recent and quite great game, but if you don't, it's still worth the normal price of $20.  Basically, it's a nice mix of Diablo and Diablo 2 with a more cartoony art style, modernized a bit with hotkeys and things like that.  The gameplay is every bit as solid as either of those masterpieces, and while there's no story to speak of and only three classes, I had an absolute blast playing through it—more fun than when I recently played through Diablo 2, even.  The graphics and audio are great, and the music is fantastic, composed by the same guy who did Diablo 2's music, one of my favorite soundtracks to anything ever.  It's fairly short around 10-15 hours for a single run through the main storyline, and has no multiplayer, but it has tons of replay value, and it's a top-quality experience.

And ugh, Command and Conquer 4: Tiberian Twilight is a colossal disappointment.  First of all, both single-player campaigns take only about ten hours, which would be okay if it were great (or even simply as good as the last several C&C games), but it most certainly is not.  Almost everything about the game is bad.  The storyline is abysmal and makes no sense at all—not that the last couple C&C Tiberium games' stories made that much more sense, but this one is just baffling.  It's not even a real-time strategy game other than in the most literal sense.  There's essentially no base-building, and there are no real resources to collect or manage.  In most missions of the single-player campaign there aren't even control points you have to capture like in Dawn of War or Company of Heroes.  You can only have a few units at once—say, six to ten, depending on the mission and which units they are—and they go down quickly.  Your entire base has been packed into your MCV (mobile headquarters) or "crawler," which manages unit production, upgrade research, and building production if you're the defense class.

Yep, there are actually three different classes to play as, and they're all almost entirely distinct, and you can change class a limited number of times during each mission, which is probably the coolest thing about the game.  You can start out as offense, roll out some tanks and take some territory, and then redeploy as the support class, and start sending out aircraft.  (Unfortunately, the defense and support classes seem of very limited use during the campaign, as most of the time you're always on the offensive.)  The problem about having a totally mobile base that can crank out another tank or jet or commando every few seconds is that your opponent has one too.  Or, in the campaign, your opponent will have like four of them.  Every time you try to take ground in the campaign you have to assault another one of your enemy's crawlers, and while you're trying to take down its roughly one billion hit points, it's popping out dudes looking to kick your ass like it's Crawler and Kate Plus Eight.  The end result is that in their attempts to make things more exciting and dynamic, they've accomplished pretty much the worst possible outcome, where each and every battle feels like a stalemate.

Oh, and you sort of have to grind XP, too.  You get XP from killing things, and when you level up, you get new units and technologies, which persist across missions.  But, each mission has an XP cap, and by the end of each campaign you don't even have enough XP to use all of your top-tier technology.  You either have to draw out the battles even further so you can kill more stuff to get more XP, do skirmishes in the middle of the campaign to try to level up, or just deal with it, which is what I ended up doing.  Maybe that's part of the reason the game felt quite hard most of the time, but excuse me for wanting to sit down and play an RTS campaign without having to stop to grind XP.

Multiplayer and skirmish battles are equal failures.  Skirmishes take the same basic small-team-plus-mobile-base formula from the single-player campaign (as well as your level and XP from the campaign) and replace the story objectives with control points, just like the multiplayer and skirmishes I hated so much in Company of Heroes.  Sigh.  (Control points don't have to suck, but they usually do.  They were a pretty decent mechanic in the first Dawn of War game, because you didn't generally have to worry about defending every location on the map all at once with your six little dudes.)

I love the Command and Conquer series.  Not even counting the excellent Generals and Red Alert alternate universes of C&C, the older C&C games have all been great, and the original one was one of the great classics of all time.  But no amount of fanboyism and rose-colored glasses can make me overlook that C&C4 sucks really, really hard.  They removed basically everything that was great about C&C, yielding a crushing disappointment of a supposed end to the series.

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