What Am I Playing?
Mass Effect 2 as a Female Protagonist, and The Future of the FPS
An update from my previous post, I am doing another play-through of Mass Effect 2, as a female paragon adept. I'm about half-way through, though I've let the missions sort of back-log while I've been off exploring the galaxy by popular request.
Jennifer Hale gives an interesting performance that I'm not quite sure is consistently good or bad. She sounds exactly like I expected FemShep to sound: she's a tough woman, with a strong voice without being overly masculine. She doesn't have quite the same range as Mark Meer (MaleShep's voice actor), but she delivers her lines confidently and unapologetically. Unfortunately, this means she comes off as a bit too aggressive when the scene doesn't really call for it. In fact, her tone is inconsistent throughout: sometimes it's spot on (better even than Meer), and sometimes it's ridiculously off. One line that probably doesn't deserve special mention, but that stood out to me is her version of "I'm Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite store on the Citadel," which is, in my opinion, much better than Meer's.
Her dialog options are more or less the same, except for those with her potential options for romance. Specifically, I've been pursuing Garrus Vakarian. Garrus is a very interesting character because he's at the same time badass, snarky, and adorable (and yes, I feel confident saying that as a straight male). Playing as a MaleShep, you get to hear him develop as a character a lot in Mass Effect 2, and he opens up in a way that illustrates more than anybody else on the crew that Shep and Garrus are as much good friends as they are soldiers on a mission to save the galaxy. That is, for the three or four times when Garrus isn't busy doing calibrations. I swear, they gave one of the most interesting characters in the game about the same amount of dialog as some NPCs that aren't even on the mission with you (I'm pretty sure we hear about as much from Aria as we do from Garrus).
Luckily, with Garrus as a viable romance option for FemShep, he gets significantly more dialog. And this being Bioware, and Brandon Keener being an excellent actor, it's all very good. Not to mention hilarious.
Anyway, there's an odd disconnect in Mass Effect 2: it's very often at odds with itself in terms of how it treats its female characters. Bioware being Bioware, all their characters are well written and well developed to their logical extent, down to the last NPC. However, that doesn't stop Bioware from issuing rather questionable combat gear to some of their female soldiers. Now, in all three cases, their costumes fit their personality. Miranda is a narcissistic femme fatale who'd not hesitate to use her figure to get something she wanted, Jack is a former mass murderer with a seriously disturbed past and a casual attitude towards sex, and Tali has a legitimate excuse: like all Quarians, she needs the suit to stay alive, so the suit itself is deceptively tough and has actual armor on some parts. That still doesn't explain why any of them survive a second in combat. Yet, Shepard herself wears full combat armor, as did Ashley Williams, and sometimes Liara Tsoni.
Some people take offense when Mass Effect gets called a shooter, and some react very aggressively when Bioware hints at any decisions that move Mass Effect away from what they consider "RPG." These people need to take a hint that roleplaying means "playing a role," not "the computer has a set of d20 dice that it rolls every time you open a door," but that's not what I want to talk about. The people who act defensive about Mass Effect being called a shooter (and this is a generalization) are reacting to the fear that it'll by association become stale, like the rest of the traditional shooter market. It's no secret that shooters have been on a decline, despite the increasing sales figures. Call of Duty Black Ops, while a good game in its own rights and an improvement over Modern Warfare 2, does not reach the same zenith as the franchise did at its height (arguably with either Call of Duty 2 or 4). Like the Doom clones of the 90s, it's spawned a whole slew of similar titles of lesser quality, like Medal of Honor. Even games that were good in their own right have been slipping (or at least accused of slipping) more towards the Call of Duty model, like the Battlefield franchise. Bungie has wisely decided to stop making Halo games with their excellent-by-any-standards Halo Reach, sensing the growing atmosphere of stagnation.
Developers know they can make ridiculous sums of money on franchises, even if the games are repetitive, bland, or just plain bad. Medal of Honor made a huge profit despite admitting that they knew the game was unpolished and generally not up to par. If this doesn't spell out the potential for another industry wide crash like in 1983, I don't know what does. Fortunately, some developers seem to sense the growing malcontent of the public, and seem to be doing what they can to innovate to differing degrees. I'm not sure if any of them have quite the right idea, but you can't accuse any of them of being apathetic.
One of the most aggressively marketed as trying to break the mold is also one of the most aggressive. Period. Bulletstorm. It's said right there in the name. It's a game that makes no pretensions as to what it's about: shooting the shit out of things in new and creative ways. It looks ridiculous, and stupid, and gross, and...well...despite all of that, kind of fun. I don't plan on getting this game unless it's heralded by reputable sources as the best thing since hot chocolate, but it's most definitely not in the vein of Black Ops, Halo, or even the unapologetically testosterone drenched Gears of War. In fact, the developers put it very clearly when they released a short, free spoof of modern shooters: The Duty Calls, which highlight's modern obsessions with things like military theatrics, realism, and taste. In many ways, the closest comparison seems to be ye olde PC shooters like Duke Nukem. Especially Duke Nukem (which itself is getting it's long awaited follow-up sometime in the near future). It certainly appears as if the studio is focusing on making the gameplay interesting and dynamic, but it remains to be seen if it ends up a mere hollow pursuit for all its unabashed lack of taste.
Homefront, on the other hand, takes the opposite end of the spectrum. It aims to be a deconstruction of the Call of Duty-esque shooter. They make the pretense of having it set in a bombed out, war torn, occupied America. The property you tear up is your own back yard, the collateral damage is on the people you're trying to save. It aims to put you in the shoes of someone who doesn't have a whole nation of resources behind him, and wonders where he'll get the ammunition to survive the next fire fight. It aims to hit home with emotional force where other games do not. Inevitably, with such lofty goals come some very difficult questions. Is there a disconnect between the stated goals and the actual gameplay mechanics? Does the unlikely premise of an imperial North Korea break suspension of disbelief? In short, is the game merely another modern warfare shooter wearing hipster clothing? Likely, even after its release, people will be divided over it. Despite it all, it sure looks like an average shooter, but we'll see. Like Bulletstorm, this isn't something I'm too likely to buy off the bat.
Crysis 2 seems, to my own surprise, to have become the most promising of the first person shooters being released in the near future. Crysis 2 runs on the CryTek engine, so the graphics looks absolutely stunning; that seems to be it's overt selling point. That's not all though, it's complimented immensely by the very good choices the studio seems to have made in art direction (which I'm always a sucker for). It doesn't look like CoD, it doesn't look like Halo, it doesn't look like anything except Crysis 2, which looks darned fine. It sounds excellent too, which is something a lot of games tend to ignore, but I find can compliment a game almost as much as graphics. But it also seems like, out of the two, they're doing more to work with the traditional CoD style gameplay model. They've taken some Halo: Reach esque armor abilities, merged them with some Mirror's Edge style parkour, integrated it with Call of Duty style interface and character controls, and turned them into something that could be quite different in how it plays than any of them. Or it could be bland and horrible. Again, I'm not buying this right off the bat.
One of the things that may turn me off is the story, which is really what I come for anyway. Now, I've read interviews with the consultant who crafted the over-arcing story and characters, and he seems to have a very good idea of how to plot a game. He seems to understand the narrative qualities of the genre, and have a good idea of what to aim for. But. From the trailers, it seems like the actual writing and voice acting suck. Hugely. Ridiculously. Will it be like the Avatar of games, with horrible writing and questionable acting, but a well told story and excellent visuals? Well, we'll see, I suppose.
Besides, the title of "Avatar of games - but better written" has been taken, and we all know who took it.
But...I'm still waiting for the next big name game that doesn't involve killing stuff to death. Indy developers seem to have a lot of good ideas, but, because they're indy developers, they never have any money. Where's all the problem solving, the witty humor, the adventurous side of gaming? Is it all dead and gone now? *sigh*
Okay, I'm happy now.
*This post is subject to frequent edits. There was no revised draft.