Phantasy Star Universe
One of the older games in my list, I was browsing the playable demos section on the 360 dashboard one day, when I saw the open beta for PSU.
Despite what the old fans say, this was an evolution of the gameplay from PSO, with three classes and a strong emphasis on online dungeon crawling. Over time the number of classes, weapons and areas to explore increased – but not as quickly as they did on the Japanese servers. By the time the game closed in September 2012 (despite a large number of people still playing), the servers were so far behind Japan that actual graphical assets from later expansions were missing, and Sega of America had an increasingly hard time coming up with new content. The support for the ‘world’ version was also pitiful, and the SoA staff uncaring, inept and sometimes actively hostile, not helped by the level of frustration felt by the players who became increasingly vocal about it.
So why did I put this in the highlights reel? When the game worked, it was brilliant. Everything looked nice and clean if a little basic, it tried (and often failed) to reach 60fps but if you were running solo there was less of a problem. The sound and music weren’t bad, the controls were spot on and the actual fighting was a lot of fun. What really made it work though was the community aspect and the quest for better equipment. While being derided by many, a lot of players just used it as a social hub, while others would spend many hours just trying to shave a few seconds off time attack runs. Every time there was a big event it was like Christmas, the game had pulse and tremendous support from the fans. For a time, there was also a healthy tournament scene which I was heavily involved with – my characters rooms were full of event medals as a result.
Yes it was repetitive, there were balance issues, support issues and content issues, but it was also good enough that I put well over 10,000 hours of play into my characters – and I don’t entirely regret it. It’s unlikely that PSO2 will appear in the west, it certainly won’t be on consoles, and honestly the direction they took with that ruined the whole game anyway. We may never see a game like this again on consoles.
Metro 2033 is based on a novel of the same name by a Russian author. It depicts a world where nuclear war has forced survivors in Moscow down into the Metro system, where they live a life of constantly fighting for supplies and survival. In the meantime, the surface is heavily irradiated and populated with mutants and shadowy creatures. Individual stations around the metro are governed by different factions, even with the species facing extinction humans still end up fighting eachother. A young soldier named Artyom meets a ranger who reports that his station is under attack, he asks Artyom to travel to the capital of the metro, Polis, to request help.
The gameplay is solid, it’s a very linear story driven FPS and there’s not a lot of ways to get that badly wrong. The graphics are excellent bar some technical issues with frame rate and occasional animation bugs, they do a tremendous job of making the metro seem like a believable place though overall. I’m actually reading through the novel at the moment (it’s been translated into several languages), and what I’m reading is evocative of what I saw in the game. The scenes above the ground are very good too, reminiscent of photographs I’ve seen of the deserted town of Pripyat by Chernobyl.
That’s really what elevates the game above similar titles. The metro is dark, the people in there seem real, the danger ever present. The world above is totally destroyed, a hostile and toxic place which even nature is slow to reclaim. You get a real sense that this is the last of humanity, and watching it tear itself apart is suitably depressing. The sense of immersion is increased by the minimal use of HUD graphics, and the use of sound to indicate injury, or your breathing filter running out. Running around trying to find another filter as your breathing becomes more and more laboured is terrifying. The story too is very strong – liberties have been taken here and there to make it more suitable for the game and to fit two endings in, one of which is particularly downbeat.
The sequel to Metro 2033 was released this year, it’s similarly excellent but you should definitely play through this game first because the story is stronger. The sequel isn’t quite as bleak and depressing, basing itself more around conflict between factions than survival.
Dead Or Alive 5 Ultimate
This series has been unfairly treated by gamers for years, all because of the ‘boob physics’ thing. Yes the female characters are rather well endowed, and they often don’t wear very much, but this is a fighting game which places as much emphasis on eyecandy as it does on playability.
The graphics in the series ever since DOA2 have been stunning, and this entry is no exception – the arenas are often large multi-tiered affairs and they all look great. The characters look great too, the move animation is top quality, there are generally plenty of outfits to choose from, and everything runs at a fluid 60fps as it should.
There’s a lot of variety in the fighting styles too, really there’s something for everyone although a few of the new characters need a little balance – a recent patch addressed some of the worst of this. There’s a wide variety of moves to use, and the controls are simple which over time can mean less of a reliance on combo memorisation as you pick up more of what can be done from each move and stance. The counter window has been tightened over the years, I think it’s a little too narrow now, but this was a move to appease more hardcore fighting game fans.
At this point in its evolution, I’d personally say that DOA5U is the best 3D fighter of them all, from any series. I am not a top tier player. The VF series always seemed a little stale to me and was loved by many for its technical approach, but DOA is simply more fun and there’s still easily enough in there for a master to distinguish themselves from a novice.
It should speak volumes that the game is now planned for a full arcade release in Japan, it’s rare for a series to make that migration back to primetime, well done Tecmo.
When Mass Effect was released, it represented a milestone in science fiction storytelling in games, and a milestone in the amount of creative input the player was given in the story.
As Commander Shepard, the player was thrown into a universe of different races and star systems, with a storyline about the return of the Reapers – vast machine gods who return from the outer reaches to harvest younger races. Mass Effect let the player create their own Shepard, and how they played him (or her) would affect interactions with other characters and the eventual ending of the story. Players were free to pick the gender, look and sexual orientation of their Shepard, and overall Bioware did a good job of allowing that freedom and keeping up a believable narrative. I tried playing as a good and bad Shepard, to be honest taking the path of the righteous man seemed more natural in the story.
The game gave players a rich galaxy to explore too, aside from the main metropolitan hubs and mission areas, players were free to land on a large number of planets with a lunar rover, a feature I missed a lot in the sequels. Yes it meant a lot of driving around instead of point and click mining, but landing on a new planet and seeing what was down there is something I never tired of.
On top of that it looked good and played well too – being essentially a third person shooter at heart. The play mechanics were refined in the two sequels, but as overall products, they never measured up to the voyage of discovery in this first installment, and the story in the third was weak as they tried but failed to wrap the it up in any satisfying way.
For a while I wasn’t sure which game to put here out of Oblivion and Skyrim, and then I realised the only part leaving the question in my mind, was discovering new Ayleid ruins in the forest. In every other respect, Skyrim is the better game.
Of course it’s another in the immensely popular series of Elder Scrolls games, set in Skyrim which is a colder and more mountainous region than Cyrodiil, home to many Dwemer and Nordic ruins as well as somewhat isolated smaller cities. The story follows the player as a ‘Dragonborn’ eventually tasked with protecting the land from the return of the dragons, destroyed long ago.
The main story is very well developed, but there are also numerous side stories and factions to encounter as well as a huge game world which is just begging to be explored. Unlike GTA games for example, this is an open world in which few doors are barred. If you can see it you can go there, if there’s a building you can go inside, including a huge number of forts and ruins, sometimes in barely accessable areas. I played through every side quest I could find, many have a whole storyline attached some of which are excellent – the Dark Brotherhood questline was particularly good. You can own a house in most of the towns, and I adopted one as ‘my home’ and furnished it. I delved into enchanting my own equipment and created a bow so powerful that one or two arrows would kill lower ranking dragons outright. I picked some armour that I liked the visual look of, and enchanted it to suit my characters skills. The level of creative freedom given to the player is rarely seen outside of Elder Scrolls games.
Visually the game is a system showcase, some of the ruins are magnificent and if you don’t really take time to wander around, you may not even see some of the largest. The cities all have their own architecture and identity, particularly the inhabited Dwemer city of Markath. The graphics do a fine job of translating this world to the player, with a generally good frame rate and lots of detail. The animation of people and monsters is a significant step above Oblivion, with the exception of the third person view which looks a bit clunky.
The soundtrack reminds me of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy of films, it’s very powerful and orchestral where it needs to be, with an often revisited hook which ties all the music together. The voice acting is generally very good too, but don’t expect too much from the minor NPCs.
The game was plagued with bugs on first release, some of them serious quest breaking bugs, but at this point most of the bad ones have been eradicated with patches. While I prefer games to ship working to begin with, with games like this it must be nearly impossible to test every possible sequence of events a player may go through.
Skyrim received a couple of expansions – the two notable ones being Dawnguard and Dragonborn. In Dawnguard the player has to fight the rise of vampirism, it added two castle locations, two huge new areas and a new NPC follower named Serana. Serana is reason to buy this expansion alone, she’s not only a very able follower, but Bethesda put far more effort into her dialogue and AI. She was so popular after the games release, that gamers went as far as trying to petition Bethesda to make her a marryable character. Dawnguard also includes your only chance to see a Snow Elf as part of the long questline. Dragonborn is set on a whole new island, and sees the player trying to prevent the return of the first Dragonborn. It’s larger than Dawnguard and has a huge environment to explore and a long questline which even sees he player venture into Oblivion itself. Naturally there’s an edition now containing all the patches and expansions, definitely the way to go.