Being single and unemployed is much akin to being married: money is always scarce and opportunities to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh seldom present themselves. However, I welcome the extra time afforded me by not being affiliated with an evil corporation and being able to voice my opinion without fear of persecution. Many in my situation are ashamed, feeling as though they have somehow failed at the game of life. I feel no such negativity, for my conscience is clear. I attend courses to improve my skills, I search for jobs and I know that one day, things will change. Why not, therefore, enjoy my freedom while it lasts? There are plenty of activities in which a man may take part without lightening his purse, such as exercise, reading newspapers and books, complaining on the internet, visiting relatives, watching horror films, painting lead miniatures and fantasising about Jennifer Lawrence. I count the aforementioned among my pastimes, but that which has occupied the bulk of my time in recent months is undoubtedly my X-Box 360. Indeed, it would be fair to say that eating, sleeping and visits to the toilet have become an irksome distraction from my marathon gaming sessions of late. Video games have been my greatest vice ever since I discovered the marvels of Bullfrog’s Populous 2 on the Commodore Amiga. Since then, the advance of computing technology has only added to the appeal of losing myself in a fictional world, of shooting and stabbing things that never existed. Being something of an RPG fan, I have restricted myself to a select few titles to help me take myself away from reality and most of these (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Fable 3, Dragon Age 2 and Fallout: New Vegas) were worth every damned penny and more. I was expecting the same from Mass Effect 3; sadly, this was not to be. Read on to find out more.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
I have fond memories of previous Elder Scrolls games: Daggerfall, Morrowind and Oblivion. They were the ultimate sandbox RPGs in which the player had free rein to create any character he liked and travel anywhere he pleased, within the limitations of the game. Such limitations, however, were minor and it was not uncommon for the average gamer to spend a hundred hours or more playing and barely scratch the surface of the main plot. Such is the case with Bethesda’s latest instalment, Skyrim. The plot revolves around a civil war and dragons, but many other adventures await you in this prince of a game. Tired of traipsing through dungeons? Why not take a break and indulge in a little blacksmithing, alchemy or petty crime? There is a myriad of side quests available and, with the Hearthfire expansion, you can even immerse yourself in real estate by purchasing land and building your own manor house. At times, I felt like I was playing a more interesting version of The Sims. The mechanics of the game (skills, attributes and the like) have been streamlined and are remarkably simple for something so vast, so even a casual gamer who has no interest in micro-managing his character will find this easy to get into and easier to enjoy. I think this was borne out by the sheer diversity of people who have fallen in love with Skyrim – none of the previous titles aroused this much devotion. This is a game which can be enjoyed for its relatively simple combat system, its non-linear storyline, atmosphere, epic soundtrack and at times stunning visuals. I challenge you, when playing this game, to take in the beautiful view of the mountains, forests and cities of Skyrim and not be impressed. At times, I wanted to be there in person, if only to take in the scent of the pine trees, but the threat of rampaging wolves, bears and dragons soon quashed that desire. I add one caveat, however: Bethesda games are notoriously bug-ridden, so expect the occasional crash or glitch and save often.
Fallout: New Vegas
As previously mentioned, Bethesda Softworks are not renowned for their rigorous beta-testing. Fallout: New Vegas is even less stable than Skyrim, so frequent saves are an unfortunate necessity, even though this may feel a little OCD and break the flow of the game. Nevertheless, it is a price worth paying, as their games are vast and open-ended. Set in an alternate reality two hundred years from now, FNV places the player in a post-apocalyptic Mojave Desert, where civilisation is struggling to take root in a radiation-soaked and perilous land. From humble courier to heroic (or villainous) road warrior, the player must battle against roving bands of criminals, mutant scorpions and a whole host of other adversaries, making friends and enemies along the way, picking up powerful weapons and uncovering the secrets of a long-dead world. One of the things I like best about the Fallout series is the in-game radio station and how it has introduced some easy-listening classics to people in their teens and twenties who would otherwise never have known about them. I’ve chatted to quite a few young men who, since playing FNV, have added songs by Dean Martin, Nat King Cole and The Inkspots to their playlists alongside whatever garbage happens to be popular at the moment. A good song should never be forgotten and if it takes a violent video game to keep it alive, then so be it. I enjoyed FNV as much as its predecessor, Fallout 3, despite the technical issues, the plot-holes and those confounded deathclaws (how has anything that powerful not wiped out every living thing on the map?). I love the game’s quirky, retro-futurist look and intriguing storyline, and I sincerely hope there will be more Fallout games to follow in the future.
The Fable series was brought to us by Lionhead Studios, founded by Peter Molyneux, the man behind Populous and Dungeon Keeper. There are two aspects to Fable 3, as with its predecessors, that I appreciate the most: the fluid combat and the voice acting. There’s something very satisfying about swinging a sword or firing a pistol at an enemy and rolling backwards to avoid their retaliative blows. The plot revolves around a young prince or princess rebelling against his/her despotic brother and going on to save the kingdom from an even greater menace. It’s a story that has been told before in fantasy epics, but Fable 3 never takes itself too seriously. Most of the voices are provided by British actors and the tongue-in-cheek remarks in the game are rather amusing. There are some big names in the cast: Ben Kingsley, Stephen Fry, Simon Pegg, Michael Fassbender, Zoë Wanamaker, Bernard Hill and John Cleese, among others. At times, the game feels like a glorified Easter egg hunt, it’s not particularly challenging from a combat perspective and being followed around by legions of devoted subjects becomes irritating after a while, but the visuals are crisp and it has a nice soundtrack. Fable 3 cannot compare itself to magnificent heavyweight RPGs like Skyrim, but it is still worth playing through once for the laughs and the nice outfits your character can wear. Plus you can build your own brothel. Need I say more?
Dragon Age 2
BioWare have a track record of producing some excellent fantasy roleplaying games. The Baldur’s Gate series is considered by many to be RPG royalty, even now, while Neverwinter Nights and its sequel were also thoroughly enjoyable. Dragon Age: Origins,, too, was very well received and gave us one of the most (in my opinion) memorable characters in video game history: a foul-mouthed, alcoholic, lecherous ginger dwarf named Oghren. By the powers, I loved that little fellow! When he wasn’t chopping up bad people with his axe, he could usually be found stumbling around the camp, bottle of strong liquor in hand, yelling profanities or singing bawdy songs. DAO was a difficult game at times, but it was well worth playing and had a compelling storyline and good voice acting (quite rare in a video game). Dragon Age 2 is no less fun to play. However, the character creation setup has been narrowed, so that the main character, Hawke, can only be a human. There is an advantage to this, as opposed to the freer sandbox style of being able to generate, say, an elven wizard or a dwarven warrior. It allows for a more plot-orientated approach, in that the main protagonist is not a silent participant in the game, but is more fleshed out and is brought to life in the player’s eyes. That’s how it felt to my mind, in any case, so I was rather pleased to see BioWare had made the hero/heroine, Hawke, a kind of fantasy version of Mass Effect‘s Shepard. Dragon Age 2 is a complex game in which the actions of the main character can have a profound effect on future plot developments and quests, so every interaction with Hawke’s companions, who are interesting in their own right, feels very important and worth spending time over as much as the main quests themselves. The variety of outcomes and choices available give DA2 considerable replayability value. The graphics have been lovingly rendered and creating a female Hawke made me feel like Pygmalion. It’s a game which is visually very pleasing and there are little touches, such as the incidental dialogue between characters, which make it stand out from the crowd.
Mass Effect 3
Before I stumbled upon Mass Effect, I considered it a great shame that there weren’t enough decent futuristic RPGs around, for there are only so many dragons one can slay without being overcome by a kind of sword-and-sorcery ennui. So it was with great relish that I led Commander Shepard through his adventures in this glorious space opera, shooting bad people, exploring weird and wonderful planets, making friends and falling in love. It was all jolly good fun. Like its Dragon Age counterpart, BioWare’s Mass Effect series is pretty to look at. I still recall with great fondness that climactic assault on an enemy base at the end of a gorgeous tropical beach on Virmire. The sequel was equally enjoyable and some of the characters, particularly the eccentric Mordin Solus and the dry-humoured Garrus Vakarian, will always have a special place in my heart. I loved the locations, like the impeccably-maintained Citadel, the sleazy and corruption-riddled Omega, the snowy wastes of Noveria and the lush grasslands of Horizon. It was with some justification, therefore, that I had high expectations for the third and final instalment in the series. I was to be bitterly disappointed. Allow me to explain.
- Mass Effect 3 is too damned hard! Whereas the first two had an appropriate challenge level (I always play on normal difficulty setting), there were numerous occasions in the third game where I simply had to stay alive long enough to be rescued, so I spent much of the time running pell-mell away from a 10-metre-tall monster with razor-sharp claws, leaving my unfortunate companions to be chewed up by the monster’s relatives. This is hardly the stuff of heroic legends, is it? Spamming the game with elite bosses does not make it more interesting; rather, it reveals a complete lack of imagination on the part of the developers.
- The Tron level. What the fuck were they thinking? The central premise of this mission was to shut down a geth server by shooting luminous cubes in a sort of virtual-reality Matrix cavern. That’s all there was to it, yet because many of these cubes were akin to needles in haystacks, getting through this non-event, this poor excuse for a mission, was an agonisingly slow and tedious affair. All the time, some obnoxious little robot turd kept rabbiting in my earhole about finding the correct sequence, to the extent that after hearing this a dozen times, I was ready to stomp his ugly metal head into the dirt and piss on the remains for good measure. I cannot have spent more than an hour or two on that level, but I felt like I’d aged three years by the time I had finished.
- The romance took a long time to get started, yet the interaction between Shepard and his paramour was so brief that the whole thing, which I had enjoyed in the first two, felt like a mere afterthought. I thought Ashley might be a suitable mate for my brave infiltrator, yet she was stuck on the Citadel for half of the game and when she finally stepped aboard the Normandy, she spent most of the time loitering in the bar area. There was very little chit-chat going on and when it finally came to a cut-scene, the dialogue felt laboured and unconvincing. The interaction between Shep and his other companions was no better. Garrus, true to form, had some good lines, but there were few opportunities for conversation and relationship-building. The roleplaying aspect of ME3 was considerably trimmed down in comparison with the previous two games. I thought the tattooed human boulder, James, had the potential to be a well-rounded character, but all he got was the occasional sassy one-liner. It was as if once the initial introductions had been made, the scriptwriters had given up trying.
- It had one of the most depressing storylines I have ever come across in a game. I’d spent many hours and developed callouses on my hands trying to save the galaxy in 1 and 2, only to witness a seemingly unstoppable tide of Reapers swamp the gaff and murder billions of people. So why bother trying? Even successful missions were always followed up by a cutscene in which a craggy-faced Admiral Hackett soberly informs Shepard that his hard-won victory has done nothing to prevent those Reaper scumbags from hoovering up Indonesia and turning everyone there into a kind of human paté. For the duration of the game, 90% of the galaxy is swarming with Reapers and it’s only at the very last moment that the good guys are able to deploy their secret weapon and bring the whole nasty business to a close, albeit at heavy cost. This is a kind of ‘Death Star’ ending, and by this I am not referring to the inability of stormtroopers to fire accurately (no, the Reapers have giant space crayfish which fire gargantuan lasers that evaporate pretty much anything. Lucky them, eh?). No, I mean that improbable situation in fiction whereby it’s all hopeless until the hero exploits one little chink in his foe’s armour and brings the whole operation crashing down. In real life, that never happens. The Third Reich did not suddenly capitulate after one spectacular victory; it was on the defensive for many months. I would have liked to see some more victories in ME3, with the Reaper horde gradually pushed back to its last stronghold. As it was, the game was a sobfest from start to finish, not least because almost every character you come across dies.
- The ending attracted so many complaints that BioWare had to produce an extended conclusion, which I duly downloaded. It still left a lot to be desired. I was fast approaching my Death Star moment, having barely got through the previous five-hour onslaught, when the ghost of a little boy told me I had three options: destroy the Reapers, control the Reapers or turn everyone into cyborgs. That wasn’t strictly true: I took a couple of steps forward, then Shepard leapt into a giant lava lamp and it turned out that the cyborg option was on the cards regardless of whether I wanted it or not. I was kind of hoping to blow those Reaper sons of bitches into smithereens, but that’s OK, I was just relieved the game had ended at last. A few explosions later and everyone had developed a luminous green tinge, kind of like they’d been overdosing on radioactive Ready Brek. Despite their disturbing appearance, they were all overjoyed. Humans and aliens alike went around hugging each other and singing Kumbayah and the galaxy could now look forward to a new era of peace and prosperity. The end. Give me strength! That ending had more cheese in it than a Swiss fondue.
Perhaps I might have got more out of ME3 if I had retained a saved game from the previous ones, but I hadn’t. Besides, why the hell should I? This game suffered from lazy scriptwriting, poor dialogue and insufficient play-testing. It was long enough, but I cannot say that I enjoyed much of it.
Have you played these games? How do you feel about them? Which games do you recommend I play next? Should I give up playing on my X-Box and focus on something worthwhile, like sorting out the mess that is my life? Answers on a postcard, boys and girls. Spideron out.