Mass Effect

I started Mass Effect last year, but it got lost in a storm of Fallout 3 and TF2.  Finally I went back to restart and finish it.  It’s a great game, with reservations.

Like Jade Empire, which I loved, it has a complicated main plot, different specializations, romance, fantastic art direction, and superlative voice acting.

It’s a lot more explorable than JE– you can go all around the galaxy, and there’s an impressive amount of backstory available on everything from your squadmates to the major weapons manufacturers.  The side quests are rather watery, though.  (Though it’s cute that you can visit Sol.)  There are also side side quests that are really dull– find X of Y macguffins.

mass effect normandy
The Enterprise with mood lighting

Reservation one: it’s just.  so.  Star Trek.  You’re a starship captain, all the sapient species have a taste for ’60s decor, and everything is washed in earnestness.  (Thankfully, the world is a hell of a lot more internally consistent.)  You can choose to be a “renegade” (which mostly means being arrogant, impatient, and xenophobic), but there’s nothing like the moral range (and dark humor) of Fallout 3.  Some of the more corrupt choices just seem jarring… it’s like watching Capt. Kirk take bribes.

It was so entertainin' when the boogie started to explode... possibly some sort of mass effect explosion
It was so entertainin' when the boogie started to explode... possibly some sort of mass effect explosion

A special attraction of Bioware titles is romance, and this is definitely one of the fun parts of ME, complete with a tasteful sex scene.  (Two, if you’re a bit naughty with the Asari Consort.  What can I say, Ms. Cmdr. Shepard has a thing for mysterious blue aliens.)

The combat isn’t as fun as JE, though it may just be that I played it on too low a level.  The biotic abilities are neat, especially once they get powered up; but combat gets a little repetitive and the energy weapons don’t feel different enough from each other.  (TF2 and Fallout 3 have both spoiled me since they both excel in that area.)  Inventory management also gets tedious.   Merchants also seemed kind of pointless since you can get everything as loot anyway.

I almost always ended up with Liara and Garrus as squadmates, which made for reasonable balance with my weapons/biotics abilities.  It seemed like a pity not to be able to use Wrex and Ashley more.

Pretty much a highway, but such a nice one
Pretty much a highway, but such a nice one

It’d be nice to have more varied gameplay, and maybe some physics or puzzles.  All too many missions just involve going to point B and clicking on something, or talking to person A then B then A again. 

The last couple missions are great, however: lovely environments, good fights, crawling over the broken Citadel.  The game knows how to go out charging.  (I have a bone to pick with the ending, though.  I chose to concentrate forces on the Reaper ship.  It was the biggest threat, and I figure you could always elect a new Council.  But it seemed that there was no actual distinction between “concentrate on Sovereign” and “let the Council die”.)

One bit from JE that I missed: the “what happened to everyone” vignettes.


Dealing with the unhinged right

An excellent article which not only details the frightening insanity the Republicans have fallen into, but starts to address what to do about it:

A lot of the ruckus is political theater, but the Republicans have been stirring up the crazies for years, and some of them are going to get violent– just as they did in the ’90s.

While we’re at it, here’s what the craziness looks like to a British observer.  Both links via Agto.

What’s wrong with Versus

This is going to be a strange kind of cranky: I think about a hundred games of versus are enough.

Left 4 Dead is a great game, and I still like the campaigns.  And any game you can replay dozens of times obviously has a lot going for it.  But versus mode (where 4 survivors face off against 4 special infected) has been in the not-fun zone for some time, for several reasons.

  • All too often it’s rolleriffic. And unlike TF2, where a roll is over in 10 or 15 minutes, a game lasts more than an hour.  That’s a long time to not be having fun doing something that’s supposed to be fun…
  • Playing specials is great fun when it works, but missing a single jump can mean a quick death and then half a minute waiting for respawn.   The long respawn was probably put in during early testing when survivors were easily overwhelmed.  There’s other ways to get a breather anyway (e.g. hang out in a small room).
  • Everyone knows all the safe spots now.  Certain spots, like the farmhouse finale, are virtually impossible for the specials now.  No wonder L4D2 is going to have finales that require the survivors to move from point to point.
  • It’s really frustrating to be auto-spawned in the finale, often in terrible locations.  (Especially as a Boomer.)
  • The scoring system seems designed to maximize annoyance.  It’s fine to reward surviving, but the best games are close ones.  And teams are often closer than they appear… the difference between making it to the safe room or not can be pretty minor, but the scoring system turns it into a roll.
  • At the same time, when there is a skill differential, the game magnifies it, perhaps because of the smaller teams and focussed gameplay.  In TF2, if someone is dominating the game you can always change classes or change strategy.  There’s not much recourse in L4D.

One plus from tonight’s game to balance the crankery… my friend Skotty did some mighty fine stealth tanking in that finale.  He must’ve stayed alive for about five minutes, avoiding fire, constantly harassing the survivors from afar, despite the very open areas.  It was a nice demonstration that rushing in is often not good tank strategy.

Tinfoil opposition

I’m going to have to revise my “The Last Century: Huh?” essay some time, because I can now much more easily answer the question I was struggling with: what happened to liberalism?  The answer is, the sixties happened.

That’s a generation ago now, so let me refresh your memory:

  • We were trapped in a hopeless war (and with a draft, it affected all young men)
  • Blacks were demanding change, bordering on revolution
  • The crime rate was tripling
  • Young people were rebelling: rock and roll, long hair, sex and nudity, drug use
  • Authority was being questioned, at every level from insolence to pranks to a sprinkling of outfight terrorism

It was easy to feel that things were out of control.  And if you were on the right, there were even more reasons for alarm: loosened immigration, ballooning government, civil rights enforcement (i.e. “coddling of criminals”), feminism, the legalization of abortion, the decline of traditional Christianity.

Liberalism didn’t produce all this; some of it was inevitable; some of it (e.g. the black power movement) started out calm but radicalized in the face of reactionary opposition; some of it came from voices much farther to the left.  But if you were upset about these things, the nuances didn’t matter.

Much of modern Republican history and policy makes sense if you realize that, for the right, it’s still 1968.  They don’t really see Clinton or Obama; they see Abbie Hoffman and Malcolm X.  (And to a large extent they took their inflammatory rhetoric and even their threats of violence from the ’60s left.)

Somewhat ironically, politics in the ’60s didn’t look like this.  The major parties were both run by staid old fogies who’d been formed in WWII and got along well enough together.  Lyndon Johnson was no rabble-rouser; Nixon governed largely as a liberal.  He did start to develop the “southern strategy”, which peeled off white Southerners from the New Deal coalition, but that didn’t bear fruit till 1980.

The thing is, it’s 2009.  Most of the excesses of the ’60s are long gone– Democrats have moved to the right, and the far left is so inconsequential it’s not even worth mocking.  Other bits have become mainstream: megachurches play rock ‘n roll; reactionaries are happy to vote for a woman (and her kid’s having a baby out of wedlock is somehow no longer deplorable but bravely pro-life).  Race relations are far from great, but segregation isn’t coming back and there are just too many nonwhites to make racism a winning strategy.  The rising generation doesn’t have a problem with gay rights.

Unfortunately, the mainstream of the Republican Party hasn’t got the memo.  Palin, Gingrich, Limbaugh, the birthers, the town meeting disrupters– they’re standing up to 1968 with 1968 tactics, more furiously than ever. 

It’s a pity, because a democratic country needs a responsible opposition… something like the actual 1960s Republicans, in fact.  We’re facing some important issues: a near-depression, two major industries failed, health care reform, global warming, Islamist fascism, and more.  It’d be helpful to have an opposition that could keep Democrats honest, and not ruin the country if they happened to win an election.  Instead we have people in tinfoil hats, making up issues out of whole cloth and spreading confusion and lies. 

There is a more realistic sector of the Republicans, as well as a fraction of the Democrats, which isn’t trapped in 1968.  Unfortunately they’re trapped in 2007 instead.  It’s understandable that last year’s financial collapse, and the not-unrelated GOP electoral collapse, haven’t sunk in yet.  People don’t quickly abandon their hobbyhorses, and often people’s response to a crisis is to reinforce their worldview, not question it.  But the triple whammy of financial collapse, health care costs, and global warming is a death blow to the reflexive trust in The Market and hatred of government.  As Krugman put it, what’s saved us from a second Great Depression is big government.

It’s by no means tinfoil-hat craziness to worry about the deficit.  It’s a little suspicious since all the big thinkers of the GOP from Alan Greenspan to Dick Cheney fully endorsed Bush’s tax cuts and thus enormous deficits: it’s not intellectually coherent to object only to Democratic spending.  But the larger problem is that right now, the last thing we need is a stingy government.  “Make sure the economy fails even more” is not rational or constructive opposition.

A two-party system normally works to moderate both parties.  This broke down as the Republicans found a way to end long-term Democratic domination of Congress seemingly by breaking the old rules– moving away from the center rather than toward it.  They were so proud of their success, too, filling bookstores with their scurrilous books about liberals and their permanent majority. 

It’s hard to imagine today’s GOP adapting.  There are rational voices– Meghan McCain comes to mind– but the hotheads are still in control and see no point in cooling down.  It’ll probably take a few more election losses before things change.

Man is His Sushi

Coming out of nowhere, Abhay Khosla takes on Dracula:

Dracula’s dry cleaner must die

This stuff just bypasses all the rational centers of the brain.  I couldn’t tell you why it’s funny and wouldn’t advise trying this at home.  (Surrealism isn’t as easy as it sounds.)

Edit: It’s five parts, all of which are up now.  The first is the best.

Edit edit: Link rot fixed.

Dumb new games

I really need to check reviews before getting games. 

I got Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortals because it’s based on a great French comic by Enki Bilal.  Turns out it’s a 2-D adventure game along the lines of Myst, the cream of 1993.  Static backgrounds; you don’t even see your character walking around.  There’s no manual with the Steam edition, so there’s no clue how to interact with the world; from a glance at a walkthrough, the puzzles are arcane and arbitrary.  And the other problem with buying Steam games comes up: you can’t even give them away. 

Then I got the indie games pack that was on sale.  Best of the lot: World of Goo, a light and clever game where you build structures using little goo balls.  There are many types of goo with slightly different properties– the red balls in the picture are balloons, for instance.

Making a goo structure float.
Making a goo structure float.

Then there’s The Path, which I was curious about.  Pretty graphics; strange emo atmosphere.  It’s nice to see something produced that’s this personal and offbeat; on the other hand I don’t find it that compelling. 

Everyday Shooter: not every day, thanks.  An overgrown flash game, basically.

Braid: probably great for people who grew up playing Mario.  I didn’t, so I found it just annoying.

Blueberry Garden: another damn platformer.

Total: out $36, for one good game that I could have gotten by itself for $20 (but probably wouldn’t at that price).

Research and Development

The game-savvy, handsome, yet short Chris pointed me to Research and Development, an awesome HL2 Ep2 mod entirely created by Matt Bortolino.   Apparently the author started it as a way to noodle around in the Valve editor, Hammer; in that case I can only say that his noodling is of higher quality than many people’s gourmet meals.

Tootling away on Mr. Whirly
Tootling away on Mr. Whirly

The first clever bit is that although there are plenty of monsters, you have no guns.  Not even the little pistol.  No crowbar, even.

The next clever bit is that it’s made up of clever bits.  It’s a set of puzzles, where you use the resources at hand to defeat enemies or move on to the next area.  They’re generally just hard enough to be interesting… wander around and test things and you’ll generally find the right solution.  Quite a few of them had me grinning: that’s neat.  My favorite part was a tense chase on a runaway railway cart– puzzle solving at velocity.   You do get a gravity gun at one point; but (another clever bit) you have to build it.

Different people seem to get stuck at different points.  Some people hate the final boss battle; I found it fast and pretty easy.  On the other hand I had a terrible time with the gunship.  First, I didn’t even notice the damn thing– I was trying to take down the helicopter which appears at the same moment.  And second, I suck at throwing mines.  At least it was easier than taking down 13 striders at the end of Ep2, which I never managed to do.

Bortolino followed Valve’s lead in making gorgeously detailed environments, and ramping up difficulty.  (For instance, you have to learn how to get past leaking steam pipes.  Then you can do that while riding the runaway cart.)

Stay for the whole ending scene, which has a great final joke.

It’s just a few hours long, but hey, it’s free.