The favorites, part 3: gaming

Ohhh, video games. I’m going to do my best at being concise here, because if there’s one non-writing subject I’ll run away with, it’s this. But, seeing as gaming is my second passion after writing, that shouldn’t be too surprising (not that you knew that, I guess…). Picking out my favorite game though? That’s probably too hard. There are so many genres and so many great games in each one. Still, I’ll do my best to narrow things down to my two favorite video games. I definitely think I can do that much.

FAVORITE GAME PART 1: Fire Emblem: Awakening

Take me with you Chrome...

Take me with you Chrom…

I love Fire Emblem more than this lady loves cats. But really. As for why, I think that’s actually pretty easy for me to answer — it takes all the joy of deep, varied characters and pairs it with challenging, diverse strategy game-play. And yes, I’m aware that the stories (and most character types) for every most Fire Emblem games are the same, but that doesn’t bother me, for whatever reason. In fact, the consistency makes me comfortable, and I wonder how each installment will do it different.

As for doing it the best, that accolade belongs to the most recent entry: Awakening. Released earlier this year, this is probably the best game you can get on the 3DS. That might be bias, but it’s objectively the best tactical RPG hands down (and approaching the best RPG. I can’t think of a better one, but not willing to rule out something better). If you’ve never played it then you’re probably wondering what makes it so good, and if you have played it you know damn well. But either way, I’ll gladly tell you.

Awakening is the pinnacle of everything Fire Emblem does well. The cast, as a whole, is better than that of Radiant Dawn (which set the bar pretty high), but you get to pair everyone off in Awakening. And while that level of shipping feels a little creepy if you dwell on it, as a mechanic it’s awesome on multiple levels. Not only do you get to see the fruits of their loins labor (fuck, labor is just as bad) fighting along side their parents in battle, you can pass on skills to make utterly bad ass units. Not everyone gets to be a hero, but some units can end up with ridiculous stat-lines and OP skills. I still think I like Ike a little better than Chrom, but I can’t marry Ike to Titania (Oedipus complex be damned). I also don’t get to make a unique character with the perfect class, tactician.

Game-play wise, the game combines the superior map-based world of Sacred Stones with the superior combat quality of Radiant Dawn. This allows casual gamers to progress right through the story, while allowing hardcore players to farm and over-level their team to their heart’s content. And while I do miss the third tier of Radiant Dawn’s classes, at least the skills are still around. Plus, while I didn’t like Shadow Dragon much at all (or even a little. It hurt me deeply), I do like that I can change classes in Awakening. Concerning the story chapters, there are many different kinds, all of which are either fun, challenging, or both. Also, certain items make it easy to farm EXP in the areas that are most effective for your team’s composition. Also there are an absurd amount of weapons, and characters from every FE game to wield them (those characters wield NOSTALGIA in their off-hand). The DLC is a fun take on alternate universes, and almost every single one is worth the cost. Even the new classes are great, even if I’ve yet to use one in a main team (Griffins just don’t do it for me). It’s just all so good.

All my other compliments are small, minor things, but it is also worth noting that both the music and the visuals are on the toppest (not a word, I know) of shelves. Seriously, I just stare at the game sometimes and let the music soothe my battle-weary soul. Except there’s no way I could be battle-weary while playing Awakening because it’s so damn great.

Oh, I should also talk about the multi-player. That I have less experience with, but I did run into some spot-pass teams while at E3. Most of them were garbage compared to my team, but there are two caveats to consider. 1) My team is as powerful as possible without specifically looking up what the strongest combinations are 2) Most people probably forget to update their spot-pass team as they advanced through the game. And while only one person out of 75+ ever gave me trouble (they’re still sitting there, waiting for the day I can defeat them), I feel really bad for the people that have to go up against my squad. Like, I probably made people cry. Adults, even.

FAVORITE GAME PART 2: Mass Effect 3

Wait, maybe I want Shepard to take me with him/her instead...

Wait, maybe I want Shepard to take me with him/her instead…

You had to know I was going to talk about Mass Effect at some point, as no sci-fi writer/gamer worth their salt would avoid this gem. Seriously, though, if it weren’t for my love of deep strategy elements, this would be my favorite game. And in the same way that Fire Emblem: Awakening is the ideal form of a Fire Emblem game, Mass Effect 3 is the ideal form of a Mass Effect game — almost. There is only a single tragic flaw in this marvelous and emotional experience, but I’ll get to it later (I’m sure, if you’ve played it, you already guessed what I’m going to say anyway). First, though, I want to focus on why this game is the so special.

This series is the first video game epic in the same way Homestuck is the first Internet epic (ok, that’s the last time I bring that up for a long time — I promise!). It is on such an epic scale that no other game even comes close, and never have the stakes been higher. But unlike most epics, you get to control the hero throughout the entire journey. You forge your Commander Shepard through hours of battle and choices (even though choices doesn’t sound as dramatic), shaping them in the image you desire. Shepard’s very words are what you say they are, and they will only ride to war with the friends you choose for them (even though that’s kind of weird). Your hero evolved the way you want them to, and though that’s not uncommon in RPGs, ME does it best.

The game-play has also evolved, though the player has no control over that. Instead, it’s just savvy designing on the part of BioWare. While the first game was a really good time, and a great introduction to the series, some of the more traditional RPG elements didn’t really gel with everything else. And BioWare heard fans expressing that opinion, and they changed things in Mass Effect 2 — only, they went a little too far. Don’t get me wrong, ME2 was also a fun game to play, but it was a little too Action-adventure and not enough RPG. But BioWare listened again and found the right balance in their series’ final installment. There are still no inventories, but there is still a level of weapon customization. Upgrading powers isn’t a confusing board of squares, but you aren’t confined to a limited number of options. ME3 found the right balance between both the genres it borrows from — an impressive accomplishment.

Choice was always played up pretty heavily in Mass Effect games, but the consequences of those choices didn’t become apparent until ME3. I’d have liked the impact to be felt earlier in the series, but I’m just happy the choices mattered at all. So often a game will present the illusion of choice, when really you only have a few options, and those options hardly change a thing about the game. I still don’t think the choices in Mass Effect matter as many will have you believe, it does do a good job of actually using those choices eventually. So kudos to the series for all that.

The music and visuals, much like Awakening were wholly captivating and immediately recognizable as something with the Mass Effect style. DLC was worth it almost every time, and I think that with ME DLC, you get the most bang for your buck. Some titles will release more content, but you also have to pay more for something that isn’t 100% great. With Mass Effect, you only get one mission-line, but that mission-line is of a decent size and of a very high quality. Usually, when it introduces a new character, that character is almost better than many of the regular characters you get in the normal game.

With all that out of the way, the only thing left to talk about is story — something that I think is both Mass Effect’s greatest strength and something that proved to be its ultimate weakness. The thing with Mass Effect is the first game set the bar amazingly high. Then the second game raised the bar. Most of the third game shot the bar into space, too. Then, in the final moments, the bar was sucked into a black hole that no one saw coming. And as the bar was crushed under the weight of infinite gravity, so too were our spirits. The awe-inspiring saga of Shepard fighting the Reapers and uniting the galaxy against their dire threat crumbled in a matter of minutes.

For those who don’t know, the problem with the ending was that it got changed from something great to a B plot blown out of proportion. And in the end, even the B plot wasn’t horrible — it was the complete lack of resolution that followed it. The tragic elements of it weren’t even the problem, as any real epic should be pretty tragic. Things just kind of ended, and you had no idea what happened to all the people you spent hours growing close to. Still, when everyone complained BioWare tried to fix the situation by releasing an extended ending. Though I’m not sure if that was the right move on their part, it did help improve things over all. I mostly just wonder why they didn’t stick with the dark energy ending, which would have made the series’ title actually make sense.

Regardless, almost everything else about this game is done right, and even the ending doesn’t mar that fact. If you’ve never played the Mass Effect series, you’re making a huge mistake. It’s available on Xbox 360, PS3, and the computer, so there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to play it. Everyone has those things, don’t they?

Ok, that does it for today. I have no successfully repented for my transgression, and I am free to do one post a day again — for now at least. Still, this was a certainly tough to do, and I hope the quality didn’t diminish as the day (technically night, which became early morning) went on. Anyway, I’ll have something else for you guys tomorrow!

– Jason

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