When Being Bad Doesn't Feel Good; Also, Why I'm a Lousy Role Player

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A couple of months ago I started replaying Mass Effect 2. It had been my intention to play through it twice all along as I’ve got two completed ME1 save games in my pocket -a Paragon DudeBroShep (pictured) and Renegade FemShep (stolen, but close approximation)- that I wanted to carry forward through Mass Effect 3. Traditionally when I play an RPG, I play to be the hero. I’ve tried with games like Baldur’s Gate 2 to try an alternate path being an “evil” character, but beyond any concerns about whether or not a game makes it plausible to do so, I’ve never enjoyed being a cruel douchebag in a game. Maybe it’s conditioning from my Ultima IV – VII days, but wrecking virtual lives and kicking virtual homeless people just doesn’t offer me anything remotely satisfying as a gamer. I’ve tried it and it always sounds fun in theory -A world without rules! Let’s wreck some shit!- but the reality never meshes with it.

Then came Mass Effect’s Renegade path. Say what you will about Mass Effect and Bioware (and I’ve said plenty), but I’m not sure I’ve seen a game so excellently give the player the opportunity to be a ruthless hero and still actually be a hero rather than someone who curses at everyone for no reason but still saves the world because if they didn’t there wouldn’t be anything else to do. I liked that. I even liked playing it as a strong female character, something I traditionally don’t do when given the choice since I like to really put myself in the shoes of my little avatar and I am, at heart, entirely male. (No really. I fart at appropriate intervals, talk about sports as if I actually know something, and occasionally I sculpt my guns at the office. It’s a deep burn!) I felt like I was growing as a role playing gamer. Then I hit this one particular scene in Mass Effect 2 the other night and realized – yeah, not so much…

You see, as much as I love me a good RPG, I’m actually a pretty lousy role player in the strictest sense of the genre. RPGs are all about putting your feet into someone else’s shoes, but historically when I play these games, it’s not so much to be in someone else’s shoes, but to put on the shoes of some idealized (and not as boring) version of myself, one who actually does something. Perhaps I shouldn’t draw so much satisfaction out of saving some virtual peon’s imaginary farm or going out of my way to rescue my shipmate’s sister when there are real life cats stuck in trees, but then real life doesn’t let me shoot down the tree with a plasma rifle either. Maybe if real life made being heroic more interesting I’d take more interest in being heroic. (No, not really. I’m content in the knowledge that I’m a Gen X slacker. I’ll do my best with my kids and try to do better about donating to charity, but mostly I want to go home and pretend none of you exist. No offense, of course.) The point is when I played through Mass 1 I came out of it feeling like I grew as a role player. Like I’d unlocked some kind of secret about stripping myself away from my character and really trying to look at the world through a different person’s eyes; a person who’s not striving to be some kind of icon, but just trying get through the day, flaws and all. Sounds good in theory, amiright?

As I’ve slowly made my way back through Mass Effect 2 I was getting that same feeling. Sure, I’d shove some douchebag off a ledge, mid-sentence. I’d punch out the occasional reporter for asking a stupid question. I might even let Miranda execute somebody in cold blood. But let’s be honest. All those bastards had it coming. The galaxy is a hard place and justice falls like Hard Rain. (Zing!) Then I got to Jack’s loyalty quest. (Modest spoilers ahead.)

Beyond just recruiting them in the first place, getting the loyalty of each of your team members is rather important in Mass Effect 2. Rather plastically, you can’t do that without doing some random loyalty quest that really has nothing whatsoever to do with the life and death save the universe mission you’re on. It’s not great game or story design, but it works well enough. Among this cast of characters is Jack. Jack is a rather broken individual. She was identified from birth as an immensely powerful biotic (it’s like The Force, but without violating Star Wars copyright) and was kidnapped to be part of an experiment in maximizing human biotic potential. She grew up tortured in both mind and body and when she escaped, she escaped as a homicidal, remorseless killer. Paragon Dudebro Shep did his best to show her a different path, one not fueled by hatred and revenge and it sure felt like he’d at least partially succeeded. FemShep on the other hand believes in frontier justice. Yeah, she’s out to save the day and she’s got a soft spot for her crew, one Liara T’Soni (or whatever her name is) in particular, but the world doesn’t get to see the softer side (of Sears!). She can be a monster as long as she knows that she’s leaving behind a world safe for truth, justice, and The Alliance-uh-an Way. So when she brings Jack back to said facility and Jack decides she wants revenge on some poor slob who’s every bit the broken victim of the place that she is, what does Femshep do?

Paragon versus Renegade prompts in Mass Effect 2 are pretty obvious. Either you get a red or blue mouse click icon or a red or blue dialog option. Regardless of which, you know when you see a red or blue option that regardless of what else is there, you’ll probably end up going for one of those. Again, it’s not great gameplay, but it suffices. So as Jack leveled a pistol at this pitiable dope and I saw the red text, “Do it,” I instinctively clicked it. FemShep, who is EXTREME!, nods at Jack and says with complete and utter indifference, “Do it. You’re a killer.” Jack pulls the trigger and smiles and says something about how good that felt. Well, I’m glad she felt good because I felt like the lowest of the low. This kid. This lost, terrified, insecure kid just cemented her future. She was staring down the edge of a cliff and what do I do? Instead of pulling her back I shove her off. Because that’s what a Renegade Hero does. I was so absolutely disgusted with myself (and a little bit with the game) that I reloaded and talked her down, Renegade character points be damned. Nevermind that it’s a game and none of it really means a hill of beans, it was at that point that I realized that if this is what being a “dark” hero is, I want no part of it. It’s not fun. It’s not funny. It’s just… ugly.

I’m far enough along in this game that I may as well finish it, but I can already see a third playthrough of both games in the offing. The fact of the matter is FemShep is a better character than DudeBroShep and after playing through the Lair of The Shadow Broker DLC over the weekend (it’s probably the best DLC I’ve played, btw), I suddenly want to see a FemShep that’s a better person than the one I’ve created and that I’ve seen countless YouTube vids of (like the one embedded above for hilarity’s sake). I want to find out how FemShep The Paragon goes about saving the universe. A Shep that has a whole heart and who brings out the best in the people around her. Sure, QueenBitchShep is funny and even admirable in her own way, but she’s no longer a character I like. We have to allow for flawed heroes in our every day lives because even the best among us is pretty damn flawed. In my fantasy worlds I want better. I want the icon. If that makes me a lousy role player then I’m okay with that.

EDIT: Based on a couple of the comments I should point out I’m not criticizing the game for the Jack sequence being in there. Shep’s action is a choice the player makes. The game, as is its role, just facilitates it. The point is that as a gamer I didn’t draw enough (any) enjoyment out of that choice for me making it to be worthwhile, even if it’s consistent with the character I had played up to that point. Its actually a compliment to the game that it drew the emotional reaction out of me that it got, which is why I wanted to write about it in the first place.

Xbox Music Service to Launch This Fall

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Update Turns out this isn’t happening at all. Ballmer was only giving an example of how you can say “Xbox Music” and bring up via Kinect whatever music service already exists. Whoopsie!

Steve Ballmer gave a speech at the Microsoft Partner Conference yesterday in which he mentioned that Microsoft will be bringing a music service to the Xbox 360 this fall with more than 11 million songs available and searchable via the Kinect’s voice control capabilities. There isn’t any more information about the service available now including how it will work, where the songs will come from, what it means for all of those people who bought a Zune and who in their right mind would want to boot up the 360 and use Kinect to stammer their way through an 11 million song catalog just to listen to “The Thong Song” one more time. But hey, everyone likes music, right?

Panzer Corps Now Available

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I have my copy of this which I need to get to ASAP — need to get through NCAA first, but this new spin on Panzer General is now available.

PR ahead:

Slitherine (www.slitherine.com), Matrix Games (www.matrixgames.com), and The Lordz Games Studio (www.thelordzgamesstudio.com) are thrilled to announce that their long-anticipated next-generation World War II strategy game, Panzer Corps, is now available. Panzer Corps will feature 26 scenarios on 21 unique maps, covering most major battles of the European Theatre of World War II and including a few hypothetical ‘what if’ scenarios based on your actions.

400 unit types, divided into 19 unit classes with 20 detailed parameters to identify units abilities, 17 terrain types affecting gameplay in various way. Panzer Corps will celebrate the glory days of strategy gaming with the aim of attracting new players to the genre;

Campaign: all 26 scenarios are combined into a large campaign tree with several entry points at various stages of the war. Depending on the outcome of each battle (decisive victory, marginal victory or defeat), the player will be faced with different challenges and a progress along different parts of the campaign tree;

Nations: all major and many minor nations represented: Germany, Italy, Poland, France, Great Britain, USA, USSR, Norway, Belgium, Netherlands, Albania, Romania, Greece and more. Core units that travel with you throughout the campaign gaining experience and that can be upgraded as new weapon technologies become available.

You can read my Q&A on GameShark here:

Fallout New Vegas – Old World Blues Trailer

Here’s a new trailer for the upcoming New Vegas DLC Old World Blues.

This trailer is a bucket-full of crazy.

Donny Deutsch? Who the **** is Donny Deutsch?

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I honestly have no earthly idea who this guy is or why anyone should listen to him but I do know who Kathy Lee Gifford is and I’m absolutely certain no one should listen to her regarding, well, anything.

Anyway, the above clip is from the Today show’s after hours portion when Kathy and a woman I don’t know talk about things that no one cares about because most people who actually watch The Today Show have already gone to work and turned off the TV.

This short clip shows just how clueless these people are when it comes to the popularity, and I’d strongly argue the cultural significance of videogames. Do they seriously think it’s “just weird” for adults over 30 to play games? Were they not around in the 1980s when our generation became hooked on them?

It’s yet another example of people talking publicly about things that they simply do not understand and shows that while games are certainly more mainstream than they were when we were kids, there’s a segment of the population (mostly older people, 50+ including Kathy who is 54) who still don’t grasp just how big this industry is — and why.

Industry Big Wigs Talk Wii U

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For all the ways EA has found to irritate the living hell out of my gaming life over the years, when it comes to listening to the head of a major publisher talk about this industry, I’d much rather hear what a John Riccitiello has to say than a Bobby Kotick (Activision). Take these comments he recently made about the Wii U to Industry Gamers…

“Personally, while there’s some great experiences on Move, and there’s some great experiences on Kinect, I’m not a motion control guy. It’s still too imprecise for me. I like shooting something and hitting it. I like turning a corner and feeling precision. So I still like my swizzle sticks and my shoulder buttons and my Xs and Os, etc. But there is something about having that second screen that transcends anything I’ve ever done before…

I can draw a pass pattern for Madden, I can be playing an FPS up here while I’m calling in air strikes or whatever I want to do. I can give all the detailed control off the screen, I can see another part of a map… I always find it breaks the spell for me when I’m playing a game with a squad and I have to stop the action and move up for them. Now I can just move them down here [on the tablet]. I think there’s something really powerful about a second screen that I think really matters. I think we’re just beginning to realize what we can do with it and I think it’s obvious we can do a lot with it.”

First of all, say what you will, but at least the guy is capable of talking like he understands games. That aside, this, to me, is where the potential is on Wii U. Sure, the hardware will be competitive with the 360 and PS3, but that’s really not saying anything anymore, especially given all the rumbling about new console announcements coming from Sony and Microsoft in the next year. At best, I think the Wii U gets a year of performance parity before Nintendo is outmuscled again. (Not that this ever hurt the DS or Wii.) So, it’s going to come down to just how much the controller screen does for games. I’m inclined to think it can do quite a bit, but I’m less sure it’ll be enough to move gamers who’ve spent the last six years on Xbox Live or a legion of Wii buyers who really never went beyond Wii Sports.

Enter Epic’s Cliff Bleszinski who basically argues people will buy it because it’s Nintendo:

“The Power Glove led to the Wii, right? The Virtual Boy led to the 3DS, right? A lot of these older technologies that you forget about are [the technological predecessors]. The Kinect is a sophisticated webcam, right? So I’m just dying to see it. It’s Nintendo. I’ll buy it. I know I’ll buy it. They’ll talk sh*t but they’ll buy it.”

Here’s where I think folks steer their pro-Wii U comments off the rails. If history has shown us anything in this business it’s that legacy means absolutely nothing. Atari was king of the hill and utterly imploded. Nintendo was a cultural revolution that, while having stood the test of time, was thought to have dropped to a distant third tier before the Wii came along. Sony’s PlayStation 2 supposedly would have them own the pocketbooks of gamers for generations to come. They could do whatever they wanted for the PS3, right? How’d that work out?

No, if the Wii U is going to succeed it’s got to do it because it offers a better way to play games than the other guy. The only thing Nintendo’s track record should tell us at this point is that we shouldn’t underestimate them.

SOE Explains Star Wars Galaxies Closure

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This is a weird story. Well, more than I first thought. It seemed obvious to me: MMO no longer popular, BioWare MMO likely to steal a lot of players, SOE pulls plug, we move on with our lives.

But never, ever, underestimate the ridiculousness of people, especially when role-playing, MMOs and Star Wars are involved.

Did you know that some fans threatened to sue SOE for killing the game? Yep. When these Mensa members were told “Sony can do what it wants with its game” a rousing petition was started. (http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/saveswg/)

Now the Escapist has an article posted in which details of the closure are explained.

So now we shift back to the part that makes sense when CEO John Smedley says, “It was time to turn it off. We have a contractual relationship that’s ending in 2012, The Old Republic launching, a bunch of other business things with LucasArts,” Smedley said. “And then you look at the odds of a pretty large portion of the audience moving to TOR, which looks like a terrific game. I think that’s going to be really well-received by the population.”

The entire article is worth a read, though. As for that image? That’s Community Relations director Linda Carlson who showed up at the SOE Fan Faire 2011 dressed, well, like that.

Barnes, to the LARP mobile!

Batman: Arkham City Riddler Trailer

Trailer day continues with a new Batman video, this one involving The Riddler.

Damn fine trailer, this.

Saints Row: The Third Pre-order Pack Makes No Sense

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THQ announced today that pre-ordering Saints Row: The Third will net you something called Professor Genki’s Hyper Ordinary Pre-Order Pack. Yeah, I don’t know what that is either. From the press release, it sounds like Professor Genki has a show that features people murdering other people for cash and prizes. Sounds right up the Saints Row alley.

The pre-order pack includes a vaccum-cannon equipped truck that allows you to suck up passengers and use them as projectiles, a gun that shoots mind controlling octopi and a leisure suit, complete with Professor Genki mask. Just what you need for your days of stirring trouble in Steelport.

In addition to Professor Genki’s Whatever pack, there’s also mention of a collector’s edition that comes with a soundtrack and a Saints Row headset, complete with voice auto-tuning. I’m all for guns that shoot octopi, but a voice modulator on a headset? Come on. Next thing they’ll include a button that people can press to generate random racial slurs.

Finally, if you preorder the game from THQ’s store you’ll get something they’re calling the Saints Row Pass for nothing. I don’t care about the pre-order deal, but the notion that there’s something called a Saints Row Pass is interesting. It sounds like the Rockstar Pass for LA Noire where buying the pass nabs you upcoming DLC at a discount. The DLC for Saints Row 2 was pretty crappy, so I think I’ll take a wait and see approach on this game’s DLC, but it’s good to see that THQ has something planned post-release. Full PR ahead.

Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax is the hit game show that has taken the world of Saints Row: The Third by storm. Shown in 31 countries and localized in 13 languages, it’s cute, it’s crazy… and above all else it’s, MURDER TIME, FUN TIME!

Filmed in front of a live studio audience, the Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax takes contestants and puts them in friendly games of life and death, where success means fabulous prizes and continued life, and failure leads to other less desirable outcomes.

Popular Genki Games include Baby or Cobra, Monkey Money Grab, and Professor Genki’s Super Sparkle Lab in which one Steelport resident gets to fight through Genki’s booby-trapped laboratory, shooting targets for points and humans just for fun. But look out! Shooting the helpless panda makes everyone sad.

And now, from the creators of Professor Genki’s Super Ethical Reality Climax, THQ and Volition are proud to unveil the Professor Genki’s Hyper Ordinary Pre-Order Promotion!

Pre-order Saints Row: The Third and receive Professor Genki’s Hyper Ordinary Pre-Order Pack absolutely free!

Professor Genki’s Hyper Ordinary Pre-Order Pack includes:

Professor Genki’s Super Ballistic Man-a-pult:
Cruise Steelport in style with this vacuum-action human-cannonball truck. Suck up pedestrians and use them as live ammunition against the forces of evil, and everyone else.

Professor Genki’s “Octopuss” Cannon:
Fire baby octopi onto your enemies’ heads! Watch as the octopi massage their scalps and your enemies fight for you! Enemies can be friends too!

Professor Genki’s Leisure Stunt Suit:
The ultimate in comfort and tight-fitting apparel, the Genki Leisure Stunt Suit is perfect for skydiving over Steelport or to wear while ejecting from high-flying fighter jets. Free Genki mask included!

In addition to the game and the Professor Genki Hyper-Ordinary Pre-Order Pack, the Collector’s Edition will land you the exclusive Saints Row: The Third in-game soundtrack and a custom modeled Saints Row headset, featuring an auto tune voice processing feature inspired by Zimos the pimp.

Jumping the Shark Podcast #79

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Image: Filomena Scalise / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s the usual crew back at work in this week’s Jumping the Shark. This week Bill brings us the word from the front in Fear 3. I tie a bow around Dungeon Siege III (review to be posted at the mothership soon) and relate some 4th of July camping exploits. (Hint: I would not survive in the wild if left to my own devices.) Brandon goes on a bug hunt with Earth Defense Force. And Danielle gets herself a shiny new Kinect in order to play UFC Trainer: The Ultimate Fitness System. She also gets funky with Dance Central and you can’t put a price on that. Speaking of Kinect and pricing things, this week’s topic is about buyer’s remorse after having purchased a new console or system; this one comes with a free side order of kids and gaming as I fret about how much time my son’s been putting into Lego Batman.

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