Re: Post here when you beat a game. I mean it!
I finally managed to finish Mass Effect after a brief hiatus (Paragon Male Shep Soldier), and I would be hard-pressed to name a finer game of last year. Still, I am a little disappointed to see the standard KOTOR vices ingrained in it such as the usual cast of secondary characters that reveal themselves more appealable than the main ones, the parachuted and wooden amorous relations or the "must-finish-game-with-cosmic-shattering-battle" staples. A greater letdown was the New Game+ mode, which doesn't even allow you to change your class, alignment and does not refund your talent points. I can't think of a single reason why I would want to play the game with the exact same character again. Also, while the main storyline is exceedingly gripping, most of the side quests are a frank exercise in boredom. Travelling to a system and navigating the rough and empty planets in search of one or two points of interest is an unimaginative proposition. Worse still, you must trudge through those assignments if you wish to gain the character ally achievements.
Apart from all that, fantastic game. A bit by the numbers when all was said and done, but thoroughly engaging.
Following that, and to commemorate the fact I now have a decent computer, I decided to play S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. Calling it a mixed bag is an oversimplification: this game is both brilliant and terrible, often at the same time.
STALKER wishes to enforce the idea that you are exploring an open world composed of free roaming areas but in reality you are confined to the usual narrow paths that permeate the FPS genre. Stray too far from the road and you'll be hit with a lethal dose of radiation or stumble into deadly anomalies. All the areas are fenced, and you the only way to travel between them is by one or two unique checkpoints. You are indeed allowed to backtrack all you want to previous areas in order to finish optional missions or explore hidden stashes but your level of control ends there. The main storyline, if you are kind enough to call it that, inexorably progresses from one area to another, having you thrown around from one mission hub to another.
Of course, since the action is usually found on the vast plains of the Zone, an artificial mechanism had to be introduced in order to prevent the game from becoming too easy. Hence, all your weapons suffer from a ridiculously acute lack of accuracy; no matter how impressive a marksman you are, your shots are bound to miss the mark in a most embarrassing way when using low-grade weaponry. I understand that I'm playing an RPG where progression is measured by your level of equipment and not your abstract stat levels, but this just throws any skill-based gameplay out of the window, especially when aiming with the iron-sights is even more preposterous than shooting from the hip. You may use a mod to counter-balance this, but then usually the last levels have you struggling with impossibly-placed, prescient, all-seeing snipers that can finish you off in one go.
Where STALKER triumphs is in its characterization of The Zone, a post-apocalyptic landscape ridden with desolation, conflict and monstrosities. It's easy to blend in and accept the alternate chronological events, the specific dangers such as mutants, the different tribalistic factions. Also, as a perpetual outsider, the game empowers you to stand above it all and lend your help as you see fit. A loner and a survivor just like everyone else. It's a tightly developed virtual world that conquers you much in the same way as Fallout does; by presenting a gritty, intricate miserable, inhuman depiction of life, and knowing you aren't capable of looking away.
However, I have to admit being confused at the way this game ends. Perhaps someone with a better understanding can set me straight but I believe you must complete a specific mission in order to access the better set of endings. Unfortunately, this mission has you meeting with an earlier contact that stands in the wilderness, in an area routinely scoured by rabid dogs and hungry boars. It's not unusual for him to die a few minutes after you leave you leave him alone for the first time. How am I supposed to find this fellow still alive, five days later? Couldn't the advanced "next-generation" A-Life system make the NPC understand that seeking shelter would be a better option than just standing in some derelict cottage waiting for the hounds to come?
I appreciate what they tried to do with STALKER and I applaud the effort. It had the potential to be a wonderful game, which is why I hope to find a more coherent experience in the upcoming Clear Skies prequel.
(Awfully loose impressions of the game based on a v.1.0004 with Float32 and Faiakes 2.4, Master difficulty).