Category Archives: Review

Impressions: Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was released on 11/11/11, which, coincidentally, just happened to be my birthday. I’m fairly certain there’s no other way I could have took the lining up of those two events other than “It’s okay to waste huge swathes of your birthday weekend on Skyrim,” so I did. I’ve been playing the game on both my PC and my friend’s Xbox 360.

The Elder Scrolls series is a long-running RPG franchise, known for its first-person view and extremely open-ended gameplay. You’re literally thrust into a gigantic world with little more than a basic gameplay tutorial and a map marker for your first quest. However, the vital, world-saving quest is… well I hesitate to say optional, but in my opinion, if you do the main quest instead of exploring and doing tiny faction-quests for the next several-hundred hours, you’re playing the game wrong. Again, just my opinion; I’m pretty sure there’s not actually a “right” way to play an open-world game. If there was, it wouldn’t be that open of a world, would it?

As my birthday weekend/Guiltless Skyrim weekend comes to a close, I feel I should finally post my random thoughts. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll doubtless play more and coalesce these bullet-points into an actual critique, but for now, more Skyrim calls.

Disclaimer: I’ve gotten called out recently for “spoiling” miscellaneous dungeons. In my opinion, a spoiler is more of a plot thing. I’ll probably only outright label as a spoiler things about plotlines (Main Quest, faction quests, etc.), but if you’re in the camp for whom “exploring is the main storyline”, then I guess there will be unlabeled spoilers ahead. It’s just a conflict of Points of View on this style of game.


  • Interesting that human hair is rock solid, but the mane and tail of the horse in that opening cutscene is animated.
  • The scenery is beautiful. I had to turn the settings way down (I’ve heard there’s a bug with the PC version having the CPU render the shadows as an artifact from the console versions which don’t have as much GPU power), but even with objects fading out earlier than I’d like and some really obviously tiling terrain textures, the world looks great. The terrain is well designed so that I have yet to run into a spot where  can’t see something on the horizon that I really want to run to, with virtual miles of distractions between me and there.


  • Since when do the Imperials dress like members of the Roman Legion? I’m all for stabbing people with a gladius, but I don’t remember them dressing like anything less than badass medieval knights in Oblivion. Were they ancient Romans in the previous three Elder Scrolls that I didn’t play?
  • Interesting choice on the map. The whole zoomed out terrain, complete with gently wafting clouds is pretty cool, but I was kinda expecting something simple, Tolkeinesque like the one we got in Oblivion.
  • The style of the map also helps, somewhat, with trying to find mountain passes.


  • Character creation and other menus don’t feel like they were built with a Mouse and Keyboard in mind. Real finicky with mouse, but responds well enough to arrow keys or WASD.
  • I don’t understand how, if they simply ported the UI from the console version (which certain elements really seem like) we could still end up with a lot of situations where you have to manually click Yes or No. I was smelting ore earlier this evening, and for about 15 chunks of ore, I had to click “Yes” with a very finicky mouse-driven interface when there’s plenty of precedent for [Enter] for “Yes” and [Tab] for “No”.
  • Recovering arrows is weird. Apparently I can only get them from corpses of enemies I’ve shot, and then only maybe (Perks increase you chance of getting back more of your arrows), and not all of them. I’ve lost track of the number of corpses that still have my arrows sticking out of them because I wasn’t allowed to retrieve my arrows.
  • I don’t even care that they don’t look that good (and again, I have been turning down graphical settings like crazy), the way the rocks are put together so you can carefully climb up and down cliffs (perhaps to ambush a bandit camp or something) is a really nice touch. You could somewhat climb in Oblivion, but not like this. You can really get in there and plot a course up the “wrong” side of a mountain for a sneak attack. It’s a lot of trial and error to figure out which surfaces you can actually climb, and it does sometimes stretch your suspension of disbelief, like walking along a rock jutting out into space so your feet are literally on thin air, but then not being able to climb a 70-ish degree slope.
  • Sprinting is a nice addition. Getting from place-to-place, even when you’re soaking in the beauty and discovering random side dungeons and bandit fortresses, is always a process that can benefit from being sped up. I’m disappointed that I can’t jump while sprinting. How cool would it be to go all Canabalt and hop from stepping stone to stepping stone while crossing a river, all the while laughing at all the suckers using the bridge?
  • Combat seems rather unresponsive. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been in a clicking frenzy in melee combat and had my character not deign to swing either weapon. In fact, I’ll say combat is downright buggy. My clicks don’t register when I’m trying to attack. The “Eagle Eye” perk that lets you zoom in with your bow regularly decides that “zoom in” means “jump wildly back and forth between zoomed view and normal view so that it’s impossible to actually aim.” Edit: This seems to have been mostly fixed when I turned down my settings. Once the game was no longer chugging, I found that these problems virtually disappeared.
  • There’s some real oddities that stem from the removal of Attributes. In the previous Elder Scrolls, your character had traditional RPG Attributes like Strength and Agility, which then fed into other stats like HP, MP, carrying capacity, etc. In Skyrim, they’ve been boiled down to just Stamina, Health, and Magicka. Stamina dictates your ability to use physical actions like power attacks and sprinting. Health, is pretty self-explanatory, and Magicka dictates your ability to cast spells. When you level up, you simply increase one of these stats and pic a new perk. I like the addition of perks, and they’re much more interestingly arranged (each being tied to a skill which you level up by using) than in Fallout 3, the first Bethesda game to use Perks. I’m a big fan of each skill having a “skill tree” of sorts. However, there’s some real weirdness that doesn’t seem to jive with the previously established Elder Scrolls rules as a result of this. The worst offender is that leveling up your Stamina increases your carrying capacity, a trait that used to be the domain of hulking warriors who throw all their points into Strength so they can wear their heavy armor and wield their two-handed battleaxes. Now, it seems mostly leveling Stamina is the domain of the rogue because they’re, if they’re doing it right, not going to be getting into much close combat and instead relying on stamina to finish off their enemies quickly with power attacks or zoomed in bow shots, or sprinting away. That means that the scrawny rogue who’s been throwing points into Stamina most of the game ends up able to carry a whole lot more junk than the big, strong warrior, and that’s just downright confusing. I don’t know if there’s a logical fix for this short of bringing back Attributes (I suppose, the Warrior will be grabbing a lot of Stamina upgrades, but I can’t imagine it’ll be more than 50/50 Stamina Health, since he needs to take a beating which the Rogue doesn’t); it’s possible some serious carrying capacity upgrades could be worked into the Warrior-centric perks, but it’s nonetheless really weird.


  • Saul Tigh? Frak me sideways, I’d know that voice anywhere!
  • Oooh. Choice early on. Well played, designers. It’ll be interesting to see if anything comes of that choice, but, again, when I play an Elder Scrolls game, the Main Quest line is at the very bottom of my to-do list, so it’ll probably be a while before I see anything come from this choice.
  • Some really nice seemingly random stuff, like a ruined fort occupied by a few bandits with training dummies on the walls, I assume to make the fort look better defended than it actually is, though none of the bandits has been talkative enough for me to find out if that’s really the case.
  • Dark Brotherhood Spoilers: I’m a bit disappointed that the early-on choice shown in the tutorial mission didn’t carry over to the faction quests (or at least the Brotherhood. I haven’t started any of the others yet). There’s a point fairly early on in the quest line where your superior directly contradicts the orders you were given by the Night Mother, a sort of prophet that the entire Brotherhood are supposed to obey. Your superior doesn’t even try to hide the fact that she runs the show around here, not the Night Mother. This would have been a great opportunity to see a little more player choice. Do you keep the well-oiled Dark Brotherhood status quo, or do you listen to the Night Mother (whom only you can hear), whose word should be gospel to the Brotherhood. The Night Mother goes so far as to give you a location and person of interest to talk to, but they don’t show up in your quest log until after you complete the contracts that are obviously meant to sidetrack you from doing the Night Mother’s bidding. I won’t deny that this delay was necessary because it probably set off events that forwarded the Dark Brotherhood storyline over the next few quests, but it’s jarring to have such a blatant illusion of choice in a game that otherwise gives you so much freedom.
  • There’s a really nice touch that you probably need subtitles on to really notice. I habitually turn on subtitles in story-based ganes, just because you never know when there’s going to be other noises, often caused by you, the player, horsing around while an NPC is talking to you, that might cause you to miss something important, or miss some clever writing. It was because of my subtitle use that I noticed there are subtitles when a Dragon breathes, and they’re the same (or similar) words to the shouts that you learn as the Dragonborn. I think that’s a really nice touch and draws a neat connection between you and the dragons. Almost certainly intentional, but something I doubt a lot of players notice. Good on Bethesda for paying attention to subtle details like that. I guess we should be referring to the dragons’ breath attacks as “shouts” then, shouldn’t we?

Mass Effect 2 Critique: A Repost From My First Blog

When I first started, I fully intended to figure out a way to merge my old blog with the new one that would be formed by me making a WordPress site. However, because I was making the new site under a deadline for a class, I didn’t have time to figure that out. Later, I realized that I hardly had enough content on my old blog to warrant trying to figure it out. Really, all I needed to recover from that blog was my Mass Effect 2 Critique, originally published in August 2010. I suppose the Shortcake French Toast with Peaches recipe might also be worth salvaging, but that’s hardly the point of this blog, so it probably won’t wind up here.


Writing reviews has been something I’ve intended to do with this blog ever since I first set it up. There was originally intended to be much more than just that Avatar review from last Christmas. Somewhere around here I’ve got notes for an Assassin’s Creed critique, but I feel like the recently completed Mass Effect 2 is probably the best place to try and shock myself into regularly writing these. I figure I’ve given certain elements of the game more than their fair share of choice words in plenty of other venues such as Facebook or the relative anonymity of forums. I might as well coalesce everything into one big post somewhere rather than scattering my opinions to the farthest reaches of the tubes. Forgive my erratic-ness, as this is my first written critique so I haven’t exactly figured out a format. I suppose categories are a good way to go.

For all not in the know, Mass Effect 2 is an Action RPG developed by BioWare, published by EA Games, and released in early 2010. It is the sequel to Mass Effect, released in 2007, developed by BioWare and published by EA.

Gameplay: How it plays
Equipment Customization:

I’ve said it before a number of times: I am not a fan of BioWare’s eviction of RPG elements present in Mass Effect 1 in the creation of ME2. Though far from perfect, all the customizable weapons and ammo and armors with their upgrade slots made me feel like I was really in charge of a solid operation that was constantly getting its hands on better and better equipment. Picking up a superior sniper rifle for my character in Mass Effect was just as exciting as replacing your Silenced PP7 with a KF7 Soviet in GoldenEye 007, and I got that feeling of getting a new and better gun fairly frequently without it ever getting old until the very end of the game when I had the best equipment and kept having to deal with vastly inferior item drops from enemies.

To contrast, in Mass Effect 2, there are only two versions of every gun: a crappy starting one and a superior upgraded version. Once you get the upgraded Pistol on one of your first recruitment missions, you will never again feel the thrill of getting a significantly more powerful pistol, and the same is true of all other weapons (well, there’s a variety of heavy weapons, but once you have the grenade launcher, you’ll probably never want to use any of the later ones unless you can get that nuke gun to work, assuming it’s as awesome as it sounds, but it would never fire for me…).

Removing the thrill of new and better weapons is ineptly countered with a system by which the weapons you have are simply upgraded. I say ineptly countered because the upgrading doesn’t change anything more than the stats of the weapon or armor; nothing again ever generates that thrill that you get when you equip a new and better gun. Sure, you may get to carry more ammo or do a little bit more damage per shot, but fundamentally, you’re still using the same gun at level 40 that you picked up at level 4. And keep in mind, upgrading your guns was something Mass Effect pulled off on top of switching for new and better equipment. Aside from a few occasions (like that late-game Explosive Ammo), I never got as excited about replacing Weapon Stabilization V with Weapon Stabilization VI in my gun as I did about getting a new gun, but that’s what BioWare reduced the customization in Mass Effect 2 to.

I think there may be a compromise that could bring back some more of that “New Gun Excitement” from ME1, while at the same time not bringing back ME1’s much-hated, easily-cluttered inventory. I believe that BioShock’s weapon customization is an excellent example of how you can upgrade the same weapons throughout the game, and still maintain that excitement of getting a new gun. Every upgrade significantly alters the feel of the gun. The appearance changes noticeably, as does the function. There is also, relative to the depth of the game, a rather wide variety of upgrades to each of BioShock’s weapons, which you can obtain in any order you please. Most importantly, though, the process for upgrading weapons in BioShock requires obtaining the necessary supplies via story missions (considering that BioShock is nothing but story-missions), unlike in Mass Effect 2, where you are forced to perform the excruciatingly boring planet-mining minigame to find the resources required to upgrade. In order for simply upgrading the same weapons all throughout the game to work, there should be a number of different upgrades that significantly change the feel of the weapon, and, ideally, there should be branching upgrade paths with different pros and cons to encourage experimentation and replay value, as well as variety in how your squadmates are equipped. For example, it might be a good idea to remove the sub-machine guns and have two different upgrade paths for the pistol, one which focuses on more damage per individual shot, like the Mass Effect 2 pistol, and one that focuses on firing more bullets, more quickly, like the ME2 submachine gun. Perhaps then you would want to keep a more magnum-like pistol for yourself and give the submachine-gun-like one to a party member who is ideally going to be fighting more with powers than guns.

However, I will give them one point in which their customization in ME2 is an improvement over ME1: Shepard’s armor. In ME1, Shepard was trapped jumping from stock suit of armor to stock suit of armor just like everyone else, and while it was fun to sometimes find those jewels that both looked cooler and had better stats than what you were wearing, more often than not you were forced to choose between looking cool or swapping to new armor that may only be the superior of your old one in one or two of three different stats. And, while I like being forced to choose between armor with significantly better shields or significantly better damage reduction, all in all, I think ME2 handled Shepard’s armor much better. Everything’s customizable. You can mix and match different pieces of armor with different stats to get a suit that most fits your play style, and then you’re free to give it whatever snazzy paint job you want. No more deciding between looking cool and surviving, which is always an unpleasant choice to have to make in a game of fantasy wish-fulfillment

Moving on to something less nitty-gritty that only the hardened RPG nerd cares about. I think, this long after the game’s release, I’m going to merely be a parrot if I start complaining about the resource mining mechanics, but it’s slow, boring, and does absolutely nothing to move the story along. I will, however, say that the actual scanning mechanic worked reasonably well. The whole one-button-to-scan-one-to-launch-a-probe-look-at-the-chart-to-see-what-you’re-probing mechanic felt right, and if someone could come up with a more interesting application of such a mechanic, perhaps scanning around derelict ships or potential landing sites to get a better idea of what you’ll be up against or to find a different spot to land/board the ship to vary up the side-levels from playthrough-to-playthrough, I’d welcome the scanning back (bet you never thought you’d see those words in a Mass Effect 2 review!)

There are other minigames as well, and I would like to hit on those, but, I’ll come back to them; I’ve probably lost a lot of you already by not getting to the core of the gameplay: The combat. As much as people like to think otherwise, most games are largely centered around violent problem-solving. You can talk about stats or story defining an RPG, but in the end, you’re picking and choosing your stats to better kill monsters, and the story is there to give you a reason to go kill monsters.

Mass Effect 2’s combat feels like it took a number of steps backwards from Mass Effect. They removed infinite ammo; they bound three extremely different functions to one button for what feels like no good reason. They brought in a wider variety of squad-members with more limited abilities, so you’d need to bring Garrus and Legion to get the same suite of abilities you would have had with just Garrus in the last game. However, most of these changes are “fine” once you get used to them. I vehemently hated the way they’d redesigned combat when I first started, and there was only my investment in the narrative to keep me going. Eventually, though, there came a point where I had adapted to all the changes. I wouldn’t personally have made them if I were lead designer, but they were no longer hindering my enjoyment. I do, however, have to harp on some of these changes because I still feel they were bad ideas, even if they weren’t cataclysmically bad.

Firstly, Sprint-Duck-Use. I cannot comprehend why someone thought all these functions should be mapped to the same button. Furthermore, I cannot comprehend why the buttons were mapped to the exact opposite of what they were mapped to in Mass Effect 1. Random changes like this are why old people claim they can’t get used to controllers and blame them on why they can’t play games to understand why games don’t actually turn young children into murdering psychopaths (well, I’m sure that’s a bit of a contributing factor at least… a tiny bit…). To quote Ben Croshaw, “How is it that when you see something that works perfectly well you immediately decide to try and improve it and cock the whole thing up?” Shift to Sprint, Caps to crouch (which is what I map it to because someone over at Apple decided there should be a bajillion different keys right next to the tiny, little [Ctrl] key on my MacBook just to punish anyone who thinks a computer should be used to play games in which the [Ctrl] key might be mapped to a function you might want to use in a life or death situation, like ducking behind cover) and E to use worked perfectly. Who looked at this layout and thought “Let’s map Crouch, Sprint, and Use all to the Spacebar and use Shift to bring up the combat menu,” and did that person lose their job for this decision? Flying in the face of how PC shooters have controlled for almost two decades is the exact opposite of an intuitive control scheme.

But whatever, I re-mapped the keys, set up both E and Shift as the “Everything you could possibly ever want to do” keys, and Space as the combat menu that it always should’ve been, and this never bothered me again until I went to write this critique and remembered how stupid it was from default.

What never ceased to bother me and break my suspension of disbelief is that I saved the universe two years ago using magic guns that shot bullets infinitely until they needed to cool down and then went back to teleporting bullets right from the manufacturer into their chamber to be fired again until I ran out of things to shoot at, only to find that two years later, all guns have a limited amount of ammunition. Now, most of my problems with limited ammo are more narrative quibbles than actual gameplay problems, but after the first game, it really feels like Commander Shepard should be too much of a badass to be seen running out of ammo and having to check corpses for fresh clips. You wouldn’t want to see the T-800 finish his badass one-handed-shotgun-reloading-while-riding-a-Harley sequence by running all over the place to pick up fresh ammo. Which, I guess, more than anything, is my big problem with limited ammo for Shepard: Scrounging for bullets isn’t befitting of the badass who’s saved all sentient life in the Galaxy once and is working on doing it a second time.

Other than scrounging for ammo and keymaps that don’t make sense, combat in Mass Effect 2 feels pretty right. I’m glad they replaced the ridiculous scope sway at low levels on my sniper rifle with a little time-slowing effect at higher levels, because it was downright horrible in Mass Effect 1 to try and snipe at all in the first half of the game. Now I don’t have to wait until halfway through the game before I can actually use it, and I’m very glad I could pick up a new weapon specialization at some point later in the game; it’s almost like someone at BioWare was listening to the complaints I never made in any recordable fashion. I got way more use out of my powers at an earlier point in the game, despite playing the exact same class, so something must have improved in that respect, though I’m not entirely sure what. And being able to vault over cover is an excellent addition that I got a lot of use out of.

However, one last complaint I have about combat is that certain attacks will unexpectedly cause Shepard to stagger out of cover, and then leave me standing completely exposed when I want to just get back to killing the guy who shot the rocket or Force Push at me that knocked me out of cover. It seems completely absurd to me that Shepard’s instinct when an attack knocks her out of cover would not be to jump back into cover the instant she regained her footing. I don’t feel like it should be my responsibility to get back to cover after a special attack. I feel like the attack should cause Shepard to get knocked out of cover for a second or two, and she should immediately jump back to the safety of her chest-high wall without me having to press Sprint-Crouch-Use again.

Lack of HUD:
Cutting down the Heads Up Display was a rather annoying decision in my opinion. Although in most genres, it would be correct to suggest that a HUD is unrealistic and, unless done very carefully, can cause severe damage to one’s suspension of disbelief. Science Fiction and some of its weird step-brothers like Steampunk, are the only real exception, at least until a little bit more Sci-Fi becomes reality. I would never question a Sci-Fi game using a HUD to tell me all sorts of useful information. I would only question a poorly designed one, like Mass Effect 2’s. The HUD in ME2 tries to hide from the player. You have to bring up your combat menu to see your radar; your squadmates’ status takes up a teeny tiny chunk of the middle of your screen, so small that it’s almost impossible to judge whether they’re alive or dead until you try to tell them to use an ability, and you only get information on enemies when you’re aiming right at them and they’re within some magical radius of you. It seems extremely silly to me that all this useful information has to be hidden from the player. Personally, if I was trying to save all sentient life in the Galaxy, I would want as much information as possible, as accessible as possible to end every little skirmish as quickly as possible. I would not want to have to aim at an enemy for half a second to judge how strong his shields are; I would not want to pause to look at my radar like I’m trying to read my wristwatch, and I certainly would like to be able to clearly tell when a squad-member whose supporting fire I am relying on is about to die. Then again, I’m one of the players who made Arkham Asylum’s Art Director cry by playing with Detective Vision on for way too much of the game, so maybe I’m not qualified to judge the appropriate Useful Information to Unobstructed Art Asset rato that should be onscreen at any given time…

Other Minigames:
Well, I think I’ve covered my combat complaints. Onto the minigames. I’m hesitant to say that the one minigame in Mass Effect was a problem. It was certainly weird that I had to play a nice round of Frogger (or Simon if you were on the 360) just to place a marker at a mineral deposit, and then do the same thing to pick a door lock, defuse a bomb, salvage parts from a shipwreck, or hack an alien computer. I suppose it’s a step forward that there’s now two minigames (three if you count the scanning and probing one), but neither are really as fun as the decrypting minigame in Mass Effect PC. I give the Code Segment minigame some points in that it promotes the sort of rapid-eye-movement scanning that you see hackers doing in movies, so it’s kind of a good abstraction of real hacking, I guess, accessible, but it gives the right illusion. But they’re just not as fun. And it doesn’t help that once you fail, you’re either permanently locked out of an optional hack, or you can try again for free if it’s for the story. I liked how in Mass Effect 1, if you screwed up, you could use a MacGuffin to override the lock anyways, but you wouldn’t get the experience, and you lost some of your magical MacGuffin gel. Too harsh a punishment for failure is a good way to upset a player.

Narrative: The Story and How it’s Told (Spoilers beware, though I’ll try to clearly mark the big ones)
As I mentioned earlier, the story and the characters are the things that kept me playing even while BioWare was busy breaking the legs of the game I had loved. It started off with an appropriate bang what with my character from the last game dying and getting put back together in a secret lab somewhere, and the stakes were just as high as ever.

Early on, though, it was remarkable how much it felt like BioWare was retreading old ground with Mass Effect 2. They introduced right away the completely unsympathetic hive-minded bad guys who were curiously only harassing humans. They start you off with some nice easy firefights to get you used to the gameplay. Heck, they even followed in Mass Effect 1’s footsteps and started you off with the two least interesting characters, one of whom you were eventually going to send to his or her death and be surprised that all of the dialogue trees act like it was  a colossal sacrifice to send the person you could not have cared less about to certain doom.

Once the tutorials are over and you move into the real plot of the game, everything works out in a pretty appealing manner. You get to meet a bunch of your old party members off doing their own thing. A few of them have nothing better going for them so they join up with you. You start to recruit new characters, only a few of whom feel like less interesting versions of their Mass Effect 1 analogues. The scope of the mission progresses in a believable way that still allows things to build. You start out gathering information and trying to intercept a couple isolated attacks while trying to put together the puzzle pieces that will let you move onto the more galaxy-scale fights where all life hangs in the balance. You slowly learn more about the tactics of the shadowy, over-arching villains who’ve controlled the main bad guys of the series so far. All in all, very interesting.

Despite its epic grandeur, where the stories of Mass Effect 1 & 2 really shine is in your interactions with other people, specifically your squadmates. Few games strike a successful balance between cinematic interactions and customizable conversations. Usually the player-character never has a voice, just a couple text responses to NPC conversations, and it’s a rough compromise between naming your character and never hearing his name said or having NPC’s refer to a character by the predetermined name and feeling like you are not really that character. ME found compromises that felt right for both of these issues.

You play as Commander Shepard, and you pick your character’s first name, which is conspicuously never said, but made far less awkward by the fact that NPC’s can refer to you by your surname or your rank, both of which feel natural, and it never really feels terribly odd to hear my character only referred to in those terms.

In conversation, you pick options that give the gist of what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it, whether you want to ask in a sarcastic manner about one plot point or kindly tell the person you’re talking with to get to the point already. You don’t pick from exact dialogue, so when the voice actor follows your cues, it’s a pleasant surprise rather than obnoxious repetition. There are a few situations where the dialogue the voice actor says doesn’t feel like exactly what I thought I was asking when I told her to say it, but for the most part it’s a good system.

My one major gripe with Mass Effect 2’s conversations is how ME2 handled Intimidate and Charm dialogue options. These should be familiar to veterans of other BioWare RPGs or of Pen & Paper RPGs. Basically, these are special dialogue options that require certain prerequisites to use, and usually result in more interesting outcomes. In ME1, Charm and Intimidate were their own separate skills which needed to be leveled up to Charm or Intimidate certain characters, which became fairly important when a high enough Charm or Intimidate skill determined whether one of your squadmates lived or died. Conversely, in Mass Effect 2, Charm and Intimidate are tied directly to your character’s morality, meaning harder people to intimidate will only be intimidated by you having been the most colossal douchebag you possibly could have been in every possible situation.

My concern is that this sort of behavior makes the game’s role-playing rather shallow. In Mass Effect 1, I was a tough, no-nonsense military girl who would stop at nothing to save the Galaxy, and if that meant cracking some NPC skulls, well then you had better get out of my way when it came to be skull-cracking time. But I knew my squadmates were my greatest strength so my Commander Shepard would have given her life a thousand times over to keep them in top Galaxy-saving condition. And, of course, there are a couple situations where, even in a virtual world, the Bad option just makes you feel… dirty, so in the end, despite my high Intimidate scores, I was leaning slightly towards being a good guy.

When ME2 came around, and the only way I could Intimidate people was by being the aforementioned colossal D-bag, well, that really hurt my role-playing. Suddenly I couldn’t be nice to my crew and a jerk to everyone else without not being able to force my squad to follow my orders when they really didn’t want to. Towards the end of the game, two of my favorite characters were at each others’ throats. I knew exactly what the old Shepard would’ve done. She would’ve slapped them around and warned them that we all had to work together to save the Galaxy and they could work out their species’ bad blood after the sentient spaceships who destroy all sentient life every 50,000 years were defeated. But, because I hadn’t been enough of a jerk at that point, because I had displayed something less than perverse glee at the thought of violence and gore, I didn’t have the option to call it a draw between the two, and I had to side with one or the other and know whoever I didn’t agree with would clam up and give me the same arbitrary dismissal anytime I tried to talk with her afterward, a personality shift that I ended up blaming on the two years of reconstructive surgery and having been dead…

This leads effortlessly into a nice little tangent I like to go off on about how frakked up moral choice systems are in games these days. I can kind of understand why it is as popular as it is to include a moral choice system. It’s probably a nice selling point that if you buy this game, you’ll want to play it multiple times to see how things are different when you’re a paragon of virtue versus when your favorite pastimes include puppy-kicking. But I can’t understand why developers make Moral Choices so shallow in games, either the choices themselves or the systems built around those choices. If you want to encourage people to play your game a second time through so they can see the Evil Ending, why stop at just the evil ending? Why not give me opportunities to play a wide variety of characters? It’s not like Mass Effect is Dark Forces II where I choose between being a Yoda-like Jedi Master hermit or declaring myself Galactic Emperor. In the end, I save the Galaxy while giving the Finger to select individuals who’ve hampered my progress throughout the game. So why should I be punished for not flipping said bird at every possible opportunity, when you’ve already established a system where I can play a much richer, more believable and well-rounded individual and still get the wish-fulfillment of saving the Galaxy?

As good as the mechanics are for interacting with NPCs, the mechanics are only worth so much without a supporting cast you will actually want to interact with. Your squad consists of a wide variety of characters, many of whom are exciting, interesting people, although there’s probably more than the fair share of mediocrity.

As I mentioned earlier, following in ME1’s footsteps, ME2’s first level introduces you to the two least interesting squadmates you’ll get, Jacob and Miranda, a token black guy who feels like he should be wearing a red Starfleet Uniform from circa 2265, and an uptight British-accented girl who missed the memo that this Sci-Fi universe isn’t all about skintight outfits. Miranda’s an interesting case because, not only does it look like she just painted her skin to look like futuristic fabric, but the camera often conspires to show off her curves, which really feels like “trying too hard”, especially when she’s such an unlikable character to boot. None of this trickery was required to get me interested in getting Shepard into the pants of a young, naive alien psychic in Mass Effect 1.

Once you’ve completed the first mission, though, it’s like the game knows you want to get to the point where those two could get the oxygen to their quarters vented without leaving a dent in your team, so your first real mission is to fly all over the galaxy picking up your next seven squadmates, and that’s where the NPC’s get interesting. Even the ones in this party that feel like cliches bring something interesting, even if it’s just a species backstory that’s interestingly thought out.

Most surprising for me was Grunt. In ME, there’s this race of big, angry, turtle-like lizards, called Krogan, who were big on waging war and breeding like rabbits, so when an equally prolific race of alien bugs showed up, some of the more advanced aliens decided to put Grunt’s people on spaceships to fight the other aliens. Afterwards, the angry turtle guys decided they still wanted to fight and conquer stuff, so they decided to turn against the aliens who gave them spaceships. Realizing their mistake, the first group of aliens created a disease that caused the 999 out of every 1,000 krogan babies to be a miscarriage, dropping them from billions of people to thousands over the course of a few generations.

In ME1, you had a Krogan party member by the name of Wrex, and he pretty much set the standard for cool Krogans. He was a monster on the battlefield with psychic powers and hardcore shotgun prowess. He also had a suitably tragic backstory about his father betraying him and centuries of life as a mercenary. As of ME2, he’s gone and reclaimed his dad’s old throne as leader of his clan, trying to get the people to listen to some crazy new ideas for how the Krogans should move forward despite their genetic sterility, so he’s a bit too busy to come save the Galaxy with you.

But, along comes a crazy Krogan scientist who’s been cloning Krogans, and Grunt is is his top of the line test-tube baby. So, in terms of Krogan party members, we’ve gone from several-hundred year old mercenary to a fresh clone who doesn’t know anything about his people, which, needless to say, doesn’t leave for a lot of hope for a character to be cool, but the more I talked to him, the more he slowly pieced together what his people were about, and I even got to accompany him on his rite of passage quest. As Grunt’s character was allowed to evolve, he stopped being just a pale imitation of Wrex meant to fill the same role, and started being an interesting character on his own rights, who gave me just as much hope for the future of the Krogan as Wrex did.

Most of the other characters are more interesting than that. You’ve got a mad scientist who was one of the aliens who worked on the disease that sterilized the Krogans. You’ve got an ex-cop who got sick of red tape and went off to some lawless space station to be a vigilante. There’s a death-row prisoner from a prison-ship that sells its convicts for money. A crazy paladin who threatens to kill you the moment her oath with you is over if you’ve made her do anything to unsavory, a schizophrenic robot who quotes the Bible pretty regularly, an alien whose entire species were forced off their homeworld by a robot uprising, and an assassin with a terminal disease who just wants to make up for all the people he’s killed by helping save the galaxy.

One of the truly outstanding portions of Mass Effect 2 were the loyalty missions. Though I’m not entirely sold on the mechanic of needing party members to be “Loyal” to unlock special abilities from them, the missions you had to go through for them were some of my favorite missions in the game. They all set up very interesting scenarios; they all let you get to know a little bit more about your party members’ backstories, especially by meeting other characters from their past, and in many cases, the outcomes of these missions were rather surprising, especially the one where you have the opportunity to replace one character with her serial killer daughter. Even the characters that I absolutely detested had interesting Loyalty Missions, which meant they finally got to play for the first time since the start of the game.

The World:
Another brilliant point in Mass Effect’s favor is the world it’s set in. Other than the aliens all speaking English with only a few non-earthly verbal tics to set them apart, everything in the world is beautifully realized, and it’s apparent that a lot of thought has gone into everything’s backstory. For the interested player, there’s pages and pages of background on all the different aliens from the lowly monsters and sandworms that you kill to the ancient threats to the obligatory slutty, all-female alien species, and it shows in the writing.

Not only is there background on everything, but it all feels unique. Like Han Solo ducking and weaving through the asteroid field in Empire Strikes Back, Mass Effect enters a dangerous storytelling territory with cliches around every corner and deftly dodges them all. We’ve seen dozens of different warlike aliens, or psychic aliens, or nomad aliens, or militaristic aliens, but each of the major societies on display in Mass Effect feel like unique spins on otherwise old ideas, like how the Quarians in their little nomad fleet are so concerned for their very survival that they can’t afford to execute traitors, merely force them into exiles. Or the sneaky spy race which, unlike Romulans or Bothans actually somewhat transcends the “spy alien” stereotypes by displaying their brilliant scientists and doctors and respected place in galactic politics.

This feeling of everything having an interesting history, unfortunately does not extend to locations as thoroughly. Many of the locations you visit are old Science Fiction standards, like seedy space station bars run by gangsters (built on an asteroid to boot), or the gigantic megalopolis-city space station that serves as the seat of Galactic government, the struggling colonies, derelict ships, the top secret science labs. These places are not new ideas and it is apparent. They’re saved somewhat by being filled with interesting people, but it’s disappointing that the places are so pedestrian.

Which leads to one of the other sad changes from ME1 to ME2. Mass Effect had a mechanic that involved exploring narratively insignificant planets in a clunky vehicle. Generally, you would find a lot of the same things on every one of these planets, specifically, several mineral deposits, wreckage of some sort, a few prefabricated buildings for quick settlement and an “anomaly” which was usually just another piece of wreckage. So, it’s obvious that this mechanic needed some work. However, it had one or two major strengths:
1. It made the universe feel big. Exploring all these different planets, even though you had roughly the same amount of space with the same stuff randomly scattered throughout it, made the universe feel like a vast, unexplored frontier. A big part of this was atmosphere. On one planet, you were driving through a toxic jungle; and another was too close to its sun and full of lakes of lava, just for example.
2. These locations had potential. Though they all had the same selections of junk, the big set-piece of every planet, the prefab buildings, were used to great effect by featuring a wide variety of things. Sometimes they were mercenaries. Other times colonists. Occasionally you found only corpses and a little clue in the overall mystery. Once or twice there was even a crazy cult that just wanted to be left alone.

I think by relegating the other planets mostly to the mining minigame, and only letting you land for brief missions, BioWare lost out on an opportunity to show us a big, interesting universe. While I understand wanting to remove the clunky driving sections, removing almost all non-story-related planetary exploration feels like major mistake, one of many points in which I hope they find a compromise between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 for Mass Effect 3.

The Ending (SPOILERS)
I feel like I need to voice my concerns about the ending and what it implies for ME3 separate from everything else. Throughout the series, Shepard is slowly putting together more information about the Reapers, gigantic robotic spaceships who kill off all sentient life in the galaxy every 50,000 years. They left specific artifacts around the Milky Way so that sapient life would evolve the way they wanted and learn to use their technology. Towards the end of the cycle when they’re getting ready to attack, they start possessing and enslaving certain people and peoples to use as tools in their returns. ME1 featured Saren, a sort of government-sanctioned vigilante who got suckered in by the Reapers to start enacting their return with the help of some robots. You defeat Saren and blow up the Reaper that was controlling him at the end of the first game. In the second game, you’ve got alien bugs known as Collectors who are enslaved by the Reapers and going around kidnapping humans. In stopping them, you blow up the Reaper they were building. Then the game cuts off to show us a whole fleet of Reapers getting ready to attack.

This is problematic for me for two reasons: I’m all excited now about saving the galaxy from all these Reapers, but I’m going to have to wait roughly two years at the least for the sequel, and when Mass Effect 3 comes out, I’ll inevitably be bumped back to Level 1 (Level 2 as my bonus for importing my old Shepard). How am I supposed to save the Milky Way from dozens of Reapers as  a Level 2 Infiltrator? And more importantly, how are they going to justify that I’m now back down to Level 2 and could barely handle a squad of gangsters freshly released from the head-trauma ward, when I had just recently singlehandedly invaded a Collector ship and blew up a half-finished Reaper? Mass Effect 2 implied an excellent justification for both the long wait between games and the drop back to Level 2: Shepard was dead and it took 2 years to revive her; a drop in level is perfectly understandable after that. Also there wasn’t a fleet of Reapers ready to attack at a moment’s notice as they were still getting the Galaxy ready. I hate to think they’ll tread the same ground in trying to justify why I’m suddenly Level 1 with a crappy pistol, but I also can’t imagine it’ll feel right to wait two years in the real world and pick up fresh from the end of ME2. I suppose only time will tell, but let it be known: I’m concerned.

Design: How All the Pieces Fit Together
Design is kind of a nebulous term for me; it means a whole lot of things. For example, I don’t know that I could say enough about the visuals without slipping into my weird engineer-artist half-breed speech anyways to justify giving the visuals a separate category, but they’ll be pretty heavily integrated into design; visual design, you could call that segment (which I think I will). I guess when I say “Design” I mean “How all the pieces fit together”. Do the character and creature and prop designs make sense? Does the gameplay fit the narrative fit the world? Do we have a bunch of things that feel like they all coalesce into a greater whole, or just a bunch of isolated pieces. That’s what I mean by design.

Visual Design
Mass Effect mostly features a very strong visual design. As I mentioned earlier, I cannot look at the visuals of a fictional world without my dad’s Engineer genes and my mom’s more artistic genes sending me mixed signals. You could have everyone fawning over the coolest damn truck or alien or weapon, but if it doesn’t make sense from a functional or evolutionary point of view, it’ll get absolutely no credit from me.

And that’s a large part of why Mass Effect is so appealing to me. Similar to everything having a backstory, every prop clearly has a lot of thought put into it, how it’s used, how the species who designed it behaves and thinks. One of my favorite element of the first game’s visual design was the way everyone’s guns collapsed and fit on the backs of their armors. It was a real treat to see design that compartmentalized with that much emphasis on ease of use and ease of transport and accessibility. This isn’t as noticeable in Mass Effect 2, which isn’t to say that it isn’t there, just that I didn’t notice it. I’m sure it’s partially because not everyone has every type of weapon equipped this time around, and I’m sure it’s also partially due to the giant BFG Shepard is always toting around, or the fact that my armor was always as close to black as I could get it since I was playing the sneaky spy/sniper class.

Much of what I’m going to gush about here is old news, designs that I loved from Mass Effect 1 that barely changed, if at all, in transitioning to the sequel. I love the looks of all the aliens that were introduced in the first game. Again, clearly a lot of thought was put into creating the major alien cultures, equipment, environments, and just about everything else that we see of the original game’s aliens. The new aliens introduced in Mass Effect 2 are far less appealing, though. They feel like someone designed them with their mind on making something that could easily translate into cheap prosthetics just in case someone hopped into a time machine to make a Star Trek The Next Generation-style Mass Effect TV show. There’s humans withe some weird facial ridges and an extra pair of eyes, and then there’s humans with kinda wolflike faces and weird scales that look like something that went through a combine. Compared to the uniqueness of aliens like the Elchor and the Krogan from the first game, these new aliens are pretty pedestrian.

Vehicles are mostly copy-pasted from the first game. You’ve got a new version of your old ship, which looks pretty similar to how it looked in the first game; it’s different on the inside, but that’s not a feature that, to me, really warrants gripes or praise. You land in a shuttlecraft with little moving thrusters that I can’t figure out any purpose for other than someone on the design team sharing my opinion that “Moving parts are cool!”, only without trying to justify them like I do. There aren’t really many other vehicles that we see in the game aside from the single model of taxi-shuttle used on every populated planet, apparently and some rovers that you never really get a good look at.

And then of course there’s the bad guys’ ships. It would be a lie to say this is the first time I’ve seen big spaceships built inside asteroids, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the asteroid as such a vestigial feature on a ship like that. When I think of spaceships built into asteroids, I think of the ship from The Sparrow, which is a tiny living area, a massive engine, and a mining facility built into the asteroid, with the asteroid providing most of the ship’s structure. The Bad Guys in Mass Effect 2 have these gigantic ships that look like they’ve just got rocks stuck to the side for no good reason. Compare this to Sovereign, the bad guy’s ship in Mass Effect 1, which was sleek, unique, and intimidating, somewhat resembling a giant, chrome, clawed, robotic hand.

Level Design
One extremely problematic element of Mass Effect 2 was the boss fights, by which I mean the big, climactic fights at the end of missions, which did not always necessarily include “boss” characters; enough cannon fodder enemies crammed into a tiny room with superior positions to your own can be as much of a boss fight as a big flying alien crab or a gang leader twice your level and his trusted henchmen. In almost all of these big, climactic encounters, it never felt like a fair fight to a character who was good with a sniper rifle and nothing else. Many of the Boss Fights started with enemies in excellent cover, with superior firepower, and a half dozen angles they could shoot you from. I was playing on the second-hardest difficulty, so perhaps this was a problem of the game not being set to coddle me enough more than anything, but almost every boss fight early on took me several tries, just to get into a spot where I wasn’t dead before the fight even started and could actually start planning how to go about the encounter.

The worst of these, for me, was in the mission to recruit Grunt, and I had to go clear enemies out of the hangar while Grunt’s mad scientist “dad” did… something. When I entered the hangar, I was at the back left corner of the room, with no decent cover until about the middle of the left side (front and back, in my descriptions, are the short sides of the rectangle). Bad guys were lined up all along the right side with excellent cover that meant they rarely had to expose themselves, and they could, seemingly infinitely, spawn big, heavy, close-combat monsters to smoke me out of cover. I’m pretty sure I kept dying until the game glitched and prevented them from spawning the big monsters.

I also take umbrage with the fact that in many levels, I am forced off of what feels like the appropriate “path” to look for goodies like extra money or weapon upgrades or resources. Treasure is often kept in little side rooms that break the flow of the level if you’re the kind of player who likes to keep an eye out for potentially cool stuff, or just want to grab all the loot you can during the levels so you need to mine less in that godawful mining minigame. To me, punishing exploration like this just feels like another step away from RPGs that the Mass Effect series should not have taken.

Other Things that Bug Me
Help messages don’t change to correspond to re-mapped buttons. Even after I changed all the button assignments back to the assignments they had in Mass Effect 1, the ones that made sense, the game still felt the need to pretty regularly flash up help messages, either because it was sick of watching me die so often, or just because it was bored on a loading screen, and I could never help but notice that those help messages that included key assignments always kept the default key assignments. Conveniently enough, most of the non-load-screen ones popped up as I was far too close to dying for the “Press [Left Shift] to bring up the menu and use _______ power.” message to be important enough to be misleading. However, it’s still very annoying that I’ve seen plenty of other games re-edit their help messages to contain re-mapped keys, but Mass Effect 2 chose not to.

Jack, the Amazing, Gravity-Defying Ex-Con
As much as I enjoyed having Jack around; sociopaths make interesting background noise, she’s easily the most powerful psychic magic mumbo-jumbo character in the game etc., she spent very little time on the ground while in my party. I don’t know why she’s the only one I ever saw glitching out like this, but the game loved to have her walking around four feet above the floor. Not sure if this was anyone else’s situation, but I figure it’s worth mentioning as it certainly affected the game for me. She was a target floating in the stratosphere like that, and it hints that the game isn’t as polished as BioWare and EA would like you to believe, and maybe that you should save more often and avoid situations where you might get stuck halfway into the wall.

More About Why Limited Ammunition Bothers Me
Sure, maybe the infinite ammo thing should’ve been more confounding the first time around, but it just seems odd, like all those people giving BioShock 2 crap about why a prototype is better than the final product (hint: Maybe the badass prototype was too expensive so they settled with cheaper variants. Just throwing that out there…). And it’s not just that I suddenly have limited ammo, but it’s like Minitrue decided to declare that guns have always had limited ammo and lo it was fact. In one mission, you check out the wreck of a ship that crashed 10 years ago (which would be 8 years before Mass Effect 1), and the survivors in the little Lord of the Flies settlement all use modern guns with limited ammo, which only makes sense if the guns everyone is using in Mass Effect 2 are throwbacks to a 10-year-old style and the guns of two years earlier were just a fad, which still doesn’t explain why there’s not even one person in the entire galaxy using an old unlimited-ammo gun that I could pick up and never again have to worry about limited ammunition.

It bears mentioning that, technically, it’s a bit of a misnomer to say you have limited ammunition. Technically, your gun has “thermal clips” that absorb the gun’s heat and need to be swapped out occasionally. In practice, though, the guns have limited ammunition, just with a different name. These “thermal clips” each contain a set number of shots, and your gun will not fire without a thermal clip in it. If it was just a swappable heat sink, wouldn’t it eventually cool back down if, say, you fired off half a clip and then stayed in cover for a while? Shouldn’t you still be able to fire, just at a significantly increased risk of overheat, if all your gun is missing is a heat sink? And why aren’t they reusable? Why do I just pop off a spent heat sink and need to go scrounging around for another one when, in theory, the one that I just used would cool down after a while (at least, based on the logic of the first game’s guns cooling down after a couple seconds of overheat)?

All things considered, the many hours I’ve sunk into Mass Effects 1 & 2 over the course of this summer suggest that the good far outweighs the bad. Most of my complaints are nitpicks. They may have been nails in the coffin of a less impressive game, but with world-building and storytelling and interesting moral conundrums like what’s found in Mass Effect, these nitpicks do nothing to sway my recommendation in favor of Mass Effect 2, and I still have enough faith in BioWare that I expect they’ll have found ways to bring back the RPG complexity of the first game without scaring off the action-game junkies they attracted by exorcising their RPG backgrounds for the second game by the time they’ve released the third game.

Just, for the love of God, bring back Charm/Intimidate separate from you Paragon/Renegade scores. Please. I’d take more planet-scanning if it meant I could get back ME1-style Charm/Intimidate skills…

Civilization V: Critique

A couple years ago, a good deal on Steam for Sid Meier’s Civilization IV and its two expansions sparked up what has become a three-year love affair with the series. I’ve loved strategy games since the first Age of Empires when my idea of strategy was spawning the units you needed codes for and building walls in such a way that I exploit the computer’s terrible pathfinding, but Civilization really gave me a much more in-depth strategy game than anything I had ever played. Number and type of military units was only one tiny facet of the strategies available. I had a game where I could conquer the world with superior economy or an artistic language that made everyone else on the planet seethe with jealousy. Heck, I could win by simply saying “To hell with Earth. My people are off to Alpha Centauri”. In short, I loved Civ IV because it gave me options out the wazoo. Needless to say, I was very excited when Civ V was announced, and especially when it was announced that they were completely re-tooling the combat system to allow for greater strategy than “Build a giant stack of units and pray that the other guy doesn’t have more units in his city than you have attacking it.” They were fixing the worst part of my previous Civ experience, and, I naively assumed, improving everything else. At the end of this semester, I finally got a chance to play the game I had been salivating over all summer, when schoolwork calmed down and my new desktop was ready to play the game without lagging or exploding, which my four-year-old MacBook is incapable of. I was disappointed, probably rightly so. Civ V had launched with far less depth than what I had been accustomed to in the second expansion to Civ IV after the game had been extant for two years. Before I go too much further, a couple caveats on my Civ V experience. I only had about a week to really play the game between the end of the semester and flying home for Christmas. I completed one game at Normal Difficulty, and reached varying stages of completion before giving up on other, games that I did not foresee completing successfully. I have only played against bots so far, except for a game with one other human player that has, so far, not progressed very far. I have played the game very little since the recent patch that apparently significantly changed AI behavior and certain Social Policy effects. When I find the time, I will try to log more playtime after the patch and update this critique accordingly. The only previous Civilization that I have played is Civilization IV, logging most of my time with the Beyond the Sword expansion pack released in 2007.

Combat: For starters, the new combat system works excellently. There are certain elements about it that I dislike, but it is, in every way I can think of, a massive improvement over the Infinite Stacks of Units that Civ IV (and, presumably, the previous Civs) utilized. There were a lot of problems with the old system, most aggravating for me, the fact that stacks could get so large that the list of their contents would progress off the screen, making it impossible to judge just how large an army was about to attack you. In contrast, Civ V’s Hex Grid, each tile of which only allows one unit to stand on (with certain exceptions) makes combat much more interesting. It also has the benefit of moving combat out of your cities and into actual “battlefields”. Military formations and tactical maneuvers are actually important and enable a smaller force with better brains behind it to actually overcome a larger, more advanced foe. Ranged attacks are another addition to the combat that I appreciated. They help significantly with making your tactical options more complex, but, more importantly for me, they make Naval Combat far more interesting than it ever was in Civ IV. Under the old system equally-matched ships felt too evenly matched, and attacking an equally matched ship was a good way to get your own ship killed; often the best tactic was to have more boats in the sea and to hope your enemies attacked you. Now that all naval units have ranged attacks and are forced to spread out instead of stacking, ship combat becomes several turns of shooting, focusing your fire, and retreating when necessary. Ranged units are also a good, low-risk way to soften up an enemy that may otherwise defeat or be a dangerously close call if you attacked them without ranged support. Most of my complaints about the military end of the game are minor. Aside from the Arabian Camel Archers replacing Knights with ranged Hit-and-Run cavalry, I have yet to encounter a Unique Unit that does much more than have slightly improved stats and bonuses over the units they replace. I am also bothered by the upgrade paths that many units take. I dislike that Mounted Units cannot be upgraded past Cavalry; in Civ IV, they could upgrade into Gunships. In Civ V, any Mounted Units you have leftover once you get into the Modern Era might as well just be deleted or thrown into the meat grinder with any other units you can’t afford to upgrade (I noticed when double-checking that Archery Units upgrade into gunpowder units, that allegedly Cavalry can upgrade to Tanks, but I never saw that option in my game, so either I wasn’t looking hard enough or it’s a recent addition). I’m also bothered by the fact that archery units upgrade into gunpowder units the same as melee units. It’s very frustrating that, in the Industrial and Modern Eras, the only ranged land units are siege units that need to set-up before firing, meaning they can almost never move and fire in the same turn. A weaker, but quicker alternative to the slow Artillery option would have been nice, like a Sniper or something (This upgrade path is also frustrating because there are promotions specific to ranged combat that do not carry over when the unit becomes a melee unit, so an archer with several bonuses to ranged attacks against enemies on plains will not be able to utilize those bonuses when it becomes a gunpoweder [i.e. melee] unit). It also irks me that I have to upgrade my units one step at a time. In Civ IV, you could simply pay to upgrade an extremely outdated unit to a modern one, and it was simply more expensive based on how outdated the unit was. In Civ V, if I somehow had a Warrior left over from the beginning of the game, I would have to upgrade him, one turn at a time, to a Swordsman, Longswordsman, Musketman, Rifleman, Infantry, and Mechanized Infantry. Not only is this obnoxiously time-consuming if an enemy army is marching towards your little border town that never needed any more protection than a militia with clubs, but it’s a bit illogical that a modern nation would waste their time upgrading a unit with shipment after shipment of outdated weaponry instead of just sending them the same equipment that the rest of the army is using. I also feel like air combat is not as refined as it was in Civ IV. They removed the option to send your aircraft on recon missions to increase Line of Sight. This is especially unfortunate since ranged units cannot fire into Fog of War, meaning that I need to move a land unit to see my target before I can shoot it. Fighters may be ordered to “Sweep for Interceptors” to try and distract any enemy anti-aircraft or something like that, but I haven’t figured out any use for that, since even after sweeping for Interceptors and “encountering no resistance”, my bombers managed to get utterly destroyed by anti-aircraft guns. It’s also a minor annoyance that bombers do not get the “Fortify until Healed” option. They heal a little every turn, but I do not have any option to simply not give them orders until they are back to full health. I can put them to sleep and hope I remember them when they’re healed, or I can skip their turn every turn until they are healed. This is a curious omission, since Fighters are allowed to Fortify until Healed, but Bombers are not.

Civ V also deserves credit for making conquered cities actually useful. In Civ IV, it was prohibitively difficult to get conquered cities to do anything other than riot for the entire game afterwards. The Culture of their Motherland winds up completely surrounding them, inciting riots to the point where building anything to try and spread your Culture around the city tended to take two or three times as long as it should have. Though it may not be as believable, it’s certainly less tedious that, in Civ V, captured cities riot for a couple turns and then become reasonably productive. It’s also convenient that you can just leave a captured city as a puppet, relinquishing your ability to control what it does, but also making sure that you don’t have to bother with it until it has made itself reasonably productive. My only other problem with combat is the combination of how excited bots are to involve themselves in combat, and yet how remarkably bad they are at it. For some reason, every bot I have seen in Civ V with a reasonable amount of power acts as a bloodthirsty tyrant. I have witnessed Gandhi conquering all of Asia in a manner that would be more befitting of Gengis Khan. I have watched several bots simultaneously descending on a weaker opponent until the poor, outnumbered, bastard is nothing but a footnote and the language of origin for the names of several cities on the map. Yet, eager as the bots are to wage war, they do not seem capable of performing very well at it. They do not seem to know how to use Great Generals to gain bonus experience for their armies or to build Citadels for massive defensive bonuses. I have yet to see a bot with a significant navy, even in Island or Small Continent maps.

Diplomacy An integral part of Civilization is how you interact beyond simply waging war. The two games in the series that I have played feature a number of different non-agressive interactions between great powers. In Civ V, however, these interactions have been simplified to the point where many of them do not seem to matter. The most basic method of interaction is trade. In Civ V, you may trade resources and gold, as well as make agreements such as opening your borders or forming alliances in future wars. You also have the option to give away cities. For some reason that I have never understood, the Civilization series only allows cities to be given freely, never sold in exchange for resources or gold. That was the decision in Civ IV, and it didn’t make sense then. It’s how it is in Civ V, and I still do not understand why this is. In Civ V, they also removed Civ IV’s technology-trading option in place of research agreements, which give each player a random technology after 30 turns in exchange for them each spending a large quantity of gold. I am still undecided on whether I think the removal of Tech-Trading is a good or a bad thing. On the one hand, I tended to abuse the ability to buy and sell technology in Civ IV, but on the other hand, it was a convenient way to gauge how advanced an opponent was. One thing that I can safely say the game is poorer for is the removal of Map Trading. It was never valuable for me to explore lands that had been settled by people I had no intention of interacting with, so for most of my games, at most, I saw the majority of the world’s coastline and only a tiny fraction of its actual land, until the late 20th century when I researched Satellites and finally saw the whole world. In Civ IV, I tended to know what a lot of the world looked like by the 15th or 16th century, right around the time people were starting to map significant portions of the real world. Civ V also introduced two different “pacts” you can make with other nations. You and another player can make a “Pact of Secrecy” against another player, which, according to the in-game description, does something to try and subvert them. You may also form a “Pact of Cooperation”, which, likewise, does…. something to apparently benefit you and the player you are cooperating with. Neither mechanic is very well explained, and, in the case of Pacts of Secrecy, serve to replace probably my favorite part of Civ IV: Espionage. In Civ IV, you could send spies into enemy territory and, if you had the required “Espionage Points” attempt to sabotage them in a variety of ways, such as blowing up buildings, poisoning their water supplies, or even inciting riots. Spies made the game very complex and interesting, and seeing them replaced with a mechanic as poorly explained as “Pacts” hurts a little bit. It also strikes me as problematic (and this was a problem in Civ IV, as well) that the only options when an AI player asks you to go to war with one of their enemies is to either go to war or not go to war. I appreciate that Civ V added the “Give me 10 turns to prepare” option, but I do not feel like that goes far enough in terms of allowing me to handle the situation like I would if I was really in charge and someone asked for my support attacking an enemy I did not like, but whom attacking would not be economical on my part. I would have loved to have the option of telling my would-be ally something along the lines of “I cannot personally join you in this war, but let me give you resources to help you get an advantage over our mutual enemy,” or “I do not wish to participate personally, but I will place several units under your command to help with the war effort.” It bothers me that I need to be either so fully committed to a war, or not committed at all in the eyes of the bots. On the subject of bots, they have a tendency to ask for valuable resources while offering nothing in return. In Civ IV, when they did this, you had a button you could click labeled “Let’s Negotiate”, which would allow you to make a counter proposal, something for something instead of something for nothing. This option was removed in Civ V, so that I have to tell the entitled, trigger-happy bots outright “No, I won’t give you free resources”, and risk a diplomatic backlash instead of just making a fair trade to begin with. I am also disappointed to see the UN dumbed down. In Civ IV, being voted director of the UN enabled you to propose a variety of UN resolutions for all players to vote on. The UN had the power to stop wars, or ban the construction of nuclear weapons (which was always fun to get passed if you were ever certain that no one else could even build them, much less rival your stockpile). In Civ V, all the UN does is vote for someone to win a Diplomatic Victory, essentially making that player democratically elected ruler of the world. The UN offers none of the other interesting opportunities it provided in Civ IV.

Domestic Another area where I feel Civ V has improved on Civ IV is in the domestic game. Managing my empire feels very streamlined over Civ IV. One of the most important changes in the domestic game is that Happiness and Culture are much more up-front about their importance. In Civ IV, it was never exactly clear what was so great about having a really happy empire or a very cultured one. There was, of course, the opportunity to win a cultural victory, and great culture along your borders is always important, but for the most part, happiness and culture did not seem to have a significant effect on the game other than occasionally slowing down construction in unhappy cities. Now, it is very important to grow your culture as quickly as possible because it will enable you to enact social policies which will have a wide variety of effects on the way your nation grows. Certain policies affect your country’s efficacy at waging war, or the growth of your cities, or your production, or your science and culture. This mechanic allows for a very customized approach to how you govern your people, and is a significant improvement over Civ IV’s “Civics”, which gave you a much smaller variety of much broader effects. Happiness is key to triggering Golden Ages, which temporarily improve pretty much everything about your empire. During a Golden Age, your country builds faster and grows quicker. In Civ IV, Golden Ages were only triggered by the consumption of one or more Great People, or by constructing the Taj Mahal. In Civ V, building up to a certain amount of happiness triggers a Golden Age. You can also enter a Golden Age via the old methods, but those “artificial” Golden Ages are much shorter than ones inspired by years and years of Happiness. As, what I assume is an unfortunate side-effect of Happiness being such an important commodity, it often becomes prohibitively difficult to come by, and the penalties for unhappiness are crushing. An unhappy nation cannot settle new cities, growth is slowed in all their cities, and military units are much less effective in an Unhappy civilization. Later in the game, it becomes almost impossible to find new sources of Happiness. It gets frustrating when you have already built every building that provides Happiness, but your people are still complaining, which forces you to find the one bot who has the one luxury resource you do not have and pay whatever ridiculous fee their asking so you can get it and get your people to just quit complaining and get back to work. One possible way that the frustration related to Happiness could be mitigated would be if things like Golden Ages or We Love the King Days had happiness bonuses. It struck me as odd that both of these temporary conditions that, theoretically, involve a very happy populace, can happen without improving the happiness of the empire. I have had at least a couple cities enter We Love the King Day when my empire was still at -1 Happiness. That did not seem right, and if these situations could stave off my nation’s eventual decline into bitter resentment at their government, I would be that much more willing to go out and find the luxury resources that the ingrates are clamoring for because having every other luxury resource in the game just isn’t good enough for them. I have mentioned Great People before, which may have confused any readers not familiar with Civilization (moreso, probably, than the things I bring up and immediately explain). Great People are very specialized units who show up in your nation every so often and have extremely powerful abilities. They come in the form of Great Scientists, who can get Free Technology; Great Engineers, who can instantly complete productions in your cities; Great Generals, who confer bonuses on your military; Great Artists, who provide Culture benefits; and Great Merchants, who exist to earn money for the empire.

I’ll explain what I do and don’t like about Great People in Civ V later. This review is To Be Continued because I feel like I was lucky to recover this after it just crashed, so I’m publishing now just to be sure.

Edit: I’ve been severely crunching on Thesis all semester, and my little bit of free time has been utilized exploring more of Fallout 3. These two factors have contributed to me playing very little Civ V to enable completion of this review.

However, I will point out that I was incorrect earlier. Upon further examination, many Civ V unique units have abilities beyond simply stat changes. For example, Roman Legions can build Roads and Forts, and, as mentioned earlier, several civilizations replace mounted melee units with mounted ranged units with similar damage outputs. This is actually a significant improvement over Civ IV, in which the difference between a unique unit and a regular unit often simply came down to damage inflicted or resources required.