Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Feeling the Mass Effect

Mass Effect is a sweeping space opera, with a fanciful setting, authentic-feeling characters, and pitch perfect gameplay. In January, I gave Mass Effect's PC iteration my vote for Best Video Game of 2008. It was so astonishing that I had actually played it twice over the summer - back to back.

But just how amazing is Mass Effect? Let me put it to you this way. My girlfriend Evey is a surprisingly robust gamer, enjoying charismatic role-playing games such as Final Fantasy X, cute online time sinks like Ragnarok Online, and more casual diversions like Diner Dash. However, as a general rule, she won't come anywhere near shooters - not even to prod them with a stick. Adrenaline-pumping but pointless action and explosions don't excite her, and the control scheme tends to be dizzying. The closest she ever came to a shooter was Valve's much lauded first-person puzzle game Portal, which involved neither bullets nor organic enemies. So imagine my surprise when, after persuading her to give Mass Effect 15-minutes of her time, Evey spent the next 7 months coveting the game. When, several weeks ago, she finally caved and purchased it (following some significant price drops) she spent the first two days completely immersed (even to the point of ignoring me at times), despite the fact that her computer was being genuinely challenged to run the game and was to her frustration frequently crashing. Now I can attest that this is not a usual experience - I cannot in our long and storied history, recall another time where Evey had been so committed to a game, even for a short period of time, that she would choose gaming over chatting (I must bashfully admit that in such circumstances, the gamer is invariably me). But to add the icing to the cake was a statement made in closing one of our messenger conversations, whereby Evey declared: "I'll be back later. I'm going to go shoot things." I was shocked - "I'm going to go shoot things" is a very me statement... and one to which Evey has frequently expressed as being completely incomprehensible to her.

So there you have it - Mass Effect is a captivating and believable science fiction experience. Its setting is so convincing that it enchanted Evey, who was previously entirely apathetic to the sci-fi genre; and its gameplay is so finely tuned that it continues to entertain her despite her pervasive objections to the shooter genre. Like I said, Game of the Year.


Bringing games to life, one dimension at a time

In the early to mid 1990's, one of the hot button frontiers of gaming was 3-D. I'm not talking about merely 3-D rendering (most games these days involve fully 3-dimensional worlds, allowing you to zoom in and out and rotate, as opposed to the 2-D pictures or sprites of the past), but actual sensory 3-D. With models such as Star Trek's interactive holodeck governing our imaginations, we reached out for games that we could experience more tangibly - with depth, rather than on a flat screen.

Thus, for a brief period of time, consoles such as Nintendo's Virtual Boy ambitiously attempted to bring 3-D gaming into the living rooms of citizens of the world. Despite momentarily capturing society's attention (and appearing in several films at the time), 3-dimensional gaming was ugly (with primitive and polygonal-looking graphics) and expensive.

3-D gaming gradually died out. My brother, at the time, had explained to me that 3-D gaming was simply not worth the investment. Every graphic had to be rendered 3 times in order to produce the desired sensory illusion, which was a hardware intensive process. The death of 3-D was further facilitated by the advent of LCD monitors, which unlike their CRT precursors were fixed at a lower refresh rate of 60 Hz, which was not conducive to so-called stereoscopic vision (or depth perception).

Nvidia, an industry leader in PC video card technology, however is betting that 3-dimensional gaming didn't fail because it was unwanted, but merely because it was premature. This year, it is releasing the $199 GeForce 3D Vision glasses designed to allow stereoscopic vision in gaming in conjunction with new 120 Hz Samsung and Viewsonic LCD monitors. Nvidia is also using its considerable industry clout to convince software publishers to program 3-D support for key titles. Among the games that will be available for play in glorious 3-D include Valve's lauded co-op shooter, Left 4 Dead; Bethesda Softworks' dystopian action-RPG, Fallout 3; Codemasters' convincing racing game, GRID; and Blizzard's runaway success, World of Warcraft.

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