Chatting with Radio Wammo, Mass Effect 3 and playing with the iPad 3 (sorry, new iPad)

There’s a few thoughts being bombarded at you in this post. Perhaps you should make a cup of tea/milo/cocoa/coffee before you tackle it! Settled, good: let’s begin (by the way, this posting is being serenaded by the lovely tones of Muse’s Supermassive Blackhole, Feeling Good and Uprising).

The new iPad

I loved Infinity Blade on the iPod Touch. It was great fun, if a little bit of a grind at times trudging through the same dungeons fighting similar foes. I’m now playing Infinity Blade 2 on the new iPad (I keep wanting to call it iPad 3 it sounds more natural) and it’s great fun, stunning to look at and an advancement on the original game.

OK, while the story in IB2 isn’t stellar (it seems to involve some shirtless dude who always wakes up in a laboratory when the lead warrior is killed at the end of every bloodline), it really shows off what the new iPad’s retina display is capable of, with vivid visuals that honestly rival what you’d find on a home console. It truly is impressive – although it uses up the battery life pretty quickly and runs hot (not that tech running hot when it’s working hard is just confined to Apple’s new tablet).

Infinity Blade 2 is really the only game I’ve got on the new iPad so far (although I’ve got the lite version of Draw Something, but to be honest, I got bored waiting for the other player to respond so gave up) but I really want to check out some other games. Perhaps Real Racing 2 HD or -dare I say it – Angry Birds Space HD! (Update: I just downloaded Jetpack Joyride).

Mass Effect 3 (spoilers so be warned)

Bioware’s latest sure has been in the gaming news a lot lately, much of it for the wrong reasons. Essentially a lot of fans are upset that the ending (or the variation of the ending) in ME3 isn’t in keeping with the game’s reliance on decision-making and choices throughout the series – and I agree with them. Throughout ME3 and the series  you’re constantly making decisions that shape the direction of the game and its key players. For me the most poignant moment in the game was having to decide whether to save the Geth or the Quarians. The Geth would bring serious technological knowledge and a huge fleet while Zora had been alongside my Commander Shepard from the very beginning, she’d survived the final assault on the Collectors in ME2 and here I was being asked to save one of the other.

It was a major crisis point for me: one that I laboured over for a bit. Who to save? Who to save?  In the end I decided to go with the Geth, much to my regret – but I digress: Decision making and choice plays a crucial part in  ME3 so for the final 15 minutes to take that choice away from you is jarring. Now, I didn’t think the ending was actually as bad as some people are making out (and from memory I only had one option anyway: perhaps my galactic readiness wasn’t up to scratch), and I’m not baying for Bioware’s blood. I actually thought it was a particularly fitting end for Commander Shepard. It went entirely with the character’s do- anything-at-any-cost stance, including sacrificing her self (I played as a female Shepard) for the human race  but I have a questions. A helluva lot of questions, actually, about what exactly was going on in that last 15 minutes (what the hell happened to the Normandy and why was it flying through space and not with the galactic armada around Earth? And where  the hell did the Normandy land?

Bioware’s co-f0under Ray Myzuka said in a blog posting last week that new content will provide more “clarity for those seeking further closure to their journey’. I’d like more clarity thanks, Bioware, but I don’t think I should have to pay for it. Just saying. Free DLC clarifying the ending ould be great, thanks.

Finally, chatting with Radio Wammo

In today’s session with Glenn “Wammo” Williams we chatted about the Humble Bundle for Android 2, the collection of independently-developed games where you get to decide how much you pay and whether it all goes to the developers, all to charity or all to the Humble Bundle dudes. I picked up the Android 2 bundle last week for the princely sum of, ahem, $US6.30, which netted me Android versions of Canabalt, Cogs, Avadon: The Black Fortress, Zen Bound 2 and Swords and Soldiers – and as an extra bonus, today I got an email saying that they were adding Snuggle Truck to the mix. An all round excellent purchase. If you want to check it out, you’ve got six days before it finishes.

Thank you for reading – and good night.

Chatting Mass Effect 3 with Wammo Williams

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything (probably a week or so) so here’s today’s Kiwi FM segment with Glenn “Wammo” Williams where we talk about Bioware’s Mass Effect 3 and its controversial ending carry-on, with upset fans calling for Bioware to change the ending (endings) and one going so far as taking Bioware and EA to the FTC because the game doesn’t deliver on its promises.

That’s about all I have to say: watch the video, let me know what you think.

The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition interview

In a rather hastily organised interview (I was contacted on Monday night about it), this week I spoke with Mateusz Tomaszkiewicz, senior quest designer with CD Projekt’s The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition (Xbox 360). The game is out sometime next month and after talking to Mateusz (that’s him on the right) I’m quite intrigued in it.

The Witcher 2 came out in PC last month to critical acclaim and has sold close to (or sold) 1 million copies already. I played the original The Witcher when it first came out. It was pretty good, if I recall correctly. The interview may not make sense sometimes as I think Mateusz had trouble at times with my New Zealand accent while I had trouble understanding his strong Polish accent at times. Hopefully most of it makes sense.

I played the first Witcher on PC, which came out about 2007, and second Witcher game came out on PC in 2011. What is it about that game that gels with gamers?

I think that one of the most important things that we did right was the storyline. It’s mature and we have made it very non-linear.  I think that was one of the most appealing things to the players but we have also taken all the suggestions of the players had from The Witcher into account. We have changed the combat system, added new equipment, so I guess the players appreciated all those changes.

What were the main changes that players wanted to see?

The most complaints I heard about The Witcher was the combat system  not many people liked it. Most people thought it was too simple. Most people thought it was about clicking the right button in the right [he pauses to find the right word] tempo, the right momentum. They wanted something more action like and we’ve brought that to them.

So how have you made the combat better?

We have changed it completely, to be honest. We have … ah, in the Witcher 2 you can’t play in the vertical view so we don’t have point-and-click combat anymore. You also don’t have also those combat styles you had in the Witcher: which is simply swift and, ah,ah,  the Witcher used only strong strikes, or tough strikes or group strikes … so now you have strong strikes on one button and fast strikes on the other, and you make a combination of those two. Also we have changed the AI (artificial intelligence) of opponents. In The Witcher they were simply divided into groups of opponents, like strong opponents which were vulnerable to strong attack styles, if the Witcher used it, and tough opponents which had to be killed using the tough attack styles. In The Witcher 2 we have opponents more divided into the combat styles they use. So we have opponents with a shield,  we have opponents with two weapons, we have opponents with ranged weapons, etc. It’s not about using only fast strikes to kill opponents with two swords, for example, it’s more about thinking how to slow them down because they are very fast and how to immobilise them. So it’s completely changed.

Do you think with this new combat system each player could tackle combat differently from, say, another player because of all the options open to them?

Yes, certainly. We have added new abilities for the Witcher and most of the signs that he has now are really useful during the combat, I think. Not all of the signs in The Witcher were all that useful and besides the signs,  of course, you also have all the talents that improve your short combat  we have added finishers, we have added ripostes. Ripostes work, like, when you are blocking in the right moment you can make the Witcher perform a riposte, so it is a more action-like feature. Also, you have a lot of gadgets, you can also use bombs, which you create yourself, you can use traps, you can use lures to lure monsters  so you have a big variety of things to do.

Is The Witcher 2 a good mix of RPG and action game or is it leaning more towards an action feel?

No, no, we didn’t want to, you know, we still wanted it to be a pure-blooded RPG, so it’s more like a mix of action game and RPG and on the easy mode you can probably go through the whole game without much effort. This mode was made mainly for the players that wanted to concentrate on the story, on the dialogue, and on the plot, mainly. We didn’t forget about them because we know that many people who played The Witcher played it mostly for the story and don’t care for the action elements.

With the enhanced edition coming out on Xbox 360 next month, what challenges did developing the game for a console bring?

Well, you know, the architecture of the Xbox console is completely different than for the PC, as you may know, so it was a big challenge for the whole team because we hadn’t made any console games before. So we had to change our way of thinking and had to recreate the game anew, to be honest. It was not a simple port  we call it an adaptation in most interviews because we had to change many systems to make it user-friendly for console gamers. It’s simply not the same for PC gamers as console gamers. So aside from technical difficulties we wanted to change some things to make it more friendly for console gamers.

Do you think sometimes that games going from PC to console are sometimes `dumbed down’ to suit the different control system [of a console]?

Ah [long pause], you know what, we have also changed the control systems in our game, now that you mention it. For example, we have changed the mapping of the buttons because you could have played The Witcher 2 on PC and you could playing an Xbox pad but we have changed the mapping to be more intuitive for Xbox 360 players. Also we have made some changes to the camera system so now when you are running around the camera positions itself behind your back  you can move it  but it’s more natural now. I don’t know if I answered your question ...

Do you think that Xbox gamers will get the same experience as PC gamers – or is there one definitive version of The Witcher 2?

We have added a lot of new content, so on the one hand the game is the same quality as it was on the PC but I would say that it’s even better now because we have added all this new content, new movies  the CGI intro which you could have seen [I told him I had and it was very impressive] but we have added many other things. I think it’s going to be an amazing experience for console gamers. All the DLC and things that we have given the PC players is going to be on Xbox as well. Also, all the new things that we are providing the Xbox 360 are also going to be added into The Witcher 2 PC version.

Sounds like it was a huge undertaking to do all this? Sounds like there was a lot of work involved?

Yes, it was. I don’t think I can elaborate on that, it was really tough work to do.

What has been most satisfying for you in doing the console version?

Apart from all the new content, I’m really proud of the CGI  we didn’t do it  but I am really proud of it. It was created by Tomasz Baginski (a Polish animator, film director and illustrator and former Oscar nominee) and we’re really pleased to have it.  Also, we’re really pleased in being able to fix all the issues that PC players are having, also I’m really proud that we’ve made new quests  these are really large adventures.

Talking about quests, you are a quest designer, right?

Yes, I am a senior quest designer.

So for you, what did that involve? What were your day-to-day duties?

We had to design the new quests and implement them. So it was much like the process of creating the Witcher 2. We just started creating new content.  I had to address all the issues we had on the Xbox version but aside from that we had to design these new quests, we had to implement them and make fixes in them, we had to put all the new content in the game because we have added a new lot of cut scenes and movies, so we had to change the original content. So yeah, it was mostly that.

Is it difficult coming up with original quests when there are a few RPG games around now?

Are you asking me if we had trouble coming up with new ideas? In my opinion, in this universe, in the one that The Witcher 2 takes place, it has a really large potential that was as yet was untouched. There are a lot of RPG games out there but most of them are, in my opinion, high fantasy games or dark fantasy games ... ah, so it wasn’t that hard at all, to be honest. There are only a limited number of things which you can think of in a limited time but on the other hand this universe has so much potential because Geralt of Rivia  (our main protagonist), he’s not the normal type of hero. He is quite tired with the world around him so he’s not a saviour of the innocents, you know, he doesn’t rescue puppies from fires, so it’s really interesting to design quests from his approach. We’re not using the old stereotypes about where you have a simple quest and in the end you have a choice: one choice is good, one choice is bad. In our game we create different choices that aren’t right, they aren’t wrong, but they are just choices, which you must do, but you must face the consequences later. So I think it brings a different approach to the plot.

Can you ever see The Witcher 2 coming out on the PlayStation 3, for example, now that you have a history of working on consoles?

That’s a really good question but to be honest now all of our efforts are concentrated on the Xbox version because, you know, we haven’t finished it yet. So we really would like to but no decision has yet been made. That’s all that I can tell you. That’s the only thing I know, to be honest.

Where next for you after The Witcher 2 Extended Edition is finished? Any idea where you next project will go? Are you going to take a break?

No, no, we are certainly going to work on something but I’m not allowed to say yet. Certainly we not going to take a one year break [laughs].

Where I talk classic point-and-click adventure games with Radio Wammo

[Insert the usual Tuesday blurb here] Just joking. I’ve got several games piling up on my computer desk (The Last Story, UFC Undisputed 3, Tekken 3D: Prime Edition, Twisted Metal, Street Fighter X Tekken), I haven’t touched any of them: I’ve been playing 1995 point-and-click adventure Full Throttle.

I’ve always wanted to buy the game but was never able to find a copy until I found one on an online store’s Marketplace for the huge price of – get this – $5. It actually cost more to courier it to me!. I’m loving it, so far: it’s humour is infectious and the puzzles actually involve you having to use a little common sense rather than be signposted right in front of you.

Today, I talked about it with Glenn “Wammo” Williams on Kiwi FM.

Oh, and it’s Mass Effect week this week. The game is released in New Zealand on Friday. I thought I might have a review copy by now but I don’t so we’ll see how things go. I’ll just be avoiding the internet until I get it for, oh, I don’t know, the next week so I don’t see reviews that will spoil it for me!

Where I interview Mass Effect 3 associate producer Robyn Theberge

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to start clearing space in your diary for all of  March. Mass Effect 3 is almost here. Oh happy days! Oh happy days!

The much-awaited sequel to Mass Effect 2, my favourite game of 2010, ME3 looks to be bigger, better, faster and stronger than its predecessor   but I’m in a quandary. Apart from a hands-on with an early demo last year, I’ve imposed a personal blackout of all ME3-related material until the game comes out. It’s been excruciating: my fingernails are short and I curse every time a new trailer is released, but I don’t have long to wait …

Robyn Theberge, who worked on DragonAge 2 before moving onto Mass Effect 3, tells me her main role was to oversee the game’s audio, graphical user interface and visual effects teams.

Many of the ME3 team had worked on the series since the first game, so they “definitely want to do their best and don’t want to let the fans down, as much as for themselves as fans as for those people who aren’t on the team”.

For newcomers to the series, Mass Effect 3 was a great starting point, she says.

“For those people who haven’t played an ME game yet, this is a really good entry point to the series. The game adapts and rewrites itself based on  whether a player is importing a save [from ME2] or not. In the case of a new player, the game adapts the dialogue to add more context to things, to give them [new players] more back story. But this is the breakout of the war in the galaxy so it’s a really good place to come into the franchise.”

Theberge said Mass Effect 3’s combat had been refined, something fans had been asking for, and the game was an even blend of role-playing and action.

“We wanted players to have a lot of choice in terms of the kind of experiences they have. We’ve also added game experience types in ME3, so players can select story experience  the traditional RPG experience or action experience, and that allows then to tailor how they play the game. In Action it’s more cinematic, with more difficult combat, in Story mode it’s more story-driven and you play through all of the dialogue, there’s lots of exploration and the combat is a little easier and RPG (mode) is kind of the middle ground for our traditional fans who want the dialogue as well as the challenging combat.”

Theberge said studio Bioware had listened to what its fans wanted. “We’ve taken up our different classes a notch and added new abilities and powers, so I think we’ve listened to our fans and heard what they thought about the different classes and what they were looking for. I imagine I’ll be doing several playthroughs but just trying the different classes alone can open up so many different play-through options.”

So, what is it about the Mass Effect series that gels with gamers?

Theberge believes it’s the characters and the narrative. “Like a good book, you want to keep going back and reading to make sure that your favourite characters are OK, you get connected to them and invested in them. The thing about ME is you have really good squad mates and depending on how you play the game, they can become your best friends or your enemies. So you want to go back and take care of them and keep them at bay if you’re going the renegade route.”

Many gamers completed the original Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 as a female Commander Shepard  known by fans as FemShep.  But was Bioware surprised that so many gamers wanted to play as female Shepard?

“No. We listened to feedback and listened to how many people wanted to play as female Shepard and that’s why for ME3 we have an iconic appearance [of her] that we’ve created after fans selected one on our Facebook site. That’s how she’s going to appear in-game. What the fans wanted was the opportunity to play as a female Shepard.”

Mass Effect 3 is the first game of the series to make use of the voice control offered by Microsoft’s Kinect device  and it makes the game so much cooler, says Theberge.

“Kinect for Mass Effect 3 makes it so fast, especially for people who are more into controlling their squad mates and are more hands-on with their squad. It’s so immersive  you forget that you can’t thank them [your virtual squad mates]. You can ask them to [provide] cover, which means you can run into more intense combat situations. You can change weapons on the fly without pausing the game and it really adds some intensity to the game play. It has really taken the game play to another level.

“Also, you can have squad mates cast [biotic] powers, whereas in previous ME games you’d have to use the bumpers on your controller to pull up the powers menu to get them to cast a power. Now you just shout out `Liara, singularity’ and she fires it to wherever your camera is pointing.”

Although, it sounds like the standard answer you’d expect from a game maker, Theberge said she is most proud of the team that has worked on the game.

“A lot of the team have been on it since ME1 and they keep bringing new ideas to the table and sink their heart and soul into it because they believe in what they are delivering.”

Mass Effect 3 is out in a stupidly short time on Windows PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. In fact, it’s out next week! Hup, hup, huzzah!