Thursday, 15 March 2012

Crackpot or Genius? Bioware Weaves a Tapestry of Controversy.

Yes, this is another article on Mass Effect 3.  This game is sort of a big deal to a lot of people, myself included.  But no, I will not be delving into the 'political' side of gaming this time around; I actually intend to talk about the game in question.  Shocking, right?

And yes, there will probably be spoilers ahead, though I will do my best to avoid them where possible.

So the game arrived just over a week ago, and it didn't take long for most people to finish (though it still weighed in at 32 hours for me, the longest of the three games).  It took me just over a week, due to various constraints, but before finishing I rather alarmingly noticed a large number of people clamouring angrily over the ending for Mass Effect 3.  A very large number.  In the sea of disappointment and rage, it was actually nigh-on impossible to find anyone who was happy or even satisfied with the game's ending.  Some proclaimed it the ruination of the trilogy.  But I was 27-odd hours in, and being blown away by incredible voice acting, amazing writing, perfect character moments and epic set could any ending ruin all that?

Finally, after gathering the might of the galaxy, and launching an absurdly large attack on Reaper-controlled Earth, my Commander Shepard made his way to his destination, his final confrontation, the solution to the Reaper threat.  Everything was shaping up to be one of the best and most epic endings to a franchise of all time.  Then Bioware throws a ruthless curveball at you as you seem about to succeed.  "Did I just fail?", I actually thought to myself.  No.  Shepard picks himself up, dusts himself off (only just), and limps on towards his destiny. Something felt...odd, from this point on.  And indeed, from this point on is where the controversy entirely stems.

The following 10 minutes consist of a slow, dramatic final push towards the conclusion you've been salivating over.  The final confrontation between Sherpard and the now-deluded shadowy leader of Cerberus, The Illusive Man, ensues.  An extremely tense standoff ensues, followed by resolution, one way or another.  At this point, you're certain you've succeeded; the Reapers are about to get theirs.  What occurs instead is an absolutely, shockingly bizarre and seemingly unnecessary 5-10 minutes of something that can only be described as an acid trip.  Without ruining much, Shepard is effectively given an arbitrary choice of three options.  All three options will 'solve' the Reaper problem in some way, and will affect the galaxy forever, but all three will also result in, *gasp*, the death of the story's protagonist.  I made my choice; it was time to see how the galaxy would be affected.  What came to my mind after the 5 minutes of cutscene that followed was something that I, or anyone else for that matter, would never have expected from the ultimate ending to one of my favourite franchises in gaming history...

"Uh...what the hell just happened?"

As it turns out, all three choices present a similar reaction.  Do not expect a grand epilogue a la Return of the King/Jedi, because you will just end up massively disappointed as I did.  The ending is bleak; incredibly bleak.  It also leaves questions not only unanswered, but infuriatingly made more complicated.  It seems rushed, sloppy and above all, just completely baffling.  What the hell was the need for all that?  Bioware does storytelling right, and this seemed entirely wrong.  Something smelled funny.  The biggest question on peoples' minds now was "Did Bioware intentionally make this ending incredibly abstract and messy, or is this the most epic troll of all time?".  

In truth, there may be a third way of looking at this.

(At this point, it's difficult to avoid getting spoilery, so be warned.)

Under the right circumstances, making the 'right' choice, you bear witness to the truth of the matter; Shepard is still alive.  He/she never even made it onto the Citadel.  Wait...what?  Well if you're familiar with Mass Effect at all, you know that the Reapers use a form of telepathic domination known as indoctrination, where the subject is effectively under the influence of the Reaper, ranging from being susceptible to suggestion, to being completely under its control.  As many Youtube videos have shown, every sign points towards the idea that Shepard became indoctrinated shortly before he/she was about to accomplish his/her goal.  This effectively means that the final 20 minutes or so of the game did not happen. really was all 'just a dream'.  

On the upside, this makes the ending that we have not only finally make sense, but it actually becomes quite brilliant and beautiful.  On the's not an ending.  What we're left with is Commander Shepard on the verge of accomplishing his mission, but in truth, he/she is still on Earth, with the Reapers still actively reaping.


Yeah, that's a trilogy without a conclusion, folks.  I do, however, have a theory.  See, already people are taking to this indoctrination theory, effectively accepting it as the true explanation to an otherwise plothole-filled ending, and already they are going off the deep end about Bioware selling us the true ending as future DLC.  Now, this is a distinct possibility, and I wouldn't put it past them after the debacle that was the "From Ashes" ordeal, but I'd like to play devil's advocate for a moment.  A few months back, the ending to Mass Effect 3 was leaked, and it seemed pretty legitimate.  At the time, there was no outrage or overreaction to it.  I personally have not seen it, but I have read the basic premise, and indeed it makes sense in a literal manner, whereas the ending we have now does not.  This leads me to believe that Bioware purposely cut the 'real' ending to prevent their flagship franchise from having a predictable conclusion, something people would just sort of nod their head at and grunt in mild approval, as they knew exactly what to expect.  Instead, they left us with this strange indoctrination ending, a move which I believe was entirely intended to stir up the hornets' nest, so to speak.  They have even gone on record to say that a controversial ending that people talk about for months is better than a forgettable one.  

Now, Bioware is pretty good at fanservice, regardless of how corrupted they've become since EA started whispering in their ear.  I fully expect that this 'real' ending, with a full epilogue, is lingering around their offices somewhere, waiting to be released as DLC.  The thing is, this could easily be released as free DLC.  "Free DLC, how preposterous," you say?  They've done it before (admittedly not with anything as huge as the end of the game), with Zaeed and the Firewalker mission pack in Mass Effect 2, and Shale in Dragon Age: Origins.  All these pieces of DLC were completely free...IF you had bought a new copy of the game and had the code enclosed.  I would not be entirely shocked to see the 'true' ending of the Mass Effect trilogy released as a thank-you to those who bought the game new.  Charging for it would probably be the worst PR mistake Bioware could ever make, and would never be forgotten.  As it stands, Mass Effect 3 needs closure one way or the other; the story remains incomplete.

So Bioware may have done something no other developer has ever done; they've tricked us with a false ending, perhaps with the intention of providing the real deal down the line.  If this is the case, I could see this conclusion going down in history as one of the most mind-blowing.  I, for one, have changed my tune about the ending we currently have, after reading the various indoctrination theories.  However, I'm equally adamant about getting my big, epic epilogue, complete with a final reunion with all of your friends and allies you've come to know over the years, and ultimately seeing them all go their separate ways in a galaxy free of looming destruction, the choices made by you echoing throughout galactic civilization.

Alternatively, Bioware has given us a bleak, depressing and confusing conclusion to a beloved trilogy.  Let's hope they're better than that.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

When Lust Trumps Morality

Wind the clock back to late 2005.  The Xbox 360, the very first of the next generation of consoles, was just entering its release stage.  Gaming was entering a new era.  Times were changing, and none of us were sure exactly what to expect.  In that sea of uncertainty, certain beacons of intrigue stood out ahead of others.  One of these was an immensely promising looking title by the name of Mass Effect, by Bioware, the studio that brought us RPG classics like Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire, and of course, the masterful Knights of the Old Republic.  The game was pegged as an homage to science fiction as a whole, paying tribute to classic sci-fi films and TV shows from the 70s, 80s and 90s, all the while presenting the idea of choices and decision making having massive impact on the game's universe.  You would represent humanity on a galactic stage, one race among many, and your actions would determine the outcome of the entire galaxy's fate.

This sounded...incredible.  A science fiction nerd's wetdream.  Personally, nothing else on any of the existing or upcoming consoles captured my interest as much as Bioware's visionary plans for this game.  The initial artwork and developer commentary was more than promising, and when a trailer was finally released, any doubts I had about the game went out the window.  It looked like the wave of the future.

Thankfully, as it turned out, Mass Effect did not disappoint.  I'm not going to pretend for a moment that it was a perfect game; far from it.  It had technical issues that reduced performance, the combat system was a bit weird, a lot of the side missions were just reused fluff, and the main story just wasn't actually all that long compared to previous Bioware games.  With all that in mind, though, Mass Effect was hugely critically praised, and rightly remains so to this day.  It was an absolutely massive leap forward in terms of interactive storytelling.  Never before had I felt so much like I was IN the game.  Commander Shepard, the game's protagonist, felt more real and tangible than pretty much any other character whose boots you had stepped into.  The characters around you were more well fleshed out than many characters in books and movies, and the main plot, while not overly complex, was fascinating, combining tributes to the classic sci-fi of old with fresh new ideas.  As a story and an experience, it was utterly brilliant, nearly without flaw.

These are the voyages of the starship Normandy.  Its continuing mission: to drop you on strange new worlds, to seek
out new life, and shoot it in the face.

Fast forward a few years after the release of Mass Effect and we come to the release of Mass Effect 2.  The sequel, quite frankly, had a lot to live up to.  Fans made their qualms with the first game known, and lo and behold, Bioware listened.  By and large, Mass Effect 2 took what was wrong with the original game and outright fixed it.  Yes, I will admit, some of the alterations went too far, such as removing the option to customize weapons, and indeed the main plot was nowhere near as interesting as the original game.  However, when you look at Mass Effect 2 in every other respect, it's how a sequel SHOULD be done; the combat was infinitely better, the performance problems were effectively gone, and the very interesting cast of characters had expanded into a larger, even more fascinating group than before.  As far as character arcs and those little moments of dialogue and action set pieces that you never forget go, Mass Effect 2 had its predecessor beat completely.  It felt even more like a fantastic book or movie, yet the gameplay elements were also more fun to play.  This game was darker, richer and more gripping than the original.  This was Bioware's The Empire Strikes Back.

Now, in 2012, the release of Mass Effect 3, the finale in what was conceived as a trilogy, is upon us.  In a few days, gamers around the world will re-assume the role of Commander Shepard, and all the decisions they had made in the previous two games will culminate to determine the outcome of the fate of the galaxy, for better or worse.  This huge.  It's certainly one of the most anticipated RPGs in recent memory.  Mass Effect has the attention of many, ranging from the hardest of the hardcore sci-fi fan to those who just enjoy blowing some baddies up in Modern Warfare or Battlefield.  You would expect, then, that EA and Bioware are already counting their coppers, having daydreams about what wonderful ways they'll have to spend the ludicrous amounts of money heading their way. looks awesome.  It just makes it that much harder to be shaking my finger at Bioware.

But apparently, the inevitably huge sales of Mass Effect 3 aren't enough.  Because it was recently leaked and eventually confirmed that Mass Effect 3 would have launch day downloadable content.  Oh dear.  Yes, we've seen this before, and it's never pretty.  However, in the past, it's mostly been fairly pointless vanity junk, such as the paraphernalia in Portal 2 or the extremely lame Warden's Keep in Dragon Age Origins.  Yes, indeed Bioware has 'been there' before, but in truth, they've actually been quite reasonable with it in the past.  Shale from DA:O was a free piece of DLC if you bought the game brand new, as was Zaeed in Mass Effect 2 under the same circumstances.  This was meant to encourage new game sales as opposed to people buying used.  And as you may or may not know, used game sales equal a 100% profit to the retailer with absolutely not a cent going to the developer, so one can hardly blame the developer for upping the ante in an attempt to stop physical retailers from exploiting them.  While it's unfortunate the games industry has to fall to these points, it's understandable and acceptable in my eyes.  I always buy new these days anyways, and encourage others to do the same.  What's saving a couple bucks compared to knowing you're supporting the developers and games you like and want to see more of?

Anyways, so, what is the problem with Mass Effect 3's DLC?  Well, first off, it's only free if you get the collector's edition.  Which is very irritating indeed, because even a month before release, all the collector's editions were sold out, and there was no announcement whatsoever of this particular DLC anywhere near that far back.  This DLC, called "From Ashes", will cost approximately $10.  What makes it devious, however, is the nature of what it entails.  This is no ho-hum Warden's Keep or silly hat for your robot in Portal 2's multiplayer; this is...*MASSIVE SPOILER WARNING* a Prothean squadmate with the accompanying mission.  *End spoilers*

If you've played any Mass Effect game before, you know that that's a huge deal.  And you also know you won't be satisfied playing Mass Effect 3 without having this content, merely knowing it exists.  This is utterly evil.  EA knows damn well that people will cave and buy this, effectively raising the price of Mass Effect 3 by $10.  Now, 10 dollars may seem like it is a small amount of money, and indeed it is, but there are a few things to consider.  First, is the content really worth paying 1/6 the price of the full game for?  Regardless of whether or not it is, it's all but assured that most people will, as previously mentioned, cave and buy it.  Second, and more importantly, handing EA and Bioware this extra $10 on a silver platter will tell them that this sort of thing is okay and we're willing to deal with it more in the future.  And no, this constant nickle-and-diming is definitely not okay.  Game developers and publishers are becoming increasingly greedy and controlling with their customers and fans that have supported them enough to be able to put them into these positions of power.  This is how they treat loyal customers, and they expect us to swallow yet more insults and thank them for it.  Disgusting.

What's perhaps more disgusting, however, is that I will be one of these weaklings that buckles at the knees and hands Bioware and EA first my $60 for the game, then another $10 to experience this DLC that they *claim* was developed entirely after the core game was completed (a suspicious claim at best).  Yup, I'll be one of those I'm seemingly preaching against.  Why?  Well, as I exampled previously with my multiple-paragraph introduction into this article displaying my affection for the Mass Effect series, I'm too invested in it now to turn back, despite all these evil corporate slugs do to try to push me away.  Let me just say that if this was any other game, any other series, I absolutely would not be buying it.  Mass Effect, unfortunately, has a hold over me that other games never have.  I've never been *this* big of a fan of any franchise for this long.  And no, it's not just rampant fanboyism; I acknowledge that Bioware is doing some really awful things with Mass Effect 3.  And it's not limited to this day 1 DLC, because, as usual, we have the ever-loved pre-order bonuses.  Oh yes, pre-order bonuses, where you get to unlock pieces of the game that are IN THE GAME with a code acquired only if you purchase from certain retailers.  And wait, there's more!  Mass Effect 3 is coming to iOS devices, where you can get stuff like the portable Codex (an in-game catalogue of the lore).  Sounds fine, right?  Well, guess what, buying these silly apps will net you yet more content in the game that's, you guessed it, already in the game.  This sort of garbage needs to end, and sadly for me and my moral compass, I won't be one of the people leading the charge in stopping it.

So while I stand here admitting completely that I will be one of those enablers going to pick up Mass Effect 3 on launch day, my tail between my legs and eyes downcast, do not for a second think that I'm encouraging this behaviour.  If you're free of the grip that Mass Effect holds over me, by all means, show Bioware and EA that you won't tolerate this crap.  Be a stronger willed gamer than me.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Tribes Ascend: The Way Forward is Up

Oh Tribes, it has been too long.  In fact, it's been too long since we last saw a proper, fast paced shooter in the classic vein of Tribes, Unreal Tournament or Quake.  Why did these slick, skill-based shooters fall on the wayside to begin with?  What made the masses turn to the brown-washed world of Modern Medal of Battlefare, and abandon these bright, colourful and lightning fast games?  Well, truth be told, the answer is effectively pure speculation.

But I will indulge that urge to speculate and dissect the minds of the FPS loving masses.  To my eyes, while there are many potential reasons why these people turned from what hardcore gamers would consider the holy grail of FPS subgenres (if 'fast' shooters can be considered a subgenre, and I would argue they can), there are several key points that I believe trump all the rest.

The first is the feeling of being a badass.  Halo did this quite well.  I mean, right from the get-go, you're a super soldier equipped with incredibly powerful technology and weapons at your disposal, let loose to savage legion upon legion of alien hostiles.  And the best part is, everyone gets to feel like a badass, regardless of your skill level.  The easiest mode in the campaign gives the player a sense of extreme power as you unleash unrelenting carnage upon your enemies, while the famous Legendary mode will challenge even the hardcore FPS fan, offering a sense of accomplishment.  It was all quite marvelous.

Remember when shooters had more colours in their palate than brown?  Yeah, this game is pretty gorgeous.

However, somewhere along the way, the idea of giving out merit badges for accomplishing different feats became a big deal.  Beat a level on Legendary?  You get an achievement.  Get 5 kills in a row in multiplayer? The announcer makes sure to let everyone know how well you're doing.  All the while, these ideas were creeping into other titles.  Not to suggest Halo was the pioneer of this idea, but it's merely an example.

Where we can really start pointing fingers is in the Call of Duty franchise.  Now, believe it or not, this is a series that used to be held in high regard.  No really, it did.  Call of Duty 2 had a fantastic, fairly lengthy campaign.  Call of Duty 4 brought a lot of great ideas to multiplayer.  But suddenly, ideas became mandatory inclusions, to the point of becoming detrimental to the rest of the game, as the importance of kill streaks and leveling up in multiplayer led to declining quality elsewhere in the game.  The campaign for Modern Warfare 2, for example, was a complete joke.  This also led to lazy, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" attitudes towards multiplayer, seeing effectively the same game re-re-(and yes, re)-released over and over.  We've now just had to endure Modern Warfare 3, and indeed Activision has already confirmed another Call of Duty this year to fill the "one a year" quota they seem to so direly need to keep up.

Indeed, this is the point where it's difficult to avoid becoming ranty.  Call of Duty represents lazy iterations in gaming, but it's certainly not the only series guilty of this, nor is it the only contributor to the downfall of fast paced shooters.  Just how hard has Nintendo milked its fans over the years with the Pokemon franchise?  Almost always releasing two games at once, rarely having much in the way of innovation between titles.  Even Assassin's Creed, a series that earned my love with the second game, has now ventured into obnoxious territory with its seemingly yearly releases.  Not that Pokemon or Assassin's Creed have much sway over the FPS genre, but I digress; Activision and Infinity Ward are not the only guilty parties here.

Getting back to the issue at hand, why this shift from fast to slow paced shooters?  It really wasn't that long ago that the gaming community seemed to love the frantic madness of Unreal Tournament, Quake and even the original two Tribes games, both of which were played long after their releases in 1998 and 2001.  Well there's the issue of feeling like a badass, and while this may be a generalization, there's no denying that 12 year-olds everywhere get a kick out of running around with an M60 or FAMAS, destroying their fellow prepubescent players with what they believe to be 'real' military tactics.  Well, certainly, I'm no military tactician, but I'm fairly sure most warzones do not take place in a 200'x200' box as so often is the case in Call of Duty's tiny multiplayer maps.

High-speed cap incoming!

But Battlefield has massive maps.  Indeed, Battlefield is often seen as the antithesis to Call of Duty; the 'war sim' that gets it right, and appeals to the 'real' FPS fans.  But even it is not without fault.  Battlefield is still a slow paced game, regardless of how many explosions there are, how many vehicles on the field, or how often you get caught in a hail of crossfire.  Most of what's happening is totally out of your control, and individual skill blurs due to the chaotic nature of the matches.  You can die without knowing why, and you can kill without intention.  True, this may emulate a real war situation much more correctly than Call of Duty...but does that game for a good game?  It can, if done correctly.  Red Orchestra and its sequel, games I must admit I have not played, are the ones that apparently get it right.  Battlefield is a weird mix of simulation and gamey contrivance.  Usually this doesn't work very well; a game should either exist outside the limiting restrictions of reality, or follow it as closely as possible.  Games like Forza, Gran Turismo, and Flight Simulator earn respect because they feel correct, and attention to detail has been given.  Conversely, ridiculous and unrealistic games that parallel these, such as Burnout and Crimson Skies, earn equally big kudos because they cast aside any illusion of being taken seriously and serve only the purpose of being fun and outrageous.

Tribes Ascend has no illusions of realism.  It puts two tribes of soliders, Blood Eagle and Diamond Sword, against each other in an attempt to capture one another's flag.  Why the flag?  Who are Blood Eagle and Diamond Sword?  What are they fighting this war over?  Who cares; the game is fun and uncompromising, and that's what matters.  In this game you fly across massive, open battlefields at speeds in excess of 200 kph (that's without vehicles) firing explosive discs at each other while attempting to shut down the enemy defenses surrounding the base...again, all to capture a flag.  And that just works.

The sense of speed is palpable.  You might get a gut-wrenching feeling the first time you pull off a successful disc jump and hurtle yourself towards the enemy base at 250 kph, grabbing the flag before they can react, cursing and praying as you ski back home in an attempt to capture the flag with a pack of angry tribesmen biting at your heels.  It feels unusual and absolutely refreshing in this day and age.  Indeed, even as a former Tribes player, I had difficulty getting into Ascend.  It's been years and years since I'd last picked up a Spinfusor and launched myself across the map in an FPS, so it goes without saying that the learning curve was rather steep.

In place of full customization of heavy, medium and light armors, we now have 9 classes, each with some customization
options.  Tribes purists may cry foul, but this is a fair compromise to make the F2P model work, and doesn't negatively
impact gameplay.

And this is where perhaps the big turn off for fast paced shooters comes in:  they're hard.  They are not easy games.  If you're looking to rack up some kills and have Mr. Announcer tell everyone how well you're doing, don't expect to do so in Tribes Ascend, unless you've been playing for quite some time.  The learning curve is, indeed, more of a cliff than a slope, but luckily the game comes with several different tutorials that should help you acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with this sort of shooter.  However, what comes with a more challenging game is a greater sense of accomplishment when you start to get the hang of it.  Get a kill streak in Tribes, and you know you're hot shit.  Every kill feels unbelievably satisfying, and that's because you have to hone your skills for each and every one.  Hitting a target with non hit-scan weapons moving at 150+ kph is, obviously, not so easy.  So when your shots do hit home, you'll have to resist the urge to fist pump and shout in victory at your monitor.

I genuinely believe Tribes Ascend is perhaps the most important game of 2012.  It's been in closed beta for a number of months now (it just entered open beta), and with each patch, Hi-Rez seems to be getting things more right.  Aside from a few small bugs and stability issues, it now feels more polished and complete than many triple-A titles out there.  And that's ridiculous, but this is a free to play game.  Yes, Tribes Ascend is completely free.  It adopts a free to play model that's quite similar to League of Legends, in that money will unlock certain classes, abilities and (eventually) unique skins immediately, but will not buy you upgrades.  Upgrades must be purchased with experience gained from actually playing, and indeed you can unlock absolutely everything within the game exclusively with experience, never paying a dime (although it will take untold amounts of time).

But I urge anyone genuinely interested in fast paced shooters making a return to highly consider paying the $30 "VIP package" fee, netting you over $30 worth of in-game currency, instant VIP status and an experience booster.  While these perks are all wonderful things to have, perhaps my main reason for paying money when I didn't need to was to support this game.  Half the price of your average new game seemed like a small price to pay for supporting what is perhaps the most fun and satisfying FPS in years.  It's important to support the games and developers we covet, not just because it's right, but also because it will foster the development of more games like it down the line.  If you'd like to see a revival of the once-great world of fast paced shooters, give Tribes Ascend a look, and definitely consider supporting Hi-Rez with your wallet, as well as your words.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Dark Souls - A Commentary

So after 50 hours of slashing, smashing, burning, cursing and dying my way through Dark Souls, I've finally put an end to the evils in the land of Lordran, restoring order and lifting the undead curse.  I think.  It's hard to tell, because of the monstrously ambiguous ending.

But that's a story for another time.  What I'd rather talk about here and now is the game in question.  I had thought to do a review, but I think that a less formal commentary is more appropriate for this very interesting, very important game.

Just what is Dark Souls anyways?  It's an RPG, ladies and gentlemen, and despite the western look and feel of the game, it's actually Japanese.  Which is impressive, to say the least, that an eastern RPG can nail the look and feel of western medieval culture better than a western RPG.  Right from the rather bizarre and twisted opening cinematic, you know you're in for something a bit different.  This feeling continues to grow as you find your newly created character in a dreary, depressing prison cell, awaiting the end of the world as a damned and forsaken undead.  Fate intervenes, breaking you out of confinement, giving you a new chance at 'life', if you can call it such.  Your quest: recover your soul and your humanity.  What follows is one of the most grueling, most demanding, and ultimately most rewarding video game experiences of all time.

Some of the boss and enemy designs are nothing short of unbelievable.
Mechanically, Dark Souls is not entirely different from many other RPGs, aside from extremely tight and polished combat.  The RPG systems themselves are very deep, allowing for a vast amount of customization.  You want to play as a veritable tank, strapped in to a massive suit of armor, wielding a greatsword the size of your ego?  Sure thing.  You want to be a flame-spitting pyromancer, burning your way to victory?  Have at it.  You want to be Indiana Jones, with a whip and a big hat?  The world is your oyster.  There are so many ways to play this game that it's a bit hard to grasp.  And you're certainly not limited to the playstyle of the class you chose at the beginning of the game.  There are 10 of them, each filling an archetype you've no doubt seen before, but what's interesting is that beyond that initial choice, you can customize your stats and loadout in any way you like.  This means you can start the game as bulky, steadfast knight, only to emerge victorious at the end as a sneaky, backstabbing rogue.  Or you can be a mix of the two.  The freedom of it is frankly refreshing, having an Elder Scrolls-like approach to creating whatever class you want, but also maintaining extremely deep, meaningful RPG systems.  You'll really want to be careful with how you progress your character, because wasting even a few levels' worth of points will affect you later on.


Perhaps the biggest difference with Dark Souls from other games (especially RPGs), is the way it deals with death.  Death plays a huge role in the game, both mechanically and atmospherically.  You play as an undead character, living in the land of the undead, and as such, death surrounds everything.  You will die in this game.  You just will.  And frequently.  However, death is just a part of surviving the world of Dark Souls.  Unlike other games, there's no such thing as a 'game over' screen, there's no traditional checkpoints, no reloading right before a boss fight, and hell, there's no manual saving whatsoever.  Interestingly, this game uses a persistent autosave that will pretty much track everything you do.  This means if you screw up badly or die at an inconvenient time, there's no quicksave to go back to, no do-overs, no turning the console off in a desperate attempt to trick the autosave (believe me I tried).  You fail, you suffer the consequences, and then you pick your ass up and get back into the fray.  Sometimes you will hate this game's relentlessly unforgiving attitude; sometimes you will scream and toss your controller away in frustration.  But the low points serve to highlight what makes this game great: it's just so damned rewarding.

Yup, I'm struggling to think of a game that has made me feel a greater sense of accomplishment when overcoming the impossible.  Dark Souls (and indeed Demon Souls before it) has become infamous for its difficulty, causing some people to shy away from what is otherwise an absolutely fantastic game that any RPG fan needs to experience.  True, this sort of savage difficulty is not for everyone, but really, for anyone who identifies themselves with being a gamer, meaning the sort of person who has been playing games beyond Call of Duty and Guitar Hero for a number of years, should definitely be capable of handling a game like Dark Souls.  It's jarring and demanding to get used to this level of challenge, after games have become more and more coddling and pandering, allowing an increasing amount of sloppiness and laziness from gamers.  Games like Dark Souls have become an incredible rarity, certainly lending to this extreme difficulty branding its received.
Get used to those bonfires; they're among the few refuges from the dark world of death and misery that you're out to explore.

Don't get me wrong; this IS a hard game.  You learn through death, and sometimes that death can occur mere seconds after you were feeling utterly confident and unstoppable.  However, what I expected and what I discovered with this game were quite different.  I was anticipating Ninja Gaiden levels of frustration and rage, but it very rarely got to such points.  What Dark Souls does so well is being extremely strict and difficult, while also being equally fair.  There are one or two points in the game that edge into the realm of cheapness, but by-and-large, you will know why you died, and you will know it was your fault in some way.  There will be a way to improve, and you will apply that knowledge on your next try.  Or you'll just die again.  Dark Souls punishes the stubborn and the stupid; those unwilling to change their tactics will have a much, much harder time (perhaps finding it completely impossible) than those willing and able to learn from their mistakes. And that, in my view, is effectively perfect game design philosophy.

We have reached a point in gaming where the vast majority of games are now aiming to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.  With this comes reduced complexity and difficulty to account for the lowest common denominator.  This isn't true of all games, but any moderately observant gamer out there will easily be able to pick up on this increasingly common trend.  This makes Dark Souls and games like it a rarity, and something to treasure.  While not as successful as other recent, more mainstream-friendly RPGs such as Skyrim, Dark Souls has an extremely loyal following, and has generated a significant amount of buzz in the gaming community, being acknowledged as a fantastic game that should set an example for others.  And it certainly is a breath of fresh air (and a bit of a relief) that such an unusually difficult game which refuses to conform to a devolving world of gaming that no longer seems to understand the concepts of challenge, risk vs reward, and complexity, can be such a success.

Did I mention this game is utterly gorgeous?  It is.  Hard to believe what they managed with this aging hardware.

Now, I would like to touch base on these three points I mentioned: challenge, risk vs reward and complexity. These are three elements that seem to be rapidly dissolving from the world of gaming.  When games like Dark Souls come along that have all these elements in great quantity, gamers everywhere seem to hold a candlelight vigil, honouring the birth of something glorious, and the death of its relatives.  The fact that such games are so rare should scare you, as a gamer.  Why?  These games existed in droves not that long ago.  Where are we heading if games like this are so few and far between that the difficulty aspect alone garners such a huge amount of buzz within the gaming community?

Complexity is another aspect that has dwindled dramatically within games these days, although this is a slightly more grey area.  See, complexity for the sake of complexity is not a good thing; complexity to allow greater freedom through personalization IS a good thing.  Dark Souls does the latter very well, and in the past, we've had games that have done both.  However, there is a big difference between streamlining for the masses, and trimming the fat.  The Elder Scrolls series is a good example of both; in some areas of the newer games, Oblivion and Skyrim, over-simplification is evident, such as reducing the amount of weapon variants the player is allowed.  On the other hand, there have been some positive points to reducing complexity from the older games like Morrowind, such as removing silly mechanics such as Athletics and Acrobatics, which reward the player simply for running and jumping.  Mass Effect 2 is another example of a game that does well in some aspects and goes too far in others.  The first Mass Effect had a huge amount of stats to spec into, and many of them were either minuscule changes or extremely niche.  A good example of unnecessary complexity.  Mass Effect 2 removed the vast majority of this and made leveling up a bigger impact with fewer choices.  They also unfortunately and quite foolishly decided to remove effectively all forms of weapon customization, and offered a ridiculously small amount of weapon variants to chose from (a decision which is being largely rectified in Mass Effect 3).

There's a quite-interesting multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls which can seamlessly pit players against each other, or allow them to work together to defeat bosses.  Sadly I cannot comment on this, as I could only play the game in offline mode.
Risk vs reward is perhaps the most interesting and most important of these three elements, however, and it's the one Dark Souls does best.  Most games these days will let you accomplish everything within them at minimal risk, and most games will hold you by the hand in some way, and allow you to reduce the difficulty setting if you please.  No such systems exist within Dark Souls; if you want all the coolest items, if you want to kill all the bosses, if you want to discover every area within the game, you're going to have to take some risks and explore inhospitable territory.  Alternatively, you can push your character into territory you're not yet suited for.  The risk of dying and losing all your souls and humanity (the 'currency' within the game) is huge, but the rewards can be equally so.  The freedom of choice to risk all at the chance of gaining a big leap in power is...well it's just awesome.  So few games allow this, that it's actually quite concerning.  I can't really think of a game out there that rewards exploration nearly as well.  And of course, much of that exploring comes with nasty surprises that could very easily and quickly mean the end of you.

So just what is Dark Souls anyways?  I hate sounding this ridiculous and fervent, but it's something of a beacon of hope in gaming.  It's not perfect, to be sure, but that's okay, because the areas it excel in it does so well that you can easily forgive shortfalls, such as unclear storytelling, technical issues and an excessive amount of backtracking.  It does difficulty extremely well, being unforgiving yet fair; inflicting feelings of hopelessness at times, while being utterly rewarding and satisfying at others.  It's not just a great game, but rather a great piece of gaming, a statement on the old ways of gaming coming together with the new, combining the best of both worlds while having little in the way of faults from either.  What is Dark Souls?  It's bloody brilliance.