Games 1/18/11: DC Universe Online, Mass Effect 2, A Space Shooter for 2 Bucks!

DC Universe Online
Reviewed for: Playstation 3
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Sony Online Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild blood, mild language, mild suggesting themes, violence)
Subscription Fee Required: 30 days free, $15/month thereafter

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games remain a mostly unknown commodity in console gaming circles, and “DC Universe Online” greets the uninitiated with one seriously creaky welcome wagon. Before you do anything, you’ll have to download one patch, enter an activation code and stare at a single, static screen while two more patches (totaling roughly 17 GB in data; what’s the point of the disc, anyway?) glacially download. All this, just so you can play a game that cost you $60 already and, after 30 “free” days, will require another $15 a month thereafter.

The good news is that while “Universe’s” business model will engender culture shock for a lot of Playstation 3 owners, the game itself at least makes more sense on a console than many of its peers would. The controller-friendly action is fundamentally identical to a game like “God of War” and “Bayonetta.” It isn’t nearly as fluid as in those games, which enjoy the advantage of a much more controlled system that isn’t under attack by multiple players with multiple agendas. But it’s good enough after you upgrade your superhero (or villain) a little, and it gets continually better as better powers and more diverse attacks become available.

“Universe” benefits similarly by moving like an action game. Characters bound, hover and climb pretty freely through some impressively large and open levels, and while you might see other characters skip around a little due to network hiccups, your movement always feels pretty smooth.

The controller-friendliness even extends to the menu system. “Universe” uses the same exact menu layout for its console and PC iterations, but it arranges everything in a way that’s pretty easy to navigate once you’re familiar with the layout.

So fundamentally, this marks a good start, and while “Universe” has fallen prone to the same outages, overages and hiccups that apparently every MMO must experience at launch, it’s been far more smooth sailing than not so far.

What remains to be seen is whether Sony Online Entertainment can sustain player interest beyond “Universe’s” first wave of content, which isn’t nearly as inspiring in terms of design as it is in terms of technical proficiency.

“Universe’s” overriding story — you’re an up-and-coming superhero (or villain) training under the guise of an iconic DC hero or villain — is clever, and the game gives players lots of creative freedom in the character design tool. But opportunities to develop a real connection to your created character, or anyone else for that matter, are infrequent so far.

The quests are simplistically designed — beat up 10 of these, collect 15 of that — and while players can team up freely with others in the world, the scene rarely resembles anything remotely epic. Players used to enjoying comparably-sized battles for free in other console games are going to wonder what the $15 tax is getting them if SOE doesn’t wow them soon.

Time will tell, but the pieces appear to be there to make it happen.

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Mass Effect 2
Reviewed for: Playstation 3
Also available for: Xbox 360 and Windows PC
From: Bioware/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, drug reference, sexual content, strong language, violence)

Ports don’t arrive much later to the party than “Mass Effect 2,” which makes its Playstation 3 debut a week shy of a year after it appeared on the Xbox 360.

But it’s nowhere near too late to get acclimated with a game as good as “ME2,” which deservedly won a museum’s worth of year-end awards from critics and fans alike. And like any good party guest, it compensates for its tardiness by bearing gifts.

For starters, because the first “Mass Effect” remains non-existent on the Playstation platform, Bioware has given the uninitiated a significantly better means of catching up to the story than it did for players on other platforms. An in-game interactive comic book details the important events of that first game, and through a handful of “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style moments, readers can shape the comic’s story in much the same way players charted their narrative course through the game. The Xbox/PC versions of “ME2” allowed players to use save files from the first game to affect how the second game’s story began, and this comic has the same effect.

The PS3 version of “ME2” also comes with three downloadable bonus mission packs — “Kasumi: Stolen Memories,” “Overlord” and the brilliantly revelatory “Lair of the Shadow Broker” — integrated into the disc. Getting $24 worth of content for free is nice, of course. But having the packs available from day one is nice at any price, because it allows players to engage in those missions as they appear in the timeline instead of retroactively because they completed the game’s main storyline months prior.

As for the main course, it’s as spectacular as ever. “ME2” found Bioware taking its extensive gift for storytelling, universe construction and role-playing and wrapping it around a third-person shooter that’s every bit as good as the genre’s best. The game is leaner and more efficient than its predecessor, but it’s every bit as loaded in terms of storytelling and optional content — missions to undertake, entire species to meet, unexplored star systems for crying out loud — for intrepid travels to discover.

Though “ME2” had little that was in need of patching, the PS3 version accounts for the tidying up Bioware did after the Xbox/PC version’s release. Namely, if you’ve heard about and are wary of the mining mini-game that provides resources with which to construct new weapons and upgrades, you’ll be happy to know the process is considerably more efficient now than it was a year ago.

Bioware also claims that this version of “ME2” is running on the engine that will power “Mass Effect 3” when it releases later this year for all three platforms. The visual difference isn’t too dramatic unless you’re actively looking for it, but that’s due more to how good “ME2” already looked than any graphical shortcoming on the “ME3” engine’s behalf.

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A Space Shooter for 2 Bucks!
For: Playstation 3 and Playstation Portable (both via Playstation Network)
From: Frima Studio
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild fantasy violence, mild language, suggestive themes, use of tobacco)
Price: $2

Though funny and certainly honest, the title of “A Space Shooter for 2 Bucks!” also potentially misleads, because it paints a picture of a simple overhead space shooter trying to get by on a dirt-cheap price and catchy name. The truth couldn’t be more different. “Bucks” breaks its surprisingly funny storyline into a series of star systems — some hostile and ruled by some pretty colorful villains, others shrouded in mystery. The levels can be played and replayed almost in any order you please, and in a terrific, “Mega Man”-esque touch, a villain’s superweapon becomes yours to use freely once you conquer his or her system. “Bucks” features a pretty extensive (and flexible) upgrade path for the rest of your ship as well, and while the game’s four difficulty levels make it accessible to shooter fans of every discipline, the harder villains demand that you upgrade wisely regardless of who you are. All this and an in-game achievements
system add up to a immense quantity of gameplay for two little bucks, and “Bucks” makes good use of that quantity with polished, classically frantic arcade action and some genuinely good laughs in between levels. Have you ever played a $2 game with first-rate voice acting throughout the entire experience? If you play this, you can say you have.