Monday, March 22, 2010

The Top Five Sexiest Female Sidekicks

It's difficult to find a true "sidekick" in a video-game and far more difficult to find one that's female. For the purposes of this list, a sidekick is defined as an NPC who participates in the experience but isn't an avatar for the player. This definition helps weed out almost all traditional RPGs whose party members you control at one point or another (mostly during turn-based battles). While soldier games (particularly the most recent spate of them) are chock-full of sidekicks, this is a list of the sexiest females so those strapping soldiers will have to wait for the all-male review. Fighting games are also out for the same reason as typical RPGs. Finally, princesses in need of rescue aren't really participating in your adventure and therefore don't make the cut. This begs the question: how many games even feature a female sidekick at all? Well there's Mass Effects 1 & 2 which feature a bevy of attractive ladies (both human and alien) enough to populate this list. But we're taking one candidate per franchise so that leaves four slots open. Read on to find the results.

5: April O'Neil (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)
April O'Neil has filled various roles across the two decades since she first graced consoles back in 1989. More often than not, she has been the damsel in distress, motivating the Turtles to leave their pizza parties and wallop some Foot. She was also a playable character in the Smash Brother's rip-off of 2009. But it is her performance in TMNT: Turtles in Time that puts her in at the number five spot on the list.

April has certainly changed a lot over the years. Originally a sassy computer programmer, she seems to have grown younger and younger as the years have gone by. They heyday of her sex appeal came with the Turtles animated TV show (and attendant Turtles in Time videogame) where she was sporting a yellow jumpsuit. While the modern-day April might not race any motors with her baggy jeans and thug-appeal, her early-90's look combined with her sidekick status in Turtles in Time nets her the fifth position on this list.

4: Ashley Graham (Resident Evil 4)
Ashley was both the damsel in distress as well as your companion through your harrowing escape from Los Illuminados in RE:4. While not the offensive tour-de-force Leon needed, Ashley still assisted with opening gates and occasionally kicking ass. Granted she also was forever getting tossed over one bad guy's shoulder or another and getting antsy if you were beneath her on a ladder and aiming skyward. But she was a trooper till the end and managed to stay sexy-prep through the entire ordeal.

3: Cortana (Halo series)
Halo's AI program Cortana emerged a sex-icon with the original Combat Evolved. Granted, her rapid ascension to this status was fueled in-part by Halo's popularity but there's no denying her place among the sexy female side-kicks. Part damsel-in-distress, part voice-in-your-head, and all sass, Cortana won our hearts early. Looking back on it now, it seems like Bungie didn't realize the sex-appeal of their Jane (Orson Scott Card reference anyone?). It wasn't until the fanboys had spoken that Cortana was self-consciously portrayed as an object of desire in Halo 2. But her place on this list was assured, in part, by the character that was developed in Combat Evolved. Cortana is the quintessential best friend tomboy that we fall for, the girl-next-door archetype downloaded onto a data chip that we were happy to jack into the back of our helmets.

2: Rachel (Ninja Gaiden)
Unlike the preceding entries on this list whose roles skirted the line between sidekick and damsel in distress, Rachel was all kick-ass. (Notwithstanding a brief slip-up which landed her elevated spread-eagle, waiting to be rescued by Ryu.) And, more than any other sidekick on this list, Rachel was self-consciously sexified. Battling demons in an indescribable S&M-inspired leather one-piece? Check. Winding up covered in demon-drool that might as well be swimsuit shoot oil? Check. Rachel didn't tantalize us like April's exposed collar-bone or Ashley's chaste pantie-protection. And Rachel didn't win us over with her mind like Cortana's witty nagging. But she wasn't about pretense. She was a sex-kitten and a sidekick, earning her place at number two on our list.

1: Samara (Mass Effect 2)
As mentioned in this list's introduction, the Mass Effect series boasts an impressive number of sexy sidekicks. So why Samara? Why not Miranda or Liara? (Typing this highlights the prevalence of open-vowel monikers for the vixens of the ME universe. Was Bioware consciously appealing to the momma's boys in their fan base? Or is applying linguistic philosophy here a touch too heavy for the top five sexiest female sidekicks list?) Samara beats out the rest of the ME NPCs due precisely to her untouchablility. The forbidden fruit is the sweetest and Samara embodies the woman who is totally out of our league. She's older, she exhibits complete poise, and she could probably throw our skeletons right out of our bodies if we got on her bad side. It is precisely for this fact that she takes the number 1 spot on this list. She is the vanguard of the next generation of females in the constantly evolving videogame universe: one who will never need rescuing but will instead rescue us.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fable II Review

Fable II enjoyed many perks that it's predecessor did not. The expectations had been managed by the muzzle Microsoft had finally strapped to Molyneux, the Xbox 360 had the power to deliver more of the dream that got everyone so amped for Fable I, and it was a sequel. A guaranteed solid performance was all but in the bag. The reviews would be positive, the money would be ample, and the fan-base would be satisfied. A year and a half later and it looks like it all worked out for Lionhead and co. Fable II is the best-selling RPG on the Xbox 360, weighing in at around $3.5m in sales. Critics were generally positive, aggregating for an 89% positive ranking on the MetaCritic scales. And, despite a few bugs early on, the fan base seems fairly happy.

RPG's of old were weighed partially on how they excited the player's imagination. Without the power of modern technology to realize sweeping vistas and fantastical creatures, there was an art to suggestion. Those unreachable mountains, those unbeatable creatures...the best RPG experiences knew how to draw you into their worlds without the polygons to actually put you there. The loss of that sense of wonder is one of the main criticisms the old school has against the new. It is to the credit of Lionhead Studios that they are able to still evoke the player's imagination in much the same way, despite being firmly of the new school.

Such potential

STORY: 4/5
Fable II's story is Horatio Alger set in Albion. You start off as a homeless child and eventually grow to be the greatest hero in the land. Along the way you free some slaves, befriend some locals, and, should you choose, find a spouse and settle down. Most of the story ranges from uninteresting to downright laughable due to the enormous brush it's painted with. The main villain is slightly deeper than the rest of the cast but, for the most part, it's a forgettable yarn.

Despite touting a good-evil morality system, most of your choices are inconsequential unless you are deeply concerned with your avatar's appearance. Bold claims to the contrary notwithstanding, little of what you do has a lasting effect on your world. And the actions that do effect real change don't feel connected to their outcomes. (I love the idea of the butterfly effect as much as the next guy but the result of my youthful actions in Bowerstone didn't resonate when I returned a man. And if a game fails at giving you meaningful feedback on your actions, revolutionary game design doesn't matter.)

Didn't I see you in the last town I was in?

Another example of the skin deep story is in the NPC's that surround you. It is ironic that so much work and hype have gone into the NPC AI because the villages don't feel populated in the slightest. Sure the denizens might react (relatively) believably to my actions but what does that matter if they are un-differentiable? What does it matter if I don't believe in them as characters? They become another transparent feedback gimmick that reflects how I'm playing the game. They might as well be the flies that circle my evil character or the halo that adorns my pure one.

But, despite the aforementioned problems with the story and world, Fable II still manages to evoke serious wonder with its surroundings. The game's linearity combined with it's impressive art direction creates vista after haunting vista that draws you into the world. And their inaccessibility captivates you in much the same way as the inaccessible beauty of RPGs of old. Every region is a narrative unto itself with an attention to detail that hints at a story far more interesting than the ham-fisted yarn you're forced to play through. The table is set for the world of Albion but, thus far, no decent food has been prepared by the chefs at Lionhead.

Pretty, yes. But she's a bitch to steer.


As with the story, the gameplay of Fable II is a mixed bag. When it shines it shines bright but good gameplay is the exception rather than the rule. With unresponsive controls, a headache of a shooting mechanic, and uninspiring puzzles, the only truly fun part of controlling Fable II is in hacking and slashing (and magicking). There's a good sense of weight to your blows and alternating between swordplay and fireballs is svelte. Walloping someone with an ax feels different and fresh compared to slicing and dicing with a one-handed saber. And stringing together a few fine cuts with a force push never gets old.

But everything else (and I mean everything else) feels wrong. Your character steers like a truck, button inputs across the board have a noticeable lag between your press and the action, and the game world jitters. And don't even try to negotiate those menus. They stutter and freeze and hesitate to load. In fact, the whole game seems like an asthma attack, constantly gasping to keep up.

It oozes all the right things. (Style, atmosphere and beauty you pervs!)

Like it's predecessor, Fable II tantalizes us with what could have been. Project Ego's hype continues to elude Molyneux and Lionhead, despite their most valiant efforts to deliver. While more of Project Ego's ideas are present in Fable II, the game feels like it's barely hanging together. It's a distracting, fourth-wall breaking problem that even the inspired art direction can't overcome. Add to the glitches the soulless NPCs and uninspired story and you've got a downright bad game. But there is magic here and the combat is enough to keep you entertained. One of these days the dream will be realized and Fable (III? IV? V?) will be as originally touted back in 2003: the best game ever. Until that day comes, it seems we'll happily shell out money for these bastard children of the dream.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Rooting for the Underdog

While it's hard to call the EA-backed Bad Company 2 an 'underdog', they are currently ranked #2 in both the wallets and minds of online console shooters. And they are competing for that top spot with the current owner of the 'largest entertainment release in history' moniker. So, within the narrow confines of our myopic view of this competition, Dice and co. are the underdogs.

And boy are they milking it.

The first crack at MW2 was more of a friendly jab than an actual gut shot. (Turns out that Bad Company 2 isn't releasing any new maps for free but rather just unlocking some game modes on existing maps.) But with tongue firmly lodged in cheek, EA / Dice's marketing team lifted MW2's own language and used it for themselves.

The second crack at MW2 has upped the ante considerably. MW2 has developed a reputation for playing host to the ignorant, the homophobic, the racist online. And while our civilization's scum usually crop up in varying numbers all over the interweb, MW2's F.A.G.S. ad made Activision and co. more culpable than other hosts in the ether. It's hard to tell what Activision's intent was with this ad because the fallout is clearly negative across the board. (Unless they were trying to get more racist / homophobic young men as consumers. In which case, Activision should probably read up on demographics.) But it's most lasting effect is that MW2 is now thought to have more awful human beings populating its servers than its competitors.

And just when pop culture's focus had shifted elsewhere, Bad Company 2 brings this skeleton back out of the closet. This isn't a friendly jab. This is a hay maker. Bad Company 2 is running the ad that MW2 should have run and, in so doing, saying a lot of things about both itself and its competitor. To whit:
  • it's saying Bad Company 2 is funny and fun
  • it's saying Bad Company 2 is not ignorant
  • it's reminding us that MW2 is ignorant
  • it's asking us, are you a BC2 person or a MW2 person?
Answering that implicit question is where the hay maker comes out. If you are a MW2 person, you're a homophobe. If you're a BC2 person, you hate homophobes. So? Which are you?

In asking this question, EA and Dice need us to forget all the other reasons why we play video games. Trifling issues such as gameplay, presentation, and story. But I won't be labeled a homophobe! I'm a BC2 man!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Top Five Hyped Games of the Last Decade

The years spanning 2000 - 2010 have been some exciting ones for gamers. There have been a boatload of great titles in the decade that saw 3D gaming start to hit its stride. There have also been some serious flops, some half-flops, a whoopie cushion, and probably the odd bell clanging.

But this top five list isn't concerned with either the successes or the failures. This is a list dedicated to the top five most exciting game hypes of the decade. Whether these games made good on their promises to deliver revolutionary experiences or fell short of the mark is of little concern to this list. This list is designed to take you back to the moments of pure anticipation when you were ready to sign away your left testicle / pap (depending on your gender) just to get your mitts on the object of your excitement.

Given that two generations of consoles spanned this decade, and given that a new console is usually the vanguard of just this sort of testicle-shedding infatuation, this list comes with one caveat: no console-launch related games are in the running. This helps weed out the Killzone 2's (technically not a launch title but certainly testicle-shedding for a few weeks due to launch-related reasons) and Gears of Wars, the Rogue Squadrons and Dead or Alive 3s.

So, without further preamble...the list! (In descending order of testicular-sheddation.)

5: The Twilight Princess Reveal

The E3 2004 trailer for the first 'realistic' adventure since Ocarina was a drool-inducing phenomenon. (The employment of the term 'realism' in this context is explicable only by the fantastic but drool-quenchingly cartoony Wind Waker.) The audience exploded into applause. Fans cried. Multiple articles were written about the trailer itself (nevermind the game it portrayed). How it was edited. Who wrote the music. Granted Nintendo tripped over its own feet in the ensuing months with distracting news about the Wii and confusing news about multiple versions of the game. But for a few precious months, Zelda ruled our hearts and minds.

4: The Starcraft II Announcement

Deciding where to place this on the list is tricky due to the focused geographic nature of the mania this announcement induced. If you were anywhere outside of South Korea when Blizzard showed the first footage of the sequel to the best strategy game of all time, your excitement probably ran somewhere from "well it's about goddamned time!" to "aw sweet! that's a must buy!" However, if you were anywhere in that darling country with the B-Boys and the cute girls, you couldn't escape this mania.

I was in Seoul when Blizzard held their event in 2007 to announce Starcraft II. I wasn't aware that the event was happening (this was during my fear and loathing days when the only pulse I had my finger on was my own) and was quite surprised to be hugged on three separate occasions by crying fanboys. I wasn't anywhere near the location of the event, showed no signs of outward interest in Starcraft or Blizzard, and am not the friendliest looking fellow. It speaks to how intense the fervor was surrounding this announcement.

3: The Project Ego Experience

Unlike the preceding two entries on this list, the game that would eventually be released as Fable did not create a splash of interest all at once. With Project Ego, Master Chef Molyneux brought the cauldron slowly to a boil and then continued to stoke the flames. While Starcraft and Zelda are notable for the excitement generated with their announcement, Project Ego maintained this excitement over the course of 2 years. The concept and hype that accompanied Project Ego's introduction to the gaming media was enough to sustain it's lengthy development process and allow Fable multi-million unit sales. Indeed, some would argue that this very hype not only paved the way for the success of the original Fable but also for two sequels. It is on the strength of that original dream, drug-induced though it may have been, that the gaming media and masses continue to overrate and over-consume the ensuing products.

2: The Halo 2 Juggernaut

Halo 2 wasn't a surprise. (If we're being honest with ourselves, neither were Twilight Princess nor Starcraft II but they still managed to shock us.) A sequel to the muscle behind Microsoft's Xbox was a foregone conclusion before the frenzy over Combat Evolved even died down. But the trickle of screenshots, the sweeping score, the teasers, the trailers, the magazine exclusives all fomented a level of anticipation that brought out Episode I-esque lines for the midnight release. Every single piece of this hype was precisely calibrated to keep the anticipation for Halo 2's release roaring at full blast. Bungie and Microsoft spent millions in marketing to assure the gaming public that Halo 2 was the end of videogame history and we ate it up.

1: The Black and White Fantasy

The inclusion of Black and White on this list might bend the definition of 'the last decade' as the flames of anticipation were first sparked in late 1999. But more so than any other game on this list, the hype surrounding Black and White in the years leading up to its release was cacophonous. And not the finely tuned hype of Halo 2 which was a top-down trickle of information into the hungry maw of the gaming public. Nor was the hype a giddy explosion of excitement like the glee of the Zelda and Starcraft II reveals. Unsurprisingly, Black and White's nearest relative on this list is Project Ego which also thrived on the hearsay of its rabid community (and also featured one Peter Molyneux as the snake oil salesman manipulating the crowd). Black and White was an idea frenzy in which everyone participated in imagining an impossible game.

The years between the announcement and the game's final release saw a vicious cycle of ideas and interpretations build off each other within the rabid fan base. Again, it was Peter Molyneux playing the impish knave, fomenting these assumptions and relishing the ideas they generated. No matter that most of the ideas were impractical or impossible to implement! It was an idea orgy in which Mr. M turned his fan base into a brainstorming machine. In an environment where nothing was discounted, Black and White took on epic proportions of hype and anticipation as it was no longer really a game but rather everyone's dream rolled into one.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Mass Effect Review

For a description of the BofHam review system, please click here.

What can be written about the original Mass Effect that hasn't been stated elsewhere already? The engine isn't quite up to the aspirations of its developers, the interactive dialogue is a revolution for the RPG genre, the gameplay is addicting, and the story strong. By all accounts, Mass Effect 2 has remedied the short-comings of the original and improved on its strengths. Bag of Hammers will give Mass Effect 2 its review in due course, once the hype and flash have settled with time. For ME1 however, that time is now.

Saren: cooler than Darth Maul?

STORY: 5/5

Mass Effect has a great story, crammed with the attention to detail that signifies a true labor of love. The story makes sense, the characters' motivations are believable, and there is a genuine sense of gravitas to the epic presentation. Saren is a wonderful villain, oozing steely resolve instead of maniacal evil. The crew members of the Normandy are nuanced and so convincingly voiced that even the most two-dimensional of them overcome their archetypes. Granted, the romantic subplots are more about getting frisky than true emotional resonance but, given the consumer demographics, it's hard to fault Bioware with knowing their audience. (They even poke fun at this with some meta-dialogue delivered by Ashley on Noveria.)

She's not going to get pissed if you call her pointless.

While much has been made of the interactive dialogue system, multiple play-throughs suggest that its impact on the game is far more limited than the well-crafted dialogue trees would lead you to believe. (The scenes where dialogue can actually affect outcomes beyond your renegade/paragon alignment are amazing and hint at the future of the role playing genre.) But even without the weight of Wrex's life (or Shepard's sex life) hanging in the balance, the smooth flow of the branching dialogue helps you identify with your Shepard and get sucked even further into the narrative.

The backbone of ME's gameplay hinges on a stop-and-pop style of third-person shooter which it happily nails. It is easy to control, smooth to execute, and totally addicting. I'm reminded of Bungie's famous '30 seconds of fun' mantra when playing ME for they have nailed the core mechanic and are content with looping it ad nauseum to move you through the story. The enemy AI is strong, making for some truly harrowing firefights on the higher difficulty levels. And there is surprisingly deep strategy in this shooter gameplay. You can direct your squadmates to flank enemies, you can strategize on the right gun for the engagement, and you need to understand which biotic or tech powers are needed to dispatch the threat quickly and efficiently. None of the enemies in ME are push-overs and yet none are unbeatable. Recognizing and executing the best strategy to take down a ten foot tall Geth Prime or a Krogan Warloard is an incredibly rewarding experience.

But there is another part of the ME gameplay experience which falls short of excellence. The Mako vehicle is so close to being right that it makes its failure all the more bitter. On flat surfaces or ones with minor bumps, the Mako feels true. It animates with a beautiful sense of realism and weight with flawlessly synchronized sound effects. Firing its weapons is smooth and easy to control and, in the rare instance where your environment allows, you really feel like you're controlling a nimble but powerful piece of machinery. But once the Mako gets on more rugged terrain, the entire experience falls apart. Driving in a straight line becomes almost impossible and aiming an unhappy chore. And don't even get me started on trying to access those mineral deposits located way up on some craggy rock face.

Close but no cigar.

I can understand the trade-off Bioware dealt with when deciding to include the Mako in Mass Effect. Wide-open planets to explore certainly add to the immensity of ME's galaxy. (Some of these planets are hauntingly beautiful.) And adding variety to the addicting but repetitive stop-and-pop is certainly a wise move. But the more serious you get in exploring these worlds, the more frustrating the gameplay becomes and the less inclined you are to find every last collectible in the galaxy. Ultimately, the inclusion of these segments winds up marring the otherwise wonderful gameplay experience.

Mass Effect is a great game. It jumps headlong into the dorkiest end of the pool (science fiction videogames) and winds up telling a powerful story with surprisingly deep characters. Aside from some Mako trouble, it controls like a dream and boasts some genuine strategy below its 3rd person shooter exterior. It is a must-play for any RPG fan, sci fi fan, or blue alien babe fan.