I bought Mass Effect the day it came out, and played it through to the end.  I loved it so much that I immediately started a new character and started a second play through.  That’s when Mass Effect murdered my XBox 360.  I was playing through a mission and, at about the same point each time (when a bunch of enemies ambushed my team), the 360 would stutter for a few seconds, and then freeze.  I restarted and retried a few times and then…the dreaded RROD, which, for those of you who don’t own a 360, indicates a catastrophic, unrecoverable system failure.  Microsoft has never fully explained what it means, exactly, except that you need to call the support line, submit a request, wait for a box to arrive in the mail, pack up your 360, then wait 4-6 weeks to get it back.

So, yes, Mass Effect blowed up my console, and it’s been about 2 years since I played through it, which has allowed me to remember it fondly, through rose tinted glasses.  I’d honestly forgotten about many of the aspects of the game that were annoying.  I will list some of them here:

  • Planet exploration.  Blah!  Upon scanning some planets you would find that you could drop your ATV to the surface and explore.  And by “explore” I mean you could drive around aimlessly trying to fill in your map and find points of significance.  The points were sometimes a batch of enemies, or a building you could infiltrate and explore.  More often they were crashed ships or rocks containing valuable minerals.   If you’re a completionist, like me, this meant you spent about 95% of your time on any given planet filling in the map, and maybe 5% actually doing something useful or fun.
  • Texture pop in.  I never understood how some games could have such lengthy load times and still not manage to load high quality textures.  Mass Effect was plagued with pop-in.  It seemed like every time you loaded a save game, entered a building, or walked around a corner your screen would be full of blurry, low rez textures that would slowely, one at a time, be replaced with the high rez versions.  Yuck.
  • Inventory Management.  Like many other western RPGs, Mass Effect threw lots, and lots, and lots of items at the player.  Every corpse was lootable, and containers filled with treasures were everywhere.  Unfortunately, your team had a limited inventory capacity, so eventually you’d run out of space.  Then you’d be forced to compare the stats of similar items to try to decide which ones were worth keeping, and which you could reduce to goo to make room (the goo was used to upgrade your other equipment).
  • Elevator rides.  This didn’t bother me as much as it did some others, but Mass Effect tried to hide its load times by forcing the player to ride elevators from one floor to another.  The next level would load while you watched your team standing idly in the elevators, sometimes for a solid minute or longer.
  • Space Exploration.  Yes, I realize that, at its core, Mass Effect is a space opera RPG and a certain amount of exploration is expected.  But the starship “mini game” was bland, and boring, and seemed like a silly way to get from point A to point B.  In other RPGs wandering through the wilderness results in random encounters, which can yield experience and treasure.  Mass Effect seemed to be trying to apply that to space travel, but forced the player to visit star systems and individual planets to find encounters outside of the main storyline.  It’s just not the same.
  • Moronic companions.  I had a really, really hard time playing through the first 90% of Mass Effect.  Late in the game I realized this was because my companions were idiots.  They would blow all of their powers on anything and everything, and refused to take cover.
  • The Citadel.  I have a love/hate relationship with it.  There’s very little to do there other than walk around and talk, which is great.  The Citadel is a fantastic lore dump that brings players up to speed on the Mass Effect universe.  It can also be long, drawn out, and boring.  Necessary in a first play-through, perhaps, but a huge barrier to fun in subsequent games.  It’s a giant black hole of boredom between missions.

All that being said, there was a lot that I loved about Mass Effect, not the least of which being the storyline.  Very epic.  Very well written.  Full voice for every line of dialog, and all of the voice acting top notch. I also enjoyed the game play, for the most part.  Once I figured out that I could turn off the “auto use powers” setting for my team, I really got much better at the epic battles.  Instead of having to reload and replay every fight 5 times to get past it, I was actually doing well and enjoying it.  I’ve always liked deep customization, too, so specializing in certain weapons and abilities to increase effectiveness and damage was fun, and biotic & tech powers were very satisfying.  Lots of levels, and lots of customization options also made a great role playing game even better.

Still, in the years since I’d last played, I’d forgotten a lot about the storyline, so it was kind of a blessing in disguise when I popped Mass Effect 2 in for the first time and if failed to recognize my saves from the first game.  Apparently I’d never saved after beating the game, or I had but then overwrote the save.  Thankfully I had a game saved right before the final battle with Saren, and I was able to replay through the last 25 minutes of the game.  This was a great reintroduction to the characters, and a refresher on how the story ended.

Immediately after playing through the opening sequence of Mass Effect 2, it becomes obvious that BioWare decided to take a sledgehammer to the game.  They fixed nearly everything that was “wrong” with the first Mass Effect, but in their quest to create a game that is more “shooter” than it is “RPG” they introduced as many problems as they fixed.  Additionally, the way that they chose to “fix” some things resulted in new problems that were just as bad as the original.

Wait.  Let me stop myself for a minute.  Mass Effect 2 is an incredible game. The storyline is even more epic and involving than the first game.  The twists, turns, and overall plot are incredible.  The new characters on your team even more interesting and involving.  The gameplay, while dumbed down significantly, is still pretty great.  The personalization, which actually builds on decisions you made in the first game if you import your character, is unparalleled.  The writing, dialog options, and voice acting continues to be off the charts.  I would not hesitate to recommend this game to anyone.  I would strongly encourage you to play through the first game first; some of the bomb shells in the second just won’t resonate if you don’t.  But regardless, Mass Effect 2 is one of the best games I have played in a long, long time.

So, yes, I loved Mass Effect 2.  The entire story, from start to finish, was absolutely superb, but the final act was absolutely great.  As I recruited each new character to join my crew I could not believe how attached I became to them.  Unlike other RPGs I actually agonized over who to bring with me on each mission, and routinely rotated through most of them.  Furthermore, walking around the ship and talking to the characters to probe them for more information about their feelings or their pasts was a pleasure and not a chore like it is in some other games.

But, I have to admit, I was disappointed with much of what is different about Mass Effect 2.  The creators of BioShock have repeatedly bent over backwards to insist that their game is a shooterSystem Shock 2, the spiritual predecessor of BioShock, was a first person RPG and is beloved as one of the best PC games ever made.  It was also a commercial failure.  Shooters, on the other hand, are popular!  The frat-guy crowd loves them.  So I don’t blame the BioShock guys for cutting away a lot of the RPG elements that made System Shock so unique and incredible in order to focus on the mechanics of making BioShock more like an FPS.  Similarly, the first Mass Effect game built on a long BioWare tradition of real time RPGs with deep, strategic combat that allowed the player to pause at any time, assign specific tasks to specific party members, and then watch the results play out in real time.  A system first pioneered in Baldur’s Gate, another game that is remembered as one of the best RPGs ever made, and was thrust into the third person with the original Knights of the Old Republic.  Since then, BioWare has applied the same formula successfully to Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect, but with Mass Effect 2 they pushed even farther from their roots in Baldur’s Gate and closer to typical 3rd person shooters like Gears of War.

How exactly did Mass Effect 2 do this?  A number of ways, really.  First, the way that powers & abilities work has fundamentally changed.  Using any one of a teammate’s powers resets the cooldown on all of the available powers.  This significantly dumbs down controlling your team as you can pause combat, assign them one action, and then more or less forget about them for the next 10 seconds.  I should note that your teammates are just as stupid, if not more dumb, than they were in the first game.  They often run into the thick of combat only to get gunned down in seconds, and there is no rhyme or reason to which powers they use when.  I admit that the first few times I heard Jacob say “Now nothing can touch me!” after throwing up a barrier, and then seeing him run into close combat only to get gunned down instantly, I laughed.  After that first few times, it stopped being funny.

Look, squad based shooters can be great, they really can.  If your team is highly scripted to do specific things, like in Call of Duty, or if they respond to simple commands intelligently, like in Republic Commando or Rainbow 6, then it can be an absolute pleasure to play with a couple of AI controlled team members.  But when the default action of your crew is to try to commit suicide as often as possible, and the game forces you to take fine tuned control over their abilities to get any utility out of them at all, it can be down right frustrating.  In many ways Dragon Age suffers from the same problems.  Even with the DA tactics system, something that is completely missing from ME2, I find myself having to take fine tuned control of the abilities and positioning of each party member, in every instance of combat.  Either that or I watch them blow all of their mana on stupid spells, and then die by running into a storm of fireballs.  In Mass Effect 2, I found myself forgetting that I even had team members in most firefights, choosing instead to take out all of the enemies myself.  If one of the AI crew members got lucky, that was a nice bonus.  Using the “unity” ability to bring partners back to life was a waste of medi-gel because, just as often as not, they would die within seconds again.

There are fewer levels to obtain in Mass Effect 2, with a level cap of 30, and the leveling system is dramatically streamlined.  Your crew still levels with you, regardless of whether they participated in recent missions or not.  Abilities are no longer separated into trees, where you must get ability X to a certain point before you can train ability Y.  Instead, you start with a specific set of abilities based on your template, each of which has 4 levels.  Each time you level you get skill points, which you can spend to improve one of your abilities.  By the time you reach the max level, all of your abilities will be maxed, or nearly so.  If you use the “auto level up” option, the game distributes the points evenly across your abilities, effectively increasing them all at the same rate.   You do get access to new abilities late in the game as you gain the loyalty of your crew, and they also get some new abilities as well.  But generally, leveling is a no-op; if you have enough points to improve the next skill in line, you do.  Otherwise, you wait until the next level.

Additionally, combat missions no longer award experience for accomplishments in the field.  You don’t get experience for killing enemies, hacking computers, cracking safes, or blowing stuff up.  Instead, at the end of each mission, you see a “mission complete” screen and are awarded a fixed amount of experience points.  Occasionally you will get bonus experience points for mini-missions, or based on choices you make in dialog trees.  But those are the exception rather than the rule.

The end result is that the majority of the gameplay plays out a lot more like a 3rd person shooter than the first Mass Effect.  You no longer worry about experience, inventory management, or exploration.  Maps are very linear, and other than assigning your squad to use specific powers or to take cover, in most cases you point and shoot.  It’s fun, to be sure, but isn’t implemented as well as other games where 3rd person combat is the focus.

As for the problems of the first Mass Effect, as I mentioned before, BioWare’s solutions are hit-and-miss.  Time for bullets!

  • Miss! Planet exploration is gone.  Instead of driving your vehicle around the map using your radar to find points of interest, you have the “scanning” mini-game.  When you fly to a planet you are given the option to very…slowly…scan…the surface…for resources.  To do this you use a combination of analog sticks and the left and right triggers to find resources, and fire probes to collect them.  This is not the only way to get resources in the game, but it is the only way to get them in significant quantities, and therefore if you want to get all of the upgrades in the game, you must spend literally hours of play time scanning planets.  It’s fun at first, but after the 5th (or 10th, or 50th) planet, it gets really, really old.
  • Hit! Texture pop-in is, thankfully, non existent.  Graphics in general are nicer to look at, a lot more solid, and a lot more stable.  Huge improvement here.
  • Hitty Miss! Inventory management is gone.  There is also no longer a loot system.  In the rare cases where you find lootable corpses, weapons, safes, or containers in the field you are immediately rewarded with a new weapon, money, upgrades, or resources that you can use to build upgrades.   Weapons are permanently added to your armory, and will be available to any character that can use it.  You can equip them at the start of a mission, or whenever you find a weapons locker in the middle of a mission.  Salvage and resources are automagically “‘beamed” to your ship.  No muss, no fuss, no inventory.  At the same time, the deep, stats-based decisions of which weapons and armor to use are removed from the player.  Instead you get a generic message “this is an upgrade!”  Mostly, this is an improvement.
  • Draw! Elevator rides are gone.  Instead, you get loading screens, sometimes for minutes at a time.  Is this better?  I don’t know how it would be.
  • Miss! Space Exploration.  They managed to make this even worse.  Flying from system to system is still dull.  Random encounters are still non-existent.  Small planets and asteroids are just as hard to find as they were in the first game.  And now we have the added bonus of fuel, which limits the distance that you can travel without back-tracking to find a fuel depot to fill up again.  How do you make a boring, silly space exploration mini game even worse?  By forcing players to backtrack to the same spot 3 or 4 times before they can finish exploring a large system.  I like the idea of the galaxy map, but it is poorly executed here.
  • Draw! Moronic companions.  Just as moronic as ever.  They still run into enemy fire and die instantly.  They still use their powers randomly, only now it’s more significant because using one power blows the cooldown on all of them.  To get maximum effectiveness you must still disable “auto use powers” and manage them yourself.
  • Hit! The Citadel.  Thankfully this plays a much, much smaller role in the game.  Instead, there are several major locations throughout the galaxy, to which your party will journey multiple times to pursue the major storyline, or character related side quests.  There is still a lot of exploring, talking, and large swaths of areas where little or no combat is possible.  At the same time, however, these are dispersed much more evenly throughout the game, with missions and assignments in between, instead of being lumped all together in the first 25%.  Much improved!

So, what happens when you take a truly great game, fix some problems, overlook others, and introduce some more?  Well, if you also have an incredible storyline, unparalleled personalization, great characters, world class voice acting, and far better than average gameplay, you get Mass Effect 2.  An incredible game, with about 40 hours of play your first time through, and well worth your gaming dollar.

One last thing: buy it new.  New copies of the game come with a single use code that lets you join the “Cerberus Network.”   This will give you access to free downloadable content including new weapons, armor, characters, and missions.  If you don’t have this code (e.g. you buy the game used), you will need to pay a $15 surcharge to get access to the extra content.  In my opinion, this is a pretty clever and downright fair way to combat the plague of used game sales, and possibly piracy as well.

Before I start to completely ramble, let me point folks over to the sidebar on the right.  I’d encourage people who are interested in keeping tabs on the things that the TP crew is working on to become a fan on Facebook, or to follow us on Twitter.  Lastly, at the bottom of each blog post and new comic strip you’ll find a link that allows you to quickly share Towne Pub content with a ridiculous number of social sites.  Please feel free to pass links along!

The Reboot to the Head storyline was not the first idea that we had for the relaunch of the strip.  We both agreed that we did not want to simply pick up where we left off.  I wanted to redo the art style, which wouldn’t work well with picking up a story mid stream.  Also, even though we had a lot of time and effort involved in that storyline, we had both long since fallen out of love with it.  I had some pretty grand plans (check out the comments on that last strip if you’re interested), but it was going to take a long time to get to the interesting parts, and we’d already lost interest in that arc once before.  There was no guarantee that we’d be able to stay motivated if we tried to pick up from there.

We knew that we wanted to start fresh.  Exactly how fresh was unclear.  Should we pretend that the original story arc never happened?  Should we write new strips as though the story had played out to its inevitable conclusion?  Perhaps we should do a series of 10-15 strips to quickly wrap up the storyline in a text heavy, almost “previously on Towne Pub…” format.  Maybe we’ll still do some of that stuff, but longtime readers will have picked up on the clues in the first new strip where Phinn directly refers to the events of the previous story arc, but he seems just as confused as the readers regarding what has happened.  The holes will be filled in as we move forward.

Folks who have decided to become fans of the Ye Olde Towne Pub Facebook Page will be able to see another direction that we had considered going.  In fact, we got quite far into development of this relaunch idea before abandoning it.  The idea was fairly simple: a total reboot that retells the entire Towne Pub story arc beginning with the very first strip retold as though Savage had never fallen through the portal to Dude’s planet.  This would accomplish a few things.  First and most important, we could begin telling stories that featured Phinn, Savage, and Trebarg, all together again.  Something that has not happened in the main continuity of the strip since that first strip back from March 31, 2000.   That’s right, other than the odd one shotcomic cover, or flashback, Trebarg, Phinn, and Savage were not together in the same strip at all, during the entire classic run, after that first day.   Weird.  Second, it would get us back into the Pub, so we could tell stories from the nexus of realities.

In the “Sketches, Roughs, and Behind the Scenes” photo album on the fan page, you can check out some of the work we did on that reboot idea, which we later abandoned in favor of the current series, which does almost none of the things that we wanted to accomplish.  Go figure.  Dave and I will both be posting status updates and other goodies via the page on a regular basis.  We’ve also linked the page with Twitter, so followers there will be kept informed as well.

Now, onto the next thing: the iPad.

The iPad is getting a bad rap.  Sure, it sounds like an electronically enhanced feminine hygiene product.  A few weeks ago, when I heard about the new Apple tablet on NPR, they said it would be called the “iSlate,” a name that I hated.  In retrospect, it seems like a much better choice.  Naming aside, though, this announcement has just stirred up a tremendous amount of animosity for some reason.  The biggest complaint seems to be that Apple did not make a case for the existence of the iPad; that it is simply a “big iPod Touch” and therefore has no place in this world.

Interesting theory, I suppose.  I’ve been an avid iPhone user and advocate for well over a year now.  I carry my iPhone with me everywhere I go.  I use it to call my wife and kids several times a day, sure, but I also use it to watch movies at the gym (yay for fitness equipment with iPod docks), listen to music at work, play games, surf the web, check my banking status, read e-mail, update facebook, manage my Google Calendar and even post blog entries here on this site.  Unlike my American Express card, I never leave home without it.  So, yes, the iPhone (and the iPod Touch) is a great, wonderful little piece of technology that puts a lot of power and entertainment in the palm of your hand.  It’s something that I consider an essential part of my day-to-day activities.  Apple really knocked it out of the park.

I also have a Macbook.  I’m interested, in the most casual sense possible, in developing iPhone applications someday in the future.   At least, that was my excuse for buying it.  What I really use it for is checking Facebook, playing FarmVille (yeah, yeah), and surfing the web while I watch TV.  I also use it to stream video to my TV sometimes when I miss a show and don’t feel like watching it on the small screen.

So, I have an iPhone, and I have a Macbook.  Why do I need an iPad?  Obviously, I do not need one.  But does it fill a niche?

I think it does.  Sure, I can surf the web and check my e-mail and Facebook from the iPhone.  But it’s got a 4″ screen.  Navigating web pages is an endless process of two-thumb-typing in a URL, scrolling to the approximate place of interest, zooming in, reading, zooming back out, scrolling around, clicking links (and fat fingering the wrong one sometimes), rinse, and repeat.  It’s awesome to have the internet in the palm of your hand.  You can’t beat the iPhone when you want to look something up while you’re standing in the middle of the grocery store.  But is it ideal?  hardly.  The screen is just too small to navigate the web comfortably.  Yes, you can make do, but there is a lot of scrolling and zooming.  E-mail is the same.  Typing a message that is more than a few sentences without making any ludicrous typographical errors (especially with the notorious and prudish iPhone auto-correct) should be an Olympic event.  Again: it is awesome to catch up on your e-mail quickly.  But is it ideal?  No.  Another example?  The calendar.  I love having my calendar with me wherever I go.  It is absolutely essential for me to manage my time day-to-day, especially with my wife at work and in class until 8pm 4 nights a week.  Without a calendar, I wouldn’t know where I needed to go, and when, on any given day.  I couldn’t plan dinner, let alone remember which kid had to go to which Girl Scout meeting and when.  But entering new events into the calendar, while convenient, is a total pain in the ass.  Again, lots of two-finger typing, annoying auto-correct, and scrolling all over the place.  Essential feature, but hardly ideal.  Anyone that has used the Kindle iPhone app knows that, when reading a book on the iPhone, you can choose between micro-font that’s impossible to read without squinting and holding the phone 3 inches from your face, or a more reasonable font size and 20 words per page.  Nothing makes reading more pleasurable than having to turn to the next page every 3rd sentence.  Watching video is also great…if you’re out and about, or have a TV with an iPod dock.  But watching an entire movie on a 4″ screen?  Not exactly the ideal viewer experience.

So what about the Macbook?  It’s great.  It’s also big, unwieldy, heavy, uncomfortably hot, and has maybe 2 hours of battery life between charges when streaming video.  It’s fantastic to use when there’s a desk or a table to pop it on, and a power outlet nearby.  I do use it while watching TV sometimes, but for all of the aforementioned reasons, it’s not ideal for simple, easy, around the home use.

That’s where the iPad comes in.  It’s a tablet, so there is no unbalanced, folding LCD screen and keyboard to manage.  I’m guessing it’s a cooler than the Macbook, which may be a moot point, because it’s small and light enough to hold in your hand without needing to rest it on your lap.  The screen has plenty of real estate, making web surfing, e-mail, and calendar management a lot more user friendly.  Full touch screen controls make scrolling, and navigating easier than the tiny iPhone and the Macbook’s touchpad.   It would be hard to argue that the larger screen isn’t much better than the iPhone for reading books and watching videos.  Being able to use all of the iPhone apps you purchased?  Great.  Sure, some of them don’t work very well on the larger iPad, but who can argue with backwards compatibility and portability as though it’s a bad thing?  Is the fact that the Nintendo Wii plays GameCube games a bad thing?  Obviously not.

I love my iPhone.  I love my Macbook.  But I’d be lying if I didn’t have the thought many times over the last year or two that, while they are great, they are not perfect for a lot of things.  I can very easily see the iPad filling that niche in between.  It’s small and light enough to carry around the house, and keep nearby when I’m watching TV or whatever.  It’s far more ideal for reading and watching portable video.  And the price is hard to argue with.  The 64GB model costs about the same as an iPhone 3GS without a 2 year AT&T plan.   Not to mention the fact that there are literally billions of people that don’t own an iPhone or a Macbook.  I see no fault in Apple marketing a device at them.

I’m hardly an Apple zombie, but I find the iPad to be a neat little gadget that will be fun and useful to have nearby while I’m puttering around the house.  It seems to me that what a lot of people wanted, was a full tablet version of the Macbook.  I’d like to see one of those, too.  But if/when Apple launches such a device, I doubt we can expect it to cost $500.  In the mean time, the animosity directed towards the iPad completely mystifies me.  You either see how such a device would be useful, or you don’t.  Feeling the need to attack the company because they didn’t offer a product that you want right now seems a little odd.  Maybe it’s just me.

Good afternoon everyone.

Just letting you know about a few minor tweaks to the site. We have removed the links section over there on the right sidebar, and put in two new links to follow Towne Pub on Twitter and to become a fan of the new Towne Pub Facebook page.

We added a link to the menu bar at the top of the page to easily get to the latest strip without having to dig for a link in one of the posts.

Under each post and on each page you will find a Share This button to share content on sites like Twitter, Facebook, Email, Digg, Delicious, and so on.

Our resident writer and artist is having issues with the latest strip. At 10:31am he tells me that he finally decided that the strip kicks hiney.

At 10:36am, he comments on his post saying that it is not great and that a new version might go up.

What say you?


The pictures to the left of the post there are small parts of other strips. On the old, non-WordPress site, you could click on the images to see what strip they were from. Now you can again!

I just fixed up the DB (read, HACKED) and wrote (read, mangled) some PHP to make it happen.

If you were ever wondering why there was a giant Volton-looking dog robot that showed up here every once and awhile, click away and you can find out.

I also added two new portraits from two of the new strips.

Have a great weekend. If you see Bob, tell him to put down Mass Effect 2, and get inking!

We here at the Ye Olde Towne Pub Institute for Perfection understand that navigation of the strip archives is a little odd at the moment.  If you click on the most recent page of the Reboot to the Head saga, page 4, and then hit the button below the strip to move to the previous page, you will not find page 3, but instead a silly, homicidal, radioactive squirrel that I drew on a lark as part of Tuesday’s sketch.  This certainly makes trying to reread the first few pages of the new story arc a bit uneven.

Dave assures me that the problem is correctable, and he’ll get to it when he can.  As it turns out, he’s actually working at work today.  Or something.  So he can’t get to it right this second, which he would, if he wasn’t a selfish, cold hearted bastard.  Which he is.

In the mean time, you can view individual storylines without the clutter by clicking on the “Categories” shortcuts on the lower part of the left sidebar.  For example, clicking on the Reboot to the Head option on the sidebar will navigate to a new page that shows only the first four pages of Reboot, with the newest page on top.  You can use this, along with your browser’s handy dandy “back” button, to navigate from page to page.  Yes, it’s clunky, but it’s also only temporary.  Because, again, Dave’s fault.  The end.

Happy Today to you all.

We just made a couple changes which will fix a few broken things around here.

First, the associated Comic posts will show up here on the main page, so yay for that. No more double posting

Second, the archives are fixed now too. Feel free to go check out the Classic Towne Pub and the One Shots!

Come back on Friday for another new strip!