Game of the Week: Mass Effect 3
What is human? It's a question that was beloved of dear old Phil Dick, and it's one that underpins Quantic Dream's animated short Kara, the PS3-powered tech demo that stopped GDC in its tracks earlier this week.
It tells an arresting story, and no matter where you stand on David Cage's melodramatic style of writing, it's hard to deny that on this futuristic factory line a certain humanity is captured, lending it a resonance that few other games care to replicate.
Whenever Quantic Dream's next game does eventually rear its head, here's hoping that humanity takes centre stage once again, as if there's one thing that gaming lacks right now it's the kind of strong, human drama that could help elevate the medium from its wearying teen fixations.
Ubisoft's I Am Alive has a fair crack at bringing a human aspect to what's fast becoming the setting du jour, the gritty apocalypse (I've lost count of how many presentations I've been in where I'm told the main inspiration is The Road. Is Cormac McCarthy this year's zombies?). That it makes such a tired setting feel so fresh, and that it relegates its own troubled development history to a mere footnote, is down to a sharp focus on the vulnerability of one man, and a canny handle on how real people will react when faced with catastrophe.
"Everything isn't going to be OK," wrote Tom. "The last bits of humanity are pretty much going to hell all around you and you're just a guy with a couple of bottles of water and an empty gun. Maybe you will escape with your dignity and integrity, but you probably won't. You and the game know it. It's not a new message, but I Am Alive delivers it as well as anyone ever has in a game."
A small victory for originality, then, and a game that's not afraid to give you a gun, a single bullet and four enemies to dispose of, leaving you to solve its gruesome puzzle. It's refreshingly thoughtful action. Not that there's anything particularly wrong with high-paced shooting and low-pitched shouting when it's done well, as this week's Unit 13 proved. "Where does the character of a game reside?" asked Christian in his review of Zipper's taut tactical shooter for the Vita.
"If it's in the art and the scene-setting, then Unit 13's a bit of a non-starter. If character's found in the feel of a game, though - in the tone of an encounter, the weight of a weapon and the thrill of a downed foe - then Sony's latest isn't doing too badly at all."
If Unit 13's lacking in character, then Street Fighter x Tekken is positively overflowing in it. It's not just thanks to its fan-boy sating roster that brings two of the fighting genre's heavyweights together - it's in the boisterous character of producer Yoshi Ono, the energetic and endearingly childish saviour of Street Fighter who's now somehow managed to get two opposing play styles to mesh seamlessly together.
"In this meeting, we find a marriage that not only works - it transforms and inspires," said Simon. "Capcom is often charged with failing to substantially innovate in its iterative fighting games. Street Fighter x Tekken is a sucker-punch to the stomach of that accusation, revealing a design team drunk on ideas."
Capcom's other release this week - and another example of the kind of drunken inventiveness that defined the Osaka outfit during the heady days of the Capcom Five - is Asura's Wrath, the (barely) playable anime getting a belated release this week.
It raises the old argument of what is and what isn't a game - an argument that Rich Stanton goes some way to putting to bed elsewhere on the site this morning, and one that Asura's does a decent enough job of proving entirely moot. As a brawler it's pitifully thin, but as an experience there's nothing quite like it.
Mass Effect 3
It's the end of the journey, and what a mightily ambitious one it's been. BioWare has allowed its players to weave an intricate web since it launched its space opera in 2007, and Mass Effect 3's own epic task is to untangle each thread as it works towards its rousing finale.
But for a game that's about human drama (and Asari, Krogan and Turian drama, too) - and from a studio whose foundations are built upon character interaction - Mass Effect 3, like its predecessors, can feel a little flat in its exchanges. Often it feels as if I'm talking to a flow chart; the threads of BioWare's web shine through and threaten to obscure the apocalyptic drama that propels this grand finale. But, as ever, I've become ensnared by Shepard's adventure, for no matter how soggy its writing is, it's my drama, chiselled out by my decisions. The illusion of choice has never been stronger than here.
And to get bogged down in Mass Effect 3's shortcomings is to lose sight of the bigger picture. "As with any game that dares to be ambitious, deconstruct Mass Effect 3 into its constituent parts and of course there are flaws," Dan acknowledged as he doled out top marks, "but taken as a whole this is arguably the first truly modern blockbuster, a game that transcends the genre boundaries of old and takes what it needs from across the gaming spectrum in order to finish its story in the most compelling, thrilling, heart-breaking way possible. Few gaming sagas come to a definitive close, but this one signs off in breathtaking style."