Tag: BioShock

2013: The Best

Courtesy Irrational Games

This is the season for Top 5 or Top 10 lists. Games or films or books or toys – people like to rank what was best for the year, and find out how those ranking stack up against others.

You may have noticed that I’m not really doing that. It’s hard to pick just one thing from among the various pools of entertainment into which I dip, but things I’m still thinking about, and enjoying thinking about, in this late part of the year are definitely worth discussing, if not mentioning. So, without further ado, here are the best entertainment experiences I had in 2013.

Best Video Game – Bioshock Infinite

I want to mention Hearthstone at least in passing. Blizzard’s computerized CCG is an absolute blast and challenge to play, with a surprising amount of depth and bursting with variety. The monetization system makes a great deal of sense, and it’s one I don’t mind at all. However, as much as I enjoy playing it, it wasn’t the best game I’ve played that came out in 2013. That honor goes to Bioshock Infinite.

While the combat isn’t necessarily ground-breaking, which can be a major blow to a first-person shooter, the story and its presentation are what keep this game in my mind long months after its release. The fact that the story is less about gritty, hard-boiled everyman Booker DeWitt and more about Elizabeth and her plight is, to me, a sign that storytelling in games is moving in the right direction. The ‘Burial At Sea’ DLC reinforced this, and with the news that we will, in fact, play as Elizabeth soon, I’m quite curious to see how 2014 treats the franchise.

I played a lot of great games from 2012 this year – Journey, Spec Ops: The Line, The Walking Dead – but among the games that came out in 2013 that I actually played, Bioshock Infinite takes the prize.

Best Board Game – Archipelago

2013 was the year I got back into board gaming in a big way. I started building my own collection, I had design ideas and gave feedback to others, and I continue to espouse that there’s more to board games than staid, stale standbys like Monopoly, Clue, and Risk. I’ve played a lot of games with hidden roles (Avalon, Coup, Battlestar Galactica) and several cooperative games (Pandemic, Elder Sign, Escape: The Curse of the Temple), but one game that’s stood out in my mind since I started this endeavour is Christophe Boelinger’s Archipelago.

The best way I can describe Archipelago is “Settlers of Catan meets Twilight Imperium where everyone sort of works together but not really”. I love its expanding scope and constant need for players to cooperate to keep ahead of a loss, but also allows subtle plays through worker placement mechanics and hidden objectives. Its gameplay is much deeper and less random than Settlers, and it doesn’t take anywhere near as long to play as Twilight Imperium. As much as I adore a deep and rich space opera universe in which I can take an active role and vie with other players for dominance through diplomacy, trade, and treachery as well as straight-up space combat, I also like to play a game that takes less than an entire day. Archipelago hits all of the right notes in just about perfect harmony, and on top of not being able to recommend it highly enough, it’s the best board game I’ve played in 2013.

Best Book – The Fault In Our Stars

Okay, this is where I cheat again. The Fault In Our Stars was published in 2012. And while I’ve read quite a few excellent books – and one particularly shitty one – the one that had the most profound effect on me was John Green’s New York Times bestseller. In world where a lot of people tend to look towards young adult works with skepticism or even open content, here’s an example of dramatic, involving, romantic young adult fiction done absolutely right.

Green paces his story just right, fleshes out realistic and endearing characters, and invokes our sympathy and support without pandering, writing down to his audience, or relying on cheap tricks or narrative slight of hand. It’s a fantastic read and extremely well-written. I feel like I’m going to be repeating my review of the book a great deal, so here’s a link to that. And here’s a link to buy the book on Amazon.

Best Film – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Apparently, 2013 was saving the best for last. None of the films I’ve seen this year were truly awful (again, I avoided certain ones deliberately), there were only a couple of disappointments, a few surprises, but for the most part, I’d say the movies of the year were “good, but not fantastic.” I like that I’m seeing more character-focused storytelling, more investment in world-building, and comic relief that doesn’t feel too forced. However, the experience in cinemas that excited me the most, involved me the most, and blew me away the most was definitely The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

There’s so much I like about this film. Thorin as a noble, dignified dwarf reminds me of why I like them so much in Middle-Earth, in Dragon Age, and even in World of Warcraft. Bilbo Baggins is shown truly coming into his own and still employing his brain and wits as much as his sword. Gandalf and Radagast working together always makes me smile. The world feels expanded and deepend with stops like Beorn’s house and Laketown. And Smaug. Smaug. I really don’t have to say anything else, do I? It’s my movie of the year and I’m really looking forward to seeing it again.

There you have it! 2013, all wrapped up. I’m interested to see what the year ahead brings, in many ways. I hope you all have had a safe, warm, and rewarding holiday, and are ready to ring in the new year. I know I am.

DLC Review: Burial At Sea

Ken Levine’s games have taken us into the cold darkness of deep spaces, the unplumbed depths of the ocean, and into a variety of parallel dimensions. But unless you count the sequel we don’t talk about, fans of BioShock have be waiting for the game or experience that takes them to a very specific place: back to Rapture. Thankfully, Irrational Games isn’t done with the engine they used for BioShock: Infinite, and its first story DLC, Burial at Sea, invites players back beneath the waves to the city of Andrew Ryan’s dreams.

Courtesy Irrational Games

In that city, we find Booker DeWitt working as a private investigator. If you didn’t know the story was happening in Rapture, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a potboiler noir opening: the smokey interior, hazy light coming through venetian blinds, the leggy dame walking in with a mysterious job. The dame in question, however, turns out to be Elizabeth, and she hires DeWitt to find a young girl named Sally, lost somewhere in Rapture. Booker accepts for personal reasons, and the pair step into Rapture proper, with little to go on and plenty of danger ahead.

Since it’s DLC, the systems of Burial at Sea have not changed in leaps and bounds since Booker went to Columbia. Still, it’s always nice to play a shooter that lets you carry more than two weapons. Even Elizabeth serves a similar purpose in combat, opening rifts that give Booker access to supplies when she isn’t finding things laying around. However, for me at least, BioShock in general and Infinite in particular has never really been about the combat. The Plasmids/Tonics are neat, to be sure, and Infinite‘s Skyhook changes things up from normal shooters, but for the most part, I’m in Rapture for the story.

For this particular story, Booker and Elizabeth are walking around Rapture before the fall. People are wandering around having polite conversation, the surroundings are clean and well-lit, and only occasionally do you see someone making excessive use of Plasmids. Granted, after a couple hours of wandering around and encountering some old and new faces around Rapture, the scene shifts to dark spaces full of maniacs more familiar to BioShock fans, but the depiction of Rapture as a living, breathing city rather than a hollowed-out corpse of its former self is both fascinating and engrossing. While it’s unfortunate that there really isn’t anything new character-wise in this DLC, if you liked Booker and Elizabeth’s exchanges in Columbia, you’ll be just fine with how they get along in Rapture. Finally, the story’s mystery does keep you guessing, and the ending of Episode 1 delivers a pretty effective emotional gut-punch you may not see coming.

Burial at Sea does an excellent job of coupling the systems and characters of BioShock Infinite with the rich, occasionally terrifying underwater world of its predecessor. Episode 1 is out now on the Steam store, or your console venue of choice, with Episode 2 not far off. I do recommend it, even if its price is a bit steep for the overall amount of content it delivers.

Levine’s Infinite Fancy

Courtesy Irrational Games

For years, Ken Levine has been keeping gamers on their toes. System Shock 2 built on player expectations of both shooting games and the original System Shock. BioShock reminded modern audiences that action and terror could be balanced well and coupled with good storytelling and multi-dimensional, memorable characters. And now, BioShock Infinite has delivered one of the best gaming sucker-punches since Spec Ops: The Line, though he did so at the very end of his game with what has been called a bit of an exposition dump. Given the nature of the dialog, and the method of it’s presentation, one might even go so far as to say Levine a pretentious dick for doing what he did… and you know what? That’s okay.

Spec Ops was also a bit pretentious. Braid, Journey, Bastion… all of these games use their gameplay to move the story forward and play on themes that are above and beyond the scope of many of their contemporaries. They work on higher levels, and sometimes multiple levels. The pretense upon which such games work (hence the word ‘pretentious’) is that their story is just as important as the accuracy with which the player can shoot dudes, or the level of challenge in their puzzles. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, I’d argue that in terms of game development and presentation, Ken Levine is an example of someone doing everything right.

BioShock Infinite may not be a perfect game, and it may be flawed, but what it does is done so well it’s likely to be towards the top of many Game of the Year lists. Like its true predecessors, it builds on player expectations before yanking the rug out from under them. BioShock parsed past the linear progression of many other shooters (even some that came after it) and showed just how artificial that sort of pacing could be by making the player’s character a literal pawn in somebody else’s game. Very few of the choices the player makes in that game are their own; outside of weapon and plasmid selection, the phrase ‘would you kindly’ rips any agency out of the player’s hands and pushes them towards the game’s conclusion. While there’s nothing wrong with linearity in games, especially ones so heavily concerned with story, I always got the impression that Levine was demonstrating how important choice and consequence truly are by exposing this sort of railroading. In a way, this has always been his crux: make the wrong choices in System Shock 2 and it becomes impossible to complete, “A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys” in BioShock, and in BioShock Infinite we see the choices made by both Booker DeWitt, and especially Elizabeth, changing the world around them.

A choice made by Booker alters things forever, and he may be the player’s surrogate in the world of Columbia, but I don’t think the game is his story. The first thirty minutes or so of BioShock Infinite involves you exploring Columbia once you arrive and its exposure for what it is beneath the bright, idealized facade. The story proper, for me, didn’t really kick in until our first conversation with Elizabeth. Not only is she a fascinating and well-rounded character, her presence draws out more development for Booker, she has a direct effect on the world both during the shooting and as part of the narrative moving forward, and the story literally would not be possible without her. As much as ‘focus testing’ showed that target audiences wanted Booker on the cover of the game, it was clear to me that Elizabeth is the true protagonist of BioShock Infinite, the one who makes the more difficult choices and truly grows as a person, coming into the full realization of her powers and potential. While Booker does face truths about himself and comes to terms with his past, his arc is simply not as interesting as Elizabeth’s, and the fact that Levine was able to get this story into the hands of those who did not expect it just tickles me.

I think there are a lot of game designers out there who really want to make a difference. They see the state of gaming and interactive storytelling, and they want to change things for the better. It’s a little fanciful to think it can be done, but Ken Levine has shown one of the ways you do that. I called Bioshock Infinite a sucker punch because the nature of its story, the degree to which we care about Elizabeth, and the final revelatory walk through the many worlds and lighthouses are all things most gamers did not expect. Like his other games, this is one that bears re-playing, and enjoying all over again, and not just for the challenges of the gameplay or the unlocking of achievements. Ken Levine’s ideas on how to tell stories in games and how that can change things may be fanciful – but it also works.

Game Review: BioShock Infinite

It’s worth noting that BioShock was one of the very first video games I reviewed. It’s clear that in those days I was still learning the ropes and refining opinions, however, as my review of BioShock 2 ended up being overly generous. If I had the inclination, I would go back to the entry and edit in a couple more things that I’ve realized I didn’t like, but that’s old ground that’s been tread several times. Let’s just leave it at this: until now, BioShock did not have a worthy sequel. It had a map pack and some skins and a multiplayer mode, bundled and sold as a game. BioShock Infinite is the actual sequel to the first BioShock game, and it has a lot to live up to. It’s not every day that a gaming franchise gets a saving throw.

Courtesy Irrational Games

The year is 1912, and we find ourselves portraying hard-bitten private detective Booker DeWitt. A veteran of the infamous 7th cavalry and a former Pinkerton agent, Booker’s a little down on his luck, having racked up some debts from gambling. He is given a mysterious offer: “Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.” The girl, according to the box on his lap as he is taken to the lighthouse, is Elizabeth, a tower-bound prisoner in the airborne city-state of Columbia. At first, the city seems peaceful and prosperous, even if the citizens worshiping the founding fathers of the United States is a bit off-putting. Soon, however, DeWitt is on the run from the constabulary, who are admonished by their leader and patron saint, Z.H. Comstock or “the Prophet”, to destroy the “False Shepherd” DeWitt before he can lead “the Lamb,” Elizabeth, astray.

The games of Ken Levine have always had evocative environments, and BioShock Infinite is no exception. Columbia joins the underwater metropolis of Rapture and the corridors of the Von Braun in creating a living, breathing place with its own unique atmosphere. However, instead of the harrowing sci-fi horror of the first game or the objectivist utopia gone wrong of the second, BioShock Infinite turns a glass on history rather than literature or a genre. Specifically, Columbia invokes the so-called American exceptionalism of the turn of the 20th century. Much like the pundits of FOX News and other conservatives, the people of this time believed that they were the rightful heirs of a nation of immigrants and disparate peoples, which of course meant it was unfit for immigrants and disparate peoples. To the game’s credit, things like jingoism, racism, and sexism are handled in a largely subtle fashion, simply presented as they were or would have been in 1912 rather than dwelling on our modern views on the matter, and does not allow any pontification get in the way of the story of Booker and Elizabeth.

Courtesy Irrational Games
“Um… Miss? I really hope that book isn’t loaded…”

Perhaps the strongest part of the game is that story, which I will not spoil here. There was some controversy before the game’s release concerning the decision to put Booker front and center instead of Elizabeth, and now that I’ve played it, I can say that I agree with those who think Elizabeth deserves her place on the front cover. She’s a well-rounded, interesting, strong, and engaging character. It was conjectured by some that the bulk of the game consisting of a glorified escort quest would make the game dull or uninteresting. As much as there are some flaws in the gameplay, Elizabeth’s role is not one of them. Not only is her ability to open rifts between parallel universes crucial to the plot, she can assist in combat by pulling in cover, turrets, and items when you find the right rift. In addition, she will occasionally find money, health, ammunition, or Salt (which powers your Plasmids Vigors) in the middle of a firefight. Finally, she will point out if some enemies have specific weapons so you can prioritize. Outside of combat, as you explore Columbia, Elizabeth and Booker will converse, banter, and even argue. Their conversations feel natural and spontaneous for the most part, which is a credit to the writers and voice actors. I often found myself frustrated with a shooting section because I wanted to spend more time with these two rather than shooting at dudes.

BioShock Infinite is not perfect, and its biggest flaw may be the shooting at the core of the game. While the guns function well, there’s very little skill involved in it. Much like its previous games, this BioShock focuses less on the building of your character’s abilities and more on what the character does between combat sequences. One of the things that really bothered me is that Booker is limited to two guns, while all eight Vigors are always available once discovered. There aren’t that many tactical decisions to make, and between the pushover human enemies to the Handyman encounters that make the Big Daddies look like rather friendly folks, not a great deal of variety. It doesn’t completely derail things, and the Skyhook’s ability to zip you around the gallery rather than confining you to cover helps quite a bit, but it does keep BioShock Infinite from reaching its full potential as a gaming experience. As good as the story is, the player’s interaction with it is somewhat minimal. No significant decisions are made, and the outcome of the game cannot be changed. As worthy as the destination is of the journey, I feel like an opportunity was missed in favor of rendering the Automated Patriots, which are probably the most fun enemies to fight. But I digress.

Courtesy Irrational Games
Gives new meaning to the term “rail shooter”.

Stuff I Liked: The weapons had a good, turn-of-the-century look and feel about them. I like that audio logs, environmental messages on the walls, and open non-linear level design remain a part of this gaming series. The presentation of the Vigors is very good. The combat can be satisfying at times, especially when the Skyhook gets involved, but…
Stuff I Didn’t Like: I felt hamstrung because I was limited to two weapons. There are portions later in the game where it felt like an incredible liability. As good as the story was, more could have been done to make the player feel included in the experience, rather than simply being an observer. That said…
Stuff I Loved: The story IS well-presented, paced decently, and ends in a very satisfactory manner. The character of Elizabeth is fantastic. Booker adds a great deal of personality by not being a silent protagonist. I adore the British twins. The music is great, the graphics are beautiful, and the city of Columbia invokes curiosity and fascination as you explore.

Bottom Line: Despite its flaws, BioShock Infinite is an extremely good game. Few games present their stories with this much humanity, pathos, and personality. The world is very well-realized and encourages you to spend time there. While the combat isn’t great, it does have some interesting bits to offer, and it provides the promise of a universe where BioShock 2 never existed.

Early Adoption, Preorders, and the PS4

Courtesy The Escapist
Courtesy The Escapist

Last night saw the big announcement and unveiling of Sony’s next generation of console, the PlayStation 4. Actually, ‘unveiling’ is a misnomer, as the console itself was a no-show. The crowd in the room and people who managed to watch the stream got a whole bunch of specs for the new device, a look at its controller, and previews of its launch titles, including a new Killzone, a racing game, and Diablo III, among others. We know it will be available for sale by the end of this year, and we know its price point will be between $429 and $529 in US currency.

Now, I am not a games journalist. I don’t have the experience or clout or wherewithal or following to adequately fill that role. Many people I admire professionally, and some I’ve met or know personally, already work very hard and often thanklessly to keep scrubs like me informed. So what follows is not so much an editorial spiel on last night’s presentation, but more a from-the-groundlings reaction to this and other recent stuff in the video games market.

To me, the hoopla over the PS4 is a lot of sound and fury signifying very little. Glimpses of the presentation left me unimpressed, and what visuals I saw looked more like a tiny step forward in graphical quality, rather than a giant leap. The integration of social media sharing and other features like friends being able to take control of your game if you let them just strikes me as somewhat gimmicky, and seems like an avenue for others to exploit the hardware. On the other hand, built-in streaming and recording are good things for folks looking to break out as pro gamers, or who just want to share their gaming experiences with others, without tying them to a PC.

It’s entirely possible that I’m somewhat biased. I’ve been building my own desktop PCs for a long time, and I’ve always done so with an eye on gaming hardware and ensuring I can play new releases for at least a few years. I have yet to build a hardcore gaming PC with dual graphics processors or liquid cooling or anything fancy like that, but this latest rig especially has been very good at putting console graphics to shame, for the most part. The PS4 does not look to be light-years ahead of what I already have under my desk, and what’s more, I have the sneaking suspicion that its new hardware and features may not work as smoothly on release day as they seemed to last night.

I only recently purchased a PS3, and it works well. It plays its games easily, and there are plenty to choose from. But this is years after its release. I did not pay the markup inevitable with a hot new product, I didn’t deal with early bugs or account hacks, and I have never felt comfortable buying something like a gaming console on the promise of what’s to come. I want to know what I’m investing in before I invest, which is why I watch MTG Salvation like a hawk whenever a new Magic set is announced. I’m sure some businesses are eager to capitalize on the early adoption dollar, but I’ve never seen the logic behind such behavior. This is especially true when it comes to video games, especially given what we’ve seen lately.

I was interested in Aliens: Colonial Marines, as a fan of the franchise and someone eager to see the days of shooters like Doom and Painkiller come roaring back to this generation of dull modern military “spunkgargleweewee” titles. But that interest has evaporated. Not only have the reviews of the game been abysmal from both professional critics and knee-jerk groundling gamers (like me!), but the demo that got everybody so hyped for the game turns out to have been entirely fabricated. And now, thousands if not millions of gamers are stuck with a game they pre-ordered that completely took them to the cleaners in promising something that it simply refused to deliver.

If I put in a pre-order for something, I want to have a decent idea of what to expect. I pre-ordered Cold Days on the merits of Jim Butcher’s previous work. I’ve put in to get boxes of Magic cards on the street date because I know what’ll be in the box, or at least what sort of mix there’s likely to be in the boosters. Video games, unfortunately, have neither the track record nor the transparency to give me the confidence I feel is required to justify a pre-order. I don’t care what DLC is on offer, I’m not as taken in as I once was by kitsch in the box, and I get suspicious when a game is hyped too much in the days leading up to release. There are games I’m interested that are coming out, to be certain, but with my age and awareness has come a growing sense of suspicion and cynicism when it comes to being sold such things. As hopeful as I am that BioShock Infinite will rock my world, the failures of BioShock 2 are enough to give me pause before clicking that ‘Pre-Order’ button on Amazon, to say nothing of what’s happened to Aliens fans and the broken promises of games like Duke Nukem Forever and Killzone 2.

The phrase caveat emptor has not gone anywhere, and it’s as true in the 21st century as it was back before the 1st. Know what you’re going to buy before you buy it, and take the time to ask serious questions about what you’re going to invest your time and hard-earned money into before handing it over to a third party who’s more interested in a fancier boat or hat than they are in delivering what they promise or ensuring you’re a satisfied customer. I’m not an early adopter, and I’ve stopped pre-ordering video games, because this sort of swindling and smoke-and-mirrors behavior has got to stop. And they only way we can really tell these people how we feel is with our wallets, by keeping them closed.

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