Back in the day, graphical fidelity on PCs was not really up to rendering 3D environments within simulations. The best they could do back in the mid-90s was some polygons stacked together to make landscapes to fly over in jet simulators. However, clever folks at studios like Apogee and id Software could fool the eye with what was called “2-and-a-half D” to make corridors and courtyards seem like 3D environments. They then filled those corridors and courtyards with squishy Nazis and demons for us to shoot at in games like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom respectively. The popularity of first-person shooters exploded, with follow-ups including the medieval-themed Heretic and Hexen and Duke Nukem 3D, back when Duke was still actually kind of funny.
This was long before concepts like “modern military” and “cover-based” would come to dominate the shooter scene. This was before shooters slowed down, when frenetic energy and sudden, panicked 180 swings with a rocket launcher was rewarded with gibbets of enemies and a slew of points instead of some distant would-be teammate calling you something offensive. Some shooters have tried to recapture this feeling – Painkiller springs to mind immediately – but to really come to grips with this difference in gaming, you have to go back to the classics, and that’s exactly what some studios have done.
I’m going to do full reviews of both Rise of the Triad and Shadow Warrior‘s remakes. I know they came out last year, and I know others have covered them. But I want more people to check them out. I want folks to realize that this sort of shooter can be a ton of fun, and you don’t need remote-control drone strikes, glitzy latest-console-generation graphics, or half-baked invasion-of-America-because-they’re-jealous-of-our-freedoms conspiracy theories to justify that fun. And I want to convey more fully the impression I get from playing these games.
And that impression is, Holy shit this is fun as hell!
Games are about having fun. They’re about distracting us from chores and deadlines and every other actual stressor in life. I may enjoy a relaxing round of daily quests or dungeon-delving in World of Warcraft, or a thought-provoking intense game of Hearthstone, but sometimes I just want to blow something the fuck up. I want the thrill of fully automatic weapons, the visceral appeal of a well-timed sword strike, the inherent cool factor of heat-seeking missiles fired from the hip, and a commanding officer I want to pound into oblivion for being a bit of a twat. These games fulfill those urges, and in ways that won’t get me arrested. You should check them out.
I’ll go into more detail in the weeks ahead. I do need to talk about boring stuff like premises, plots, characters, all of that stuff. It’s what I do, after all. But for now: Holy shit they remade Shadow Warrior and Rise of the goddamn Triad and they look great and I’m laughing and it’s fast and fun and OH CRAP NOT-NAZIS ARE SHOOTING AT ME AAAAAAAAAAH
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
It’s been a while since I’ve played Tribes: Ascend. While I still think the skiing movement mechanic and the unique weapons make it fun in the middle of the game, some of the periphery aspects of the game and its business model left me feeling sour. It’s hard to stay invested in a game with ongoing development when you get the impression that the dev team cares more about producing super-powered weapons for an initial rush of cash than they do fixing existing problems or heeding feedback from the community. League of Legends occasionally has this problem as well from time to time, and while Planetside 2 can also feel like the devs have gone too far one way or another, I just can’t stay mad at it.
I tried a bit of the original Planetside back during my World of Warcraft days. A MMO shooter seemed like an innovative idea. Shooters tend to be at their most chaotic and unpredictable (which leads to fun times) when games and servers are full. Most of them limit the size of their games, with something like 16 players to a team. That’s one of the main things that sets Planetside 2 apart: its scale. Instead of 16 players to a side, engagements can involve any number of players, and I’ve seen battles take place with hundreds of players swarming around a base while hundreds more rush about defending it. There are no NPCs or boss monsters or dungeons: all of the conflict is generated by players, vying for control of resources on a distant world.
It would be very difficult to get any positive results without some organization, which leads me to the second point in Planetside 2‘s favor: the outfit. Like guilds in other MMOs, an outfit makes a huge difference in yielding enjoyment from the game. While there is a proximity voice chat feature in the game, I’ve found it’s a great deal better to find an outfit that has its own voice solution, like Mumble or Ventrilo, to facilitate communication and organization. You can enjoy the game as a lone soldier following no orders but his or her own, but this can also be a lonely and confusing experience. In an outfit, you know where to go, can communicate what you need to the team or offer contributions of your own, and if the outfit is right, you can leave proximity voice for things like a teammate broadcasting music to put you in the right mood.
Finally, Planetside 2 puts an emphasis on combined arms, from foot soldiers with various weapons to ground vehicles in multiple roles to aircraft. And all of them can be customized with weapon loadouts, perks, armor options, even camouflage and vanity items. This is the part that appeals to the theorycrafting portion of my brain. I find myself asking many questions as I pore over the options available to my classes. What’s the best way to dish out a ton of damage as Heavy Assault? Is the Infiltrator better as a close-quarters stealth assassin with a suppressed SMG, or a long-range sniper with the best scope? How can my Engineer best protect the Sunderer that supports our advance? So on and so forth.
I think it’s these factors combined that keep bringing me back into Planetside 2. Sony Online Entertainment may not always strike the right balance, but with the addition of things like the Engineer’s AV turret and the upcoming VR trainer for pilots, they seem to be moving in the right direction, which is more than I can say for some other developers. They’ve put together a game that makes you feel like you’re part of something large and expansive, and for my part, makes me want to experience more of it. I want to keep earning certifications that yield more interesting loadouts, improve my skill at flying so I can escort our dropships or pilot one of my own, and I definitely don’t want to miss the next time the outfit advances down a hillside, firing our plasma rifles as a teammate plays “Disco Inferno” over proximity.
If you look up the definition of the word “game”, you will find words like “amusement” and “fun” used to describe it. And video games, by and large, are designed to be just that: fun amusements. But as technology has progressed and the tools used by developers have become more advanced, the capacity for video games to tell stories that give context to the fun continues to grow. And just like with any other medium for storytelling, occasionally a game will come along that eschews the typical through-line of established narratives and try to not only tell a story, but tell us something about ourselves and the world in which we live. Enter Yager Development’s Spec Ops: The Line.
In modern-day Dubai, nearly cataclysmic sandstorms have battered the city. A United States army battalion, the “Damned” 33rd under command of one Colonel Konrad, moved in to help evacuate civilians from the are before it’s swallowed by the desert. After a long silence, a distress signal was detected. Captain Walker of Delta Force and his two squadmates are sent into the area to locate survivors and report back with their status. When they arrive, they find evidence that something has gone wrong within the city. Given his personal history with Konrad, Walker decides to try and find some answers.
The game is a third-person shooter, reminiscent of games like Mass Effect, in which you and two AI partners grab cover where you can and shoot from behind it. Ammunition is scarce in this bleak urban environment devastated by the desert, so you must scavenge what you can from the fallen. There are a variety of weapons, many of which feel somewhat situational, but good luck trying to determine if the P90 or the shotgun is a better choice in the middle of a firefight. The gameplay, while not innovative or a stand-out, is competent and functional, and I am of the opinion that it is the least important aspect of Spec Ops. I will go so far as to say that any review that focused on the gameplay has missed the point of the game entirely.
Much of the scenery is gorgeous in its bleakness.
No, the point of the game is to tell Walker’s story, and as it unfolds, we discover that Walker’s story is one of eroding character, the horrors of war, and perhaps even madness. Rather than constrain this narrative to cut scenes, however, much of the story’s weight and message are in the actions the player can take. Does Walker shoot his foes and move on, or does he take the time to execute them as they lay on the ground, holding their wounds and bleeding out, moaning or gurgling or crying out for mercy? While video game violence is by no means realistic, the executions are somewhat brutal, and they always yield additional ammo – in essence, the game rewards you for being as inhumane as possible to your fellow man.
This is not done with any amount of cheek or humor, though. The actions you take as Walker, or that Walker takes while under your control, are presented strictly as they are, leaving you as the player to make your own judgments as to the necessity of the brutality and the state of Walker’s mind. Walker has multiple opportunities to stop in his pursuit of Konrad and ‘the truth’, ones his squadmates point out as the situation develops, but the more horrors Walker is exposed to, the more dedicated he becomes to finding Konrad. And the further he goes to achieve that goal, the more and more he becomes divorced from the professional solider with whom we’re introduced in the beginning. Say what you like about Nolan North: the transformation in Walker’s words and mannerisms is so potent thanks in no small part to the voice work. The visceral immediacy of modern warfare coupled with Walker’s fanatical pursuit of his quest creates an extremely tight and effective story, albeit not an entirely fun one, and also drives to the heart of a matter beyond the plight of pixelated soldiers.
How many of these candles are lives you’ve taken?
The depiction of modern warfare in video games is one of those things that is often seen or described as glamorized. Some even go so far as to say that such games promote violence. While evidence is threadbare at best when it comes to video games inspiring troubled young people to take up arms, the plethora of games in which heroic soldiers (usually Americans) gun down diabolical foreigners in the name of freedom with attractive and satisfying hardware flood the market and always sell. At first, it seems like Spec Ops is just another one of those paranoid gun-wank fantasy trips, but within the first few minutes the tissue-thin facade of its Modern Warfare and Medal of Honor brethren falls away to reveal a stark reflection of those games and their players. There is one sequence, in particular, where Walker and the player assume your usual perspective on a tool of destruction: from above, in monochrome, on a small military device as you guide projectiles of death. And after all of the explosions and multiple-kill combos and the eagerness of the programmed device, you and Walker must slowly move through the devastation you just caused. I won’t say too much more on the sequence, other than doing so in the way Spec Ops does was a bold choice that makes the glorification of such things in other games seem downright creepy by comparison.
Art, from tragic portraits to satirical plays, has always been in a position to, as Hamlet put it, “to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Spec Ops has the bravery to be unflinching in its depiction of a soldier slowly coming undone due to his own inability to deal with the issues before him in any way but violence, and even extends that towards the player to a degree. This is a game that a player is not entirely guaranteed to enjoy; however, it is also a game that a player is unlikely to ever forget, not because the gameplay is bad or the characters ridiculous, but because it is designed to plunge you into the abyss of the human heart at its darkest, and make you stare at what lurks there whether you want to or not.
Best not to think about that man’s family, right? Do you think they’ll miss him?
I’m skipping the usual “stuff I liked/disliked” portion and going straight to the bottom line, here. There are games that come along that are landmarks in their field. Like Myst for adventure games, StarCraft for real-time strategy, and Silent Hill 2 for horror, Spec Ops: The Line is perhaps one of the most important games I’ve ever played. It breaks from traditional mores of wrapping some spoon-shallow paranoid fantasy around what is essentially the means for online gamers to verbally abuse one another to the staccato background noise of simulated gunfire, and shines a bright and brutal light on the sort of people who enjoy engaging in said abuse. I highly recommend the game for anyone who appreciates storytelling in games, is sickened by modern military shooters, or thinks games are nothing more than passing fancy amusements for the intellectually stunted. It is dark, it is uncompromising, it is chilling, and it is one of the most emotionally fulfilling gaming experiences I have ever had.