Archive for the ‘ Gaming ’ Category

Apex Predator

Bioshock is an exhausting universe. By the end of the first game, I was actually disturbed the brutal ways I killed splicers. Their constant wailing and sobbing and ranting had driven me out of my mind before I was halfway through the game. I came to love listening to them scream as they burned alive, these mewling psychopaths with their self-pitying, incoherent monologues. Revulsion had hardened into hatred and and then turned into sadism, which only served to deepen my revulsion.

Then there is the decay that surrounds you: the mouldering books, the shattered edifices, and the fetid bilge that has overrun every floor. Every splicer is a disfigured parody of a human. The general oiliness of the game engine and lighting effects, combined with the lurid art deco colors, creates a cloying sense of over-ripeness.

Eventually, it all just wears me down. I start trying to avoid encounters because the splicers have gotten inside my head and I just want things to be quiet for a bit. Besides which, Bioshock never lets me feel like I’m particularly strong or well-equipped. The controls have a slipperiness to them that makes it hard to use cover effectively, and most weapons are too inaccurate to be much good at long ranges. So Bioshock, and especially its sequel, is a game of close-range slugging matches that leave me depleted of ammunition, health, and energy. This is completely antithetical to my preferred style of play in an FPS. In general, I’m a tactician. I like to control the engagement from start to finish, and be able to stand the enemy off at a distance. If there’s going to be close quarters battle, it’s going to be on my terms: room-to-room fighting, done with grenades and shotguns.

Bioshock games make me feel more like a walking dreadnought, going broadside for broadside with psychopaths who don’t have the brains to take shelter. The strain and unpredictability of those engagements means I avoid them more than I should.

In Siren Alley, avoidance graduated to full-on paralysis. I was too low on ammunition and money to fight effectively. Every battle left me teetering on the brink of death. I was rapidly approaching a point where progress would be impossible.

The problem is that I was still thinking defensively, and as out of touch with the creative cruelty that powered me through Bioshock. I’d been clinging to my machine gun because it was comforting. But now, as I took stock of my options and surroundings, I realized that I was finally ready to turn the tables.

I had two great advantages. The first was the speargun, which is the only weapon in the game that never really runs out of ammo. Spears can always be recovered and they’re a perfect sniper’s weapon. The second advantage was the Enrage plasmid, which caused splicers to start attacking everything in sight. Including Big Daddies and the musclebound brute splicers.

This is where I finally started to get into Bioshock 2. The game’s systems started interacting in interesting ways. Using an ammunition saving weapon, I was able to stalk through Siren Alley and start racking up splicer kills, which allowed me to acquire more ammo and cash from my victims. The research camera, which lets you film hostiles in action so that you can learn more about them and unlock upgrades and bonuses, went into action alongside the enrage plasmid.

I started arranging little gladiator duels and filmed the results. Then, as the victorious splicer stood over his fallen enemies, I would reward him with a spear through the neck. In the meantime, the camera was making the splicers ever easier to for me to take down.

Since I needed to get hold of the Little Sisters and their Adam, I always made sure to enrage splicers in the vicinity of Big Daddies, and watched as the Big Daddies annihilated them. After the Big Daddy had been weakened by enough combat, I would open fire with my heaviest weapons and bring him down.

Brute splicers were a huge problem for me, since they’re as powerful as a Big Daddy and just about as tough. With them, I’d get the camera rolling, shadowbox them a little bit, and then put a Big Daddy between me and them. When the Brute charged, and he always would, the Big Daddy would go berserk, and an epic brawl would commence. They would just go on on each other with fists, drills, auto-turrets, rockets, rubble… Oh, the joy of watching my two most hated enemies devastating each other!

Over the course of about an hour or so of hunting, filming, and Adam-harvesting, I completely changed Bioshock 2. By the time I finished Siren Alley, I was a superhero, even capable of getting splicers to fight alongside me when I wanted them to. I tagged Father Wales, a viciously strong spider splicer, with the hypnotize plasmid and got him to demolish his own followers in his makeshift church. Then, when he ran out of followers to kill, I executed him.

Was the game broken, its balance destroyed by my employment of all these tools? Not at all. If the first half of the game was about struggling to get my bearings and survive, the second half of the game was about revenge and salvation. After Siren Alley, I was on a mission to save a little girl, and I was going to kill everything that got between me and that child. There was to be no more hiding.

Yes We Can… Get Minerva’s Den

I don’t know what made 2K decide to make the Minerva’s Den available to PC audiences after announcing that it would remain console only. Their community manager said that they listened to fan feedback and decided to reverse their decision. Nice to see the PC gaming community get a win like this. But really, it’s probably all because of me.

Back! Back, Foul Demon!

Last weekend, I had a burning desire to shoot some things. I mean, I wanted some aggressively stupid, smugly violent, thoroughly unredeemed murder to be happening on my television. So I journeyed forth from my apartment to the local GameStop, where I purchased Gears of War. I have always been curious about that series, but my lack of a 360 was always an insurmountable obstacle. There was a PC version, yes, but somehow I sensed something wrong with that concept. Gears was undeniably designed for the 360. To play it with a mouse and keyboard would be to miss the point.

Let me say right now that Gears actually surpasses any desire I might ever feel for the aggressively stupid and smugly violent. I know it’s an early-generation game, but its ugliness still boggles the mind. It’s world seems to have been conceived by some unholy combination of Albert Speer and Eli Roth, and the shooting actually seems to drag quite a bit. Far too many encounters degenerate to me sitting frozen in place, popping shots at enemies who are also frozen in place, trying to do the same to me.

That’s neither here nor there, though. Buying Gears of War at a GameStop in 2010 is an odd experience. The clerk looked positively stunned, and he cocked his head at me and asked, “Did you just get a 360 or something?”

“Yeah, finally got around to it. Trying to get caught up.”

Then the GameStop ritual began, the endless string of up-sells that makes each simple purchase a 5 minute transaction, while the line stretches out into the mall floor and parents finally give up and drag their children out of the closet-sized store.

I have often wondered, as I listen to clerk give the hard-sell to customers, how profoundly off-putting it is to have someone insist, wheedle, and cajole until you finally relent and subscribe to Game Informer. Sometimes they let you go in peace, but other times it’s like the clerks are on a mission to pack you off with a disc-warranty, a new predorder, a membership card, and a magazine subscription.

“C’mon, man, Game Informer will help you stay up to date so you know what’s coming out and what you need to get. C’mon, we both know you buy enough games to make this worth it.”

This time, however, I think I discovered the cross and holy water that stops the conscientious GameStop clerk in his tracks. As he started in on his pitch, I said, “Honestly, I don’t think any of that stuff would do me any good. I’m a PC gamer. I buy almost everything through Steam.”

“Oh,” the clerk said. “Steam, huh?” He admitted defeat and rang up my $7 purchase.

LEGO Universe FR

I’m doing another set of Field Reports for GamePro, this time on Netdevil’s LEGO Universe, an MMO built around the trappings of LEGO videogames.

I won’t deny this is a tricky assignment for me. MMO’s are notoriously hard to review, because the experience can change quite substantially as you put more time into them, and people have very different interactions with the community. Add to that the fact I’m considerably older than the kids LEGO Universe is aimed at, and you’ve got a challenging assignment.

LEGO Wizard sighting

This wizard gave me a quest to build a sprinkler. Epic loot, FTW!

That said, LEGO Universe didn’t impress me in my first week with it. I didn’t spend all that much time with it, but it didn’t really make me want to spend more. At one point, I was doing a quest to smash statues (oh, there’s some smashing in this game) and realized that my index finger was starting to hurt from all the clicking I was doing. No lie, the quest was about 20 minutes of furious, insane clicking, to the point it caused physical discomfort.

I should be back in several weeks with another FR from LEGO Universe. One thing I definitely need to spend a lot more time with is the building. I only fiddled with it a bit and didn’t much care for it, but I don’t know yet if that’s because I just haven’t mastered the interface. We’ll see, I guess. Plus, I need to close out some of the zones and see if anything new or exciting shakes loose, and play some more minigames. Basically, FR 2 will be me approaching LEGO Universe from another angle.

In the meantime, go have a gander at my first piece on LEGO Universe.

Discussing Extra Lives

Over at Gamers With Jobs, I write about my mixed feelings after finishing Extra Lives. One thing that I couldn’t work into the piece was that many of my problems with the book are effectively an occupational hazard. Bissell is writing for a more general audience, and he takes as his subject some populer, widely-discussed games. All well and good, but it does mean that someone who has spent years reading detailed dissections of all these games is going to have a hard time finding anything eye-opening in Bissell’s account.

This isn’t a problem with Bissell so much as it’s indicative of how confined and sometimes groupthinky that games writing can be. It’s not that we all think the same things, but we swarm around certain games and drive them into the ground, while a lot of other good titles come and go with scant comment. Bissell wants to talk about Far Cry 2? Sorry, I just went screaming from the room. I can’t hear or read another word on that game. Choice in Mass Effect? Oh, God, the pain is making me delirious! No matter how well Bissell treats these subjects, they all gave me a bit of a hangover before Extra Lives even began.

Minerva’s Den and DLC

There I was Saturday night, wrapped snugly in my smoking jacket with a snifter of brandy at my side, when I received a note from Shawn Andrich. In a trembling hand, he implored me to come to the Conference Call posthaste, as Allen Cook had vanished under circumstances most strange, and he did not want to go alone to his rendezvous with Sean Sands and his sinister companion, Demiurge. Slipping a gun into my pocket, I went to the location he specified.

Since we’d all been busy bringing weapons and checking for tails on our way to the fog-choked watefront alley where we recorded to Conference Call, nobody actually remembered a topic. So we improvised, and you can listen to the results over at Gamers With Jobs.

Anyway, my chosen subject was 2K’s decision not to release “Minerva’s Den” for Bioshock 2 on PC. As often happens in a discussion, I didn’t quite make the point I wanted to make. My thoughts were still quite preliminary. Now that I’ve had a little time to consider my objections, I can explain a bit better why this bothers me.

On the show, I explained that I thought this decision trivialized this expansion to the Bioshock universe, and revealed 2K’s disregard for the connection that the audience has to the world of Rapture. Since I can almost hear hundreds of people rolling their eyes, I should probably explain a bit better what I mean.

Little things can change and deepen a gameworld, making every experience you had or have there just a little richer. For me that’s the promise of DLC. You don’t have to make a full game to make an interesting statement. There’s this sequence in Bioshock 2 where you go through what is basically a diorama for the children of Rapture, called “Journey to the Surface”. It’s this dull, heavy-handed jeremiad against the postwar world that exists outside Rapture, with Andrew Ryan narrating every morality play you see. Finally, at the end, you come across an audio diary from Ryan himself.

I know this facility is vital to the preservation of secrecy in Rapture. But seeing myself transformed into that… lurching, waxen nightmare… do children truly respond to this? Still, I spoke to a young man exiting the park after the grand opening, asking him what, if anything, he had learned here. He said his chores didn’t seem so bad anymore — as long as mother wouldn’t send him to the surface.

I love this detail, the portrait of Ryan it provides. He is mystified by children, and uncomfortable with the useful lies he’s teaching them. Seeing himself and Rapture reflected back at him through Ryan Amusements, you can sense that the Rapture experiment is starting to curdle for Ryan, just a little bit. Seeing him react to his first steps toward the kind of statism he spent his life trying to escape, the tragedy and melancholy of his character becomes clearer. That moment alone made Bioshock 2 a worthwhile experience for me.

The Parasite won't let The Artist release his masterpiece to all!

So when I read something like Joystick Division’s summary of “Minerva’s Den”, I badly want to be a part of it. I want to see how they’ve closed out this story. James Hawkins writes:

And it’ll be our farewell to the city, too. We’ve seen Rapture’s lengthy demise, as it succumbed to the narcissism of its culture, and Minerva’s Den ushers us out with the last of the survivors. It is a tasteful and solemn Bon Voyage, not only for the characters within, but for those of us that wanted to see it through.

Sounds great, and I definitely count myself among those who “wanted to see it through.” That’s why I own both Bioshock games, and have spent so much time thinking and writing about them. But that’s not an option available to me, because I don’t own the 360 version of the game.

As a matter of course, I’m against a policy that retroactively turns one version of a game into the “wrong” version by not providing similar levels of support. Now anyone who really loves Bioshock and owns it on the PC can either buy the 360 version or forgo “Minerva’s Den”. My suspicion is that most will choose the latter option. So PC gamers see a product withheld from them, 2K saves on the costs of porting and marketing for the PC, and the creative team behind “Minerva’s Den” reach a significantly smaller audience than they would otherwise.

That also means that “Minerva’s Den” is unlikely to ever be an important part of the Bioshock story. Discussion tends to center around shared experiences, and a large portion of Bioshock’s audience will never visit “Minerva’s Den”. It will be like it never happened.

Which is part of the whole problem with DLC, and why decisions like this make DLC into an after-market ghetto of half-formed ideas and novelties. They can’t ever be “essential”. They must always pass by without disrupting or affecting the experience of the main game. When Mass Effect 3 or Dragon Age 2 come out, Bioware will go to great lengths to make sure that nobody feels like he missed anything. But if the experience has value, shouldn’t it be something people miss? Shouldn’t it be available to anyone who bought the game?

DLC itself is a problematic phrase. To be honest, it’s a suit’s phrase. The rest of us enjoy stories, play games, and have experiences. DLC is the kind of term that comes up in the same breath as conversions, consumers, and monetization. I suspect it dilutes the perceived value of the product, especially when it is so often used as a stalking horse against used game sales, or to wring a few extra dollars out of your customers. It’s why “day one” DLC bothers so many people. People act entitled because they’re feeling defensive, and they’re feeling defensive because there are already so many transparent attempts to screw them. You know, like 2K “adding value” to the collector’s edition of Civ V by leaving the Babylonians out of the standard version?

“Minerva’s Den” should have been a positive experience. Great production values and talented developers combining to make a new and thought-provoking addition to a popular franchise. Everything DLC always promises, but so rarely is. It could have been a counterpoint to all fears of nickel-and-diming that gamers have right now. But instead, 2K took the opportunity to make a lot of gamers feel bad about their purchase of the PC version, and probably reduced the impact “Minerva’s Den” could have had. Seems like everyone loses on that one.